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Letter to a new Generation of Gate Keepers

I’m writing this letter to you in the fervent hope that you will come to believe something. If you don’t believe it now because it seems too crazy or impractical, I ask that you put the idea aside gently, making room for the possibility of believing it at some time in the future. This idea is the single most important thing that I can give you. When you do believe it, you will see with new eyes and new heart as the world offers unexpected possibilities to you—possibilities invisible to most.

You have been given a great and sacred gift—you are gay. Some peoples called us “Two-Spirited,” and held an honorable place for us in daily life. You might be surprised how many cultures viewed men like us with respect. That, as you well know, has not been the historical experience in mainstream North American culture.

I want you to believe that your being gay is not a meaningless fluke. You are gay for a reason—the Universe has entrusted you with stewardship of a certain kind of spiritual consciousness and power that no heterosexual man can ever carry. It is entrusted only to people like us.

I’m not saying this to make you feel grandiose. I’m saying this because you have important work to do. This work is found on a spiritual path that is open only to men like us, and traveled by comparatively few of those to whom the path is open at all.

When I say a spiritual path, I want to make sure you understand the distinction I draw between religion and spirituality. Religion is a formal system of doctrine, behaviors, and belief that offers to codify our relationship to universal spirit. I see spirituality as the evolving, unstructured, and direct individual experience of universal spirit. For some, the highly defined paths of religion provide an adequate spiritual experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But for others—and I think you are one of them—the inner guidance of the soul leads away from and beyond the comfortable certainty of those conventional structures. That begins a much more demanding journey, but its rewards are unspeakably beautiful and full of creative power.

The spiritual path for many of my generation focused on awakening—realizing that in spite of being taught that homosexuals were broken, disgusting, or pathetic, we were spiritually and morally right to be ourselves. We lucky ones then learned to live openly, insisting that we be given the same societal and legal rights that heterosexuals enjoyed. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this spiritual awakening among us was resisted and condemned most vehemently by followers of religions who did not see our openness as a spiritual awakening at all, but the work of their devil. Although many of those religious folk might not agree, that battle is over. Spiritual awakening won.

Now a bigger job lies ahead precisely because that awakening occurred, and I think the job belongs mostly to you and your generation. What is homosexuality for, in spiritual terms? What does it mean to be a spiritually alive gay man bringing his unique gift into the world?

A beginning point in understanding the sacred gift of homosexuality is self-evident: you are different from the majority of human beings. Regardless of what ethnic or cultural minority a gay man might belong to, he is still a minority within that. I believe we are supposed to be a minority.

The core of our gift is the energy of the other—so similar, yet mysteriously different. Being different doesn’t mean better than others, but it certainly doesn’t mean less than, either. In our generation, some sought to establish an in-your-face defiance to honor our difference. Others wanted to get married and raise children in the suburbs, complete with dogs and a station wagon. While I don’t think either of those interpretations of our spiritual awakening is wrong, I also don’t think they are adequate models to guide your generation in expressing the beauty and power homosexuals can bring to society.

Bear in mind that our generation had very few who modeled for us what being openly, authentically, and triumphantly gay would look like. While we had many wonderful inspirational elders like Leonardo da Vinci and Walt Whitman to look to, we had almost no social mentors. We had to be our own cultural midwives. Defiance and assimilation were two of our most important experiments.

Some will suggest that you really are just like a heterosexual except for the incidental fact that you love your own gender. I disagree. I tell you that the reverse is wonderfully, shockingly true: you happen to love men because you are wired up radically differently from heterosexuals. I don’t think gay men should be concerned about assimilation or being defiantly different any more. There is no more need to be either artificially different or artificially similar to heterosexuals. Finding out what it means to be naturally, authentically both similar and different will lead you to spiritual power.

When I was coming out, I was fascinated to read that the Dagara people in West Africa call homosexual men Gate Keepers. In their way of seeing, Gate Keepers are responsible for maintaining the living connection between the earth and the spirit world. If this living connection between the invisible and the earth is lost, the earth will die. What an interesting vision—that the very survival of the earth depends on homosexuals!

What if this spiritual role of Gate Keeper were true not just metaphorically but literally? What if the job of every gay man was to keep certain energies alive in the earth, without which the earth would perish? I am absolutely convinced it is so.

How can you find out what—if any—of this is true for you? When I finally accepted that I was gay, I was a minister in my mid-forties, married, with a family. Since then my journey as a gay man—including divorcing, declaring bankruptcy, changing careers, getting sober, building a new life, surviving a pulmonary embolism, needing surgeries for cancer, and marrying a wonderful man—has required one thing of me: to listen to what originates from the other side of the particular Gate I keep. Any advice that I have for you is based on what I’ve learned by that listening.

Listening is a challenging and inexact discipline. It took courage for me to listen. What I heard through my Gate was so different from what I heard around me, often different even from my own internal voices. Learning to listen like this takes practice. As you practice, you will discover astonishing things about yourself and the world you live in. I suggest you try doing something gentle to raise your receptivity while you are listening. Meditation, writing, and music have been important for me. Tai chi, gardening, or working with animals could be just as effective, I think.

To listen well, I think you must cultivate a sense of wonder. The clever, bitchy ennui that has been fashionable among men like us serves no purpose in Gate Keeping that I can see. At the risk of seeming naïve, celebrate your happiness in small things—it’s great exercise for the spiritual ear. Being delighted to see things anew and to be amazed by the familiar will improve your ability to listen. Be open to noticing little surprises at the periphery of your perception and imagination. Not every such surprise will be a message from the spirit world seeking your attention, but some might be the envelope, so to speak, containing a message.

Practice kindness and friendship, hallmarks of spiritual strength. I can’t emphasize this enough, so I won’t try. Gate Keeping is a discipline of the heart, and through the heart you will find your tribe of like-hearted souls—straight and queer, all together.

This work will change you and, through you, the world around you. Whether those changes seem small or big to you, they will be profound. There’s much more to Gate Keeping than I’ve put in this letter, but I expect this is plenty for now. Think of Gate Keeping as a performance work-in-progress rather than a static, well-defined job. Given the chance to exercise, your spiritual gifts will grow and evolve with age. Learning to share those gifts with the rest of the world is a lifelong project from which there is no retirement. We lucky ones, we grow old and get more time to practice, more time to feel the fulfillment of being a Gate Keeper. May you be lucky, too.

You have a wonder-full path of pioneering ahead of you. You are a young man of remarkable quality and gifts. If there is anything I can do to assist you, to encourage you, to support your growth, I’d consider it an honor to help as I can. After all, my fulfillment as a Gate Keeper requires that I assist your generation in carrying our spiritual gift in ways that mine could not. But you will have to ask me for my input—otherwise I may offer more advice than you want!

I am certain that you and your fellow Gate Keepers will become more adept than we in my generation have been. Then you will help the generation after you in the same way. Only through this continuity will we ensure that the particular Gates between the visible and invisible for which gay men are responsible are sustained, that they flourish. I don’t know how you will do your part, but I am certain you will keep your Gate beautifully. Blessings in profusion to you on your journey.

© 2009 Lloyd A. Meeker, all rights reserved

 

While all of us love a good romance, I’ve come to the conclusion that we read them for different reasons. One reason is no better than another, but I’m going to suggest that it’s important for an author to be aware of what basic reason they seek to serve when setting out to write a romance. Through that authorial choice, we extend an invitation to a reader as to how we expect them to enter our story.

I’m not claiming to be encyclopedic about this, (so let’s assume my list is incomplete) but I’ve identified three primary emotional invitations to a romance reader—that is, three distinctly different reasons why a reader might want to read a romance starring two men. I’ll be brief about the first two, because I want to spend more time on the third.

  1. Reader as Stand-in. 

The first is the most obvious—the traditional romance invitation, inherited unchanged from straight romance. This psychological structure invites the reader to enter the story through one of the main characters, and presumes that the other half of the romantic bond or pairing is considered legitimate relationship material, at least in fantasy: the powerful billionaire, the good-hearted veterinarian, the construction contractor, the youth pastor volunteering at the homeless shelter for queer youth, the geeky computer expert, the coffee shop owner, and so on. There’s a long list.

If one of the main characters doesn’t represent a satisfactory fantasy partner for the reader, the reader can’t relate to the other main character as an acceptable placeholder. The emotional premise of this kind of love story won’t work for a reader on that wavelength. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this invitation is for a reader of the same gender identity and sexual orientation as the characters. How else could a reader identify as a stand-in for one of the characters?

For sake of full disclosure, this is the emotional approach I’m most inclined to take when reading a romance featuring two men. I’ve frequently finished one of our romances dissatisfied, and that’s what forced me to examine what other emotional invitations might exist for a reader. After all, our genre is full of wildly successful love stories that don’t use this basic premise.

  • Reader as Empathetic Cheerleader. 

The second premise presents a romance between two men without that explicit invitation to enter into this story through one of the main characters, or share their gender identity or orientation. Rather it presents the couple as legitimate relationship choices — for each other. We cheer for them and their happiness, but would never marry one. That presumption is unnecessary with this invitation. The reader then enjoys the story through watching the unfolding relationship. Alpha shifters, strippers and sex workers (depending on how they’re characterized), Navy Seal assassins, spies, and so on. Again, there’s a long list. 

I began to understand this dynamic better through a conversation with Poppy Dennison. She told me that she’d given up on het romance because she didn’t find much to identify with in the heroines she found there. As a result she was drawn to romance between two men, where she could appreciate both the unfolding relationship and the sexual heat without any of the expectations that go with being an emotional stand-in for one of the characters.

  • Reader as Healer/Caretaker. 

This third structure is significantly different from the first two, psychologically speaking. It invites the reader to engage emotionally with the characters without requiring a reader to think that one of the main characters as relationship material at all when the story begins, even though we know they will eventually find love. Instead, we want to rescue or heal them. The characters are, in a sense, entrusted to the healing care of the reader. 

This territory includes, amongst others, hurt/comfort tropes, starting with utterly safe, predictable wounds (he’s been cheated on and he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to trust/love again – gasp! Clutches pearls…), and culminating in “the impossibly broken hero” who is so emotionally or psychologically damaged he’s incapable of being a love partner – when the story starts.

I believe this dynamic invites a reader to a completely different emotional experience, centered in the heartfelt conviction that everyone – even the most catastrophically damaged – deserves healing through love and a happy ending. 

In this case, I suggest the Relationship, with a capital R, so profoundly central to the concept of romance, takes a secondary role to the healing of one of the characters. Sure, the healing almost certainly takes place because of love, but I argue (and you’re free to vehemently disagree with me) this kind of story is about healing first, and love second.

I am suggesting that for this kind of story, the reader’s point of entry is not the legitimacy of the characters as relationship material, but the woundedness of one of the main characters. This story invites the reader to connect empathetically with one or both of the characters as a rescue or rehabilitation project. The reader helps nurse a good but wounded creature back to health and happiness, and that’s the real emotional payoff of this kind of story. The resulting relationship simply becomes the proof of the healing.

After thinking about this for a long time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this dynamic draws on a different kind of love in us – specifically, the maternal instincts present in women and gay men. Many of us, I believe, are hardwired to be nurturers, helpers, and healers. Indeed, if we’re not careful we can easily become chronic rescuers – which is not always healthy for us, or anyone around us. 

For better or worse, we nurturer-helper-healers are suckers for things that make us go AWWwww: skinned knees, wanting to save the baby bird that has tried to fly too soon, the hopeless hero who struggles to cope, broken by personal tragedy, or broken on the rack of heartless society in general.

So our maternal instinct allows us to feel love on a very different basis from the traditional premise of a romance. This psychological difference is significant and I think it’s valuable to explore some of the strengths and pitfalls of this approach. 

The most obvious strength of this approach is the emotional power it can pack for us caretaker/healer/maternal types. A deeply wounded, compassionately written character can set even a routine romance plot on fire. But here’s a serious caveat: if the tragic woundedness is used just for the emotional hook, I say that’s cheating the reader. Healing is far too significant and complex a human experience to be used just as a form of emotional kindling to make a story catch fire. For me, the healing has to have a real and believable arc.

The most obvious risk for these stories is crossing a line between writing a romance about wounded character(s) and losing credible claim to being a romance. A wounded character is one thing, being truly broken is another. If the character can’t logically sustain a romance relationship for a believable HEA, then it ceases to be a romance. Maybe the story turns out to be a terrific psychological thriller, or a mystery, or general fiction instead. But if such a story is presented as a romance, romance readers will subjectively feel the difference and be disappointed.

The first red flag for me in this kind of story is whether the story focuses more on the woundedness rather than on the healing. Take it from me, pages and pages of “battling his demons” is not the same as healing. Suffering does not necessarily equate to internal conflict. Conflict produces a change, no matter how small. Sure, there has to be some orchestrated set-up to show how wounded the character is, so there can be an arc. But his healing has to be a real arc, not a hundred and eighty pages of depressed, agony-laced self-loathing and twenty pages of miraculous, magical transformation into a viable relationship partner. In this kind of story, I suggest the hero’s decision (and real efforts) to heal must begin in act one — long, long before the “all is lost” moment.

In the real world we know that love alone is not always enough to save someone from themselves. They have to want to be saved, and have to accept help. In romance novels, the same is still true, even if some of the lines can be softened. Is there room for some compassionate tough love in a romance featuring a broken hero? I think so. It can help keep the story on track, instead of bogging down in a toxic quagmire of pity and angst.

My biggest beef with these stories is that too often the broken hero is passive – even resistant (perfectly understandable at first, increasingly loathsome as the story progresses) – toward his healing. Does he want to be able to sustain a HEA with someone, or is he just going to wallow defiantly in being unworthy damaged goods until someone else magically fixes him? That is, is it rational to expect even a dedicated romance hero to stick around for someone who won’t try?

So authors – show your wounded character as proactive in wanting to heal. Does he seek help? Does he try to grow and change over and over? Does he fight for his relationship? A passive hero is a limp hero, and there’s a big difference between being wounded and being limp. In romance stories a limp hero is unworthy of love.

Another question for authors to think about is how the healing comes. Psychological help is often given the briefest lip service if mentioned at all, but there’s a reason those folks are called therapists. Good ones help a client find a way to heal. If the hero is impossibly broken, love alone is not enough. He needs professional help. Can a deeply wounded protagonist ever earn an HEA? Absolutely. But it takes more effort than many MCs seem able to summon in order to get there. 

There’s no shortcut around that healing, and an author writing an impossibly broken romance hero needs to understand that. So authors, I beg you not to hike out into “impossibly broken” unless you’re willing to work as hard and as realistically for his healing as your hero must.

(This article first appeared May 2017 in my column “Through My Lens” for Genre Talk at http://www.thenovelapproachreviews.com.)

Okay—you have a brand-new book by a new-to-you author, and you’ve been itching to dive into it. Finally you have enough peace and quiet to start. The strong writing draws you into the story world right away. As we expected to, we learn that Brad, the hero, is a good guy. We like him. We’ve learned his dog shelter is in deep financial trouble, and we’ve seen his devoted kindness to the rescue dogs. He hasn’t taken a salary for three months in order to pay his assistant. He’s got unpaid bills, and the mortgage payment is due in two weeks.

Besides that, though, Really Bad Things have happened to Brad. He’s sleeping on the shelter’s reception area couch, because a week ago he came home unexpectedly to find his partner in bed with their hunky neighbor, whereupon the partner announced that he’s moving in with hunky neighbor. Brad can’t afford their apartment on his own, nor can he afford first month’s rent and the deposit on a new one.

But thirty-five pages in, even though we’re rooting for him, a problem quietly pushes itself into the story. Yes, Brad is suffering. He’s in a tough spot. But he’s utterly passive. What is he DOING to fight his way out of this situation? Maybe there’s a throwaway line in his internal dialogue, that he would talk to the bank manager again about restructuring his loans, but we know the banker will again say no because his situation hasn’t changed. Although the stakes are high (he might lose his shelter and end up on the street himself) and his angst is intense, he is psychologically and physically passive. For a protagonist, this is a big problem, and as I see it, is often overlooked in our stories. Suffering is not enough. A protagonist must act. That’s his job, if it’s his story.

There’s a pervasive concept that in order for a reader to empathize with a hero, the hero has to suffer. “Don’t hold back! Pile it on! Torture your protagonist!” the how-to handbook exclaims.

Yes, a protagonist has to have problems. But I’m going to suggest that the problems a hero faces must serve a bigger purpose than just making him miserable. That’s a minor part of the equation. The larger part of the equation is this: Those problems are his opportunity to show what he’s made of, and how resourceful, how determined he is in pursuing his goals.

It seems to me that all too often the second part of this equation is neglected in favor of noble helplessness. As a result, we end up with a lot of limp, suffering heroes populating our stories. That’s the equivalent of the “damsel in distress” trope of het romance, a trope now generally rejected as misogynist. It’s just as hateful to men. Is our hero Brad so overwhelmed with his despair about the shelter that he’s paralyzed and has to be rescued? Damsel in distress.

So here’s my argument. By page thirty-five I should know what Brad is doing to solve his immediate problem. I don’t have to know all his back story, or that he wants abuse of dogs to end forever. But I do need something grounded, to know what our resourceful Brad is going to do TODAY, in the circumstance just as it is, about his situation. What does he want, and what is he going to do to achieve it? What’s his plan? What’s his first step? When he takes that step, he’s a protagonist again, and driving his story.

What the hero wants in the first few pages is rarely what he’ll want all the way through the story. And what he wants may well vary with the story’s genre. But the more a hero simply reacts to events initiated by others, rather than initiating them himself, the less of a protagonist he is. A passive hero simply is merely the subject of the story, playing a minimal role in shaping the plot. A passive hero has no chance to reveal his character, simply because he doesn’t act. Feelings alone don’t reveal character. I love internal struggle, but it must lead to action or internal struggle simply becomes an emotional hamster wheel. Actions reveal both feelings and character. 

How often have we authors been exhorted to show, not tell? It applies here. Describing the internal state of the hero is not enough to reveal character. The hero must act, and his actions will reveal his character. Actions speak louder than words.

Some might argue this idea just applies to “action” stories, but I don’t think that’s true. Not every action has to show the hero reclaiming Dragon’s Eye, the mighty sword of kings, from the corrupt priesthood of Xanthrax to take his rightful seat on the throne of his murdered father. It could just as easily show the hero setting all the clocks in his apartment to the same time, a declaration of his commitment to reality. Action can be of any scope, appropriate to the story’s context. 

Last year I wrote a short solstice story from the point of view of a little boy who wanted to find a new husband for his dad. An eight-year-old boy is not able to act in the same way an adult can. So with the help of his aunt he builds a solstice altar to attract a partner for his dad. He works at it every day. Regardless of who the hero is, his actions reveal his reality, which is also his character.

Over and over in a full-length novel, the hero’s goals lead to his actions, which create repercussions he then must face. He grows by facing them, by clarifying his goals, and by acting to achieve new ones. No matter how much he suffers, if he simply navigates his way through the actions of others, he’s not really the protagonist. He is an observer. A protagonist takes initiative and thereby changes the unfolding story.

I mentioned psychological passivity earlier, and rather than make this article way too long, I offer two examples.

The first example is peripheral: the set-up phrase, “He was tired of meaningless hookups.” This is usually authorial convenience, a shorthand set-up to show that the protagonist is maturing, and now is ready for a “Real Relationship.” But on examination this moral judgment is an insult to the protagonist’s character. It casts him as needy and psychologically weak: If his hookups are meaningless, what is so wrong with the protagonist that he has repeatedly failed to BRING any meaning to his hookups? Is he that lazy? That selfish in sex? Does he expect his hookup partner to deliver all the meaning he craves?

How pathetic is that? Most of us have learned the hard way that depending on others as a source of meaning is a false premise. The open door to greater meaning is the meaning we ourselves bring to what we do. To know love, first we ourselves must love.

The second psychological example is more central—the protagonist is allowed to hang out in desire or intention instead of taking action. Brad wants desperately to save his dog shelter. He sincerely intends to find a solution. But what does he actually do? Talk to his banker again without creating a new business plan to show her? Hardly enough to qualify as a protagonist. Does Brad take a second, or even a third job? Does he sell the cherished antique tea cart that belonged to his grandmother, the only person in his estranged family that ever really understood him? Does he become a sex worker on the side? Does he rob the bank? How badly does Brad want to save his shelter? What he does to solve his problem reveals his character. If he does nothing but fret, he is a limp hero, and I lose respect for him.

Too often the Brads in our stories are conveniently rescued by another character—perhaps by the handsome, high-powered attorney (with money) who comes to the shelter to find a puppy for his niece. The meet-cute is charming, the romance is lovely, Brad even refuses the attorney’s financial help at first because he’s too proud to say yes. (Which is a pretty negative message about Brad’s character, that he’d let his pride condemn his beloved shelter dogs to death.) But ultimately, Brad is rescued, and becomes the gay male equivalent to the now (happily) out-of-fashion damsel in distress.

This isn’t an issue of plot or genre. It’s an issue of agency. The job of a protagonist is to act. His actions must drive the story, or the story ceases to be his.

(This article first appeared November 2017 in my column “Through My Lens” for Genre Talk at http://www.thenovelapproachreviews.com.)

“US Exceeds all Expectations in Rio” crows a headline here in the US today. Um, maybe not so much.

This is my second Summer Olympics to offer a different way of looking at Olympic glory.

This post is not a commentary or criticism of the training, dedication, sweat, pain, and success of the  individual athletes themselves. Every bit of praise to them, each one, even if their post-competition behavior was reprehensible. Each one earned her/his right to compete in the Olympics through bone-deep commitment, and earned whatever victories they achieved. Good for them!

Instead, this post seeks to serve as antidote to the bombardment of chauvinistic posturing that overlaid the TV coverage. This country seemed to crow about their athletes’ medals as if the country somehow could claim the glory of its athletes. I don’t mind a little ego attachment: the Icelandic soccer team in the Euros created a phenomenon that is very rare, and beautiful. But the jingoistic posturing of the US press was embarrassing to me, and I suspect many other countries had their own tiresome version of it.

Folks, it’s not about how many medals a country “won”. No country won any medals at all. Individual human beings won those medals. No country sweated for them. No country ran a step, or performed on the rings. No country broke a bone. The Olympic oath is to “the glory of sport” and not to the aggrandizement of national ego.

So here’s a different way of looking at the medal count, one I feel is more true to the spirit of the Olympics: medals by population. I took the medals won and divided by a multiple of 100,000 in the country. The results are eye-opening! Forget about the massive training programs and the most expensive coaches and the best technology available.

The winner of the Olympic medal race, just as in 2012, turns out to be — drum roll — Grenada. One medal, won by an athlete from a nation of 107,000 people. USA won 121 medals, which with a population of 324.1 million puts its medal accomplishment at 43rd in the world, not first. Interesting. To achieve the equivalent Grenada’s one-medal-in-100k people, the US would have had to come away with 324 medals. Not even close.

What big-power, big population, big investment country would openly admit that the top ten Olympic countries are all quite small in population? It says something extra about the dedication of their athletes, I think. Additional praise to them for their grit and excellence.

Below is my full spreadsheet. I think the top countries on this list deserve national praise, if any is to be doled out.

2016 Olympic Medal Rank by Population

Letter to a new Generation of Gate Keepers

I’m writing this letter to you in the fervent hope that you will come to believe something. If you don’t believe it now because it seems too crazy or impractical, I ask that you put the idea aside gently, making room for the possibility of believing it at some time in the future. This idea is the single most important thing that I can give you. When you do believe it, you will see with new eyes and new heart as the world offers unexpected possibilities to you—possibilities invisible to most.

You have been given a great and sacred gift—you are gay. Some peoples called us “Two-Spirited,” and held an honorable place for us in daily life. You might be surprised how many cultures viewed men like us with respect. That, as you well know, has not been the historical experience in mainstream North American culture.

I want you to believe that your being gay is not a meaningless fluke. You are gay for a reason—the Universe has entrusted you with stewardship of a certain kind of spiritual consciousness and power that no heterosexual man can ever carry. It is entrusted only to people like us.

I’m not saying this to make you feel grandiose. I’m saying this because you have important work to do. This work is found on a spiritual path that is open only to men like us, and traveled by comparatively few of those to whom the path is open at all.

When I say a spiritual path, I want to make sure you understand the distinction I draw between religion and spirituality. Religion is a formal system of doctrine, behaviors, and belief that offers to codify our relationship to universal spirit. I see spirituality as the evolving, unstructured, and direct individual experience of universal spirit. For some, the highly defined paths of religion provide an adequate spiritual experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But for others—and I think you are one of them—the inner guidance of the soul leads away from and beyond the comfortable certainty of those conventional structures. That begins a much more demanding journey, but its rewards are unspeakably beautiful and full of creative power.

The spiritual path for many of my generation focused on awakening—realizing that in spite of being taught that homosexuals were broken, disgusting, or pathetic, we were spiritually and morally right to be ourselves. We lucky ones then learned to live openly, insisting that we be given the same societal and legal rights that heterosexuals enjoyed. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this spiritual awakening among us was resisted and condemned most vehemently by followers of religions who did not see our openness as a spiritual awakening at all, but the work of their devil. Although many of those religious folk might not agree, that battle is over. Spiritual awakening won.

Now a bigger job lies ahead precisely because that awakening occurred, and I think the job belongs mostly to you and your generation. What is homosexuality for, in spiritual terms? What does it mean to be a spiritually alive gay man bringing his unique gift into the world?

A beginning point in understanding the sacred gift of homosexuality is self-evident: you are different from the majority of human beings. Regardless of what ethnic or cultural minority a gay man might belong to, he is still a minority within that. I believe we are supposed to be a minority.

The core of our gift is the energy of the other—so similar, yet mysteriously different. Being different doesn’t mean better than others, but it certainly doesn’t mean less than, either. In our generation, some sought to establish an in-your-face defiance to honor our difference. Others wanted to get married and raise children in the suburbs, complete with dogs and a station wagon. While I don’t think either of those interpretations of our spiritual awakening is wrong, I also don’t think they are adequate models to guide your generation in expressing the beauty and power homosexuals can bring to society.

Bear in mind that our generation had very few who modeled for us what being openly, authentically, and triumphantly gay would look like. While we had many wonderful inspirational elders like Leonardo da Vinci and Walt Whitman to look to, we had almost no social mentors. We had to be our own cultural midwives. Defiance and assimilation were two of our most important experiments.

Some will suggest that you really are just like a heterosexual except for the incidental fact that you love your own gender. I disagree. I tell you that the reverse is wonderfully, shockingly true: you happen to love men because you are wired up radically differently from heterosexuals. I don’t think gay men should be concerned about assimilation or being defiantly different any more. There is no more need to be either artificially different or artificially similar to heterosexuals. Finding out what it means to be naturally, authentically both similar and different will lead you to spiritual power.

When I was coming out, I was fascinated to read that the Dagara people in West Africa call homosexual men Gate Keepers. In their way of seeing, Gate Keepers are responsible for maintaining the living connection between the earth and the spirit world. If this living connection between the invisible and the earth is lost, the earth will die. What an interesting vision—that the very survival of the earth depends on homosexuals!

What if this spiritual role of Gate Keeper were true not just metaphorically but literally? What if the job of every gay man was to keep certain energies alive in the earth, without which the earth would perish? I am absolutely convinced it is so.

How can you find out what—if any—of this is true for you? When I finally accepted that I was gay, I was a minister in my mid-forties, married, with a family. Since then my journey as a gay man—including divorcing, declaring bankruptcy, changing careers, getting sober, building a new life, surviving a pulmonary embolism, needing surgeries for cancer, and marrying a wonderful man—has required one thing of me: to listen to what originates from the other side of the particular Gate I keep. Any advice that I have for you is based on what I’ve learned by that listening.

Listening is a challenging and inexact discipline. It took courage for me to listen. What I heard through my Gate was so different from what I heard around me, often different even from my own internal voices. Learning to listen like this takes practice. As you practice, you will discover astonishing things about yourself and the world you live in. I suggest you try doing something gentle to raise your receptivity while you are listening. Meditation, writing, and music have been important for me. Tai chi, gardening, or working with animals could be just as effective, I think.

To listen well, I think you must cultivate a sense of wonder. The clever, bitchy ennui that has been fashionable among men like us serves no purpose in Gate Keeping that I can see. At the risk of seeming naïve, celebrate your happiness in small things—it’s great exercise for the spiritual ear. Being delighted to see things anew and to be amazed by the familiar will improve your ability to listen. Be open to noticing little surprises at the periphery of your perception and imagination. Not every such surprise will be a message from the spirit world seeking your attention, but some might be the envelope, so to speak, containing a message.

Practice kindness and friendship, hallmarks of spiritual strength. I can’t emphasize this enough, so I won’t try. Gate Keeping is a discipline of the heart, and through the heart you will find your tribe of like-hearted souls—straight and queer, all together.

This work will change you and, through you, the world around you. Whether those changes seem small or big to you, they will be profound. There’s much more to Gate Keeping than I’ve put in this letter, but I expect this is plenty for now. Think of Gate Keeping as a performance work-in-progress rather than a static, well-defined job. Given the chance to exercise, your spiritual gifts will grow and evolve with age. Learning to share those gifts with the rest of the world is a lifelong project from which there is no retirement. We lucky ones, we grow old and get more time to practice, more time to feel the fulfillment of being a Gate Keeper. May you be lucky, too.

You have a wonder-full path of pioneering ahead of you. You are a young man of remarkable quality and gifts. If there is anything I can do to assist you, to encourage you, to support your growth, I’d consider it an honor to help as I can. After all, my fulfillment as a Gate Keeper requires that I assist your generation in carrying our spiritual gift in ways that mine could not. But you will have to ask me for my input—otherwise I may offer more advice than you want!

I am certain that you and your fellow Gate Keepers will become more adept than we in my generation have been. Then you will help the generation after you in the same way. Only through this continuity will we ensure that the particular Gates between the visible and invisible for which gay men are responsible are sustained, that they flourish. I don’t know how you will do your part, but I am certain you will keep your Gate beautifully. Blessings in profusion to you on your journey.

© 2009 Lloyd A. Meeker, all rights reserved

Fellow author Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post on his blog recently, about women writing M/M romance, which you can find —here—. It’s well worth reading and thinking about.

This is an issue that has arisen on discussion loops and author blogs for years, often in some combination of complaint, disrespect, snark and defiance. Recent posts on the topic are less strident, I’m grateful to see.

I really appreciate Jamie’s approach, since it offers real commentary, and avoids the outraged “Women don’t write us right!” or “I write werewolves, does that mean I have to be one to write authentically about them?” arguments, both of which which basically miss the point.

“Who the heck is this ‘us’?” this particular gay man asks. The diversity even just within the European / North American gay male demographic is too fabulously far-ranging to function with an individual spokesman. And with werewolves, an author can make up their behavior to suit any whim. It’s a more complex issue when writing about a gay man, since, you know, we actually exist.

Frankly, I’m relieved we’re getting beyond the “You can’t do it right!” vs. the “Yes I can!” arguments because they’re neither helpful nor relevant.

I don’t think anyone disputes that women can write great romance stories featuring gay male characters. They shouldn’t, anyway, since it’s so very obviously true. So what’s the real issue?

Is it that MM romance stories written by men might be a little different from those written by women? When I read one of our stories, sometimes the gender of the author is obvious to me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if you paid me a fortune. (And if you offered to pay me a fortune, believe me I’d try. I’m an author, after all, and need the cash.)

Just as there are significant differences between one author and another of the same gender or orientation, so also there are significant differences between female and male authors. Why is that a bad thing? I see that as something to celebrate. It means we each can bring something new to our stories if we take the time and effort to do it.

I accept that Fessenden is right in seeing current MM Romance as an extension of its origins in slashfic, but speaking personally, I want our genre to continue evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic. The baby is growing up, and the evolution I feel coming will require MM stories written by authors of every gender identity and sexual orientation.

I also agree with Fessenden’s observation that while MM romance might be about gay men, it doesn’t really belong to gay men. In fact, I’ll hike out farther on that limb — the genre doesn’t belong to either women or men, regardless of author or reader demographics. It belongs to whoever has compassion and respect for gay men and how we love.

Stating the obvious, women and men are different from each other — completely different emotional, psychic and psychological creatures. I personally believe those differences are stretched more along a shared continuum than isolated into two separate camps, but using John Gray’s simplistic analogy, some men are from Venus, and some women are from Mars.

Even though it doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s some value to looking at a bell curve. The trouble with focusing on exceptions is the same as the trouble with anecdotal evidence. Whatever general observation might be offered, no matter how rational and relevant it might be, it can be contradicted by recounting a single exception. “Well, I know a woman who…” or “I’ve known a man for years who…” That creates a logical impasse that prevents us from exploring what I see as an important and necessary evolutionary threshold for our genre.

Still, there are some fundamentals that are inescapable. Research indicates that a female’s brain matures faster than a male’s, which takes until about age 25 to get there. One of my criticisms of many current MM stories is that they’re essentially YA or New Adult stories, even if the main characters are over thirty, because they behave with the emotional maturity of a 22 year-old. That makes the story New Adult, as far as I’m concerned. YA and NA stories are an essential part of our genre, but what’s the point of having a New Adult story featuring two 30+ year-old males?

While chronologically mature men sometimes do act in immature ways, painting male characters over 25 as having little more than 20-something communication skills, insecurities, angst, values and behavior pushes me out of the story, becomes boring to me, and maybe to other readers. I’ll go further and say it’s insulting to men in general to portray a thirty-five year old man with the emotional IQ of a twenty year old — unless he’s psychologically puer aeternus and that’s the key to his character arc.

Of course such chronologically mature/emotionally immature men exist, but their frequent appearance in our stories raises a question for me — why would any author repeatedly write such characters? What’s the message in that? Is it a form of sexism, saying that’s what men are like? I hope not.

I suggest mature masculine psychology offers terrific material for MM romances, and is seriously under-represented in our stories. I believe that writing main characters emotionally older than 25 will force us to address the depth and complexity of the mature masculine in our stories. The downside is that an emotionally mature male character might take more work from the author to realize than opting for some familiar character shortcuts to emotional conflict that are plausible for an immature protagonist.

Ultimately, generalities prove insufficient in any real conversation, but there are any number of scientific studies that shed light on important psychological and emotional differences between women and men — the way we process images, grief, anger, forgiveness, sexual energy, relationship. Some differences might be cultural, others intrinsic to our basic sexuality. In some ways it doesn’t matter — they’re all important and wonderful. Diversity is a good thing!

If those differences are real and important and good, why then should the majority of gay protagonists feel the same way about trust issues, monogamy or marriage as the majority of straight women? Why should the familiar tropes of het romance dominate MM romance? Why should the story question, “Does she dare open her heart to love again?” be automatically translated into “Does he dare open his heart to love again?” Why should a gay man’s HEA look like a straight woman’s?

I’m not saying they can’t be the same — they certainly can. But isn’t there also room for more than that? What else might they look like? Let’s get adventurous! Some authors will dismiss these questions with the observation that this is how it always has been, and what “the market” demands. Those voices have every right to be heard in this discussion, but I personally don’t believe those voices are on the side of evolution.

I believe that MM romance is on the wonderful threshold of an evolutionary leap. Evolution is risky, however. The troublesome thing about change is that it brings change. I feel growth coming!

One of the most common impulses in a person who encounters unfamiliar diversity is to look for the common ground. In discussions of gay romance that’s led to remarks like, “gay men are just like other men except that they love men instead of women.” We’re not. Please accept that. Believe me, a man of some race other than Caucasian is NOT interested to hear, “You’re just like a white man except for the color of your skin.” That approach, while probably well-intentioned, is ignorant, and profoundly insults our differences.

In the most useful diversity training I’ve taken, I was instructed to first honor the differences just as they are without trying to smooth them down into comfortable common ground right away. There’s plenty of time later to find the common ground after the differences are acknowledged and at least partially understood.

The practice is first respect for the difference, and second for the gifts that the difference brings. That’s much harder work than the more naive (but usually equally well-intentioned) approach of claiming that we’re all the same. We’re just not.

I attended a writing workshop a few years ago with about ten other authors. During one session, the instructor gave each of us the same group of characters, same character agendas, the same setting, the same external events and conflicts. He had each of us write the scene, and later we read them aloud. Each one was completely different. I mean completely different. It was a revelation. I can’t write the same as my colleagues even if I try, and the same is true for every author.

In his post, Fessenden raises the startling question as to whether men can write MM romance. Of course they can. There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist? It’s time to acknowledge and appreciate the differences for what they are, without bickering over which is “better” or “more real”.

So I’ve referred more than once to some looming evolution in our genre, and I feel obliged to get more specific about that. After all, I see it already occurring in the work of many authors I respect and follow.

I see us moving toward thematically deeper characters and varying-themed stories, moving away from slashfic-like work where a handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot could pass muster. Every author has done that. Even though I’m still fond of it, I’m grateful my first book (a swords and sorcery effort) is out of print!

I see us expanding the parameters of romance beyond the rules inherited from het romance with its overwhelming emphasis on the story of deliriously happy monogamous dyads fading to black before the arguments about squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle begin. Not abandoning all the ground rules, necessarily, just expanding our scope. This also is already happening, through a healthy variety of authors.

I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.

Not every author will write transgressive romance, or even write chronologically mature protagonists. Not every author will write protagonists under 25. Each writer of each gender identity and each orientation brings something of value in her/zir/his best work, and one way or another it contributes to our genre’s evolution.

I believe this respectfully inclusive, “room for everyone” approach will take us forward into a fecund, more emotionally powerful genre than any of us can presently imagine.

So — picking up from Part One: a straight hero grows up in an automatic level of belonging—whether it’s the idyllic Shire, or some other culture in which the hero belongs to an identifiable majority—that a gay one does not. But there’s a great and powerful gift inside the pain of not belonging: it sets him free. The gay hero does not owe the same psychic allegiance to the heteronormative world and its cultural conventions that a straight hero does. He sees the culture in which he lives through a very different lens. As a result, he understands the familiar world from a perspective that is ideally equipped to bring outside-the-box thinking for change, insight, compassion and creativity. But it takes courage to do it.

In boyhood most gay males learn to be shape-shifters, which in itself is another kind of separation from the world. Generally speaking, he learns to appear to be something he is not and becomes highly skilled in the performance. This psychic fluidity is a double-edged sword, both strength and weakness on his journey. For him there are few identity absolutes. He’s likely hyper-vigilant in situations involving power or risk, and often he can adapt faster than his integrity can process. This is why coming out is still the single most powerful act a gay man can undertake. It’s an unretractable declaration of his true identity, from which there is no retreat. After that, his developed skill at shapeshifting can be put to other uses.

In the lingo of the hero’s journey, shape-shifters are usually presented as being ambiguous or unreliable, probably untrustworthy, possibly amoral or even dangerous precisely because they don’t owe the same psychic allegiance to cultural convention. (As an aside, I believe it is precisely this inherent and palpable lack of investment in the status quo that frightens social conservatives.)

How does that contrast with the usual characterization of a straight hero at the beginning of his journey? A straight hero is rarely shown first as a shape-shifter unless he’s a con man or a secret agent. He is often emotionally reliable, if not responsible. He might start out as an arrogant jerk, but he is also shown to be innately good. The storyteller is sure to have him “pat the dog” in some important way. We don’t even have enough examples of gay hero’s journeys to argue a clear distinction on this point, but hopefully the stories we tell will add to the conversation.

The gay protagonist must find an internally congruent, authentic way to belong in the straight world when he returns. That’s essentially what a gay hero’s first great journey is about. You may be writing about a subsequent journey for him, based on the place in the world that he’s already found, but the emotional echoes of this first journey, of belonging—still as an outsider, but now an outsider who belongs—will resound in whatever transformative adventure he undertakes, and the fears he faces on his journey might well reflect that.

For further reflection on a gay protagonist’s outsider status before he begins his journey, here is an interesting list of ways in which a gay man can be reminded he is an outsider.

Straight Privilege

I believe this list was compiled in 2002. Today some of the bullet points are not as relevant as they once were, but most still pertain.

There is one item not on the list, one that stands behind all the rest—a gay man belongs to an irrevocably permanent minority. A gay hero’s journey must in some way bring him peace with his original discovery of being unlike the majority of people around him. He may not always be highly visible, and he may not always be welcome—but if he survives his journey and returns with his life-nourishing gifts, he is always immensely powerful.

* * *

Again: I wrote this piece focused on a gay male hero. I’m not seeking to speak for all gay men or make broad generalizations about what makes us tick, but rather to point to certain influences that might well have a bearing on a gay male protagonist separating from the world as he prepares for his journey. Further, I deliberately did not seek to expand my consideration to include LBTQ people. I’m not qualified to speak to their journeys except in the most purely archetypal sense. I look forward to reading—and learning from—contributions from those who are.

I’m developing materials for an online course to be presented this October under the aegis of the Florida Romance Writers, focusing on the differences in the Hero’s Journey for a gay protagonist. I’ve been fascinated by the Hero’s Journey since I read Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces as a teenager. It wasn’t until decades later–after I came out–that I became sensitive to the heteronormative overlays in the Journey as it was usually described. At first I was offended, but I soon realized that those overlays were perfectly appropriate for straight heroes, and that “somebody” ought to get busy and examine the differences for a gay male hero. So here are some comments about how a gay Hero’s Journey might present unique opportunities for a writer.

Now before anyone asks about other queer heroes (other than a gay male), let me beg those who are qualified to contribute to this body of understanding to do so. All I can do is speak what I’ve got to say, knowing that it’s not the whole picture. It’s just my part, and only as I presently understand it given my own evolution.

So with that out of the way, here is an initial commentary on the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, Separation from the World, the first part of two.

 

The first stage in the Hero’s Journey is often described as “Separation from the World.” In this post I want to focus on this part of the Journey, and on the profound differences that it presents to a gay protagonist in contrast to a straight one.

For any hero this Separation from the World can be represented as a moral restlessness, such as having an idealistic, seemingly impractical dream or some resentment at an injustice. Something isn’t right with the world, but the hero-to-be can’t exactly put his finger on the problem. Harry Potter lives under the stairs, living an unhappy, persecuted life—but it seems the best he can manage, given his unfortunate circumstances.

The Separation can also be sudden, although this usually combines the separation from the familiar world with the next step, the Call to Adventure (the inciting incident). The hero can be fired, or kidnapped. He can witness a murder. He can find a million dollars in his gym bag, and the story is off and running.

It’s tempting to slide over the more subtle Separation, what I called a moral restlessness, because current literary fashion insists a reader must be “grabbed by the throat” in the first five pages or the story isn’t worth reading.

But take note of one difference: the separating moral restlessness comes from inside the hero, who by then is already growing. His growth is creating uncomfortable pressure in his experience of reality. In the standard start-at-a-gallop story, Separation/Call is an external event that happens to an internally passive hero. The psychological richness of an internal driving force is lost, at least for the opening moments.

In writing gay protagonists, another temptation is strong—to make them just like straight men except for their sexual attraction to other men. After all, a gay man could find a million dollars in his gym bag as easily as a straight man.

Writing gay male characters as if they were essentially straight is a terrible disservice, not only to gay men and the distinct spiritual gifts we bring, but also to those who genuinely seek to understand us. It misleads everyone with a glib untruth.

So long as the action originates outside the hero, the author can probably get away with pretending straight and gay heroes are the same—for example, writing a gay paranormal “alpha male” just like a straight one. Maybe he’s a navy SEAL assassin wolf-shifter Krav Maga master who restores pre-Raphaelite paintings in his spare time. His persona is pretty much a construct of externals, except, of course, for his Great Wound. When writing the hero’s internal response to external events, however, the differences between gay and straight become unavoidable–and important.

When the gay hero’s sexuality, or some other core aspect of his internal life drives the story, Separation from the World takes on deeper meaning, because a gay hero is forced to separate from the world before puberty. He discovers he’s an outsider in the heteronormative world. The difference this makes to a gay hero’s journey is massive, and in this post I can only point to one or two of its facets.

The first difference is the most obvious. It’s so obvious it’s usually overlooked entirely, yet the psychological ramifications can be a rich resource when creating a gay protagonist about to go on a great journey: we are a minority. Even among our own race, our religious community, in our most intimate circles of beloved family, clan or kin, we are a minority. What’s more, we always will be a minority.

Nations will come and go, cultures will rise and fall, technology will change, but we will likely remain about the same percentage of any population. This is so significant that by itself it can provide the basis for a gay hero’s journey: he is different from almost everyone else around him, even in his nuclear family. I suggest that some element of a gay man’s Great Wound is “not belonging,” even if it’s a minor one.

What impact might this discovery have on a boy’s psyche, to understand that he’s fundamentally different long before he really understands what that difference actually means?

He might look for role models in the usual places. Will he find them?

“Within the typical secondary school curriculum, homosexuals do not exist. They are ‘nonpersons’ in the finest Stalinist sense. They have fought no battles, held no offices, explored nowhere, written no literature, built nothing, invented nothing and solved no equations. The lesson to the heterosexual student is abundantly clear: homosexuals do nothing of consequence. To the homosexual student, the message has even greater power: no one who has ever felt as you do has done anything worth mentioning.”

— Gerald Unks, ed., The Gay Teen: Educational Practice and Theory for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Adolescents, Routledge, 1995, p. 5.

Although citing this lack of role models might seem like a complaint, it’s not. In the twenty years since this quote was written, tremendous changes have occurred, and the gay teen is no longer a Stalinist nonperson, at least not by definition. But even when the day comes that gay teens enjoy full acceptance, respect and equality, they will still be in the minority no matter their culture. A gay teen will still have ten times the straight role models as those he finds wired like himself. The psychological ramifications of this one difference should not be overlooked when creating a gay hero: he’s an outsider long before the journey begins. And painful as that may be, that’s the way it should be.

Certainly, gay men should be respected and not persecuted. But the first great subliminal learning for a gay hero is this: This will never be my world. It belongs to straight people. I own only my own gifts and how I bring them—and this sets me free.

In 2006, I wrote this short short story as my entry in a contest called “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”. The story had to turn around this photo. It’s odd, I felt awkward writing to a visual prompt, but the story took no more than a couple of days to write. I still like it, so I’ve dusted it off for your reading entertainment.

 

Crossing the River

By spring the pain had dulled. It was no longer the unrelenting ripping sensation in Jake’s chest, as if he were a phone book being torn in half for a meaningless party stunt. Although he still was ambushed by grief occasionally, and wept helplessly then, he mostly now had calm. At first that calm had been the vague sweetness of Prozac, but Jake was done with that.

The counselors at the hospice had helped. They had gently prepared him last summer when the cocktail had stopped working, when in barely a month Howard had turned into a breathing skeleton barely able to smile, when the wasting and the lesions had rendered him nearly unrecognizable. Knowledge of what was to come had been nothing compared to the event itself.

Then they had helped him through those first horrible weeks afterward, when Jake could barely tie his shoes without help, the emptiness in the apartment so final, so silently perfect. They had helped him with the gnawing, wretched guilt of being alive, healthy and HIV-negative – and after nine years, alone.

Now it was different. The absence of the ripping pain was a relief. Now Jake just had absence. Work helped. So did the gym and his other routines. It was August, and he was functional. He gazed contentedly at the groceries in his basket. This afternoon he had managed all his errands and was ready to head home. Life was getting better.

“Excuse please, you are in line?”

Startled, Jake jumped and closed the gap that had grown unnoticed in front of him. “Sorry. I was” he turned, and froze. “…somewhere else.” Soulful blue eyes radiated from a stunningly beautiful Slavic face – high, sharp cheekbones, prominent nose, fierce, sensual mouth. Jake took in the tanned, lanky, muscular frame, the straw-colored short spiked hair, the exquisite toughness that coiled and corded under the tank top, cargo pants and sandals. “I’m staring. Sorry.”

“No, no, please. No sorry!” A smile blazed across the stranger’s face. “I hope you to stare. I follow you in this store many minutes, as I hope you wake up and see me.” The smile melted into tenderness. “You suffer like poet, I think.” He stuck out a broad, elegant hand, and the blazing smile returned. “I am Jiri, spell with chay, sound like why.  Very please to meet you. I also am poet.”

Jake took the offered hand. It was strong, so warm. “I’m Jake. Nice to meet you, Jiri. I’m afraid I’m not a poet, though. Sorry.” He pulled his hand back, but the stranger would not let go. All of Jiri followed the pull, until they were centimeters from each other. Jake felt panic steal his breath. He looked around for escape, some distraction.

“No, no, Chake, do not run, is OK.” Jiri let go of Jake’s hand, and motioned with his head for them to close up the line again. “I not hurt you. I promise.”

With a wan smile, Jake turned to put his stuff on the conveyor belt. He could feel Jiri’s animal heat, his electric presence sparking behind him, too close to be comfortable. He shivered, concentrating on organizing his items.

“You are poet, Chake. You have soul of poet, I can feel.” Jiri’s voice caressed him, flowing warm and possessive down over his body from somewhere just behind his ear. Then it brightened into firmness. “Wait for me, we have coffee!”

Off-balance, mesmerized, Jake waited bags in hand while Jiri came through line and approached, beaming. “So, Chake, my house, two blocks. Starbucks is on corner, OK with you?”

He lifted his shopping bag. “Well, I have things here that shouldn’t get warm.”

“Is no problem!” Jiri decided for him cheerfully. “You put in my fridge, we go for coffee. You pick up after.”

Outside it was hot. Before they got to the light, Jake felt the prickle of sweat. “Why are you doing this, Jiri? What are you doing? What am I to you?”

Jiri stopped and turned to grasp Jake’s shoulders. “I am having big adventure in Vancouver, Chake. You now important part of Jiri’s adventure.” He laughed, teeth and eyes flashing in the sunlight, overwhelmingly beautiful, exuberant. Male. He leaned into Jake and whispered conspiratorially, “We talk more over coffee. You will understand.”

Jake understood in a tumbling fall free of common sense that they would end up in bed. He was almost sure didn’t want that.

Jiri’s apartment building was small, plain. They climbed the three flights to his apartment. Jiri paused, key in the lock. “You will like Sascha. He will like you also. Very much, I promise.”

Jake blanched and fought nausea. “Three? No, Jiri, I’m sorry, I’m just not…” but a wriggling tempest of brown, white and black enthusiasm leapt into Jiri’s arms through the open door.

“Chake, meet Sascha. Sascha, Chake.” Jiri pushed the terrier/whatever into Jake’s arms and grabbed his groceries in one motion. Jake found himself struggling to hold onto the whirlwind that whimpered, twisted and licked in a frenzy of happy greeting.

When Jake put Sascha down, Jiri had already deposited the groceries in the fridge, and stood at the kitchen entrance grinning like a madman. He stepped over Sascha to take Jake’s face gently in both hands. “What you feel, Chake, right now? No thinking. Feeling only. What?”

“I – I’m frightened, I don’t know what’s happening, I…”

“You look alive, Chake, like snorting stallion, eyes rolling. Strong, not sure, so, so beautiful.” Holding Jake’s face captive, Jiri leaned forward and kissed him tenderly. When Jake’s lips stayed closed, Jiri made a soft noise of disappointment, licking the sealed crevice.

“We have coffee now, Chake.” He grinned and winked with unabashed certainty. “Then we come here, you let me make love to you. Part of adventure!”

The Starbucks was busy, but they found a table in a corner, so small that their knees touched when they sat down. Jiri slid his shin forward on the outside, pressing inward against Jake’s calf, a knowing leer playing across his face.

Jake moved his leg away. “Tell me, Jiri – how am I a part of your big adventure?”

“Yes!” Jiri nodded enthusiastically. “Six months I am in Canada, from Belarus. I am student, hydro-electric engineering, from National Technical University, Minsk. I travel in Canada, studying systems, environmental measures. I visit Robert Bourassa station Quebec, Churchill Falls of Newfoundland, Columbia River and Peace River, BC. I take many notes, many ideas.” He smiled proudly. “I make outstanding graduation study and thesis!”

“Are you here on scholarship?”

Jiri nodded, shrugged. “I have uncle in national gymnastics program. He help me get scholarship.” His eyes narrowed, flashed. “I earn, also!” He laughed. “All part of Jiri’s big adventure. Today I walk to store, buy food. I see beautiful man walking, but sleeping. I follow, get ideas. This man so sad. I understand this sadness, I think. I will help this sad man wake up. I want him naked with me.”

Jake stiffened, rage taking him. “How dare you! You have no idea. You say I’m a poet, but I’m not. Howar–” The name stuck in his throat, and a vision rose, of Howard reading in his armchair, long brown hair falling around those goofy wire-rim glasses. “Howard was the poet, not me. And he’s dead. You have no right to think you can use my sorrow to get me into bed.” He sneered, wanting to hurt Jiri. “I bet you’re no poet, either.” He pushed his chair back and stood, trembling.

“Chake. You sit. Now.” Jiri’s voice was kind, but unquestionably in charge. Against his will, Jake sat.

Jiri leaned forward, eyes dark. “I understand suffering. You so proud of your suffering, no? Only you can suffer this way. So tragic! Jiri can’t understand, for sure! I tell you about suffering. When I am little boy, my country is downwind Chernobyl. Half my country is poisoned. So many dying. No one dare say why. My older brother is god, GOD to me. Too soon his lungs full of cancer. No hope. I watch him die. I want to die too.”

He slapped his chest. “Maybe Chernobyl still waits for Jiri, here in body. No one knows. We find out one day for sure. Jiri have adventure until.” He released Jake’s hand, patted it. “Yes, Jiri understand. He see Chake mourning. But he is part of Jiri’s big adventure. Jiri will wake him up, even if Chake not want. But I think Chake want. I think maybe Chake is little afraid of what he feel for Jiri. Is so?”

Jake nodded, mute.

Jiri’s irrepressible smile unfurled. “Outstanding! Jiri will be good for Chake.” Jiri took Jake’s hand and held it in both of his and crooned, “Wake him so gently, so well, Chake never go back to sleep again! We go to my house now, yes?”

Jake nodded, mute.

Later, in the half-light of early evening, Jake lay spent in Jiri’s arms while Jiri snored softly into his neck. He shifted slightly, and Jiri woke.

“I am outstanding lover for Chake, no?”

“Yes, Jiri, outstanding. First since Howard. It’s been so long, over a year. My body – I’d forgotten. But I’m not ready for a relationship yet.”

Jiri rolled on top of Jake and peered at him in the half-light. “Relationship? No. Too soon. You are swimming man, Chake. In middle of big, cold river, very fast. Howard one side of river, no going back. You stay in river too long, you drown. I am rope for you, not other bank of river.” He rolled again so Jake was on top, and wrapped his long legs around Jake’s waist, squeezing. “I pull you to land. That is Jiri’s work. What you do on new side of river is work for Chake.” Jiri smiled wickedly. “I think for Jiri to get Chake to dry land take many nights, though.”

“You are a poet, Jiri,” Jake murmured, “and very wise. And beautiful. And sexy.”

Jiri rolled again, beaming, and leapt to his feet. “Come, I show you something. No clothes. Just come.” He strode into the living room and lay down on his back, arms flung apart. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog galloped over to where Jiri lay and squirmed onto his back in the crook of Jiri’s arm, legs splayed, tongue lolling. Jiri brought his arm around Sascha and scratched his tummy. “I teach him this trick. Clever, yes? Now I teach you! Chake come! Come snuggle, Chake!”

Laughing, Jake lay down on Jiri’s other side, and imitated Sascha, including the tongue. “Is perfect, Chake! You learn fast.” Jiri drew his arm around Jake and scratched his tummy. “When I return Minsk, you take Sascha, yes?”

“What?”

“I find Sascha six weeks ago, abandoned. So alone. I take him to vet, all shots, very good. I return Belarus in one month. When I go, you take Sascha, yes?”

“You had this in mind all along, didn’t you? You picked me up because you want me to take your fucking dog!”

“No. Not only. Most, I want you wake up. But I also want you share Sascha with me. Jiri and Chake stay close through Sascha for long time.”

“God, Jiri, you’re making me crazy! Let me think about it.”

“You think three days. Condition is you sleep here each night. I not finished waking up Chake, who is too beautiful for one night only.”

Jake rolled onto an elbow and gazed down at Jiri. “You are one helluva rope, Jiri. If you can’t pull me to shore, no one can.”

Jiri grabbed Jake’s balls, laughing. “I pull hard enough, not more.”

***

Jiri had been gone for over a week, and Jake was at Bess and Sarah’s place out in White Rock. Full of barbequed chicken with trimmings, Jake snoozed in the sun on the back lawn. He was startled by a wet nose against his cheek. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog jumped across Jake’s face to land in the crook of his arm and rolled onto his back, tongue dancing, dripping. Jake laughed, and sent a kiss to Jiri. Jake could feel the whole earth under his body. He was on solid ground again.

 

Lloyd Meeker, © 2006, all rights reserved.

A man’s character is his fate.

This is the epigraph in Traveling Light, and has become an essential part of the way I see and experience the world. Sometimes this quote is translated as, “A man’s character is his doom.” I believe that’s technically more accurate, but the word “doom” in English has implications that aren’t so inescapably negative in Greek.