“Oh, the places you’ll go!”
The person who introduced me to this story was one of my biggest adult advocates. It’s the kind of “Go and be!” tale that encourages many of us to leave our nests and move out into the rest of the world to do whatever good we can.
But I didn’t know then that having “places you’ll go!” doesn’t always mean being able to take those you love with you. So while I’ve shared a lot of new places with people I love, going and doing has also involved loss as well as triumph: loss and release have been just as much part of my growth, change, and transformation as have gain and harvest.
Growth is disruptive. Sometimes it’s disruptive in fantastic ways, yielding greater intimacy with others and greater knowledge of ourselves than we thought possible. Sometimes it’s horrifically disruptive, breaking open fearsome nightmares and shadowy neuroses, inspiring us to pull back from the open road and hunker down in the familiar. There’s no way to know outcomes ahead of time.
Along with several other relatives, my mother has missed the guts and beauty of the last four years of my life because her beliefs and assumptions block her from fully entering in. She’s remained my mother and I’ll never close my life to her; she just hasn’t always been able to mother me. She’ll always be my noun yet can’t wholly verb me while unreconciled to who I am and where I’m going.
It hasn’t been my orientation or partners who’ve disrupted my family relationships. It’s not mere difference that sparks conflict but how we render difference, what we label neutral or good and what we label dangerous. Heterosexism has hobbled relationships that I’ve prized and whose deterioration I’ve mourned. Heterosexism: the assumption that only heterosexual people represent the human ideal; that only heterosocial and heterosexual relationships are natural, good, right, or holy; that gay and bi people are broken, disordered, perverted, and abominable, that they’re worthy of pity and prayer as if addicts, adulterers, drug dealers, or murderers.
I exaggerate none of this. My mother once sat on my couch to tell me that she’d have preferred me to be a prostitute than bisexual and would mourn over me as if I were in jail as long as she lived. She meant the words she spoke; she said them as part of her process and because of her religious concern. She didn’t say them to wound me. But intention doesn’t trump impact, and we can’t now recover the years we’ve lost. We can only improve our future together.
It’s been more than a year since my mother has verbally or spiritually attacked me, She has not undermined me, my ethics, or my identity in my hearing. She joined the rest of my family and support network in celebrating my doctoral graduation last spring, and I know she’s never stopped caring for me. Still, she struggles to celebrate the me that I am. She lives at the outer limits of the love and embrace that heterosexism and other religious beliefs permit her, and I can’t imagine the conflict that has brought her whenever she’s thought of me or spoken of me with others.
My denomination’s leadership has also been smashing against the outer bounds of its limits in the last few years: General Conference senior leaders sustained their rejection of LGBTI members, wordsmithing a 1996 statement on homosexuality without changing its substance; the British Union Conference formally opposed civil marriage in England, Wales, and Scotland even though proposed legal changes would have no impact on the church’s teachings or practice; and the North American Division president and a prominent Adventist televangelist both pronounced June Supreme Court decisions as perversions not merely of doctrine but also of US legal tradition—as if tradition means automatic validity. Each of these are players in the drama.
It’s the sincerity I perceive in most of these players that keeps me holding my end of our relationship’s rope. I don’t spend much effort on reacting to performed prejudice—discrimination and demonization heightened for an audience, and perfected by Fox News, satellite radio shock jocks, Westboro, and too much public evangelism. That’s not the kind of theater I enjoy sitting through. But sincere souls, I can understand. I can trace their full humanity though they sometimes deny mine. And thanks to my family and denomination, I know not to seek whole-soul nurturing from those who cannot offer it. I know not to beg bread from a quarry or probe for figs out of season. It’s not the season for figs from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and so I don’t expect to harvest any from it. Yet this doesn’t condemn me to starve.
Hundreds of thousands of LGBTI current and former Adventists around the world have been taught that they’re broken; community affirmation depends on their complying with mandatory celibacy or forming heterosocial relationships. What about them? If the sanctuary is not a sanctuary, where can they turn? Should they seek another sanctuary? Create other sanctuaries with and for other people? If we can’t change the chick’s shell, how do we support the chick so that when its shell breaks, the chick is strong enough to bear the break and deal with the world outside? If your mother can’t mother you, who will mother you and how can you mother yourself?
When I lost some nurturers, my library gave me others: when authorities disparaged certain sources, I deliberately sought them out and read them myself. This wasn’t about being contrary (contrariness is no more automatically valid than tradition). It was about learning to evaluate sources for myself. As some of my older sanctuaries proved unsafe, I reassessed the limits they had set for me. When those limits failed to support, challenge, and protect me, I established new ones. When they did serve me, I kept them.
I borrowed, bought, and read shelves of new books that I hadn’t known existed, entered conversations I hadn’t known were happening, and joined communities of thought and practice I’d never had access to before. This was how I gained worlds beyond my inherited shell, worlds that supported me when my native land fractured. Without those worlds or the people I met through them, I wouldn’t have made progress. I might not be here. And I wouldn’t still have places to go.
My mother mothered me well until she discovered more of who I was, until I complicated her hetero-centered view of me and her vision of the life I’d live as an adult. Until I varied from her dreams, she held a very powerful grounding space for me and she’s doing her best to do so again. She cared for me materially when I was well and physically when I was sick. She nurtured me educationally and intellectually; she prayed and modeled for me a sense of God and Spirit. She gave me and my siblings the best of what she had—and still does. I’ve made sure to express my appreciation to her for her effort and bequests, and I’ll always care about improving on her legacies of leadership, poetry, industry, nurturing, service, and strength.
I’m not yet able to mother her materially, but I can recognize when she has hit her emotional and spiritual outer limits, when “the places I’ll go” aren’t places she can join me. I don’t know how her limits might change in the future, and I’m not sure it makes any difference to what I can offer her. My mother has gifted me so many amazing things—what more could I ask of her? I’ll take the unconditionality baton from here.
Thanks, Mum, for everything.