Sunday, August 16, 2009

Remembering and forgetting

I was standing outside of Shoefly yesterday afternoon when I read Lonnie's text. I had just dropped $100 on 4 pairs of Extremely Discounted designer shoes and a cool Indian shoulder bag to replace the other ones that had disintegrated beneath the weight of everything I'd tried to carry in them on my daily commute. The shoes were a great bargain, and great timing as well, as most of my cheap shoes from last summer were falling apart and these would get me through the rest of the summer and hopefully through all of next summer, too. My feet are my main mode of transport on the weekends, so my cute little summer flip-flops --in fact, all of my shoes-- take a little more of a beating than most.

Still, it was $100 I didn't have, on the credit card I'd promised Patrick --my long-suffering friend and financial conscience/muse/confessor-- I wouldn't use anymore. Moreover, I'd promised myself to forget about the sale at Shoefly, and had duly taken my work laptop and Blue Boy, the sole piece of fiction I'd allowed myself in awhile, to Java Shack to spend the day reading and doing work. Trouble with that is Java Shack --a good local business that supports other good local businesses-- was covered with hot-pink flyers screaming about the sale. I told myself I wouldn't go. I spent 3 1/2 hours devouring the last 150 pages of Blue Boy, hoping this would make me forget. And at the end of that 3 1/2 hours, I sighed with contentment at the book's final, beautiful sentence, put my dirty glass in the bin beside the cash register, picked up my laptop case, and headed straight for Shoefly, almost knocking into people as I went.

So, standing outside of Shoefly with my laptop case, my beloved big, heavy orange shoulder bag, and a plastic bag bursting with $100 worth of shoes I couldn't really afford, Lonnie's suggestion that we spend the evening at the Potter's House at an open mic for recovering addicts and homeless folks felt kind of a like a knife in the gut. "Have you heard of Potter's House before?", he asked in his yoga-instructor-mellow voice. "Uh, yeah," I said, feeling a slow wave of rising resentment. Why was this coming now? Just moments ago I'd been animatedly chatting with the women in the shop about the shiny red shoes I'd just bought for a steal. Now I felt the full incongruity of that with the evening I was being offered. I told him I'd go home, figure out the bus schedule, and give him a call back.

Heading for the most direct way home, I was stopped by a police officer with a dog on a leash... "Go back, ma'am!! Go back!!" he yelled, gesturing wildly with his free arm. I scurried away with my huge bags, passing a family standing randomly in the middle of the street photographing a teenaged kid holding an electric guitar. A block away, I asked a female officer standing on the corner what was up. "We're looking for a black man with a mohawk," she said. It was official... I had dropped into an episode of Twin Peaks. I asked if the longer way I took home was ok, which she confirmed.

I trudged up to Highland Ave., the new shoes I'd stupidly put on before leaving the store digging into the backs of my feet. This was ok when taking the shorter way home, but the way I was taking was going to add another 10 minutes... quite long when wearing a brand new pair of shoes. By the time I got home, passing another cop car on what I assumed was the outer boundary of the Search For The Mohawked Black Man, I had bled all over the heel of one shoe. This seemed a fitting exclamation point to the mantra Lonnie's call had started in my head. "Your actions don't match your intentions, Moff. When are you going to learn?"

Flipping through my mail, I saw yet another letter from one of the two Compassion kids I sponsor. I don't open these anymore... they make me want to cry just looking at the outside of them. I never write these kids. One of them, a girl in Ethiopia, I've been sponsoring for 10 years. Why don't I write her? Because I feel pathetic doing so... what do I have to say to her? What in the world could she think of this person who maybe writes her once a year, always apologizing for not writing more? The pictures they send to me of her always look so sad, and I can feel the question behind her eyes: "Why are you bothering? Who ARE you? Why did God bless you with the money and not me?"

Tossing my mail on the table with a gesture of Bourgeois WASPy faux-existentialist Self-Loathing, the bag from Shoefly caught my eye, bathed in sunlight in the middle of the living room floor like some sort of modern art centerpiece. I eyed it with a mixture of longing and nausea.

Then I thought "I'm feeling longing and nausea while looking at a bag of shoes. Time for a nap."

So I laid down and pushed my face into the pillow, giving myself a little pep talk about going to the Potter's House. I would take the bus. I like the bus. It would be like a little trip into a cool DC neighborhood. I would read my book. It would be ok. People wouldn't automatically look at me, point, scream "Fake!", and beat me with copies of The Catholic Worker. It would be ok.

As it turns out, The Potters House is a really cool bookstore/coffee house with a very nice assortment of books for Guilty White Pomo-Christians such as myself. I bought a cup of chai tea (no milk) and a chocolate chip cookie, and settled into the corner to wait for Lonnie and to continue reading Sway, the book I'd started on the bus. And it was cool. No one appeared to have pegged me as A Fake. No one chucked any form of social justice media in my general direction. It was cool.

And it stayed that way. My time visiting with Lonnie was a challenge, but not because he made it that way for me. Not at all. He and I met at an emerging church conference in Albuquerque this past March that Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren set up as a way of getting Catholics and Emergent folks to talk. Lonnie is a community organizer, a passionate idealist, and a mystic who takes week-long hikes by himself in the backcountry of Yellowstone eating nothing but Power Bars, and who lived for a year in a Buddhist monastery in north India, teaching English to Buddhist nuns and learning more about how to pray. In other words, he's pretty freaking amazing. More than that, though, Lonnie is very present in the moment, but gently so. Being around him is a little bit like having someone stroke your hair. I calmed down a bit. I felt like things would be alright. His centeredness opened a bit of a door, an invitation for me to reflect more deeply than I normally allow (and he patiently put up with my immediate externalization of that all over him by asking him a jillion questions about life, the universe, and everything).

As the evening progressed and we chatted between musical acts and poets (who were all fantastic... this was one of the best open mics I've ever been to, made up almost entirely of former addicts, and almost all of them doing original material), I felt more and more like... this is going to sound weird... kind of like how I feel when I smell a mimosa tree in the summer. My Grandmother's house had a big mimosa tree out front, with its strange, sea-creature-esque pink blossoms with their fruity-sweet-tangy smell. There are few smells in nature that I love as much as the smell of a mimosa tree, and there are few smells that bring back such a strong sense of myself as a kid.

Talking to Lonnie was like smelling mimosa. I remember having spiritual practices, trying to meditate, spending long hours in isolation at Madonna House, trying to pray. I remember the longing I used to have for a just world, and how deeply I wanted to work for a development agency overseas to try and do something about the inequity of resources in the world. I remember never buying new clothes and the peace that came from knowing I wasn't wasting my money. I remember feeling like I was living the right way, so much so that I never, ever had to point it out to anyone else.

I also remember that it was never enough. Despite the times of peace, I always felt the razor's edge of how my consumption was still too much, and the sharp bitterness at the knowledge that my student debt enslaved me to have a "good" job, or at least something close to it. I remember the doubt mixed in with the peace, because my job wasn't that good, and there was always one more gigantic, unforseen expense --the car would break down, or the root of my freaking front tooth broke (I still don't know how), or I wanted to go on a trip to see a friend. Money, hundreds and thousands of dollars of it, evaporated. And my debt remained, going down in the tiniest of increments. It became necessary to have credit cards to cover the big debts, and those debts became bigger over time.

So last night was about remembering the sweetness of my idealism while in the presence of Lonnie, and in the presence of all of these gifted musicians and poets with their beautiful words and melodies and voices, with faces pocked and lined with the effects of their former lives. I saw myself with them, not an addict in the way they'd been, but as another person scrambling around in the forest and trying to find the path, another one who gets knocked off that path so easily sometimes, as often by my own force as I try to hurl myself down it as from any external source. In the presence of so many witnesses --the broken who were now redeemed (if still broken) and Lonnie, who has sacrificed a lot to live as he thinks right but who seems to have quite a lot of peace-- that seemed possible.

We all have to start somewhere.

We all need forgiving.


Lonnie said...

Wow. It can be hard to be honored like that. And then there's your bold vulnerability- what an inspiration. Thank you.

Mike said...

Thanks for writing such a beautiful piece of confession and longing. And thanks for leading the way-- my own confession is that even after reading it, I keep thinking, "Wow, $25 per pair at Shoefly? What a great deal! And those red shoes are indescribably awesome!"

Mike Croghan said...

"Wow" is what I was gonna say. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself, Moff, as you always do.

Points of intersection include: 1) I am also utterly overpowered by certain temptations, and simply *must* get my actions more in sync with my intentions; 2) I have also recently been feeling the convicting gulf between me and our Compassion kids (whom I've been helping support for *way* less than 10 years); and 3) I just bought Sway (though unfortunately "buying whatever books I want" is one of those action/intention gulf areas that I need to attend to.) Did you read The Starfish and the Spider?

Anyway, thanks for being my mental/spiritual yoga instructor (c'mon, s-t-r-e-t-c-h) once again. :-)


Fox Confessor said...

What a great piece. I understand what you said. I wonder where I might be now had I not strayed so far...

Anonymous said...

I love your celebration of idealism and the realism that we're always in progress. Much love to your journey Amy.