Saturday, March 3, 2018

Through His Eyes: An Adventure to Be Lived

I have been struggling, these past days, as to whether and what I might write and post as a tribute to Mark, to commemorate the second anniversary of his passing yesterday.

I have thought of many things I might say, but none of them seemed quite right. Some are too personal. Some would require a lengthy backstory about growth and grief that I don’t necessarily want to go into.

But then I ran across a line in a book I’m reading right now about healing the inner child. The author is describing characteristics of an adult who experienced some sort of stultifying effect while a child that can affect the rest of the child’s life.

The line: “Life becomes a problem to be solved rather than an adventure to be lived.”

Unfortunately, for most of my life, life was, in a manner of speaking, a problem to be solved, something to get through. Making a living. Raising children. Moving from one problem to another. Striving to live “righteously,” instead of authentically, a life of “shoulds” achieved, rather than a life of desires fulfilled. Achievement, alas, does not necessarily bring fulfillment.

As I have written before, I can’t really regret that life. I certainly can't wish it didn't happen. Regret begins a cycle that ultimately leads one back to where one started: a life that was chosen, a life that was lived, a life that brought children whom one loves. A life of growth, but alas, a life that had never bloomed. 

One learns to treat life as a problem to be solved. There could be many reasons why. I don’t want to go into all of that in this post.

What I do want to say is that when I finally left the closet, my marriage and Mormonism—that life which cannot be regretted in part because of where it ultimately led—someone was there, waiting for me. He took my hand, kissed me tenderly on the lips, held my face in his gentle hands and told me that he loved me. Just as I was. Unconditionally. Mark taught me a new way of seeing myself, and I began to see life as an adventure to be lived, rather than a problem to be solved.

Cancer changed that adventure. Mostly, it told us that, one day, the adventure that we were on together would end. But it also added so much life to that adventure. Cancer was in our first breath as we awoke in the morning and in our last breath as we fell asleep at night. Nothing was taken for granted. Every moment was lived. Every kiss was special. Every “I love you” was a precious gift.

I think one of the greatest gifts Mark gave me, however, was the ability to see myself differently. Every day, he planted seeds that would bloom and grow and sustain me once he left: seeds of self-love, seeds of self-acceptance, seeds of insight. He saw me differently than anyone whom I had ever met, and through his eyes, I was able to see myself differently. 

That gift endures. And as I have struggled at times, when I allow myself to ask those questions, to understand why it all had to be so short, one of the answers that comes to me—thanks to seeds he planted—is that, perhaps, the Universe decided that it was time for me to see myself through my own eyes, the way he taught me, after a lifetime of only seeing myself reflected through the eyes of others … and to continue to see life as an adventure to be lived, rather than as a problem to be solved.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Squirrels in the Attic: Mom, Grandma and Gun Control

As I have listened to the horrid things that have been and are being said by various of our politicians, especially our president, in the wake of the latest mass shooting, my thoughts have turned to my mother, and I feel gratitude to her.

My mother (pictured above in the summer of 1951 with her mother holding my oldest brother) never allowed guns in our home when I was a child.

She knew the terror and the danger that guns could ignite.

Though she never talked to me about this, it was nevertheless known: she had been exposed to domestic violence as a child that involved guns, and she vowed that there would never be a gun in our home.

Mom never talked about it. But Grandma did, once, when I asked her about it when I was a teenager. I shall never forget her sitting at our kitchen table, cigarette in hand, staring off into space as she told me about how my grandfather had threatened her with a gun, pistol-whipped her, and might have gone further had not the neighbor woman come over, taken the gun and thrown it – and here, as she told the story, Grandma chuckled in that deep way she did, no doubt a result of a lifetime of smoking Lucky Strikes – down the “outdoor toilet.”

Grandma. I loved her.

Grandma, though she saw lots of grit in her life, including owning and operating a café in East St. Louis (some may know the significance of this statement) before she retired, never owned a gun so far as I am aware.

I know my mom never owned a gun. And neither did my father. That’s why, when we had a problem with squirrels in our attic when I was a kindergartener, friends who owned guns were called in. It’s funny, but that is one of the memories I retain as a fairly young child: I can remember seeing the bloody brown grocery sack being carried down the stairs and out the front door by the man holding the rifle. Children remember trauma ... sometimes.

I’m grateful that I didn’t grow up with guns. I never felt threatened, never felt fear that I was defenseless because we didn’t own guns, never witnessed the terror or danger that guns could ignite. That image of the bloody sack, which remains with me to this day, is enough.

Imagine what it would be like to grow up, not just in a home, but in a world without guns. 

Thanks, Mom. Love you. I'm sorry you had to experience what you did. Thanks for trying and for making my world better than yours was.

P.S.: "Squirrels in the Attic" is a metaphor.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Love That Will Never Grow Old

Five years ago today, before Mark's diagnosis, I wrote a blog post entitled, "Falling In Love .. With a Man" in which I told the story of how I met and fell in love with Mark. In that post, I shared only part of what I felt, what I experienced during those first deliriously wonderful, exciting and wondrous weeks when, for the first time in my life, I felt what it feels like to truly be in love. What it felt like to fall in love ... with a man.

During that time, I posted some things on my first blog, Invictus Pilgrim, that alluded to the rest of the story, what I was feeling at the time--things I could only allude to then, published under a pseudonym, but which I can share openly now. One of those things was a video of scenes from Brokeback Mountain, accompanied by the song, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." I'd like to repost that here, for it expresses so poignantly what I felt during that magical time.

That was the beginning of the story.

That story continued for 4-1/2 years. And what a journey it was ...

I hadn't really intended to prepare a post like this on this day. I've hesitated posting it. I wrote it for myself and post it for myself and for those who witnessed ... it, because I want to honor the love that Mark and I shared, because it should be honored ... and remembered.

As any tribute should be, I put it together thoughtfully, tenderly, lovingly. I conclude it with another video featuring scenes from Brokeback Mountain. The symbolism will be obvious to those who have seen the movie, the music speaks eloquently, and I don't think any more commentary on my part is necessary ... except to say that moving on doesn't mean letting go ... of what really matters.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"I Wish I'd Never Been Born": A Reflection

I think I was seven years old. I was standing in the main floor bathroom of our house. It was a Sunday morning and my mother was combing my hair, getting us ready to go to mass at St. Theresa's down the street. As I stood there, I stared wistfully off into space and said, "I wish I'd never been born." I probably would never have remembered saying this but for what immediately followed: my mother slapped me and said, “Don’t you ever say that again! That’s a mortal sin!”**

I hadn’t thought of this incident in quite a while, but it came up in the conversation with a friend the other day—one of those circuitous conversations that covers a lot of ground and ends up someplace one never anticipated. She had made a comment about Catholic guilt. Having been raised Catholic, I laughed and said, “Oh, I never suffered much from that, except when I was little.” That’s when the memory came back and I told her about it.

Funny, how saying something out loud to someone else about one’s past gives it a life it never had while ensconced within one’s mind, silent and brooding and … disguised as “normal.” 

A look passed over my friend’s face. “Imagine,” I continued, feeling the rush of air whoosh into a long-sealed space, “a seven year old boy making a statement like that. Why would a seven year old boy make a statement like that?”  (And, parenthetically, why would a parent respond the way mine did?) It was a rhetorical question, of course, one for which my friend didn’t have, and wasn’t expected to have, an answer. 

I don't, either. Why, indeed? I don’t remember exactly why I said that—in other words, what had prompted that declaration on that Sunday morning—but I know in general terms. That statement stands like a verdict in a courtroom upon my childhood, a childhood that to this day remains veiled in obscurity, in forgotten-ness. But the verdict stands, brought forcefully home by my mother’s reaction. Again, but for that reaction, for that slap, I perhaps would not have remembered this incident. It was part of my normal, a normal I didn’t start examining until I was in my mid-30’s.

That was when another memory that had lain only partly submerged in forgotten-ness, like a ghostly shipwreck, had come to the surface. (There were many other incidents that were attested to by my older siblings, that happened to me, but which I cannot remember.) It was summer. It happened, I think, only a few months after the face-slapping incident. My mother was holding both sides of my head in her hands and banging the back of it, repeatedly, against the plaster wall of our dining room as she yelled at me. To this day, I cannot remember what I had done, what had prompted this attack. But I remember the power, the violence, the fear, the pain, and the total and complete lack of control—all of the elements that trigger dissociation. Like so many incidents, it was filed in my memory under “this is my normal”—until a counselor—Dr. Gabor Maté, whom I have mentioned in a previous post—raised it to the surface almost 30 years later and made me face it. 

“Joe,” he had said, “you have a seven-year-old daughter. Could you imagine doing to her what your mother did to you?” I recoiled in horror and said, “No!”

“Well, your mother did it to you. Think about that.”

I did, and I have. I guess I thought about it again in light of my conversation with my friend. These things, like other things that have happened in my life, shed their disguise of “normality” when I tell others about them and see the reaction on their faces and something somewhere deep inside of me shifts, alerting me to a subterranean fault.

I don’t write these things to indict my mother. Rather, I simply stand—much as that seven-year-old boy (who was me, I have to remind myself) did, reflecting, looking wistfully off into the space of time, memory and meaning—and ask “Why?” ... Trying to understand the child that grew into the (suddenly gay) adolescent that grew into  the (closeted, in so many ways) man.


** I knew my catechism, having just made my first confession and my first communion. (See photo—I’m standing in front of Sister Mary Josine, my second-grade teacher.) I knew what a mortal sin was. It meant I was going to hell. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Soft Underbelly: Rob Porter and the Mormon Connection

Last night, I watched a fascinating, compelling and heart-wrenching interview on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN of Jennie Willoughby, ex-wife of the White House official Rob Porter who recently resigned over allegations of spousal abuse that had apparently been swept under the rug by one or more officials in the White House.

Rob Porter was/is a Mormon. Jennie Willoughby was/is a Mormon. I am writing this post not to comment on the political ramifications of the Rob Porter story, but to comment on another side of this story: the way the allegations against him were handled by Porter's and Willoughby's Mormon ecclesiastical leaders and what that says about what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the "soft underbelly" of the Mormon Church/world. For context, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story about this that can be found here. In a nutshell, Willoughby's bishop counseled her, when she went to him to tell him about the abuse she was experiencing, to be mindful of her husband's "position": chief of staff to Senator Orrin Hatch.

Let me just say at the outset that I rarely write about the Mormon Church anymore or about my experience with it. But watching Jennie Willoughby courageously and eloquently tell her story prompted me to write this post.

The Mormon Church (LDS - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has a lay priesthood. Local pastors (bishops) are not professional clergy. They are men (the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church  is exclusively male) who have professional careers in law, business, medicine or whatever, who are "called" (appointed) to lead a congregation (ward) of Mormons by men who are higher up in the hierarchy (stake presidents, who are also lay leaders, called to serve in their positions) to serve for a specific period of time to serve in leadership positions. 

During the 25+ years I was an active member of the Mormon Church, I knew many fine men who served as bishops as well as stake presidents (men who preside over a group of wards, roughly analogous to a Catholic bishop who presides over a group of parishes). I had and still have a great deal of respect for some of these men, and for one bishop in particular who sincerely, humbly and valiantly tried to do what he could to salvage my marriage with my ex-wife (way before I came out).

But. I have also had several experiences with some of these men that left me feeling bewildered, hurt, exasperated, angry and disgusted. I have previously written about some of these experiences. There was, for example, the story of when I was a law school student and a young husband and I felt I should tell my bishop that I struggled with same-sex attraction, even though I was married and was serving in a leadership position myself in my ward. As I wrote in a blog post shortly after I came out (when I trying, in some ways for the very first time, to make sense of the past 30-40 years of my life), I was disappointed and bewildered by my conversation with my bishop. I didn't blame him; but he obviously didn't have a clue how to handle what I had confided in him. He had, undoubtedly, received *zero* training in how to handle such a situation.

Fast forward to when I came out. A year later, in the midst of my divorce from my ex-wife, one of my daughters was married in the Salt Lake Temple. I was not allowed to witness that ceremony because I was not "temple-worthy" and could not enter the temple. I participated in the event to the extent I could, but it was not until over a year and a half later that I learned about an experience my daughter had had when she met with the local stake president, a requirement before she could marry in the temple. I wrote about that experience and that revelation here. Basically, my daughter was told by her stake president (who had formerly been my stake president) that she could not in any way support my "lifestyle" and my relationship with Mark and remain in good standing in the LDS Church (or get married to her husband in the temple). As I wrote in my post, even after all I had been through by that point, I was aghast at the frontal assault this leader had made, in the name of "love," on behalf of a Church that is supposed to be all about families, on my relationship with my daughter.

There are other examples. One pertains to a very pointed letter I wrote (after I had come out and divorced) to a former ward member who had made sexually threatening remarks to some of my young children, telling the individual I would pursue legal action under Utah's criminal code if this conduct persisted. When the local bishop--who knew of the behavior--learned of my letter, he was extremely dismayed, fearing the person would be "offended," and told my ex-wife she should have made a batch of muffins and given them to the individual as a "peace offering" (!). 

Many people in the LDS Church have been offended, hurt and mistreated by local church leaders. This is common knowledge. However, the response by leaders of the Church at large and locally has universally been to say, "People make mistakes. Leaders are human. It is the responsibility of the aggrieved member to forgive the leader because they (the leaders) are called of God." Just the fact that all of these leaders are men helps create the environment within the Church that men can get a pass for bad behavior.

This is a huge part of the soft underbelly of the Mormon Church. And it needs to change. There is a culture within the Church that makes the comments made by Jennie Willoughby's bishop to her entirely believable. In response to the Tribune article, a spokesman for the Church said that abuse is not tolerated. This is to be expected. Yet there is also an unspoken culture within the Mormon Church and world that allows local leaders, whether out of ignorance, patriarchy, intolerance, homophobia, blind obedience or zeal, to sometimes make grievous errors. I have experienced this. Jennie Willoughby experienced this. My children have experienced this. Many, many Mormon families have experienced this. 

It needs to change.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

"I'm Sorry For Your Loss"

"I'm sorry for your loss."

It was unexpected.

I was standing at the membership counter at Costco last Friday. The time had come. The renewal had been processed last year before I realized what was happening: Mark's Costco membership, with me added to it. I had had one with my ex-wife, but then she inherited it with the divorce. After Mark and I got together, he added me to his; except for a few frustrating experiences, it had worked well enough. But now, after almost two years, the time had come to terminate our joint membership and to open one for myself.

"I'd like to get a membership," I told the man behind the counter.

"Have you ever had one before?" he asked. "It'd make things easier."

"Yes," I replied, "with a former spouse."

He nodded, seemingly knowingly. I assumed he thought I had been divorced, which was true.

I handed him my old membership card, the one with me on Mark's account. He took it and started typing on his keyboard. I watched him, waiting for the furrowed brow.

"It was under 'Mark Koepke,'" I said, then added, "but he passed away."

The man stopped typing and looked up from his keyboard, briefly making eye contact with me. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said before returning to his typing.

It was a loss. After almost two years, it is still a loss I experience every day, to one extent or another. But it was obvious, I thought, that I am a gay man. He knows the name of my former "spouse." My husband. I was at a Costco in Murray, Utah, and I had just been offered condolences on the loss of my husband. I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn't.

We went through the rest of the formalities. He ran my debit card for the new membership, then beckoned me down to have my picture taken for my new card. He asked me if I wanted to keep my old card. I shook my head, and he dumped it in the shredder. I kind of wish I'd kept it. He then handed me my new card and said, again, "I'm sorry for your loss." I didn't expect that. I knew he didn't have to do that. I was grateful and thanked him before I walked outside, my eyes wet.

I'm grateful that I live in a time and place where I can be afforded moments of dignity such as I experienced that day in Costco, of all places. Where my marriage, my love for my husband, can be affirmed and dignified in such a simple way.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

"It's Okay" - On Reimagining Dreams and Self

I made a new friend this past week. Mindy had invited me to coffee because of a common connection with Equality Utah, which advocates for equality for members of the LGBTQ community in our state.

As Mindy and I got to know each other, we discovered that we had a lot in common. Specifically, we had both come out of *very* Mormon backgrounds, and both of our terminally ill marriages had apparently finally been dealt a death blow -- mine certainly was -- as a result of the infamous address of LDS Church president Boyd K. Packer in October 2010 (about which I have written several times, such as this post), in which he said the following:
“Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Heavenly Father.”
That address directly resulted in me coming out. 

As we sat and drank our coffee the other day, Mindy and I shared how we both felt that we knew that President Packer was wrong because of our own internal witness of what was right; however, neither of us fully shared what that witness was. We moved on to talk about how we have navigated life as post-Mormons, what "spirituality" means to us now, and how we interact with the Mormon community in which we live. 

I've decided to share here part of why I knew Packer was wrong and why what he said had said an impact on me. I'd like to describe an experience I had while serving as a Mormon missionary in Paris, how that experience sustained me for almost 30 years, how it eventually helped me to come out and how I finally came to see it in a new, post-Mormon light ...


It had been building for weeks.

I was a Mormon missionary in Paris, France. When I had joined the LDS Church almost two years before, I had truly believed that I could leave the same-sex attractions that I had experienced since going through puberty behind me. I had worked diligently to discipline my mind. I had done everything I was “supposed” to do, and more.

The first four months of my mission were fine, i.e., I experienced no “temptations,” and I had little trouble controlling my thoughts. But then I was transferred to Paris, and temptations seemed to come at me from everywhere. Gorgeous men who attended our English class. Beautiful men on the street. Sensuality that was palpable. For the first (and only) time in my life, I was propositioned by a guy – directly, unmistakably, in a store in the heart of Paris. An older male member of the Church in a leadership position befriended me. I knew he was probably gay, but I didn’t care. Another male member, also in a leadership position, also probably gay, seemed to see right through my mask--he outrightly asked me one day (I can still picture the look on his face while doing so), "Elder Broom, what are you hiding behind that mask of yours."

All of this was extremely unsettling to me. One the one hand, I was horrified. On the other, I felt that some crucial part of me had been liberated. For the first time since joining the Church, I allowed the genie of my repressed sexual orientation to escape from the bottle and allowed myself to contemplate who I really was. It was exhilarating, but it was also frightening – particularly since I was a missionary.

It was after struggling with these thoughts and emotions that swirled around me for a number of weeks that I had a dream that was unlike any dream I have ever had, then or since. It was so palpable, so real, so revelatory. I dreamt that I saw a person in a large room filled with people dressed in white. His presence seemed to tower over the others. I knew it was Jesus. As I made my way to the front of the room, my eyes became locked with his and he beckoned me to come to him, to take his hand and embrace him. As soon as I did so, we were transported, just the two of us, to another place, where we sat and talked – I talked, he listened lovingly and patiently - about my fears and joys, the deepest corners of my soul … and my ultimate secret. 

My gaze never left his countenance, and in his beautiful eyes, I saw love such as I had never before felt. Nor have I felt it sense, the closest thing to it being when Mark, in the final weeks of his life, would regularly hold my face in his hands, look at me intently with those beautiful blue eyes of his and say, "I love you."

In my dream, in His eyes, I saw no judgment, no guile; only perfect, total understanding. His very countenance radiated such intense purity and his essence such love and peace that I felt as if I would faint from bathing in the ecstasy of it. In this setting, enveloped in love and light and truth, he told me that it was "okay" – my “attraction” – and that he loved me just the way I was/am. And that was the message I woke up with.

Now, one would have thought that this experience would have given me permission to embrace my gay self. But the message of the dream and the message of the Mormon Church regarding homosexuality were completely opposite each other. And I wasn’t strong enough to embrace who I really was. 

This dream remained vivid in my mind for the next 25 years. Even though I married a woman and vowed I would never come out and that I would make a success of my marriage, the memory of this dream and its piercing message sustained me in believing that God didn't condemn me merely for being who I was, for having the attractions that I did.

That is why, when President Packer said those infamous words, I knew he was wrong--even though for the past 27 years I had regarded him as man who communed with God. What had been the most spiritual experience of my life had convinced me that God did not condemn me. Thus began my journey out of the closet, marriage and Mormonism. But it wasn't until several years later, after I had left the Church and after I had met, fallen in love with and committed myself to my late husband, Mark, that this dream took on added significance.

After leaving the Church and leaving my faith behind me, I had pondered how to interpret "spiritual experiences," such as this dream. This process involved, as it turned out, a lot of unraveling, re-examing and--when I was ready--re-imagining. It became a journey into deeper self-awareness and validation.

As concerning the spiritual experience of my Parisian dream, the insight came in a flash a little over four years ago, seemingly out of nowhere. The insight: my dream, from a Jungian perspective (which posits that dreams are vehicles through which our subconscious tries to tell or teach us something), was really ME telling myself that it was okay to be gay. I had assumed that the personage was Jesus because my subconscious recognized that I viewed him – particularly at that point in my life – as the supreme Validator.

When I shared this revelatory experience with Mark, he provided the rest of the stunning insight, positing that the love I had felt emanating from “Jesus” was really from my own deep Self, extending love and acceptance to my troubled, anxious self who was trying to do the right thing as a Mormon missionary and a Mormon man who desperately wanted his homosexuality to go away.

My journey has continued since that December day four years ago when Mark shared that insight. In the new frameworks of my life--post Mormon, post-closet, post Mark--I continue to re-imagine, and I continue to be astonished at times when revelations come about who I am -- revelations not from God but from the Source inside me. Those moments, those insights, have become my new spiritual experiences.