Michael Marano, 129 TESS
A Big Gay Peace Corps Spiritual Journey
A story of strength, peace, belonging, healing, pride, freedom, forgiveness, and acceptance.
I love you, but…
I sat in the church I had grown up in, where I was baptized and attended my father’s funeral, where I placed plastic Easter eggs in crayon-decorated, brown paper bags and played Joseph in a Christmas Eve cantata, where I was handed religion but fought for faith. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a month before my departure to Thailand, and the sermon had segued from thankfulness to the sins and deceit of the homosexual with such ease that it chilled me.
Barely audible over my heartbeat were the same words that had extinguished my light before, blindsided as a 13-year-old, trapping me between 4 walls built on the foundation of a lifetime of religious teachings. An anxiety written out of my story long ago clicked its pen and began to draw thought bubbles in the air around me, filling them with ideas I no longer believed. I erased as many as I could but still found my mind revisiting the room where they had originated.
A construction crew with the tagline, “We love everybody but… they’re going to Hell” had boarded the windows from the outside, while I nailed the insides shut myself, afraid of being found out, or even scarier, accepted for who I was. A kid who feared every conceivable outcome. I sat for over a decade counting those planks, thankful for their darkness, believing lies I could feel were untrue, but didn’t have the spirit to debunk. I stayed hidden behind the confines of its brick exterior even in the company of my closest friends.
Closed off for too long, I started to run out of oxygen, leaving me with only two options. I decided to fight for myself not knowing if I could. I took control of my faith, replacing the words of people with the love of God. My light flickered and the ceiling weakened. Family and friends who had been waiting for a signal started to tear away at the tiles. Their persistence to help me feel seen paying off as I allowed them to shine their light on all of my secrets. I love you, but’s outnumbered by I love you, because’s.
In the light, that room was smaller, the walls closing in every second I remained. I sipped coffee, wincing at the acidic flavor I tasted for the first time. Disgusted by the deception, I threw the mug off the wall. I walked over to the shards of glass, braver. Sharp objects in the shapes of all the difficult things I would have to do to find my truth. I stepped on each one. Coffee and blood ran through the veins of the tiles, little rivers flooding into an ocean, lifting me higher. I burned a hole through the roof and climbed into the light.
Adrenaline painted my cheeks red, as the pain of those memories cracked my timeline, gluing the past to the present. I looked down the pew and saw myself sitting there as a child, terrified that for waking up and breathing and simply being he would one day burn in Hell. I handed him a peppermint LifeSaver from my grandmother’s purse, a thank you for not giving up when that felt like the easier option. As he accepted, I saw a strength that I had credited to the hardship radiate off his face. He wanted me to see that it had been there since the beginning.
Empowered, my spine sat up long and straight, determined to keep my head from lowering even an inch, and my hands interlaced on my lap, if they were to tremble no one would see. A fire burned from behind my eyes, what had been water as a teenager turned into gasoline as an adult, shedding chemical properties as I shed tears. This little light of mine was now a blowtorch.
I waited until it was finished, mirrored his head nod of a goodbye, and left that church for the last time. I didn’t know where I was going.
I sat staring out into a sea of rice fields, green as far as I could see. The color green that serves as the origin story for all of the other shades of green.
My body rid itself of all memories and thoughts until only water remained. I flowed into the rice paddies, dissipating for miles and lifetimes, using all I was to help them grow, to make them even greener.
The sun glistened off my entire surface area, every inch of my soul was alive and on fire. In the mud, I was baptized, not by the hands of man, but by the photosynthesis of God.
I became aware of the human body sitting next to the field, it had to contain all of this. A mind that never stopped trying to figure out the secrets of something it didn’t realize was limitless. I marinated in the stillness of the blades of grain as they swayed in the wind, vowing to return home with a gift.
From the edge of the field, the mind found its first distraction. A rush of water returned. The floodgates opened as strings of thought formed and soon I was on my bicycle home.
I blinked and saw only green. I pedaled and felt the burn in my thighs. I was one again. But different. I felt cleaner. I felt fluid. In a deep breath I found the gift I had given myself, peace.
The mosquito bites were worth the rapport as I sat outside with my host brother-in-law using broken Thai to turn itchiness into friendship. Our conversations were usually limited to yelling the other’s name to stop his son from biting the dog but with a friend visiting we powered past bedtime into a time and space that wasn’t being vandalized by a toddler with a permanent marker.
“What’s your favorite Thai football team?” he asked after pausing a clip on his phone.
“I like #23,” I said showing him an Instagram picture.
“Do you like the guy or the team?” he asked laughing, entering the door I had opened for him.
Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.
“Just the guy,” I admitted, looking to him, two years older, like a little brother seeking acceptance.
“Cheers,” he shouted in English, clinking his glass of whiskey off the top of my water bottle.
“Cheers,” I responded in Thai, relieved that my confession was a confirmation, not a revelation.
A few days later, my host sister told me she would no longer be staying with her in-laws the weekend her husband had to go out of town. We smiled, both knowing the reason why. In my truth, they found comfort. Standing by the glow of another closet burned to the ground, I noticed scribbles at the bottom of their family tree. They were in the shape of me. Permanent ink, I belonged.
A Trail of Melted Wax
On my knees, I said a prayer to keep my light lit while helping it spread to others. I lit the wick of my yellow candle from another’s flame. Wax dripped from the top forming circles on the ground. I stuck the bottom of the candle in the wax, watching it harden. The candle stood on its own.
I was in a temple high up in the mountains, incense and history wafted into my nostrils as an elderly man kneeled beside me. He lit his candle from the flame of mine. I stared at him in awe.
He started a healing within me.
Sons & Daughters
I began selling pork with my host father on Sunday afternoons in the province below ours. Almost two years in and I was new again. In my community, I was simply referred to as Teacher. “What’s his nickname?” someone visiting would ask. “Teacher,” a neighbor would answer without an explanation. My presence was expected, no longer foreign. The lack of attention washed away my loneliness.
In this new market I was otherworldly again, though. My first day there, I stole the enchantment of toddlers back from the pig heads that laid on the table. They looked at me with the awe that my students looked at rhinoceros beetles. I smiled. They cried. Everyone else laughed.
I enjoyed this attention, the loss of which had been bittersweet. The expressions on our customer’s faces as my host father told them I was his son varied from amused to skeptical. To pass the time, I counted the wrinkles caused by their contemplation, a number matched only by the amount of free Thai desserts they laid in front of me.
“Does he have a Thai wife?” a woman asked, less interested in purchasing pork, more interested in me.
“No,” said Pa. “He is a teacher.”
“I have a daughter,” she stated with a grin.
“He doesn’t like women,” Pa replied matter of factly.
“Well, I have a son too!” she exclaimed.
Everyone in the market started laughing again as all eyes turned in my direction. A new piece of information tucked into their rolodexes about the foreigner who liked to sell pork. If there was any judgment in the gay slurs I heard whispered in surprise, I felt none. I was too proud that my host father had claimed me as his own and knew me well enough to put flames to my closet before making me scroll through every mother’s camera roll of their daughter’s selfies.
That sense of pride lingered throughout the day, feeling proud of my new community for not backing away from the fire or smiling any less often. Ash in the air, I couldn’t stop from feeling that pride for myself as well, for the person I was and the little kid I had been and for how far we had come together.
I sat enjoying the Sunday message I was receiving by their graciousness, back slouched at a comfortable angle, no fears of a trembling hand.
Lying next to her on lounge chairs, pointing out constellations and listening for the music of each star’s heart, I felt as vulnerable and safe as I ever had. I decided to reveal the anger and sadness that still lingered within me, only coming out late at night or early in the morning like the dew that had begun collecting on our bodies.
She moved her hands over the tar as it spilled out of me, purifying it of the toxins my thoughts had sprinkled in over the years. I could never stop myself from finding the beauty in things she found to be beautiful, laid bare the anger and sadness sparkled underneath the sky.
“I love that you are broken,” she later wrote to me, “and vibrant, and still able to love like you do.” Loved for being broken, not for being perfect. I felt the tip of the asteroid that had always teetered on my shoulder return to its orbit. 66 million tons lighter, I couldn’t keep my feet on the ground.
I rose into the night like a satellite, using the emotions I had once buried as guides to locate which areas still needed healing. I felt her up there, galaxies away, looking for something I couldn’t yet conceive of existing. Her light worked like that. I called out, “do you know how you freed me to fly?” receiving my answer by the reflection of her glow in the moon.
God is Everywhere
I had judged them just as they judged me. Freed to love every part of myself, I forgave them as a byproduct.
God is everywhere, but where there is no love, God is forgotten.
When love is used as a weapon or a means to self-aggrandize or a way to devalue others, it is not love – it is darkness. God is ignored.
I forgave but remained on alert.
Brick by Brick by Brick by Brick
I have a three-song playlist that I listen to on repeat every day. They are all Whitney Houston dance remixes. I try hard to get sick of them but I don’t think I ever will. It’s not right, but it’s okay.
I rolled up the mat that I use for both yoga and sleeping to make room. My host family was out of town and my students were on summer break allotting me the freedom to be loud and an extra 10 minutes before I had to be at school.
I started dancing. I danced to remember. I danced to forget. I hurt my spine doing a somersault and hurt my neck doing a backwards somersault. I danced like Katie from New Jersey and I danced like Kaori from LA. I didn’t get embarrassed one time. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, hair in every direction, limbs jutting from areas they had no business being, a smile on my face. Light shined through every window.
Ain’t it shocking what love can do?
I blinked away the sleepiness that I had mistaken for reality. I could see things I never knew existed. My mind expanded as each new idea came into focus. All different and exciting, but whispering the same thing, “imagine what else is out here, right in front of you, dancing in invisibility, waiting to be found.” One journey ended, another began.
I’ve given you everything you asked for. Now, what are you going to do with it?
I picked my candle up off the ground. I didn’t know where I was going.
Read Michael’s previous articles One More Time, River Rise, See You Again on the Next Time, Falling in Love in the Peace Corps, Not Taking It On, Love, The Mystery of the Tooth in the Sock, and An Island Curse.