“I want you to know how much I cared”: being open, not being strong

Dry brown vines and fresh green and rust-colored vines twine around each other, creating a complex self-supporting structure.

As so often happens when I’m moved to write something, today’s post comes from multiple sources that, while not intrinsically connected, end up jostling against each other in my daily life. Usually I end up working to hide the seams, as it were, to make the writing feel like an uninterrupted whole, but today I’m showing my work. (Sorry for mixing those metaphors.) Today, meditations on openness and honesty, courtesy of my non-druid friends, Jens Lekman, homosexuality, and my husband.

Non-druid friends

Most of my friends aren’t druids. This isn’t a unique situation; in fact, I’m certain it’s the norm for people in a minority religion largely composed of converts. But thanks to this blog, to prayers I post publicly on Facebook, and to my general oversharing, my non-druid friends interact actively with my religious life, often in ways that surprise me. When I write a prayer to the Matronae, for example, I don’t expect it to be deeply meaningful even to other polytheists who don’t have a relationship with them, much less to my monotheist or atheist friends. And yet they leave kind, appreciative comments, etc. Or, like my friend Mira, they stop by my office for a technical question, and before leaving ask,”why haven’t you posted as many of your meditations lately? I miss them.” I realize this sounds like a humblebrag, but that honestly isn’t my intent: I truly am surprised and humbled by others’ reactions. I hesitate to say this, because it sounds so clichédly #blessed, but it feels like a gift of the gods to be able to do the work and know that it means something to others. That public showing is important to me both personally and politically, and the loop of reciprocal appreciation greatly buoys my commitment to it.

My husband

Recently my husband’s family experienced a loss: one of his cousins passed away tragically. As I sit here revising this post, we’re in Omaha for a memorial service, but we got the news a couple weeks ago. It was rather a shock; I’ve never heard such plangent grief in Jarod’s voice.

When there is death, I often pray to Manannán that he take care of the departed soul, ferrying them across the ninth wave, or wherever they need to travel in order to arrive at the place of their god(s) and their people. This takes many forms; sometimes I sing, sometimes I take a trance journey, sometimes I stand at my altar and make offerings. But it’s always private, internal. On the evening of the news, however, as I was headed into the dining room to pray, I paused: Brooke was Jarod’s cousin, so shouldn’t I at least offer to include him?

He thought for a moment, and then said that, yes, he’d like to be included. And so I lit a candle and prayed to Brigid for a healing, inspirational fire, and then turned my attention to Manannán. I prayed, I sang, I gave offerings of rosemary and salt. But it was difficult. Throughout everything was a nagging doubt: did I look like a loon? Jarod’s always been very respectful of my beliefs, but he doesn’t share them at all. And so I kept experiencing a double consciousness, trying to stay focused on the moment and the prayers, but also wondering how Jarod was experiencing this small ritual. Was he getting something out of it? And, more selfishly, what was he thinking about me?

It was a sobering moment: we’ve talked about having kids of our own, and if we should, I would want to raise them to honor the gods and the spirits. And even if we should never have kids of our own, I want to be open and clear about my beliefs and practices to our godchildren (and their parents agree on that, even though they’re not pagan — they want their children exposed to a variety of religious traditions). I’m a competent public ritualist and bard, but I realized that I don’t know how to handle these more intimate situations. It’s very important to me to welcome people in, but I have a lot of practicing to do, and confidence to learn.

Jens Lekman and homosexuality

A day or two later, as I was walking to work, I listened to Bob Boilen interviewing singer-songwriter Jens Lekman on All Songs Considered. I’ve always liked Jens Lekman — he has an introspective, plainspoken style that’s terribly inviting to me, and an excellent sense of musicality that’s sometimes contrary to expectation — so I was excited to listen to the interview. In it, Boilen asks Lekman about his open style, how he lays bares emotions that are often held close to the vest, and Lekman acknowledged the sometimes difficulty of his task: men in our society, he said, are not supposed to show those emotions so baldly.

And that got me to thinking about the great gift of my gay community. I don’t mean to paint this monolithically; if you know one gay man you know one gay man. But the men I sing with in the Chorus welcome and encourage emotional honesty. We are open in our joy and in our grief, and we support each other: one of our members died unexpectedly just after the new year, and more than 40 of us showed up on a weekday morning to sing through tears at his funeral. So often our culture views marginal status as a weight to be borne, but in this case I view my homosexuality as an absolute gift. Already outside society’s norm, it’s so much easier (though still, to be clear, a struggle at times) to shed the masculine expectation of stoic endurance, and instead to grieve openly and love outrageously. I’m indebted to the gay men I share the stage with for their love and support, and the ways they’ve taught me to be myself.

Tying it together

The Lekman interview featured the second single off his then-yet-unreleased new album, Life Will See You Now, “Evening Prayer.” In it, the speaker has a beer with a friend of his, who’s had a tumor removed. The chorus expresses a sentiment that I feel often; as the last chorus puts it,

It’s been a long, hard year
I just wasn’t sure if we were close enough
But I want you to know how much I cared
That you were in my evening prayer

In the last year, starting with the shooting at the Pulse nightclub and then continuing with deaths among friends and family, and with increasing political uncertainty about the future and safety of friends and family, I’ve heard this concern more and more from all corners of my social circle: how are we to express concern and love, over and beyond the various barriers of propriety and authority that we set up to separate us from each other and protect us from each others’ emotions? And I’ve noticed those barriers breaking down. Colleague, friend, student, professor, whatever: people more baldly expressing their pain and uncertainty, but also their concern and love. It seems good, seems like an evolution of honest emotion.

In “Evening Prayer,” Lekman’s narrator’s friend says, “It’s helped me a lot to have a friend like you: when I saw you worry, I knew I had to be strong.” While I very much understand and, often, live that truth, I’d also invert the formulation: having friends and family who express their real love and concern gives me permission to not be strong. I usually play the role of strong supporter, but all these disparate moments — the interest of my nondruid friends in my faith, my difficulty in showing my practice to my husband, the unfettered support of my Chorus brothers — remind me to recommit myself to not being strong: to be uncertain, weak, sorrowful, and to know that others will buoy me up, as I hold them up in my turn.

Header image: “Intertwined,” by Scott Sherrill-Mix/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.


2 thoughts on ““I want you to know how much I cared”: being open, not being strong

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