Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who are we? What are we carrying?

Waiting for the bus in downtown Seattle earlier this month, I witnessed a scene that I can’t forget.  Two police officers on bicycles rode up to an African-American man standing on the street corner. As they dismounted they greeted him cheerfully, saying, “Hi, David.”  “David” greeted them back.  They calmly explained something to him about his being in the wrong place or having been in the wrong place.  He did not argue with them. 

Then began a long methodical dance among the three, one they seemed to have danced before.  One police officer asked David to show him what was in his pockets.   David removed items from one of his coat pockets, held them out in his open palm to one officer, who would examine them and hand them to the other officer to hold while the first officer prompted David to dig again and David dug in another pocket.  The three repeated these steps many times, with the pile of belongings growing to an unmanageable mound in the second officer’s cupped hands.  For David was dressed in many layers, each layer seemingly full of pockets.  As he emptied his pockets, displayed his necessities, treasures, and secrets, and handed them over to the officers, the three talked calmly, all of them good-natured, no sarcasm, no whiff of aggression. 

As I stood to the side watching and listening, my heart went out to this man emptying his pockets on the street corner.  He was so vulnerable, so exposed, to sudden searches, to indignities of the spirit.  Part of me was angry that police officers, however polite they may be, are free to stop anyone and search them, force them to expose their intimate belongings.  And yet there was something more.  This man was not afraid, and he seemed to meet their intrusive searching with dignity, as if to say, “Be my guest.  Look at everything in my pockets.  That will tell you nothing about me, what I have done, where I have been, where I belong, nothing about what of me is truly hidden from you and you can never see.   Look, but you won’t see me.  I know who I am.”  

My bus arrived and I got on.

Over the next weeks this man David stayed with me.  He walked through the world carrying with him all that mattered to him, and he was required to display it—at any moment, without warning—to strangers, for their scrutiny and approval or punishment.   And, to me at least, it seemed that in the midst of this transitory, fragile, and exposed way of living, he possessed a grace and dignity.

His presence and interactions with the officers reminded me of the Hasidic story of the man who wakes up in the morning and does not know who he is, what belongs to him. There are clothes lying on a chair.  Whose are they?  Shoes on the floor.  To whom do they belong?  To make it through the next days, he must put notes on his clothes, his shoes, in his pockets:  “This is my shirt.  These are my pants.  These are my shoes.”  That way he will know who he is, what belongs to him, as he travels through this world.  He, too, in spite of having a room to live in, is vulnerable to a fundamental questioning of his self.  Who is he, really?  What makes him who he is? 

We think we know who we are, but do we?  Who are we, truly?  What makes us who we are?  The clothes we wear?  What is in our pockets?  Where we stand?  Live?  Belong?  How protected we are from random searches by "the authorities"?  We are all transitory, fragile, vulnerable, and exposed creatures living in this world that is continually perishing.  When we are required to display all we are carrying, do we have the grace and dignity of knowing who we are?

Friday, April 1, 2011

So Beautiful in Hindsight, So Terrfying Now

Almost ten years ago, just before my life descended into seven years of chaos and loss, I had a dream: 

I was in a four-person tour boat riding through a wild, turbulent, rushing rocky river in a remote jungle. We rocked though rapids, swirled in eddies, spun through hairpin turns, floated peacefully for a brief moment, then fell hundreds of feet down a waterfall, surfaced, gasped, and were on our way again--a terrifying roller coaster ride that seemed it would never end. At last the boat came to rest on the top of a cliff.  We sat there, soaking wet, and looked down, looked back, on where we had traveled. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of what I saw, every part of it. All I could say was, "It is so, so beautiful. I had no idea how beautiful it was. So beautiful."
This dream--on the days I had the calm and grace to remember it--brought me comfort. It showed me, in the midst of  my fears of death and other losses, when I was sick to my stomach from emotional plunges and spiritual challenges, when all my attention was concentrated on staying afloat, when I couldn't breathe for terror, that I would survive this journey. Not only would I survive, but I would come, one day, to be grateful for it, every moment of it--grateful to that journey for bringing me to such a place of beauty and calm, for opening my eyes to how precious life is, in all its turbulent and ever-changing glory, for opening my heart to experience that  beauty--so intense it hurt. And that once I experienced this, I would know, in my heart and lips and mouth, that it would be impossible to ever convey that  beauty in words--mute wonder the only response.

If anyone had come to me with palliatives during those years and offered me third- or fourth- or fifth-hand theories of how God never gives us more than we can bear, or how God tests our faith, or how God teaches our souls to grow by challenging them, or how without the dark, the violence, we would never know the light, the thrill of peace, I would have spat their words back at them as so much filth or sawdust.  Only the experience of trust I tasted through the story of the dream fed my hungry soul.

Today I taste this truth more clearly than ever, and it is even more delicious. How precious is each moment, each now.How beautiful all the moments strung together into a river of life running to the sea, the Infinite, the One. So beautiful.  Mute wonder the only response.