Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

I needed Christmas this year. I needed all the hope and wonder that comes with waiting for the baby. Metaphorically, I was sitting in the hospital with my scrubs on, checking my phone every few minutes for the time and making sure the cigars were safely tucked away in my jacket pocket. Any minute now, Mary was going to deliver and all the joy we’d been waiting for would come into the world. All I had to do was make it to Christmas Eve.

Waiting is hard. I’m not very good at it. Knowing that Christmas was coming, but not here, had me pacing the floor at times. I didn’t need presents (I got a lot), I didn’t need food (I ate a lot), but I desperately needed the awe of a baby that came from nothing and rose to be one of the most powerful people in the history of the world. I needed my antihero, the one that reminds me that I, too, am capable of something great.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that it’s been a tough year for me. I left a place and several relationships that sustained me for many years… and now no longer served me. I realized that I was literally giving myself away. Telling people with thought, word, and deed that it was ok that I couldn’t count on them. It was ok that if I needed something, they were too busy for me. It was ok that if they needed anything, I would drop everything and run in exchange for being treated badly. I felt sad and unfulfilled, and when I finally got up the courage to say, “hey, I feel sad and unfulfilled,” they couldn’t imagine what I meant. Everything was fine.

I had to leave to save myself, my sanity, for the people that really matter to me. I couldn’t waste any more time hoping that these people would change, and would be the people that they’d said they would. I felt that in a lot of ways, my life had been hijacked, and that made me even sadder.

I feel that I should take a moment to explain what I mean by “hijacked,” for the people who are reading this blog for the first time.

When I was 12 years old, I realized two things. The first is that I was hopelessly in love with a woman who was capable of controlling me because I let her. At 12, I didn’t know anything about the push and pull of abusive relationships, the type where only their needs matter and when you say something to that effect, they pull away and shut down emotionally. At 12, I thought it was all my fault that she was pushing away. I thought I was defective in some way, and I would do everything I could to regain her attention and her love. That finely engineered control was probably a learned behavior from her own past, and for many years, I thought I could be the one to save her… to teach her what real love could be, should be.

However, as mature as I was for my age, I still couldn’t be an adult. God knows I tried. She would come to me with problems, stories and lies that I couldn’t understand, but would puzzle them over in my mind as if I was capable of making everything all right again. She created a fantasy land in which I was the closest thing she had to a daughter, that our ties were closer than blood… and I bought it hook, line, and sinker.

She always said that there was nothing romantic between us, but there were a few fleeting moments in which I thought it might be a possibility. That was because I couldn’t see the manipulation for what it was. She would use me any way she could, and when you’re a confused kid, you don’t see the ploys for what they are. The attention feels real. The love feels real. The smiles feel real. I can only hope that the way she loved me was because she didn’t know how to love the right way. I couldn’t bear to think of her as maliciously scheming against me.

All of the emotion that was poured into me as a child turned me into the woman that won’t walk away, won’t give up, because there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done to keep her safe and happy… because then maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad about myself, because if she succeeded, then I would, too.

It is the hallmark of an abusive relationship, and one that started when I was too helpless to see it… because when I was 12, she was 23. Old enough to know better. Old enough to do better. Too young to see that she was repeating the cycle of everything that had been done to her. Because of that relationship, I grew up so fast, because I was trying to be older and wiser. Trying to invert our relationship so that I could take care of the woman I loved, because the stories she told me about her life away from me were enough to make the hairs on my arm stand up. She wasn’t safe, wouldn’t be for many years, and I desperately wanted to fix it.

It wasn’t until almost a quarter century later, this year, that I realized there had been so much damage done to me that I couldn’t breathe, I was so racked with anxiety. I could see that she wasn’t safe, wouldn’t be, because what I saw when I looked with my own heart into her life made the hairs on my arm stand up…

I called her and cried into her voice mail. “Please, please come with me. I can’t help but feel like I’m leaving a man behind. You’ve always said that I’m the closest thing you have to a daughter, and if that is true, and that is reality, hear me say, ‘Mom, let’s go home.’” The voice mail was not returned, but since then I have spent so much time hoping that I’m wrong. Not only that, it’s not my battle to fight. I knew that now it was time to leave her behind, because she’d made her choice. She didn’t even want to see me when I told her that I was leaving, and it was devastating, but it gave me strength. I was doing the right thing.

I have mourned this loss for months, and in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m still in shock. It’s not really real. This isn’t happening, because now I am left with redefining myself. It is back-breaking emotional work, this putting myself back together, because I hardly have any memories of my life before she came into it.

The thing I have clung to in all of this is the Christ child coming again, because the joy it brings cannot be contained. The music is glorious; the words even more so. It is the balm to my sadness, this unbridled joy, and I plan to use it to the best of my ability.

May the light touch you as well.

It felt so good to be at choir last night. I’m not sure what was different, but it definitely felt better than it has in the past. I was doing all the right things- breathing all the way down to my diaphragm to the point that my stomach muscles hurt in only the way that singers hurt after a long rehearsal. I’m sure it will get easier the more I do it, but it’s been a while (too long), and I am not in the shape that I once was.

Last night, for the first time in several years, high notes felt like flying. I could hear within myself that I was doing well, without the need for external validation. I mean, that’s always nice, too, but it’s a good night when you can praise yourself.

That being said, I got a great compliment from the soprano on my right at Lessons and Carols. She said that she liked singing next to me because she thought our voices blended so well. It’s the secret to great choral work- adjusting to the sectional sound, instead of falling in love with the sound of your own voice. I think every singer occasionally falls into that trap, but in my case, it’s generally unintentional. I get buried in trying to read the music and my eyes drift from the conductor… and all of the sudden, I’m dragging so far behind I think I’m ahead.

I used to hate conductors that would make the choir memorize their music, but now I understand perfectly. When you don’t have a folder in front of you, it’s harder to look away from the person giving you the beat.

I am also very lucky, because my conductor is so artistic that I want to watch him. I like the way he works, from the first warm-up to the last amen. Additionally, focusing on him keeps me in the moment. There is nothing but the now, the groundswell of feeling that comes from being a part of something greater than you could ever accomplish on your own.

The thing that is missing for me right now, and will only come with time, is camaraderie with the other singers. Right now, I’m too new. They’re still getting used to me, and me to them. There’s not the easy give and take that comes from being in a group that knows you well. On the plus side, I have decided that this is the group where I want to put in my dues. Things will look so much different once they can stop giving me the once over and decide that indeed, I do know what I’m doing.

I’ve been in church choirs my whole life, from the small and somewhat tonally challenged to blow-your-hair-back repertory that challenges professionals. I know the Episcopal service like the back of my hand, and for some reason, I have an easier time reading choral music than when I’m in an orchestra. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. Maybe it has something to do with being able to hear better the other moving parts of the piece, because the tenors and basses are close to me rather than spread out like musicians are in the pit.

It also helps that so much of the music is familiar to me, and I haven’t had to sight-read very much. I am gifted at a lot of things, but that is not one of them. It has very little to do with rhythms, though. It’s that it’s hard to read the treble clef line and the words at the same time when you have no peripheral vision, which I do not. I have monocular vision, but that is another story entirely.
I routinely get lost when there are five verses to something and I have never heard it before… and sometimes hilarity ensues, even when the hymn is familiar to me. So far, I have sung “when I fall on my face” instead of “when I fall on my knees,” and angels have fallen prostate instead of prostrate since I was a teenager.

The world of choral music is opening up to me again, after I’d tried to close the door. As I have said before, I am in the process of making peace with who I am, because the emotional abuse I endured came from a choral musician and at first, I wanted to leave everything behind that reminded me of her. It was when I realized that what had been done was done, and there was no way to ever accomplish such a lofty goal. I am a choral musician, and I was before her influence. I just had to remind myself of it, because we’d been in choir for so long together that nearly everything a church conductor could possibly program would clench my stomach in grief. In “Slash and Burn,” I made the connection that it was hard when I reminded myself of her, because my anger toward her would make me hate myself, too.

As my process has gone on, that part of myself has just had to cope, and my past is making peace with my future, note by note and measure by measure. There are still some times in rehearsal when her presence is very real, and it no longer frightens me. It used to, when I believed that I couldn’t go to that place of remembrance because I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. The mind worm was just too intense to ignore. I would see every iteration of us from 1990 to the present.

The process has been to realize that I value myself so much more than I did, and that being lost in what was held nothing precious. They were not wasted years, but our journeys diverged sharply, and I have to believe that is what should have happened. I could no longer ignore that I put my trust in someone that could not and would not put their trust in me.

It has been beautiful music in a minor key, but thanks be to God for realizing it was time for a Piccardy third.

Amen.

Dain Bramaged

There are so many areas of my life that should come with a warning, or at the very least, #dumbassattack. For instance, today I was trying to run some tests on a computer and I decided that it was all kinds of fucked up until I realized I was logged into the wrong one. Dana chuckled to herself when she saw me getting ready to process into the church for Lessons and Carols and I noticed that my choir folder was upside down, so therefore, my hymnal was, too. When I was in band, I was famous for forgetting, of all things, my trumpet. When I worked at ExxonMobil in Fairfax, I used to forget my badge and have to be walked up like a visitor.

Alert Logic is the only company that has ever had my back on this. All the doors are biometric. However, there have been two days since I’ve started that I’ve almost forgotten my computer, and once, I forgot my charger. Luckily, someone was absent that day so I didn’t have to go home and get it.

I am excellent at laughing about it, because that’s just who I am. I’m forgetful, clumsy, and I will forget your name within about fifteen seconds… the flip side being that I will remember your face, your hair, and what you were wearing the first time I met you until I die. I will also probably remember what we talked about if it was interesting.

For instance, the first time I met Dana, she was wearing a sweatshirt from George Mason University, which I remembered because in Virginia, my office was right down the street from one of the campuses. I also remember that she and her then-girlfriend chased me down the street and pulled up next to me just so Dana could say, “I like your Saturn.”

Not only do I remember what people say, I remember the way they say it if I think it’s cute. If something you say has a musical lilt to it, I’ll remember it by the melody it renders.

It’s just true. 🙂

Because I can laugh at myself so easily, I also know that remembering people and conversations is something I think I do well. One of my friends actually told me, “why do you think I don’t tell you anything? You remember it.” Ahhh, the blessing and the curse.

Because I can tell you both good and bad things about me, I know that I am startlingly self-aware, and I don’t need anyone else to tell me that. I am most often “lost in my own little world” as people constantly comment, because honestly, talking to myself is more interesting than talking to you. I have a longer relationship with me. We have history. We know each other, and there’s not much I can say to scare me.

Talking to other people is a different story.

When I talk to me, I don’t have to worry that I’m going to get offended. I have a tendency to be a little anxious in social situations for a number of reasons. It was drilled into me years ago that there’s a possibility people won’t like me because I’m gay, so I have that old tape running… even though that is changing so much, so quickly. However, I still live in Texas. That’s enough said right there.

I also have a lot of mind worms that continually run in my head, because I’m just not done thinking about them yet. To me, it’s like a computer that does encryption. They work on the same problem for years at a time until they get it right. I can’t do that with math and numbers, but I would like to think that I can with human relations. I think all the time about how to make my relationship with Dana even better than it already is. I think all the time about my role within my family and how it affects all of us, especially since I’ve been away for so long. I think about the grief that I’m going through, and how I know that one day, it will taper off into nothing. But until then, I have to have time to examine the role I played in all of this… what I can do to take back my power… what I can do to be a better person than i was the day before.

I am not a one-trick pony, even though this blog has felt like it. Whether you like it or not, this blog is not entertainment. It is for me, and you are invited. I have said many times that this blog is a community, and I mean it. However, communities share frustrations and ask for help. I am not here to be the punching bag when you’d rather be entertained.

Honestly, I play the clown all day, every day in my personal life. If you meet me in person, you’ll think that I am funny, engaging, and you’ll want to see me again. But you’ll never know this part of me. You’ll never be invited past the walls I’ve learned to put up to protect myself from letting people get too close.

With that in mind, if you never meet me in person, you will never know my entire personality. If you want to judge the things I put out into the ether as the only things that make up my personality, then you’re free to do so. You’re also free to believe that my wife is a saint for putting up with me because I obviously have so many issues that it never balances out and she’s always the one that’s left holding the bag when there’s a problem in our relationship, because obviously, if we have a problem, it’s because of me.

You’re also free to believe that I am a complete nut job, because that doesn’t threaten me in the slightest. I have a chemical imbalance. Nutjob happens.

There are always going to be things in this blog that reflect a part of me, but there’s never going to be anything that represents everything. There’s so much more bad and so much more good and so much more crazy then I could ever capture in an essay…

And you’re invited.

A Minor Second

Yesterday, in the middle of trimming the tree, I realized that I had made a dire mistake.

I’d woken up around 5:30, and spent some time watching TV before I rattled Dana out of bed. By the time she got up and we got breakfast rolling, it was 8:30. We got busy pulling the branches apart in star patterns, and by 10:30, I was curled in the fetal position on the guest bed crying my eyes out.

Nothing was wrong except that I’d forgotten to take my psych meds. I have to take them at the same time every day, or the lag time in getting another dose on board will cause my brain to rebel. It starts to feel a little sticky, like I’m hung over, and if I don’t take my medicine right then, I have about 20 minutes until my brain says, “screw you, lady… they don’t pay me enough for this” and begins trying to climb out of my skull. If there is absolutely no way that I can get to my medication when I need it, I can SOMETIMES self-medicate with large doses of caffeine and Advil.

Yesterday, apparently, I took a large dose of distraction along with a heaping tablespoon of “I’m going to ignore the signs because I’m busy.”

Oprah says that if you don’t listen to a sign the first time, it will get louder and louder until it knocks your punk ass down. Consider my punk ass knocked. Dana brought me my meds in the guest room and held me while I sobbed in misery until the medication kicked in. She didn’t have to. She could have just watched TV until I cried it out. It’s not like there’s anything emotionally wrong. But she didn’t. She stayed and “sniggled” me until it was over, and I couldn’t have been more grateful, because I was able to bounce back faster. Literally, within ten minutes I was able to go back to trimming the tree.

But let’s back up for a second. I want to talk about what happens before my medicine kicks in, because it’s clinically important to me that I get this down in writing.

Do you remember those old commercials by the Emergency Broadcasting System? The ones where this grating electronic tone plays for almost a minute until a voice comes on and says “THIS HAS BEEN A TEST OF THE…” Now, they still have those commercials every once in a while, but the tone they play isn’t nearly as grating.

I know, because the old one is the one that plays in my head when I’m late taking my medication. It is as if the left side of my brain is playing an A while the right is playing an A Flat. The twenty minutes it takes for the medication to kick in fully is the twenty minutes it takes for that A flat to become an F. Hell, even a G is an improvement. While this is happening I just stand there like John Malkovich screaming “IT’S MY HEAD!”

But as soon as the meds kick in, I’m fine. It happens just as quickly as a pianist letting go of the keys.

 

Theme and Variations

As I told Dana this morning, “it’s her birthday. I’m trying to keep my chin up, but if I’m having a moment, just let me go.” There will be a celebratory whiskey shot after dinner, because as Dana reminded me, there are always going to be good things that I want to remember. I’ve written before about the first birthday she had after we met. I called THE BIGGEST radio station in town because they announced birthdays, and I sent her a rosebud at school with a card that said, “for all you do, this bud’s for you.” I was 13. When I turned 17, she got me back. She sent me flowers in the middle of English. It was bigger than my desk, and the card said, “Happy birthday from the moms.” It was the most thrilling moment of my school year, because first of all, I was thrilled that she remembered, and second of all, she was able to give me a present while being just as sneaky as me. 🙂

Holidays are the hardest with grief, especially if the person you’re grieving is still alive. There’s a want to reach out, the holidays soften your heart, and then you realize that until the conflict ends, you don’t have much to say anyway. It’s just too big to ignore. So you remember on your own, and laugh to yourself at all the good memories. It wasn’t all bad, or they wouldn’t come to mind, anyway.

And that’s just where I am today. Maybe next year will be easier.

It’s Not Just Chaos Theory

I have found that jazz is the thing that keeps me going all day long. Since there are rarely words, I can focus on what I’m doing a little better than if I was trying to understand what a musician was saying verbally. Additionally, I think that kind of higher-level mathematics running through my head makes a difference in how quickly I can think through a problem.

If you are not familiar with the way jazz works, then you won’t be familiar with just how much math it goes through in even one measure. There are eight notes in every scale, steps that have to be counted in order to know which notes fit into which key signature. There are half steps to create augmentation, suspension, and the diminishment of chords to support those 16 notes, which is known as a chromatic scale and the foundation of a solo.

Then, if that weren’t enough to keep track of, there are thousands of combinations as to how a measure can be divided, depending on time signature.

It’s mathematically the same for classical musicians~ the Mozart effect is real, and Claude Debussy is one of my favorite composers because he often uses jazz chords in a classical setting.

When I was a kid, I went to a performing and visual arts high school, and I took one year of music theory. Because I am pathetically terrible with math, it did not go well. However, I developed a healthy respect for the difference between musicians who guessed at the right key, and those who knew it. For instance, I was a guesser. People like Wynton Marsalis and Jason Moran are not… which is probably why they’re famous jazz musicians and I can’t remember where I parked at the mall.

If you never look into the heart of a jazz musician, you won’t have any idea what they’re saying to you. You’ll write it off as masturbatory noise, as if jazz is the process of a musician falling in love with the sound of his/her own horn. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Jazz speaks in ways that the human voice cannot.

One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate this is the way Terence Blanchard solos. I went to see him in concert a few weeks ago, and the first thing I thought when he finished his first four was that he’s a novelist. He just doesn’t write his stories in words.

Characters are created on the fly. Sometimes, they’re whiny and belligerant. Sometimes they just want to sing you to sleep. His horn shakes and rattles the imagination into believing that all of the sudden, the personalities his horn takes on are going to come out on stage, because the experience is so visceral, and just, well, real.

The other added bonus of listening to jazz is that the more you do it, the more you begin to feel the subdivisions and calculations. Maybe you’re not that mathematically quick, but at least your guesses become more educated as time goes on.

When I was about 14, I went to Houston’s Summer Jazz Workshop. Conrad Johnson (founder of Thunder Soul at Kashmere High) was teaching there, and he was an absolute joy. In fact, he gave my dad and me one of the great lines about jazz of all time. My dad complimented him on a solo, and he said…

“I saw which way they was goin’ and thought I’d go with ’em.”

Lemons

Yesterday at church, there were sacks and sacks of lemons that someone had brought because their tree produced so many lemons that they couldn’t eat that many in a lifetime. We snagged a bag, and then at work today, the same thing happened. Co-workers are bringing their lemons in droves. I knew that West Texas was famous for its citrus, but I had no idea that Houston had a talent for it. These lemons were as sweet as Meyer lemons from California, almost sweet enough to eat without needing sugar. Because I knew it would use a lot of lemons at once, I made whiskey sours for Dana and myself. They were the best whiskey sours in the history of the world. In case you’re wondering, I used Old Overholt rye.

However, you can only drink one whiskey sour with the juice of two and a half lemons. Since there were five lemons in all, I added a cup of Splenda… and even that didn’t stop our esophageal tracts from feeling like they were being ripped out… slowly. I took an acid reducer before I went to bed, and another one this morning.

Hell, yeah it was worth it! I am a good mixologist, but in this case, there was nothing that could go wrong. I used the freshest ingredients I could possibly find. The lemon juice and the pulp were so cool against my tongue and so sweet. It was the kind of bliss that can only be captured by William Carlos Williams:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I am sometimes quite prim, but if I wasn’t, I think I would have been squeezing lemon juice into my mouth, drips on my cheeks and chin be damned. I used my lemon as a reminder that the solstice is coming, and that we will once again be returning to the light. My lemon was a symbol of summer, of sunshine, of carefree play in the sprinklers and sand between my toes on Galveston Island.

I took it as a sign of change.

Grieving the loss of an important part of my past has been the darkness. My lemon reminded me that it won’t always be that way. What I have noticed is that the solstice doesn’t mean very much physically in Houston. Literally right now, it is sunny and 73 degrees. In Houston, the solstice is metaphorical. Advent is a time to turn inward, to think about what we’re going to do with all the hope that breaks into the world.

I have no idea what I am going to do with mine. Yet.

It’ll come to me… probably while I’m making whiskey sours.