Black Coffee Howl

One of the few hardcore bands I like is ASD from Indianapolis, and the guy who does vocals, Shawn, is a friend. One thing I like about ASD is they have not embraced that chest pounding, hyper-masculinity that is so prevalent in recent hardcore bands. That posturing overcompensates for insecurities and takes away whatever the band has to say. The other thing I like about ASD is they are rooted in The Blues. Strip away the technology and listen to the chord progression you will see what I mean.

ASD, when Shawn started, came from a song he wrote, “All Seasons Die”, and that remained until last year when Shawn chaged it to All Suckas Die. The direction of the band has not changed, but with each song, Shawn is digging deeper. The new album has not yet dropped, but ASD released a new song last week, “Running These Streets.”

When I listened to this song, I became excited. The way this song is mixed the bass speaks goes beyond that place the vocals are unable to touch. The drums and bass take the words to another level. I do speak with some bias because Shawn is my friend, but that is not why I like the music. Shawn and I came up in similar neighborhoods on the east side, and like many people on the east side, we had to learn how to navigate through some tough situations.

When I first took Ronnie through my neighborhood and the streets I used to walk she looked at the condition of the road, buildings, and people. She was nervous. “Is this a bad neighborhood?” I shook my head,   “No, this is a tough neighborhood.” She cocked her head, “What’s the difference?”

“People here focus all their energies on surviving moment to moment. No one has time to go after other people. In the truest sense of the word they’re beat. However, if you bother them they will unleash all their desperate rage upon you. If you mind your own business here and show respect, people leave you alone.” Now there are areas on the east side where people will gut you for the few dollars in your pocket, but that’s not where I grew up, and neither did Shawn.

Shawn pulls from that life, and, though he is agnostic, he also pulls from that faith. Not faith in divine intervention, but faith that things will be as they will be while he puts in the work. He believes life is simultaneously difficult and beautiful, and that’s what he roars into the void of beats and guitar riffs. This is the essence of The Blues. Naming that which eats at your soul and bring you to tears, singing it out, and after that release there is freedom. ASD joins in chorus with The Psalmist, with Jesus on the cross, and Allen Ginsberg’s “Eli! Eli! Lama sabachthani!” howling for the hope in resurrection. ASD has restored my faith in hardcore and returned to the music’s foundation in The Blues.

Barroom Sketches 7/13/17

Like any morning before work, Ronnie drops me off at the bar three hours before I have to open, and then she goes to work. This time I have is one of complete solitude where I can play the Sun Ra Channel on Pandora and get in some writing. I get myself situated on the comfy red lounge chairs and tap away on my phone while bathed in the natural light of morning. I go for two and a half hours, come to a stopping point, put up my things, and begin the process of opening the bar. All opening entails is putting down the chairs and stools, counting out the money, and waiting until ten. At ten, I unlock the door, put out the specials board on the sidewalk, and flip on the open sign.

Thursday mornings are slow with only a couple people trickling in every now and then to buy cigars while on break from work, or on their way to the liquor store next door. There are retired regulars that come in during the day, but they don’t usually come in until Friday, and there are a few who will come in to work while taking in a cigar. So it’s dead. As I write this the time is 11:24 a.m., we’ve been open since 10:00 a.m., and only two people have come in—and they came in at 10:45. I enjoy the solitude far more than some would consider healthy, but I can get in a lot of writing and some reading. Some of my most productive moments in the week are Thursdays and Fridays before work, and sometimes my whole shift on Thursdays.

The bar where I work, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is located in Avon, IN and is one of the most affluent west side suburbs in Indianapolis. The affluence of Avon is rivaled by the northern burbs of Noblesville, Westfield, Carmel, Fishers, and Geist. The striking differences between the northern burbs and Avon is a drawl in the accent and Reagan worship that is synonymous with Jesus worship—there is even a Ronald Reagan Parkway running north and south through Avon.
As with any affluent burb there is a culture of entitlement. Not everyone in Avon is like this, but in a bar selling cigars, and is also a cigar lounge, some of the people waltzing in throughout the day are deluded by their own privilege. If their balls are not properly fondled in the name of Jesus and Donald Trump they will throw a tantrum. This morning the first customer, a stocky man in shorts and a gray beard in his fifties, informed me that we had better have a certain style of Arturo Fuente cigars. He pursed his lips and glared at me to intimidate me into placating him. I was having none of it. I looked him in the eye, and with a stern voice, I replied, “If we have them they arrived Tuesday. I don’t place the orders.” He sniffed and disappeared into the humidor. This guy was behaving like an asshole and a spoiled brat, and I hoped he would quickly find what he what he was looking for. He did. Prayers answered! He came out with twelve cigars totaling $109.42
Think about that for a moment. This guy, who is in his fifties, was about to lose his shit and make a scene like a child over burning his money—literally—on a specific style of cigar. I don’t make any judgments on how people spend their money. Regardless of our socioeconomic statuses we all enjoy a little frivolity, but frivolity is not the same as a necessity, and getting angry over something that won’t nurture your body and mind is a tad ludicrous—and I will offer a string of well worded judgments. I grew up on next to nothing, and had it not been for my great grandmother we all would have gone hungry living on the street. So fuck him and fuck his money. But I was outwardly civil to the man child because I wanted him out of the bar as quickly as possible.
Later on, at 5:00, my coworker, who relieves me at the end of my shift has an issue with being on time, was late. I called her, and after four rings, she picks up, “I’m on my way.” Click. I have to leave as soon as Ronnie gets here because we live on the other side of Indy, and traffic on the west end of 465 is always a cluster fuck. We’re still packing, and, on the days I have to work, the alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning. So we have little time to decompress before we have to go to bed. One of the regulars said I should look into Uber. I told him I don’t have that kind of money to spend, but he insisted the cost is next to nothing. So I researched Uber rates in Indy and the surrounding burbs. Uber would cost me anywhere between $15 and $60 depending on the travel plan, and there is the additional charge by the minute .15-.50 per minute. If there were no traffic issues it would take thirty-five minutes to get to my apartment. On a good day, there would be an additional 5.25 – 17.50 charge increasing the price range between $20 and almost $80. But I get off work Thursday and Friday at 5:00, and when Ronnie picks me up we have an hour drive because of traffic. If I took an Uber, depending on the plan, I would have an additional $9.00 to $30.00 travel cost–a one way trip that could cost me $90. The regular who insisted on the cheapness of Uber lives in the six figure income bracket and takes Uber around Avon–where he lives. He knows I live on the Southeast side, and still tells me it’s cost effective to use Uber. What kind of disposable income does he think I have? Not everyone has the extra income to be driven around like a Feudal lord overlooking his serfs.

To be completely fair, I am giving only a sampling of a specific demographic in Avon that comes through the bar when I’m here. The experiences are mixed and I would say about thirty percent of the people I interact with outside of the regulars can pass for decent people. The other seventy percent, I meet with a firm tone to remind them I am not from the burbs, and no amount of privilege gives them the right to treat people poorly so they should behave with courtesy. But overall, I do have a relaxing time here, and I do enjoy the regulars and the camaraderie they have for one another–and the kindness they show me. 

Hermeneutical Bopping

One morning, on her way to class, my sister in law noticed a car in the parking lot with a bumper sticker,”Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been through it.” She took the picture and sent it to me because the message reminded her of me and my story. I also think it a true statement that can be applied across the board beyond any denominational ties. Personally, I’ve friends who, when life became too real with divorce and the death of a parent, lost themselves in a prepackaged, conservative Christianity. The illusion of a black and white life and a relgion that comes with a check list is quite comforting like heroin. The salty, asprin drip in the back of the throat and vomiting are ignored while the body is doused in warm butter and slipped into a floating nirvana–until the devastating come down. But that is of no concern. The pushers are available with their get-your-most-out-of-God-in-thirty-days plan, and life can float by with narcotic ease–but for the right price. I’ve sympathy and empathy for these people, I really do. In my adolesence and early adulthood my life was completely unstable, and I dived head first into that empty concrete pool.
After a few years of wandering and breaking my teeth on the frontier, the black and white religion did not offer any satisfactory answers for me. I wanted something different.

In “Miles Ahead,” Mile Davis is sitting at his piano talking to a writer from Rolling Stone about his music. The genius of Davis is realized when he describes listening to and analyzing Stravinski. Once Davis learned the composer’s rules, he broke them, and that breaking brought us such albums as “Sketches of Spain,” “Boplicity,” and “The Complete Birth of Cool.” Davis’ opinion of Stravinski wasn’t lessened as he explored his own music. Stravinski was a teacher, and like all teacher/student relationships they must end so the student can leave and grow in applying the knowledge.

This is the nature of hymns, and Jazz and Blues. 

I am a sucker for those old hymns especially the ones written by Charles Wesley. I can hear the joy he has in his faith, and I can feel his love for God. Because the music is easy to sing, I am of the opinion Wesley wrote his hymns in such a way that he wanted everyone to participate regardless of their singing abilities. But the hymns are structured and liturgical, and they are an expression of his story and how he relates to God. Relying on another’s spiritual experience will not give life to your own spirituality.

Because of the individual expression, Jazz and Blues came out of the plantations. African-Americans were never treated with dignity or even as human in our culture, and their voice cries out to God through horns, keys, guitars, beats, and wails seeking justice. Jazz became the hearts unspeakable, broken groans. The Jazz that could be spoken became Gospel music, and out of Gospel music Blues branched out to explore the deeper pain and be free through its expression.

Hymns are in church dictating an already commodified spirituality. One size fits all. That works for an hour or two inside the church walls, but breaks with the struggles of Monday morning. God, faith, and belief cannot be contained in a dogmatic formula. The formulas do serve a purpose. Hymns inside church introduce us to God, but Jazz and Blues is us running out the church doors to catch up with God.

Once Charles Wesley taught me everything he could, I found John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Then I found Victor Wooten, Chris Potter, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra & His Arkestra. These guys haven’t caught God, but they have touched those divine heals. Except for Sun Ra. While everyone else is covered in God’s dust and shadow, Sun Ra is playing poker with God over a fifth of a 14yr Oban. Their spiritual teaching isn’t safe, but dangerous, smokey, and bloody. But that is the difference between hymns and Jazz, between religion and spirituality, between the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus was beaten and killed, rose again with his scars intact. My friends, out of fear, hid in religion–hid in the illusion of safety. But there is no resurrection in safety, and there is no growth. Like Jazz, resurrection has no resolution, and keeps pushing the limits to break the barriers and find the arms of God.

Don’t Call it Jazz, Man


My introduction to Jazz was only in passing as a boy when I watched Charlie Brown and heard the theme music—but I didn’t know what to call it. My first real love, though was punk rock when I saw The Clash and The Ramones on MTV, and I drew comparisons to the Outlaw Country and Surf music my father listened to along with Motown from the 1960s my mother enjoyed. My mother blames a punk rock friend of mine I met in high school for my love of the fast beats and three chords, but she and my father laid down my musical foundation with twangy, soulful moans rocking back and forth with the ocean. She wouldn’t hear any of it. To acknowledge my points would cause her to face her own narrow mindedness. The point of all that back and forth was my love of all kinds of music while favoring specific styles, but I didn’t know the origins until I was in eighth grade.

In junior high my school offered a class called The History of American Music.  I instantly signed up for it because I am a sucker for origin stories. I thought the class would start with the birth of rock n roll in the 1950s, but I did not expect the class to begin on the plantations of the American South in the mid-19th century. My teacher made the argument, we read the books, and then watched videos. I knew enough about spirituals to know these were mournful prayers for deliverance and served as code for runaway slaves passing through to freedom. What I didn’t know was sixteen years after The Civil War in New Orleans, white musicians took the rhythm of the spirituals and the beats of the drums used by slaves, and created Jazz, but made it clear that no black man would ever play this music. These musicians disregarded the origins of their music and paid their rent with exploitation. This was the point of Langston Hughes in the 1920s when he brought up the amount of white people who danced to Jazz and played Jazz. He didn’t care so much that white people were part of Jazz, but they did nothing to solve the injustice inspiring Jazz.

We moved to the beginnings of Blues in the 1920s as a way of naming and singing the pain to be free from pain, the beginnings of Country and Western in the 1930s, and Bop in the 1940s. What blew away my mind, though, was the creation of rock n roll. Bill Haley synthesized Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues to create the song “Rock Around the Clock.”

I saw the creation of sub-genres like surf, Motown, Punk, and Hip Hop. The music I enjoyed and loved connected me to the sorrow of back breaking labor and marginalization. The same anger and contempt I heard in my Punk Rock, I could hear in Hip Hop, and a voice of many calling out in the urban wilderness for jubilee and justice. God didn’t go silent after the ascension of Jesus nor did the canon of God’s word close in the mid -4th century, but shrieked in my 20th century American concrete sprawl.

Jack Kerouac

I didn’t begin to appreciate Jazz or immerse myself into the music until I discovered the books of Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s writing was influenced by the Bop created by Charlie Parker. The reason Parker created Bop had to do with making beats so complicated that none of the white swing people could copy and commodify his music. Kerouac wanted to write like Parker blew. First thought, best thought which is the core of his Bop spontaneity, and the driving force behind On the Road. But I must point out that Kerouac romanticized Jazz and the hard life of the African-American trying to survive in a culture that hated them. James Baldwin had more than a few terse words regarding Kerouac’s treatment of African-Americans in his monumental work. African-Americans are not the child-like, magical saviors for disaffected, bored white people looking for kicks. That being said, though, Kerouac was searching for something more, but echoed the systemic racism of the country. For me, I knew enough to know I don’t understand, and I, like Kerouac, will say something unintentionally prejudiced, but I want to know. I want to join with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker to look for IT. To look for that divine source where all answers hum a benevolent truth granting shelter to the weary seeker.

miles ahead

My recent Jazz experience was in an AMC connected to a mall in Omaha, NE. It was April of 2016, and Don Cheadle’s mystical biopic of Miles Davis “Miles Ahead” was playing. The movie was brilliant and solidified my opinion of Cheadle’s talent in acting and directing. Ronnie and I bought our tickets at five ‘o’ clock for the seven ‘o’ clock showing, and went to the Half Price Books to look over some Beat literature of which they had plenty, but the store also had a tremendous Jazz selection. In the brief time we had, I purchased a box set of Miles Davis, and went to the theater. We were the only ones in the theater, and in the darkness I heard Miles Davis through Don Cheadle sitting with his back against a car door, “Don’t call it Jazz, man. That’s some made up word—it’s social music.” The movie ended with Miles Davis playing to a 21st century audience wearing a vest, and on the back of the vest, “#socialmusic.” The argument of the film is what Miles Davis said in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s still said something today. The social situation had not changed when Davis first picked up his horn, but the language did, and the rage could be felt in the modern expressions of hip hop and punk. Jazz, at its core, gives words to the indecipherable groaning of the broken heart. Jazz still speaks because hearts have not healed, but when hearts finally heal Jazz will not cease. The music will evolve and continue to be the rumbling human search for the divine.

Faith in the Absurd

This morning was like any morning. I woke up at quarter after six to make coffee, and prepare Ronnie’s breakfast and lunch for the day. Sunday through Tuesday, I don’t work so I use the van to go downtown and walk the canal. After I dropped her off the sky had that half and half effect where one side was a midnight blue and the other side a yellowish white as the sun shouted from the covering of the overcast blanket. There were a couple sprinkles, but that isn’t enough to stay inside. As I crawled north on West St towards New York with the rest of the morning traffic the sky had become completely dark, but there were still sprinkles–and it was still the same when I parked by MoJoe’s. After I used the restroom and ordered my tea for the walk I saw the purple flash of lightning. I turned around to see rain pouring over the asphalt and strong winds blowing the splattering drops transforming the corner of Michigan & Senate into a little ocean. The ebb and flow of the traffic has not slowed, and the cyclists zipping by were prepared with their bright rain coats on their back.

The weather this morning was a sticky 76 degrees with a high humidity. One would think the rain would bring relief, but this is Central Indiana in mid July. After the rain stops the humidity will rise with the temperature making the rest of the day oily and slick with all the sweat pouring off every body who has to be out in this mess. The weather is not permanent. Eventually the rain will stop, and before we know it the days will pass into Autumn, and the humidity will fall with the orange and brown leaves while the crisp air passes through them. Changing back and forth, but always making way for something new.

I think similarly when it comes to matters of faith. A member of my adopted family died for a couple seconds because of a heart attack, was brought back, and is now spending the next month or so recovering. He is a devout Catholic, and I so much want to here his perspective on faith now that he has faced death and lived to tell the tale. I won’t ask him anytime soon, though, but at some point I would like to sit with him and take notes while he talks.

I did something similar with my Pop two months before he died. It was a bright October day. I sat with my back to the patio door and Pop sat next to the television. It was Sunday, and The Colts were playing, but we weren’t paying attention. Pop had a consistently hard life with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. His life stayed difficult after he married my mom. Finances were a main thing, and Pop struggled to keep all his issues at bay. He never told anyone what he went through so when he became angry, people around him saw a foul tempered ass. At home my brother and I saw a raging demon frothing at the mouth as he used my head for a punching bag. Later on, and to his credit, he asked forgiveness but never brought up his abuses to excuse his behavior. He constantly  struggled and failed to break the violent cycle within himself–but he kept getting up and trying anyway. Now his life was ending hard. I was going through my own difficulties as well, and they were straining my relationships. Like my Pop, I struggled and failed constantly. He was sitting at Death’s door so I asked him, “Pop, does it get any easier?” He leaned back with his arms crossed over his chest and inhales the answer, “No. It gets harder. Besides, no one learned nothing from an easy life. I heard this preacher–I can’t remember his name–and he said if you’re going through life without any difficulties or worries then you need to stop and ask what it is you’re doing wrong.” I shook my head. It was a tough answer. I knew my father well enough to know he will always speak the truth as he understands truth. You may not like what he says, but he comes from a place of honesty. I recounted this to a friend  from church and she was taken aback, “Oh my god what a cynical answer!” Maybe, but she was living the cushy, corporate America life and had not faced any real tragedy at that point in time. Perhaps she regarded my father’s answer as cynical because she was doing something wrong.

Going beyond her, I think that is one of my main issues with Christianity. Difficulties are paid a cursory glance, and the stories of constant adversity are put aside for the stories of blessing. I’ve heard stories in churches where people talk about their lives before Jesus as down and out turning tricks for a fix downtown, but after Jesus they have a multimillion dollar house in the burbs with the spouse of their dreams, and they can cruise through life with hardly any bumps. Clap. Clap. Clap. Good for you, but what about many of us who don’t have those middle class connections and we have to struggle to keep our wits and faith in tact? Stories of difficulty do not sell the gospel even though Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33, NKJV).” Jesus’ ministry ended with him beaten and crucified. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said Jesus went through all this without the guarantee of resurrection, but had faith it would happen. I think this insight applicable. Just because you come to Jesus doesn’t mean he owes you any material blessing, but count yourself lucky should you reap material wealth.

Because of this failure within Christianity–and to be clear, I don’t mean Jesus–, I don’t see how the faith can handle the tragic moments. Sure it works when you have organic food in the fridge, and can travel wherever at a moment’s notice, but what about those times where you’ve lost everything, and the only thing you have is whatever is in your bag? In my opinion, faith lacks substance when it hasn’t been seasoned with fire. That’s why I got this book this past Sunday.

I’ve read Brad Warner’s books starting with Hardcore Zen. We’re close in age and were part of the hardcore music in the 1980s Midwest. Warner is quite conservative in his practice and how he lives as a Zen monk outside the monastery walls. He went through a series of tragedies that included his own marriage ending. What does practice and faith look like within the context of all that upheaval? Every person is different, we all have different thresholds for pain, and we also don’t express suffering in the same way. When I read or listen to people who suffer or have gone through suffering, I am not looking for the ultimate answer but a different perspective because the current perspective I have isn’t working. As my professor, Dr. Meyer said often, “I don’t want my pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but my pound on the ground here and now.” Faith means nothing if it hasn’t fallen on the asphalt while beaten by the rain.

But that faith does not end in beathing. As I finish writing this the rain has stopped, the sky is lighter, and the trees are greener.

Faith doesn’t grant us the life of ease, but helps us to appreciate the good things because it has been stretched to the point of tearing after being cut by a lightning strike. Faith–Christian or Buddhist–is done a disservice when we try to sell it with privilege while ignoring the adversity. Faith brings joy and meaning in an otherwise absurd existence

Caffeine and Coltrane

Sunday morning. 6:00. Why am I up at this hour? I closed the bar and left five hours earlier, and didn’t get home until 1:30. I couldn’t get to sleep until 2:30. Two hours before I closed the bar, I bought a Rocky Patel cigar aged five years for a new friend at a church I go to on Indy’s west side. He had a little girl last month, and I missed it, but I wanted to make it up by getting him a quality cigar. This particular cigar is sold for $7.99, but with my 30% discount, I got it for $5.65. I cut the closed end of the cigar with a V-clip, put it in a bag with some matches, and a little humidor pack that would keep the cigar fresh for days. When the bar closed, I poured myself a 16 yr Lagavulin Islay single malt Scotch on the rocks, put on Miles Davis’ “The Complete Birth of the Cool” album, counted out the money, did an end of night batch on the credit card machine and the cash register, did some last minute dishes, and swept.

I was in a hurry to get out of the bar because I wanted to get up at 7:00 so I could go to the 8:00 mass at St. John’s downtown and say a prayer for a friend who was in the hospital recovering from heart attack, and I wanted to pray for his wife and daughters also. After I set the alarm, I realized I forgot my water bottle. I had sixty seconds to lock the door so I ran to the counter and grabbed the water bottle. The cigars was next to the bottle, and I forgot it. When I got on I-465, I remembered the cigar.

It was too late to go back so I decided I would come back to the bar and grab the cigar in the morning before mass. This meant I would have to get out of bed at 6:00 because the bar was in Avon—a west side suburb, and a forty minute drive one way from my apartment. Avon is also a pain in the ass to drive to because no matter what time of day or night there are people on Rockville Rd/US 36 who will drive five to ten miles an hour below the 45 mph speed limit. I’ve a friend who works at a church in Avon, but lives on the North East side in the Castleton area, and he told me he takes Morris—that turns into county road 100 after you pass Raceway Dr into Hendricks County. There are still a few people on this road but not as many as 36 where everyone is at a slow crawl. Even though it is early in the morning, I went on Morris anyway. The sun was coming up, but the moon was still visible and full, floating over the clouds made pink by the rising sun.

Like most cities when you leave them there is no subtle transition to a rural setting. House, house, house, then, BAM!!! Corn and barley fields, and the possibility of a deer leaping out in front of an unexpected driver. There is a slight warning in the roundabout at Raceway, but after you go west there is nothing but fields.


To keep myself awake and alert, I put on my Coltrane Extravaganza playlist. The playlist consists of six albums beginning with “A Love Supreme” and ending with a compilation “Six Original Albums.” The first song to play off “A Love Supreme” was “Part 1 – Acknowledgment”, and the intro feels like a sunrise with the crashing cymbals and winding saxophone. Coltrane doesn’t simply announce the sun coming over the horizon, but he is in the chariot with Apollo pulling out the sun with his sax as Apollo races across the sky. Coltrane sought God in his music, but he joined the pantheon of gods blessing all of us from his lofty height. The music shakes me from my borderline slumber, and gives me the necessary alertness to pass a driver on a double lined road who is going 30 mph on a 40 mph road, and there is no one else driving. He could be tired, or he could think Jesus gives a shit about how fast he drives. Either way I have much to accomplish this morning, and I don’t want to pause for a second lest I drift away and drive my little van off the side of the road.

Once I get to the bar and grab the cigar, I see Apple Bagels, two doors down, is open and the time is only 6:50—I have enough time to get a little something. Apple Bagels, I think, try too hard to be Einstein Bagels, and I can taste the maximum effort. The food is close, but nowhere near to Einstein’s level. If there were one close by, I would go to that because the bagels are better and the coffee doesn’t taste like it has been set out for a day, but I’m outside of Indy where something with a Jewish name would annoy the WASPs. At the moment, I need something in my stomach and I need some coffee. I get a cinnamon raisin bagel, and a chocolate flavored coffee. To take out the sting of bad taste, I pour in six creams and six raw sugars. The coffee isn’t much improved, but it’s still better than if I had left it black.

On my way downtown to mass, I’m listening to Coltrane’s “Blue Train” album while pouring the coffee down my throat. When I arrived to St. John’s the time is 7:35. I take out a few dollars to stuff down the collection bank to pay for the candles I am about to light, and say a prayer for my adopted family.

I consider myself very much a Catholic—albeit a liberal one, but a Catholic nonetheless—, but after the election, I rarely go to mass because most—not all—Catholic churches I have been to in Indy care more about toeing the line of the Republican Party than being an example of Jesus in the community. I also know that a conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching suggests missing mass is a mortal sin, and I understand that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2168-2185. I also understand the statement from 2181, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” This is where I differ. In the section on defining sins and its varying degrees, 1850 points out a willful rejection of God’s will by anyone as sin, “[A] revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods.’” My refusal to attend mass as nothing to do with determining my own will in life, but a desire to have an encounter with Jesus. I think many churches—and not just the Catholic Church—in Indy, Jesus has left the building, or the people kicked him out because loving their neighbor became too much when he demanded the love of their Muslim neighbor. Nonetheless, I went because I wanted to light candles, and I know there are people who join in praying for whomever the candles are lit. I knelt in front of the statue of Mary taking in the artist’s depiction of her as the compassionate adopted mother to all who follow Jesus. I prayed and asked God to look out for my adopted family, and I asked The Blessed Mother to pray for all of us involved.

After mass there were coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts on the tables in the narthex. I needed to leave for a friend’s church, and I didn’t have time to wait in line for coffee. I grabbed an orange juice, slammed it, got into my van, and left. I only drove west on the interstate for a few minutes before I got off the exit at Holt Rd. There was a McDonald’s at the corner, and I pulled in to get a large coffee to take with me to the church. I pull into the church parking lot with Coltrane’s “Black Pearls” album blaring and walk in with bloodshot eyes and coffee breath. The reason I’m at the church is not just to drop off a cigar, but also to attend a new Sunday School class that my new friend just started and leading. His approach isn’t to have a set curriculum nor is his class about pulling from the bible and parroting specific doctrinal interpretations. The bible is a collection of stories of people and how they experienced God—that’s their story. Our story will vary. The point is to share what life has been like the previous week, good or bad, and look for what Jesus is doing. My new friend comes from a hard life. He was a gangbanger in Mars Hill, a white ghetto on Indy’s southwest side, and I come from the east side. Though, I have never been involved in gangs or been approached by gangs, my neighborhood was a mixture of gangbangers and retired cops. Nothing terrible ever went down in the neighborhood, but I would hear about gang activity from my neighborhood friends. We discussed racism and the difference in how racial slurs are used in an urban setting versus a rural setting.

As we talked one of the ladies got up and left the classroom saying she needed some sugar and caffeine from Mt. Dew to stay awake, but that was dishonest, and I think this lady was dishonest because she was afraid to say something to us. My new friend’s wife passed her in the hallway and was told, “I came here to listen to the bible, and not to any of this gang shit. I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” While were talking about how our past lives still affect us today, and how we’re seeking Jesus even when we fall, another lady comes in to the classroom. She shares about her life and her frustrations with her son. Her son is twelve and stealing. He always steals, has been arrested, released, and repeats. She’s at her wits end because she has tried everything with her son to get him to stop stealing. We all agreed something is going on, the boy doesn’t know how to process all the negative things in his life and acts out, but his mom and her husband give him a safe place—and a stable place. We’re not about the clean and fair life, though that would be nice, but that isn’t our world. That’s not where we live. We speak to each other in prayers and continue to pray for one another while doing something tangible in the moment to offer a slight reprieve.

The class ended at 10:15, but I had to cut out to go pick up Ronnie and go to the hospital to see one of the members of our adopted family who had a heart attack on Friday. He was being released that day, and would go home to recover. As I pull in to my apartment complex, my playlist is at a close. The coffee cup is empty. The prayers are not resolved nor does Coltrane conclude his thought. There is no conclusion to Coltrane’s music. What some would call an ending he calls a pause in thought. Thankfully, I found a pause in mass and a pause in the Sunday School class, and we all had a comforting pause when we saw our guy come out of his room all smiles and walking like he never had a heart attack. Somewhere in the swirling harmony of my coffee, prayers, and Coltrane, God blew in some grace. God seemed to have granted our guy’s wife and daughters a little more time with him. In between breaths and gasps, the time between a tear forming in the eye and falling into the ground there is mercy. There is a reminder we are not alone even when we sit solitary in a waiting room. There in that frozen second split in two there is a song that will never quite finish as Coltrane decides on the next chord taking the sun to different horizons.

Illusion of Immortality

Trying to sketch out what it is I’m feeling at the moment. Thirty-six minutes ago, 10:20 a.m., a friend, who is part of my adopted family, texted me. He told me his brother in law, who is also a friend, had a heart attack last night. He’s fine–at the moment. The doctors found the blockage and put in a stint. I’ve been texting back and forth with my friend and mutual friends. Everyone is on an extreme emotional rollercoaster. I can imagine. I’m here at work agitated, afraid, saddened, anxious–one vibrating ball of nerves and psychosis. The last thirty-six minutes have dragged slowly like a block of stone scratching and cutting the ground with each pull. I’m off at five. Why can’t it be five now so I can check in on everyone?

I know the monkey minded emotions bouncing from one tree to the next is mostly fueled by my own mortality staring me in the face eyeball to eyeball. I went through a similar thing watching my father die, but that took on a death of god mythos because of how we view our fathers. I had read something similar in Frank Herbert’s Dune when he wrote that nothing debilitates the child’s mind more than when they realize their father is human and frail. I would add that it’s a sobering thing when you watch a friend go through a life threatening event or actually dying. You understand you will die. Death happens to everyone–but that is in the back of the mind. Consciously, there is an unintentional illusion of immortality. With the death of a friend the illusion of immortality is dissipated. The blanket is ripped away and your naked bones are exposed.

So what now?

We can pray. We can breathe. We can hope. We want mercy to be shown to the friend involved. We want the mercy for ourselves because we want that extra time to be real with them so we can do and speak love. Funny thing is there is never enough time. Never enough words. When the last breath whistles out there is a closet full of things we still need to say. At the end those of us who survived this day hope we did and said enough.

What do we do when our mortality is hanging over our head? I suppose one can stay perpetually curled in a corner grieving until it’s our time to go. That is one option, and it’s an option many take because death is scary. It’s scary because we don’t know what goes beyond that. Sure we’ve heard the stories in our different religious institutions, and they help us cope, but the reality is we don’t know. But that ignorance can also motivate us to really enjoy life, to love without fear, forgive generously, and to soak ourselves and others in grace. Anger is a time waster, and drama is spinning the wheels in the mud.

My instant thought was, “Oh, I need to be more disciplined in my diet. I’ve been a little lax.” That’s a good thing to do. We should all pay attention to what we put in our bodies, but our health alone does not make us a quality person. Jesus said that what defiles a person is all the malice, lust, jealousy, etc. that comes out of our heart. The change necessary is one of the heart and how we see the world. Not to ensure us a place in God’s renewed heaven and earth, but to bring a taste of renewal here and now. Death let’s us know changes are happeing whether we want them to or not, but the change is easier when we participate.