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 temple.
”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.
Earlier in the day the retail store had added more irony to the fact that it specializes in so-called health food by behaving again in such a toxic manner. The corporation and it’s local fear-driven acolytes pursue profit at the expense of humanity almost as mercilessly as many in this city pursue their own navel to the neglect of their neighbor. I came to understand one of the reasons why Jason, a coworker who had worked there six years, had given his notice. The new manager in his department had showed up and pretty much on his arrival had cut Jason’s hours and told him he would have to make up those hours in other departments if he wanted to recoup them. With no hope of movement in his job and exhausted by his hyper-positivity being met with consistent disrespect, Jason simply gave his notice and another light went out. Another person who had made showing up and enduring the next eight and a half hours on my feet walking on eggshells a little more bearable was gone. The third light out in nearly as many months. As his coworkers, of course, we’re suppose to remain frightened enough about keeping our own jobs to look straight ahead and remain silent, to not dare say that this could be wrong, to not dare to ask questions. This is how you get sick and maintain sick at a health food store. Uncharacteristically, I don’t say anything this time . . . yet. But while saying something may make my gut knot and palms clammy, not saying something makes me really angry and truly sick. Silence in the face of injustice betrays our spirit, our integrity, and disrupts the natural balance of what is good and fair that allows our digestive systems to remain calm and allows us to make eye contact. But, for now, I’m silent; silent and heavy and angry and sad. Trying to swallow a brick in pieces is still trying to swallow a brick. The result is the same, the process is just slower.
Heavy, sad, and angry I leave for my thirty minute lunch break. I spend my lunch time at the broken picnic table on the south side of the building in futile attempts at meditation and in prayer that sounds more like accusation. I round the corner of the building to clock back in and stop. I stand in front of a newly posted metal sign attached to the building. The sign is maybe three feet by two feet and threatens that anyone who is on the premises without official business is in violation of a city ordinance and is subject to a fine and jail time. Basically, if you’re here and you’re not consuming, you’re breaking the law. This is, of course, targeting our hungry,houseless, and needy neighbors. This is, of course, another piece of brick.
I’ve managed to take my lunch break late enough in the day that I only have an hour and a half left to count down to the end of this day at work. I check my armor and strengthen my defenses. I try to appear invulnerable. I try to make a catwalk out of what is clearly a minefield. I look everywhere through the dusty milk crates of pop music in my mind’s attic for what will get me through these remaining minutes. I go back to 1978 for “Raise a Little Hell” for inspiration by Trooper and to the four four beat of gospel house music. In my internal background Vernessa Mitchell is belting out, “I Get Joy!” while I walk the vitamin and supplement aisles like Paris is burning and pray: “God, you’ve got to give me more courage, more power or just make me less aware!” The DJ in my head, the Santa Fe Kool-Aid Zombie population, and morale snipers disguised as middle management on some unholy hourly employee jihad convince me that maybe loud music and a drink is the answer, or at least a welcome interlude from the questions.
I call and leave a message for Kevin, asking him to meet me at the bar when he gets off work. I wait for the bus to take me downtown. I wait and hear myself wonder if this is a conversation I need to have with a drink or a conversation I need to have with God. “Shit,” I say out loud like any other crazy person at any other bus stop and think, “That’s great. That’s just great. There are real problems like insane customers, mistreatment of hardworking coworkers, and the persecution of the hungry and needy, but I get to sit at a bus stop and see My patterns. Thank you very little.” So often I want answers not just God’s presence, failing to realize there are no answers outside of that presence.
I catch the bus.
The other reason to come to the bar this Friday night is that Marc is bar tending. Marc is handsome, personable, affectionate, authentic, and . . . heterosexual. Yeah, I know. But he is. No, he really is. I met Marc in the store several months ago and he invited us down sometime when he was working. So I approach the bar and call his name. Marc bounds from behind the bar and gives me a bear hug and immediately introduces me to the man sitting at the bar to my right.
“Preetam, this is David , that I told you about, and I wanted y’all to meet.”
I shake David’s hand and tell him that it’s nice to meet him. It is nice to meet him. David’s handshake is firm but not agenda driven. His eyes are steady and serene with no trace of searching. David is one of the most calm people that I’ve ever met and every time he looks at me he see me. Already I was grateful. Already I close my eyes for a moment to say “thank You” for this answered prayer of being seen and heard and held – held at least in the strong, centered, Something-ness of his eyes. At the risk of sounding shallow I ask what kind of work he does. He tells me he is a hospice worker. I preemptively admonish myself to not do it. Don’t interview him. Out loud I say, “Wow. Really? That’s amazing work. Intense work. I’ll try to forgo the interview that would normally follow now.” He smiles serenely and I ignore my internal advice and promise I made aloud and proceed to interview David about his experience as a hospice worker. I ask how he had come to be involved with such intense, demanding work. David said that his life experiences had very much prepared him for hospice work.
“But most of us of a certain age who survived the plague years, including me, have run as far and as fast as we can away from death and loss, confrontation, sometimes even intimacy. What kept you from choosing to do that too?”, I asked.
And looking like the world’s slimmest Buddha, whose eyes betrayed the innocent, “Eight is Enough”-wholesomeness he exuded, David said simply, “Oh, but we’ve got to embrace it. All of it.”
I tried to respond to the constant invitation to stillness and assurance that rang not in his words, but that inhabited them. Still, just “embracing it” was way too effing fuzzy wuzzy and new age for old wounds made by and now fortified by jagged grief and barbed defenses. David went on to explain that his own partner had died unexpectedly from diabetes six years ago next month.
“Of course it’s painful and sad for awhile”, he said, “but it’s also so beautiful. Such a beautiful part of life and to be chosen to share it is such an honor. You know one of the most beautiful stories that happened recently was this older man, Hank, a veteran, had come to us at hospice and he had no family, no family at all, none. But he use to hang out and drink at the Cowgirl Saloon every night, so those guys were kinda his family and would come and visit him in hospice. But, even when your time is limited, it’s also limited at hospice. You can only stay so long, so he went home. I wasn’t scheduled for a home visit that day, but I wondered if anyone was still visiting and just thought I’d stop in since we had his keys. I unlocked the door to his little apartment, called his name and announced mine, “Hank? It’s me, David.” I stepped to his bed, heard the shallowness of his breath and felt the thinness of time. I cupped his head in my hands and told him,
‘It’s okay. You’re not alone. I’m here. You’re not alone, Hank.”
He took two more breaths. Just two. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that beautiful? To get to share that?,” David asked.
My mouth was dry, my eyes wet, and my rum and coke gone. Downstairs a gigantic drag queen that the bar fliers promised was “big, blond, and beautiful” was using her own voice to butcher alive “I Am Changing” from “Dreamgirls” while upstairs I sat in an unexpected bar mix of gratitude and reverence. I sighed deeply and moved on with the inevitable next question.
“But how do you care for yourself? I mean what practice or religion, or tradition helps you find and maintain your center, your hope?”
“Well”, David said, “it was a real struggle for a long time until this friend, a shop owner, saw that I needed it I guess and shared this little prayer with me: ‘Lord, let me allow You to move through me not from me.’ It’s an important distinction, a sanity saving distinction. I’m just a vessel. At my best, at my very most, I’m just a vessel. Whatever goodness, or Grace or loving presence that happens comes through me, not from me. When I start to confuse the two and start thinking or even secretly believing that any of It is coming from me I start thinking all kinds of stuff is my business that never was and never will be. I also immediately start overdrawing from the wrong account: namely, mine.
David smiled. His “peace. be still.” eyes assured me of the sincerity of every word he had spoken. When he called presence during transition “beautiful” he did so not because he should or because he aspired to, but because he actually found beauty in those moments and added, or as he would insist, allowed Beauty through him, to be added to those moments of such a compression of deepness of Spirit and thinness of physicality. Downstairs the big, blond, beautiful, torch song-butchering drag diva was ending her show with Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way!” Upstairs, sitting between Kevin and David, I tried to remember the last time that I witnessed such a moving message inside the walls of an actual church.
I looked deep into David’s eyes and saw myself, but more tenderly than through my own eyes and behind me in David’s eyes I saw God – a God that would meet me anywhere, anytime, at the point of my need.
Tonight, Jesus disguised as David, the hospice worker in a gay bar just had water – without the need for any fancy wine making- miracles.
We had no wine or bread, but we shared communion in that space;
and I felt heard and healed in some important way and reminded that God abides always,
under cross and spire and in the check-out lane, in our joys and in our hopes,
and always in the mire of grace.
“This Joy” Vernessa Mitchell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXPNcAUqcHw