Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tree of Life


Sunday morning, I read of Western science and Eastern spirituality agreeing that everything, every thing is interrelated, and dynamic, in ceaseless change, and that anything that seems unchanging is illusory.

Sitting on our deck, I look up from my book and experience this truth firsthand: leaves drop one by one from the tree in our backyard against the backdrop of a vibrant blue sky and an intensely green lawn on this crisply cool fall day that has followed the weekend rain. The azaleas are in lively red bloom as the dead brown leaves collect.

Last week I witnessed an old friend dying in a hospital bed. The next day around 3 a.m., I awoke in my own bed thinking of him, unconscious, mouth agape, yet breathing on his own, and I felt for him. And I also thought, this could be me or Wade or my sister or brother. Later I would learn he died within the hour I unknowingly sat vigil.

That had been a hard week, nation-wise. Probably world-wise too, if we Americans could look beyond our own troubles to see others’ suffering as well. It was a week that started with the federal government planning an attack on the rights of transgender and intersex people, continued with pipe bombs mailed to progressive leaders from a right wing fanatic, included another hate crime against blacks, the disenfranchisement of voters in advance of the midterm elections, troops being sent to intercept those on a pilgrimage for asylum, and a week that ended with a massacre of Jews worshiping in their Pittsburgh synagogue, Tree of Life.

As I read the news story of the Tree of Life, I could not stop crying. It may have been grief accumulated over that week, but I think also it is the grief that accumulates over generations of virulent anti-Semitism, unintelligible to me. Several of those who died there were survivors of the Holocaust.

My LGBT community and its allies have often gladly utilized the work of the late Yale medieval historian John Boswell, documenting the treatment of Queer people in Europe and the church through the Middle Ages. But many miss the overall theme of his short life’s work, which was the treatment of minorities at the hands of majority cultures. Maybe his work was inspired by horrific scenes he witnessed as a youth as an “army brat,” like the heads of a hated group stuck on spikes along a road in the Middle East. Undoubtedly it was also inspired by his own experience as a gay man.

On one of his several trips to give the Lazarus lectures in Los Angeles that I organized, we arranged a lecture at UCLA that I took him to. He began the talk by announcing he would be describing the treatment of a minority in medieval Europe. He wanted the audience to discern if he was talking about the mistreatment and prejudices of Jews or of gay people. His ironic conclusion was that his description covered both groups!

When asked about gay rights in another context, he said it would be better if the LGBT community fought for rights across the board rather than for just ourselves, because it was too easy for a dominant culture to pick off one group at a time, as is happening now in the U.S. with transgender and intersex people, as well as current immigrants.

Boswell’s most memorable story came during that same series in a lecture entitled, “Why Bicycle Riders?” Just before WW II, A British gentleman and a German Nazi were forced to share a room. The German went on and on about all the troubles the Jews were causing. As he listed each false “truth,” the British gentlemen egged him on as if he were agreeing with him. Finally, at the end of the German’s diatribe, the Britisher adamantly agreed, “Yes, all the troubles of the world are caused by Jews and bicycle riders!”

The German looked surprised and confused, and asked, “Why bicycle riders?” To which the British man simply said, “Why Jews?”

Yesterday I eulogized my friend, Thom Hayes, as “good, civil and kind.” I said that if all people were like him, the midterm elections wouldn’t be such a worry for us. I said that if our national leaders were like him, they would talk out their differences over coffee or drinks. I said that if world leaders were like him, they would go to lunch rather than to war.

Thom was unassuming, I said, but he did assume everyone just needs somebody to see them as a person with their own story and a desire for human connection. A mutual friend had told the story of him and Thom getting stuck somewhere, and decided to enter a biker bar, in which the gaily dapper Thom proceeded to meet everyone in the place before they left.

Everything is interrelated, and dynamic, in ceaseless change, and anything that seems unchanging is illusory. Those of us who are “good, civil and kind” must lean in to change history’s trajectory. God’s kingdom come!


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