Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Joy of Celibacy – part 1

First, let it be understood, the vow of celibacy is not something I advocate. Never once have I ever suggested it to anyone. Celibacy is a calling, an invitation, and yes, a difficult sacrifice not for everyone.

I write this only as an explanation. By sharing my own personal experience, perhaps I can bring some clarity to a controversial and misunderstood subject. Be warned, however, I am no Thomas Merton. Don't expect ecclesiastic rhetoric about sins of the flesh, self denial, and virgin martyrs. I may be a monk, but I am a monk from the Bronx and my people are known for their colorful language (which I will try to tone down).

Because the subject of celibacy arouses so many reactions (no pun intended), I'll begin my story with a joke.

Q. How do you drive an Italian man crazy?

A. You put him in a round room and say there's a Blonde waiting for him in the corner.

I was no exception. I fit the stereotype and Blondes were definitely my first choice of entrée, however, I also had a big appetite and sampled everything on the menu appreciating the fact that white sugar and brown sugar were equally sweet. The only requirement was an attractive presentation. The dish had to be hot.

I often joke that I had so much sex in my youth that it will take two more lifetimes of celibacy just to regain a balance. Remember, this was the aftermath of the so-called Sexual Revolution, the perpetual Summer of Free Love. Often getting someone in bed took little effort, no more than a sly smile and a look that said, "I want you. I need you. I'll buy you breakfast."

I was young, considered handsome and always looking for a night of sweaty gymnastics and I didn't care where: the back seat of a car, rooftops, stairways, and one memorable night under the Santa Monica pier. Back then you might get the clap or the crabs, but this was long before you had to worry about catching something that would kill you.

So, I considered myself a trisexual. I'd try anything. We all did back then. We broke rules and challenged morality, or as we called it, old-fashion hang-ups. We grew our hair long, got stoned and got naked.

But then my life began to change. Events challenged what I believed. Experiences forced me to consider how I walked in the world. Sometimes it was like a shock of cold water on a hot drowsy day. Other times it was subtle, no more than the whisper of a voice in the wind. I was living in Los Angeles, the city of angels ironically enough, when the first shift began much like the small earthquakes that rattled the walls and shook my bed but caused little damage. Yet, every tremor undermined the foundation so carefully built over the years.

Most of that foundation was built after I graduated from High School and ended up in Northern California, the hippie capital of the United States. I didn't wear flowers in my hair, as the popular song of that era dictated, but I had the beads and fringed vests and "make love not war" buttons.

Years later I moved south. Los Angeles was different, edgier, isolated, pretentious. San Francisco, however, with its colorful Victorians, steep hills disappearing in the thick fog, its Chinatown, North Beach and rattling cable cars, was a fantasyland of pleasure. Whenever I had the chance, I'd take the red-eye flight north.

I still had friends living in the Bay Area and went to visit them often. One week during my time of self examination and upheaval, I flew north, just to get away, to indulge myself, or so I hoped. Apparently I wasn't the only one going through changes. Everyone I knew was running off to A.A. and N.A. meetings. I never did get across the bridge to San Francisco, but spent time wandering around, or rather prowling, Telegraph and University Avenue in Berkeley while my friends dealt with their addictions attending their second or third meeting of the day.

I'd sit in the coffee shops, meander through the bookstores, get lunch at some café and always be looking for potential bed partners. I admit with no shame, I was superficial. I didn't need to know your name, or what your interests might be, didn't care if you were a felon, you just had to be physically attractive – long hair, full lips and tight jeans with tight curves.

Yes, I was a shallow dog, a tom cat, a man whore, whatever term you want to use. It was a life of one-night stands and open relationships. It was all about the chase, the thrill of that first encounter, the intensity of an orgasm, then on to the next pretty face and firm body.

Such complicated games we play in pursuit of pleasure. After all, it was just a game, an all-season sport; lose some, win some, score a trophy for the ego. Just like all sports the players change, tactics are refined; the game goes on and on until one day a voice calls you off the field.

I heard that voice as I walked the streets of Berkeley, my head turning just a second slower than whiplash, trying to get a rear view of a passing fancy, hoping she'd turn around and show some interest so I could smile, wink and tilt my head in that 'Hey! How-you-doing?" gesture.

Nothing. She kept on walking. Oh well. Too bad. Turning back around, I saw him just a few feet away almost in her shadow. He walked with an obvious limp. One crooked, twisted arm pressed tight across his chest. His head tilted to the side, not in greeting, but held immobile by Cerebral Palsy. I looked at him and though the street was crowded, I saw only him.
"Is this person less worthy of your love?"
The voice was gentle but firm. I heard it inside of me, but it also surrounded me. It wasn't a loud voice, but in the few seconds it took to ask that simple question, I heard nothing else; not the traffic, not the conversations of passing people or the clatter of dishes from a nearby café. Just that voice asking me, "Is this person less worthy of your love?"
I heard it again after checking out a sweet booty then turning to see a woman in a wheelchair.
"Is this person less worthy of your love?"

I heard it a third time in the midst of a testosterone rush, staring longingly at what is now a vague memory. But I remember so clearly the person directly behind the object of my lust.

I couldn't tell if the person was male of female, just a small, pale face peering over a sheet covering a motorized bed driven by a lever held in the person's mouth.

Again, for the third and final time I was asked, "Is this person less worthy of your love?"

The voice was matter-of-fact, clear, insistent, asking me to answer a direct question; not a thunderous, cloud-parting voice of condemnation forcing me to my knees in repentance. There was no epiphany. I didn't vow then and there to mend my ways.

All I heard was a soft voice calling me to something greater. At the time, however, I didn't have a clue as to what. Yet each word of that simple question began to splinter the foundation of my beliefs, which was basically, if it feels good, do it.

A few years passed before I entered the inner desert of a self-imposed isolation. I was getting bored with sweaty nights in tangled sheets. I avoided social gatherings, refused invitations and walked alone down empty streets. Wandering aimlessly past abandoned warehouses with peeling paint and boarded windows, stepping over yellowing newspapers, scattered bricks edged in gray crumbling mortar and crushed rusting beer cans in vacant lots, I looked within myself and like my surroundings, saw my once unyielding beliefs and cherished self image falling in ruin. I didn't know who I was anymore.

Amid all the wreckage, one wall still stood ready to be demolished, not brick by brick, but with a gut-wrenching explosion. It was time to answer that question not with just a yes or no. I would have to answer it with my life.