Save the Date: Friday, May 8 & Sat. May 9th: Author Shawn Smucker reading & writing workshop

When a summer thunderstorm drives 12-year-old Samuel Chambers into a local antique shop, he finds himself watching through a crack in the door as three old fortune tellers from a visiting fair scratch a message onto the surface of a table: “Find the Tree of Life.” Tragedy strikes his family less than 24 hours later, and as those words echo in his mind he realizes that Finding the Tree of Life is his only hope. His quest to defeat death entangles him and his best friend Abra in an ancient conflict, and a series of strange events leads them closer to the Tree, closer to reversing the tragedy that took place. Can death be defeated? But as his own personal quest unfolds, Samuel comes face to face with a deeper, more difficult question: Could it be possible that death is a gift?

Friday, May 8th, 2015

6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Join Shawn Smucker, author of “The Day the Angels Fell”

for a reading/talk and book signing.

$5.00 cash or check donation requested (more appreciated, a portion of proceeds benefit our Social Outreach/St. Martin’s Hospitality Center)

Refreshments afterwards.

Child care provided.

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Join author, Shawn Smucker for Writing Workshop

“The Power of Story and Our Power to Write a New Story: Righting Our Way through Grief & Everything Else”

EVERYONE is welcome and encouraged to join us for this workshop focusing on the transformative power of story in our lives and in our hands. You don’t need to consider yourself a “writer” to attend. Everyone can benefit from this experiential workshop.

$20.00 donation requested (more appreciated)

Space limited. Please r.s.v.p. PreetamDas at pk.jaihanuman@gmail.com by Friday, May 1st to reserve a spot. No payment is required to reserve your spot. Payment by cash or check only accepted at the workshop.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1505280443/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk

http://www.shawnsmucker.com

“Hide & Seek: 5-10-15-20-Reach (out)”

My current health challenges and life stressors bring me again to the Root and roots of my faith and baby steps of progress toward improved health and more strength and energy as I continue to hope, pray, and believe that being pain-free again can be a reality. My regular doctor is a constant source of gratitude, while it will be impossible to not write about her at some point, there aren’t really words enough to say how incredible her skills AND heart are and how my life is better because of Miriam. But a couple of days ago I saw a different doctor other than my own and didn’t get what I needed. Why is it so confounding for some folks when you’re clear about what you need? Anyway, on the train home I came up with this, maybe it could be helpful for someone else when “baby steps” are again needed or maybe one or two a y’all might wanna join with me for the next 21 days. If you’re up to some baby steps with this 2 Great Commandment Preschooler, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences as we stumble along, and try to remember what immense pleasure it brings our Father, as it would any loving father, to see us learning to walk:

My own Rx:

5 – Five minutes of Affirmative Breathing
Full inhalations & exhalations. On the exhale mentally affirm what you need affirmed. This could be a literal affirmation i.e. “I’m.
safe, loved, home, forgiven, etc. Could be a portion of a Scripture. I’m fond of “blue and green”, shorthand for the still blue waters.
and green pastures of 23rd Psalm I learned from a character in a work of fiction by John D. Base. One need not be a Christian to find.
the image calming. The affirmation on the exhale is key, as without the already disciplined mind that we lack yet, silence alone can
be an entry point for negative voices and thoughts.

10 – Ten full minutes (as only a minimum, but at least 10) of singing Out Loud.
Obviously, something positive would be ideal, but with this one, the songs selected are not as important as simply doing it. If you’re
feeling low, like a motherless child, then sing that, but sing it Out Loud, don’t just feel it in silence. I’m convinced this is the other
reason God made showers. You can do it. It’s not public, not a performance.

15 – Write for a full fifteen minutes.
If you find yourself resistant or staring out the window for more than a minute, begin your time again. As with the singing aloud,
what you write is not even your concern, it could be anything from why you’re grateful to why you’re pretty certain that the world/
God/your spouse/ ex/ or mother is out to get you. “I’m feeling _______” is often a good entry point.

20 – Ideally, simply walk for a full twenty minutes.
This is the goal: walking. When weather makes this impossible, a Very distant next best would be on the floor or mat gentle.
stretching i.e. slow neck rolls, shoulder lifts & drops, gentle twisting from the waist while seated, etc.

Reach (out) – As a routine, and at a minimum, make the phone call.
Yes, even this Everyday. For those of us more comfortable and with time, the “Reach” could be sharing coffee or a meal
or much more like some form of community/church/social involvement, but again the key is that daily, so making that phone call
is basic, if not easy. Serving at the shelter or attending a meeting, etc. do fill the ask but these are rarely everyday. Bottom line:
you really will need to use the phone. No requirement on content or time, only you need to connect Live, even if only briefly. No,
leaving a voice mail isn’t enough or rather leave the voice mail, then dial again till the Live connection happens.

These are challenging for many of us, but also do-able for all of us.

What’s the goal? What do we win, earn, or accomplish? I’d suggest that those are ego-based questions, so the only answer I’d suggest is that we’ll find out, the old “more will be revealed”. Then why would we do something, anything without a goal? Ya’ gotta love our ego’s persistence (or not). The only answer is that where we are isn’t working for us so well and maybe, since it takes (depending on your phone time) only about an hour, maybe we could commit to trying a different way, this routine for 21 days and just see what happens.

Prayer? (Shhhhh, don’t let it get out, but these are all forms of prayer. Add as much and as many kinds of prayers, as often as you’d like)

PreetamDas Kirtana
3/5/15

Just another thought: Thin ice & the Gospel

The more aware I become of how thin the ice is that we’re all skating on,
the heavier my heart and footsteps become. The more heavy-hearted I am,
the more plodding my steps, the more I risk breaking through the ice
and sinking into piercing cold and suffocating darkness.
From here, the only theology of “Good News” that matters
looks like a branch, a blanket, and an embrace.
Anything else is just more thin ice.

Bully Pulpit *(note: “Trigger Warning”)

**(Trigger Warning: this piece includes relatively mild adult bullying behavior and adult
themes including grief, loss, and mild, present or implied sexuality and for those reasons
some readers might rate it PG-13. Just want to be sensitive, so that you readers
have advance notice and choice.)**

Some people in social situations are said to “own the room”; others blend in or serve the room in some capacity; still others are always simply looking for a way out of the room, and that was Philip. He just looked trapped in most any setting, like a prey animal, a gazelle perhaps, finding itself inexplicably in the tiger’s cage at the zoo. He felt like I did, but he showed it. This made him dangerous; a liability. He had even less protective armor than I did. This made him vulnerable.

I worked with Philip in a fine dining restaurant twenty years ago. I was a veteran, a senior waiter, when he started. He had a small, nervous laughter and you sensed that he was always just on the verge of folding up; of closing in on himself. This acted as a magnet, as a beacon drawing assholes like me, at least like the asshole I was most of the time that I knew Philip. From the time he started at the rooftop restaurant he always seemed like an outsider even to me. If someone besides me could be the outsider for a change that must mean that I was on some unimaginable threshold of being considered “in”. And this is the perfect recipe for creating a bully.

My deep shame about how I treated someone else barely allows me to share this story. From time to time I weep even now, even as I commit my reprehensible behavior to the page, to documentation, to creating evidence outside of my own head of what an insensitive and mean person I was; what a cold and distant person I can be. But, we can’t grow at all, I don’t think, if we try to deny the nicks we’ve received and given as Life has moved through us. We are, all of us, the largest “scratch and dent floor model collection” ever. None of us remain unscrapped, unmarred; some of us even deformed by some defense mechanism or deficiency.

* * * * * * *

I opened the swinging entrance door to the restaurant kitchen and called out, “Table 42 is waiting on a bread basket!”

“I got it,” the new server replied as I stepped back into the the blind spot just between the swinging side-by-side entrance and exit doors outside of the kitchen. I listened carefully, anticipating his approach and careful to stay out of view of the porthole-shaped window in the door. The moment I hear the server approach the door, on his way to serve the sourdough loaf and butter on a serving tray now balanced on the fingertips of his left hand just above his head, I put out my right foot, blocking the door and ensuring that the server on the other side will collide with the stationary door. As soon as I heard the anticipated crash of the tray on the floor and Philip’s muted cussing I ran to the restaurant lounge to create the alibi of any conversation.

The abuse I rained down on Philip wasn’t physical. It was, at its mildest, simply making him feel unwelcome. If there was a joke among us, I made certain he wasn’t in on it and, of course, often he was the punchline. I can’t do two things: I can’t tell you what possessed me to be so horrible and I can’t be more ashamed that I was. I’ve tried to remember, not to excuse, but to try to understand my own behavior even a little. It was 1994. I was certainly traumatized and hobbled, as so many of us were, by so many friends having died so fast of A.I.D.S., by so many still dying, and unprepared for how many were still yet to leave us too soon. Maybe my nearly unbearable grief, constant stress, and utter helplessness made me detest and even strike out at what appeared vulnerable. Maybe I became so accustomed to being afraid and in grief all the time that I just left the protective armor on all the time. Maybe I added to it and maybe that was part of what made me mean. All that’s mostly unreliable memory and conjecture, both forever altered by those years of The Plague; but it isn’t an exaggeration to say that I was horrible to Philip. I was. I was basically his nemesis for no damn good reason at all. For no damn good reason at all, I made his world more unpleasant, to say the least; he might have said that I made it hell.

Finally, one night at work Stephanie, the hair spray ninja with big hair and even bigger balls, storms out of one of the banquet rooms and makes a beeline for me in the side stand. She flies to a stop in front of me, her eyes flaring, her lips thin, tight lines, as she aims her rage at me:

“And aren’t you somebody? Mr. Big Fat F*cking Somebody now!,” she sneered.

“What’s wrong with you? What are even talking about?,” I asked, even though my gut knew. I had seen him leave the floor.

“Making Philip cry! That’s what! Mister Big Shot picking at him all the damn time! You need to get your shit together or go home . . . queen!,” and even though that sounded like a good place to stop to me, Stephanie wasn’t nearly done.

Stephanie continued to read me until I could barely breathe. Stephanie, of course, was just a coworker, she couldn’t ‘send’ me home. This was just the way Stephanie always talked; “just callin’ it as she saw it”, as she said. Generally though, Stephanie could back up her mouth, whereas I, generally, could not. Whatever it was that I had said to make this man cry (I really don’t remember now), I had to apologize immediately. Eventually, I approached him, slowly, cautiously, as you would approach any wounded thing; especially when you’re the one responsible for the wound and I did apologize. Mostly, I spoke to the top of Philip’s head while he studied his shoes like he’d never seen them before. When Stephanie, apparently the self-appointed mediator, asked him if he accepted my apology, Philip looked up at me, his eyes red, and nodded that he did accept my apology, though any sighted person could see that he didn’t even believe me. Understandably, he just wanted out of the room.

Philip left work early that night. I slunk around my coworkers in my shame like a wounded cat the rest of the night, then headed to the bar after work. Of course, Philip was there. I ordered a drink and walked over to where he was sitting.

“Wanna try again?,” he asked.

“Try again?,” I ask, nearly shouting to be heard over the noise of the bar.

“Your apology, you wanna try again,” he asked, lowering his eyelids halfway.

I half smiled and said, “Yes, actually, I do. I would like to try again, but it’s so loud here. Would you like to come up to my place? We can talk there. It’s not far from here.”

His eyes registered surprise just before he said ‘yes’. At my place, I pour us both a glass of wine. We sit on the couch, half-turned toward each other, right knee to left knee. Philip breaks the momentary silence.

“I thought you only wanted to make fun of me,” he said.

I felt my shame burning inside me again and said, “No, that’s not what I want at all.”

“But you did,” he said at once.

“Yes,” I said, “I did and I’m so sorry, Philip. I was scared and mean and wrong. I don’t know what else to do except tell you how sorry I am and to ask you to forgive me. I felt small and I tried to make you feel small, too. I’m so sorry for that. It was me who was small, not you. You were always beautiful,” I explained.

“You’re not now,” Philip said.

“Not now what? I’m sorry?,” I asked.

“You’re not small now,” he smiled mischievously.

I noted his reference that I was doing my best to ignore and swallowed hard and persisted.

“Excuse me, Am I forgiven?,” I asked, trying not to grin.

“Sure,” he said, “if you mean it.”

“I mean it,” I said.

“I mean it too,” he said grinning.

“Mean what, too?,” I played along.

“I mean you’re not small,” he repeated.

“Like I said, you were always beautiful. That,” I say, glancing toward my erection, “is your fault.”

I lean in and kiss his neck lightly.

“Now why’d you wanna go and do that?,” he asked in a near whisper.

“Because,” I said, bringing my face a breath away from his, “because I didn’t have the courage to just go on and do this right away,” I said and kissed his lips. He opened his eyes, leaned in slightly, and we kissed again. Minutes later, still making out, now in our briefs, Philip put his hand flat on my chest and said that he had something to tell me. Philip told me that he was HIV-positive. I told him that I couldn’t see how that effected how beautiful he was at all. We didn’t do anything more risky than making each other feel safe and wanted, beautiful and loved for a night, in a world that insisted that our lives didn’t matter at all.

* * * * * * *

We hung out a few times afterward and shared a few awkward phone calls. And then we didn’t.

Philip started missing work because he was sick and when he was at work, he was pale and obviously weak. I carried and served trays for him whenever I could, trying to help him ration his energy so that he could make it through the entire shift at the restaurant. Then he didn’t come back to work and we heard that he had gotten very sick and had been moved to a nursing home because there was nowhere else for him to go. We were all stunned by even the idea that this could be real: that Philip, one of our coworkers, somebody our age, thirty-one year old Philip, was so sick that he was in a nursing home. My coworkers, Stephanie, Billy and I wondered if there was anyone who would be going to visit Philip and decided that we should go visit him. We huddled against each other in Billy’s tiny car, bracing against the bleak winter cold that afternoon and left to visit our friend. We arrived at the County Home wide-eyed. Inside we maneuvered our way around the elderly, planked and slobbering in their wheelchairs. We averted our eyes from middle-aged adults forever stooped by their body’s own betrayal. We turned our faces away from those pleading and reaching out their hands to us. Finally, we made our way to Philip’s room. We knocked on the open door and called his name. Billy entered first and we fell in line behind him.

“Hey buddy!,” Billy announced, “you’ve been gone so long we had to come find you!”

“Yeah!,” Stephanie agreed very enthusiastically.

For some reason, we all seemed to be talking louder than usual, as if Philip had completely lost his hearing, in addition to his immune system. I walked around to his bedside where he was sitting up. He pulled me close, my ear to his mouth, and asked,

“Who are these people and why are they shouting at me?”

I smiled and whispered back into his ear that I would try to find out.

“Well, we’re here two minutes and the two of you are already telling secrets,” Stephanie joked too loudly.

“Very funny, Stephanie,” I replied.

We had realized how frequent the moments were that Philip didn’t really seem to know exactly who we were, so we tried to address each other by name every time we spoke to each other. We were all sad. We were all scared. We all felt helpless, and though no one would say it, we also all wanted to leave. When meals began being served we were relieved and happy for the excuse to break away. We said our goodbyes; each of us fighting tears; each of us insisting that we’d see him later. Billy walked down the hallway in front of me, his arm around Stephanie’s shoulder. I walked behind them with my mind racing, my hear breaking with each step forward. How can we just leave him here? Then something in me turned and I changed direction. I headed quickly back to Philip’s room. He turned from looking out the window when I entered the room. His eyes followed me as I approached his bedside again.

“Philip,” I said dry-mouthed, “I, um, just wanted to . . . ,” I stammered on and took his hand in mine, “I just wanted to say, I love you,” and I leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, keeping my face a breath away from his for a just a moment before standing upright again. I didn’t know what to do next and Billy and Stephanie were probably already freezing in the car waiting on me, so I said that I had better go and headed for the door. Philip called my name as I reached for the door and I turned to see that his eyes were wet with tears, even though he smiled a sweet and somehow triumphant smile.

“I always knew you’d come back for me,” he said.

His words took my breath away. I nearly dissolved completely.

I swallowed, dry and hard, and said,”Yes, I’ll always come back for you,” and the tears that I had managed to hold back until this moment fell and I didn’t know how to stop them now, so I turned and left again.

I can’t tell you for sure where his statement came from or how coherent his words were. I don’t know for certain what their origin was, but I know where they landed. Did he have some reason for faith like that in me that I had certainly never given him reason to have? Was it a fever dream? Was it something randomly pulled from the remaining files scattered by his dementia? It’s not easy to believe that, but it could have been. But what I know for sure is that he said it and that he said it to me. Philip said that he knew that I’d come back for him. Regardless of where his words came from, I can’t forget them; it’s those words I remember twenty years later. I wonder if that isn’t what all of us want and need and are motivated by beneath most everything else: to know that some one’s coming back for us. We know we will require this. It will simply be necessary at some point. We know the shadows sometimes cast by our own heart. We know how often we have to talk down that voice in our own thoughts. We know our limits and how often we’ve failed. We know we will fall short. We know we will fall behind so we must know that someone has the faith in us to come back for us; all of us: even for introverted waiters dying in nursing homes at thirty-one years old, even for the scared nurses who help them, even for fakes and bullies filled with fear and meanness as I have been, even for those of us still easily startled, still on guard, for those of us sometimes made harder, instead of softer, from feeling left behind so often.

It was the second or third week of January, 1995 that my coworkers and I bundled up and had gone to the County Nursing Home to visit Philip. In February, the pneumonia, that had lingered instead of leaving, returned with a fury and when it left, it took Philip, too.

He died. He just died, just like that, February 19th.

Of all that I can’t imagine and all that is unsure, I believe this: I believe he died less alone and I lived less alone, even in his absence, because we had loved each other.

My head and heart are deeply committed to the Anabaptist Christian tradition, but sometimes I think I hear an older song and my heart insists on believing that Philip has joined my unseen posse of those that have gone ahead of me. My heart insists on believing that, this time, Philip will come back for me.

I don’t see any real harm in it.

In our hope-starved world, I don’t want to be the one to judge any hope the heart has as unworthy.

(for Philip 2/19/95)

– PreetamDas Kirtana

*As the nature of this post is so intimate, even by my standards, I feel especially vulnerable in tapping the “publish” button on this one. I’d ask you to please remain gentle and respectful as you comment (and I LOVE when you comment and Cher, no, that’s “share”and please consider it on FB, twitter, wherever you do your thang. 😉

God in a Gay Bar

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God in a Gay Bar

She approached me in aisle two of the cold, harshly lit, toxic retail store I was working in, we’ll call it “Nature’s Nook”. Her elderly ​spandex vacuum packed legs tottered on heels. She literally clicked and teetered. She ​was, like much​​​ ​ of the​ population ​in the little resort town, mean, over-privileged, and way too precious​ . With her left hand she fingered the many glistening charms that dangled over the dark, leathery valley exposed by her sternum-brushing neckline. With her right hand she massaged her temp​le.​​

​”Do you have anything for a headache?”, she asked.

I considered suggesting white willow bark, butterbur, or one of the many formulas that the store sells.

“I’m pretty sure it’s an “ascension headache”, she added. “You know when the right and left sides of the brain are merging. When you’re ascending to the seventh level.”

Now I considered shaking her really hard. I guess it’s just a different definition of “ascension”. I think if we start to love justice, live more humbly, and care more about our neighbor, That would begin to look more like ascension, or at least rebirth, which would seem like a necessary foundation to any kind of ascension. But, if our neighbor is, at best, a peripheral annoyance and “God” is something removed from our neighbor and lodged somewhere in our own navel like fugitive belly button lint then that “ascension headache” is most likely the discomfort of our unreal but dangerously expanding ego threatening the capacity of our very real cranium. Too often here I find myself wanting, needing, praying for anyone to make sense: just a regular non-pendulum-swinging person suffering from a regular non-metaphysical, tension headache. It feels increasingly hopeless to even try to connect with those who have clearly and efficiently put so much effort into disconnecting. Continue reading God in a Gay Bar

Dyk-otomy

 

For as long as I can remember I’d wanted a little brother. For reasons that elude my memory now, I had decided as a preschooler that his name would be “Tony”. My mother had already defied Nature and the doctor’s proclamation that she couldn’t bear anymore children after her miscarriage when she went ahead and delivered me. But I slammed the womb shut and in hindsight I’m sure for good reasons. Mom could conceive no more children naturally, despite her deep maternal longing for a little girl. Any objective outside observer would have agreed that my parents needed another child in their charge like they needed another hole in their heads for ventilation. But again my parents defied Nature. Driven by my mother’s desire, they began the long process of adopting a baby. Nearly two years later when I had virtually lost my 5-year olds’ hope of having a little brother the agency contacted my parents with the news that they had a brand new baby for us: a baby girl. My parents were ecstatic. Their waiting was over. Their prayers had been answered. All I could offer was dissent.

“It’s the wrong one,” I said, “It’s suppose to be my little brother.”

I felt tricked and betrayed. “You’ll love her just the same. You’ll see,” my satisfied mother tried to reassure me. Of course she was right. On the day we picked up the baby girl that was supposed to be my little brother mom insisted I pull in my pouting lip and hold my new little sister. She placed the quiet infant gingerly in my arms and I looked down into this tiny, sweet face whose big blue eyes looked back up at me as if to say, “I’m here and I’m yours.” I heard her eyes’ message and I felt the kind of button-popping pride usually reserved for new parents and looked back up at my parents, our parents, and declared, “She’s mine!” “I’m glad you’ve changed your mind,” my mother said, “but she’s ours, all of ours. Our little girl, your little sister.” “Right,” I thought to myself, like anything else too pretty, precious, or delicate brought into the house that I claimed as my own because I thought these two hicks that were our parents couldn’t possibly appreciate or care for properly, this little girl would also be mine. I knew then, at five years old, that I’d have to more than just a brother. I’d have to do my big brother best to be her protector and sometimes mother, as we all tried to survive my father.

As I grew older the pure blonde hair I had been born with darkened. The coal black hair my sister had at birth continued to grow more and more blonde. As if this were an ominous foreboding we would continue, propelled from the same trajectory, along very different paths. The feast or famine cycles of our parents’ finances had already seeped into my psyche, making me into a live action version of the greedy Daffy Duck cartoon: “Its’ mine, mine, mine! Mine, I tell ya’, all mine!” My sister seemed unaffected by our parents alternating ability to provide. Her heart remained as open as my grasping hands. During particularly dire times when our father was laid off from work, mom would be unable to hide her despair as she tried to put together enough change to buy milk or eggs. My sister would have already returned to offer to our mother the coins she had shook loose from her piggy bank, while I would still be grilling the poor woman, now in tears, as to exactly when she might be able to pay back if I did loan her my change.

Based on the boys’ behavior I had witnessed at school and reinforced by my fathers’ hard work smells and violence, I decided by the second grade that I didn’t like boys and didn’t care to be one of them. They were dull, stupid, dirty creatures who seemed to only excel at breaking things and hurting people. Sadly, my perception of men from my adult vantage point has been altered very little. My sister, on the other hand, must have somehow perceived their brutish, volatile nature as powerful. To our parents’ horror, as soon as she was old enough to discern the difference between boys and girls she began announcing to anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a boy. In holiday pictures there she’d be posing for the camera proudly with her cowboy hat at an angle, her thumbs hooked in her pants pockets below her brown western pleather vest, while in the background I could be seen accessorizing one of her dolls for all I was worth. I would spend untold hours locked in the bathroom trying to arch my eyebrows with my dad’s disposable Shick razor and putting baby powder on my face in an attempt to look like my newly discovered movie idol, Bette Davis. I would be spanked soundly and sent back to the bathroom to wash my face. “Do you want people to think you look like a girl?”, my parents would ask, thinking they were shaming me. And on some level it did shame me since clearly I as trying to look like a woman. My sister, in sharp contrast, would be under the family station wagon helping dad change the oil or something. Under a car? The only way I ever imagined myself under a car was if my father accidentally backed up over me while I was doing cartwheels in the driveway. Under a car. Jesus. She would get bruises and develop callouses. My hands would remain as soft as a cloistered maiden’s. She could throw a ball, I could throw attitude. None of this is to say we didn’t play together as children, we just brought different abilities to our shared play time. She would build a fort. I would hang drapes and put in track lighting.

Each Christmas we’d hide our dismay at our parents complete denial of our requests, as well as our envy of each other’s gifts and simply correct their mistakes during heated bartering sessions. My G.I. Joe would be swapped for her Barbie. The huge, yellow Tonka dump truck I found useless was traded for enough tiny, tight, teen doll ensembles to keep Barbie in the dressing room well into middle age. The Easy-Bake Oven, though, was the prize. “I will GIVE you Johnny West, his horse, the Lone Ranger. . . mmm, okay, not the Lone Ranger. . .” C’mon village people, the masked crusader with the behind you could bounce a quarter on and the broad chest in the tight powder blue western get up was too hot to handle and too hot to let go of. “You can have Tonto and his horse, all for the Easy-Bake Oven.” She counter offered with the Barbie Dream Camper. “C’mon,” I’d reply indignantly, “what kind of supermodel really goes camping? I want the oven. “Alright then,” she bargained, “I want my Wonder Woman back and the oven is yours.” Years of practice with me had made my sister a nearly worthy opponent. “No way.” I stood firm. Nothing would wrestle Diana Prince out of my hands. My sister seemed to have an evolving and inexplicable interest in Lynda Carter and her island of origin sisters, but I didn’t care. When I practiced my amazing Wonder Woman high jumps off the back porch, the doll was going with me. “Look,” I’d say exasperated, “will you not be eating the lovely cakes I bake with butter cream chocolate frosting?” “You won’t share them?”, she’d ask, sounding hurt and bewildered. “Of course I will, IF you take the old, dusty pioneers, their horses, the sidekick Indian and give me that oven.” Of course she caved in and the pioneers, the supermodels and the two of us wore satisfied, chocolate frosted grins sitting around the make believe campfire my sister had built herself.

As a result of navigating the minefield of our parent’s house for the first decade of my life I was becoming a silent, nervous child who systematically picked my lips and tore off my fingernails until both bled. Defending myself on the school yard playground was not in my nature; defending my sister, however, was my very nature. One Summer our parents sent us to vacation Bible school at the local chapter of The Salvation Army. At the Salvation Army my sister and I were separated throughout the day with the exception of chapel and lunch time in the gymnasium. During chapel we were seated by age groups, again putting my sister out of arm’s length, but within sight. In what would ultimately be our last chapel service the somber chaplain spoke of other children in bondage; children called Israelites, not “young-in’s “. I felt sorry for these children and wondered if their parents had Appalachian roots like mine. As the chaplain droned on the younger kids grew uncontrollably restless. When one of the lower ranking officers moved in, singled out and removed my six-year old sister to the hall, I got up and prepared to follow them. I was quickly and sharply rebuked, ordered to remain in my seat. I clenched my jaw and descended back into the crushed red velvet padded pew, forcing my gaze straight ahead to the lectern while straining to hear what was happening beyond the hallway door. Moments later when I clearly heard my little sister’s crying and pleading, “I want my brother. I want my brother”, I defied the guard’s order and darted from my numbered seat and into the hallway. I couldn’t rescue my sister from much back at home, frequently, being the first born decoy was enough there. Sometimes, despite my horror and protests, she was still the victim of the violent switchings that were our parent’s spare the rod-style of aerobic exercise. I was willing to be damned though if anyone else was going to lay a hand on my sister. So when the God-loving, man-hating bull dyke of a “Captain” snatched my sister away from my immediate grasp with enough force to make her squeal and renew her tears, I kicked the bitch with enough velocity to make her swear and release my sister. I grabbed my sister’s little hand, told her everything would be alright, and commanded her to run with me. We raced down the hall for the door off of the crafts room that spilled into the alley behind the army compound. We bolted past activities coordinators still cleaning glue and glitter off of the tables who stopped us and asked what had happened. These kind, young, civilian volunteers called our parents and we were never made to return to The Salvation Army vacation Bible school. We would receive our instruction and our abuse at home as God had intended.

As we grew up our experience was similar, but our individual responses to our experience were vastly different. In our home that was dangerous and our world that was small and unjust I would escape to the safe, spacious vistas of my own imagination and my own despair. My sister somehow managed to retain both, her quick, joyous laughter and her quick, violent temper. I would internalize things, cry and wish I were dead. She would simply kick your ass and be done with it. By the time I was fifteen years old I had no reason to believe I’d have a future outside of an Institution for the Very Nervous and the Perpetually Afraid. But with the frequent support of Gloria, the chain-smoking matriarch of our next door neighbors, and a Family Services counselor, I developed the determination to not be, as Gloria put it, “my father’s whipping post” anymore. This was apparently a non-negotiable contract I had entered with him at birth and when I broke the contract I was sent away. I was packed up and driven to an orphanage four hours away. My sister cried hysterically, her ten year old heart breaking, as she struggled to free herself from our aunt that held her as our father physically pulled me out the front door. My little sister had worshipped the ground I sashayed on and now I was being taken away. It was like the white trash version of that scene in The Color Purple, as Nettie is literally ripped away from the grief stricken Celie. When my sister reached fifteen, and also broke the contract with our father that she so clearly adored, she too was sent to the children’s home. We stayed in contact frequently back then by writing letters to each other; postcards from siblings trapped in the two separate civil wars of our lives. Soon our individual struggles demanded our undivided attention and we lost touch. Our mother’s death in 1991 brought us back together briefly, but that was the last time I’ve seen my sister.

While I’ve busied myself over the years apparently attempting to lose my gag reflex with men whose sheer emotional unavailability should have choked me, my sister has fought more noble battles. When a local judge refused to allow she and her female partner of more than a dozen years to legally change and share their last name based on no precedent more substantial than his own prejudice, they would not be denied. The couple acquired an attorney and mounted a lengthy, arduous legal battle that, much to our father’s consternation, frequently made headlines state wide and beyond. “I don’t know why they couldn’t just change their names one at a time and not make a big circus about it all over the papers”, he would complain to me during one of our phone conversations. “Dad,” I’d say, purposely irritating him by responding to his presumably rhetorical question, “after mom died and you married her sister, wasn’t there a wedding announcement in the papers?” “That’s different,” he’d replied indignantly. “You’re right, dad. That’s very different, since your daughter and her mate weren’t related prior to their union.” As is his custom he would assure me that he would be praying for me and quickly end our phone call.

As a child I was so certain of my own future fatherhood that by age nine or ten I’d had a short list of possible names picked out for my future offspring. Now, at midlife, the role of being a father seems better left to those better financially heeled, more paternal and less self-indulgent than myself. No one expected my sister, the little girl who wanted to be a boy, to be a mother. A Phys. Ed. teacher? Sure. An auto mechanic? Of course. A mother? No. Well, yes. As it turns out, where there’s a will, there’s a turkey baster. My sister is now one of two proud mothers of two little girls. I’ve been made an uncle by nieces I’ve never seen.

In recent years through an act of my will I’ve forgiven our now stroke-addled and rather feeble father his many mistakes and abuses. My sister, understandably, has no more use for him than she would for any other dick. My own forgiveness for the man remains an act of faith, a work in progress. I completely respect her need to avoid any contact with him, just as I did for many years. It is our separation, the lack of contact or response from my sister that turns my mind back on itself and mars my heart with hair line cracks. Perhaps it is with us as it is with the survivors of any tragedy: plane crashes or war. To look in each others’ face is to necessarily remember, re-live, re-hurt. It’s been thirty-some years now since our parents imposed the end of our decade together as children daily surviving their own special brand of Bible-based terrorism. It’s too far back to reach. If we could, if we tried, would something in us snap like a rubber band extended beyond it’s capacity and we’d lose today; the today that we’ve run so far to find, the today we thought we’d never see? It seems that is an impossible, even an unnecessary risk for the adult stranger that is my sister to take. That’s alright. Alright, cause it has to be.

I can’t see the future any better now than I could imagine what lay beyond I-75 looking out by bedroom window as a child. But now enough wreckage of the past has been cleared that if I look back over my shoulder, open my heart, and squint my eyes, on the distant horizon of memory I can see a proud little three-foot version of me holding this deliciously brand new baby girl with coal black hair and a face that shined with all the innocence of Eden. I can smell the wet, wormy aroma of our mud pies baking in the sun. Most of all, though, I remember that little girl’s laughter; so joyous, so infectious, so original, that it was clearly on loan from the land of stars. I couldn’t save that little girl, but I can set that little girl free. Ultimately, the setting free is, perhaps, the most important part of any parent’s or little surrogate parent’s job. The real dyk-otomy remains that in letting her go I can still proudly exclaim, as I did when I was five, “She’s mine!”

– PreetamDas Kirtana

*this essay originally appeared on http://www.semantikon.com via the generous and talented Lance Oditt and was later featured as a special cover edition of The Dayton City Paper, where some of my earlier essays appeared monthly and that cover is also the source of the accompanying pictures here.

** this particular publishing/posting of this older piece is dedicated to Erin, Sarah, Chase, Zachary, Jerry, Nora, Rebecca, Rick, and all of us who continue to try and heal and reclaim our souls, even as we learn to walk, even with our limp, even with broken hearts, but, incrementally and with each other’s support, Not with broken spirits.

Mountain Laid Low

Mountain Laid Low

This rain falls cold, hard, and somehow slow.

This is not the summer’s cloudbursts and flash flood warnings recognized, something to brace for, something intense to be endured with an end to be celebrated. These showers don’t promise the drama of a story arc. These showers fall like a fact, like an unfortunate new reality; a return of the old chill that has never quite left my bones.

Thunder rolls and breaks over the distant mountains like relationships already nearing expiration, hopes born, churned, and destroyed amid much light and fury, but no heat; delivered, yes, but delivered only to death. To be warm again, for the first time, with no fear of the cold deposited, trapped in my marrow; to be cradled, if not in solidity, then at least in hope – at least, at last, finally, at the end of myself -at least, let there be hope. To finally, truly know, with no effort necessary, no suspension of disbelief, with no exercise in faith required, that I’m not broken, that I belong, that I won’t ever have to leave.

But I guess that’s why good, needful country folk talked about, sang about, and got real excited about the “glory land” and the “sweet by and by” and the “land where we’ll never grow old”. Of course, I’ve left behind such strange, literal ideas about heavenly “streets of gold”. The “on Earth as it is in heaven” mission reads more true, makes more sense. I don’t believe in “mansions just over the hilltop”, but I don’t believe in this place either. Folks like to talk about how important or not it is that you and I believe in God; but on days like this, all of these years of days, it sometimes seems it might be more important to believe God believes in me.

If at least I hadn’t come here, I would still have hope that there is something better, something better than a sky of brokenness and tears and this heavy, ancient fact of a rain that floods and drowns, rather than quenches, the prayed for rain that does the parched ground no good. From here, the pinhole of the past shines like a hope absent from the small, dark canvas of the future.

The showers fall into the night. The night falls into me.

– PreetamDas Kirtana

Tree Groves, Swingsets, and First Love: A Review of “Coming Clean: A Story of Faith” by Seth Haines

If by chance you looked over my recent list of my twenty favorite books of 2015, you will have found Seth Haines book, “Coming Clean: A Story of Faith”. While not consciously doing so, it’s safe to say that any book, nonfiction or novel, that ranks among my favorites is esteemed as a favorite, first of all, because of the quality of the writing and secondly, whether woven throughout or finally showing up, because of the capacity of the writing to alchemize words and vulnerability, honesty and Spirit, and to work, as though unrehearsed, the subtle and clear transference of hope. Seth’s book does just that. “Coming Clean” does chronicle Seth’s first ninety days of sobriety from alcohol but, this is about SO much more – about you and me; as Seth writes in the introduction, “It is a book about the human experience. We’ve all felt the pain in this groaning and grinding of life. We all cope in different ways…We all have our vices…This is an exposition of my stripping off the falsities, of coming clean.” Each and everyone of us has our something to come clean about, our own individual struggle with “inner sobriety” and this deeply honest, hope-filled book is “an open invitation to come clean.”

I related to Seth’s experience from the very first sentence. “Once, I was a hopeful man,” Seth begins. “Me, too,” I thought and plunged in. For those of us willing to accept the invitation, Seth takes us all the way in, beneath whatever our personal addiction, vices, and distractions. As he says, “The thing is the pain,” but also, “There is an antidote to the pain.” To uncover both, the pain and it’s antidote, Seth also takes us all the way back, back to “the good days when I felt the presence of God, before the meddling of men, before their dim theologies stripped me of childlike joy”; all the way back, in the words of the old Andrae Crouch song, “to where we first believed.”

For Seth, that way, way back was, as he writes, “when I was five playing in the mesquite trees.” Decades later, as an adult battling doubt, the illness of his youngest child, and addiction, through prayer and unanswered prayer, through the help of a therapist, and through his commitment to his sobriety, his faith, and to listening, he recalls, “that’s when I heard the still small voice say it for the first time, ‘Go back to the mesquite trees of your childlike faith and commune with Me.’

Do you remember the last place, the last time you had the faith of a child?

I do.

For me it was on the backyard swingset. One of the few bright memories from my childhood, a memory that shines all the brighter in contrast to the saturation of fear and abuse of my childhood, is me, maybe nine or ten years-old, on the backyard swingset, swinging high, face held parallel to the sky and, despite all odds, despite the terror of being a child in the house not three hundred feet away, inexplicably singing my heart out. Back and forth, flirting with vertigo and not caring one whit who heard, I swung high and sang at the top of my lungs “Heaven’s Jubilee” or “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” and later, a favorite song we sang in the church choir: “I can make it, through the valleys, over mountains, through the storms. Jesus keeps me, so completely, I can make it all the way home.” Of course, all of my “valleys, mountains, and storms” were actually IN the “home” and if I had sang from my reality, I would have altered the lyrics and sang, “I can make it all the way OUT of home. Nevertheless, it was a point of contact, a place of communion where for just a little stolen while, because I was out of arms reach, I didn’t have to worry about backhands, belts, bruises, or welts; where for just that window of opportunity between my upward arcs of the swing and the sky, it was just me and God. In that long ago time and place, my childlike faith soared and while it may not have been a shield, it was a rock. I knew, I simply KNEW then, that all things were possible, but that was before, before so many unanswered prayers, before so much betrayal, before the policemen and the orphanage, before, like Seth, “an exchange took place, and I bartered my mustard seed of childlike faith for the bitter seed of doubt…and this seed grew in shadow for years”, as my feeling of “God abandonment” grew.

As Seth writes, “You, me…we all seperate ourselves from simple faith at some point,” all for our own very good reasons and yet, none of these very good reasons, not our doubt or cynicism, none of our vices or coping mechanisms, addictions or distractions, none of these quiet or quell the ever-abiding refrain of God’s voice saying, “I have never left nor forsaken you. There is healing if you let there be.”

“Coming Clean: A Story of Faith” is about first love, the loss of childlike faith and the healing in reclaiming it, about our persistent and futile attempts at avoiding pain and the antidote to our pain, about “inner sobriety”, about prayers, both “tarred-over sinking things” and prayers that transform our hearts and restore our hope. I encourage you to accept the invitation Seth Haines extends in “Coming Clean”. I encourage you to share your experience with “Coming Clean”. I’d love to hear about it here and, more importantly, Seth would love to hear about it. Drop him a line, there’s a link below.

I’ll close with this encouragement from Seth: “See the God who was with you as a child. Hear Him tell you He never left, not even in the darkest days. Believe Him; count Him as your bonded love, the two of you fused closer than bone and marrow. Follow this path of life knowing He is in you and you are in Him. This is the truth.”

Offer your comments, experience, or feedback for Seth, learn more and follow a great blog at http://www.sethhaines.com

Words That Give Me Life in 2015: 20 Favorite Books, 3 albums, and 1 blog

And to beat the band to the coming barrage of Year-End Lists, here’s my Top 20 Favorite Books of 2015, in no particular order, with the exception of #1:

20 – Commemorating King – Ewuare X. Osayande

19 – Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together – Ed Cyzewski

18- Unoffendable – Brant Hansen

17 – Brimstone – Hugh Halter

16 – A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel – Brad Jersak

15 – Unafraid – Susie Davis

14 – After The Wrath of God – Anthony Petro

13 – Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

12 – Wild in the Hollow – Amber C Haines

11 – Rising Strong – Brene Brown

10 – Avenue of Mysteries – John Irving

9 – A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

8 – Did You Ever Have a Family? – Bill Clegg

7 – Everything – Mary DeMuth

6 – The Art of Memoir – Mary Karr

5 – Man Enough – Nate Pyle

4 – WANTED – Chris Hoke

3 – Coming Clean – Seth Haines

2 – Accidental Saints – Nadia Bolz-Weber
and,
I assume to no one’s surprise that has followed me at all here or on FB, the book whose words are hope and Life (and great storytelling!) to me and a book I will continue to gift to others – #1 is, of course,

1 – Midnight Jesus – Jamie Blaine

*all of the books on my list are available from your favorite booksellers (Amazon, B&N, etc.) And would make wonderful, enriching gifts for loved ones, including yourself.

** Looking Ahead – Coming up in 2016, “The Edge of Over There” Shawn Smucker’s sequel to “The Day the Angels Fell”

And among favorite blogs: INDISPENSABLE: John Pavlovitz

Music: Lotsa favorites from country to jazz, but really nothing came close to these 3:
A Table Full of Strangers – Jason Upton

Psalms – Sandra McCracken

The Burning Edge of Dawn – Andrew Peterson

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to alla ya’s and especially y’all artists, writers, musicians, etc. who compel us, convict us, nurture and inspire us, and through your courage, heart, and talent share hope in our hope-starved world.FB_IMG_1450201308803

“Midnight Jesus” by Jamie Blaine

Screenshot_2015-11-16-18-13-15It’s pretty rare that an author and a book come along that actually impact your heart, life, and hope-quotient in a real way. Many hope to and many of us hope they will, but it’s pretty rare. This book, “Midnight Jesus” by Jamie Blaine is exactly that book for me and I’m convinced there’s a good chance it could be for you as well, so I had to let’chall know about it. Jamie Blaine’s book, “Midnight Jesus” calls me back to hope, home, back to risking, trusting.

I’ve had the great good fortune to read some wondeful, solid books lately, but as we near the end of this calendar year, it’s safe to say Jamie Blaine’s “Midnight Jesus” is my FAVORITE book of this and most other years. With economic, solid writing Jamie weaves episodes and stories that unfold for us our own humanity and souls and reveal the Love so great that It welcomes us all and all of each of us in: all of us broken, ragged, scared and scarred, pompous and defensive, those of us who are beyond being able to think we can hide and pretend and act as though and those of us who still are addicted to doing all of those things trying to avoid more pain. “Midnight Jesus” is, for me, a well of hope, the antithesis of the “valley of dry bones” that is my typical experience of so many churches; the anithesis because this Jesus, “Midnight Jesus”, THE Jesus and the way He is presented here in Jamie’s writing made it impossible for me to not find make-do altars where ever I happened to be reading i.e. tears at the kitchen table and in nearly every room in the house. The Love that comes through in Jamie’s writing calls me back to hope, back to home, back to risking prayer And listening and trusting again. Just about the highest praise I could give anything is to say this: that almost never has anything impressed and impacted me as much as Jamie Blaine’s book since I first read Brennan Manning’s work. I’m guessin’ I’ve made the point, but truly, were money no object I’d be asking about case discounts to get this in as many hands as I could. I encourage to you to meet this “Midnight Jesus” where struggle, faith, and grace collide. “Midnight Jesus” is available at Amazon (paperback and Kindle) and Barnes and Noble and other fine sellers I’m sure you’ll find at http://www.midnightjesus.com  Below are a few favorite quotes. I’d love to hear your experience of your read!

“True stories are raw and rough–they do not always end the way we want. But there is power in unpolished stories—those with nothing left to lose.”

_ _ _

“Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between candles but on a cross between two thieves . . . at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what he died for and about.”

_ _ _

“There is something strangely hopeful about badly broken people coming together to try and find their way through the ugliest parts of life. If there’s hope in the darkest parts, you have to find that maybe hope is going to win in the end. Hope might be stronger than despair. When you see people walk through the worst and come out on the other side, it makes you hopeful.”

_ _ _

“So anyway, my point is, you see,” he says, “maybe God said, ‘Well, before I judge ’em too hard, I outta walk a mile in their shoes.’ In Blue’s world God talks a lot like the narrator on Dukes of Hazzard.

“So he come down to earth as a little baby,” Blue continues, “fought with brothers and sisters and worked in the family wood shop. Tried to go tell people the Good news and his friends screwed him over and then – them religious folks kilt him.”
“Never thought about it that way,” I say, paying more attention now.
“And maybe,” says Blue, serious as he can muster, “when Jesus got back to heaven he kicked off them shoes, looked at God and said…..”

You can meet Old Blue and enjoy the rest of this story and many more in “Midnight Jesus” by Jamie Blaine. “Midnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace Collide” . . https://www.amazon.com/…/…/ref=cm_sw_r_sms_awd_CSSrwb9KSHVF6

Grace, Grit, and Gravy

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I’m several years late on the bestselling book, but prompted by reading her wonderful blog recently and the fact that one version or another of it seemed somehow always in my view every time I was in a bookstore, I finally gave in and bought a copy of Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts”. Somehow the few passages I had turned to prior to purchasing the book didn’t cue me in on what might have been obvious to most from the title alone: this book is about gratitude. I mean, I’m sure I might have thought that it had something to do with gratitude, that whatever spiritual story or practice or formula the author was sharing included gratitude, but I was wrong. Spoiler alert: it’s actually all about gratitude. Really, it’s not about anything else at all. It’s all about gratitude and creating the mother of all gratitude lists, hence the title, “One Thousand Gifts”. Jesus Christ. Had I known I would’ve been grateful to not buy it. Don’t get me wrong, Voskamp’s heart is as beautiful and generous as her writing is eloquent and authentic as it can be. I actually recommend the book, for you. It’s just that for me, halfway through it, I don’t get it really. It’s lovely writing but it might as well be about animal husbandry and written in Farsi. I just don’t get it. I mean such sentiments about gratitude make great Precious Moments coffee mug text, but who really sees everything, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g as a gift? Never mind who it is, just keep ’em away from me. “Gratitude List #862: shiny dish soap bubbles.” Ugh, truly, like animal husbandry written in Farsi. Mind you, I haven’t finished the book, but right now it seems to me that to accept every little thing, even calamity, as a gift assumes that I even want to be at the party to begin with. “One Thousand Reasons to Want to BE at The Party” would be the primer I need as a prequel. “Parties”, such as this world offers that include such incredible and escalating suffering and the majority of us who are either complicit in the suffering or somehow not heartbroken by it, don’t interest me at all, let alone being at the “gift” receiving table.

Unlike the weaver of the mother of all gratitude lists, I can pretty much count on relating to or at least being amused by David Sedaris’ writing. The other day, after reading a new piece he had written for The New Yorker, I clicked on the title of an essay he had written in 2013. The piece deals with a Sedaris family tragedy and is, I think, some of his finest writing. At one point in the decidedly unsentimental essay Sedaris refers to his family of origin, saying, “Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of,” and I experience a disconnect, an absolute, total disconnect. I simply have no frame of reference for such a sentiment. Families are terrifying and should all come with an escape route. For me, someone screaming, “FAMILY!” in crowded movie theatre would induce way more panic than someone shouting, “FIRE!”. At least with fire there are extinguishers to put it out immediately, but with family you’re stuck undoing the damage for the rest of your damn life.

I don’t think that I’ve ever seriously contemplated staying here. Perhaps that’s not completely true, there have been a few moments and those moments have been the great loves of my little life. It is accurate, though, to say that I cannot remember a time in my life, no matter how young I was, no matter how happy a particular day, when I didn’t contemplate leaving; staying never really seemed like an option, let alone desirable. Group me with those living daily with p.t.s.d. from the car wrecks that are families, and The Church, and the pile up of grief, and those living with p.t.s.d. from actual car wrecks for that matter. The only club I’ve been a member of, and my wanting to had nothing to do with my induction, is the club of outcasts and orphans, the club of mourners and prodigals, the left-out, locked-out, and the left-behind; the club of the never-good-enough, the wanderers and drunkards, the loved in beds and left in alleys, the lepers and the lame, the hungry and the always looking over their shoulder. This is my club. These are my people. No, none of these are badges of honor; membership doesn’t grant boasting rights. None of these are fishing lines for sympathy. None of these negate personal responsibility in my life and in the lives of my people, nor though, does it negate grace and mercy in lieu of being born into boots with straps your own two hands can reach for pulling on. What it does do is give us a completely different frame of reference. Gratitude lists are harder to get to from Survival Kit Checklists. You may hear the word “family” and think safety and refuge; we feel fear or nothing at all. You may hear the word “Christmas” and think of happy hearth, cider-mug smells; we remember hiding or abandonment or chaos. It’s a different life than we dreamed of and your life – your life of one thousand gifts to be grateful for, when we can’t come up with ten good reasons to stay – is a life we can’t even imagine. We don’t even know that language, except as a foreign tongue often spoken by those who sometimes look like us, but turn out to be aliens just the same. One of the few privileges of membership in this club is how often we find ourselves washed ashore together, shipwrecked at Calvary. Those of us who are lucky and brave and have insurance also find ourselves in therapy.

I tried to explain to my therapist today that the expiration date on all of this “everything” we’re supposed to see as “gifts” really ruins the gifts for me. Ask any of us orphans what we want and temporary shelter or foster care may bring relief, but home is what we really want; it’s home because it can’t be taken away. Ask any of us who have truly known hunger what we want and the fast food sandwich or the one-off meal will bring blessed relief, but what we really want looks more like a full pantry, a packed deep freezer; the security of relief without the sting of scarcity or famine tied to the end. I tried to explain how hard it is to even understand how other people seem to find something so good about being alive that they’d want to stay. I just don’t get that, not on my best day.

Sitting across from my therapist I pause, lean forward, and say, “Of course, you don’t have to answer this, after all, you’re the one that’s s’pose to be asking the questions, but you’ve shared briefly how you’ve survived an incredibly painful, life-threatening, life-changing situation. Can you tell me what’s so good about being here, through all of that, that you wanna stay here?”

My therapist, Donetta, originally from Spain, with her large, dark, expressive eyes and mandatory placid-lake-therapist-demeanor, folded her hands in her lap and in her lyrical accent explained how she visited an astrologist after her diagnosis. She said she had gone there wanting to know if she would die, when she would die, and about her relationships. She wanted definite answers. She wanted guarantees. Donetta shared the astrologist’s metaphor.

“He said, eet is like when you can have thee most Wand-er-Full, thee most deLICious meal, all of your very faVOrite, Wand-er-Full foods, but,” she said, her eyes suddenly growing large, feigning wonder, “but Steel, veedy soon your body will begin to diGest, to break Down, and to process this wonderful meal and, of course, eventually, we will go to the bathroom and…”

It’s here that I break in.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but, so the moral of the story is that it all goes to crap? Yeah, that’s where I’m running into the problem.”

I left her office and walked up Roma Street, a neighborhood so monied that even here in the ongoing drought, all of the homes have lush green lawns, many with water fountains and babbling little brooks. The park on Roma has a few tables and benches in addition to the children’s jungle gym area, all shaded by generous, old trees. I found a choice bench, exhaled deeply, and pulled my notebook and pen out of my backpack. I had written nearly a sentence when out of nowhere an old homeless man appeared just to the left of the park bench.

Guess that’s one of the other few benefits of membership in this club, and it’s surprising every time, but no matter what it seems, we will find each other.

“What’cha writin’?,” the old man asked.

“Oh,” I said, looking up, “just jottin’ down some thoughts.”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting down uninvited next to me on the metal bench, “I write sometimes.”

“Better to get it out on paper, otherwise it gets too heavy to carry here,” I said, tapping my forehead.

Underneath his dirty baseball cap, his face was tanned and textured like jerky. His gray hair matted in bands at the top of his t-shirt collar and he sported only two visible teeth which gave even his animated smile the look of something deflated. He took a moment to think about it when I asked how old he was and I was surprised when he decided that he was only sixty-five. Assuming that he was homeless, but still not wanting to be right, I asked him where he lived.

“Oh, I live over at The Regal,” he said, “That ol’ hotel they made into little apartments, not much, just one bedroom, well, it’s just one room.”

Based on his appearance, I was a little surprised that he lived indoors at all, even if it was at a place ironically called “The Regal”. I asked him how he paid for it.

“I’m on SSDI,” he confided, “since, oh, eighty, two, eighty-three.”

“1983, did you say? That’s a long time ago now. What happened?,” I asked.

“I’m paranoid schizophrenic,” he volunteered without any hesitation and without hesitation I asked if he was on medication.

He explained which psychotropic medications didn’t really work and which one was best before admitting, “No, not anymore. I self-medicate,” he said and made the extended pinky and thumb, folded middle fingers-universal sign for booze.

“Well, that kind of medication’s pretty hard on your liver,” I said.

“No,” he said laughing, “I got an iron-clad liver.”

Then he told me how a friend of his, whom he said drank way more than he did, died last month, in an alley up near The Regal, behind the BBQ & Burger Hut.

One other privilege of our membership in this club is knowing that we have nothing to lose, so we will just say it.

“You know,” I said, “I’ll bet if I was sitting here with your friend, he’d tell me how he had an “iron-clad liver”, too. You outta take care a yourself and take it easy on that stuff.”

After fifteen minutes or so I said, “Look, we’ve been visiting too long for me to not even know your name. Sorry about that. What’s your name, brother?,” I asked extending my hand.

“Michael,” he said, taking my hand and smiling. I introduced myself, repeated my name, and he shook my hand again and said, “It’s real good to meet’cha.”

Over nearly the next hour I learned about Michael’s move from Chicago to Florida when he was two and half years old and to New Mexico with his mom and brothers when he was four and heard several random anecdotes about his brothers and his experience in high school. I asked him if he hadn’t married and had children. Now, I’m no prude. I can hold my own and maybe yours too (see what I did there?) when it comes to innuendo and locker room humor, but even I probably blushed as I did my best to not laugh disruptively in the otherwise quiet park as Michael proceeded to rather graphically shared about his attempts to impregnate the woman who would be his son’s mother. Positioning his hands and spreading his legs to illustrate, he explained,

“I had to get it in those, um, what do ya’ call ’em? Utopian tubes.”

Smiling hard against my laughter, I said, “Um, I think it’s fallopian tubes, Michael, but I s’pose, maybe, if it’s real, real good, maybe it is “utopian tubes”. I’m gonna defer to your experience on this one.”

Michael’s experience had been sometime ago now as he put his son at being around forty-seven and mentioned his grandson going in to the Marines, but something Michael had said earlier had stuck in my mind.

“Michael,” I said, “you know earlier when you talked about your mother passing away, you said that the ‘precious Lord took her home’. Now, I’m not trying to sound judgmental, I just know myself pretty well at this point and frankly, Michael, if I was on the street begging for food and drink, hadn’t seen my family in years, and was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, I’d probably have some other names I’d call God besides ‘precious Lord’. I’m guessin’ I’d be pretty bitter in my lucid moments, but all things considered, you seem kinda happy and still willing to accuse God of being good. Why?”

“Look,” Michael said, “I took a class years ago, a, uh, a theology class, that’s what they called it and there was such a fuss over deciding where man came from. Was it a theological cause or a, uh, what’s the word?”

“Evolution,” I supplied.

“Right,” Michael said, “What a fantastic waste of energy is what I always thought. I mean whatever the details, it weren’t no accident. I mean, from a baseline of zero, do you wanna be plus one or minus one? The problem is that some people think that everybody owes ’em somethin’ and some people do owe us somethin’, but then you get that somethin’ an’ some folks keep on askin’, an’ more an’ that is just greedy. I mean, the way I see it, the good Lord put us here so we can hear, see, speak, and breathe; it’s the least we can do. It’s when we don’t do that stuff an’ try and ask for more an’ is ours and complicate it all that we get all scuffed up.”

Well that seemed clear enough without having the blinding sheen of a thousand gifts. I thought of the outrageous dimensions of God’s love described in Ephesians 3:17-18, “how wide and long, how high and deep is God’s love that we would be filled to fullness with God.” Michael’s statement poses it’s own questions to us about our love of God and each other: how wide will we hear and listen? , how long are we willing to see? how high, how life-giving can we speak? how deep can we breathe to be filled with the fullness, the abundance of God? Activist and author, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written that “People listen because they see signs of hope.” Michael’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia not withstanding, his clear-headedness about life and God randomly glimmered hope for me where gratitude lists had left me discouraged, rather than thankful, so I chased the glimmer and said,

“Michael, you know one of the things that wears me out?”

He looked at me, shrugging his shoulders.

“I hear people say stuff all the time like how we should all see everything as a gift, how it’s all from God. “It’s all good,” they say over and over and I’m guessin’ they have to repeat it constantly because they’re battling reality in order to hold on to that bull crap. I mean, anyone with two eyes and a tiny bit of honesty can clearly see that it is so not all a gift. If it were all God, if it were all from God, well, there’d be no need of God, would there? People tell us “it’s all good” and then, when we cannot help but see that it most obviously is not all good, we also get to feel somehow less than, somehow less spiritual for not joining them in their denial. Christians’ version of this sometimes sounds like how it’s all a part of God’s plan, grrrr,” I growl my frustration before continuing, “I mean, I really do actually believe that God has a vision, a purpose, and a plan for our lives, but, I’m also convinced that disharmony and division, broken families and broken hearts, violence and cancer are not a part of that plan! Honestly, if there’s anything worse than going through some hardship or heartbreak, it has to be being told that your hardship or heartbreak is really a “gift”; that your pain is actually “good”; and, worse yet, that it’s from some monster God who uses tragedy as the preferred lesson plan.

Apparently unphased by my little rant, Michael turned to look at me directly and asked, “Say, do you know that old story about the man with two sons?”

“Well,” I replied, “I know the parable in Luke about the man with two sons. It’s my favorite.”

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head, “the other story.”

“I guess I don’t then,” I said and Michael proceeded to tell me his version of an old story that it turned out I did know and had repeated myself, the hybrid parable that had been handed down and born originally from the James Kirkwood novel.

“So this old and very wealthy man had two sons,” he began, “and one day late in his life he decides to devise a kind of test for the boys to really, you know, gage their love and loyalty, to really see who they were becoming as men. So the father brings his firstborn to a room, some folks call this a son a pessimist, he brings him to the door of this room and invites him to open the door, telling him that everything the room holds is his. The firstborn son opens the door to this giant room that’s just full of every fine thing he could ever want: wine, women, every new-fangled electronic gadget; just jam-packed full a the finest a everything ever in one room. Well, the son is walking through this maze of luxury just saucer-eyed at what he’s seein’, but then his eyes narrow and he asks his father what the catch is, is something wrong? Was he leaving the boy outta his will?

Well, the old man then brings his younger son to a different door to a different room and explains to his son that all that the room holds is his. The father leaves and the boy opens the door to find a room full of shit; not garbage or trash mind you, I mean, actual shit, manure everywhere; it’s a room packed with manure. The old man returns a good while later to find his son digging through the piles of manure and he asks his son what the blazes he’s doing. The boy, some folks call him an optimist, the boy raises his head and says, “Well, I figure with all this shit, there’s gotta be a pony.”

Now, every version of this I’d heard previously had stopped there, leaving me amused but not long inspired, not shot through with gratitude.

Michael continued, “Now, God love’em, that boy loved his father and knew his father loved him. That boy had faith in the goodness of his father. Most a the time I do, too; that’s what the good Lord asks of us. But, the boy didn’t confuse one for the other. I’ma have faith in God’s goodness and if it ain’t goodness I can know it ain’t come from God. I mean, there ain’t no amount of molding or shapin’ of it that you can do that’s gonna make me mistake shit for a pony.”

“Well said, Michael. Vivid, but well said,” I replied.

New-age priests with tattered Franciscan credentials and pop self-help and even well-intentioned Christian authors espouse non-duality and celebrate that in our modern age that there’s no such thing as sin, but those of us who have both, felt and unleashed it’s willful sting, know better. They encourage us to see it all as a gift, all as good. Michael helped me to understand, to remember more clearly, that there is no call, command, or reason to see everything as a gift when not even God has seen it all as good since the dawn of creation. If it was all good, there’d be no hunger, no poverty, no disease, and no grief. If it was all good, there’d be no need for spiritual warfare and there is such a need for spiritual warfare in the bunkers of our lives and on the frontlines of our world. It’s been said that the best tactic of the enemy is to convince us that there is no enemy and what a success that tactic continues to be. Sometimes small words can pack a wallop of a change in meaning. The Scriptures in I Thessalonians 5:18 tell us to “give thanks IN all things,” not FOR all things. We are called to be thankful from right in the middle of it, but not necessarily grateful for our location in it or, to paraphrase Michael, “We can be grateful In the crap without being grateful For the crap.”

It is almost without fail that it is those of us who can no longer afford blindness who refuse to deny what we see.

We who have been roped off from The Table, the meal, the family, the altar, and the embrace understand the reality of lines, barriers, boundaries, and walls that keep us out from the other side of them. There is no lens pink enough to gauze them away as an illusion.

I looked at Michael and said, “I’m sure glad someone else understands. It sure ain’t all good.”

“No sir,” he said, “it ain’t. But there is grace and even gravy. It’s not all just the other stuff. Guess the math might change, different percent from one day to the next maybe, that’s all. I mean, I’m here,’ he said and looked surprised, “that’s grace. And a young man earlier gave me enough money for a hamburger and I got a snack for later.” Michael nodded to the crumpled ones and the packets of mayonnaise and relish he held in his left hand. “That’s grace,” he said.

“I guess bein’ paranoid schizophrenic is shit, but I try an’ not think about it. Every single test, you know, says that worry is just no good for paranoid schizophrenics,” he said and smiled and I smiled too, thinking it would at least be redundant to be both, paranoid and worried.

“And these shoes,” he continued, “these shoes from the Penny Saver are shit. Heel came right off before I could make it from the store to the curb. But, the Good Book says that one day I’ll see my ma again. That’s gravy.”

“Well now,” he said, rocking himself back, then up to his feet,” I need to go get me a half-pint. Thank you. I had a nice afternoon.” And with that, Michael walked off but left behind generous portions of both, grace and gravy.

– PreetamDas Kirtana
October 6, 2015

Box of Song

“From fear inside I hid my own heart and locked the door,
With sin and shame I quivered, ol’ Satan had me bound;
But then one day I answered the gentle knock that came,
I swung the door wide open, now I’ll never be the same.
(v.1)

A heart unlocked is a song set free!
A song set free sets others free!
Who His love sets free is free indeed!
And Jesus is my heart-shaped key!
(chorus)

Now at my door stood Jesus, His arms open wide.
‘Child,”He said, “I love you. Let Me show you The Way.”
In His arms I fell, against His heart aflame;
His heart opened mine, now I’ll never be the same.”

-Albert Shepherd Johnson
“The Pentecostal Pilgrim Hymnal”,1946

“Hey babe, How are you? What’s goin’ on on the homefront?” Albert Shepherd Johnson the third, better known as Shep everywhere but legal documents, said as he entered the kitchen.

“Not too much, sweetheart. The kids are downstairs and dinner’ll be ready in ’bout a half hour. Just still workin’ my way through the final frontier that is the attic. How was work?,” Viola asked, Vee to Shep since they first dated a dozen years ago.

“Oh same ol’ same ol’, headlines and deadlines, all managed from above by stomach ulcers and free-floating anxiety. What’s in the box?,” Shep asked, nodding to the kitchen table.

“Oh, I, um, I thought you’d find this interesting. Found it up there among all the other boxes and cobwebs.”

Shep put his jacket on the back of a chair and loosened the paisley office noose from around his neck. Shep was the first in a line of generations of the Johnson family boys who wasn’t a minister. Shep’s father pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle for nearly thirty years. For a brief shining familial moment there were three living generations of the Johnson boys during which Shep’s father had been known as Al-2. Shep’s grandfather, the Bishop Reverend Albert Shepherd Johnson, pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle that he founded until his health declined and his son stepped into the role, and Grandfather Johnson was also a prolific and much published hymn writer. Many of his songs remain in hymnals across the land to this day. Despite Shep’s decade of work at the paper, family took Shep’s occasional leading of Sunday worship and Thursday night Bible study as vocational preparation and held out hope yet for his falling in line and taking up the cloth, calling, and tradition.

“What is it? What’cha got there, Vee?”

Vee opened the box and pulled out one of the Bishop Reverend Johnson’s notebooks, opened it to a page dated “October 3” and handed Shep his grandfather’s journal.

“Here, read this,” she said.

‘October 3rd

I reckon the only thing that saves me really, saves my mind, not just my soul, is bein’ here, here where I can hear crickets instead of cars and coyotes instead a sirens; out here away from all the lights, out here where there’s so many stars you could pert near get lost in ’em if ya’ didn’t make up your mind real good not to; all that and the man that I love and that loves me, whose real, right now love keeps me from tryin’ to live on memories alone. Ain’t no diet will make ya’ thinner faster’an tryin’ to live on nuthin’ but memories. Trust. If I don’t know nuthin’ else for sure, I know that, all the way sure.’

Shep turned his face from the yellowed journal to Vee, confusion and concern creasing his brow.

“The ‘man I love and that loves me’? What the dang? What does that mean? He prolly means one a the church brothers or Tyler Jenkins on the farm down the road. Pop still talks about how Granddad and Tyler were just like brothers.”

Vee turned a few pages in the notebook.

“Here,” she said, and Shep read,

‘November 12

You ain’t gotta be old anymore to lose everything and everybody you ever loved. Maybe you ain’t never had to be old, but most of us grew up thinkin’ you did or maybe we just deposited hope in thinkin’ it, like throwin’ good money into a bad gamble. We an’ the Lord the only ones that know when we’ve lived long enough, when the time is the right time, when it’s Homecomin’ time. When you’re old enough to have lost everyone you love an’ everyone that can love you back like you need to be loved, seems to me like you’re old enough for it to be the right time, no matter how old you are.

Too many right now moments, too many songs, and smells, and round-the-kitchen-table echos knock memories offin’ the shelves too often to not sometime think about swingin’ back on a low hung star, back to where we was young, and hope swung on a tire swing, back to where voices round the kitchen table weren’t just long ago echos. Sometimes I feel real sure if I just walked far enough I could reach that star, the one hung low just for me. It’d be a right lonely road to walk, but they ain’t been no roads but lonely roads this whole trip, at least thatin’ would finally take me some place I wanna be.

Won’t never be cold there, never lessin’ eighty in the shade; safe and quiet and warm forevermore and you’d feel good enough and happy and loved just cause you woke up right in it ratherin’ havin’ to search for it under every rock and between every lyin’ man’s teeth, greedy men that eat hearts and the the only love they got left is what still stains they teeth. No, there ya’ ain’t gotta floss left over love to get sumthin’ to live on. There, ya’ just wake up all ready in it, like a feather down love bed you ain’t ever gotta get out of, just prop up a bit to get served more a that Love you’re already cushioned in. Since I was a kid I’ve thought about the words of that ol’ song we use to sing in church, “What a Day That Will Be” and I wanted to go there and done my level best to get ready. We’d sing, “When He takes me by the hand and leads me to The Promised Land, what a day, a glorious day that will be…”

I’ve met a few folks that don’t believe in prayer or heaven; don’t believe in The Promised Land. Like Sam Barnett, that works down at the mill, a hardworkin’, bright enough man, but seems like nuthin’ south of his neckcollar is really workin’ right, like maybe there ain’t been enough traffic round the dirt a his heart to soften it up for da Lord’s tender feet. No sir, a few folks I’ve met over the years don’t seem to have no use for The Promised Land. I can’t make no sense of it, but I reckon that’s the Lord’s business, not mine. My business is sayin’ thanks for the glimpses of glory here, the sometime peeks of The Promised Land from right here – from our wasteland of hurt and greed and pain, that we try ‘an love each other through and dress it up like the Land to come.’

“Wow,” said Shep, “Guess that’s why he could write all those old hymns.”

“Yeah, and he sounds really lonely, Shep,” Vee said, before turning a few more pages, handing it to Shep, and saying, “One more?”

‘January 4

Now it’s true as the ground a grace I stand on that the Gospel love of Jesus saves my soul and it’s just as true that in moments stolen away in Kendrick’s arms down by the river, under stars sworn to silence, that my mind and body and heart are saved, too; feels like all a me can finally breathe. When his lips touch mine I know that this heart that Christ opened has a tenent, one that holds me and by loving me, invites me to my own love. Some would say that we’re the worst kinda deceivers, abominations that’ll split hell wide open. I don’t know about all that. I do know when our little Sophia died from the fever that if God hadn’t given my Kendrick to lean on that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t a been leaned on anymore. Who knows better how to hold hardworkin’ hands, relax burden-bearin’ shoulders, or support the worry-heavy head of a man than another lovin’ man? In my life there is one God has blessed me with whose embrace is never needful, whose arms are not an ask, but an answer; the one who just holds me home.

Do I live out betrayal keeping our secret? Am I dishonest? I reckon I’m as honest as I can be without hurtin’ folks that don’t need no more hurtin’. I loved Loretta Carlene, my Elsie. I loved our children. I love Kendrick and I love God. Ain’t never been a need to short one to love the other. Ages ago, Elsie and I buried our little girl. Goin’ on ten years ago come April, I buried my wife, Elsie. Only the love of God and the sure and faithful arms of Kendrick still remain. Yes, I’ve heard the shrill, frightened voices that would damn the love that holds me up an’ I admit, I’m only confused by it. I only look at it, fascinated by it, like it was a strange bug on the window, the likes a which I ain’t never seen before, an insect, a thick green and spotted worm whose mouth is moving and whose shrill little worm voice keeps mouthing words that would damn love. Strange, hateful little caterpillar. Best to take it away from the window so it doesn’t color my view, put it in a Mason jar, put it on the shelf an’ hope that with some time and a better perspective that there’ll be a heart-shaped key even for love-damning worms. God, by Your grace. Lord have mercy.’

“Dear God,” Shep said, “So Granddaddy Johnson was gay, actually, really gay?”

“Well, honey,” Vee said, “Seems there isn’t any doubt, actually, really.”

“What do you think we should do? What should we tell the kids? What should we say to anyone?,” Shep asked, stunned.

“Well, Shep,” Vee said, her eyes half-lidded, then opening so wide and inviting that you could fall right in, like Shep had when he married her, “based on this,” she said, “I’d suggest we say that Granddaddy found a heart-shaped key in Jesus and that prolly betterin’ anyone else we’ve known, he knew that grace was sufficient. He knew it’s not even possible to short one when we give love to another. In his time, there were so many boxes, but even Granddaddy’s boxes had a song and now, unboxed, his song soars high as the stars across the nightsky he loved so much. I’d bet it soars even higher when we’re all singin’ his songs. Well, that’s just what I’d say,” Vee concluded and cast her eyes down at the old notebook, the right corner of her mouth dancing with the idea of a smile.

-PreetamDas Kirtana
16 September 2015