Category: Personal

My Weird Christmas Tree — Happy Holidays

Ah the former Archbishop of Canterbury I purchased at the 2008 Lambeth Conference now perched on my tree.

I’m not really that big into the holidays. I’m cultivating my Grinch side. But last year I bought the husband a tree from Target with 500 hundred sparkly balls and a bunch of lights. Being from South Africa, Glen loves the old holiday traditions in a colder, darker climate where they make a little more sense. On the longest night of the year, it felt right to fill the house with candles and lights. Most people who put up a tree like to add their own individual touches; traditions form through the years. We have mostly normal looking ornaments and sparkly balls, and then… Well see for yourself.

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The Afterbirth of Jesus by Christine Bakke-O’Neil

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A campy angel purchased in Mexico City

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The Tree and Brandon Bitner

 

Unplugged. The joys of a screen-free day

I have a friend, Karla Kelsey, who is an excellent poet and an even more excellent human being (which almost makes her super human.) Her latest publication, A Conjoined Book, serves as a mediation on a river, relating to another, and a deep connection with self and the earth.

At the beginning of the fall semester she and I agreed to maintain internet-free Sundays, in essence living with most of the technologies available to us in 1991. We did agree to allow cell phones and texting (not a feature of 1991), but with data off. While I was home before my tour, I faithfully kept my Sundays free of the Internet, but on tour it was not so easy (and I was lonely.) Now I am home again and have resumed the practice.

In fact, yesterday I spent the whole day with the smart-ass phone turned off and hidden in the top drawer of my desk. I also hid the iPad. I moved to the side the wireless keyboard for my desk computer and its place stood my mom’s old 1940’s Royal manual typewriter. I produced two letters and a long journey entry that I click clacked away at without auto-correct, spell-check, or even white-out (anyone remember that gunk?)

I admit it; I am addicted to the Internet and to screens. Even when I have no reason to log on, I find myself returning to it over and over. And I love it. It is a fun, distracting, stimulating, engrossing, mindless, mindful source of information and mirth. But it is a tyrant always pulling, tugging, demanding, “Look at me! Look at what I can do.”

That damn smart-ass phone is like Frodo’s one ring that rules them all, always calling to me, emitting a signal, luring me to take it out and slip into another world, one that both connects me and disconnects me.

But yesterday was pure bliss. I cooked. I cleaned. I read. I listened to music, like really listened, not just as background music. I browsed an old cocktail book and sampled a few. Shoot I even worked in the garden cleaning the brown, dry remains of my summer bounty. It was so delightful and freeing, that I believe I will extend Internet-free Sunday to include Saturday this week. I know!

So who wants to join Karla and me this week for Internet-Free Sunday?

Sharing Good News–An On Ramp to Equality

For many years I lived as an Evangelical Christian who read the Bible as a flawless text that I took literally. In a world that seemed scary and chaotic, I found comfort in Bible verses, stories, and passages that explained the world around me and provided clear guidelines of how to live in it.

As a person who also happened to be gay, I also felt an extreme chronic conflict between my faith in Jesus and my sexual orientation. I heard and believed that I could not be both gay and Christian at the same time. I had to chose one over the other. The choice was easy for me–I wanted Jesus. I wanted to be as close to God as possible with nothing separating us. I was willing to count the cost and make whatever sacrifices necessary to either rid myself of my gay desires or hold them at bay, submitting them to God’s Spirit to tame or remove.

I spent nearly 20 years praying, reading the Bible, worshipping God daily, sometimes up to four hours a day. I memorized much of the Bible and delighted in the stories from both the Old and New Testaments. It wasn’t simply that I wanted to be straight, I wanted to be pure in heart, believing the promise: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. That is what I wanted more than anything in life. That and to continuously nuture the fruit of the Holy Spirit in my life.

Sadly I reaped a completely different harvest. Through the years I grew more and more depressed. I found I had less and less self-control. It actually seemed the more I suppressed my desires to be intimate with a man, the more extreme my attractions grew. I became more and more angry, anxious, self-hating, and confused. I even considered ending it all my distress was so great.

I had to admit that I was on the wrong path. “You shall know them by their fruits.” And the fruit revealed I was misguided. I coveted the straight life and masculinity with all of the acceptance and privileges that came with them. I was afraid of the consequences of being authentic.

When I finally came out gay, already in my thirties, I needed to figure out what to do with my faith, which was the most precious part of my life. I could not imagine living without being part of a faith community and without daily communion with God. I also trusted no one anymore when it came to the Bible. It seemed everyone had their own agenda both the gays and the anti-gays. The theology I read about gay people seemed so sloppy and skewed by strategic political messages.

So I had to take matters in my own hands. I needed to look at the text with fresh eyes, dispassionately, not to suit my needs but to simply understand it better. The good news is that I found all sorts of sexual minorities in the text and people who were very different from the other men and women around them. I ovelooked these people for many years in large part because I would not affirm people like that in my modern world, and I could not accept myself as one.

These days I talk a lot about the Bible. I tell lots of Bible stories, laying out what I have seen. I trust people who listen to apply what I share however they see fit. I’m interested in critical thinking and open handed interpretations of th Bible, readings that lead us to understand, accept, and love our neighbor as we do the same towards ourselves. Though a complicated series of writings, I have found that the Bible provides helpful on-ramps to self-acceptance and equality. Good News.

End of a Sabbatical. Beginning of an Apocalypse. Now I need your help.

Help! I need your help. (see below)

When I travel performing my shows, I get to meet lots of smart, educated, clever people. I remember when I visited Elon College and met with Dr. Lynn Huber, a Bible scholar who is an expert in the Book of Revelation. In addition to fabulous conversation about the campy singing duo, Kiki and Herb, and musing together about Judith Butler as a character in the Gospels, Lynn also talked to me about the Greek meaning of the word apocalypse.

An apocalypse (Ancient Greek: ἀποκάλυψις apocálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning ‘un-covering’), translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation, although this sense did not enter English until the 14th century.[1] In religious contexts it is usually a disclosure of something hidden. -wikipedia

I had just begun my research into climate change and began considering possible queer responses to it. Two years later Lynn’s description of apocalypse has stuck with me. I now understand that a few months before I met Lynn, I had an apocalypse when it came to global warming–a curtain had been pulled back as I read the science of just how severe the climate crisis had become. This vision jarred me awake, and reordered my life.

Now after nine months of mostly being off the grid in a self-imposed sabbatical where I researched both climate change and how to effectively speak about climate change, I have begun this week to go out into the world and share the hope and urgency I feel. It’s not that other issues that have moved me up to now have been replaced; I still feel passionate about justice within the LGBTQ community and the wider world. Rather the the lens has widened to include climate change as a rights issue, as an LGBTQ issue, as a justice issue that intersects many different types of lives.

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So I need your help. I feel once again I have good news to share–hopeful news along with creative ways of talking about climate change–getting beyond all the usual talking points of gloom, doom, and polar bears. Just as I have used storytelling, comedy, and oddball characters to speak about serious issues in my previous work, in taking on global warming, I have adopted a cheeky tone in my new podcast, new website, and performance work.

I need you to help me spread the word. I would love it if you would please:

  1. Listen to Climate Stew, my new podcast (so far episodes 1-4 are up and all under 14 minutes, funny, personal, oh, and funny–basically it is like attending a shorter version of one of my shows without having to leave your house) It is available at the Climate Stew website, on iTunes and Stitcher.

  2. then Share the podcast with people in your networks. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google Plus, Reddit, Church Bulletins, Carrier Pigeon, Note in a Bottle, etc.

My hope is that this podcast will really take off. I believe the Climate Stew Team and I are taking unique approaches to the biggest issue facing us today. Some people are afraid to look at it. It’s like when people know they have credit card debt, but it has gotten so scary they have stopped looking at the statements. The fear makes the problem seem even bigger, unapproachable, but once we sit down and look at what we are dealing with, we often feel relief, even if it means we have hard work ahead.

Thank you for all of your help and support through the years. Thank you for showing up to my performances and believing in what I do and letting it move you to action.

Silent Sundays–My Personal Digital Detox

I recently read two different articles about people turning of the internet for themselves or their children. Turns out Steve Jobs limited his children’s screen-time; apparently his kids hadn’t even used iPads. This sounds almost like an urban legend, but according to an Epoch Times article other heads of tech companies also limit their children’s access to devices in hopes that they too won’t get addicted. Addicted?!? Seriously?

The average American adult spends about 7.4 hours per day looking at screens.   Photo: Grant Cornett

The average American adult spends about 7.4 hours per day looking at screens. Photo: Grant Cornett

In One Man’s Year of Digital Detox David Roberts, writing for Outside Magazine (no it is not specifically designed for gay hikers, but the husband and I do like it and subscribe) talked about his radical step of staying off-line for a year. For most of us that would be drastic; for Roberts the move would have seemed like career suicide since he did virtually all of his work as a writer and political social media maven attached to a screen. Of course now he is getting loads of us to read about his experience, so I guess it is paying off. He writes about the tyranny of the net and how it grew out of control for him.

There was a time—it seems prehistoric now—when I started the workday by “getting caught up.” I’d go through my e-mail, check a few websites, and start on the day’s new tasks. By mid-2013, there was no such thing as caught up; there was, at best, keeping up. To step away from e-mail, news feeds, texts, chats, and social media for even a moment was to allow their deposited information to accumulate like snow in the driveway, a burden that grew every second it was neglected.

I spent most of my daytime hours shoveling digital snow. The core of my job—researching, thinking, writing at greater-than-140-character length—I could accomplish only in the middle of the night, when things calmed down. I spent more and more hours working, or at least work adjacent, but got less and less done.

David Roberts says he was missing out on life by being constantly connected online. (Photo: David Roberts)

David Roberts says he was missing out on life by being constantly connected online. (Photo: David Roberts)

Some folks are not old enough to remember simpler times. But there was even a world once where we had no smart phones, immediate streaming of movies, and no social networks except the ones that met up for real coffee in real coffee shops. Now I do not believe the world was a better place before all this technology. I personally love the access I have to information and audiences as I sit in my pjs and blog, podcast, and connect with people all over the world.

But I also recognize the tyranny of the technology. I feel the smart phone always tugging, tugging at me urging me to reach into my pocket to use it like Bilbo and Frodo carrying that One Ring that oppressed them all. I also experience the digital yawn all the time.  You know when someone takes out their smart phone and immediately you reach for yours. Technology as a tool can quickly spin out into a mad, mindless and fruitless obsessive for me. And it changes the way I think and process information. When I am on-line a lot, I struggle to focus deeply when looking at issues. I flit about from one thing to another and skim, skim, skim.  

On Friday as I left the house to do chores, I realized I left my iPhone on my desk. I thought, what the heck, let’s get a little risky here and leave it at home. It felt risky and radical, which also seems pathetic. I immediately wanted to tweet about it. But it also felt relaxing not having it on me calling out to me for attention. Waiting on line at the store and then getting the oil changed in the car, I felt relieved of the burden of   needing to see if someone retweeted the latest silly/profound/ridiculous/scandalous thing I put up on Twitter or to check the email for the 300th time that morning. Phoneless I felt more present.

A few years ago I decided to avoid the Internet on Sundays, and this week I have decided to go back to that for at least month, just to give myself a retreat from all the tweets, a day to read books, chat on the phone, write letters, listen to music. In other words a retreat back to 1987. Therefore, I reinstitute Silent Sundays. I can’t wait to tweet about it!

Not my First Rodeo–um March

For the early part of my adult life I was a Christian fundamentalist believing in evil spirits, generational curses, and the desperate need to reach out to a lost and dying world. As a fresh-faced 19 year old in Glory Tabernacle, the little storefront Pentecostal Holiness church I attended on West 106th Street in NYC, I frequented prayer meetings, where with my brothers and sisters, I faced the four directions screaming against demonic warlords. One day our Pastor Willy  announced that in order to take authority over “principalities and powers of darkness” he felt called to organize the first ever NYC March for Jesus.  Think of it as Christian Pride Parade in church drag.

Unable to get support from other pastors who had their own fiefdoms to protect, our tiny congregation marched alone. Picture it: Central Park West shutdown from 72nd Street to 59th on a Saturday morning as 30 born-again Christians in their Sunday best marched with banners proclaiming Jesus’ triumphant reign over New York City. The police set up barriers in vain because no spectators lined up to see us, just the occasional dog walker or parent with child who stopped momentarily as we waved at them and pleaded the blood of Jesus.

That was in 1987. Fast forward to 2014 and the 350,000+ people jamming Central Park West for the People’s Climate March. I saw pagans addressing the four directions beseeching their blessings. I heard people from many nations crying out against the powers and authorities who make money as they pollute the atmosphere, and I felt the urgency to save a sick planet overburdened with endangered earth dwellers.

A Queer for the Climate dressed as Earth Element

A Queer for the Climate dressed as Earth Element

At their core the two messages from these two different periods are similar. Repentance and Salvation. Renewal and Revival. Renunciation of Past Evils and the Promise of a Better Future.

On Sunday I stood on West 83rd Street, two blocks from my former apartment. Assembled with the Queers for the Climate we promoted a “gay agenda” unlike anything Pastor Willy ever preached against. Cleaner air, justice for those most affected by environmental damage, and a commitment to consider the intersections of gender, race, class, and nationality. Marching the same route nearly 30 years later, I remembered my former days and felt grateful for personal growth and a growing movement.Climate_Stew_Logo_Square1400x1400

Recently I began working on a new podcast (check out the short, fun, audio confection: Climate Stew Podcast) In 1995 I left NYC to train in the UK as a radio presenter and producer for a new position running a station in Zambia. In a little studio in West Bromwich, England, I learned how to record and edit radio programs. Then I moved to Zambia and became an on-air presenter and programme manager. Years later I find these skills still in place, albeit a little rusty (need to work on levels!)

In the old days at church we talked about God doing a new thing and the need for new wine in new wineskins and the creation of a new heaven and earth. These days those concepts are still real to me, but in a completely different way.

Gone Camping. Leave Comments

The time has come for our annual camping trip. My husband and I love camping and each year we get more and more ambitious. Well, not that we are those hiking-camping in the open-roughing it sort of campers. We have a massive tent, a blowup mattress, and a Moka espresso pot to put on the camp stove first thing in the morning after we crawl out from under the duvet (sleeping bags are for kids and cold weather.)

This year, after a quick visit with family and friends in Hartford, CT, we will spend a night in Vermont at the annual sessions of the New England Quakers before going up to Montreal and Quebec City. We camp at sites outside the city, then take the train into town to explore, eat at bistros, and buy baguettes and wine and cheese for dinner at the camp site. We will return via the New York State Adirondack Mountains where we will camp and canoe, then stop at a water park as we drive home just in time for the annual Sunbury River Festival held down the street from our house.

Don’t worry, our kitties, Emma and Wally, will be well cared for by our housemates. They are never alone.

Since relaunching this site and resuming my blogging activities, I see a lot of traffic on my blog posts (I watch Google Analytics  like some people watch TV.) I’d like to hear from readers. Who are you? What are you looking for? And do you like camping? Please leave your comments below. It will be such a lovely surprise to see what you have to say when I return in two weeks. (Oh, yeah, when I camp, most of the time I am off-line–just reading and eating and hanging out, but I have scheduled some blog posts to keep you busy while I am away.)

Sprung!

All through the L O N G and bitter cold winter, I kept telling, Glen Retief, my dear husband from sunny South Africa, “Just think, the more awful winter is, the more glorious and dramatic the spring!” His response was something like. “Alright just get on with it already.”

Well, at long last I see some signs of spring including a clutch of flowers at my friend Quin’s house nearby. I finally got to open the windows a bit the other day in the bedroom, much to the delight of Wally and Emma, the two cats that own us. I began the process of clearing up and cutting down in the garden and patio in anticipation to planting. I already had stuff in the ground last year, but with the wobbly winter, I will need to wait a little longer.

The weather helps my mood too. I adore winter, but I have to admit that even I was getting gloomy. I feel a spring in my step and even went for an evening walk along the river and didn’t even wear a scarf and gloves!

Doin’ Time in Oslo

Via Detroit and Amsterdam I arrived in Oslo yesterday morning strangely rested in spite of over an hour or two of sleep on the flights. I catch up on all those movies I want to see but don’t want to pay to see. I dozed in and out so they all sort of merged at one point. There was the spy thriller with Angelina and Johnny Depp (The Tourist) and then the country singer movie (Country Strong) and something silly but now I can’t remember what. Actually a pretty poor selection except for a French film which made no sense even with subtitles, but the people were all so pretty and the mood was so dreamy I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sadly I cannot remember the name.

What really kept me up was Lush Life, the Billy Strayhorn biography. Strayhorn collaborated with Duke Ellington for years. Openly gay even in the 1940s when virtually no one was out, he wrote and co-wrote some of the best American music to come out of the 20th Century. But like Bayard Rustin, who was so long overlooked and hidden away, historians are only beginning to give Strayhorn much needed attention. Although the writing is so so, the content was enough to keep me awake much of the flight while I waited in vain for the sleeping drugs to kick in.

Tonight I will have my European debut of “I Can See Sarah Palin from my Window! Lessons Before the Second Coming.” In March of 2010 I travelled to Oslo with Glen, my partner (the memoirist and dishy South African writing professor at Susquehanna University) where I performed excerpts from the play. It finally premiered in Allentown, PA in September, and I have not performed it since. Although Glen thinks it is probably my best structured and most artistic play, I did not feel it was yet ready to tour. I needed to cut cut cut much from it. Not only was it too long, but there were parts I loved to perform that took away more than they added.

In writing plays, like most writing, editing down can be the hardest and most essential part of the work. How does one clip all those buds? It’s like when I am working in my garden and I have too much growth happening on a plant. Clear out the extra and the yield may be smaller but a better quality in the end. It took me the months between the premiere and tonight’s performance to mull over the play and what I want to say and do in it. Fortunately I know how to recycle material, so no doubt some of the better cut bits will resurface at some point.

While the title may suggest that the play is all about Sarah Palin with snide comments and all sorts of Palin jokes, I don’t go there. For one it is too easy. There is a whole market right now with people who live off of poking fun at Sarah Palin. It is being done all the time. I wanted to do something different. So my play becomes more personal while remaining comic. It is a comedy about cancer, misogyny, and hospitality. It is also a play about women. I think of the Spanish filmmaker, Almodovar (particularly his early work) who served up comic meditations and homages to women.

My mother, Anita Toscano, plays a central role in the play (much like she did in my earlier work, “The Re-Education of George W. Bush–No President Left Behind!”) And with it being Mother’s Day on Sunday in the USA, it seems especially fitting that I perform this memorial about my own mom.

In rehearsal I totally broke down crying. It was at the point in the play when I talk about my mom and her fight against cancer. Perhaps it wasn’t a fight, more of an endurance test. She passed the test, but she still died. In the play I talk about the role reversal that happened. As she grew more and more ill, her children and our dad began to take more and more care of her. Dad learned how to clean house and wash clothes. My sisters and I cooked for my mom after decades of mom cooking for us. And she was an amazing cook, not only because she is my mom, but people paid to eat her cooking at Pete’s Pub for over 30 years. In the play I share a poem I wrote after I served my mom the last meal I would prepare for her before she died. She couldn’t eat it because of the advance stage of cancer, but she took a bite, and we pretended she would finish it later.

Today at the Nasjonalgalleriet (the Norwegian National Gallery of Art) in addition to seeing famous works by artists like Edvard Munch (yes, I saw Scream, the painting, but preferred Mannen i kålåkeren–Man in the Cabbage Field) I viewed two artist I do not remember seeing before–Halfdan Egedius and Harriet Backer. Egedius presents his figures in dark backgrounds, and in the pieces and often features women. One piece reminded me of my mother–a solid rock of a woman. Egedius placed the figure in the center of the painting, body in profile with the woman’s head turned facing out with a steady, firm, yet welcoming gaze. In another he placed two dancers in black skirts swirling amidst a dark backdrop. He captured so much movement amongst the dancers, all in dark dark tones, murky but still vibrant.

Harriet Backer was one of the few female artist represented in the art museum. This is nothing new. Glen knows how happy I get when I finally stumble upon a female artist’s work on display in the art museums we visit. In Blått interiør (Blue Interior) a woman dressed in dark blue sitting in a middle class parlor works on some sewing. The only light comes from the window she is facing. She looks defeated to me, trapped, like Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House. But by the window is a plant, tall with shiny leaves, and although we cannot see out the window, we see the light, and the world beyond that parlor.

With my soul fed with good art, I am nearly ready to perform my play. First a tech rehearsal (so many sound cues!) a little rest and BAM, I will be on stage. And maybe I can even sell a Homo No Mo DVD so I can afford one of these insanely expensive excellent coffees they sell around here.

Current mood–content, slightly anxious, mostly feeling anticipation for tonight. So many sounds cues!

PB&J

Perhaps only those raised in the USA understand the alluring comfort of the peanut butter & jelly sandwich. I have friends in the UK turn up their noses in disgust at the mention of a PB&J sandwich (while they smear brown yeasty Marmite on brown bread).

I grew up with PB&J made with grape jelly, Jiffy™ peanut butter (I alternated between smooth and creamy) and grape jelly (which for the Brits is like jam without all the bits & clumps).

Enroute to Portland, OR at the Detroit layover this morning I bought a sandwich at the PB&J counter (Cashew butter on 7-grain brown bread w/ rasberry jam). It seemed the perfect flight food today–sweet, carby, nostalgic)