Meg Smith, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
In October of 2008 I came out to Marty, the man who is now my ex-husband, after twenty-eight years of marriage. I had suspected years before that I was attracted to women. After coming out to myself it was several months before I could share it with him. The day that I came out to him I was driving home and I saw people working on a piece of property. There were a couple of small cedar trees laying by the side of the road. I had always wanted to turn a cedar tree into a bottle tree.
I was going to need Marty’s help to heft these trees home. I asked permission and the people said it was okay to come and pick them up. So, I went home and came out to Marty. I really wanted to get the trees and I thought I couldn’t ask him to do this huge favor for me and then tell him that I would be leaving him. So, this just seemed the right time.
At first, he was angry and confused but during this same conversation he looked at me and said, “This is really brave of you.” That meant a whole lot to me. Then I said, “By the way I have this favor,” so we went together to pick up the two cedar trees. It felt like my best friend was helping me.
A week after that we called each of our children who were both living out of state and told them I was coming out. They took it rather hard, my daughter sobbed and said, “I just can’t imagine you not being together.” My son said, “It is going to take some time to get my head around this but I am glad you are able to be yourself.” Since that time, they have come a long way around. My son has said that we are more of a real family now than we were when he was younger.
Marty and I had been part of a very conservative Christian community and there was a high expectation of what a Christian family was. It was stressful to try and meet that expectation so I think we were pretty hard on the kids. I know that I was hard on myself along with being depressed. When I was able to really be myself I became much happier. I moved out in November, 2008 and then on February 13, 2009 I met Ann.
Ann Keefe; Chapel Hill, North Carolina
That year there was a Valentines Dance benefiting the Common Woman’s Chorus. An email went out wanting to know if any of us wanted to meet for dinner before the dance. I decided to go. I had not been in a relationship for two years and I hadn’t really gone out and met anybody or done anything so I was in a good place to be social. I had also done some interior work. Prior to the dance, I had been to a Buddhist meeting and one of the leaders talked about how to attract the right person into your life. She advised to make a list of all the characteristics you want in another person and then chant to be that person because you attract the same person that you happen to be. So, I made a list of 65 very specific things and began chanting.
I went to the dinner and Meg sat across from me. I thought she was with another woman who had come in about the same time. They knew each other and they sat together. But, I was intrigued. We talked throughout the meal and shared things about our lives. At the end of the meal they came around and gave us fortune cookies. We went around the table reading our fortunes out loud and when it came around to mine it said, “The love of your life will appear before you unexpectedly.” I looked up and there was Meg sitting across from me.
I had had to park a distance away from the dinner and Meg asked me if I wanted a ride to my car. She followed me to the dance and we just danced. We were dancing a fast dance and she blurted out, “Do you like Joan Baez?” I said, “Yes,” and Meg said, “I just got two tickets yesterday, do you want to go?” That was pretty brave of her.
So, we made arrangements and then we slow danced. That was really nice. I then invited her to an Oscar party at my house and then she invited me out to lunch. We had lunch on a Wednesday and talked about how it can be confusing when you get together with another woman. You wonder if it is a friendship or if there is some romantic interest too.
I was on my way to a Buddhist meeting that night and I thought, “I am going to call Meg after the meeting and tell her that I am romantically interested and want more than a friendship.” The phone rang while I was driving. It was Meg and she said, “I just want to be clear, are we going to be just friends or is there a romantic intention here?” I told her, “I was going to call you and tell you that I have a romantic intention.”
We have had that connection ever since, sometime we think the same thing or say the same thing. It was an instant connection. Remember that list of 65 characteristics? Meg met all but one of them. After three years we decided to have a Buddhist-Episcopal commitment ceremony. This was before we could be legally married and two years to the day, Monday, October 13, 2014, the second day that marriage was legal for same sex couples in NC, we became legally married.
When my son, Ihsan, was a baby he was a great sleeper. From the beginning he actually slept five or six hours through the night. The catch was that he would not sleep in his crib. We had it set up in our room next to our bed and we would rock him to sleep and as soon as we put him down in his crib he would wake up and start crying. So, we had him in our bed for awhile and we would have him sleep in a little baby swing that we had and he could rock to sleep in that.
When he was about five or six months old I decided that we were going to transition him into the crib. During this time, one afternoon, I was trying to put him down for his nap. He was just not having any of it. I put him down in the crib and he cried and cried and cried. So I put him in the swing, he kept crying and wouldn’t go to sleep. Finally I turned the swing on and he still wouldn’t go to sleep. I came in and got down face to face with him and I started talking to him. You know, how you sometimes talk to kids like they are adults but it is like completely ridiculous?
Well, I said, “Ihsan, now look, you really need to take a nap.” All of a sudden, while I was talking to him, he reached out and put his hand on my cheek and just rested it there. He gazed into my eyes for what felt like five solid minutes but it was probably a minute or two. He just stared at me and the only way I can describe it was like he was an old soul. He was just gazing at me eye to eye. It is the probably the closest I have ever come to feeling like I was looking into God’s eyes and God was looking into my eyes. We just had this absolute moment. Eventually I broke the gaze and he settled down and went to sleep and took his nap.
This happened a few more times, I would be putting him in his car seat, leaning over to buckle him in or putting him down for a nap or whatever, he would just reach out and touch my cheek and look into my eyes for a minute.
How a piece of music changed my life
I started composing and playing music on the piano when I was eleven. Before I went to the University of Cairo I had won a piano competition for the Opera House for playing Rachmaninoff C sharp minor. As a young man, I decided to take a degree in Agricultural Science which afforded me with a knowledge of the land and its animals. I worked for a company, when I graduated from Cairo University, that sent me out to the land to teach the people what the animals needed, how to rotate the plants on the land and how to set up irrigation systems.
There was a group of ten or twelve of us that would go out to the farms in Egypt. When we would arrive it was a big celebration. All the villagers including the singers and the dancers would receive us, the engineers of the land. Then we would do the work the next day. It was a wonderful way to learn about Egypt’s different music styles when these incredible people would come and celebrate our arrival.
This was my work until suddenly I heard about the war. It was 1948. Of course, I was subject to the draft and I didn’t like the idea. I felt that war was really something that lived in the heart of every human being. When you declare war, you are really affecting everybody. So, I said it is dark and damp on the war front and this affects everybody involved. I put my feelings into a piano composition. Then I found I was exempt from the war because I was with the Agriculture Department.
We had in Cairo a huge cathedral called All Saints and it dedicated itself to performing European classical music. There was a committee made up of people from the cultural offices of France, of Italy, of England and lay people in the community. The lay people asked, “Why don’t you have any Egyptian music?“ They said, “We don’t know anybody that plays it.”
One of the lay committee people said, “I know someone who plays Egyptian music, Halim El-Dabh.” The head of the committee said, “I have never heard of this man. We don’t want any scandal.” So, they decided to spy on me. One day I am at home and someone knocks on my door from the British embassy, its cultural office. He makes up a story as to what brought him there, “I have come to say Hi. I heard that you are a composer. I play the flute and maybe I can play the flute for you.” He was very jolly.
The custom in Egypt when someone comes to your door is that you invite them for tea. When you have strangers coming in you offer them tea. We sat down to tea and he began looking at my music and he began to play and he said, “Wow, what kind of music is this? It is really difficult!” So, I guess he went back to the committee and said, “This guy is for real.”
So, the Cathedral scheduled me to play February 1949. They told me that I had a half hour on the program to play my new work, It is Dark and Damp On the Front, a declaration of how I felt about the war and how people did not want to fight. Also, the other compositions I had composed while working on the land and watching the people dance and listening to music they exposed me to. It was part of my life.
I was very nervous. One of my oldest brothers was very interested in my music and he was a philosopher in his own way. My other older brother was a medical doctor and funny enough he gave me a combination of vitamin B and C combined, he injected it in my vein right before the performance. I was just ringing with energy. I was so nervous and he was helping me be strong.
On stage was a nine-foot Pleyel piano, it was a huge piano made by a French firm and it was as good as a Steinway. I sat down and went “BANG” and I really shook up the place with my It is Dark and Damp on the Front and then the other pieces. I played them all. And boy, it was such an excitement in Cairo because my “BANG” shivered the city. We have in Cairo many newspapers, local Arabic papers, British and French papers and all of them wrote about Halim El-Dabh. I was claimed that night and I couldn’t believe it, one concert. All of a sudden, I am a composer of international status. I was excited but I couldn’t believe what was going on, I said, “I couldn’t have done that.”
So, this went on. The Egyptian government was excited. I was on the radio and they invited me to talk and play on the national radio. They commissioned me to write a piece to play for Mohammad Ali, one of the government leaders. The whole of Cairo’s music scene and my music teacher was electrified at what I had done and what had been accomplished so quickly.
I remember the first time I ever heard that I had an older brother. I was fifteen years old. I remember the moment. I was living with my dad and we were in the kitchen and I was getting into the fridge and I was blithely saying something about being my mom’s first born. My dad got this look on his face, the “I know something you don’t know look” and said, “You are not your mother’s first born.” My whole world just stopped at that moment. I said, “What!?”
He told me that my mom had gotten pregnant at 22, she had given up the baby and that there was a brother out there somewhere. I felt a lot of things. Mostly anger against my mom because I felt so betrayed. I very awkwardly brought it up to my mother the next time I saw her because I wanted her to tell me about the baby. We were in her garden. She lived in this sweet little home where I saw her on the weekends. We often worked in her garden. I made a very awkward, fifteen-year-old attempt to get her to confess.
She just looked at me and that look on her face was sheer horror. And she said, “What did you say?” I tried to back pedal but there was no getting out of it. I thought she would look guilty, not sad. She looked the saddest I had ever seen her look. She said, “How do you know, who told you?” When I told her that my father had she was angry, “He had no business telling you that.”
I knew that. Of course, he didn’t. I sat on this knowing about an older brother for a while. I had never felt completely at home in my family. I had always felt relatively safe but I always felt there was something else that I was looking for. I always felt a bit like the family outsider which caused a deep longing inside me to belong. So, I went about my business, found my tribe in strange places that were different from my family. I was like, “Whoa, people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and are just fascinating.”
I eventually married and had kids and the longing crept back in. When you start to have children that is when you turn back to your family of origin to see what is there. It was rough and bumpy. My mother was affected by her decision to give up her baby. It haunted her. It was her private and painful burden one that she couldn’t resolve and this burden made it difficult to be in relationship with her other children.
She didn’t want to find adopted baby for a long time. Her husband had five children and she brought two to the marriage and when they started to have kids, she just felt overwhelmed and didn’t have the energy to worry about one more life.
When Audrey, my daughter was born, for whatever reason Mom started to get curious and feel ready to find her son. She opened the closed adoption from her side so that he would be able to find her if he decided to look. She waited. She didn’t hear anything. We would check in periodically and she became discouraged.
A few years after this, I was diagnosed with cancer which complicated things again with my family relationships because I was very vulnerable and in a time of need. If you don’t feel a strong sense of belonging with your family when you are well, it is even harder when you are chronically ill.
Last year I became worse and although I had not been in contact with my mother for several months, I had to go and live with her so she could take care of me. I was in so much pain that I really couldn’t get out of bed so she would lie with me in this tiny bed in the dark. One day she said, “I found him.” She had known for a while, and she had met her son. She said his name is Jon. He is fine and he is a good man. My mother and I hadn’t been talking so I hadn’t heard before.
Within a week or two, Jon and I started talking on the phone. I have never had that longing for a soul mate. My longing has been always to have a brother, that trusted person that you could just connect to and feel comfortable with. I finally felt connected to that older brother. But the biggest connection came later as I dealt with my body that was weak and needing so much care from the cancer. I was wishing to feel deeply cherished and that is when Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Here I am, cherishing is what I do. I am ready to listen and to talk. This is what I do.”
I was like, “Oh, that is what You do!” Growing up with the bad cultural messages about Christianity I literally thought that God was about following the rules and doing good works. I literally was unaware that Divine Love was a gift. That changed everything. Divine Love became my place of rest, this love met my longing.
Then I found that Jon was also supported by walking on a Christian path. This was my dream, to have a family member who was also seeking, who had also felt lost, who was struggling, questioning and looking for that sense of belonging. Jon came in with all of these things and there was this ease between us, what a gift.
Jon Baker, Chandler, Arizona
I was raised in the Lutheran church. There are Scandinavian roots in the family. When I was ten we moved out to a rural area outside of San Diego, California. We weren’t close to any church so we just stopped going. When I went to college I was what you would call a seeker. I was looking for information and trying to learn. I spoke to some Christian friends and asked them about their faith. I read parts of the Bible, just looking to learn not to join or to fill some place in my heart. I was just curious. I met many different kinds of Christians. I even met and talked to a Catholic priest. I found nothing objectionable about anything, it just didn’t quite stick. Yet.
I got married straight out of college and have been divorced since. My first wife was Catholic and that brought me more into the church. However, I had been exposed to a lot of ignorance and prejudice against the Catholic Church if not Christianity in general. This bias really kept me away from the Church. In 1993 I had what I guess you would call an epiphany. I don’t know what participated this experience at this time and place. I had been reading a biography about Bob Marley who was a very spiritual man. He was very deeply into Christianity. That really affected me. I had a lot of respect for him, his music and his attitudes towards life and I as I read his biography I realized this all came from his faith.
So, one day in June 1993 I had been reading this book outside on the patio and I came into the house and something hit me like a ton of bricks. I stopped dead in my tracks. There was something overwhelming happened in my brain and in my soul. I remember thinking, “What just happened?” I realized that whatever I had been believing before just wasn’t true. And God wanted me to go and find the truth. When God tells you to do something, you pretty much have to do it.
I was told to go to church. When I asked God which one, I got that it didn’t matter just as long as I went. My wife was Catholic and there had been some friction because of my attitudes and I said that I wanted to go to church with her. It must have absolutely floored her. So, I came into the Catholic Church with a lot of zeal. It was a bit extreme and I did some proselytizing and fell into some judge mentalism about people who weren’t in the faith. That moderated over the years. I was compelled in my heart to help those less fortunate so I did a lot of volunteering.
In 2000 my mom died and I had a latent bi-polar disorder that had manifested a bit before she died but after her death, I went completely off the rails on the crazy train. I left my job, became pretty much useless as a father and a human being, horrible to live around. My faith got mixed up in all that. Where does that go? Bi polar disease it is like putting my brain into a blender, buzzing it and pouring it back into my head. I was totally mis-wired. I turned to my faith during this time and I just didn’t find any answers. I didn’t find any comfort and I felt abandoned. I was doing a lot of swearing and shaking my fist at God.
We look for reasons when bad things happen and wonder why God isn’t doing anything. Why wasn’t he doing anything to help me? I had been a loyal, faithful Christian all these years and now he was just abandoning me. I was left with many questions and no answers at that time. Eventually I got treatment for my bipolar condition but I was still left with a heart full of bitterness. I was back to square one of questioning: What is this faith< Really? Who is God, Really? What is my relationship with God, Really?
Over time I continued to pray and think and instead of forming in my mind this image of who God is based on the bible and the faith, I looked at the reality of this world here and now, of my life and looked for who God really is. You can’t describe Him in a book. There is no church that has a lock on who He is. And you can’t put God in a box and say this is the way He is, period. As messy as we humans are, God is even more incomprehensible.
I ended up from being on one end of the spectrum where God plans everything to being somewhere in-between this and God winding up the universe and letting it just play out by itself. It was the beginning of my restoration when I realized that God works with us by giving us opportunities and it is up to us to make use of them. Now I had a better understanding of what our relationship was. It has its ups and downs and I learn more about God as time goes on. I grew up.
About twenty years ago my mother died after a long illness. My father took care of her and I helped a lot. Five months after she passed away my father had a stroke and died, right out of the blue. All of a sudden, I inherited a lot of money and a lot of furniture and our life changed. At the time we were living in a little rental house in Durham. It was time to buy a house of our own. I was forty-five and I had never bought a house and didn’t know how to buy one which made me quite nervous.
One night I was having dinner with a good friend of my parents and a good friend of mine. She was the mother of my best friend and has been important to me for my whole life. I was lamenting the fact that I had to buy a house and she looked at me and said, “What is your dream house?” And immediately I said, “We would love to Chatham County on a piece of land big enough to have large gardens and it would be really cool to live on the Haw River.” We had friends out that way and had already met a lot of people who lived in Chatham.
Two days later she called me and said, “I have this friend who has this brother selling a house in Chatham County and it is on the Haw River. You should check it out.” I contacted this guy and we came out to take a look. It took us a couple of months to get out here. When we finally did, it was so drop dead gorgeous that we couldn’t believe it. Even though we had been to a financial planner and had a budget and this house was beyond that budget, we said, “Why not? We have all this money.” It felt like playing Monopoly. We bought it and we never even looked at another house. It just felt like this house was coming right to us.
Our daughter Katie has been able to grow up here, wild and free. She turned nine when we moved here. Her birthday is in May and it was really warm so we did a Floating on the Haw River Birthday Party. We had all these little girls floating on inner tubes going down our little rapids. It was darling.
Once upon a time, a long time ago I had three children. I still have them. My middle son had heart surgery. He was four at the time and after wards his behavior went, “Wow” very explosive. There were a lot of melt downs and he just couldn’t bounce back. The preschool gave us all sorts of problems about keeping him there. We refer to it as the year from hell.
I remember a counselor trying to tell us that there was something wrong with him and that my son wasn’t in the right place. That the school couldn’t help him. They wouldn’t tell me what it was, it was all very confusing. It was awful. I kept arguing with them so that what they said wouldn’t be true. It was interesting, on my way here I was listening to NPR and they were doing a bit on the paradox of information and how people can dig in despite evidence when you challenge something that is really important to them. They will double down. That is what was happening to me. I was getting information from people about my son that I really didn’t want to be true.
So, I was really buying into making excuses and avoiding the situation. It was just getting worse and he wasn’t doing any better. I remember very vividly a moment when I just saw, the way other people saw my son and the blinders came off. I had to accept something was really wrong with him. It didn’t change anything about the circumstances but that acceptance helped us move out of that stale place.
Things then started to get better, just from that place of acceptance. He had autism and he didn’t have the resilience to recover well after his surgery. The surgery uncovered something that was already there. The acceptance started us on a journey and it goes on to this day.
I play the beat box flute and this story started by my looking on the LEAF website and seeing that Bootsy Collins was headlining in Asheville and holding a workshop there. I figured it would be a good idea to go and learn some stuff off of him and the Rubber Band at the workshop. I thought it would help along with the production of what I am trying to do on my album.
I went to the workshop and spent the days sitting in each one of the sessions. At the end Bootsy had a time when we could interview him and ask questions. I went up to him and told him that if he wanted any funky flute on his album I did something called the Beat Box Flute. This caught his attention so I gave him my business card when I gave him a handshake. He looked at it and didn’t really know what to think. When I told him about the Beat Box flute he was intrigued. After the questions, there was a time for taking pictures. Everyone was getting in line and I decided to put my flute together and get a good picture of me posing with Bootsy.
When I got up there I asked if I could pose with my flute and he said, “Absolutely” I also asked him if I could play and show him what I’ve got and he said, “Yes.” So, I laid down a funky beat and there was this guy taking pictures and the backup vocalist was going crazy for it and Bootsy Collins was blown away and called Patti, his wife, to come on over with a video camera. The next thing I know he asked me if I was coming to his show the next day. I told him, “Absolutely.” He asked me if I had his contact information and he gave me his card. He wanted to make sure I had it before I left.
The next day came along and I got right up in the front close to the stage and waited for the show to start. When Bootsy came on he recognized me as the flute man and asked me if I had brought my flute. I held up my back pack showing him that I had it. He said, “In a little bit we are going to have to get funky!”
Thirty minutes or so pass by and he begins to talk about how James Brown picked him up off the streets at a time when he needed it. The next thing I know he tells me to come up on stage. I hop the fence and get up on stage and start jamming out with the Rubber Band and Bootsy. There was about twenty thousand people in the crowd and it was a feeling like nothing else I had ever had. It is kind of hard to explain. First you have butterflies and then you realize you do it or you don’t and if you are going to do it you might as well do it right. The crowd seemed to like it a lot. It was unbelievable.
I have had a wonderful summer so far. I am a teacher so I have had the summer off and I decided not to use air conditioning. I know this would sound abhorrent to most people. I have kept it off until recently when it turned really, really hot. I have loved it. I have heard the birds and the insects and the tree frogs. I have used my fans to feel the breeze. I am so aware of the outdoors and indoors and I have felt completely connected.\
I started to realize that loving all the sounds of the cicadas and tree frogs and katydids goes back to my childhood. I grew up on a little farm in Virginia and we didn’t have air conditioning. I was really pretty much a feral child, spending time in the woods and swamps. This contentedness also happens when I ride my town bike. I get this feeling of freedom and timelessness that escapes me when I am in my everyday working world all nice and tidied away with the air conditioning on.
Which, by the way, is most definitely on today since it is like 99 degrees outside. But it was fun while it lasted.
Once upon a time I graduated from college and I wanted to get out of town so I drove to Portland, Oregon with my dad. I wanted to go far, far away because I had had such a rough last semester at school. I just felt it was time to leave and go away.
We listened to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on the way over. That was really awesome because we are both really into fantasy. We went to Los Vegas. We both gave ourselves fifty dollars and I actually came out with seventy dollars and he came out with nothing. That was sweet and I love Los Vegas because I won.
We mainly just drove to Portland. I didn’t have an apartment until mid-way into the road trip. I called places when we were on the road and I found a really small one bedroom apartment. I lived on a futon. I only stayed there two months. The Vegan Tiki bar where I found a job just didn’t work out. I was like, “I eat meat.” I just didn’t find my crowd in Portland.
Then I went to Penland, North Carolina. I felt really lonely in Portland and I wanted a community. My mom had gone to Penland and she loved it. She had taken me there to visit. It wasn’t what I expected. It is great but I think I was still recovering from the hard time in college and in Portland. I was just moving really quickly to try and get over things. But I did make a big print and it is hanging on the wall here at the Visual Art Exchange.
I do prints sometimes. The print is something good that came out of all of this. I think I make my art mainly when I am not happy. I don’t make art when I am happy. I was talking to my dad about this, “I haven’t been making much art but I have been happy.” “That is understandable,” he said. And he told me something that his mom or grandmother had said about never wanting a son to be a poet because they are very sad.
“Yeah,” I said, “It is kind of a nice sacrifice. It is nice to have art to go back to when I do get upset.”
Now I am working in a pottery studio outside of Asheville. I am trying to live in Asheville. Since I have graduated I haven’t stopped moving. Hopefully, Asheville will be the last stop until grad school because I would love to have a home for a bit.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.