Let Your Life Speak Interview: It's A Blessing We Didn't Get A Fairytale
A Conversation With Brian Leonard, Co-Director of SENTIENT Fest
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This interview, with subscriber Brian Leonard, happened in the final days before SENTIENT Fest. It was a rambling conversation about religion, morality, personal growth, relationships, and integrity which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s been lightly edited and condensed, but I’ve left a fair amount of the back and forth between us. I hope you find it useful and thought-provoking, as I did.
If you are a paying subscriber and want to be interviewed, drop me an email or let me know in the comments. I look forward to talking with you!
Talking With Brian Leonard, Co-Director of SENTIENT Fest
Brian Leonard is a queer dad of two teens and deeply in love with his partner Petra of 10 years.
He/They are a retirement planning specialist by day and by evening a Co-Director of SENTIENT Fest, a small Consent First/Body Justice event held annually just 25 minutes north of Ithaca, NY. He/They are also a USAPA Pickleball Ambassador at Ellis Field in the Village of East Syracuse.
Brian maintains a strong online presence through his Facebook groups, which include Human Sexual, Naked Diversity, Aging Disgracefully, PRYK Collective, Consent Advocacy, and more. All are fully public. Check them out!
AS: You’re at Empire Haven prepping for SENTIENT Fest, but where are you based when you’re not at the festival?
BL: Syracuse! I’m a dad. I’ve got two boys— 15 and 18. My partner, Petra, is from Germany. She’s been here in the States for 30 years. And I’m a retirement planner— helping people to retire, babysitting their money, and trying not to make mistakes in this upside-down world we’re living in. I’m also a USAPA Pickleball Ambassador. I run a group of about a hundred people who love pickleball. I babysit and entertain them.
But the biggest thing right now is that we’re getting ready for the SENTIENT Festival, which is a 6-day event here at Empire Haven camp, exploring different perspectives of body justice, nudism, and personal growth— 150 different activities over six days, with keynote speakers, concerts, food, camping, dances, and all that kind of stuff.
AS: What’s your religious or spiritual background, and how does that affect your approach to this conversation about integrity?
BL: Probably religion and God is a great place to start our conversation about morality and integrity and all those somewhat esoteric terms. I was a Roman Catholic until the age of reason. But after a while, I started to realize that the God I was calling and crying out to was maybe much bigger, much more mysterious, and maybe much more indifferent. I really began to embrace the mystery of not knowing exactly what I’m crying out to.
When it comes to issues of morality, for me, it sort of has a bad smell. I was thinking that morality is sort of like the sauerkraut of my world. I can’t stand the smell of it, but maybe if I understood it more I would like it. Maybe it’s something for me to discover.
For me, morality typically means that it’s a rule, or an edict, with a corresponding implication of, “I will get punished, abandoned or imprisoned if I cross that line”. I don’t like that. Ethics, on the other hand, to me, asks, “Do we need priests and politicians to tell us what is right and wrong? Or do we have something innate that we know by the way our body responds if it’s right or wrong?” Do I know how to kill somebody? Yes. Will I kill somebody? No. Will I eat a piece of chicken while I’m admiring birds? Yes.
Ethics is something that is ingrained in you. You don’t do it out of fear, but out of something within your body that says, “I can do this, or I can’t do that.” If I’m talking to my kids or someone else, it’s, “Maybe you should reconsider doing this?”
What’s your take on morality?
AS: What I hear you saying is that morality feels externally inflicted, mandated, and required. Ethics emerge from the inside and are ultimately the manifestation of a certain level of innate wisdom in the individual.
That separation makes sense within a traditional Christian framework where God is external to you and the church is a thing that mediates your relationship with the Divine. I came up in a tradition fundamentally based on the idea that there is that of God in every single person. That’s why we don’t have pastors. We don’t believe there’s a need for an intermediary or an external guide to mediate our conversations with God. That’s something that we have to do on our own. In fact, we’re obligated to do that.
For me, the difference between morality and ethics in the frame that you're talking about doesn’t exist. There are religious ideas and there’s a spiritual conversation that is between me and God about those ideas. I am ultimately responsible for having that conversation and for articulating through my words and life what I’ve come to understand. Does that make sense?
BL: It makes perfect sense.
AS: So, is there a belief, or an ethical stance, that you feel really shapes your life? How did you come to believe it?
BL: I don’t think I have a particular code that I live by. But I know there are experiences that have taught me things that are valuable.
I got into Al-Anon, but I wasn’t able to accept that my wife was an alcoholic. When I did everything fell apart in my emotional and mental world, but after that things began to improve in my life. I realized that if I grow so attached to a partner, job, parent, friend, or substance, they begin to be the ruler.
Now, I see myself as the manager of hundreds of different Brians that, over my life, I’ve had to unload or push out because the pain or trauma of my life was too great. Here in my later life, and it’s fortunate for me that life is long enough, I have to go back and find those Brians. They’re sort of littered all over the highway. All over the home I grew up in. All over my workplace. I have to find them and say, I’d like you to come back into the fold. I’m sorry I had to abandon you, and I’d love for you to come back and be part of the team.
Others, I’ve set free. I’ve said, “You’ve been protecting me for all these years, over protecting me, like a bunch of sailors, or bigfoots, and you don’t have to do this anymore. You can go on permanent vacation.”
AS: I feel like my life is a constant process of shedding and gathering in— shedding all of the unnecessary things, and gathering in all the necessary things that I gave away, or projected onto other people, or told myself I couldn’t afford…
BL: We sort of constrain ourselves. With my current partner, I remember I said to her, “I want to give you my heart.” and she responded, “You can’t do that. It’s yours. You have to keep all your body parts, and I’m going to keep all of mine.”
AS: Good for her! How did you feel when she said that?
BL: Bewildered! You be in charge of my heart! You keep it alive! That’s not how it’s supposed to go! I want to be in servitude! I want to be a doormat! I don’t want to have to think for myself. I don’t want to make hard decisions. So, what she said was really great.
AS: But to get from that response to where you are now, that’s a journey! What helps you to live the commitment to the process of shedding and gathering in?
BL: I’ve been in therapy for most of my life. I’ve recently stopped again. I remember when I was in my 20s, going through a difficult time in a relationship, the therapist asking, “Where do you feel that in your body, Brian?” And I’m like, “Nowhere.”
AS: I’m familiar with that feeling.
BL: “Your stomach isn’t tight? Your hands aren’t sweaty? Your armpits aren’t sweaty? Your heart isn’t palpitating? You don’t feel like you’re going to die of asphyxiation?”
“No. I don’t feel that at all.”
Somehow I was really successful at turning off my neurons, and what a gargantuan effort it must have been to do that! What happens now is, just a few percent more I’m feeling my body, and my body is telling me, “You’re going to have to face this. It’s going to be scary. You’re going to have to tell your mom no, you can’t do that.” The kid who was previously in servitude to his mom! That’s intense.
“You may lose your partnership with your loved one. You may lose your job. You may lose your income. You may lose your relationship with your best friend. But you don’t have a choice. You're going to have to trust yourself. You’re going to be okay if you lose any of those things. Even if you lose all of them.”
AS: Tell me, what gets in the way of you making those sorts of more integrated, authentic choices?
BL: Loyalty. They call loyalty a virtue, but loyalty is probably the end of self. The dark side of loyalty, anyway, which is the assumption that if I place myself in servitude to someone else— to a lover, or a loved one, or a religion— that I am going to lose parts of my innate self. The benefit is that I don’t have to care for myself anymore. They will be my radar, guarding me from trauma or uncertainty. Part of my work is embracing, as hard as it is, the uncertainty of life.
AS: Are there times when it feels tempting, to give your authority over yourself away?
BL: Every day! And the day is long. It is. You think, can I just cut this one early? I think I’ve done enough today...Nope, nope.
It’s so hard to care for yourself in a meaningful way when we’re so used to caring for everybody else. It’s like fighting through that idea that it’s selfish to care for yourself first and then give what’s leftover to everybody else. It’s just so much energy to care for one human being, and to want to give up on that because it’s hard? That’s every day.
AS: But you do it! So, what is the joy or satisfaction or benefit? Who do you get to be now because you do that work?
BL: Let’s back up a bit. I’m a person that has long thought about my own death, and suicide. I don’t know if this is moral or not…
AS: That might be a Catholic thing. We don’t have that thing in Quakerism.
BL: That was my ace. That was the card that I could play if things got too hard.
AS: With other people, or with yourself?
BL: With myself, if it was too inhospitable to live in this body any longer. Once, I was in a therapy session. The therapist said, “If you’re going to keep using this suicide card, I can’t see you anymore.”
We’d been coming into enough tastes of what it is like to breakthrough. I was starting to finally graduate to a point where I realized, instead of rationalizing everything, I had to be willing to not make sense. To not make sense of all of these things that had happened to me.
One of the things I had told her was, “I can’t control my use of pornography. I can’t control my obsession with sex.” As soon as I said that something magical happened. I don’t know what it was. I decided the gifts that were there, waiting for me, were bigger than my own death. It probably sounds too esoteric.
AS: It doesn’t. Let me repeat back, so I’m following your train of thought. When thinking about some aspect of yourself that feels painful, shameful, or problematic, for example, an addiction to pornography. Whereas before, confronted with that pain, shame, or difficulty, the answer would have been, “Fuck it. I’ll just kill myself. I can’t fix this. I can’t control it. I can’t grapple with it.”, instead, you were like, “Actually, no. If I do this work— grapple with this painful, shameful aspect of myself— that gives me more than the out of suicide would ever give me.” That makes perfect sense.
For me, that’s the joy and benefit of this work. I have no idea what is going to happen in my life, what’s coming, or the larger lessons that I’ve gotten signed up to learn this go around. But I no longer feel like I can’t rise up genuinely to meet whatever comes. I feel completely confident, no matter what happens, I will handle it. Not in a macho, “I’ll power through” kind of way. I just know I can show up. I can do the work. I can feel the feelings. I can learn the lessons. I can keep gathering, and shedding, and moving forward.
That wasn’t something I was planning when I grew up. That wasn’t part of the formal learning that I was given about what to expect in my life, what it meant to be a woman, or a person, or anything. I just had to stumble into that one on my own, but thank god I did.
BL: It’s a blessing we didn’t get a fairytale because the gifts are profound.
Thank you, Brian, for the opportunity to share our conversation. I’m so glad to have you in this community of earnest, salty folks.
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