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

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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

Just a thought: stars

I lay in bed amazed that when I focus on the darkness and not the faintly lit lines of the walls,
that the darkness hiding the walls and ceiling merge seamlessly with the darkness
just outside the windows on either side and there appear to be no walls or ceiling or structure at all,
only stars in the darkness that indiscriminately shine remanents of ancient hope
on present war-weary hearts and joyous family gatherings with the same faint, but incessant refrain:
you are small, but you’re not alone. the sky is adorned with the goodness of the Artist.
even when you’re weary, there is wonder… and sometimes in a triumphant moment of silence
we might hear more clearly, something like a distant confidence,
if the stars can shine in their confidence of being held in utter darkness and constant motion,
even though they don’t know the joy of welcome or the warmth of embrace,
maybe we can have that confidence one day.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 2/20/15photo-16

Bully Pulpit *(note: “Trigger Warning”)

Grace & Atonement get real personal this Ash Wednesday:¬†Bully Pulpit *(note: “Trigger Warning”).

Cradle Song

 

I wake early and make the hour long train trip to a doctor’s appointment. We finally arrive at the train depot in the transportation center and I step out of the train with the sleepy-eyed ¬†commuting workers and texting students and make my way to the bus terminal. I feel wide-eyed in the city this morning; like I’ve never been here before, even though my physical therapy appointments mean I’m here at least once a week, sometimes twice. Today, though, the steel gray of the normally sunny skies, somehow seems to emphasize, rather than cover, other shadows: the streets are dirtier, the hungry are hungrier; hope seems to always slip in the pavement cracks or slide around buried rebel roots just before I can step in it. I aim, step forward, and hope evaporates. I’m puddle jumping in a hope mirage. The violence of racism, the inhumanity of police-state brutality, and injustice across this country continues to grow, continues to break my heart and then, when I’m weak and tired, invite me to despair. I haven’t felt more like giving Christmas a complete pass than I do this year in a long time. Just meet it at the door at Twelve midnight, December 24, explain, “No, just not this year. I’m sorry, not this year,” and go back to bed, or prayer, or the streets. At the transportation center, the connecting hub for the regional train, the Amtrak, and the city buses, I look around and I can’t help but think of lyrics from Les Miserables:

“At the end of the day

You’re another day older,

that’s all you can say

for the life of the poor.

It’s a struggle, it’s a war,

and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving

One more day, standing about, what is it for?

One day less to be living.”

The Broadway lyrics in my head are interrupted by the Christmas carols playing over the speakers amid the morning rush and exhaust:

“Come, they told me, ” the song began and they seemed to. I look around and see them shuffling. The crew cut blonde guy with defeat in his eyes older than he is shuffles right into my personal space and behind me, studying every crevice and corner for a cigarette butt. He looks up just enough and just often enough as a safety precaution. He is maybe twenty-three. Stooped, leveled, solidly defeated at twenty-three.

“Our finest gifts we bring…pa rump a bum bum,” the story of the drummer boy continues while a few feet away a half a dozen others are shuffling. One man is rummaging through a trash can. Another shuffles left, then right, but never shuffling too far away to protect his two thirteen-gallon kitchen trash bags full of aluminum cans for recycling. I wonder what desperation is making this necessary: his own hunger, his family, needing medication, or a fix for an addiction, but no matter what the reason, they all grow despair, they each rob our spirit and leech our humanity.

“I am a poor boy, too…pa rump a bum bum,” the steady, solemn carol continues and I think that there, in that one unassuming word of the carol, seemes to be the key: “too,” “I am a poor boy, too,” a poor boy, also; a poor boy like you: a King on the inside but poor on the out. One of the half dozen homeless men is moving in start and stop, herky jerky, wide circular motions, his hands in the waist of his layers of pants. The others continue, intense as a forensics team, scouring the area for change or cigarette butts. And this, this is their long day and their hungry night; every night, their every day; everyday for what the Les Miserables lyricist called “the wretched of the earth.” For me, this is a few minutes of my day on my way to my physical therapy appointment. These are lean times. I have nothing extra to share today. My spouse and I live simply; more faith than funds, but I’m assured of at least my next meal and sometimes I remember my song.

Of all that I don’t remember from my childhood, I remember that someone sang over me when I was a baby. I had a cradle song and it seemed only logical that if you’ve got a cradle song then you know for sure what your Homecoming song will be. I wonder, did Christ at Calvary hear even an echo in His Mother’s weeping of His cradle song, of Mary’s Magnificat. I wonder if it welcomed Him home. I wonder if these shuffling, searching men had a cradle song, if they had someone to sing over them. I wonder if it would matter at all now, if they did have one, but they didn’t even know it. “Probably not,” I think, “except maybe, maybe some grace could let a humble and very late cradle song still be their Homecoming song; at least as a back up. If there’s a Book of Life, there’s bound to be an even Bigger Book of Commentary, Corrections, and Back up Homecoming Songs. Everyone has to have a welcome song, especially when the world has been so cold, so brutal; when our waiting, our Advent, has been so long. We should have a Homecoming song. So I grabbed the bus schedule and around its paramenter I wrote:

“This cradle song’s for the brokenhearted,

Hope is born for wounded souls;

Calling all to come as children:

The scared, the least, the left behind.

Lay down your cares,

Let Me dry all your tears,

Trade your songs of sorrow now

For the Savior’s lullaby:

“I rest in Jesus

as Jesus rests in me.

I’m never afraid

Nestled in the Prince of Peace,

I’m never afraid, nestled in the Prince of Peace.”

I look up from the bus schedule as the aluminum can man boards a city bus followed by a few of his friends, leaving the others to scatter.

We all scatter, all of us, all of our cradle songs half-remembered, our stories untold, and Homecoming songs unsung.

We all scatter, brothers unclaimed.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 12/8/14