Created in response to the sudden suicide of a childhood friend, this body of work comes together as a visual narrative of the coming of age memories and experiences of multiple queer men from the West Michigan region. As Much Heaven as Earth explores the life experiences of these men through their own words as they attempt to answer the question, “Why do we choose to stay?” The visual direction of the work is guided by the sense of magical realism that author, Haruki Murakami, achieves in his novel, Norwegian Wood, the basic ideas behind Joseph Campbell's, Hero's Journey Monomyth, and the breakdown of the Five Stages of Grief as theorized by Swiss Psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.
I remember the times we spent together cleaning up after every dinner— our hands submerged in the scalding water, enduring it. I remember how one of us washed while the other dried. An hour would easily fly-by in the process because we were so lost in just being there, together. I remember how you would open up to me, revealing your thoughts on our family. It was like you lifting the rug off the slanted kitchen floor you would clean every week. I remember how you would listen to me—listen to me fully—about how I was getting picked-on or how many penguins I could doodle back in the fourth grade. Honestly, doing the dishes with you made me appreciate you and all your hard work as a mother.
Somewhere along the way we stopped doing the dishes together and I began to do them alone. By the time I came out in high school I did everything alone. Even after I left your home I continued to do the dishes alone. It helped me to process everything—the screaming, the homophobia, the religious and moral beliefs you would use against me, the night I left and how I became an adult through the state to put myself through high school, how I put myself through college and funded it, how I live disconnected from blood family, and how I still love myself fully even when my family does not. Do you remember how we would listen to each other while doing dishes? That was my favorite part.
So please, listen now.
You were my first caretaker—thank you for bringing me into this world.
Thank you for holding me when I had night terrors.
Thank you for letting me be close to my grandparents.
Thank you for letting me watch romantic comedies and Lifetime with you.
Thank you for letting me sing loudly in my bedroom.
Thank you for letting me create art even if you resent it now.
Thank you for showing me you still care.
Thank you for showing me how to hand-wash dishes.
It was not easy to leave you. I grieved your loss, even though you are still alive. When I speak, laugh, smile, and breathe—I think of you. When I look in the mirror, I see you.
Are you still listening?
My sexual orientation is not a fault. It is not your fault. I cannot tell you that enough and I cannot stand to see you hate yourself when you look at me. More than I want your love and acceptance, I want you to love yourself. Whenever we have a brief visit I can see the years of tears and the fear of God in your eyes. I can see the wrinkles of worry and depression as your hands clasp around your arms and sit heavily on your heart. I can see how your brain and heart are tormented from the beliefs that separate you and me. I worry about you more than you think. It was easy for me to accept and love myself so please don’t worry about me. I know you will, but I have always taken care of myself; you know that. I will keep doing the dishes and I will keep thinking of you. If by chance, can we do the dishes together one last time? Maybe, we can be attentive to one another again and fully hear the words we both long to say.
I hope you are still listening.
I love you,
It was goofy of me to think that love was an all-saving, all-renewing miracle. But it makes sense why I regarded all of my lovers as demigods. Praised their hands, kissed their feet, and prayed to their hearts to find my/inner peace. But if gods are monsters and humans are its evil creation, it only makes sense that even in my blind obedience, love and it's aficionados still left me shipwrecked.
I thought all of the times I walked into walls were small learning lessons; the times I walked into traffic and left unscathed miracles. But more often than not, I was hit by a car and bruised in the head. More often than not I've been cursed out by drivers and driven through drywall. I've scraped more knees than there are petals to pick from. So why am I still here?
Because I can't seem to give up on looking for and learning to love. This last time left me stranded, dropped into the median on the autobahn. My heart knows neither how to be soft nor hard. My journey has been through fire, ice, stone, oceans, parasites, and what I thought was paradise until I found what I think to be a romantic and sexual reality I might have found peace living in.
"I'm sick," I told her.
"I know," she said back, quiet, firm, consistent, nurturing. She held me tighter and closer. I relaxed for the first time in my twenty years of life.
What a gift to be given. I want to be careful not to squander such a gift for us. Gilda Radner said it best—
While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die—whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness.
I’m writing you from our 52nd year of life. Yes, we make it into our fifties and while I know we never thought we would make it this far, stranger things have occurred and I am betting we still have a lot of life ahead. I know early on we wanted the gay part of you to die. I know we wanted the agony of being different to be erased from our self, and the teasing and the torment from other kids to stop. The feelings for men—the desire, the love, and the touch from men—I know we wanted it all to go away. Maybe then we’d fit in? Maybe then we’d be happy. But what a tragedy if being gay was taken from us! It’s a part of our story and a defining part of our soul. I have peeled back some memories from when we were first discovering who we were and wanted to help move us forward into a better and brighter life filled with more joy and less pain.
I remember singing in musical chorus our senior year in the class production of Pippin. During a rehearsal of the opening song Mrs. Pantlind, the director, called us out in front of everyone and said, “Watch David’s expression – you all need to believe the music and create the energy just like him. This is the start of the show and the audience needs to feel the excitement for what’s ahead.” We felt that song deep inside and knew it revealed who we were created to be and who we were becoming—
We've got magic to do... Just for you
We've got miracle plays to play
We've got parts to perform... Hearts to warm
Kings and things to take by storm
As we go along our way
While on stage we knew that part of that deeper magic was being gay. We discovered whom we could really be – a person filled with magic. We fell in love the summer after on a trip to Europe with our classmates and he traveled along. We were closer to him than we thought possible to any person. We ached when we were apart from him; you and he both said, “Love ya” often, but that love never crossed the line. It never felt the touch at a time in our life when others were adding touch to their feelings. And with such fear, we cowered from the expression; we did not want to risk being turned away.
That would not be the first time. Even today we still have the challenge of sharing the love with touch and vulnerability. You see, we’ve tried to live the life of others—the life Mom and Dad wanted for us and not the life that God gave us. God wept for our tragedy, but Mom and Dad just didn’t know better. They are profoundly better than their faith. They love us and that love will never go away even when they won’t embrace us as a gay son. But today, I can say that they will embrace us still as their son. Much will hurt, sting, cause rifts, even bring loads of silence, but stand steadfast. Being a gay man is God’s gift in the man you are created to be. So let me share some of the deeper magic you’ll discover ahead. Watch for it and be ready to grab hold.
Love will happen with women even when desire for sex won’t enter so don’t be afraid to cry, hug, laugh, or be a true friend to the women in your life. Sex will happen with men even when love won’t be a part of the equation. You’ll appreciate it and be able to tell the difference between body response and heart response. The cancer journeys—all five—have nothing to do with our being gay. However, accepting our sexuality will heal something inside that may help our physical, mental, and spiritual health for years to come. Our debt is purely a security blanket for being gay. As long as we kept buying things, we thought that hole would be filled. Trust the magic of others and when we feel at our weakest, reach out. They will catch us. When being a bear (yes we are a bear!), be more Yogi than Grizzly. Humor is better than anger in any situation. Therapy heals and rebuilds life. Always run towards healing. Always share our story. Keep faith at the core of who we are. It’s not the surface truth that will be revealed; it’s the deeper magic beyond all surfaces that will provide the true gift of life. Keep feeding your soul. Cherish friendships and let others in. Simply trust. Actively trust. Grandmothers are to love and our grandmother loved and knew us before we knew ourselves. Let our heart be broken because it will be broken. Just know a seed has been planted – and for once we will let it take root.
Sing! Laugh! Love and look at us as the beautiful and magical person that God created. Naked – there are no flaws – it’s when we start covering up that we become flawed. Every decade will be better than the last; that I can promise us. We have every chance to not be much afraid because we’ve got magic to do—a deeper magic than I can put into words.
Love to you,
Powerless and outside of society, the reservation remains a hopeless place. Alone, you aimlessly drift in the memories of growing up in a developing country. You are a refugee lost in a foreign world beyond the scope of your comprehension. How could you be a part of something that appears to have no room for someone like you? You don’t understand this new world, yet you understand that it needs you. And despite being set up for failure from the start, you are still here. You are still trying.
Return to that child
Lost in the brush
Running out of fear
Return to that child
Sand tucked in creases
The hills your amphitheater
Grass and sage applause.
Hot heat evaporates
Soft stomach of the dog
Dunk a cup into the well water
Food from the ice box
Return to that child
Because you must.
I went to South Korea when I was 19, ready for adventure, independence, and a healthy dose of soul-searching. My first year at college had been full of questioning and experimenting with my sexuality, leaving me ripe for a long hiatus from everything I had known to truly find myself. My semester at Handong University in the small coastal city of Pohang seemed to be the perfect solution.
I had dreamt of going to South Korea all through high school. I attended a small, conservative Christian school that existed almost entirely on the tuition fees of the international student body, about half of my graduating class. Many of my closest friends at the time came from Seoul and Busan. They taught me to read and write the language and a few of the essential phrases I would need. Things like “Don’t touch me pervert!” or “Want to die?” There were, of course, the ones I had stumbled on all on my own, like the time I asked my friend for a pair of chopsticks but ended up saying, “Suck my dick.”
I was ready to learn more appropriate words and to give myself the complete immersion experience so many of my friends had gone through when they came to the tiny Appalachian hamlet of Houghton, NY. I was excited to make friends, eat food, and get a fresh start on my life. Then I met Lana.
Lana was everything I could hope for in a woman: globally minded, beautiful, intelligent, independent, ambitious, challenging, and understanding. Not long into our dating relationship I told her I identified as bisexual. She didn’t care, as long as I loved her. As the semester came to a close, we knew we had to make a decision about our future and like the young and dumb in love, we decided we would make it work. I was spending the summer in South Korea before heading to China for the fall semester and she was going on a spiritual retreat to Cheju Island. Handong had that effect on both of us. We were both falling strongly into the old Christian tradition. Our faith told us we would be fine, that I could resist my attraction to men and be her partner, that love could withstand the distance, and that God wanted us to be together. So before heading to China I decided to spend a week with her and her family in Mongolia. Together, we traversed the expansive Mongolian steppe, breathing the purest air on Earth and staying for one night in what was once the capital of the largest empire in world history. Our time in Mongolia filled my head with visions of the future: I would ask my parents to offer her a blue ribbon, a requirement for marriage, and one I finished school we would move to the states or back to South Korea. But all too soon, the fall semester approached and it was time for me to go to China.
China was the opposite of Mongolia in nearly every possible way. The air was dirty, the urban sprawl was as vast as the open grassland, and I discovered that the love of my life was to be a man. In China, I fell in love with Colby. In only two days, everything I thought I had built crumbled and my true identity to came screaming out from the deepest parts of my soul. Everything I thought I knew fell away in his arms and everything he knew fell apart in mine. When Lana came to visit me in China, I told her everything. We cried and she said she still believed it could work. In response, I silently kissed her eyelids knowing that this symbolized a Mongolian farewell used when you go off to war and you’re unsure if you will ever see the other person again.
Crying beneath my sunglasses, I watched her leave on the train back to Ulaanbaatar. It took me until nightfall to get back to the college. I ran to Colby’s room, where he had locked himself nearly the entire week Lana had come to visit. As he looked up, I told him that I chose him, that I loved him, and that I wanted to be with him forever, just like I would say to him on our wedding day.
A New God
There was a lot that was said when I was first coming out to you. I remember the intervention like it was yesterday, staged with all the members of our immediate family. I remember the tears, the yelling, and your navy blue colored bible that sat argumentatively on your lap. Its words used to get me back on the track of righteousness and not the dark path to the eternal Hell fire that I was threatened. The message was clear: If you continue to be gay you will burn in Hell. If you do not reject your attraction to men you will reject the gift of salvation from God. A gift I was taught to believe would never be taken away from me was now a gift that would expire. Everything I had ever heard of omniscience and unconditional love was over. I had found the end of God’s compassion.
This pain was too hard to bear. I drank. I drugged. I tried to fill the void with meaningless relationships one after the other. The God I grew up loving no longer loved me back. The light of God went gray and I went to an altered state of life. A life where I felt nothing because feeling was too painful. My pain didn’t live in this world it lived in the afterlife. God took away everything that I once knew and replaced it with agony, sorrow, fear, and sadness. God lied to me and completely shoved me out of the mansion before I even arrived.
Then... I met God. I learned one day that the God I had grown up with was created in a lot of ways to constrain, not to love. He showed me that much of the scripture used as a gun to shoot bullets of shame and disgust into my flesh were directly based on facts through interpretation. An interpretation meant to control me. God helped me comprehend that my previously learned message of a freely given salvation was in reality a silent contract drawn up with guidelines and rules meant to remind me of how unworthy I am and how I will always fall short. The God I grew to know loved me for me. And why wouldn’t He? This God was the one who put my bones together and aligned my heart and my brain to work in perfect harmony. This God was the one who blessed my life as a reflection of who He is not who He isn’t. This God taught me how to love and how to accept love freely. He showed me how to forgive. He allowed me to recognize that holding on to past pains only invites injure to my heart. Above all, He showed me that to let go of pain means letting go of any negative residuals that no longer define me.
Mom, I do not blame you or even long for the past to be changed. Even as I am writing these words I feel so blessed to have been through all that we have. I would never have been able to begin to grasp or even fathom God’s love for me if I hadn’t experienced the loss of a love that I was told would never leave me. Thank you for continuing to love me even when God didn’t. Thank you for showing me your unconditional love - even when the religion we were raised in would have allowed you to push me out completely.
The resilience I have gathered is due in part to my journey but mostly because of my DNA. You and dad have shown me how to be strong, confident, and courageous in everything I do. Even during our hardest times I could feel the prayer that you were surrounding me with. God heard those prayers and He has made me the man you were praying for. Thank you for never giving up on us. I love you.
Robert Andy Coombs
What do you miss the most?
Really? Were you a good hugger?
Oh bitch...I would get all up in that hugging business.
Why did you like hugging?
I liked the feeling of hugging and being able to get closer to someone. It was just less awkward...Now there’s too much stuff in the way all the time LOL.
I like hugging you! It’s my favorite thing when you lean your head in and let me give you a little kiss on the head. Your hugs are still very warm.
Haha, oh I know. I guess I also miss the feeling of dominance. I was physically tall and strong so I could really squeeze the person to my liking.
Hey, can I ask you something?
Yeah, go for it.
Do you ever miss being able to walk?
At times… I miss being tall, LOL. And I miss giving really good hugs.
Do you ever think about the sensation of walking or running?
Sometimes I do in my dreams, which is cool. But yeah, I do think about the sensation of walking or running. For me it was just another way to express myself—the way I walked with sass and the strides I would take. I loved the way walking engaged my leg muscles because they were so beautiful and so strong. I specifically loved walking with my loud, bossy shoes on, like casual dress shoes... the lace-up loafers type deal with a hard sole. The sound they made as they hit the ground is what I liked most. I also miss the playfulness of running.
What do you mean?
Whenever I would do things or play with my friends we always ended up running towards or away from one another for the thrill of the chase and I could bob and weave like no one else. Like in capture the flag or tag. I was the bomb-diggity.
Oh I remember those games! They were so much fun as a kid.
They were even better as an adult. I was always really competitive and as an adult you are so much more agile, stronger, and faster, which made it so much more intense.
When was the last time you played capture-the-flag or tag?
I think the last time was the summer before my accident eight years ago now.
I sent the text message signaling my arrival and anxiously looked around in every direction of the snowy parking lot, waiting for her to appear. I could only hear the sound of my rapid heartbeat. After driving over 300 miles, almost half the trip on a spare because my tire blew out near Ann Arbor, I now found myself parked at the top of a two-story parking garage of an Ohio apartment complex. The tall, sodium vapor lights gave the snow-covered lot a surreal, warm glow and for a few moments I quietly watched the flurries from inside my car. The sound of distant footsteps crunching in the snow came from the right and I quickly turned to look out the passenger window. There she was, making her way through the orange snow. I took a deep breath, opened the car door, and stood up. She froze and her eyes followed me as I walked towards her in the middle of the parking lot where we embraced for the first time.
“It’s really you,” she whispered as the orange snowflakes gently fell around us.
As happy as I was in that moment, I was also terrified. I felt guilty. I felt pain. At that point in her life she had a boy’s name—she looked like a boy, dressed like a boy, and she even called herself my boyfriend. I felt all this fear because I believed the community in which I was raised would never approve of the love we shared. I felt the need to lie about where I was going and with whom I was meeting because of the fear of what would happen if those close to me knew what I have known since I was very young.
I like girls, but I like boys, too. For a long time I could barely understand it so I thought there was no way anyone that knew me could understand it either. This resulted in secret road trips like this one, secret plane rides, hotel rooms paid in cash, late night conversations whispered under a blanket; I didn’t feel safe expressing my love to another man in my community and so I felt forced to look elsewhere. These journeys are still unknown to many people that know me, but they have become a part of who I am.
I wouldn’t say I’m proud of these journeys, but I also wouldn’t say I’m ashamed. They taught me what love is and what love isn’t. They gave me experiences and memories that I will never forget, as well as ones I wish I could. These journeys helped me become who I am today and taught me the value of travelling and shared experiences. I am glad I tried new things even if they terrified me; I got to experience new cultures and visit places I had only read about. These journeys have brought me to where I stand before you now and I realize I don’t need to travel to find love anymore. I travel for the journey and the experiences, not for who is waiting at the destination.