Seeking a Circus on the Outskirts of Sixty

Seeking a Circus on the Outskirts of Sixty
David R. Weiss, February 4, 2018

It was a silly children’s book. A mix of whimsy and rhyme and rather stiff illustrations. No doubt there was a gentle deeper message intended all along, but I’m pretty sure that Robert Lopshire (the author) was not trying to map out my life. That just happened.

My copy, now with the binding starting to crack, still comes out for grandchildren on occasion. My name is neatly printed on the inside cover. First published in 1960, I suspect I got my copy of Put Me in the Zoo about five or six years later.

The story, in short (I’m sure most of you have read it; apparently it was a bestseller in the Beginner Books line) is about a creature of ambiguous pedigree—and magical spots—who meets a pair of kids and asks them repeatedly to “Put me in the zoo.” He longs for a place where he’ll belong, and he is certain the zoo, with its menagerie of well-cared for animals is the place for him.

Never mind the innocent naiveté about zoos (that’s a whole other issue), our mysterious creatures goes to great lengths—and heights—to show all the amazing things he can do with his spots as a way of demonstrating why the zoo should welcome him. He can change their color and size, indeed throw them onto other objects—even the children—all in a cheerful frenzy of self-expression. But if you read between the lines, something probably done more easily as I approach sixty, you can discern a more exhausting existential desperation to find a vocational home. Which is where my life maps onto this tale.

Fast forward about ten years to my fifteenth year. Let’s say the fall of 1975. That’s just a guess, but I think it’s close. My brother, Don, was a senior in high school and I was a sophomore. One night at supper Dad asked us (in truth, probably mostly Don, but I was included since I was just two years behind), “What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?” Parents might ask that question any number of times as their kids grow up, but the fact that this question came: over supper . . . from Dad . . . to Don . . . as he began his senior year in high school . . . gave it an added sense of seriousness.

Don responded, “I was thinking about studying pharmacy.” To which Dad (a mechanical engineer) replied with evident satisfaction, “That’s a fine field to enter. You’ll need a lot of math and science. But that’s a great choice.” (Eventually the numbers won out and Don went into accounting.) When it was my turn, I responded, thoughtfully and with near excitement, “I’d like to be a writer.” To which Dad (did I mention, he was a mechanical engineer?) replied—after a short but noted silence—“. . . Well, that would make for a . . . fine hobby. I was actually wondering what you might like to do for real work.” I don’t recall if I managed to generate a second choice. What I do recall, with searing emotional clarity, is that my first choice, my love for working with words was found wanting in Dad’s eyes.

Necessary side note: my dad and I have a very good relationship. It was a measure of the esteem I held for him that his words sent me second-guessing my own gut. And a measure of the esteem he’s come to hold for me, that he now steadfastly hopes I find better outlooks for my words.

In any event, as a result of that exchange (albeit with a plethora of other social-familial-academic forces adding their own thrust) I’ve spent the past forty-some years showing “off my spots,” all the while hoping to find my zoo, the place where I belong. Unlike the creature in my childhood book, most of my workplaces have been happy enough to have me on board. Although they’ve always either wanted to manage my spots for me or, on occasion, to tell me, “Just keep ’em in a box, while you’re on the clock.”

But I’ve never forgotten the voices of the two children who, after seeing all that he can do with his spots, finally speak the creature’s truth to him near the book’s end: “We like all the things you do. We like your spots, we like you, too. But you should not be in the zoo. No. You should NOT be in the zoo. With all the things that you can do, the circus is the place for you!”

So here I sit, on the outskirts of sixty (I just turned 58 two months ago), wondering if I will ever find my circus.

I can do a lot of things well. But the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is write. I’ve taught college classes, processed mail, done campus ministry, sold books, worked in warehouses, preached sermons, done restaurant kitchen prep, graded tests, done public speaking, organized a union, delivered groceries. All good things. All very good things to have done. But at the end of the day—in my soul, at the outskirts of sixty—they’ve all been fine hobbies to have. None of them have been my life’s real work.

It’s time to find my circus.

I may still teach a class or two, and I hope to go on delivering groceries, but with the sun now on its noticeable westward trek in my life, if I’m going actually write—my own words, my own stories, my own thoughts, my own agenda—it’s now. Or never. And I’d rather it be now.

Foolishly perhaps, but honestly, too, I actually believe that the words waiting patiently (no, impatiently!) inside me all these years matter to more than just me. I say that partly based on people’s responses to the words that have managed to find their way out over the years. And partly based on the existential restlessness that tells me I’ve only just scratched the surface. And partly based on the still mostly innocent eyes of my grandchildren, for whose future I truly believe I have some things say.

I’m participating in a 4-month seminar at United Theological Seminary right now. Not quite a circus, but getting closer. It’s aimed at fifty-five-plus folks looking to reimagine where they fit in the workforce (or perhaps the volunteer-force if they’re retired). A chance to ask some piercing questions in the good company of others. I don’t know where it will lead.

Except that after thirty-five years of non-career mostly part-time work in a variety of fields, I’m done with zoos. I’m going to write (and gather together the things I’ve already written over the years). I’m going to write. If it’s the last thing I do. On my terms. After my own heart. Believing it will matter for us all.

I’m going to find my circus. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll see you sitting ringside someday.

***

David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

 

 

 

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2018. 2 Comments

All. The. Time. A fond remembrance of Katie, 1921-2018.

All. The. Time. A fond remembrance of Katie, 1921-2018.
David Weiss, January 24, 2018

Of course, I like all my clients. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have favorites. And Katie was a favorite. We’d only just met a few eye blinks ago by her standards: she was already 94 years old when I started delivering her groceries.

But for nearly the past two years I was at her doorstep like clockwork every other week. If the weather was good she’d have the inside door propped open so she could watch for me. As I unloaded her groceries to the near counter and the stovetop she shuttled them over to the far counter and into the freezer, remarking with a chuckle, “I don’t know if I’m helping or hindering.” She said that every single time. She was helping, but her meaning, carried more by the chuckle than the words themselves was simply, “I’m happy to see you.”

She was also happy to feed me: there were always homemade cookies or bars waiting on a plate on the counter underneath a paper napkin. “Take several,” she’d insist. “I don’t know if they’re edible or not. I haven’t quite figured out this new oven!” They were always edible. And delicious. Occasionally I brought her treats as well—things I’d written. She took particular delight in a set of family stories and thanked me several times for sharing them.

Once the groceries were all unloaded, she’d survey the bounty and announce, “I just hope I live long enough to eat all this!” Bright-eyed, quick-witted, and upbeat, at age 96 those words reflected a cheerful recognition of her own mortality. And they finally caught up with her. She died January 9, exactly in between deliveries, leaving about half her last set of groceries uneaten.

As soon as the office notified me of her death, I knew I wanted to get to the funeral if possible. It was scheduled for January 16, which would have been her next delivery day. So long as everything on my route went smoothly, I’d have just enough time to complete my deliveries, park my van back at the Cub Foods on Lyndale, hop into my car and drive over to the church for the 1p.m. funeral. I’d still be in my delivery clothes—a bit under-dressed for most funerals, but exactly right for Katie’s.

That morning I drove by her home one last time on my way to my first stop. I offered a silent wave and blinked away an unexpected tear. Even at 96, death still stings.

Far from going smoothly, my route held a mess of wrinkles that day. No major problems, just a bunch of little delays—most of them related to providing cheerful patient service to my still-living clients. And Katie wouldn’t have wanted me to rush any of them just because she’d died. Still, as the day went on, I began to worry that I’d miss the funeral. As I neared the end of my deliveries it became clear the only way I’d make it by 1p.m. was if I drove directly there in my van. So I did.

At 1:05 I slipped into the church as the congregation was singing the first hymn. I handed my sympathy card to the funeral home attendant who promised to put it with the others while doing his best not to stare at my delivery outfit. I slid into a pew behind a row of Katie’s church mates. It was an almost merry funeral, if that’s possible. Plenty of stories shared and more than a few peals of laughter rang out. Katie was well-known and well-loved by family and friends both. When we reached the final hymn the pastor remarked that Katie’s notes were clear: this was to be a “cheerful and happy” rendition of “Soon and Very Soon.” We did our best, with moist eyes and smiles on our faces.

Afterwards I made my way to each of Katie’s three children—all in their mid-60’s or older themselves—to introduce myself and tell them what a joy it had been to bring Katie’s groceries. Each of them beamed with recognition and told me how much Katie appreciated me, too. When I sat down next to the third one and introduced myself she instinctively leaned forward to put a hand on my leg and tell me how much her mother had enjoyed my deliveries—that they were the highlight of her week. When I replied that the delight was mutual, I was surprised to hear my voice break—and just as surprised to feel myself wrapped in a hug.

But it was a pair of young adult granddaughters who really drove that home. I caught them out of the corner of my eye, smiling and whispering to each other as I spoke with Katie’s son. I imagined them noticing my wild wind-blown hair and dark green delivery jacket. I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb in a crowd of people clearly dressed for a church event.

I turned to them and asked, “Are you some of Katie’s grandchildren.” “Yes!” they glowed with joy. “And just so you know,” one of them volunteered, smiling widely, “she talked about you all the time.” And, in case I hadn’t caught that, the other chimed in and punctuated it for me. “All. The. Time.”

As I left to collect my van and head back to Cub Foods I reflected on what a privilege it is to do what I do. Sure, not all of my clients are as spirited or cheery as Katie was; heck, some of them have barely battled life to a draw—and it shows. But I meet each of them at the intersection of the simple human need for food and the deeper human hope for dignity. And I aim to deliver both. Sometimes, at the end of my deliveries, as I stacked my bins and folded my paperwork, Katie would declare earnestly, “I hope you know how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”

I climbed into the van and turned the key, blinking away another tear while her granddaughters’ words echoed in my mind. Why, yes, I do, Katie. Yes, I do.

*     *     *

David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist—in addition to his part-time job delivering groceries—David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

Ursula K. Le Guin – In Memoriam

Ursula K. Le Guin – October 21, 1929-January 22, 2018 – In Memoriam
By David R. Weiss, January 23, 2018

I’ve not even come close to reading everything by Ursula K. Le Guin, but as a teenager she almost single-handedly reshaped my way of looking at the world. So I owe her a word of thanks upon hearing that she died yesterday.

It’s easy to think of science-fiction/fantasy literature as escapist (and some of it certainly is), but for Le Guin those genres were lenses through which to look outward and far away precisely to deepen our capacity to look inward and up close.

Perhaps best known for the Earthsea Trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness, she wrote several dozen novels and many more short stories and essays, ranging across genres and audiences with ease. Le Guin is praised for interrogating the future—more aptly put, the possible—through a wide variety of evocative questions informed by her interests in feminism, sociology, psychology, anthropology, environmentalism, gender, sexuality, pacifism, and anarchism among others.

Sharply critical of most religion, Le Guin identified as Taoist, although not in a religious sense per se; she regarded it as the most truthful/insightful philosophical vantage point for life. Perhaps subconsciously she sowed in me the seeds that have led me to be so self-critical of my religious affiliations. But more than this, she invited me to think and feel the questions of human existence with uncanny clarity.

These are the handful of genuine treasures that I credit to her.

The Word for World is Forest (1972) was my introduction to Le Guin. From this otherworldly parable I discovered the apocalyptic (both world-shattering and revelatory) power of words. If your word for world is forest, what does it mean to see the forest logged to ruin? How would you react? More to the point, how would I? Additionally, I learned about the too often exploitive clash between cultures with different values and different ways of holding and exercising power. I encountered whole different ways of knowing reality. And I met the earthling-environmentalist waiting to be born inside myself.

In Rocannon’s World (1966) I came to know the full weight of radical empathy. Already intuitively (and perhaps ungainly) empathetic as a teen, this novella beckoned me to embrace it as gift . . . while also warning me of the cost. I do not recall the details of the story, but the lesson about empathy chases me to this day. Rocannon’s World was, for me, a powerful introduction to one profound facet of my vocational identity . . . and an alluring caveat about the cost of discipleship.

Finally, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975), a collection of short stories, I encountered a number of themes that still haunt me with insight. “April in Paris” is a meditation on the near-magical alchemy of loneliness. Not in a way that sparks pity, but one that evokes awe. “The Darkness Box” is about the value of courageous choices even—maybe precisely—in the face of uncertainty and irrevocable consequences. “The Stars Below” intimates that beauty might lie where we least think. “The Direction of the Road,” a disorienting tale about a car crash and a tree, asked me to trade places and perspectives in an utterly unexpected manner—to enter a viewpoint wholly other and see the world from there. And (the most famous of the bunch) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” condemned me ever after (and gratefully so) to meet social conditions with a hermeneutic of suspicion (although I surely never learned the name for this until seminary) . . . and a commitment to walk away from every unjust “normal” myself.

At sixteen I was mostly a mess. Of vocational confusion, hormonal overdrive, and social shyness. Largely (not entirely) disconnected from my peers, and keenly aware of a world—both beyond me and inside me—that was frightfully vivid and chaotic. No writer gave me better tools to plumb the depths of both worlds than Ursula K. Le Guin. By many measures (at least those that use dogma or moralism), I’m a pretty marginal Christian. But thanks to the ways this Taoist-atheist science fiction author tutored my mind and heart, I am at the very least a Christian better able to exercise empathy and place it in the service of compassion.

I end with the closing lines of The Word for World is Forest. The character speaking in the book is Selver, but Le Guin wrote them and they are true of her: “Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.” Me neither. And for that, I give thanks.

*          *          *

drw59mn@gmail.com

When Even Strong Words Fall Short: A Moment for Commensurate Heroism

When Even Strong Words Fall Short: A Moment for Commensurate Heroism
David R. Weiss, January 19, 2018

Perhaps no value holds a more central place in Christian life than compassionate hospitality. It lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, is unmistakably a force that leads to his crucifixion, and ever afterward has been among the signposts of both sainthood and mere Christian discipleship.

Under President Trump—and an emboldened GOP that aims to deftly leverage his overtly racist, homophobic, transphobic, islamaphobic, and xenophobic messaging to their own political advantage—no Christian truth is more under attack than the call to practice hospitality.

Currently, as Republicans threaten to shut down the government over Democrat insistence that any budget agreement includes recognition and resolution of plight of those immigrants currently suspended in DACA, the GOP gambles that Americans—the majority of whom still fain “Christianity” as a identifier—no longer really give a damn about its central call to hospitality. At some level they may be correct, although public polling sets support for a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) solution at more than 80%.

But alongside . . . in the shadow of . . . this spotlighted budgetary blip is the ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) assault on immigrants who by many measures contribute to the strength of our nation. It is “open season” on immigrants, even those previously protected by their public profile.

As The Nation reports today:

This week, longtime New York immigrant-rights activist Jean Montrevil, who had lived in the US for 31 years and was arrested just a week prior, was deported to Haiti. On Thursday, Ravi Ragbir, a leader alongside Montrevil with New York City’s New Sanctuary Movement, was transferred back to the New York area from Miami after ICE took him into custody during a check-in on January 11.

Also on January 11, ICE pulled over and arrested Eliseo Jurado, the husband of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, a Peruvian woman who has taken sanctuary in a church in Boulder, Colorado. This string of recent arrests prompted another immigrant-rights leader to come forward. On Tuesday, the longtime Seattle-based immigrant-rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando went public with details of ICE’s enforcement against her. On December 20 she received in the mail what’s known as a notice to appear, [which] signals the beginning of DHS deportation proceedings. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard from immigration,” Mora Villalpando told The Nation. “My case makes it clear that this is a targeting of people who have decided to be outspoken,” said Mora Villalpando, who has never received a deportation order and says her criminal record is clean. “I only have traffic tickets in my life, and that’s that.”

ICE denies that these enforcement actions are politically motivated. “ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security,” ICE spokesperson Lori Haley said. “However, as ICE leadership has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

Meanwhile, locally, Saint Agnes bakery has abruptly turned off its ovens and closed its doors—apparently in response to a threatened ICE audit of its business and its employees. As many as a dozen longtime and skilled bakers—vibrant members of our community who for years have made the bread we bought in local stores or ate on the plates of local restaurants—quit on the spot for fear of deportation.

Such actions by ICE should be named theologically for what they are: Antichrist. These aggressive campaigns to deport and/or intimidate undocumented but also un-criminal members of our communities are expressions of political terrorism. They seek foremost to sow fear, both among immigrants (undocumented and otherwise) and among citizens. They feed xenophobia. They kill the spirit of hospitality that is the first behavioral mark of a follower of Jesus.

Thus, while I applaud the strong words of the Minnesota ELCA bishops in condemning Trump’s latest round of racist messaging—messaging that’s already actively echoing across our heartlandit isn’t enough.

If we hope to save the soul of Christianity—to preserve the dignity of humanity itself, and to make possible a future in which America’s ideals might one day be realized—two things are essential and urgent.

Our bishops—not just in Minnesota, not just Lutheran, but religious leaders of all faiths—must raise a united voice that echoes the words Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke in his sermon on March 23, 1980 (the day before he was assassinated). Addressing his nation’s soldiers, he announced: “In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression!”

I call on our bishops—our religious leaders from coast to coast, border to border—to announce with one voice to ICE agents: “In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression!”

And then I call on faith communities in every town, village, city, and glen to step forward in radical hospitality—what my former grad school mentor called “commensurate heroism”: that is, to say to every ICE agent who risks his or her livelihood by choosing hospitality over terror, who risks their job to defy unholy orders, “we have your back. If you shoulder the risks to which your faith calls you most directly, we will help you bear the costs incurred.”

I’m glad to see Democrats hold the line on a DACA resolution—even if it means that Trump and the GOP choose a government shutdown over a commonsense and humane resolution, because such a choice will help further unveil the dysfunction of the Grand Old Party and the moral emptiness of the President.

I’m glad to see the strong statement by the Minnesota ELCA bishops, too. Such words can inspire persons of faith to realize that moral decency and simple humanity are not mere whims to be entertained from an armchair. They are compass points that direct our actions—sometimes in direct defiance of authority, sometimes in direct support of our neighbor, always in the direction of hospitality.

And it’s time for our leaders to connect those dots publically and invite, implore, beg, even order the rest of us to connect the dots in our lives.

On Getting Bent Out of Shape – Yet Again

On Getting Bent Out of Shape – Yet Again
David R. Weiss

If you follow my posts, whether on Facebook or my blog, you know this is nothing new. Over theology, church, politics, and an array of social issues I’m positively prone to getting bent out of shape. But this is different.

This is about me. Literally. Getting bent out of shape. I have Peyronie’s Disease (PD). Which means my penis gets bent out of shape. But, get this, only during erections. So that’s fun. NOT.

Anyway, I’ve decided to write about it for several reasons. First, it’s a condition that is shrouded in embarrassment and shame—so much so that the best guesses at its incidence range from 1% to 23%. Often the best “cure” for shame is honest vulnerability, so I’m going to go there. (Inspired by the courage I’ve seen several friends display in going public about their own health challenges.) Second, progress in understanding and treatment of PD will no doubt go faster the more of us who are willing to acknowledge our condition to our doctors . . . and to each other. Third, as someone who’s made it my business to think and write about sexuality on behalf of others, maybe it’s my turn to write on behalf of myself. And, fourth, because, after several years of being “stable,” my Peyronie’s has decided to flare up again, a phrase that is, sadly, both metaphorically and anatomically accurate.

It’s a lot to cover in a single post. So I’ll make a start here, but I’ll likely revisit a few of these ideas again in the future.

Peyronie’s Disease: a brief description. First off, it’s not really a disease at all. You can’t “catch it,” and it isn’t caused by any bacteria, virus, or other outside agent. In fact, no one knows exactly what causes it. Some suggest it would be more appropriately named Peyronie’s Syndrome since it really names a collection of related symptoms not yet fully understood. Current thinking holds that PD is the result of injury/trauma to the penis, which the body responds to in a dysfunctional way: by producing fibrous plaque (think: stiff scar tissue) inside the penis. This injury/trauma might happen during athletic activity or an accident, or it could happen during “vigorous” sex or even just during a passing moment of human clumsiness during intercourse.

It seems likely that every penis undergoes minor injury/trauma at multiple points during a lifetime, but only some of us* develop fibrous plaque as a result. In most cases, the penis heals itself just fine.

*   I initially wrote “some men”—but the truth is, there are also transgender and intersex persons with penises. And PD is specific to the penis not to persons called “male” or “men.” So rather than cringe every time I write “men,” or be oddly disembodied about it and only refer to penises, I’m simply using the first person plural “us” to refer to the community of penis-bearers, whatever sex or gender we are.

Moreover, the severity of the trauma is not what’s significant; most of us with PD cannot remember a specific moment when we hurt our penis. And plenty who can recall—often with a visible wince—a time when they smacked, bent, dinged, pinched, or otherwise traumatized their member, never develop Peyronie’s. So it’s a bit of a crapshoot.

For those of us who do, it’s like winning the un-lottery. There’s some evidence that genes play a role because PD shows up with a higher incidence within families than in the general population. (My dad had it, though only briefly. His case resolved after a single visit, some thirty years ago, to a doctor who prescribed what my dad remembers only as an especially nasty tasting medicine. And, Ben, as often as it please me when people say of us, apple:tree, I hope on this count that your apple did not fall from a bent branch.) And it shows up more often in persons with another connective tissue disorder, Dupuytren’s contracture, which afflicts the palms of the hand, bending the fingers inward. So some of us are likely just genetically predisposed to have our bodies—in this case, our penises—overreact to the slightest injury. Lucky us.

What happens. Regardless of how the injury occurs, the tiny tears in the connective tissue, rather than healing back to normal, create thick stiff scar tissue (aka fibrous plaque). Inside your penis. Anywhere they want. Just beneath the skin. I think it’s most commonly found (as in my case) along the top of the shaft, but sometimes the plaque forms on one side or the other; sometimes on the bottom of the shaft; sometimes like pea-sized marbles here and there; and sometimes even rather like a tourniquet around the circumference of the shaft.

This plaque—how to describe it? Think of a small plastic comb, like you might keep in your back pocket. The spine of that comb is stiff; it bends ever so slightly in your pocket, but not easily. Now imagine inserting that type of stiff-but-barely-flexible material into a penis. Imagine it, roughly three-eighths of an inch wide and about an inch-and-a-half long, just beneath the skin on the top of the shaft, right behind the head of the penis. That’s me. Well, that’s my penis. If that’s not a sufficiently disconcerting image, consider that one “nick-name” for PD is “bent nail syndrome.” OUCH!!!

How it plays out. Most of the time this plaque, wherever it’s decided to make its little penile home, just sits there. In a flaccid penis you can feel it with your fingers, but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s barely noticeable unless you go looking for it, because everything is relaxed. It’s when things get exciting that they can also get very awkward. During arousal—and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a little arousal now and then?—blood rushes to the flaccid penis and engorges the tissue there. As the tissue fills with blood it expands, thickens, stiffens, and—viola!—you get an erection. Unfortunately, when you have PD, the plaque refuses to play along, so the erection has to bend around it. It’s a real killjoy.

Meaning, if the plaque is on right or left side of the shaft, the erection bends to the right or left; the severity of the bend varies, but it can be almost at a right angle. If the plaque is on the bottom, it pulls the erection downward, often painfully so. If it’s formed a sort of tourniquet around the shaft, the erection takes on an hourglass shape creating a weakness mid-shaft because the tissue there can’t fill with blood.

I have perhaps the least painful variation because in my case, quite like the “bent nail” image (which still screams OUCH! In my mind), my penis simply has an overenthusiastic upward arch. But “overenthusiastic” can understate things. That arch can also approach (or exceed) a right angle. And if you’re familiar with vaginal architecture and the dynamics of intercourse, you know that a right angle instrument was not an original design feature. And if the arch is sufficiently “enthusiastic” it can stretch the urethra so taut on the underside of the erect penis that ejaculation becomes uncomfortable, painful, or even impossible. I’m not quite there. Yet.

My personal saga. As I look back, I’m guessing my first PD symptoms showed up in spring 2010, but I never noticed because I have no recollection of specific injury or trauma, so I wasn’t watching for them. As the plaque accumulated bit by bit (over weeks or months?), I gradually took notice. And so did Margaret. But nobody likes to say, “Hey, something’s out of whack down there.” I’m sure had the bend gone left or right or downward or hourglass, it would’ve caught our notice sooner. So it was late spring or early summer before we actually addressed the situation, first between ourselves, then with my doctor who referred me to a specialist in ED (Peyronie’s is one type of erectile dysfunction).

This specialist wasn’t actually a doctor; he was a physician’s assistant whose focus was on “male sexual dysfunction”—not exactly the demographic I aspired to. But Ken was a godsend. He was also black. Given the racialized cultural weight of masculinity and myth, Ken’s blackness is no incidental detail. I was a white man showing my “broken” penis to a black man, and asking him if he could fix it. That’s a chapter in U.S. race relations that hasn’t been written yet.

And yet this is what happened. Ken (who is nationally regarded for his work on men’s sexual health) was committed professionally to as noninvasive approach as possible. That meant—thankfully, for me!—that he had no desire to slice open my penis and attempt to remove the plaque (which is one treatment option) and no interest in giving me regular (and I’ve heard painful) injections of (potentially) plaque-fighting substances directly into my penis. Instead he put me on oral Pentoxifylline, a medication with anti-inflammatory and anti-fibrous effects, and which improves blood circulation. He also put me on oral L-Arginine, an amino acid that seems helpful in preventing scar tissue from forming. And he used ultrasound directly on the plaque to work toward softening it up and (to some extent) to break it apart.

Now let’s unpack that last sentence. Twelve times, from November 2010 to early March 2011, I went to Ken’s office where I laid on a table with my penis popped through the little hole in a blue clinic paper towel while Ken put gel on an ultrasound wand and then proceeded to hold my penis flat with one hand while holding the wand directly on the topside of my penis where the plaque resided. And then, for the next fifteen minutes, we filled the time by talking about our respective families and our respective work. Because he dealt with men experiencing physical sexual dysfunction and shame and because I’ve dealt with persons in the church experiencing spiritual shame on account of sexuality, we actually had some pretty substantive conversations under those rather peculiar circumstances. But we never talked about the exquisite irony of a white man being so emotionally and physically vulnerable at the hands(!) of a black man who—against virtually everything taught in our culture—was a sexual healer to me.

The aim of these treatments was to make the plaque (which has never disappeared) at least malleable. Malleable enough to be stretched. So, finally, for roughly the last six months of 2011, I wore a traction device. That’s right. All those ads promising you “inches” of added glory? That was me, just trying to get back the inch or two I’d lost to “the bend,” and to straighten the damn thing out again. It was easily my least favorite chapter of the experience. I was decidedly self-conscious about wearing the contraption, despite its FDA-approved status. It operated on the basic principle that if you persistently stretch your penis, new cells would form and, as the plaque itself was straightened, the lost length would return. I hated every minute of it. As a result I carried as much tension in my head as I did in my pants for several hours each day. By Christmas 2011 Margaret and I both agreed I was near enough “normal” to give things a rest.

And that’s the way it’s been for the past six years. Until a few months ago when things started looking up again—which, in my case, is exactly NOT how you want things to look. It feels like the plaque is hardening and/or increasing, meaning that the upward arch is once again “overenthusiastic.” I’m all for enthusiastic sex. But an overenthusiastic arch means that sex becomes a sort of dance, not out of joy, but out of necessity. Margaret and I . . . adapt. And lovingly so.

But I face some decisions about resuming treatment. Ken has left the Twin Cities, having recently founded a program for training Physician’s Assistants at Meharry Medical College, an historically black medical school founded in 1876. I’m happy for him. But I wish he were still here for consultation and treatment. It’s no small thing to take your own small thing to a new person when so much is at stake. And if you spend any time at all on Peyronie’s-related internet forums you learn that it’s a rare gift to find a doctor who is at once so clinically astute and so palpably compassionate.

Then just last month Reuters Health News reported on a study showing that persons with Peyronie’s have an elevated risk for cancer in general, and most notably for skin, stomach, and testicular cancer. That’s right, my bent penis is putting a target on my testicles, too.** When it rains, it pours.

**   Not to be overly dramatic; the risk for testicular cancer is very small to begin with (1 in 263). But my odds just went up by 40% to about 1 in 210. For stomach cancer my odds rose from 1 in 111 to about 1 in 88. Of course, other risks factors come into play as well, and hopefully some of them are in my favor.

A concluding observation. Peyronie’s is the “perfect storm” of a malady. No known cause. No known cure. Culturally our penises are nicknamed our “manhood”; if my penis is bent, how can my manhood not also be seriously compromised? Even if we know that our identity is not defined by our capacity to perform sexually, for those of us with sexual desire Peyronie’s can still puts a decided crimp in it—our identity, that is. Add in the general embarrassment we’ve been taught to feel over sexuality—and then the shame of a condition that only arises during arousal—and you have a recipe for an affliction that isolates, humiliates, and drives people to both despair and desperation. As evidenced both by the risks endured in treatments that rarely offer unmitigated success (and occasionally produce tragic outcomes) and also by the wide array of “alternative” remedies recommended and marketed on the internet.

It’s not unusual to see a young parent post on Facebook, “My kid is waking up every night with bad dreams! Anyone else deal with this? How?! Please help!” But when was the last time you saw someone post, “My penis is bent! Sex is awkward. I feel embarrassed around my wife. And ashamed. Anyone else deal with this? How?! Please help!” I’m betting tonight is your first time.

I’m no expert. But I’m not going to be isolated any longer. Pooled knowledge is always better than hidden knowledge. And solidarity is welcome. All. Day. Long. It may well be the most healing salve of all.

There is, I believe, if not a cure, at least a major breakthrough still out there waiting to be discovered. And talking more openly may get us there a little bit sooner. It lies, no doubt, just around the next bend.

 

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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

In a Spirit of Reformation

Sometimes I write with inspired insight, other times moved by joy or anger. And sometimes I write with slow-moving dread. October has been the latter kind of time.

Over the course of the past month I’ve written a series of posts in which I voice my concerns about the evolving worship life and theological shifts unfolding in my congregation – and about finding my voice erased from its place in our congregational life.

I spent the month breaking my silence for the greater good and in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

I posted my words — all 16,000 of them in thirteen posts put up “in real time” (as I wrote them) on Facebook. In a sense, walking up to the door of the Wittenberg church each time and setting my words there for others to see.

Now the month is over, the set of posts is compete, and I am putting a link to the complete set here on my website.

As I say on the front page: “I write these words – in the spirit of the Reformation – seeking neither to embarrass particular leaders nor to foment division in the church, but simply to bear witness to the truth as best I can. So help me God.”

David R. Weiss – October 2017

The link below will open a pdf document that you can read online or download and print out. The thirteen short essays run 27 pages.

In a Spirit of Reformation

 

 

20 Years: From Ally to Accomplice

It’s been twenty years now since I publicly declared myself an Ally to LGBTQ persons. Twenty-three years, if you include my trembling words at a church meeting in South Bend, Indiana. But twenty since I—as a writer—“came out” in print. That decision began the twenty most creative, rewarding years of my life. Nothing has been so life-giving to me as to stand alongside these persons, offering my witness in their pursuit of dignity, visibility, affirmation . . . and simply LIFE.

I have grown immeasurably in my self-understanding as well. Today I would declare myself an Accomplice to LGBTQ persons (and to persons of color and immigrants, too). That is, I want to be clear: full human flourishing is not something I already enjoy and (from that vantage point) hope to extend to others. NO. Full human flourishing is a shared project. Until others are also free, my own sense of freedom is merely an illusion tempting me to indifference. My goal is to be an active accomplice in everyone’s pursuit of flourishing . . . thereby to take my own small turn at bearing the risk of challenging and thwarting the systems that threaten life.

Here, on the 20th anniversary of my own journey “from Ally to Accomplice” I share these two pieces from my first steps:

Spirituality and Coming Out
Originally written, October 7, 1999

October is home to National Coming Out Day. Still, it surprised me recently when some students of mine asked me to share some thoughts on spirituality and coming out. You see, I’m straight. But as I pondered what to say, I realized that I do have a “coming out” story of my own to relate. Two years ago, following my first ever GLBTA meeting at Luther College where I teach, I was reviewing with the faculty advisor the constituency covered by the acronym, “Okay, I know it’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, . . . and what? What does the ‘A’ stand for?” “Allies,” Janet replied. And I said, “Oh, that’s me! That’s where I fit in.” So this is a short reflection on my “coming out” as an ally for GLBT persons.

I “came out” in February 1997. By then I had already come to a fairly well-developed sense of why I affirmed the integrity of sexual orientations other than just heterosexual. Driven by more than simply tolerance, I was increasingly persuaded that God’s freedom to love, affirm, and include such persons was far bigger than any of the prejudices I grew up with. I had a number of gay and lesbian friends, and I was openly, even articulately supportive of them———-behind closed doors. Not that I was in any way anti-gay in public. I was just decidedly silent.

While a graduate student at Notre Dame I read through the regular waves of debate over homosexuality in the daily student newspaper (debates carried out almost entirely by straight persons). I was disturbed by the rhetoric, but remained otherwise quiet. Notre Dame’s Catholic tradition wasn’t my own. This was not my issue. Not my cause. Bottom line: not my life. So why take the risk?

In the spring of 1996 I began teaching at Notre Dame, and very subtly my perspective began to change. The mass of Notre Dame undergraduates, previously just a sea of faces to me, suddenly and inescapably had names . . . feelings . . . and lives. Then, the following February I read a poem in Scholastic, a weekly student magazine. Entitled “Living in Fear,” it was written by an anonymous gay senior student at Notre Dame and recounted his daily four-year battle toward self-acceptance while driven by fear to remain in the closet. This time, perhaps because this wasn’t a debate but a poignant lament, I wasn’t “disturbed but quiet,” I found myself weeping and raging. Late into the night I poured myself out onto paper in a long letter of response that I titled “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” In it I ransacked the Bible for every manner of image to comfort and affirm him (and there are many of these!). As I put it in the letter, “I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words.” Later on I wrote, “Against all this [the fear] that you know so well I can offer only words—but maybe this is precisely what I have not done often enough or loud enough or long enough.”

When my letter ran in the next week’s Scholastic, I was “out.” An ally. And there was no going back. I received a good number of e-mails of gratitude—but also more than a few words of derision. Coming out—even just as an Ally—has its price. But also its rewards, which leads me to my point about coming out and spirituality. I had reached a place where for me not to come out publicly as an ally of GLBT persons would have been, by my silence, to deny the very graciousness of the God who has encountered me. Instead, coming out as an ally has afforded me the chance to get on with the essential work of integrating my personal spirituality with my public commitments—the vocation of living my whole life in response to God’s grace. I know from friends that this is true for GLBT persons as well. It’s hard to hear the gospel in private if fear keeps you in the closet in public.

So I might be tempted to close with an invitation to all GLBT persons to “come out,” but I don’t think that’s my invitation to make, at least not directly. I can say, if you’re an Ally still in the closet, National Coming Out Day is for you, too. However, my direct task is to keep on “coming out” myself as an Ally, again and again, to do what I can to make the room beyond the closet a place that is safe when the closet door is opened by someone from the inside. And that’s not something I do as an “extra” or “add-on” to my spirituality; it’s the way I bear witness to the God I know

*     *     *

This is the text of my letter which originally appeared in Scholastic Magazine, February 27, 1997.

Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.

I need to say this quietly in deference to your eloquent anguish. But I need to say it nonetheless. And I am angry, and it will be hard to keep my voice down; angry not at you but for you. And if I misread the last lines of your poem and you already know all this, that’s okay. I’m sure someone else needs to hear it.

You say, “God knows, but God loves me anyway.” Wait. Let me say it gently but firmly—unequivocally. God does not love you “anyway”—despite your being gay. God does not need to overlook the way you are to smile at the beauty of your humanity, at the earthy reflection of divine love as you are gaily—and I don’t mean just “happily”—imago Dei.

Do you hear me, my friend? I will be downright strident about this because I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well, here they are.

When Hosea spoke of a day when God would have pity on “Not-pitied” and would say to “Not-my-people,” you are my people—Hosea meant you, and I hope that day is now. When Isaiah welcomed foreigners and eunuchs (ever before outcast from the presence of God) into the Temple—well, Isaiah meant to welcome you as well, and to name your praise, like their praise, as more dear to God than even that of the faithful Jews (or Christians), perhaps because your praise is brought over the objections and insults of so many of us—and yet still finds its way to God. And when Peter, our first pope (no less stubborn than the rest) was treated to that heavenly picnic of assorted forbidden foods it was to remind him of Isaiah’s self-same insight, that the church dare not exclude those who come at God’s own call.

When Jesus stopped to speak and sip with the Samaritan woman at the well, perhaps she, too, thought that his fellowship came to her “anyway,” despite her ethnic outcast baggage. But I tell you, my friend, and I am not scared to be flamboyant if need be: Jesus offered her living words and living water because of who she was. He relished her Samaritan beauty; he chose her for the Kingdom, and when he did, he meant for you to feel chosen, too, not despite, but because of your gayness. So, remember when you walk past the silent, subversive statue of her and him at the well in front of O’Shaugnessy Hall, that while the administration might prefer you didn’t exist, or at least didn’t tell us who you are, Jesus is stopping to chat because you caught his eye not “anyway”—but just the way you are.

Can you hear me, yet, my friend? I am not afraid to be audacious if I have to. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, he said to them if any town refused to welcome them in his name, well, on judgment day those towns would fare far worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Okay, it isn’t in the text—I admit it—but I will say it anyway because it’s true: Jesus meant to say as much to all you same-sex couples who, not unlike those disciples, come, two by two, hoping for a bit of hospitality from the church. What irony that we who have so long burdened you with the guilt of Sodom and Gomorrah find that the fire and brimstone are finally aimed our way.

And when Jesus said that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head he knew that if ever a day came when churches with their gilded gold and schools with their omnipresent crosses in every classroom thought that now Christ surely had a place to lay his head, he knew that you, my friend, would know better. For with your anguish every night you bear a fearful witness to us all. Until your head rests fully welcome within these walls—until then Christ keeps his weary watch outside with you, still after all these years aching and envious of foxes and birds.

I hope that you have heard, my friend. I tremble for the silent “no” that closes out—and closets in—each day, the quiet daily unmaking of yourself by fears all too well founded. Against all this that you know so well I can offer only words—but maybe this is precisely what I have not done often enough or loud enough or long enough. So, I hope, my unknown friend, that at the end of this day, and the next, and on and on, that when you crawl beneath your covers of so much more than linen you remember these words I offer in gentle but firm—unequivocal, strident, flamboyant, audacious witness: You are loved by God already now, not “anyway,” but fully because of who and how you are.

And I wait with you for the day when “no” becomes “yes” and you place yourself truthful in our midst. I wait patiently, because who am I to tell you when to step beyond the fears that we have heaped up in your way? And because who am I to think your fear is not, in part indebted to the comfort of my own silence? And I wait impatiently, because I know at least this much that God is anxious for you to share the joy God takes in the very beauty of who and how you are.