We are Orlando

My heart has been pretty heavy since the news hit about yet another massacre in the States. I have been quiet and reflective; not sure I was going to say much of anything publicly. After all, I did not know any of the victims and we all already know that it’s a horrible tragedy.

However, I reconsidered that because there is no part of my life that isn’t touched by this. I live in the bay area of California, where Harvey Milk served when he became the first openly gay politician before he himself was massacred. There has never been a single time in my life that I have not had at least one gay friend.  At various points throughout the last couple of decades, I have worked at nightclubs – both gay and straight. My sometimes boss was (is) a flamboyant and wonderful gay man. Last year I took my six-year-old faery goddaughter to the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco right after gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court so she could witness a happy moment in history. A little over a month ago I attended a lesbian wedding. Last week I spent time talking to a friend about whether or not she wanted to explore a same-sex relationship. And last night my heart broke as I held up a candle, raised my voice in song and marched with thousands of others through the streets of San Francisco.

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It’s been 3 years since the first time I stood at Ground Zero. I remember the emotional toll it took on me and how it felt to be there but not much about the area itself. I had known I would sob. I knew I would mourn E. there. I was not prepared for my initial outburst of tears to have less to do with him and more to do with the sheer overwhelming feeling of heartbreak for every person who lost their lives there and for those who they left behind.

This year I stood there again and was totally bewildered and offended as tourists posed for pictures at the new site. I moved them back from the fountain rails in the new gardens to find the name I was looking for. I walked through the monstrosity that is the “museum” which sells “Never Forget” trinkets like thieves in the temple. I was angry and upset at the world where these things can happen and horrified that such a beautiful place was one that marked such an awful tragedy. This time, my emotions were hot and angry and I wasn’t sure what would happen when I found his name.

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Goodbye Westboro

Lately I have been hearing about nothing but the impending demise of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. In case you have been living under a rock for the last few years, the congregation of said church likes to go to military/children/gay funerals, parades, and concerts and picket them with very un-christianlike signs, that I won’t stoop to repeat here. As the news of the coming death of its hate-mongering leader spread, I have seen everything from celebration to compassion and all that goes between and as much as I don’t want to give that man any more fame or google hits, I had to work out my own feelings about it.

Throughout the last few years, I have been disgusted, heartsick and righteously angry with the tactics of this man and his followers. I have gone to funerals just to protect mourners from them, should they show up. I have rejoiced with a good majority of people I know when hardened bikers have shown up as an honor guard and a buffer to do the same. I hoped someone would either have a serious breakthrough with them or  in my less cordial moments, a serious face breaking. I laughed hysterically when the Satanic Temple recently gave them a taste of their own medicine. However, I have mostly wished with all of my heart that they would vanish into obscurity, taking their vitriolic hate speech and venom with them. I begged the universe to stop giving them press or feeding into their agenda so that could happen. The universe did not listen though, and the press clamors over the church and spreads their message of hate with every article they publish about them. Now with the leader ailing, it is no different and the stories continue.

Now, I am no saint. I am no christian either. I attempt to be a pretty decent human and I try not to hold grudges – but I will say that if the christian idea of hell really exists, some people should have reservations there, particularly those who have built a life and an empire on intolerance, cruelty and hate. This includes everyone from Adolf Hitler to Ian Paisley and Fred Phelps. Those who use religion or politics to further fuel their poisonous bigotry should be held karmically responsible for it. That is not our job though. It is important to remember that almost every faith or doctrine from fundamentalist christianity to pagan witchcraft encourages kindness and cautions against harm. Westboro, its members and particularly its leader(s) missed that lesson deliberately, and I despise them for it.

However, I don’t want anyone celebrating my death, dancing on my grave, spewing hatred at the mention of my name or condemning my life – and therefore, I am uncomfortable with those who are planning to do that when Phelps finally passes. Rejoicing at another human’s suffering or death is just what that church did – and to do the same is as cringe-worthy and wrong as they are. It leaves a terrible taste in my mouth and is even more disheartening, after all – I expect it from haters but not from those that are normally decent and compassionate humans.

The Germans have a word for it. Schadenfreude literally translates to harm-joy. It is a word used to describe taking joy in other people’s pain or sadness. Our country is very good at it. The night Osama Bin Laden was killed there were block parties and insensitive or downright bigoted screams of delight. People love to tear down others, to feel joy when an enemy is vanquished, to use someone else to feel better about themselves. This root feeling of vindication, schadenfreude and lack of empathy is a what leads to us being heartless and cruel – it justifies becoming the very dragon we are trying to slay. It may temporarily feel good but with what consequence? It brings us down to a level of spitefulness that is uncomfortable at best and leads eventually to an intolerant, entitled and thoughtless state where we are incapable of sympathy or understanding.

It is the easy way out. It’s perfectly simple and accepted to join the throngs calling for Fred Phelps’ head or those who are celebrating his death, even before he’s in the grave. It’s easy to give into the mob mentality that he took advantage of for his whole life. It’s much harder to dig deep for a feeling of balance and calm, to refrain from putting even more negativity into the world or to actually forgive another human that is so easy to hate.

I’m struggling with it and I still think that if the archaic idea of hell is available, I’d book him a room. But in this life and the next, and the next and the next, I hope to evolve into a better person, a compassionate person with grace and sensitivity enough to forget that a low road exists – much less that I could choose to walk it. That begins now.

So Mr. Phelps, if your god exists, I hope that he judges you fairly. And rather than wishing you or your followers harm, I still simply wish that you’d fade into the ether – so that your message of hate is confined to the walls of your church and the people who remain in it. I fervently hope that your membership dwindles as reason and empathy infects it and the young leave for a better life. I hope to continue to live my life in such a way that your hateful church would find disagreeable, and I pray to your god and all the rest of them that we as a human race can nurture each other and judge less – learning for once and for all to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and to “do no harm”.


American Death Culture

Over the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about death. On my travels to Ireland, I realized just how differently death is dealt with there, rather than America. Perhaps because it is a much older country and Ireland has always had such a spiritual side – be it pagan or religious – death in that place is vastly different than here. There are graveyards everywhere. Even when the church that used to stand is in ruins and the elaborate grave markers are no longer legible, there are flowers and visitors to the cemetery, or little notes and quiet conversations with the dead. It is not as if the culture is a death worshiping one, because it is not – it is simply that the memories are longer and the respect for both ancestry and friendship runs deep in the veins of those who live.

As we traveled, taking pictures of gorgeous ruins, elaborate graves and old churches, we ran into enough people sitting quietly in the middle of nowhere and speaking in low Gaelic to the friend or relative in the ground that we started getting uncomfortable with our intrusions. This was on us though and the way that our culture views death – I don’t think that we offended anyone by our presence in the medieval graveyards. While I am sure that some of those conversations were about the crazy girls with the cameras and how odd it was to see them in December, we never got a scandalous glance – just a few shakes of the head or confused looks and some who clearly wondered if we too were visiting a long-lost friend or family member.

As we explored the ruin of Lislaughtin, there were many people and many notes to visitors, such as a bar that was carved with the words, “kindly kneel and pray” – a polite suggestion that reminded you of where you were and that the space should be full of reflection, remembrance and respect. It was hard not to listen to the ancient women speaking in soft Gaelic to their loved ones that were interred there, or to try to figure out who they were. Instead, we felt like intruders and snuck out quietly.

I think we were wrong to feel that way. I believe that our culture has a different idea of what death is and that being raised here, we felt uncomfortable in the presence of those who simply see death as a different way to honor a life that touched theirs. It is not as if we were disrespecting the grounds or the people in them with our presence – we were stunned by the history and the beauty of the place – yet we still felt like our presence there was unsanctioned somehow, and I think that is due to the fact that our culture views death as the end of someone. We see their grave as a sad obligatory place to spend their birthday or a holiday. Many in our culture do not view it as a place to tell stories or catch up with a spirit, or a place of enlightenment or beauty.  For us, it is a sad reminder of who WE lost and an uncomfortable moment of where WE will eventually be, which is not something our self-centric society is OK with. We do not see it as a peaceful and holy spot for THEM to rest, or a thing to reflect on except in how their loss pertains to us.

The short attention span of Americans and lack of a long history seeps into our lives in the strangest of ways. I believe this to be one of them. We are so into ourselves and our lives that once one is over, we still make the ghost about those of us that remain. We either hang on to them with a clutched fist, parading our pain for years to come until it integrates with who we fundamentally are or we turn off and become numb to the process of death or grief. We demand information, sympathy and respect for what we have gone through – but often, we do not give the same to those we have lost, unless it is a sad anniversary, important date or birthday. Either we become brittle and judge everyone for not understanding our pain or we cling to the memories of that person so much that we forget we have a responsibility to live ourselves, if only so that we have stories to tell them when and if we meet again or spend a day at a graveyard.

Some of us put our dead on an impossible pedestal, suddenly turning them into the saints we aspire to be until we forget who they really were or what conflicts we may have had with their personalities or traits. We use them as a  marker in our own lives, to judge who we were before and after they were gone, and we wear our badges of how much sadness we feel without them – using this as an excuse to judge or to pull away from others who can’t possibly understand our loss or our feelings. We hang their pictures up on social media as proof of how we still remember, never once thinking of how that may affect other people, when they come across the feed. We vaguebook about feelings, about deaths, and about who, how or where we are in our emotional state and we have no consideration for whether we should do these things and no concept of how it may affect others or our relationships with them. It’s now, now, now – all the time and gods forbid if anyone judges or questions that instant gratification.

The lesson I learned while traveling, is that the person in the ground, ocean, urn, or cannon is someone that we can carry with us every day without the misery, loss or badge of fucked up baggage. That person is still a person, separate from how they affected us – and when you take the ego and the demand out of the equation, you are left with someone you liked, loved or perhaps didn’t even care for – but who touched you somehow, and perhaps it could be better for them to hear it themselves. It may also be better for us to tell them, rather than the “friends” we have on an internet site.

Don’t get me wrong, EVERYONE grieves differently, just as everyone loves and lives differently – and far be it from me to judge anyone on how they do it. I’m just thinking out loud here about the differences that I have seen while traveling through parts of the world that can’t rely on the internet and how I saw them deal with their losses without that tool. There’s a ritual side to actually stepping away from the screens and heading out to a place for the memories and the visits that just isn’t possible to convey on the internet – and I liked being reminded of that and seeing it firsthand.

I guess that is what this post is about, more than anything else. In this day and age, we find out on Facebook when a friend or acquaintance has passed, or when our loved ones are hurting, remembering or grieving. The separation that brings is getting harder and harder to erase as the instant information culture booms and the paranoia and anxiety that brings is palpable. Sending a (hug) is not the same as holding that person in your arms no matter what, and feeling that lack of human connection has been harder since traveling to a place that doesn’t have that constant demand for instant information or gratification. The mirror was hard to look in to, as I have been guilty of all these things too – and what I learned there is that FOR ME, it is not OK.

It is a lesson that I hope stays with me for a long, long time.Image