On the Road to Redemption

 

Yesterday, I gave my religious story before the congregation of Lynhurst Baptist Church. I have been going there consistently since late June, but off and on since my return to Indy in August 2016. A few days after my story performance at Pull Up a Chair Indy, I told Bobby that my story would be posted on YouTube. He saw it, and enjoyed it, and then told me, “You need to talk to Ben and tell your story to the church.” I approached Ben before service, and told him what Bobby had said, and Ben was excited to get me behind the pulpit. We set up the date for September 17, and I went to work on my story.

Ben wants any story to be around twenty minutes—give or take a couple minutes—so the service does not exceed an hour. I thought this to be a challenge because my history with the church is not a pleasant one, nor is that history brief.

I don’t come from a stereotypically religious home, and that reason had to do with the cultures of my mother’s family and my father’s family, and their own conclusion on religious matters. I wrote out my mother’s family arrival from Scotland, Wales, and Germany to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they stayed within their respective cultures though my great-great grandparents had been dead since the 1940s. I grew up with snippets of German and Scots Gaelic—sometimes sworn at me—in a gravelly Highland accent my youngest great aunt maintained. These people had their fill of America by the early teens because of the ethnic backlash from World War I, and wanted to be left alone thank you very much. And if they were not left alone this part of my family had no qualms delivering an explanation on the matter, and go sing hymns to Jesus the following Sunday with a bounce in their step.

My father’s family was quite different. Most of his family arrived from County Cork, Ireland in the 1880s, and, Hoosier Hospitality being the same then as it is today, were told in no uncertain terms they could be Catholic or they could eat. On the surface they complied and didn’t go to Mass. Behind closed doors, though, they remained staunchly Irish Catholic. This cultural religion was passed down to the succeeding generations, and my father, though, hateful towards God for the hand he had been dealt, maintained that religious culture in his ethics that became my foundation for morality long before our shadows hit the church doors.

My mother is cynical towards organized religion because of the hypocrisy she observed in her family, but she’s cool with Jesus and God is alright. Their followers, on the other hand, had better stay away from her if they know what’s good for them. She thought the black and white points of view childish and beneath her, and did not shelter my brother or myself. In fact, she was the one who drove me to a hole in the wall Punk Rock record store in the Irvington neighborhood so I could buy Agnostic Front’s “Liberty and Justice For…” album along with The Crucified’s self-titled release. Pop didn’t care about the music per se. He was into Surf music, Johnny Cash, and other Outlaw Country. He hated the sound and would yell, “Goddamn it, boy! Turn that shit down!” But he never stooped so low as to equate morality or spirituality with a music style. For Pop, morality and spirituality were internal.

But those examples were too much for the story with regards to time. I also had other examples from different churches from all over Indianapolis. While these things are good for a written story such as a memoir, they exceeded the time constraints by twenty-five minutes. My first attempt at brevity was an eighteen page first draft.

I kept Ben and Eric in the loop with each step of writing and revision. Most of my story blew away Eric. Even though he has known me for twenty years he never knew the depths of my hellish religious background. I never brought them up because my story of religious abuse and walking away from God is an all too common story in the United States. The experience felt common, and I’ve also been told to be quiet about it. After all I’m bitter and ignoring the grace of God. God’s grace is true and keeps people close to God, but grace does not mean any kind of bad behavior is without consequence. As much as God is gracious, God is also about justice—restoration and balance—something that much of the church has forgotten as it wielded its heavy handed judgments.

When Ben and I met for coffee in the middle of August, I felt the need to address my concern towards telling my story. “You do realize my story is an indictment against the Christian religion and The Church?” He gulps his coffee and shakes his head, “Yes, but you need to tell it because The Church needs to hear it.” I shrugged my shoulders and continued on with the editing. I reduced the family and religious examples to one or two instances and focused on my particular journey from 2010-2017—my wandering years after my father died.

After a brief introduction from Eric, I got up behind the pulpit with my quart mug of green tea and honey, and began my story. There was some laughter here and there, but mostly dead silence. I was feeling a bit nervous myself. Not from speaking in front of people, but telling this particular story to people in a church. I don’t have the pleasant church experiences where there was a constant stream of love and safety. What has been consistent in my story is abuse, cover up, victim shaming, and dismissal from the church. Another reason for the apprehension I felt had to with this being the first time in my religious experience where church leadership wanted to hear my story and have the congregation hear my story.

I don’t know what I was expecting to happen after the end. I sat down in the pew, and Ben got up to speak. He told the congregation that The Church does not like to hear stories like mine because it makes every Christian uncomfortable, but my story is one of thousands—people walking away from God because they want to be free from of the violence people have done to them in God’s name. Ben admonished the church to take seriously stories like mine and to put in the effort to be Jesus outside the church walls. Not that Lynhurst Baptist needs much admonishing. The only reason I go there is I feel the reality of Jesus from the people I meet, and that is not something I have ever felt in a church. I also want to be like Jesus, and for me, Lynhurst Baptist is a place where Jesus lives next door—he goes to the bar with you.

Ben’s response caught me off guard, though. When he spoke, the reality of me telling my story in a church set in, and there was a leader who didn’t tell me to keep quiet and let the grace of God handle it. He never blamed me for what had happened. In fact, Ben validated me and my story before the congregation and to those who were watching the service online. My wounds had come full circle, and I could finally lay them to rest. A church and its pastor, my pastor, acknowledged my story without any defensiveness. The pain I had carried had been redeemed, and could be released. So I let go of the pain.

After service few came up and told me they enjoyed my story. However, I did not spend any time discussing my story or my church experience. There were two people who wanted to talk to me about Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road. I mention Kerouac as a stalwart companion, and both people told me the effect he has had on their lives and the lives of their kids. I spent an hour in the sanctuary discussing Kerouac and Buddhism, and when I left, Ben told me a couple people, inspired by my story, came up to him expressing their desire to tell their story.

Grace had come to me because of my telling, and when I spoke the last word, the final burden had been removed. I could sit around and discuss common joys with people I just met. Grace had also touched those two people sparking in them the courage and the desire to share also. Redemption and all things beautiful had manifested that Sunday morning, but that happens every week at Lynhurst Baptist, and I observed that manifestation from a different perspective.

 

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Following Jack

Sunday was a lucky day for me. Ronnie and one of our friends spent time at our apartment to have a girl’s day. The original plan was to hang out with another friend, but he was otherwise incapacitated so I opted to go to the north side to Half Price Books to search for my more books by and on Jack Kerouac. There are four Half Price Books in Indianapolis—one on the south side, two on the north side (Castleton and 86th & Ditch), and another in Avon. I prefer the Half Price in Castleton because they have free coffee, and a quality selection of literature and Jazz. What I wanted to do at the bookstore was to sit, drink coffee, read a few books before buying them, and get in a little writing. Unfortunately, Half Price was busy with people lounging at the tables. No bother. There are plenty of coffee shops to go to, one of them a Starbucks one block east of the store. I found Stephen Eddington’s  The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spiritual Guides and On the Road the original scroll with four essays of brilliant literary criticism. I have a On the Road based on the original scroll, but I had loaned it out to a friend who also enjoys the writings of Kerouac. I texted him to let him know he could keep the book as a gift. I think the 1957 Viking publication of On the Road too tame and did not say what Jack wanted. When Kerouac first wrote the book in 1951, he spent three weeks of all-nighters tapping out his story on a scroll so his thought would not be interrupted by the changing of paper. When told he would have to edit and revise, Kerouac, with his right index finger in the air proclaimed, “This was dictated by the Holy Ghost!” like an Old Testament Prophet. Having read both versions of the story, I am inclined to agree with Kerouac.

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With Eddington’s book, I felt like I hit the literary jackpot because this is the kind of criticism I should have written for my senior thesis on Dharma Bums. While keeping up with my regular academic load, I researched Jack Kerouac, The Beats, the political and religious culture of the United States, and, the protagonist’s, Ray Smith, role as a spiritual wanderer to support my claim that Dharma Bums, though published in 1958, was still relevant to 21st century spiritual seekers. Eddington made the remark that On the Road is the gospel for the modern world, and I agree. For many Christians I know they rely on the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to point them to Jesus. For me my four gospels are, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur pointing to the wilderness to look for the God who left the churches seeking honest hearts.

For the introduction of Eddington’s work, David Amram, who was a friend of Kerouac, noted how Kerouac was at peace with his Catholic background even though he stopped going to mass at the age of twelve. The reason he stopped had to do with the hypocrisy of the Church, and its control issues. The control wasn’t about the people, though that did play a significant part, but controlling God—going so far as to tame this God into a bland New England boil. I have similar objections with my refusal to go to mass. The doctrine of Republican Christianity has infected the holy faith and tainted the host. Every Mass has become an act of sacrilege. My last Mass was just before the election at St. Jude’s off Thompson & MacFarland where, in a sanctuary packed with white people, the priest roared about the persecution of Christians in this country, and how the laity needed to galvanize and impose their faith on everyone. I was done. The other Catholic Churches I went to in Indy shared similar sentiments, or talked about playing nice with Trump and his supporters. At the moment in the Mass where Christ descends upon the altar becoming the host we Catholics imbibe to be his image to a world searching for peace, he skipped the altar and ran out of the sanctuary.

I have been in a state of dissonance ever since I walked away from Mass, and I’ve been fighting that tension at every turn. I exacerbated this internal struggle when I threw out everything connected to Christianity, including God, but I am no more at peace than when I sat in the pews encumbered by robed Trump acolytes. The reality is, and I am loathe to say it, is I am still very much a Catholic who cares deeply about the image and message of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and Holy Mother Church. Kerouac didn’t waste his energy bashing the negative behavior of The Church, but sought God’s face in everyday life while wandering. Perhaps, I should as well. Like Kerouac, and many others who were of similar mind, I am a displaced Christian. Alan Watts in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” talked about these Christians who desire to be like Jesus but lack the tools and examples in a Christianity whose adherents make the company man with the grey flannel suit synonymous with being a good Christian. That spirituality chews life into a gnarled mush spitting it on the ground. Where is that abundant life that Jesus talked about in The Gospel according to St. John? That life is overshadowed by waving American flags and hate pouring out from red clean shaven faces like sweat on the pulpit. It’s one thing to acknowledge this lack of life, but it is quite another thing to remain in the pew with constant complaints. The better option is to get up and leave the building, and finding God for yourself. Waiting for Godot in the church is an act of futility because “he” will not set foot in a church anymore. God can be found in the homeless face, the child’s laughter, the open flower, and the transparent artist. God is found on the road with a rucksack strapped to “his back” looking for anyone who wants to meet “him” in spirit and in truth.

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The way Kerouac came to peace with his own faith background was through the teachings of the Buddha which he came across by accident. One of his favorite American writers was Henry David Thoreau who daily read the Bhagavad Gita, the holy scriptures of Hinduism, and the basis for Thoreau’s writing. Kerouac wanted to tap into the same spirit as Thoreau, but instead found the Buddha. Kerouac’s discovery of The Buddha was serendipitous and answered the questions of his sensitive heart through the four noble truths, and the first noble truth, “All life is suffering,” spoke to him. Kerouac wanted to know more so he devoted three years to studying Buddhism. That research produced his book, Wake Up: The Life of The Buddha, and his posthumous work, Some of the Dharma. From his first four published novels, I can only speculate that Kerouac was influenced by The Dhammapada, the collected sayings of The Buddha. In this Buddhist text, The Buddha says, “’He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.(3-4)” Kerouac does not mention his disdain for the poor practices of The Church, but remains Catholic while looking for God outside of The Church. He forgave everybody while walking down his road.

Clean

I began my day at 6:09 this morning. Ronnie has to work the occasional Sunday, and I got out of bed to shower and shave, and prepare our breakfast and her lunch. The plan was to drop her off at work,  get gas, go to Mo’Joes write over my sandwiches and coffee, and go to church. The rain sprinkled off and on as I exited I-70 on the West St. exit, and drove past Lucas Oil Stadium towards Mo’Joe’s.  The gray, drizzly weather is perfect for dark roast coffee, sketching out a prospective piece, and read Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. The work is good thus far, but I’ve a high opinion on writers like Amburn, Joyce Johnson, and Ann Charters who write about Jack Kerouac based on their scholarly research and their relationship with him. I spent nearly ninety minutes writing out a first draft on my desire to heal and take life case by case, and went right into Amburn’s book. All the while, I’m listening to my writing playlist of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. That’s my normal music for writing, but sometimes I will throw in the occasional Thelonious Monk.

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At 9:50, I packed up my books and notebook, and went outside to a pouring rain battering the buildings and the pavement at an angle. In the fifty feet it took to get to  my van, I was soaked. I heard the pounding on the roof of the van, the thud on the windshield, the dull rub of the wipers as they moved in time to remove the water. Visibility was nonexistent,  the sounds of the rain and car, and the smell of my coffee inspired me to play Thelonious Monk’s “Monk the Transformer” Album. The piano playing is slow and deliberate, but the percussion of the falling water caused Monk’s music to throb with a forceful urgency calculated and executed patiently. As I drove south on West St dodging the many tour buses stopping at the hotels to drop off patrons who are here on business or the race, I saw myself as Moses, bearded and weary, passing through divided waters.  When I entered I-70 West going toward Lynhust, the rain subsided leaving behind a drenched urban sprawl.

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As I entered the church, I had already been set off by one of the greeters who called me, “Big Guy.” I hate that. I’ve had that since high school, and the nickname was based off Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One of the main characters is Lenny who is a large man, and quite stupid. Because of that book, I was taunted with the name of “Lenny” and bullied all the more when I dared to rise above the intellectual limits my classmates set for me. As I entered my twenties, people would respond angrily to me when I told them I preferred to read and write poetry instead of playing football as if I owed people athletic prowess because I’m 6”8 and quite well read. Everything rises up in me, the person in front of me is transformed into those adolescent images. “I’m educated! I’ve a degree in religion and literature! I’m an intellectual! Do you see me?! I’m not my fucking size, you ass!” I give him a quick no, and withhold eye contact as he offers me a bulletin for the service.

I go up the stairs, I walk into the sanctuary, and see bells set up for the bell choir, but I don’t see the member of the bell choir. The last time they played in the service they sat in front of me, and were quite rude to me. When Ben called for the greeting they stuck out their hand, “Aren’t you going to shake my hand?”
“No. You were rude to me, why should I deign myself to take your hand?” One gave me an angry glare and a curled lip, but said nothing. I continue, “What? You’re not laughing? You mean my countering you doesn’t cause you to laugh? You thought your rudeness towards me was funny!” They weren’t in the place I usually sit, and I thought they were in another part of the sanctuary. As I began my writing before the service, I thought I left my headlights on so I put down my notebook, and went outside to check. The headlights were off and I returned to the building. As I went in one of the ladies in the bell choir stopped right in front of me and I waited for her to move so I could sit. She stares at my bag, and proceeds to sit on my bag. As I move my bag, she offers no apology when I speak of her lack of consideration towards my space. Within a few minutes, I am lost in my thought as I scribble out another piece on the Indy 500, and another bell choir member plops next to me grazing my leg. I stop, take a breath, and return. She kept shifting, and pushing me until, I belted, “For the love of God would you sit still, I am trying to write!” Nothing. No apologies. Other choir members proceed to flank me, and I am at my wit’s end. I am not above causing a scene and shaming folk, who are old enough to know better, with a lecture on manners. I’ve been working on how I express my agitation peacefully, but I am not at that place where I can be calm, so, in the middle of service, before God and all the congregation, I get up with my bag in tow, and move to the pew behind me. I found out later, the children’s ministry leader was pissed at the bell choir’s behavior towards me. I stretch out my legs, and continue to write.

I don’t write to escape anything, but to make sense of the thoughts that race through my head, and when I find a rhythm, I blow until everything is out and I set aside the writing for future editing. After the editing, I put out the piece for the benefit of others. If I am interrupted any time before the final exhale, I become curt with short hostile syllables so I can be left to myself. Because I was already agitated from the “big guy” comment and the behavior of the bell choir, I was in no mood to take shake hands with the man who shoved his his open hand toward my face, “So glad you keep coming back.” At a quick glance, I see it’s the guy who made the comment to me outside the church doors. “I’m writing.” then I return to my thought. As I jot the final word on the paper, the sermon begins, but it is not the usual sermon.

Ben teaches the word of God is not limited to the bible, nor do we confine our experiences to how the people in the bible experience God, but God is writing new stories in individual lives. The new stories differ from the bible because of culture, but there is a consistency in God’s character. Because of this, Ben lets people from the congregation get up and tell the congregation how God is moving in their life. I’ve heard some good stories during my time at Lynhurst, and I see God relating to these different people in different ways. These people speak honest stories that are not the pretty, beige ceiling advertisement of suburban spirituality, but stories out of brokenness and desperation involving drugs, alcohol, weapons, and promiscuity. They aren’t juicy tidbits, though, told with feigned regret. The people at Lynhurst who tell their stories wish to God they didn’t go through their experiences, but are grateful for God delivering them and saving their lives. Their theology is “I was lost, but now I’m found,” and, “Come and see.” That’s a spirituality worth considering because it’s not out to sell a particular brand of God.

That’s the story Stephanie told this morning. She grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, and went through a painful hell. She had body image issues, and developed an eating disorder that she wrestled with, and when that pain became too much she self-medicated further with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships. The self-medication deepened when a good friend of hers committed suicide. She is drained and spent like Bilbo’s butter thinning over too much bread. She has to take several pauses throughout her telling to collect herself because the pain is still close to her heart. She is sobbing. She apologizes for the long pauses. I hear from the pews, “It’s ok. Take your time.” She is free to let her vulnerability show, and I feel the love of this congregation towards her. She is safe even as she is reliving her sorrow. When she ended, Stephanie told the church she wanted to sing a song for them to summarize her story, but hesitated, “I don’t want to break the song with my voice.” In my head, I’m shouting, “Oh, girl, no! Those are the best songs to sing! That’s how Ellen Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline sang. They sang their sorrows, and reached down to the depths pulling out their pain buried under the rubble of their broken hearts! You sing that song with all the ferocity of your sorrow!” That’s the blues. Naming what has spent you to lift up as a prayer to the universe, to God, or whatever name you want to apply. Releasing the pain brings freedom, and, after she sang, Stephanie walked away clean. Not only was she clean, but her story and song redeemed the agitation I felt from the bell choir’s rudeness and the unintended insult outside the church doors. The world receives salvation when you sing your grief.

 

 

 

The Beat to Keep

I decided to take a different approach to my writing in this post. Normally when I write, I like to put on some Jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. Cats like, Parker, Monk, Davis, and Coltrane who tore apart this material realm because their bodies were cramped. They needed to breathe. Playing their music helps me to tap into their spirit so I can ride upon their coat tails into the heavenly realm. Like Jean Valjean who saw the abbess kneel at her window for her nightly prayers. He knelt too hoping God would hear him in her shadow. Today’s musical choice came from the Jazzual Suspects song. Some acid jazz with Kerouac doing his spoken word–his voice popping like Charlie bopped.

This is another one that Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac did. Allen played his jazz piano while Kerouac rapped.

Listen to these at your leisure. They’re worth the time spent, but the reason I posted these two links is to give you, the reader, a sense of rhythm to what I have written. It pops and bops with a form of blues and hip hop like the smoke of incense rising to the feet of God. I also applied Kerouac’s approach to writing: first thought best thought–but I did some editing. Enjoy.

 

The beat. The beat to keep. The beat upon my head. Angry blows syncopating an ancient family rhythm in Jesus’ name. Their symbol is the cross, and I carry their salvation in a defunct olfactory system and a bent ring finger. What do you do? What would you do? You’re thirteen. At home you are burned by your father’s PTSD. Sexual abuse and physical abuse he won’t mention for another twenty-three years. On his death bed. Making peace with everyone before he faces God. Next door. The other side of the double where your great grandmother and great aunt lives. Where they degrade your lack of masculinity. They tell you real men have beards. Real men drink their whisky straight. Real men only do single malt from the highlands. They don’t do that to your great uncles. They don’t do that to your brother. They do it to you because you’re a “little light in the loafers.” You’re a fairy. You’re a faggot. You’re a little girl who shamefully stole a penis, and degrading masculinity with your offensive feminine nature. You’re a boy. Act like it. You go to school, and hear all your male classmates talk about that weekend’s football game, basketball game, or baseball game depending on the time of year. You don’t care about sports, but you’re told only a real man likes sports. All you want to do is read your books, and write your poetry to The Clash or Run DMC. You’re 6”4, and your intellect and interests are an insult to the jocks who envy your size, but spit upon you wasting what you’re given. You were never asked for your body type. You don’t control the genetics you’re given, but you’re dismissed as another queer whose presence questions their manhood. Work is no different. You are put aside because you don’t connect. Some of the people look out for you, but you’re a burden. You’re a little girl, and you’re not allowed to mourn for your friend who committed suicide two days before. He hung himself with a friend’s scarf. We’re all stunned, but you can’t cry without being reminded how you’re  supposed to act. You overcompensate and try to flirt with girls to appear straight, but you’re more comfortable with your male friends. You have an ease of intimacy with them, but you don’t know why. Closeness is something that can’t be felt, and you don’t understand what these feelings are until you’re forty-two sitting on a bench with your wife people watching, and you notice a tall man, lean, trim. V-shape torso, clean shaven, and running. You get a tingle, and you risk telling her. She already knew. She’s always known. Yes, you’re bi, you’re in a relationship with a woman, but you’re attracted more to men. She helps and protects. She holds your hand in areas where white Christians believe it’s their duty to beat and kill those who deviate in Old Testament commands, though their faith is based on New Testament expositions. They think they offer a service to God every time they starve a poor person, kill a person of color, kill a Muslim, or kill a homosexual. Constant fear. Constant tension and crying out for Christ’s return. You may not be welcomed, but at least these assholes won’t be here.

The tension is only made worse when Christian leaders condone Christian violence. “It’s the slow work of God. It’s the grace of God. You had it coming. You frustrate him with your questions and lifestyle. You need to move on. You’re no longer welcomed at our church.” Then they lie to your friends and say you left of your own free will. Lies and dismissals are the norm. You know it because it’s not the first time this happened. Nor the second, the third, fourth, or fifth time. You lost track after all your fingers and toes. You remember another distinct time when you were thirteen. The youth leader at the church. She knew your father beat you. She knew the treatment you received from your great grandmother and great aunt. She knows you were a mistake, and that your mom blames you for trapping her in such a desolate life. You’ve had enough of her attitude towards you, and you tell her to get stuffed. In the dimly lit sanctuary, on top of the stage, the light glows around her, and the cross hovers over her, “With a mouth like that you deserve every bruise and broken bone your father gives you.” The cross is empty. There is no Jesus. There is no God. They won’t defend you, but they protect people like her. With their silence they have rejected you and take her side. You have no place of comfort. The lord is not your shepherd, “he” is their shepherd, and the sooner you disappear to another part of the world, or burn in hell, the sooner they can get back to their unquestioned lives where everything is nice, straight, and white. What of it? Who cares? If God hates you and prefers people like her, then so what? Move on. Enjoy your life. Love and kiss who you want. But you can’t. You’ve read the bible cover to cover how many times? You lost count after twenty, but you never forgot about Jesus. The Jesus you read about in the gospels sounds like a guy who would hang out with you. Give you a drink, give you a hug, and wants nothing in return. You understand, through scholarship, how people assumed he was God in the flesh. If that is so, then you have no problems believing this god would like you. He spent time drinking and eating with whores, hustlers, rough men, thieves, murderers, and skeptics. He chastised the religious elite who dismissed them because they spoke for God, but God gave them the finger, and they killed that God. That God came back three days still calling for the weary and disenfranchised whistling through the holes in his hands. It’s the trumpet sound. You have a place, and those people who beat you and your friends with the cross will have to answer for the blasphemy. After the exhale, the heart is shriveled, dried, and cracked, and you pray after Jesus is done chastising your abusers he has time to heal you. You want that rest and abundant life he promised, and hope you too can be included in the promise. You too can be saved. Maybe, but you wait nonetheless.

Mass

Kerouac Traveling

I would not consider myself a Kerouac scholar, but neither would I say that my knowledge is based in fandom. I came across Jack Kerouac in my early thirties when I discovered the Buddhist teacher, Noah Levine who mentioned his affinity for Kerouac’s spiritual adventures. His book’s title, Dharma Punx was inspired by Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Because of his life and search, I found in Levine a teacher I could relate to and could translate spiritual teaching in a way I could apply to my own life. When he mentioned Kerouac, I decided to read On the Road, Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans in one weekend, and I discovered another kindred spirit.

I have been on and off the road since my early twenties. Before I drove back and forth across the country, most of my traveling had circulated around the Midwest: Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois. I had a good friend Pete whom I considered closer than a brother. He lived in Belleville, IL, and moved his family to Vandalia, IL, but worked in Effingham, IL. Whenever, I became weary with Indiana, I would go out to him for a few months for a change of scenery. The people, I did not care for because I found them narrow in their view and wildly bigoted. Everything had to be white and shallow including their faith, and they called me “city boy” as if that were insulting to me. Yeah, I grew up in a city with diverse groups of people and religions, and I went into other places like St. Louis and Chicago to experience their culture. I’ve a broader view of people, but I can see how I’m beneath small town Illinois where the residents barely graduated high school let alone touched a college application.

Before Pete got married we had an apartment in Belleville, IL about a mile from East St. Louis. In the early to mid 1990s East St. Louis was more dangerous than it is now. If you were white, and found yourself on State St after 6:00 pm, you would be shot. Pete went to St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church when he was in high school, and the church had a bus driver who made that mistake. He drove the church bus, and the words “St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church” were a bold red against a white bus. You can’t miss it, especially at six in the evening. The bus driver was on State St., and just as the bus lurched there was a shotgun blast shattering the window behind him. Similar violence spilled over into the parking lot of our apartment. Drug deals would go so bad so often that the gunshots were part of the evening air as crickets. No one ever bothered us, and the way our apartment was set up a stray bullet wouldn’t hit us. The times we had off work we would go to this place called Fultz just outside Millstadt with our three friends, Ashton, John, and Steve.

One evening at 11:00, Steve, Ashton, and John stop by to see Pete and myself. They wanted to go to Fultz. Pete and I didn’t know what they were talking about, but an evening ride to climb a steep hill sounded like fun, so we went. We arrive at Fultz close to 11:30. We had to park off the side of the road and climb a steep hill to get to the foot of the bluff. By the light of Steve’s flashlight, we could see trees and low branches.  We used the thick, medium-sized trees to hoist ourselves each step. On my back I wore a backpack holding a Bible, Hawaiian bread, grape juice, plastic cups, and two packs of Camel Wides cigarettes which caused a slight, yet manageable imbalance. I looked to my right, and I see Ashton holding a tree with his right hand and a cigarette in his left hand. He began hacking and complaining about being out of breath. “What do you expect genius? What kind of idiot lights up a cigarette while climbing?!” In between hard breaths he says, “Up yours, Ron! I wanted to smoke!” The other guys started taking jabs at Ashton.  Ashton fired his sarcasm through seemingly-incessant coughing. The jabs and laughs continued until we got to the foot of the bluff, but our climb was not yet finished.

Between us and the top of the bluff, there lied a cave with its entrance six feet above us. Steve told us we need to climb. There was a four foot wide crevice where we had to push our backs against one side and our feet against the other using the grooves in the rock to craw up to the cave’s entrance like deformed spiders. Steve and Pete were the most limber and were the first to climb to offer a stable hand to the rest of us. I tossed my backpack to them and made the climb followed by John and Ashton. When we were all standing in the cave, Steve told us to follow him while keeping our backs against the wall. The path was a semicircle, four feet wide and slippery from the dripping water. Steve kept his flashlight on so we could mind our steps, and keep from falling.

Once we were out of the cave, we took a small path to the top of the bluff. The path was dusty and had pebbles and patches of grass which helped give our steps traction. We found a flat place overlooking the trees and open field, and a train in the distance moved quietly with the breeze. Under the stars I unpacked the bread, grape juice, cups, Bible, and cigarettes. I lit up a smoke and passed the pack and lighter to everyone. Ashton unwrapped the bread, tore a piece and handed the bread to the others. Pete did the same with the cups and grape juice. We were lost in smoke and conversation when Steve opens my Bible and reads Psalm 8: “What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you care for him? For you have made man a little lower than the angels.”

In the vastness of nature, we felt the weight of the words, and inhaled the tobacco in silence. We were miles away from any place resembling a city. The moon was full and its light gave our skin a bluish white tint glowing like somber candles in an empty church. The sounds we heard in the silence were a mix of chirping crickets, howling dogs, and yipping coyotes meshed together as if all three were having a secret conversation. The air was heavy with silent reverence, and our makeshift camp thickened with an unknown presence. We felt no dread, and took turns reading the Psalms by flashlight to honor what had come into our circle. After an hour of our own communion we make the descent, and arrive at the apartment at 3:00 in the morning. We were still in a state of quiet awe. We did not know what to expect going to Fultz, but we met something on the bluff. Call it God, call it the universe, call it whatever you want. In the presence of nature and each other we encountered something beyond ourselves that allowed us to see ourselves in the world and with each other. Fultz became synonymous for the unknown, a hidden self, made sacred with a name lost in the night’s translation, and after reading On the Road, I look back at Fultz and realize I had touched Dean Moriarity’s “IT.”

 

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.