Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Defense of Marriage

I spent much of the day celebrating with my family the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.  The court’s ruling paves the way for a more equal America for us.  Our family is now closer to accessing the same legal rights and privileges that other families already have.  Our son will soon have the benefit of a stable family led by parents whose relationship has legal standing in the eyes of the government. 

To be clear, I don’t want or need any government to “sanctify” my relationship—governments aren’t in the sanctifying business.  Nor do I need government to make my relationship legitimate or real—it’s been real for over 11 years without the government’s help.  I don’t need the government’s (or anyone’s) permission to be who I am, or to love the woman I love. 

What I want, however--and what I think I and all law-abiding, tax paying citizens deserve regardless of their sexual orientation--are the same legal rights that straight people already get in their relationships simply from having them recognized by the government. 

In short, I want equality.  And because of today’s decision, we are closer to getting it.

Some of my friends aren’t happy about this.  I maintain friendships with people who, mostly because of religious beliefs, don’t support gay marriage and think that today’s court decision is another sign of a declining America, the rise of secularism and godlessness, or the end times.  I watched their Twitter and Facebook feeds today.  I don’t think any of them were surprised.  Most of them know that all the country’s trend lines are moving in the opposite direction from them on this issue.  They are resigned to this, for the most part.  Some of them are choosing to focus on their own marriages rather than be so focused on mine, which I must say is really refreshing.  I’ve grown weary of heterosexual Christians preaching and quoting their Bibles about the sanctity of marriage at the same time that half their congregations, and even many of their clergy, are divorced and remarried—in clear violation of Jesus’ teachings on the matter.

But, I’m not gloating.  I’m just relieved and happy about the decision and what it means for my family and our future.  And I want to say to my friends who oppose the decision that, really, I don’t think it’s going to be that bad for them.  I don’t think gay marriage is going to undermine civilization or family as we know it, and I don’t think it will undermine heterosexual marriage any more than straight people have already undermined it themselves. 

If anything, maybe we can help.  I know I speak for many thousands of gay people when I say I believe in family values.  I believe in commitment.  I believe in stability for children.  I believe in creating a home that nurtures everyone in it.  Marriage is a structural tool that, when done well, can help accomplish all those things.  Maybe we gay people can bring some fresh perspectives to the marriage table, and help revive a sagging but promising institution.

Ironically, maybe overturning The Defense of Marriage Act could result in shoring up marriage in ways more enduring than the Act ever would have.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


A moment of sunlight in Captiva, Florida

When I was 3 or 4 years old, I attended an evening church service with my parents.  The service went long, as most Pentecostal services do.  I fell asleep on the pew during the sermon despite the loudness of the preaching.  I woke up during the post-sermon music, still drowsing as people made their way forward down the aisles to get prayer for healing or for other things in their lives.  I listened to their cries of praise and travail, all blended into one.  The praise music continued throughout and I took it all in from within my half-asleep, half-awake state.

Something happened, however, when the music leader stepped up to the microphone and invited the crowd to join him and the other vocalists in singing a song called "He Touched Me."  It's a well-known praise song in charismatic and Pentecostal circles.  The lyrics are:  He touched me, oh He touched me.  And oh the joy that floods my soul.  Something happened, and now I know.  He touched me, and made me whole.

I was wide awake.  I sat up in the pew and watched the musicians and singers perform the song's chorus several times.  People in the healing line at the altar lifted their faces to heaven, their eyes closed and streaming tears, their hands raised in surrender and longing.  The music filled the room and I felt myself being lifted from the inside--as if the very center of my body, deep within me, were being lifted up through my stomach and into my chest, up into my throat and mouth, pushing to come out through my eyes and the top of my head.  I could hardly breathe.

On the drive home, I asked my mother if she knew that song.  She said she did, and I asked her to sing it for me.  I sat in the back seat in the darkness,  listening to my mother's thin soprano voice, and felt the gentle tug on my insides again.

This memory has never left me, but it came flooding back not long ago as I sat on the living room floor with our 7-month old son.  He stretched alongside me, laying on his back.  He would smile up at me and then become distracted by the ceiling fan or by the cat passing by.  I thumbed through a magazine, reading various passages aloud to him and showing him pictures.  After a few moments, I lifted the magazine to show him something and saw that his back was arched and he was holding his arms out and aloft.  His gaze was fixed at the ceiling and his mouth was open.  I set the magazine aside and leaned forward to bend over him.  His eyes darted back and forth, his gaze directed at the ceiling.  

He's having a seizure or an allergic reaction, I thought.  Just as I was about to touch his chest and grab my phone to call for help, his face burst into a smile and his back relaxed a bit.  He laughed once and took a big breath.  He held his breath, arched his back again, and held perfectly still, staring intently at the ceiling, his eyes darting again, his mouth open, his arms lifted and aloft.  He sucked in air again, held it and kept his body arched for what seemed like half a minute, then relaxed for a few seconds before it all began again.  

I placed my head near to him and looked back up toward the ceiling, trying to find his line of vision to see exactly what he was seeing.  I saw nothing but white ceiling.  Not even the ceiling fan was in his line of vision.  Just plain, white ceiling.

I sat back and watched him:  his little chest going up and down, his back arching and relaxing, his fingers curling slightly as he held his arms suspended and still.  His eyes were bright and I saw the vein in his neck bulge slightly with the beat of his heart.

He touched me, oh he touched me.  And oh the joy that floods my soul . . . . 

I don't know what touched my little boy that afternoon, but something did.  Whatever it was caught him up and held him transfixed for several minutes.  I watched the wonder and joy speed across his face and breast.  I watched the whole experience leave him breathless.

He's so young, I don't know if he'll remember it.  But I'll remember it for him, and hope that he has many more such experiences.  I think my job as a parent, in addition to loving him and making sure his basic needs are met, is to create a life for us, and for him,  that is alive with the possibility of transcendant experiences.  And then to step back and honor the inward, private nature of those experiences when they come. 

My parents did that for me.  I'll do it for him.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Life, Death & Change

Our son, Shiv Carroll Mehra.

Things have drastically changed in my life since the last time I posted on this blog.

The biggest change is that I am now a parent:  Nishta and I adopted a little son this past summer.  He was born on July 17, and as we watched him emerge from his birth mother's body, I felt my life and heart dramatically alter.  He was so tiny and helpless, yet strong and loud!  And he is ours.  And mine.  Mine--not to own or control--but mine to love, nurture, teach, and to create a stable home for so that he can become the man he wants or is destined to be.  It's a huge responsibility, but not one that feels scary or worrisome to me.  It all feels like grace.  Shiv is simply a gift, all day every day.  There are times when I struggle to remember what I did with myself before he came, and why any of it seemed so important.

The last two months have been laced with sadness, though, because we lost two of our companion animals one right after the other.  First, our sweet old rat terrier, Dolly, died just before Christmas.  Then, last week, we lost Reece, an orange tabby I rescued as a kitten on Washington Avenue over 14 years ago.

It's brutal to lose four-legged family members--there's just no other way to say it.  It's part of the bargain we make when we take them in.  Chances are, we will outlive them and will have to make the hard decision to end their lives when their suffering is too great.  It's the right thing to do, but it's searing every time.  I've done it several times in my life, and it never gets any easier.

Losing these two is especially hard, though.  These two were my furry caretakers during 2011 when I spent most of the year fighting cancer.  I had a battalion of human friends and family who brought meals, did laundry, straightened up the house, ferried me back and forth to appointments, sat with me while I puked--the whole thing.  But these two, Reece and Dolly, were like furry leeches who maintained nearly constant physical contact with me.  They slept beside me or on me every night, and during every nap.  They shared my lap if I sat up.  They followed me from the bed to the bathroom to the kitchen and back to the bed.  Theirs was the breathing I heard and felt as I went to sleep, and the first I heard when I woke up, other than my own.  The days I spent in the hospital for open chest surgery were the worst days of the whole ordeal, mainly because they weren't with me.

Reece and Dolly nursing me when I was sick.

So, losing them feels like an especially strong thread has been cut.  I miss them terribly, almost every moment.

After we hugged and kissed Reece into his death at the vet last Friday evening, I sat at our open backyard window with a glass of wine, listening to the blustery wind and the chortling of the purple martins as they did their final swoops over the lake before settling into their box for the night.  I allowed myself to settle into the dusky stillness of the evening, to match the rhythms of my heart and mind with those of the natural world around me, a world shot through with the interplay of life and death, struggle and ease.  It's a good world, and I am glad to be in it.

After a few moments, our son cried out from his room.  It was his feeding time.

The dead are dead, and we cherish their memory.  And the living are alive, and deserve our attention.  So, I wiped my tears, got up, and went to feed our son.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Back In the Swing of Things - Outside

A hummingbird feeding at one of my parents' feeders in Louisiana.

I feel like my life is getting back to "normal" now in the wake of an eventful winter and spring successfully fighting cancer, and recovering from surgery in the summer.  I managed to do some writing this year despite the setbacks, and my agent booked some speaking events for me this fall.  Most days, I feel like I'm operating at or near 100%, although every week or so I'll have a day where I don't seem to quite get it all going up to speed.  Maybe that's normal.  Probably so.

I'm spending a lot of time outside these days, even more so than usual.  I've always been sort of an outdoors person, preferring to do whatever the task at hand may be outside rather than inside.  Grading papers, reading an article or book, listening to a podcast, returning phone calls (back when I used to return them - email or txt me now if you want a response), writing, or taking a nap.  As a kid, even in the wintertime, I would drag a sleeping bag out into the yard, crawl in with the dog, and take a nap in the chilly, bright day.  As I write this blog post, I'm sitting outside on the patio.

I like to be outside.  To see the sky, feel the wind and the sun, smell the breeze, and see whatever else is out here.

Last week, I was standing outside in the yard, again taking a break from writing, and I heard the sudden shear of wings overhead.  I glanced up to see a hawk chasing a pigeon across the sky over the lake.  The pigeon veered and careened sharply over the water and over the houses on the far side, curving back toward our side of the lake, and finally lost the hawk with one final sharp turn directly over our neighbor's house.  The hawk flew off for other prey and the pigeon rejoined the flock waiting for it on a distant roof.

A few days before that, I was dove hunting on an overcast, windy afternoon.  I sat by a nearly empty stock pond and watched for doves that ultimately never came that day.  Instead, I saw hundreds and hundreds of monarch butterflies.  They flew overhead and around me all afternoon - one even landed for a few seconds on the end of my gun barrel.  The flew in singles, pairs or in small strings, from 3 feet to 20 feet off the ground, orange and black flittering spots in the sky.  For several hours.  I'd never seen the monarch migration before in person.  I'm glad I was outside that day to see it.

I don't know what any of these things mean, if anything.  I don't have anything profound to say about them really.  In themselves, they are fairly run-of-the-mill in terms of what goes on every day in the natural world.

Perhaps, that's just it.  Our world is a thrilling place of wonder and mystery, even right here in the suburbs of one of the country's largest cities.  And it's going on all day every day.

Yet, sometimes it's so easy to miss.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pennies Everywhere

Yesterday, I stood looking out over our backyard lake and saw something remarkable.

A large raptor - a hawk, osprey, eagle, I don't know - stood in the newly mowed grass a foot or so above the concrete embankment that circles the lake.  As soon as I saw him, I grabbed the binoculars to get a closer look.

It stood there a moment more, its hooked yellow beak shining in the sun.  I noticed its thick feathery legs, and the dark back and wing feathers which contrasted with the cream of its belly.

Suddenly, it began to move, taking a few steps toward the water's edge.  Its talons splayed wide on the concrete.  Slowly it stepped into the water, waddling a bit as it went in nearly breast deep.  It stood still for a few seconds, looking around and then down at the water.

And then it began to bathe.  Splashing and diving and shaking.  Dipping its head under the water, craning its neck back up to let the water flow down its back.  Extending its wings - all 5 feet of them, it looked to me - slapping them on the water's surface, then submerging and raising them dripping, holding them aloft.  Submerging its head again while apparently holding its breath, sending circles of waves out from its shaking body.

I was breathless.  I'd never seen a bird this large bathe. My hands shook and I leaned the binoculars on the windowpane simply to hold them still enough to continue watching.  I felt my heart beating as the bird turned and slowly made its way out of the water and back onto the grass.  In a magnificent, full-body shake, it threw off sprays of excess water and preened a wing for a few seconds.  Then, it crouched for take-off and lifted, flying up and away, disappearing over the trees that line the far side of the lake.

The whole episode as I watched it lasted not more than 60 seconds.

Things like this happen all the time.  It's just that we don't always see them.  Either we're not in position at the right place and time.  Or we're busy doing other things.  Or we simply don't notice, or think to notice.  We don't have eyes to see or ears to hear, and we don't still ourselves long enough to develop them.

Commonplace events like this brim with a grace and beauty made ever more piercing by their fleeting nature.  Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, compares such events to pennies we find in parking lots or on store floors.  Shiny, copper gifts freely strewn for everyone.

She is right.  The world is full of pennies.

Friday, May 20, 2011

I Am Subtly Changed

Poppies among the ruins at Ephesus in Turkey.  (photo by Jill Carroll)

This week I had the last of my appointments for a while at MD Anderson Cancer Center.  The tumor they cut from my chest was a Stage 1, everything else came out clean, and I'm done with treatment.  I'm as cancer free now as I've ever been.

I have another month or so of recovery from the chest cracking, but I can drive now (I hadn't been allowed to for the last 5 weeks) and I am pushing myself to get my strength back and not take so many naps during the day.  Nishta and I are making travel plans for the summer, and I've started booking speaking engagements for the fall.

So, in one sense, I'm getting back to my regular life.  In subtle ways, though, "regular life" has shifted for me.  Some of the shifts are manifestly evident to me; others are so barely detectable that I struggle to articulate them, but I "feel" them nevertheless.

I cry more easily now.  Many people who have open chest surgery report being markedly more emotional after the surgery than before.  I don't know why that is exactly . . . I don't know why I find myself tearing up nearly every day now.  There is no theme among the things that seem to prompt the tears.  I think I feel the fragility of the world - and us and me - more than before.  Things that seem solid are actually permeable.  Things that are beautiful and dear are also fleeting, making them all the more precious and our lives all the more blessed for having experienced them, if even just for a few moments.

I have a sense of vulnerability I didn't have a few months ago.  Rationally, most of know that we control relatively few things in our lives.  I don't control other people, outside circumstances, or my body.  To know something intellectually, however, doesn't mean I really "get it" in my gut.  

Now, I get it.  Illness - or tragedy or misfortune - strikes despite attempts at staving it off, and regardless of any "worthiness" however defined.  Like rain, it falls on the just and unjust alike.  This is just how it goes.  Given that, I revel in the days when I'm strong and free and well, and can do the things that are mine to do.

I experience interdependence with other people now more than before.  I've always been an "independent" person, a bit of a loner, having perhaps lots of acquaintances but few very close friends.  People say they experience me as a "self-sufficient" person who needs very little help or support in times of challenge.  I've experienced myself in that way for years.  

Not so much anymore.  It is abundantly clear to me that I would not have come through the last 5 months as well as I did (perhaps, not at all) without significant help from myriad people - those close to me and those who remain mostly strangers to me.  Of course, my partner Nishta has been a fortress to me in these months.  I owe her my life in many ways.  Our respective parents and family members have helped and hugged and loved me.  People in our close circle of friends have cooked and cleaned and given rides to and from the hospital, gone with me to appointments, sat with me during chemo weeks, and worn Kali jewelry to spur on the chemical hurricane designed to kill the cancer (see previous blog post).  Others have dropped off food, or sent cash and checks.  I received prayer shawls and quilts made by people I've never met.  Dozens sent cards.  Hundreds sent messages and prayers on facebook and twitter.  After a while, I couldn't keep up with all of it.  All I could do was just bask in it and be grateful for it.

Without all this, I would not be in the good shape I'm in today.  I needed help - and help that went beyond the professional medical help we paid for.  I am not self-sufficient.  No one is, really.  I am who I am because I've had help.  Knowing this pushes me to help others more than before, and to be humbled amidst any achievement because I know I didn't do it alone.

Don, the director of patient affairs at the hospital, wished me well as we finished up my last appointment.  He said for me to resume my life knowing that I'm a different person now.  Cancer changes you, he said, and therefore everything you do is changed as well.

I think, and can feel, that he's right.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Life, Death and Love

The tomb of Rumi - the poet of love - in Konya, Turkey
(photo: Jill Carroll)

I went to a lawyer this last week and got help writing my Last Will.  I'm having open chest surgery on April 15 and have been in the mode of "getting things handled" before the surgery and hospital stay - paying bills, doing the spring lawn work, getting the vegetable garden in, filing my taxes, and so on.

Getting a legal will on file seemed a prudent thing to "get handled" before I go under the knife in this particular way.  I've had major surgeries before, but none of them unveiled my beating heart and pumping lungs through a splayed chest, as this one will.  This one feels different.

Mind you, I fully expect to live through the surgery.  I'm optimistic and hopeful about things, and I've made post-surgery plans because I expect to here to fulfill them.

I've thought about death a lot, though, lately.  My own death.  What if I die on the operating table?  Or after the surgery due to complications?  What if the cancer returns, can't be treated and kills me?

I've tried to let myself really "be" with these thoughts.  Not in a worried, anxious way but in a sober mindfulness that death is inevitable for all of us in this life.  Given the reality of death - of my own personal death - and given that it could occur sooner than I expect, well . . . what about that?

I don't have a bucket list, and I haven't felt prompted to make one so far.  I've done a lot of things in my 47 years.  I've travelled to many countries, seen many things, had many amazing experiences, and met extraordinary people.  I've done different kinds of professional work, and feel good about the work I've done.   I've been blessed to have my needs, and most of my wants, met.

So, were I to die soon, I wouldn't feel like some kind of activity was left undone or unfulfilled.  Mainly, I would simply miss the world.  I love this world and this life, even with all its hazards and tragedies.  I am grateful for our world, for my life, and that I get to live it here.

As I sit with thoughts of death, what emerges for me as most important has to do with love.  Not love in the abstract, or love of or from some far off deity in the clouds - but love here in this life, with real  people, in everyday situations.  Have I loved?  Have I been loved?  Have I learned anything in the process?

More and more, I think that these are really the only questions that matter.  I am fulfilled in my life to the extent that I love and am loved by people, and learn from that love.  I have learned that, in and through that love, obstacles can be overcome and fears faced down.  Richness, growth and abundance beyond measure are found within it, in the being and doing of it.  And, thankfully, it overcomes limitations and mistakes.  I have plenty of both of those.

I am so grateful to have the capacity for love - for giving and receiving it, and for learning from its treasures.

Because of love, I can be ready to die - even though I expect to live, at least for now.