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

The Blacksmith’s Garden

**Note: This piece first appeared as a guest blog via the kindness and generosity of Zack Hunt on his blog at  http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/  Zack is rather amazing: great heart and humor and lover of Jesus and neighbor (an uncommon & wonderful combination!) You should really do yourself a favor and check out his blog. Just subscribe. You’ll be glad you did. I post this, as I recover from some health challenges and, honestly, it remains a piece that still ministers to me. I hope you find some meaning and blessing here also**

 

The Blacksmith’s Garden – By Preetamdas Kirtana

(H/T)

When I was a child growing up in Pentecostal churches the phrase “turn or burn” meant mouthing a panicked sinner’s prayer or burning eternally in the Monster God’s hellfire. Today as my heart breaks again for my friend, Jerry, that phrase unexpectedly returned to my mind. Less than a month ago Jerry lost his beloved brother suddenly in an accident. Today, just minutes ago, Jerry emailed me that his sister, the remaining half of his spiritual arsenal; his shield that had worked in conjunction with the sword that his brother had been, has received another diagnosis of cancer. And what can I say? “My God,” is absolutely all I can think as the tears well up and trace the paths of their countless predecessors: tears of pain and joy, of loss and gratitude, tears of questions with no answer whatsoever, tears when there are no words left at all. I weep. I cry silently and then I notice a peculiar emptiness.

I don’t know what to do except pray, even if it’s only these simple, desperate words, “My God.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing and that’s where the emptiness is – right there: right where a loud, accusatory, and raging “WHY?!” would have been before. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m not doing at least right now, in just this moment, is not asking why. This leaves this space vacant, empty; this space where previously tough resentment, hard obstacles, and heart-high walls have been hammered into fine, glistening, repellent fashion by a blacksmith of isolation whose every challenge and loss blew like bellows into the toxic fire of “whys” and bitter “One day…” threats. Oh, the smoke from the noxious flames always sent signals of alarm and distressed calls for rescue, but without fail anyone, anyone, even God, who cared enough to get close enough to help, also got close enough to get burned. But now, now a cool wind blows through the blacksmith’s darkened shop and the anvil looks more like an altar. Without the the echo of the hammer and the crackle and spit of the fire I hear “turn or burn,” which, frankly, with it’s brimstone baggage seems like damn cold comfort. But on the next breeze that stirs old ash, also comes a fresh understanding in this hallowed out space. If we can, through resistance and ritual, with white knuckles and bended knee, through sometimes saltine-dry prayers and sobbing surrender, if we can just empty the space, if we can just turn from any and all questions of “why?” even for a moment, lay down the bellows, douse the fire, take off the apron and sit, we sometimes notice, perhaps in the cooler corner opposite the old furnace, a tiny green sprouting intruder of trust. It’s a strange and welcome sight, though more than a little perplexing as all I’ve really known is blacksmithing. I don’t know nothing about gardening.

I’ve grown skilled in burning offenses, glowing hot resentments, cauterized wounds, and throwing relationships like kindling. I know nothing of growing something new and tender green. The wonder of the tiny sprig of trust with it’s reaching roots and the wonder of my own unknowing amid the smell of soot and ash lights this new understanding of “turn or burn.” I can burn with questions of why. I can be consumed by the fires of needing reasons and in believing that in each denial and in every loss that my answers are gone or I can turn toward my complete unknowing, my complete lack of questions and also toward this love that has been likened to a great, Good Shepherd, this gentle, determined Gardner, who asks me, as He asked Mary, with the tomb behind her and the garden before her,

“Why are you crying?”

“They’ve taken my answers and even my questions,” I reply.

But then, in the stillness of the glory of this single seedling of trust, hardly a garden, He speaks my name.

He speaks my name and, like Mary, the Knowing of His Spirit within me springs forth and answers,

“Rabboni! Teacher!”

My Pentecostal training of “turn or burn” left my soul’s only option for vocation as blacksmith but my not knowing is, with bleeding hands and soiled knees, preparing me to be, finally, a Gardner’s apprentice, a Rabbi’s ragamuffin disciple, a faltering, failed, trembling, and faithful child of God.

But without answers and without even questions, how does that help Jerry? What does that leave me to offer my frightened and grieving friend? What it leaves is something better than answers that never helped even when they came. It leaves me brokenhearted, but faithful and willing to weep and wait in the garden outside empty tombs with the brokenhearted and weeping and waiting and to listen for the Gardner, ready to recognize the Teacher, to sit together in our unknowing until Daybreak dries our tears and we feel That Which We Felt Was Lost rise up within us and we know resurrection.

That’s all we have: brokenness, hope, and glory.

– See more at: http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/#sthash.WxURtDn9.dpuf

The Resurrection…From the Back Pew

*one truly from the archives: circa 2004, but hey, it’s lighter! In-joy

My second cousin came to my very first public reading of my writing. In one of the pieces I read, I spoke openly about how dire my financial situation was at the time of that recently written essay. After the show, she, her mother, and sister showered me with congratulations and hugs. Then, her mother slipped some money into my pocket against my protests and her daughter planned a day to take me to the grocery and asked if I needed to do laundry. I pulled her close and said into her ear, “You have no idea. My socks actually stand upright in the corner, without me in them!” She laughed and we set a date to begin the mountain of laundry. This kind, generous gesture was made even more disarming by the fact that my cousin and I had enjoyed virtually no contact for years, despite living in the same city.

Two days later I stood in her kitchen as she began to cook and the first of the ‘winter laundry’ began to spin. I asked about her job and she explained that she hadn’t returned to work since the birth of her now toddler son, Little Joe. Her time was consumed daily by tending to the needs of her son and by occasional volunteer work. One of her volunteer activities is being a precinct judge and officiating at voting sites during elections. Now, after all these long years, my cousin came out to me. I had, of course, suspected, even knew this in the back of my mind. But, well, to hear her say it right out loud, well, it still cut like a knife. All the tell-tale signs had been there. She is white, very, very, white actually, married with a kid, and drives . . . a mini-van. We share an ol’-time Pentecostal religion upbringing and she still attends weekly services locally. Her family, with their backyard deck and two car garage, appear to enjoy middle-class status. Perhaps, even more telling, is her family’s holiday tradition of sending out those family update form letters that detail all of the family tragedies and triumphs with photographs since the previous Christmas. All of these signs and red flags and I chose to remain in denial, until she said it again, “Of course, being REPUBLICAN, I said that of course, I wanted the Bush campaign sign in our yard when they asked down at the headquarters.” I turned my face away, knowing it would betray me and register the shock, pain, and repulsion that I felt at her declaration. The intensity of my response was surprising, even to me. Instantly I just wanted to leave. I wanted to pack my baker’s dozen or so bags of still dirty laundry back into the mini-van, return the groceries, and have her drive me back home in stony silence. I just wanted out. How DARE here extend such kindness: invite me into her home and then casually drop this bombshell! “Oh, by the way, I strike preemptively and deny you equal status under the law. Would you pass the gravy and those potato rolls?” Great. “Bring it on”, I’d reply. This was horrible, unbelievable. I wondered if she had told her mother. She must have. No wonder the woman has had so much trouble with her heart recently. It must be just killing her. After doing her level best to raise her daughter right, to now be faced with the dark reality of her being: a Republican.

A moment later I became aware of just how snug this shoe was on my other foot. What kind of a Falwellian bigot did I sound like? Next I would instigate panic and controversy by suggesting that she and “her kind” should not be allowed to teach or adopt children. Jesus wept! So much for building bridges. I remembered again the Walt Whitman quote, “We convince by our presence,” and I stayed, despite my initially deep internal resistance. I insisted that this kindness was too extravagant and that she should allow me to do something to express my gratitude. “I could . . . wash the mini-van. I could give you some money when I get paid on Friday.” She said ‘no’ repeatedly to all of my offers, then paused. “Well, there is one thing you could do.” “Sure, what is it?” “You could come to our Easter cantata at our church this Easter.” “Alright. Okay.” I had already said that I was usually off work on Sundays. No saves there. In my mind I calculated exactly how much time I had before Easter Sunday to catch something that would render me bed-ridden and a risk for contagion, but aloud I said, “I can do that.”

On Easter morning I sat next to my cousin as the Passion play unfolded. Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount, turned water into wine, and calmed a raging storm at sea. I had visions of Ted Neeley and Mel Gibson and lamented my decision to smoke that joint before church. I can hardly stay awake. I finger my mala beads and pray to stay upright. Apparently, “cantata”, the word itself, is an ancient Latin word used only in certain religious sects and roughly translates to the equivalent of the Spanish word “siesta, or more accurately “coma”. Now, Christ was dying and I was surrounded by people who would wet themselves trying to decide whether to stone my because I had been a ‘rebellious child’ or because I’m a ‘homosexual’. My mouth was as dry as disciple’s sandal. Smoking weed before Easter service was not a good idea after all. It feels remotely inappropriate to be looking forward to the last supper so much. Maybe they’ll have communion. Wafers and juice. LOTS of wafers and juice. God, I could eat my hymnal. The munchies seem so ‘high school’ like hickies. Nevertheless, they’re here and I ask my cousin if maybe she has any little thing at all, in abundance, in that huge purse of hers to eat. She clears her throat. “PreetamDas”, she says, “this would be the crucifixion part.” I cast my eyes downward, then back to the stage and think to myself, “It’s the Passion play for Chrissake, the whole thing is the crucifixion part.”

The pre-recorded clap of thunder startles me awake from another 8 second, head-bobbing nap. Base begins to rumble from the speakers throughout the church, apparently signifying the saviors final breath on the cross. Lights flashed as the choir hummed ominously and then, suddenly, all went completely dark and silent. A hush fell over the darkened church auditorium, with the exception of random, muffled sobbing. The director held the moment, caressed the moment, then squeezed the silent, dark moment like a wet washcloth for all he was worth. When the lights came back up, Mary rushed out of a papier-mache tomb declaring that Christ’s body had been stolen and she darted up the path to tell the others. In a flash, a painted, transparent screen was whisked up in front of Mary to reveal a scarred, but resurrected Jesus. I had wondered how they would effect the resurrection. I ‘d had amusing fantasies of an unfortunate messiah crash landing into Pilate’s balcony as his Peter Pan wires got crossed.

But, as the director would have it, a veil was simply removed and Christ was revealed.

I decided not only that I appreciated this dramatic treatment, but also that perhaps this was also part of the message: Christ hadn’t flown in or even descended. His feet still touched the ground, yet He was risen. Having seen several Passion plays with my family on summer vacations, yep, including “Christ of the Ozarks, the “greatest story ever told” was not new to me. There was no surprise ending. What I did find useful was the reminder that right where we are at, feet on the ground, we are called to and able to rise. My cousin took my hand in hers and together, we sat there on our church pew, both a little bit risen.”

pdk archives March 25, 2004

Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly

Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly

I believe in the possibility of reconciliation under any circumstance, and yet there are things that we say to each other sometimes that may not be beyond the reach of forgiveness but remain beyond forgetting.

I was a skinny kid that grew up in a family of fat relatives. In an extended family where being overweight was the norm, I stuck out like a sore thumb; a thumb made more sore by frequently being made fun of and enduring nicknames mocking my body size. It was 1976. I was ten years old. Even an adult cousin that I adored would announce, “Jimmy, you’re so skinny, you look funny cuz your bones stick out.” Of course the bones she was referring to were elbows and knees. Given that kind of public derogatory announement today after years of building a fine defense and a quick, bitter tongue, I’d probably snap back that it was her that looked funny because when I stood next to her, we looked like the number 10. But, then, to suggest that visible elbows and knees were normal would have been risking switch-welted legs or a bloodied mouth. I was outweighed and outnumbered.

I was a skinny kid with a gap between my two front teeth. Braces would correct my teeth when I was older, but no stage of growth changed my underdog size. My slight size combined with my fastidiousness and what my birth mother called being “tender-hearted” got me called a “fag” by kids at school long before I knew what the intended insult meant. I only felt the way the kids said it and I felt dirty, dirty and outcast without knowing why; dirty, even before they spit on me on the crowded school bus.

When I was a kid, adults said that I’d “fill out” when I grew up. They lied about that, too. Ten years later, other gay men started dying. No one understood anything about H.I.V. then. Everyone was afraid. The government, at best, didn’t care. The church told us that we had it coming. They told us that we were being punished and we were, but not by God. We were being punished by the fear and hatred of people who left us to fight and die alone. I remember being so young and so afraid. I remember at one gathering, a young man, Jeff, carried his own drinking glass so as to not risk contagion. Jeff and countless other guys in the bars would speculate and sometimes outright accuse me of having A.I.D.S. Does anyone get “accused” of having cancer or heart disease? It was never a good time to be a skinny kid. It’s never been a good time to be a skinny gay man, even among other gay men. It was shaping up to just not be a good time to ever be me. Jeff’s personal drinking glass didn’t save him.

At middle-age now, it remains an elusive goal to hit a hundred and fifty pounds. No, ladies, it is not an enviable thing. Please stop saying that. Yes, I can “eat whatever I want”, as you so often say, “without gaining a pound”. It’s also true that if it’s not eighty in the shade, I’m cold and it hurts to sit. I’m getting closer to looking into finding an ass prosthetic; either that or I’ll be that guy that carries a pillow with him everywhere to sit on. As a rule, stress seems to effect our eating habits in one of two ways. Under stress some of us will eat everything and some of us will eat nothing. I tend toward the latter group. During a period of hardship and predictable weight loss for me five or six years ago, I was at dinner with my friend Suzanne, when she took my breath away when, while encouraging me to eat, she told me that I looked like “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”.

I’m not often speechless.

I didn’t much want to go outside for awhile after that.

Sometimes we say things that are not beyond forgiveness, but remain beyond forgetting.

I ache when I consider the times that I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Three years or so ago I was as physically present as I’ve ever been weighing in at an astonishing personal best of a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Since our car accident last year and the head injury I suffered I struggle to hit a hundred and thirty-five pounds. As a result of that space between my two front teeth when I was a kid and the braces and the slightly off-color cap on one of those two front teeth, I’ve always been a little o.c.d. about my dental hygiene. It hasn’t paid off. None of my enthusiastic flossing or gargling with hydrogen peroxide a half dozen times a day has made any difference in the tremendous bone loss that continues to happen. Dec. 30th, tooth number fifteen, the upper back left, was extracted. Not five weeks later, number three, the back upper right had to be extracted. I now have no upper back teeth to chew with. Pending insurance approval, a partial is hopefully on the way. In the meantime, I eat soft foods and boy, do I have cheekbones. I look like I’m doing an impression of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” now, even when I’m actually not . . . or “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”

Those words said to us that remain beyond forgetting don’t live in our minds in a moment-to-moment or even in a daily way. They’re not predators so much as scavengers. They wait until we’re vulnerable, exhausted, and just about to give up and it’s then that the jackals of some one’s words return from the nowhere of the past in hope of feeding on what’s left of us.

I was washing my face one morning a few days ago and when I saw my face in the mirror, it broke my heart. I saw hollowed spaces and shadows and weariness and I cried looking at my own reflection. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve become rather obsessed about my appearance; not in the way that beautiful people do, but in the way that only the deeply wounded do. I’ve been grieving my teeth and terrified of getting “A.I.D.S. face”, daunted by the prospect of one more obstacle to self-acceptance and crumbling at the idea of one more reason for public rejection. Now, I was losing my hope to the sallow reflection in my bathroom mirror. When it happened again, when I washed my face and cried again at the rather Nosfertu reflection looking back at me, I decided that I couldn’t do this anymore.

I remembered that in a recent issue of AARP magazine that Cher had been quoted as saying that she had “given up mirrors”, that she “hadn’t looked in a mirror in years.” Of course she’s lying, but the idea of not looking in a mirror at all was nearly as compelling as it was frightening. You have to understand how vital, how strangely addictive mirrors are for someone like me: always one more glance, one more snip at a hair, one more disapproving look and then one more. No, you wouldn’t want to live with me and ever want to be anywhere on time, ever. I guess mirrors and cigarettes are to the life of my ego what humility and love are meant to be to my walk of faith. But now I couldn’t see past my own fear and grief, so I made a decision.

I took down the obsessively checked mirror to the right of my office door. I put the eye-level framed pictures on my desk on top of the bookshelf where I can see them but they can’t reflect my image back to me in their glass. I covered my bathroom mirror save for an eye-level strip opening about an inch and a half long by an eighth of an inch high. I can see just my eyes, just my nose, or just my mouth at one time. Mind you, I’m not throwing vanity completely out the window. I will know if that blueberry or spinach is visibly stuck in my teeth, but I won’t face self-rejection with my every reflection.

This is how I’ve come to begin this Lenten season by sitting shiva. The Jewish custom surrounding the ritual of grief dictates that mirrors be covered because mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance, that mourners should be aware that their normal priorities have changed, and that mirrors should not be present in rooms where we pray as we are to direct our focus on God, not ourselves. I’ve been in mourning in many ways no more so than now as the shallow sand-built defenses I’ve invested a lifetime of energy in are incrementally and systematically stripped away. I mourn not only for myself, but for the suffering all around me that I feel so acutely so often. I grieve for living in a world so abrasive that I frequently feel sanded raw.

This Ash Wednesday is only the third day of no mirrors, but I feel drawn to continue the sacrifice of my painful vanity for the entire Lenten season, not just because of the hurt reflected back at me right now, but also because it might help. Already, without my physical image constantly reflected back at me, from time to time I can forget what I look like and just remember that I might Feel good in any given moment. Maybe without my appearance being my constant priority my focus will begin to shift, even a little. Maybe I’ll come closer to understanding that my reflection in a thing isn’t necessary for a thing to be beautiful. How much more beauty there must be to see in the world when our identification with something or someone isn’t required for them to be seen as beautiful and worthy.

Maybe, right now, while it’s so hard to see myself through my own eyes, let alone through God’s eyes, maybe it’s best if I only see myself through your eyes and only see what you show me.

If this life is about union and communion, and I believe that it is, then our self-rejection keeps us only ever halfway to the table and nearly all of us are too malnourished to not pull all the way up to the banquet table of our Father’s love and full acceptance.

Maybe, in covering some mirrors, maybe in borrowing each other’s eyes, we might get closer to pulling up a chair to the Table together.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 3/4/15