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.

Coltrane

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.

Good Enough

Pop

I read the daily Catholic bible readings to keep myself mindful of the bible. I’ve been reading the book since I was nine years old when it was thrown into my lap, “Here, boy! Figure it out!” After the age of ten my bible reading intensified when I made the mistake responding to my father with, “Well, Pastor said…” to support what I thought of the pastor’s sermon. My father bellowed as he pounded the table and the walls shook with each howling vowel, “Goddamn it, boy! God gave you a fuckin’ brain! You take that fuckin’ bible and read it for your goddamned self because no man in a suit with a title behind the pulpit is going to tell you how to fucking think!” To avoid another ear breaking rebuke, I read the bible—I read everything—to be ready to defend myself in a debate with my father. He never cared when I disagreed with him, but he did care if I read books, chewed on the ideas, and made my own conclusions. I am unable to recall how many times I have read the bible cover to cover between the ages of ten and twenty-two, but I know between twenty-two and now (forty-three), I have read the bible fourteen times, different translations,  and different versions such as NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, ESV, and CEB. I also devoured church history, read the Church Fathers and Doctors, and Protestant theologians and thinkers. This list isn’t to impress anyone but to illustrate how much effort I put in to my intellectual survival at home. My father did not suffer fools kindly. Especially in his own home.

Two of my father’s favorite verses were Acts 17:11,”These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures everyday to see whether these things were so (NRSV),” and 1 Peter 3:15, “[B]ut in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (NRSV).” For my father faith wasn’t an emotional longing resembling a child’s longing for a blanket—though, faith can have that beginning—but faith also had an intellectual component to the practice. Faith wasn’t to be accepted blindly and without question, but to be constantly challenged and critiqued. My father was never afraid where his questions and criticisms took him, but would approach his faith from a different perspective when life took him to unfamiliar territory. He faced the theological struggles with the racism of his hometown and his family, homosexuality within the church, and the goodness of God in light of his own cancer.

My father, Delman Earl Smith, was born and raised in Cambridge City, IN about an hour east of Indianapolis off I-70, and close to the Ohio state line. It’s a quaint town with old style brick buildings on the strip, and has a coffee shop, Main Street Sweets Café. The café has real hard wood floors, homemade candy and pastries, and an eclectic coffee and tea selection. For the most part, people are friendly, but there is an undercurrent of tension. Pull away the cover, and Cambridge City is unwelcoming to people who are different in their skin color, sexuality, or religion. That difference of religion can be outside Christianity or that difference can be a Christianity outside of Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Ronnie and I would go to Cambridge City because that was the closest location of US Bank. Before the election, Trump signs and Confederate Flags decorated the lawns and houses around town. Driving through there I would be slightly apprehensive because my Buddhist Prayer Flags were visible in the rear window. This was Autumn of 2016, and not much has changed since my father grew up there in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I don’t think he adopted the culture. After he married my mother in the 70s they moved to the Irvington neighborhood on Indy’s East side because that is where my mother’s family lived. My father adapted quickly to the culture, and if you talked to him you would never know he had a rural background.

In the first few months of living in Indy, my father experienced culture shock because he had never been around so many people of color. The only people of color he saw were the migrant workers who came from Mexico and worked near his farm. He would tell me he never got a chance to know the migrant workers because they kept to themselves. How my father described his family and the people in Cambridge City, I think the workers kept to themselves for safety. My father’s family had low, but firm, opinions about any person who wasn’t white and didn’t speak English. Such a vulgar irony because, in the 1880s, my father’s great grandparents came to Lebanon, IN from County Cork, Ireland, and they were told they could be Catholic or they could eat—Hoosier hospitality at its finest.

One Sunday afternoon, after church, my father and I sat in his truck waiting for my mother and brother. On the side of the building a door opened, and out came an interracial couple—a black man holding the hand of his very pregnant, white wife. My father knew his family’s opinions on such relationships, but he never met, let alone saw, an interracial couple. He nudged me, and nodded in their direction, “Hey, boy what do you think of that?” I looked over, and I remembered the story I read in Genesis about Abraham looking for a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham didn’t want his son to marry any of the women in the land they occupied because they did not follow YHWH so he went to the people of his home country. My ten year old mind reasoned, “They’re both Christians so it’s ok.” My father, satisfied with my answer, nodded, “That’s good enough for me.”

In the early 2000s a new church was started near Broad Ripple on 56th & Keystone called Jesus Metropolitan Church. This was not only affirming, but it was a church for the LGBT community. They welcomed everyone. Nowadays they are called Life Journey. When the church first appeared they advertised in signs and flyers, “Would Jesus Discriminate?” The church also rented billboards throughout the city citing verses depicting homosexuality in the bible. The signs briefly unpacked the cultural idioms to support their claim, and also cited scholarship countering the stringent interpretations of Leviticus, the epistles of Paul, and the epistles written in the name of Paul. Jesus Metropolitan was met with hate, and there were people who made the effort to paint slurs on the billboards. The billboards near our home on 30th & Franklin and near my father’s work at 54th & Keystone were no exception. Both the signs and the slurs bothered my father. One Saturday afternoon, I was visiting with him, and he asked me what I thought of the signs. I told him that if the church had done its job loving and accepting people as Jesus did there wouldn’t be a need for a church such as Jesus Metropolitan. “Alright, that’s good enough for me.”

With all his flaws and issues, my father wanted to be like Jesus. For him, Jesus was the end of the disputes over doctrine and interpretation. That being said, how would he have responded to me coming out as a bisexual who favored men over women? I know it wouldn’t be easy for him concerning the love he had for his son and the love he had for scripture. It’s one thing for him to accept Jesus Metropolitan Church as brothers and sisters in the faith, but the issue would be at his table eyeball to eyeball when I visited. I think the process would be similar to the debates we had when I started getting tattoos. He and I would debate the bible, we would swear and roar our scholarship because that is our thing, we would take a break, he would research my position and I would research his position, and we would finally come to an agreement. But I chose to get tattoos. In the end, it’s all about Jesus. If Jesus would never reject me, then neither would he.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer it was too late. The cancer began in the prostate and went to the bones. When the doctors caught it, the cancer was already at stage four and metastasized in his legs, lower back, ribs, and the back of his skull. His belief and faith had been knocked to the flow now that he faced a painful death. He began to question if he ever truly believed or if God was simply an accessory to make life a little tolerable. My father decided he needed to time to think. He put away his bibles and stopped going to church. He wanted to make sure what believed was real, and if he gave my brother and I something real—and he didn’t want any distractions. He didn’t set any time limit. He knew his time was extremely short, but, if necessary, he would go to the grave questioning. He knew if he saw God or if there were nothing, he would have his answer. This period lasted three months, and he walked away from that period with a faith that had substance and was his alone. I thought there was something commendable in what he did. During a crisis such as cancer people will run to religious belief because of the fear of death, the fear of annihilation. There is nothing lesser or greater in running to something out of fear. It’s human. We all do that. My father wrestled with the idea of never again existing, but the thought never discouraged him. Regardless, if he saw God or ceased to be, my father would leave this life honest.

During his final months we had some real discussions that would start with my questions. One particular question I had pulled no punches. I sat on his side of the bed while he put away his clothes in the closet. “Hey, Pop. Are you afraid to die?” I heard the click of the hanger as it rested on the bar. My father exhaled, “Well, I don’t want to leave you kids behind.” I chuckled. We’re in our thirties, and he still called us kids. “I get that, but I want to know if you’re afraid to die.”
“Ah, well, no, I’m not.” He went back to hanging up his clothes, and I wondered when my time comes if I would have the same level of courage.

I have been on and off the road since I was nineteen, and I met many different people all over the United States, but I have not met anyone who comes close to the same level of integrity, faith, and resolution as my father—and I’ve met some good people. We had a rocky relationship most of my life, but reparation began in my late twenties when I began to see my father as a person full of complexities and nuances, and the last three years of his life our relationship was good. Talking to so many people all over the country, I realized how lucky I was to have Delman Earl Smith as a father, and on December 9, 2009 the world felt the loss I still carry.

 

Slouching Towards…

slouching towards bethlehem

This week my sense of equilibrium gave way as I read the news of violence from downtown Portland with Left and Right Wing groups clashing together with weapons and angry words. Last week, two men were killed defending a woman in a Hijab from a white supremacist who spoke of his free speech and right to violence–going so far as to say he hoped his victims died. A couple days later, a similar incident occurred on the MAX with another Right Wing individual screaming for his freedom of speech while beating the conductor. People on the train subdued the man and released him to the cops when they arrived. I understand why the Left responded with violence. I understand that the Right believes they are being marginalized while marginalizing people on the Left. People on the Left have legitimate fear because people on the Right do carry out their hatred. I live in that fear on the Southside of Indianapolis where people such as myself can be accosted in Jesus’ name without any consequence. I grew to hate them. I grew to hate Trump. I grew to hate anyone under the name of Christian and/or Republican because that’s who beat me and ostracize me. I roared. I flashed my education. I humiliated them with my scholarship. I felt powerful as I browbeat my oppressors. For the moment, I felt that warm feeling of catharsis sliding down my bones. The feeling was like the bliss of heroin after the asprin drip in the back of the throat had dissipated, but then there was the rush of pain after the come down. Trump was still in control. Straight, white Christians were still in power, and nothing changed. In my mind, I always had Portland. My return to the northwest is in the works. Nothing soon. A few years, maybe. I want to return because I remember the feelings of peace and acceptance. When I read the news all my illusions were exposed as childish fantasies, and I realized I am in the middle of a W.B. Yeats poem.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats penned these words he saw the effects of World War I. The old ways of God and country  mixed with technology unleashed a cruelty never before imagined by anyone. Machine guns ripped apart bodies on smokey European fields, and soldiers doubled over in a fetal position as they wretched their last breath from mustard gas. There was no glory, there was no honor, and if God were there “he” already skipped town because we were too much to handle. In those dangerous days people thought, from their literal understanding of biblical prophecy, that Jesus’ return was imminent. That he would descend upon his white horse to slay the wicked with the sword pouring out his mouth. For Yeats that would have been a double tragedy. Twenty centuries of Christianity brought about The Great War, and now the image of the problem is the solution? That is too much to handle.

Where was the redemption promised? Where was that abundant life Jesus spoke about to his disciples? Almost a century after Yeats, and I can point out the effects of those promises as executed by the political leaders who look to Jesus as their example. Children deprived of education, the poor deprived of food stamps so they can eat, Flint, MI and the contaminated water, attacking Muslims, attacking immigrants of color, attacking LGBT, attacking transgender, oppressing women, Rich men creating wars so the poor can die to increase their bank accounts, and so on and so forth. There are Christians who will say these leaders who promote such ideas are not real Christians, but these people read from the same bible. Doctrine is not about following the example of Jesus but a healthy mixture of money and charisma. What is sad is these examples aren’t new today, nor were they new a century ago. Yes, right now the end of the world feels imminent because Donald Trump and his colleagues seem hell bent on destroying the world so they can be comfortable in the few years they have remaining, and I hear Christians calling out “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” The body of Christ here on earth has already done considerable damage. What improvement would the head bring?

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Though, I feel the same trepidation as Yeats, I am weary. Violence and insults come from both sides hurled towards the other, and I have done more than my fair share contributing to the violence in the world. I have not shown love, but fear, loathing, condescension, and smugness towards those on the Right. In the beginning I had a good reason. While they felt threatened by my presence and my questions, I never struck them or slandered them while justifying myself with God’s grace. Had they never hit me–figuratively and literally–I would not have felt the desire to retaliate. My response is not on them. I made the choice to sneer and belittle, but they are not completely innocent in the matter. While the Right introduced suffering to me from their words and actions, I exacerbated my suffering and theirs when I responded likewise. Though the Right is motivated by their understanding of Jesus, I take that understanding of Jesus and spit upon their faith as savage and childish. An eye for an eye until the whole world is blind. Looking to myself as one example, I see a similar patterns occurring between the Right and the Left in Portland and the rest of the country. No one group is better than the other no matter how they spin their rhetoric. Both sides perpetuate the violence, and somebody, regardless of who, needs to stop and say, “The violence ends with me.”
Is there something new imminent, or will the coming of Jesus only make matters worse? If that is the case, he can stay in Heaven because whatever this is, that he started, isn’t working. The magi crawled under the bright conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter proclaiming the arrival of the messiah to the people of God in Jerusalem. All of Jerusalem shook with fear, and their nerves were calmed with the blood of children Herod slaughtered to protect his throne. Today we don’t have Herod, we have Trump who has the support of Evangelical leaders, Catholic leaders, and more than half of their respective churches. The religious establishment that killed toddlers for political stability had Moses and The Prophets, but today the religious establishment destroys the innocent in the name of Jesus. Something isn’t working. Is it Jesus, is it the church, or is it both? If, indeed, the end is upon us, I shudder to think what will be born. For the time being each one of us, on both sides of the cultural spectrum, can, at the very least, stop responding with hate. We’re wearing ourselves out slouching towards whatever end awaits us.

 

 

Christian means “Little Christ”?

lgbt evangelical

Ronnie and I don’t like shopping at Walmart because the company’s maltreatment of their employees, and the low quality of their product; and a secondary reason is the clientele. We only go to Walmart during emergencies or needing last minute items when we are financially strained. The times we have gone, I say we are committing Walmart to borrow from Henry Rollins because he goes to Walmart under similar circumstances while he’s on tour in America. Last night we had to go because we needed new sheets for our bed to change out the sweat inducing flannel sheets. The closest Walmart to us is off US 31 South on Indianapolis’ Southside. When I came up on Indy’s Eastside, I, like many others in my area, avoided the Southside due to the amount of Rednecks and Hillbillies. There is a real bigotry in the Eastside towards White people from the North and Southside—Northside white people are stuck up and fragile, Southside white people are dull witted with delusions of Confederacy. Unfortunately, there are traces of that bigotry in me, and it’s been a long up road struggle to leave behind that learned behavior. Unfortunately, such sights as giant American Flags and Confederate flags on the sides of trucks—or on flag poles—and Trump bumper stickers and lawn signs do not make my spiritual work any easier. According to people north of Washington Street, the Southside may as well be the backwoods of Kentucky.

When we pulled into the Walmart parking lot the area was filled with waddling people wearing oversized USA t-shirts. I decided to go in with Ronnie because I wanted to look for some more chinos in the women’s section. I enjoy how those pants look on me, and they are great for warm weather. As we walked into the store, Ronnie and I were greeted with angry stares. Ronnie wore her large necklaces made in Tibet, the top of her hair pulled back in such a way she looked like a shield-maiden from Scandinavian sagas, and a sheer shirt pulled over a black tank top. I wore my 0g tunnels in my ears with 10g hoops going through them, and next to them were dangling earrings that are wood carvings of the Bodhi tree. Around my neck are sandalwood mala beads, and on my left wrist Muslim prayer beads. I have on a gray shirt, black chinos, sandals, and a pull over shoulder bag to carry my books and a small bag inside containing my license and bank cards. My appearance notwithstanding, I do not act like a straight white male. I would hope so because I’m a bisexual male who is feminine in many aspects of his personality and wears some women’s clothing for comfort. When I came out last October, I’ve been quite comfortable in my own skin; but tonight, I feared for my safety.

Walking around the store, I saw quite a bit of anti-Islamic and anti-immigration t-shirts; and a few Christian t-shirts. One t-shirt in particular read “ISIS hunting permit,” and the guy who wore it was skinny, 5”7 with a bushy, Yonker beard and close cropped hair. Besides him there were angry people quietly following us throughout the store. After we checked out and walked towards the parking lot, Ronnie took my hand to hold to be a protective beard so I could appear to live up to one point of an arbitrary criteria of masculinity held by this slowly growing mob. The only other time I had been that afraid for my life is when I lived on 10th & Beville on the Near Eastside, and I accidentally ran over a Rottweiler puppy owned by the neighborhood drug dealer. The puppy didn’t die, and it was by chance I got him on the hip with my ’86 Chevy Cavalier. I didn’t know who the puppy belonged to, and I felt terrible. Besides Pit Bulls, I adore Rottweilers, or Rotties as we call them, and I was upset to think I might have killed one. As I went up to the house and offer to pay the vet bill, I found myself staring down the barrel of a 9mm Glock. I was shaking and sweating, mentally praying, “Ah, fuck me!” I was lucky, though because a friend of the drug dealer vouched for me. At Walmart, I was followed by a growing mob of angry white people, and no one to protect me.

Besides their homophobia, there are two points I find confusing: the Southside is mostly, white, but is overwhelmingly Evangelical with some Catholic Churches peppered throughout the area. Generally speaking, they are professing Christians—outspoken followers of Jesus suffering from Christian exceptionalism and a false narrative of persecution. They may not be gunned down or lose their lives and churches by suicide bombings, but they can’t freely oppress people in the name of their religion; and that’s why Jesus suffered and died. Jesus, they believe, is God in the flesh showing his love, mercy, and grace to people, dying on the cross for humanity, and rising from the dead to confirm their salvation. Today is Easter, the day these people celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with egg hunts, cantatas (depending on the Christian denomination), and long sermons shaming people into repentance. Last night, though, Jesus is dead and not paying attention so it’s alright to beat me and/or kill me for being something outside of their infantile hermeneutic. I’ve read the gospels several times, and nowhere did I read about Jesus redeeming those who were deemed social outcasts by beating them or killing them.

Last night’s experience is one of many examples I bring up when I say why I have a difficult time accepting Christianity as true, or believing Jesus to be God incarnate. This example is also why Ronnie and I are preparing to move back to the West coast. She and I shouldn’t live in fear for our lives over being different. If we’re not hurting anyone then who cares? I don’t have an answer for the behavior I witnessed last night, and I know I’m not the only one of my friends who are familiar with the hate shown towards them because of their sexual orientation. The best thing I can do at this point is avoid places like Walmart, and take the necessary steps to move to an area where I can breathe easier. Right now, I find it difficult to extend forgiveness to these people; but I know the first step in getting rid of hate in the world is making no room for hate in my heart.

Looking For Jack Kerouac

search for kerouac

 

The ninth century Zen Master, Linji Yixuan once made the statement, “If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a ghost, kill the ghost.” The saying is harsh, but a deeper examination reveals more about the observer of The Buddha instead of The Buddha himself. Killing The Buddha means killing the fixed idea you or anyone creates about a person, a place, or an object. The relationship is not based on anything real, but on the interpretation of the matter. When the reality is experienced there is still that buffer between the new interpretations creating the tension with the old. People of all creeds and backgrounds do this, confusing their own ideas as fact; and when a person is offended by irreverence expressed towards their sacred cows their anger only increases when reminded it is the mere idea of the cow insulted and not the cow itself—whatever that cow may be. The interpretations we conjure with our experiences help us confront whatever life has given us in the moment, and aid us in our next step. Think of the coping mechanism of the child reaching for a teddy bear or a blanket. The child realizes they are in an unstable universe filled with monsters they cannot hope to beat without any help. The teddy bears and blankets are tangible reminders of a hand holding them and guiding them. Eventually, as the child becomes older the need for teddy bears and blankets decrease. This is similar to what some Eastern Orthodox monks will communicate concerning a Christian’s need for liturgies and prayer ropes. When the saint has reached perfection the familiar tangible approaches become more of a stifling restraint than actual help. At this point God can be realized without any preconceived notions and moves freely to and fro as in a dance—enjoying God as God instead of killing God with our dogmas and hierarchies.

This is the approach Barbara Shoup has taken in her novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac. She kills the legendary Kerouac people have formed by reading his popular books, On the Road, Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels, and introduces us to a man who is an alcoholic spouting off racist, hateful, and right wing remarks, but also brimming with compassion and love. People don’t want Kerouac the man, they want the twenty-something, road-going hipster whose life is one big adventure filled with Jazz, women, sometimes men, booze, and drugs. People cannot fit in to one main category, and will asphyxiate in any box they are forced into for the convenience of a fantasy. Jack Kerouac was a human being, beautiful and scarred like the rest of us, and he was just a Catholic kid trying to find God roaming across America. He never found God, though, instead he came face to face with his own devils as The Buddha faced Mara under the Bodhi Tree and Jesus faced Satan in the desert. Where they overcame, Kerouac was consumed. He was neither timid nor weak in faith, but he was a gentle and sensitive person who did not consider the steep price he would pay in his quest for God. Kerouac was a merry saint overwhelmed with grief, who needed to be loved as the flawed human being he was. Shoup gives us the gift of Jack Kerouac in this book.

Shoup divides the two approaches to Jack Kerouac with the characters, Duke Walczak and Paul Carpetti, two young kids from East Chicago, IN who wanted more out of life than working in the mill. Duke’s approach to Kerouac’s On the Road was one of fantasy and a naïve romance because he wanted to be a writer influenced by Kerouac with the desire to surpass him. Duke believed in the urgency of Sal Paradise’s desire to get on the road and follow Dean Moriarty to Denver, CO, and, eventually to meet his friend Remi Boncoeur in San Francisco for work on a ship that never manifested. Paradise wandered across America, bouncing from town to town, and dive motel to dive motel, never knowing where the next meal would come or if there would be a bed that evening. Kerouac did not mention the dangers he faced on the road but focused on the different people with eyes of complete wonder; but there are dangers, and there are people who seek to harm another. Duke ran into naked hostility and racism when he and Paul were in southern Tennessee as they procured a ride from an older black man. There were boys the same age as Paul and Duke with a confederate flag on their car yelling for these “Yankees” to go back home, and called them “n****r lovers.” Duke wanted to engage them, but Paul convinced him to get in the black man’s car and leave. The boys chased them, throwing beer cans at the car, speeding up and slowing down, driving along side of them, and eventually sped away. The driver apologized to Duke and Paul when he dropped them off outside Chattanooga, but he knew the country better than they, and if they stayed with him, all three might find themselves lynched.

When Duke and Paul finally arrived to St. Petersburg, FL they spent a few weeks living out of a YMCA and restaurants asking about Kerouac to annoyed locals. The irritation had nothing to do with the questions but how Duke related to them in the bars and diners treating them as a means to an end. He was also writing down notes and observations, and, whether intentional or not, Duke objectified the people he talked to. He had a predetermined box to force upon people, and eventually at the Tick Tock people responded to him and Paul with violence. There was an old drunk spouting off his bigotry and right wing politics all in a slur. Duke took on the man by reminding him of the constitution, and perhaps he should take time to read the document before spreading such hateful words. The drunk tried to take a swing at Duke, but fell over himself. He was picked up by a good friend and other people in the bar surrounded Paul and Duke. They all knew Duke and Paul were looking for Kerouac, and the men pointed at the passed out drunk, “There he is.” Duke’s idealism had been shattered as he and Paul were beaten, and thrown out of the bar. Duke decided to leave for California to get his next fix from the next person, but Paul opted to stay in St. Petersburg.

Paul Carpetti, though, is truly a Beat character who is wholly dissatisfied with life, but he is trapped by his own confusion—he doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows what he doesn’t want. While on a class trip to New York City, Paul finds a copy of On the Road, and is instantly drawn to the rougher area of Greenwich Village to experience the Jazz and poetry of Kerouac’s longing. His girlfriend, Kathy, is suspicious of his attraction to On the Road, and when Paul invites her to read the book she dismisses the book because their priest said it was offensive; and that was good enough for her. After they had returned from New York, Paul’s mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and dies the following spring. He passes through high school numb and disaffected, and gets a job at the local mill instead of going to college as his mother intended. Kathy moves in and becomes the care taker for Paul, his brother, and father; and after a few months begins discussing marriage. He saw himself ten years in the future still working at the mill, but trapped by marriage and four kids. He felt he had no way out of his life until he met Duke.

Paul found a kindred spirit when Duke roared Kerouac’s love of the mad ones to coworkers deriding his Polish ancestry. The two friends would spend their breaks discussing the deeper issues of existence and what they wanted in their lives; and this was a point of contention with Kathy because Duke was leading Paul away from the standard formula of living. Duke did no such thing. Paul was unhappy and quietly desperate, and in Duke he found a companion who would join him in his search for God knows what. One day, Duke excitedly approached Paul with the news that Kerouac’s sister had died, and the Kerouac’s were currently living in St. Petersburg, FL. After a fight with Kathy over Duke and marriage, Paul finds Duke, and they leave for Florida that evening. Duke proved to be a tiresome pilgrim with women, alcohol, and his tall tales, but the breaking point came when his idealization of Kerouac caused him to mistreat people by harshly judging them—something Kerouac never did because he sought the diamonds in the street. One particular person Duke loathed was Chuck, a college student who worked at the YMCA where Duke and Paul had rooms and the library to pay his way through school. The two become fast friends, and Chuck brings Paul into his adopted family as Duke makes his way to San Francisco.

As Paul stays and works at a local crab shack, he learns that Chuck is friends with Jack Kerouac and his mother. Chuck invites Paul to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play against the New York Yankees in the World Series at the Kerouacs. There were times during these visits they had to leave because no one ever knew which Jack would come out while he was drunk—alcohol was a dice roll for the appearance of Dr. Sax or Mr. Kerouac. One evening, Paul is sitting under Kerouac’s window listening to him type when he is discovered. Paul apologizes profusely for imposing, but genuinely wanted to hear him work. Mamere, Kerouac’s mother, invites Paul in to chicken and noodles, and as he eats, both Kerouac and his mother weep for the loss of his sister, Nin. His brother Gerard died almost forty years prior and the wounds of that loss were reopened. Paul blurted out that he lost his mother earlier that year, and that is when he made a connection with Kerouac the man. Kerouac told him, “And you will never get over it. It’s not meant for us to get over that kind of sadness.” Kerouac’s remark awakened the human side of grief in Paul who had been told that he will soon get over his mother’s death, that the sadness was temporary, and life would get better. Later, he wept in the arms of his friend Ginny, and felt he could continue.

Since I finished this book, the constant word I have for it is “beautiful.” Shoup took away the mystique of the road going legend who sought for the beauty in others and in the roads he walked, but never saw the beauty in himself. He was Jean Val Jean who died never accepting the God who loved him and had mercy on him; but was generous to a fault to the people in his life. Jack Kerouac lost his brother and his sister, he abused drugs and alcohol, he was promiscuous, struggled with accepting his own bisexuality, misogynistic, a devout Catholic, a Buddhist who embraced the sacred hearts of Mary and Jesus, an estranged father, and a bum. How he saw life came out of his experiences, and he saw nothing but suffering. He wanted to seek God, and find out if there was more to life than pain; or at the very least why we have pain. He had belief in God, and still followed Jesus, but his spiritual path was unapologetically messy. His path was honest, and it was human. Shoup put on her gardening gloves and opened the thorny covers of Kerouac’s exterior to see the roses he carried within himself. Kerouac does not deserve our sympathy or worship, but our love. He is our companion in this elegant mess, and an icon pointing us towards that holy road.

Pererin Pt. 3 The Buddha

dharma bum

In my late teens, I heard the saying “You can’t go home again.” and thought to myself that a person could never reclaim the feelings of safety before they left. I still agree with my youthful conclusion, but only in part. Two years after I returned to school, I transferred to a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, and after graduating and getting married I continued west. My travels were romantic because I recognized I drove through the same towns as Kerouac when he first traveled across America. I believed myself to be Neo-Beat who had, in the bottom of his soul, the same dissatisfaction as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty looking for IT in the rocky, bristly landscape of the youthful frontier; but they didn’t find IT, and neither did I. I still had the same dissatisfaction with no release, but my perception changed in Wyoming when I forgot my phone at a rest stop and a driver met us in Rawlins, WY to return my phone. After four years on the road going across country and meeting different people, I returned to Indianapolis to reconnect with friends I had not seen. I came back to familiar surroundings, but I was not home. People had not changed, I had changed, and I had outgrown many of those old relationships including family. Other relationships took on a new dynamic, and increased in richness.

The country from Nevada to Cheyenne, WY on I-80 is desolate with sand and salt except for the sprinklings of Reno, Salt Lake City, and Evanston, WY. There is no illusion of safety reinforced by concrete and Starbucks, and without kindness from others a person can die from solitude. I felt that same kindness as I joined in the chants, meditation, and teaching at The Shambhala Center in Portland, OR. For me Kerouac’s words came to life as I talked over tea and fruit with people who met him and Allen Ginsberg. The Dharma these people put to me was the same simple approach Kerouac observed through the eyes of Ray Smith wandering across the American landscape living out of his rucksack like the incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, known as Budai. Budai was a poor, Zen monk who traveled around China in the 10th century C.E. He was also an eccentric monk who carried nothing with him but his mala beads and whatever could fit into his bag. Smith received kindness and gave kindness, and survived his trek across the country by living in the stripped down religion based on loving others as he loved himself. This spiritual practice, though did not prepare Smith for what he would face as a fire watcher on the American/Canadian border in Northern Washington. Smith came face to face with himself after his vision of Avalokiteshvara, and all romance disappeared. I went through a similar deconstruction, but I was in southern Idaho with my wife when we almost died from hitting a deer.

My wife and I left Riverton, WY about 3:00 p.m. MDT, and the gps calculated a nine and a half our trip to Boise, ID. Most of the trip would be on a vacant state highway passing through sleepy towns and mountains until we reached I-84 to get to our hotel in Boise. Almost six hours in to the trip we stopped to get gas in Arco and snacks, and proceeded on our way. We were driving along the mountains, and my wife pointed out to some deer on the side of the road. Three of the deer were lounging like cats on the shoulder, and two were standing next to the lounging trio; but one was dancing with indecisiveness. I slowed down to forty, and the deer made a decision. He jumped in front of us. My peripheral vision went black as if I were staring through a cardboard tube holding paper towels. I saw the deer’s body fly up with the hood as the airbag expanded in front of my face. I felt the rumbling of the suv, and I knew I was off road. My foot was pressing on the brake, burying it into the floor, and the only thought in my head was my wife’s safety. Fortunately there were people on the road who helped us and called EMT’s and the local sheriff. After being treated, the sheriff took us to a local motel, and when we woke up, I went outside to see King Mountain across the street. My wife and survived with our bodies intact, and with no distractions or words, I understood the Buddha as I returned to my room full of gratitude.

 

The Buddha

 When Kerouac went up to Desolation Peak to live alone for sixty-eight days as a fire watcher he believed he was due for a vision from the divine—to come face to face with God where he would learn why we live, why we die, and why we suffer in between the two. Kerouac wanted to touch what the Buddha touched under the Bodhi tree and to be ministered by the same angels who ministered to Jesus facing his own devil after forty days in the desert. Kerouac did not take into account the psychological price Buddha and Jesus paid to earn their divine revelation, and how those encounters transformed them. This is the same with the ancient Desert Fathers of Christianity’s early monasticism, and the demons they had to encounter to be fully connected to God—or divinized. Without the distractions of people and wandering, Kerouac had no escape from seeing himself as he was; and the encounter would leave him shaken until the day he died. This shrinking back did not reveal any kind of moral or spiritual weakness of Kerouac—though he had many—, but his need to make up an internal lack with an external substance—even if that substance is an interpretation of Buddha or God. The end of Dharma Bums, though he captured his divine need through the vision of Ray Smith.

Kerouac encountered the tremendous dread as spoken by the theologian Rudolf Otto, and there was nothing safe to protect him under the naked sky. His soul roared the skull breaking words of God to Job bereft of suffering and demanding answers. In all fairness, Kerouac was a mystic and experienced visions of Jesus and The Blessed Mother throughout his adult life. These visions were irrespective of places, and he saw The Blessed Mother while living in an opium den in Mexico City and sleeping with a prostitute. Three years prior to going up the mountain as a fire watcher, Kerouac discovered Buddhism, and the teachings of the Buddha gave him insight to his Catholic background. He studied Buddhism relentlessly putting out his non-fiction work, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha and Some of the Dharma published posthumously in the 1990s. By changing his perception, Kerouac hoped for the deeper vision explaining all of life and finding a place of peace for his restless heart; and that desire determined whom he met on the mountain one evening.

During his annual nightly meditation, Smith has the sought after vision, the attending angel and Bodhisattva, Avalokitsevara whom he calls the “hearer and answerer of prayer.” In this vision, Avalokitsevara tells Smith, “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.” Smith takes this to heart, begins by reminding himself of his freedom; but this is a freedom he understand superficially, and is forgotten in Desolation Angels. This freedom is not a thing limited to wonder, hope, and no restraints; though, freedom includes those things. Freedom is terrifying, and the ideas and things formed can hide us from the terror of Tillich’s “ground of all being.” There stands God and The Buddha’s teachings empty of our preconceived notions and unrestrained by how we think they should be. They are dangerous because they cannot be controlled or formed by our arbitrary doctrines, and what is horrifying is we don’t know if we can trust them. Run into the buildings and find a dry space in dogma—religious or secular—and never venture out to life’s fullness. In the end Kerouac lost himself in the familiarity of the bottle and the crucifix, and both killed him because he could not reconcile the tension between his own anxieties with a God who cannot be tamed. Like Kerouac or his alter ego, Ray Smith, we are not guaranteed any kind of stability should we take the leap of faith into Desolation, but what is certain is the ground we are standing upon is crumbling and our house is on fire—eventually, we will have a smoldering rubble of impermanent things we forced into permanence. The lessons we take from Ray Smith finding refuge in the Dharma, the sangha, and The Buddha is we are not bound to anything, we need very little to enjoy life, and we are reborn from one moment to the next.

This is My Story this is My Song

anne lamott

A part of my story involves Christianity, and the abuses I experienced from the three branches of Christianity: Catholicism, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. My background is Catholic, or rather Catholic flavored, because when my father’s family arrived to Indiana from Ireland in the late nineteenth century they were informed they could either be Catholic or they could eat. They gave up the mass, but retained the culture. Unfortunately, along the way, most of them became negative stereotypes with alcohol and a bad temper. My father would have beer every once in a while, but he struggled with his anger, and frequently lost when he returned to the church. He had Christianity forced upon him at an early age by a father who would beat him and intimidate him in God’s name, and sing the praises of Jesus Sunday morning while holding the position of elder. People in the church knew my grandfather’s character, but did nothing from fear of him. In the 1950’s my grandfather was a bull of a man who stood at 6”4, and, with one arm, could throw a 150 lb. bale of hay like you and I throw a wad a paper. My grandfather would put in the hospital anyone who stood up to him, and would feel no remorse whatsoever. When his father died, my father swore to himself that he was his own man, with his own mind, and people who thought to impose anything on him walked away with bruises from his well-read tongue. We started going to church at the beginning of my ninth year, and my father’s repressed wounds were triggered. My brother and I received the brunt of his suffering if we behaved in a way contrary to what he thought was a “good” Christian. The upside to this, though, is that our television, books, and music were never policed. We had our fair share of bruises and broken bones in the name of Jesus and St. Paul, and were instilled with an overwhelming dose of guilt and self-loathing. Not until a year before our father died from cancer did we learn of all the abuses he suffered, how ours paled in comparison, how our father fought through life to resist his father’s anger, and how religion set off everything. Before our father was diagnosed, I had become sort of a wanderer—both religiously and physically—seeking different sects of Christianity, and leaning closer to the teachings of The Buddha while driving all over the Midwest and the East Coast; and in recent years going across country traipsing about the coast of Northern California, and the Pacific Northwest. My brother took a different approach becoming an indifferent Agnostic. To some degree I share his Agnosticism, but mine is more of a soft approach because the view assumes a God while simultaneously unsure because there is no external evidence. My brother’s approach is, “I don’t know whether or not there is a God, and I don’t care.”

As an adult, I faced abuse from the church such as physical threats, ostracizing, victim blaming, and infidelity. From my perspective the abuse was motivated by my “difference” from not being “manly” enough. My bisexuality was showing, and I am quite effeminate in some expressions of my sexuality. Who I am is an affront to some arbitrary form of masculinity, and must be met with all manner of violence—mostly verbal. The same thing can be said by my questions of faith and the existence of God. The church I attended is located in Broadripple Village in Indianapolis, and is influenced by The Emerging Church movement, but the pastor says they are missional because they are about inclusivity and creating a diverse community. I thought myself free to bring up my doubts. Both the pastor and the worship leader had been friends of mine for twelve years up to that point, and I felt they had turned on me as I asked extensive questions about belief. My fiancé at the time would become enraged because I would ask her what caused her to believe in God, and she yelled, “I don’t know! I do because my parents do!” I rolled my eyes at the response, but word started to spread within the church that I was sowing doubts. Also, the worship leader had developed an attraction to my fiancé and started moving in our relationship. Eventually, they slept together, and because he felt like he had her, he came at me with physical threats and sending his brother after me. My fiancé didn’t help the matter as she lied to the church that I hit her. I never touched her, but the church rallied behind her along with many of our mutual friends. I roared and cussed at the pastor for not holding the worship leader accountable, and he replied, “Slow work of God. Grace of God.” He ended the call with excommunicating me from the church as I told him I’m not the one who should be put out of the community; and then he lied about it to the congregation telling them I chose to leave.

All that happened within months after my father’s death, and, needless to say, I snapped. I tried to hook up with two friends, and, thankfully, that never happened. I was going through two bottles of single malt Scotch a week, tried heroin—only one time, and I snorted—, and slept with a good friend who I knew wanted me while that person was in a relationship. I behaved despicably, and I lost good friends in the process, but, while my personal life burned to a smoldering heap, I had returned to school to finish my education. That journey took me out of state to a small liberal arts college in Illinois where I worked out my anger with Christianity under brilliant and patient scholars in Literature and Religion—my major and minor. As I studied American Literature from the 1600s to the early 1900s, I saw an evolution of Christian culture in America confirmed by studying, writing, and discussing Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus in my Christ & Pop Culture class. When I took Psychology of Religion, I started to understand my own development and the developmental stages of those who abused me—these particular people were at the early stages of psychological maturity. At that point I began to cultivate forgiveness, but not out of condescension. I understood what I did when I hurt people, and I understood why I had been hurt. I did not condone the behavior, but I could walk away no longer living in that ancient moment of suffering. I earned my B.A., I got married a week after commencement, and my wife and I wandered around the country before returning to my home town of Indianapolis to be close to friends. With the mixed baggage of blessing and consequences I now possess, I can see how those who hurt me did a good thing to me. Their behavior, alongside with the few positive choices I made, caused me to grow and become stronger.

Nowadays, I still consider myself a Christian, but only in the loosest sense of the word. I don’t care about dogmas, doctrines, or hierarchies which only serve as distractions; and, I think, distorts the message of Jesus. They have their place, but the churches I have attended—and they are many—often substitute their doctrine for Jesus so they can have a checklist of what they have “right.” I don’t fault them for it. I understand the fear and insecurity, especially in a world that has no stability, is violent, and shaken with anxiety. I did that too, but now I stay in a cloud of unknowing without the assurance of a safety net or a blanket.

 

This is where I tread lightly.

 

What I’m about to say may come off as arrogant and dismissive; but that is not my intent. The need for security, or the illusion of security, comes from an immature mind—an adolescent mind seeing things in black or white. At some point we all have to grow up and look past the illusion into Ruldolf Otto’s tremendous dread. Christianity, when you get past the buildings and opinions, is a grown up religion, as C.S. Lewis put it, and faces the world as it is while refusing to conform the world into our image. Don’t misunderstand, I am not yet there, but I do make the move forward—even if it’s a painful, crawling inch.

This is my story, but I find comfort in knowing I am not the only one with a painful religious account—there are many people I have met who had similar experiences. There are variances to the telling, but there is also a community found within the pain of the story—the pain from the shameful mistakes committed in the midst of the suffering. Charles Bukowski was once asked why he puts himself in such a good light in his stories and poetry, and he answered, “I’m the hero of my goddamned story!” We are all like that in our recollections. Who wants to bring up the embarrassing mistakes or humiliating conversations that would cause the listener to take the side of our antagonist? My approach differs from Bukowski, but only slightly. I am not the hero of my story, instead, I am the anti-hero—if I come out on top it’s only due to chance or God that I did not destroy myself in the process; and that which did not kill me made for a damned good conversation.

The downside to sharing stories is the listener may compare their own life with the life of the character, and regard their own experiences as worthless. I disagree. No one has to go through the frozen tundra of Hell to have something worth saying, nor do we have the right to judge another person’s experience based on how we handled our adversity. Everyone has their own battles, and those battles carry their own pain and reward. Our experiences, as varied as they are, are how we come together and learn how to be more human. My story can help one person grow in a certain area, and a story from someone I don’t know can touch my life and help me get past an obstacle. We’re human beings, and we tell our stories to remind us who we are and where we’re going.

A good story is not one where everything goes well and ends well, or the protagonist will be broken with one form of chest cracking suffering after another, and comes to a happy ending. Those are terrible stories with two dimensional characters and belong on the likes of religious broadcasting or ABC Family. The good stories, the stories that stay with us, are the ones where the protagonist is flawed, complicated, and their story ends bittersweet. Some things work out for them, and other things are lost, but they are changed, along with the people in their lives.

 

The best stories are messy, full of pain, misery, and some happiness; but we enjoy them because the stories are real. They are real because we can identify with them, and more so if they are rooted in actual events.

 

That messiness is why I found a connection with the writings of Jack Kerouac—specifically, On the Road and Dharma Bums. Kerouac documented his physical and religious wanderings in those books. Granted, there were some novelizations and exaggerations of events to make his point; but a real person wandered America as a bum looking for God; and that resonated with me because I wander in a similar way. Kerouac’s search was always about finding Jesus with the aid of Catholic and Buddhist imagery, but his stories were dismissed as juvenile—or misunderstood as Buddhist. Kerouac’s journey is something we can all relate to for its human element. His story is filled with promiscuous sex—both heterosexual and homosexual—drugs, alcohol, misogyny, and shiftlessness; but those elements make up the lives of saints—see St. Augustine’s Confessions. We don’t have it all together and neither do our friends or family, and we make different kinds of messes. People are not one thing or another. We are a composite of black, white, gray, and other convoluted colors with different nuances; and when we interact with each other on an interpersonal level, or through different mediums such as books and films, there is chaos. Good does come out of the noise, but that good is subjective and seasoned with past fury. The memorable stories are cluttered.