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
My current health challenges and life stressors bring me again to the Root and roots of my faith and baby steps of progress toward improved health and more strength and energy as I continue to hope, pray, and believe that being pain-free again can be a reality. My regular doctor is a constant source of gratitude, while it will be impossible to not write about her at some point, there aren’t really words enough to say how incredible her skills AND heart are and how my life is better because of Miriam. But a couple of days ago I saw a different doctor other than my own and didn’t get what I needed. Why is it so confounding for some folks when you’re clear about what you need? Anyway, on the train home I came up with this, maybe it could be helpful for someone else when “baby steps” are again needed or maybe one or two a y’all might wanna join with me for the next 21 days. If you’re up to some baby steps with this 2 Great Commandment Preschooler, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences as we stumble along, and try to remember what immense pleasure it brings our Father, as it would any loving father, to see us learning to walk:
My own Rx:
5 – Five minutes of Affirmative Breathing
Full inhalations & exhalations. On the exhale mentally affirm what you need affirmed. This could be a literal affirmation i.e. “I’m.
safe, loved, home, forgiven, etc. Could be a portion of a Scripture. I’m fond of “blue and green”, shorthand for the still blue waters.
and green pastures of 23rd Psalm I learned from a character in a work of fiction by John D. Base. One need not be a Christian to find.
the image calming. The affirmation on the exhale is key, as without the already disciplined mind that we lack yet, silence alone can
be an entry point for negative voices and thoughts.
10 – Ten full minutes (as only a minimum, but at least 10) of singing Out Loud.
Obviously, something positive would be ideal, but with this one, the songs selected are not as important as simply doing it. If you’re
feeling low, like a motherless child, then sing that, but sing it Out Loud, don’t just feel it in silence. I’m convinced this is the other
reason God made showers. You can do it. It’s not public, not a performance.
15 – Write for a full fifteen minutes.
If you find yourself resistant or staring out the window for more than a minute, begin your time again. As with the singing aloud,
what you write is not even your concern, it could be anything from why you’re grateful to why you’re pretty certain that the world/
God/your spouse/ ex/ or mother is out to get you. “I’m feeling _______” is often a good entry point.
20 – Ideally, simply walk for a full twenty minutes.
This is the goal: walking. When weather makes this impossible, a Very distant next best would be on the floor or mat gentle.
stretching i.e. slow neck rolls, shoulder lifts & drops, gentle twisting from the waist while seated, etc.
Reach (out) – As a routine, and at a minimum, make the phone call.
Yes, even this Everyday. For those of us more comfortable and with time, the “Reach” could be sharing coffee or a meal
or much more like some form of community/church/social involvement, but again the key is that daily, so making that phone call
is basic, if not easy. Serving at the shelter or attending a meeting, etc. do fill the ask but these are rarely everyday. Bottom line:
you really will need to use the phone. No requirement on content or time, only you need to connect Live, even if only briefly. No,
leaving a voice mail isn’t enough or rather leave the voice mail, then dial again till the Live connection happens.
These are challenging for many of us, but also do-able for all of us.
What’s the goal? What do we win, earn, or accomplish? I’d suggest that those are ego-based questions, so the only answer I’d suggest is that we’ll find out, the old “more will be revealed”. Then why would we do something, anything without a goal? Ya’ gotta love our ego’s persistence (or not). The only answer is that where we are isn’t working for us so well and maybe, since it takes (depending on your phone time) only about an hour, maybe we could commit to trying a different way, this routine for 21 days and just see what happens.
Prayer? (Shhhhh, don’t let it get out, but these are all forms of prayer. Add as much and as many kinds of prayers, as often as you’d like)
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.
And Now, Back to You:
I love gratitude lists.
I do, I love them.
I think gratitude lists are one of The best ideas Ever, except for when I’m feeling ungrateful.
It’s been a time of barely having time to recover from one challenge before the next one makes contact two by four-style. As I looked out into the gloriously sunny morning it occurred to me that I could choose to do just about anything I wanted. That somehow made me feel a fraction lighter. Mind you, I’m talking about the simplest of options, no, the options aren’t endless, hopping a plane home isn’t actually an option, but there are countless other options. My spouse has a long day at work meaning I have the house to myself from morning to late tonight. The simple pleasures that alone affords are countless. I can sing out loud without a bit of self-consciousness. I could use way too much jelly. It’s an unusually warm February day here in the desert. I could walk the dog through the arroyo and follow coyote and bobcat tracks. I could finish a book, color, or take a nap. I could have a great lunch or just a big bowl of ice cream. I hadn’t set out to create a list, but the idea of having the choice and freedom to choose from so many simple pleasures was its own kind of freedom. I mean, to have the opportunity and the time at the same time, to you know, just do what you want: track a bobcat or take a nap? That’s outrageous, right?
I know. I had to back up too. Sometimes it seems like when there’s finally an opening that it can happen so quickly that we stumble back from the widening edge, scrambling for solid ground rather than recognizing it as the opening we needed and longed for and falling gratefully into new heights of trust.
Too often gratitude can be based on comparison, if not with actual people, then inside our own heads, of what we have that some unfortunate other folks don’t have and, we’re told, we should be grateful for this; grateful that the discrepancies are in our favor. Of course, I tend to understand that as the lottery of privilege, not blessing; perhaps a reason to be grateful, but more often a reason to work towards reconciliation and justice. But, over the course of time, some growth, and some clarity that aging itself might bring, I don’t find myself ungrateful because of anything I don’t have. It’s not that we have a lot. Just the opposite is true. The discrepancies are Not in our favor. It would be challenging to live more simply than we do. It’s just that, aside from another book from time to time, I don’t really want much of anything. So maybe more authentic gratitude comes from what we do or even what we could do rather than what we have or don’t have.
Maybe feeling grateful is a matter of looking more at possibilities rather than facts. After all, thinking, “I can’t do whatever” may well be a fact, but thinking “I could do whatever” is at least thinking possibility and possibility will always make better building materials than facts.
But what if neither action nor the possibility of action were realistic? What if I were ill? What about loved ones who are ill or infirm, who have no options of taking a walk or eating a bowl of ice cream to consider? What about that time that will come for all of us, when we will not be getting and having won’t matter anymore, those times when possibility has evaporated? What of gratitude then? How will we offer thanks then? What can we find then to give praise for? Are we only to arrive at a darkness where we are bitterly resigned, where neither possession, nor action, nor even their possibility can be a source of gratitude or a depository and defender of our worth?
Perhaps, this is what we all fear, yet maybe this is the place we were meant to aim for the whole time: a gratitude so pure that it’s not contingent on possession, accomplishment, or even possibility; a gratitude that doesn’t defend our worth, but that holds it. Here, as always, we must go lower to reach higher. We must dig beneath what we can have, beneath what we can do, all the way down to our core, so low into what we are that we strike what we were meant to be and always were: a distillation of our Source, somehow containing That which contains us; children of God that bear an intentional resemblance to our Creator. Here, we can see that comparison never could yield gratitude, only living In our identity can do that. Centered in the Truth of who we are, we become like children on the playground, each boasting proudly of their father’s impressive vocation to the others around because we actually feel so safe, so secure, so protected that we’re excited about it. We’re pretty proud of how certain we can be that someone has our back, how confident we are that we won’t be alone. We work and play and rest differently knowing we belong, knowing we have a Home, knowing we’re companioned. To the great “I Am”, we are glorious, though profoundly miniature and dependent, “i am, too’s”.
But I have the worst amnesia.
Apparently, I’m so certain that I’m a bastard that I keep forgetting who my Father is.
And that’s it again, isn’t it? I didn’t slip into ingratitude over anything I don’t have. I slipped into ingratitude because I slipped into believing a lie about myself. I’m not unhappy or ungrateful because of what I don’t have, but because of what I started believing about myself. Focusing on what I don’t have makes a great temporary distraction from hating what I started to believe I am.
But when I remember,
I remember that I don’t have to look for love or peace.
I don’t have to try and find healing or gratitude
or anything else that I was born with and born of.
I am rest.
I am song.
I am the steps of a lifetime,
a journal of wisdom, a diary
of a million conversations with God
in a million different disguises,
and I am a map to where we’ll meet again,
innocent and unwounded,
unbound and wide as
stars can be flung.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 2/19/15
My friend had left the garden patio and returned to the kitchen to put the water on for more tea. In his absence I puttered around the yard, wandered through a wisteria covered archway and toward the small pond where a Buddha statue sat serenely poised in the center, eyes closed, surrounded by water lilies and pink and white lotus. The lightly intoxicating scent of jasmine drew me closer to its source. There, just to the right of the small white flowered plant, was a large, smooth stone on which were carved the words,
“Tread lightly. Love gently. Let go of what was never yours.”
“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “Tough to push back against that I guess. It’d be like trying to get your footing on cotton candy.”
The stone didn’t attribute the words to anyone, though clearly the pond-centered Buddha was the closest suspect. I hoped they weren’t his words. I’d be disappointed if the Buddha had gone all Hallmark card/Susan Polis Shultz/Maya Angelou-in-later-life cheap and easy sentiment. I didn’t think much of it and yet something about the preciously worded stone bothered me.
Weeks later a conversation with a friend made me remember Leo Buscaglia. In my early life there were two stand-out positive influences in my otherwise dark, fear-filled existence: one was the movie “Free to Be You and Me” and the other was Leo Buscaglia. Despite all of my church upbringing and the bizarre Europeanized images of a lily white Jesus, what Jesus really looked and sounded like to me when I was twelve was Felichi Leonardo Buscaglia. What Would Leo Do? Dr. Leo Buscaglia was a professor in California and taught and wrote and gave passionate talks about love. Especially during fundraising season, PBS would run a series of his taped sold-out talks with titles like, “Together with Leo Buscaglia” or “The Art of Being Fully Human”. The auditorium would resound with applause as Buscaglia walked to the podium of the otherwise empty stage. As the audience continued to applaud wildly, he looked at us, his eyes sparkling like Christmas and opening his arms wide like Easter, like he would embrace the entire audience in one giant hug if he could. Of course, he would if he could. Buscaglia was at least as well known for being a world-class hugger as he was for his best-selling books. After every talk, as the credits rolled, there would be Buscaglia surrounded by hundreds of people and he embraced each and every one of them; each one of them being seen exclusively, individually, lovingly, despite being shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the audience now in the lobby. Buscaglia encouraged us to risk loving each other, to not wait, and through his heartfelt invitations and animated presentations he introduced me to thinkers and writers like Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Eric Fromm and, even though I had no lived experience of it, Something from his heart that shone through his eyes, also introduced me to the foreign idea that while love may wound, it didn’t bruise. Buscaglia’s message was really always the same whatever the title or theme of the talk might be: Risk loving. Approach open-armed. Embrace it all now. Hold it. Love it. Of course, he openly admitted, sometimes we’d be disappointed. Of course, sometimes we’ll be hurt and we’ll cry and our heart will feel like it’s breaking and because of it we’ll know we’re really alive and then we’ll love again because that is what you do to really live. I imagine Buscaglia would alter that irrepressible modern meme that begins, “Dance like no one is watching…” to “Dance like Everybody is watching and pull them to the center of the dance floor with you!” No, I couldn’t imagine Buscaglia encouraging me to “tread lightly” or “love gently”. Buscaglia’s refrain was always, “Wear it Now!” “Do it Now!” “Say it Now!” “Collect the autumn leaves and your friends and dance in them them Now…in your living room!” Perhaps, it’s semantics, but since words matter so much, I’m sure Buscaglia’s adjectives for how to love would be the urgent to call to love wildly, intensely, with abandon.
And, of course, there’s Uncle Walt, Walt Whitman singing his body electric, treading by foot and word and lusty spirit and leaving his mark by them all. I don’t think Whitman would sign off on “treading lightly” or “loving gently” either. Striding nude to the open field, heady with scent of his own bodys’ odor, a sly, slight smile creasing his lips as his fingers discover the dried trickle of cum nested in his beard from last night’s sailor, Whitman loved with fearless abandon and held what was not allowed to be his, what was never his to hold.
And, of course, there’s the actual Jesus holding so much that was never his: the adulterers, the widows and children, the lepers, the outcasts, and never letting them go and insisting that we do the same. Jesus told us that it is all ours, the whole messy, painful, ugly wash of humanity And life and life more abundantly – all of it ours – and without fail our greatest sin being our unwillingness to see it and to hold it – especially all of that that we think is not ours.
No, it seems to me that the greatest lovers and teachers in my life: Buscaglia, Whitman, and Christ would have stepped quickly, heavily across that smooth, lettered stone burdened by the weight of all that we would say wasn’t their own.
There’s an Icelandic legend, the “Volsunya Saga”, in which the heroine, Gudrun, who avenges the death of her brothers, says, “The legacy that endures the longest is not love, but unyielding cruelty.” Now, there’s a thought I definitely need to push back on. We all should, but none of us can if we believe we should “let go of what was never ours.” Too often this idea translates to our having experienced a loss; the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, and we’re injured further by folks with good intentions that tell us we should “let go” of that love, that it was only ours for a short time, or worse, that it was never really ours at all. And since love, like the heat that it is, expands and rises and pain, like the cold that it is, contracts and descends, we’re left with only the cruelty, if we let the love go. We’re left with only the pain if we believe the love was never really ours. Surely the only way to change this is to Not let go of the love, but to hold it; hold it even while it burns and until it cools and settles, so that at least we hold both the love and the pain, so that we are not turned into a kind of Teflon, but instead, slowly, we become more like well-seasoned cast iron, participants in transformation.
I’m here teetering again as I have so often been, on the very edge of falling or flying.
Each time I fall.
Each time I grasp and clutch and climb again to the edge of falling or flying. The struggle back up each time in itself can be said to be inspiring, but it’s not liberation, not the trust I long to live in. It’s not “life more abundantly”. The climb back up each time is certainly grace, but not necessarily growth. To finally maintain my gaze aligned with my center position of God’s gaze and to fly, even a few yards, even to the next ledge, this is the growth of faith I long for. This is the necessary and completely illogical trust in God’s goodness, the complete abandonment of myself to total dependence on grace, goodness, and guidance. This is the beginning of life more abundantly, not my life my way more abundantly, but Life in faithful, trusting relationship more abundantly. I have a hunch that in our illusion of possessing life, we diminish life and we fall. It must be that only in learning to share, to be part of abundant life, not have abundant life, that we might catch the current.
It’s a harsh bit of self-knowledge, the realization that I act so rarely out of trust and love that it’s memorable when I do. I find that I need God and need God desperately, not only because of a theory of “original sin”, but because I simply do not know how to love fully, if at all. I’m not sure that sin and not knowing how to love aren’t close to the same thing. I’d say there’s a clear correlation. What I know is that every time I haven’t acted from love, when I haven’t acted from knowing that I’m loved, that I’ve created a promising environment, created the perfect circumstance for missing the mark. It’s pretty much guaranteed. Far too consistently I find myself living in the B.C., that is “before Christ” in my own personal timeline, still living like an orphan long after adoption. All of our seeking and brokenness, all of our healing and hope is so that we might, even incrementally, live in the resurrection, in it’s life, in risen-ness, in it’s promise and purpose, and through an evolution of the heart – sometimes called salvation – stop living in the past, in the B.C. Yes, God was there then, but He’s not there now. God is ever present. The “I Am” is always here now, yes, empowered to act upon and redeem both, the past and the future, but always from the vantage point of the present. If we can just allow the pruning of what is dead and the dropping away of what is by now cumbersome, our skill at burrowing might be left behind as a sturdy trust and tender wings emerge. We might finally begin to “use the past as a reference point rather than a residence”. Even while we’re in the desert we might stop remembering Egypt in fondness or fear long enough to forward our mail to Canaan, to that promised place of the milk of loving acceptance and the honey of loving community.
My own backward glancing fondness for Egypt, for the reassuring internment of the empire of retribution, the domination of withholding, and the suffering of scarcity but guaranteed crumbs, fuels my hearts’ fear of all of these; my heart that still somewhere in a creviced memory of belonging believes in the promise of freedom, in the hope of reconciliation. Now, here again, in the desert moment between falling and flying, between turning back and pressing on, I see that I’m not impeded by what held me down so much as by what I try to hold down. My obstacles are more often the misdirection of my own sight. I am blocked and burdened by trepidation born of too many years being a captive of fear, a refugee of exclusion. This is a cup of confession that I’d much rather pass on, but I can’t afford to forgo it’s potential healing anymore. Refusing treatment is to accept this as terminal. My soul is as sick as it can be. In my rush to be jailer instead of jailed, the place where I house my prisoners of offense stinks of fetid resentment and overcrowding. All of my prayers for help, all of the Master’s words of admonition and promise, all of my earnest and incessant reading about forgiveness (while still clutching the cell block keys) has left me prayerful, well read, and still resentful; still prepared to be offended, still ready to be judge, jury, jailer, and slave driver; most often offering punishment rather than pardon. Finally it becomes apparent that we cannot travel the path of freedom or walk in the abundant life of the Spirit while leading a chain gang of those that we hold in the bondage of unforgiveness. Weary enough, sick and tired enough, we begin to see that the struggle is to stop holding our fellow humans’ humanity against them if there is to be any hope of us knowing the free will offering of God’s love. Finally, if warily, we take the shackles off God too and allow Him to move to the front of the line and we fall in step behind, bound now through loving surrender, rather than steel-toed, jack-booted condemnation.
But even when our necks are released from under the heel of external oppression and we trudge forward, too often the damaging soul impression and our history of scrap survival darkens our promised hopeful exodus. When we are certain, buried somewhere deep inside, that “the other shoe” is always about to drop, then even the brightest rays of sunlight are filtered through ominous clouds whose underbellies are tense and swung low with tattered high-top trainers, golf cleats, heavy-soled work boots, and countless, inevitable other shoes of impending disaster, despair, and abandonment. This is how I came to spend most of a lifetime never really exhaling completely, never really able to unpack much more than a toothbrush and a weathered copy of “Leaves of Grass”. This is how I’ve spent nearly a lifetime moving from one shelter to the next: from crawlspaces and bedroom closets to an orphanage, from a decaying YMCA to loitering in the two a.m. darkened backstreet doorways desperately willing to exchange a little perfunctory sex for the shelter of a man’s touch and maybe a pack of cigarettes. Girlfriends and boyfriends, friends and lovers, faithful dogs, a healing horse, and God in all Her many splendid and downright grimy forms have given me shelter; panting, emergency, temporary shelter. Some shelter roofs were thatched, some tin, but none of them ever sturdy enough to withstand the storms of my dark history-hued expectations. When we’re sure the other shoe is gonna drop, then God is a maniacal cobbler with a strong pitching arm. We’re His target and His aim is sure and mean. When we’re sure the other shoe is gonna drop, it always does, but so does sufficient grace again.
With each moment of startling grace, with every unexpected welcome, with each exoneration and pardon of ourselves and each other we slowly learn to expect the manna of provision, the faithfulness of love; rather than the pummeling of the next dropping shoe. Slowly we realize in our running and in our looking back that the chariots of doubt and dread and any Pharaohs of fear have vanished out of sight behind us and are now only echos in our head, only shadows in our vision, not on our path. Finally we see that our freedom now and our greater freedom ahead is contingent on our freeing those that have bound us, and ourselves, from the double yoke of retribution, the double-shackled chain of unforgiveness.
And yes, we measure the risk still, we balance ourselves precariously, teetering here on the edge, as I do again.
And we often still fall.
But whether we’re face down spitting sand or climbing back up to the ledge again, whether in our fleeting moments of airborne elation or in times of forgetful desperation, we are more aware of a constant light; a light that we reflect back by design; the light that we recognize as the flashpoint of knowing ourselves to always and ever to be in the center of God’s loving gaze. In this searing, molten love our belonging and peace are assured, all pardons are granted, and in our trembling gratitude we give unfettered, shameless witness to Wendell Berry’s words that “even falling raises, in praise of light.”
– PreetamDas Kirtana