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.

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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

“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

51 Seconds **

Though I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Shawn Smucker in person​ ​yet, the honest way he shares his humanity and faith, the vulnerable​ ​display of his doubts and dreams that inform every economic line of​ ​his writing make him one of the handful of men who continue to affirm​ ​for me that there are good men in the world. He is one of my favorite​ ​living writers and one of my favorite people and even though Shawn’s a​ ​decade younger than I am, I still wouldn’t mind a’tall being like​ ​Shawn when I grow up. I rarely, if ever miss one of his blog posts.​ ​You shouldn’t either.

In his post, “What’s Happening Every Moment”​​(http://shawnsmucker.com/2015/09/whats-happening-every-moment/), Shawn​ ​asked some compelling questions:

“What is being planted in me this moment?…What cosmic messages, what​ ​prophetic visions, what desires, what boredom, what dreams? What hope,​ ​what bitterness, what patience laid bare in the turned up furrows of my
soul, folded over? What are these moments planting in your soul?”

What are these moments planting in my soul? What do these moments,​ ​each of these mundane and malevolent moments, plant in us? Most of us​ ​most often are soul-unaware, let alone actually knowing what’s being
planted there to take root deeply and to yield a harvest according to​ ​that seed. The admonition to “Be Present,” to “Be in the Moment,” has​ ​been trendy, cool, co-opted, and cliched. If we take it only for its
yoga tee shirt printed, Westernized-Buddhism-lite surface value, maybe​ ​we should seriously consider retiring its use retail, wholesale, and​ ​altogether. Honestly, what is the challenge for most of Westerners​ ​with any modicum of health to “be in the moment”?

(breathy ultra spiritual voice): “Be in the moment. Raise your​ ​awareness. Notice where you are, what you’re doing. ​ ​How does it​ ​feel…in this moment?”

Guy in the front yard, mopping his brow: “I’m mowing the damn grass in​ ​this moment, that’s what I’m doing…and I ​ ​feel hot, it’s hot like​ ​Judgement Day out here for the love a Christ!”

(breathy ultra spiritual voice): “Breathe in the present. Letting go​ ​of yesterday and tomorrow, just staying in this ​ ​moment. How does that​ ​feel, just right now?”

Middle-aged woman pausing her shopping cart: “Feel? I feel tired. This​ ​Target’s the size of a stadium and frankly, a little annoyed. Look,​ ​maybe I’m just old and still have a “Charlie’s Angels” girls-crush,​ ​but if Jaclyn Smith is too old to grace the cover of women’s​ ​magazines, then isn’t Caitlyn Jenner too man to be on magazine covers​ ​everywhere I turn my head?”

Yeah, let’s let those deeply self-actualizing precious moments go, but​ ​what if the moment is deeper than our comfort zones and wider than our​ ​attention spans? What if this moment that’s planting something in our​ ​souls is terrifyingly vast, vast and horrible and grand? Lately the​ ​unbearable moments are nearly back to back, these moments that knock​ ​the wind out of us and make us sit down hard, stunned, again, that​ ​This could really be the world that we live in.

Yesterday, there was the heart wrenching moment of seeing the pictures​ ​of bodies washed ashore on Turkish beaches. Particularly the haunting​ ​picture of the Syrian refugee toddler drowned and washed up on one of
Turkey’s main tourist resort beaches. He was three years old. There​ ​were others, including his five year old brother found down the beach,​ ​but thanks to the miraculous calamity of social media we know this​ ​three year old’s name. The toddler drowned, washed up, and faced down​ ​on the beach is Aylan Kurdi. And there he lies dead, having known only​ ​violence, homelessness, and hunger his entire three years of life. And​ ​having been a witness to this, how do we now just go on with our day?​ ​How can we “be” in this moment? What is this moment planting?

And today, God knows what compelled me to do it, today I clicked​ ​‘play’ on the fifty-one second video. I’ll never be able to erase the​ ​images from the pieces of my heart, nor should I be able to. In not​ ​quite a minute, but in fifty-one moments, as camera men jockey for the​ ​closest shot, we watch as a Syrian family fleeing for their lives​ ​refuses to board the train that will take them to a refugee camp.​ ​Resisting the police, the father is pleading hysterically, “No camp!​ ​No camp!! NO CAMP!!,” while his wife clutches their infant child to​ ​her bosom in terror. Finally, the father shouts instructions to his​ ​wife and the three of them: father, blessed mother, and holy infant​ ​lie down on the train tracks and huddle together, perfectly willing to​ ​die under the crushing steel wheels of an oncoming train rather than
to endure what awaits them at the refugee camp. In the last seconds of​ ​the video police in riot gear forcibly remove the family. The father​ ​is carried away, spread eagle, mid-air, riot policemen holding each​ ​limb, as he continues to plead, “NO CAMP!” I am stunned, breathless,​ ​sorrow souring my stomach, wondering how much grief can be lodged in​ ​my throat before I finally suffocate and in light of this suffering,​ ​even talking about our feelings feels unspeakably selfish, feels like​ ​a layer of the inhumanity that allows this horror. I cannot help but​ ​think of Sethe, the character in Toni Morrison’s novel, “Beloved”,​ ​which is based on the facts of a true story. In the novel and later in​ ​the fine film​version, Sethe attempts, and succeeds in one case, to​ ​kill her own children, to slit their throats rather than have them
return to the daily horror of the “Sweet Home” plantation cultivated​ ​in Amerikkkan slavery.

And here we are again; here we are still, but now with live video shot​ ​within the hour of a parent willing to kill their own family and die​ ​themselves rather than be in this world, while at the very same moment​ ​too many of us are obsessed with status and stuff and self-protection.​ ​There isn’t a toothy prosperity gospel preacher or self-help guru that​ ​can convince me that we can Ever be our “best selves” while at This​ ​moment our very Worst selves co-create tragedy by looking the other​ ​way.

I look around the boarding platform as I wait for the train that will​ ​take me home today. There must be a hundred or so people scattered​ ​about. I wonder how many of them have seen the picture of three year​ ​old Aylan dead on the beach or seen the video of the terrified Syrian​ ​family huddled in the train tracks in Hungary. If they’ve seen these
same images, what capacity for denial or compartmentalization do they​ ​have that I obviously lack? I’m grief-stricken. I need everything to​ ​stop. Empire and capitalism and fear, all one and the same, need​ ​everything to keep moving. My empathy continues to convince me that​ ​it’s not those who can’t cope with this world that are mentally ill,​ ​but those that can that are the dangerously unbalanced. There are​ ​small and crucial things that we can do to collectively have an​ ​impact: spreading awareness, signing petitions, and pressuring​ ​government officials, but still I’m left with feeling that none of​ ​this is enough. How can any of it be enough when any label can allow​ ​us to strip other people of their humanity and reveal our shocking​ ​lack of it?

In my head I hear over and over the second verse of that old hymn sung
in beautiful harmony by Homecoming Friends, Reggie Smith, Joy Gardner,
and the late Stephen Hill:

“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone,”

No, the ancient words confirm, no amount of our tears, no matter how​ ​choking the lump of grief in our throats, no matter if our passionate​ ​activism never knew rest, none of these by themselves could actually​ ​reconcile and make right the sin of these atrocities.

“Thou must save and Thou alone;”

All of our very best human efforts, our marching, petition signing,​ ​protesting, and heroic activism is necessary and needful, and still,​ ​at best, only temporary, if hearts remain unchanged. As one writer​ ​said, and it remains always true, “At the heart of the matter, it’s a​ ​matter of the heart.” I simply don’t know of any other power to change​ ​hearts but the power of the reconciling love of God. In response to​ ​the suffering of others, some of us feel powerless to do anything at​ ​all and even say we don’t believe in prayer. Of course, to me, this​ ​sounds like slamming the door shut on hope and opening wide the levy​ ​for a flood of uncontested cruelty. While our answers from God in​ ​their many forms are vital, it’s helpful for me to consider that maybe​ ​prayer isn’t so much about God answering us as it is about us​ ​answering God. “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love​ ​your neighbor as yourself; care for the widow, the orphan, the​ ​prisoner, the least, the last, and the lost,” the Scriptures say and​ ​in what way does God need to answer this? Isn’t it us that need to​ ​answer God as a bride might answer the priest’s question as she looks​ ​into the eyes of her Beloved Bridegroom?

“Do you take these, these refugees and outcasts, these prisoners, these​ ​Black Lives that Matter, these 50,000 infected with HIV every day; do​ ​you take these homeless and mentally ill, these addicted and hopeless,​ ​do you take these Muslims and Jews, these Palestinians and Christians​ ​and Queers to be your lawfully wedded neighbors and love them as I have​ ​loved you?”

This is the family that we marry into and prayer, with well-worn heels​ ​and calloused hands, is our answer to marrying into that family.

The second verse of “Rock of Ages” ends with the lines,

“In my hand no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”

What can we manufacture, produce, sell, or send to alleviate such​ ​endless suffering? By our own hands, what can we bring? Nothing,​ ​nothing short of self-sacrificial love is the redemptive answer of the​ ​cross. What can we do? What can we bring? Nothing, nothing that​ ​doesn’t cost us something. Perhaps what most of us really mean when we​ ​say we just feel like there’s nothing we can do is that we just don’t​ ​know what we can do that won’t cost us something; and, in that case,​ ​we would be right. There is nothing, nothing at all we can do that​ ​won’t cost us something, not even prayer.

I sit on the northbound train and watch the horses and cattle, the​ ​mountains, clouds, and Indian reservations roll by outside my window.​ ​I see a line of outrageously tall sunflowers, then hundreds, then​ ​thousands, and for a moment fields and fields crowded with sunflowers​ ​reaching their huge, heavy seeded heads toward the sun that seeded
itself in them not so many moments ago. It’s a bombastic blast of​ ​yellow life reflected in my eyes brimmed with tears and my heart heavy​ ​with remembering lifeless toddlers washed ashore and the family​ ​huddled together on the train tracks.

Perhaps the most sage thing ever uttered by renowned seeker, Ram Dass,​ ​was simply, “Remember.” Our capacity to remember is surely one source​ ​of our greatest potential and our remarkable capacity to forget the​ ​source of our greatest inhumanity. Of course, Christ went a gigantic​ ​one better than Ram Dass, or more accurately, three-in-One better,​ ​when He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The “this” that Jesus is​ ​referring to was communion – the Table that welcomes us all and leaves​ ​no one unchanged; the Table of communion and of the Last Supper – the
supper that invites us all to live for Love by letting Love live​ ​through us as we die to ourselves and somehow, somehow, through​ ​reckless, amazing grace we share and practice, proclaim and live life​ ​more abundantly.

What are these moments planting in our souls? Perhaps all of these​ ​things are planted: messages, visions, dreams, and desires, but​ ​perhaps, most importantly what is planted there in our souls is what​ ​every seed carries: the​​boundless, breaking forth, stretching,​ ​yearning hunger for the sun. Only in the redemptive breaking out and​ ​reaching toward the Son that has seeded us can we possibly redeem​ ​every moment, every one of those fifty-one seconds. Only by grace can​ ​terror and complacency be transformed into carriers, into vessels,​ ​into safe and sure boats for all of us refugees to reach the shores of​ ​each other’s hearts.​

– PreetamDas Kirtana
3 September 2015​

And Now, Back to You

And Now, Back to You:​

I love gratitude lists.

I do, I love them.

I think gratitude lists are one of The best ideas Ever, except for when I’m feeling ungrateful.

It’s been a time of barely having time to recover from one challenge before the next one makes contact two by four-style. As I looked out into the gloriously sunny morning it occurred to me that I could choose to do just about anything I wanted. That somehow made me feel a fraction lighter. Mind you, I’m talking about the simplest of options, no, the options aren’t endless, hopping a plane home isn’t actually an option, but there are countless other options. My spouse has a long day at work meaning I have the house to myself from morning to late tonight. The simple pleasures that alone affords are countless. I can sing out loud without a bit of self-consciousness. I could use way too much jelly. It’s an unusually warm February day here in the desert. I could walk the dog through the arroyo and follow coyote and bobcat tracks. I could finish a book, color, or take a nap. I could have a great lunch or just a big bowl of ice cream. I hadn’t set out to create a list, but the idea of having the choice and freedom to choose from so many simple pleasures was its own kind of freedom. I mean, to have the opportunity and the time at the same time, to you know, just do what you want: track a bobcat or take a nap? That’s outrageous, right?

I know. I had to back up too. Sometimes it seems like when there’s finally an opening that it can happen so quickly that we stumble back from the widening edge, scrambling for solid ground rather than recognizing it as the opening we needed and longed for and falling gratefully into new heights of trust.

Too often gratitude can be based on comparison, if not with actual people, then inside our own heads, of what we have that some unfortunate other folks don’t have and, we’re told, we should be grateful for this; grateful that the discrepancies are in our favor. Of course, I tend to understand that as the lottery of privilege, not blessing; perhaps a reason to be grateful, but more often a reason to work towards reconciliation and justice. But, over the course of time, some growth, and some clarity that aging itself might bring, I don’t find myself ungrateful because of anything I don’t have. It’s not that we have a lot. Just the opposite is true. The discrepancies are Not in our favor. It would be challenging to live more simply than we do. It’s just that, aside from another book from time to time, I don’t really want much of anything. So maybe more authentic gratitude comes from what we do or even what we could do rather than what we have or don’t have.

Maybe feeling grateful is a matter of looking more at possibilities rather than facts. After all, thinking, “I can’t do whatever” may well be a fact, but thinking “I could do whatever” is at least thinking possibility and possibility will always make better building materials than facts.

But what if neither action nor the possibility of action were realistic? What if I were ill? What about loved ones who are ill or infirm, who have no options of taking a walk or eating a bowl of ice cream to consider? What about that time that will come for all of us, when we will not be getting and having won’t matter anymore, those times when possibility has evaporated? What of gratitude then? How will we offer thanks then? What can we find then to give praise for? Are we only to arrive at a darkness where we are bitterly resigned, where neither possession, nor action, nor even their possibility can be a source of gratitude or a depository and defender of our worth?

Perhaps, this is what we all fear, yet maybe this is the place we were meant to aim for the whole time: a gratitude so pure that it’s not contingent on possession, accomplishment, or even possibility; a gratitude that doesn’t defend our worth, but that holds it. Here, as always, we must go lower to reach higher. We must dig beneath what we can have, beneath what we can do, all the way down to our core, so low into what we are that we strike what we were meant to be and always were: a distillation of our Source, somehow containing That which contains us; children of God that bear an intentional resemblance to our Creator. Here, we can see that comparison never could yield gratitude, only living In our identity can do that. Centered in the Truth of who we are, we become like children on the playground, each boasting proudly of their father’s impressive vocation to the others around because we actually feel so safe, so secure, so protected that we’re excited about it. We’re pretty proud of how certain we can be that someone has our back, how confident we are that we won’t be alone. We work and play and rest differently knowing we belong, knowing we have a Home, knowing we’re companioned. To the great “I Am”, we are glorious, though profoundly miniature and dependent, “i am, too’s”.

But I have the worst amnesia.

Apparently, I’m so certain that I’m a bastard that I keep forgetting who my Father is.

And that’s it again, isn’t it? I didn’t slip into ingratitude over anything I don’t have. I slipped into ingratitude because I slipped into believing a lie about myself. I’m not unhappy or ungrateful because of what I don’t have, but because of what I started believing about myself. Focusing on what I don’t have makes a great temporary distraction from hating what I started to believe I am.

But when I remember,
I remember that I don’t have to look for love or peace.

I don’t have to try and find healing or gratitude
or anything else that I was born with and born of.

I am rest.

I am song.

I am the steps of a lifetime,
a journal of wisdom, a diary
of a million conversations with God
in a million different disguises,

and I am a map to where we’ll meet again,
innocent and unwounded,
unbound and wide as
stars can be flung.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 2/19/15