as far as the eye can see

Glimpses. We get glimpses.

We think we know where we’re headed, but we don’t. From the darkness of our mother’s wombs we ride the chute into hospital florescence, then into the fickle daylight, then into lives that carry us like tubes on a bendy river as we crane our necks for a better look and snap our quivering butts from the water to avoid each pointed rock. We try to see what’s coming but we can’t. Not really. All we can do is steer as best we can, flap our hands and feet a bit, will the river to calm as we approach it, then hoot as it whorls in sudden fury and slaps and sprays our eyes. We yield to forward motion. We laugh with our nearest loved ones. We inhale, then exhale, then wonder what the hell will hit us next. And we go on.

Or maybe we hike through dense woods to an unseen summit, moving our legs on faith. We know something’s up there. We know nothing’s up there: just a view, just a chance to stop for a moment and glance outward at creation. We hike upwards for miles in the hopes of being still, of grasping beauty, of sensing a sublime destination even if it’s out of reach. That it exists at all is enough to keep us going as we hike back down to nurse our blisters and tool around blind through our madhouse lives, wanting to feel there’s a purpose.

Or maybe we make music on a porch at night with friends and cousins, people we haven’t seen for years or decades or ever, maybe, but people who become — in that protracted, joyous instant — proof that life isn’t done with any of us, that life has direction, that life is filled with healing reunion even as memories of the absent make us weep. All we can know is what came before us and where we stand now. Stories illuminate the past. Love lights the present. We root ourselves in the here and now as best we can, batting away fears of death and age and loneliness and decrepitude and all the other gnats that cloud our psyches.

We can’t see much. Not ahead of us. Not in that direction. All we can know is the gifts that stand before us, the music we feel in our bones, the breeze that caresses a northern lake and the breath that shapes each moment. That’s all, and that’s enough. Now.

the things we share


On this day of American celebration, in this era of heart-wrenching division, I thought now would be a good time to assemble a list of Things We Share. This isn’t anything profound, nothing on the order of Dan Rather’s “What Unites Us” (which you should read, like, now). I’m not pretending to be a poet or philosopher or pundit or anything other than what I am: a citizen of this country, a resident of this planet and a compulsive scribbler of words who’s been trying like hell to make sense of who and what we are — what it even means to even be American in this distressed, discombobulating age.

So I asked myself: What can we agree on, these days? Anything? I came up with a few points of likely agreement. Please feel free to add more in the comments. Share, if you’re so disposed.  Let’s try to find consensus.

THE THINGS WE SHARE:

  1. We like holidays (most of the time).
  2. We like fireworks (all of the time).
  3. We like to laugh.
  4. We hate paying bills.
  5. We love our children and want what’s best for them, though sometimes they drive us nuts.
  6. We love our parents and siblings and spouses and friends, though sometimes they drive us nuts.
  7. We work hard and take our jobs seriously.
  8. We sometimes put in more hours than we’re paid for, but we do it because we need the paycheck and know the work is necessary and figure what the hell, it’ll come out in the wash.
  9. We wish the workweek were a little shorter and the weekend a little longer (but we still got paid the same).
  10. We like to eat when we’re hungry.
  11. We like to sleep when we’re tired.
  12. We love the beauty of a sunrise tinged with hope and a sunset tinged with sadness.
  13. We wish our bladders were just a little bigger.
  14. We like getting along with people but also kinda-sorta-maybe enjoy the occasional zing of a heated argument, but only if it ends quickly with no lasting rancor.
  15. We hate garbage night and wish it would go away (along with the garbage, too).
  16. We love taking showers — but not too hot,  and not too cold.
  17. We regard caffeine as the greatest organic compound in the arc of human history, at least at 6:53 a.m.
  18. We don’t like dental appointments, even when the dentist is a really nice guy.
    We have a hard time holding up our end of the conversation during dental appointments, even when the dentist is a really nice guy, and to be honest we get a little tired of staring at that poster of clouds on the ceiling.
  19. We hate trimming our toenails and wish someone would invent a gizmo that does it in our sleep and then disposes of the clippings without our knowledge.
  20. We prefer the smell of our own farts to anyone else’s.
  21. We worry more than we’d like to admit.
  22. We hurt more than we say.
  23. We feel lonelier in the dark than anyone realizes, no matter how proudly we strut or loudly we talk in the daylight.
  24. We hate pain.
  25. We fear death.
  26. We have faith in something larger than we are, be it God or life or love or art or entropy and the expanding universe.
  27. We want to be loved.
  28. We want to be held.
  29. When we hold a baby, we smile.
  30. When a loved one dies, we grieve.
  31. When someone asks us if we’re doing our best to live a good and decent life, we say yes.
  32. We don’t like to be judged.
  33. We don’t like to be insulted.
  34. We don’t like to be demonized as sub-human.
  35. We try hard.
  36. We stumble.
  37. We try hard again.
  38. We stumble again.
  39. We have dreams.
  40. At some point in our lives, some jerk suggested we didn’t have what it takes to achieve those dreams, and since then we have spent our every waking hour laboring to prove them wrong.
  41. We want to believe in humanity.
  42. We want to believe we matter.
  43. We want to believe our vote counts, our voice counts, we count.
  44. We want to believe in ourselves, even when we don’t believe in one another.
  45. We want to believe in America.

oh, shit

The photo above is not, as a friend of mine remarked, the Wicked Witch of the East. This is me. Those are my legs. That is my car. This is one of those periodic moments in my life when violent grinding noises interrupt my peaceful and orderly existence, or would interrupt it if indeed I had a peaceful and orderly existence, and if violent grinding noises were not already the norm. But isn’t that true of everybody’s life? Aren’t violent grinding noises always the norm?

You may have noticed that the name of this blog is Figuring Shit Out. As it happens, I also wrote a book with exactly that title, and it’s also true that I’ve made kind of a BFD out of fixing my own sink whoop whoop, and hating on the very car pictured above, and best of all that time I shoveled piles of literal crap out of my basement.

But I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a BFD. Or an authority on cars, plumbing, caca or any other noxious essence that splats down upon humanity. I’m not in any way special or unusual in my shit-figuring, not remotely, certainly not because I crawled under my scraping and groaning CRV with a roll of packing tape (YES, PACKING TAPE, AND YES, THAT’S TOTALLY PATHETIC) in a futile attempt to mend the undercarriage, although I will admit I was rather proud of my moronic and stubborn refusal to let others with Actual Car Knowledge to climb under it in my stead and give it a proper look-see. I was even prouder when, later on, I slithered down with a pair of kitchen shears and clipped off the offending broken bits with the same offhand panache that I once used to to trim my son’s bowl cut, and won’t he be pleased when he learns I just broadcast that tidbit on social media.

This is the story of my life. This is the story of everyone’s life, the figuring out of shit on an aggravating, extemporaneous, predictably unpredictable basis. It’s all about the belching of noises, the breaking of parts, the interruption of routine, the introduction of disorder, the muttering of Oh Nos and Oh Shits and Why Nows, the looking down in an attempt to understand, the crawling under in an effort to repair, the retreat from shadowed underworlds with blinking eyes and a face streaked with grease and confusion, the glance thrown at people who see you and know you and stand with you and show you the photo of your “Wizard of Oz” legs that they snapped from an oblique angle. And then the laugh that you share. And then the prayer that you utter to God or to fate asking furiously for a break, though not a literal one, at least not for a little while, please please please please please.

It’s all F.S.O., my people. The noise and the grease streaks, the shadows and the laughter. It’s all F.S.O.

the miracle of art

“The Weight of a Ring,” by Terry Liu.

Ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life is short. Even the briefest radio story can live well beyond its 11-minute running time, as I learned on receiving this startling work at left: an illustration inspired by “The Weight of a Ring,” my story for “The Moth” chronicling husband’s suicide in September of 2011 and my decision, four months later, to remove my wedding and engagement rings.

The artist is Terry Liu, an MFA student at Cal State University in Long Beach who’s preparing 20 such illustrations for a graduate show. “The theme for my show is about how radio stories can connect people around the world,” Liu writes, “and make people feel less lonely.”

Telling that story made me feel less lonely. Hearing from strangers who’ve heard it or read it or watched it on YouTube and reached out to me, firing off little electronic missives filled with love and kinship, makes me feel less lonely. Reading Liu’s email made me feel less lonely. Opening the attached jpeg and finding this extraordinary portrait of my life, my grief, myself made me feel less lonely — and profoundly grateful for both Liu’s creative gift the gift of creation.

A fellow artist in another medium had comprehended and channeled the smallest details I’d shared and dwelt on them, found some truth or beauty in them, transformed them into art.

There I am. Me, weeping, whorls of my hair draping around me. Me, curled up in a ball. Chris. A hammer and saw, allusions to Chris’s years in carpentry and construction. The front door I opened to hear the news of his death. A cop. A TV, a nod to the “Battlestar Galactica” my kids and I watched from the living room floor that long and sleepless and terrible first night. The calendar days, just peeling and floating away. A writer’s quill. My ring, with its ruby stone. My gold chain. My hand. Chris’s hand. Ours.

This is the miracle of art: it renews and extends the life that it touches.

Six years ago, something happened to me. Somehow I turned it into narrative. Someone else heard it, found in its intimacy some arcing universal element, then took it apart, studied its pieces and turned them into something else. Something beautiful. Something that isn’t my story but evokes it with insight and compassion, shaping it gently and splashing it with color. And I can see it in a new way, now. I can see myself from a distance, my own eyes filled with tears, my own complicated story filtered through the mind and heart and hands of another. Someone made art of my life, and both endure.

 

turns on the slide

This past Wednesday, I celebrated the day I was born 54 years ago in Booth Memorial Hospital, Queens. That actually happened. Then, this coming Tuesday, I’ll mark the sixth anniversary of my husband’s death (more accurately, it will mark me).  That happened, too. What also happened: I grew up in a singular family, married a singular man, buried my parents, buried my sister, had three babies, bought a house, kissed my children on their first days of school, watched them grow up and up and up and up, wrote books, wrote for newspapers, loved my husband, grieved my husband, wrote another book and kept on living.

And it’s all a blur. I never expected it to be a blur, but who does? Long, long ago, while chatting with an older, wiser colleague in the hallway, she shot me a comprehending glance and said: “You’re at such happy stage in your life. You have a wonderful husband, and your kids are small. Enjoy this.” I thanked her, assured her, then walked away thinking: ‘Stage’? You mean, this moment in my life won’t go on forever? 

Of course I knew it wasn’t permanent. Of course I knew my kids would grow, and I knew that either my husband or I would weep at the other’s grave. But now that I’ve wept at his, I can’t help but look back with shock at the abruptness of the change from then to now, the lickety-splitness of it all, the belated comprehension that even a marathon will feel like a sprint in hindsight.

But still. It was real. It is real. Every inch of it. The fact that something or someone’s behind me doesn’t diminish its presence or lessen its impact; it doesn’t make anything any less treasured or miraculous or true. My husband is real. Our wedding is real. Those nights at home when he wrestled on the floor with our kids: real. The love we felt and made: real. Those trips to Cape Cod, freezing our bodily bits and pieces in the ocean at Coast Guard Beach: real.

Everyone I’ve ever loved, whether they’re alive or dead, in my life or not: real. My best friend from college, her insight, her humor, her calm, all gifts to the world until it lost her: real. Every laugh I’ve shared with a friend: real. Every late-night conversation that bled into dawn: real. Every kiss I’ve kissed, every blush I’ve blushed: real. Every embrace that felt like eternity: real.

The days I shared with my parents and sister: real. The Scrabble we played by the fireplace, the fireflies we chased by the lake: real. The Chopin my sister played at the piano: real. The Bach my mother played on the violin: real. The Franck they performed together, with little bumbling Amy turning pages: real.

That fat Maine coon I had as a kid: real. The purple banana bike: real. That time I went sledding on ice and crashed and flipped and landed on my head and didn’t die and didn’t tell my parents, oh good God, no: real. The boy I had a crush on whose paintbox I smeared: real. The other boy I had a crush on whose stomach I punched: real. The best friend from grade school with the big barn and the big heart and the big hands: real.

That long, steel slide I rode on the playground in first grade, then stood in line and rode again, then again, then again, because I never wanted it to end, not even in January, not even when the air pinched my chest and the metal bit my butt: real.

Every turn on the slide is real. Every moment now past. Every job I held. Ever book I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-re-wrote. This moment right now, as I bang out a fresh sentence in a blog post? A turn on the slide, and look, it’s over now. Every blip and burp in life, whether a brief interlude or a lengthy stage, is a turn on the slide. My two-decade marriage was a turn on the slide. Our years as a young family of five were a turn on the slide. The phase I’m in right now, a late middle age filled friends and family and music and beautiful, striving, impossibly spirited older children, is yet another turn on the slide. Every tune I scratch out on my fiddle with pals is a turn on the slide, each one a little swinging morsel of forever.

Everything is. Every breath, every laugh, every moment spent learning at work or at home. If I’m lucky, and all my bodily bits and pieces continue to function properly, I’ll take many more turns on the slide before the cosmic kitchen timer rings for me. I have no idea how many, or what sort, or where they’ll take me. My only plan is to savor them.

 

 

holy moly

Growing up in an atheist-agnostic household, I learned that love, kindness and generosity were the only working gospels, and I learned that they do indeed work. But only if you choose to love, and you choose to be kind and giving,  and you choose to set aside judgment of others and bend to help when they’re down. I also learned that people of faith don’t exactly have a lock on these gospels, a truism demonstrated by generous atheists and ruthless believers since the dawn of the frontal lobe.

So, no, whenever we happen across some homeless pandhandler slumped against a wall, looking despairing and exhausted and famished,  we don’t need religion to tell us what to do: Love. Give. Don’t judge. Bend down to help. We don’t necessarily need God in those moments. But here’s what hit me the other day: God needs us.

Let me explain.

Rewind to late last week, when I happened across this fine piece of 1 Corinthians during my regular bedtime bible-flip:

This got me thinking. It got me thinking, because A) like 99.9999999999999 percent of the population, I struggle with self-acceptance; and B) “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam,” is one of my all-time favorite literary quotations, right up there with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?” (And do you suppose that’s the first time anyone has crammed Popeye, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into the same 68-word sentence?)

It got me thinking, too, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the problem of hate and discrimination — the tendency to demonize people, declare them sinners or define Them against Us. As though we weren’t all Us! As though we weren’t all Them! As though we weren’t all struggling with this beautiful but oh-so-pissy business of being alive and imperfect, frustrated with our own shortcomings and irked by the flaws of others.

I’m especially baffled by self-proclaimed Christians who do the demonizing. I wonder which bible they’ve been reading. Certainly not the one on MY night table, the one where Jesus tells us to feed the poor and help the stranger and not judge and not hate and sing kumbayah around a campfire while making daisy necklaces. There must be some other, Exxtreme Edition Bible where jujitsu Jeez-Us rips off his shirt to reveal his bleeding pecs and then instructs his disciples in the rules of Fight Club.

So I read that snippet from 1 Corinthians the other night, and I thought: hmmmm. I yam what I yam by the grace of God. God made me this way. God made you that way. God made everyone every which way, even the most annoying people in the most annoying ways, and if you believe in God, you gotta believe God did this for a reason — some divine reason we can never divine. Then I thought: Holy moly! Wait a sec. Maybe God made us all in this crazy patchwork of singular personalities and predilections and shortcomings because God needs us to be different! God needs you. God needs me. God needs us.  

God needs us to be our most essential selves. Our best selves. Our selves most engaged in life, most available and willing to pitch in. I was already chewing hard on this when, on Sunday, I heard a terrifically insightful homily on the Holy Trinity (Father Richard Vosko, St. Vincent de Paul, tip o’ the hat to both) and the importance of being present in moments when we’re called to help.

The Trinity is something that Catholics accept while quietly and simultaneously fearing that non-Catholics regard us as wacko polytheists slathering ourselves in oil under the full moon. But this time, the God-in-three-persons paradigm kicked me in the teeth (and in the best way!) as I realized, a mere 27 years after converting, that all three guises are present in us at every moment: the God who made us; the God who talks to us; the God who came here, suffered and showed us how to love.

So, okay, let’s say I run across some homeless panhandler on some hot summer morning. In that moment, Creator is present in the panhandler, in me, in the sunshine, in the air. The Holy Spirit is present in the still, small voice that says: That poor guy is hungry. Go buy him a sandwich. And as I hand him the sandwich, each of us is Jesus — the hurting and the helper, both. On some other occasion, he might bend to help me.

I yam what I yam. He is what he is. We are what we are. God needs us.

 

 

 

hope versus optimism

I passed this sign on a New York sidewalk. “Have hope,” it said in scrawly black chalk on an orange wooden trapezoid. “Have hope,” it said under three upright ichthys symbols, perhaps meant to denote Jesus, perhaps just the author’s need to embellish. “Have hope,” it said to no one in particular and everyone who passed.

“Have hope,” it said to me.

I am always telling myself to have hope. I need it. I know I need it. By knowing and saying I need it, I claim it and make it mine. Hope is in my hands. It isn’t always easy to carry, just as faith isn’t always easy, just as life isn’t always easy. But hope is a function of the one and a fuel for the other. Hope drives me. Hope is the promise of a new wave cresting beyond my sight. Hope is the forward tick of present into future, no matter what that future brings. What it brings could be everything or nothing. What it brings could soothe me or slay me. But what it brings is immaterial. Hope is simply the promise of bringing, and I cannot live without that promise. I cannot live without that hope.

Optimism, on the other hand: I can and do live without that. Despite appearances and occasional accusations to the contrary, I am no optimist. Not about myself, anyway, although my brother swears I am about everyone else (and yes, he’s usually swearing). But no. If I were an optimist, I would look to the distant, cresting wave and expect it to bring me a golden yacht filled with chocolate cupcakes and hot men in tiny clothing poised to do my bidding. Instead, I half- or three-quarters expect that next wave to arrive with a slimy tangle of toxic flotsam, gag me with seaweed, grab me around the ankles and drag me and/or multiple people I love out to sea. Because, frankly, that’s exactly what’s happened with numerous previous waves. The hot men with cupcakes have yet to arrive.

In other words, life has schooled me in the fine art of pessimism. But it’s also schooled me in hope. Each death and departure has taught me three simultaneously lessons: that loving means losing; that losing hurts like holy hell; and that, even as we hurt, life blunders onward indefatigably, pushing us forward with an obdurate insistence known as hope. The hope lies in the pushing. The hope lies in the obduracy. The hope lies in the peculiar human need to search for meaning in the darkness, to find some poetry in the pain, to land in our stumbling upon some little joy or corrective insight that makes all that happens to us just a little less senseless.

Hope isn’t optimism. It isn’t faith in a happy ending; it’s faith in an ending that matters, that bears weight, that limns what it means to be human. Hope is the engine of narrative. Hope is a creative fugue. Hope is the unreason driving every book, every symphony, every artwork. Hope is the thrust and yaw of sex, an urge in search of an outcome. Hope is every grieving, lonely soul who ever turned from a burial site and smiled at a baby. Hope is the baby. Hope is the tongue of a lover, reaching around a mouth in search of home. Hope is the reaching. Hope is the search. Hope is the blood lapping inside us, the lungs swelling within us, the heart beating even as it breaks. Hope knows that death is on its way, but hope is the life we live in spite of it. So, yes. As the sign says:

Have hope.

humanity in a snowstorm

I have to admit it: I love snowstorms. I was thinking about this today while driving through one such not-quite-cataclysmic weather event, because of course when I’m behind the wheel I HATE HATE HATE snowstorms. Driving to work I hated them less than I did driving home, because there were fewer jerkheads on the road this morning than their were in mid-afternoon. Actually, I only counted one outright jerkhead, a guy who passed me into oncoming traffic and put all of our lives at risk. Thanks, pal.

But everyone else I encountered today supported all my many reasons for loving snowstorms. How so? Well, aside from being pretty and fetching in the most charming, Christmas-cardiest sense, and aside from giving both Young People and Older People with Remaining Knee Cartilage joy in the form of skiing and/or sledding and/or debilitating neck injuries, snowstorms also equalize everything and everyone in sight. They are the great leveler of humanity. It DOESN’T MATTER where you live, what you do for a living, how old you are, which gender you most closely identify with, which gender you most closely snuggle with, how often and neatly you clip your nose hairs, what color your skin and/or pancreas is, which name you call God in prayer and which candidate you voted for in the last election.

All that matters is the snow. You get stuck in it? Someone pushes you out. Someone else gets stuck in it? You help push them out. You don’t roll down your window, shout, “HEY, DUMBASS, DID YOU VOTE FOR TRUMP OR CLINTON IN NOVEMBER?” and then decide whether to assist them based on their answer. I’ve expounded before on the Theory of Northern Cities, i.e., my conviction that snow-plagued residents judge their neighbors less on their private lives than on their public habits in shoveling (or not) their sidewalks after a storm. But I chewed on this a little more than usual today, and not only because THE kindest young man with THE widest smile driving THE biggest snow plow pulled up next to me in the parking lot at work and offered to plow a path out to the street.

I thought about it because I’ve been haunted, lately, by all the partisan vitriol spewing from all sides around the internet and the country. People pretending refugees aren’t people. People talking about “other people’s babies.” People saying certain people will get what they deserve if they lose their health insurance, even if they die. People judging people. People dehumanizing and demonizing people. People forgetting that people are people, screwy and complicated and oblivious to their own hypocrisies —  and trying to get to work and back, even in a storm.

On the drive home, I passed one car after another in distress: buried, spun out, wedged in a snowbank, spinning its wheels, looking aimless and bereft in the middle of an intersection. But the drivers weren’t bereft. Every single one of them was surrounded by helpers. People digging, people pushing, people attaching rope from one car to another to haul that sucker out. I rolled down my window repeatedly to offer aid, but no one needed it, not until the woman standing on the side of the road — she really did look bereft — accepted a ride to a bus stop a mile away. Her name was Vivian. She worked at a nearby hotel. We talked about this weird March blizzard and wondered how many inches we’d get. I told her I was grateful for my snow tires. I think she was, too.

I know nothing else about that woman — not how she voted, not how she prays, not whom she loves. It’s a safe bet no one knew anything about anyone else they helped on the road today, either.  And it’s a safe bet no one cared.

woman walks into a sandwich shop

sad-smiley-bread

Someday last week, somewhere in the mid-Hudson Valley, I had a bizarre exchange with a total stranger. This happens to me on occasion. You’d think, by now, I’d be used to it.

But this last time was different.  This last time haunted me: the woman, her meltdown, the two young men in the shop with us that day.

She was somehow so vulnerable in the extremis of her pain, somehow so broken in her rage. The fellow who accompanied her called her by name in his efforts to calm her, but I won’t repeat it here. I won’t identify the sandwich shop where the incident took place, and I won’t specify the locale. It happened. It truly happened. Let’s leave it at that.

It happened when I walked in to buy two subs. The shop was empty except for one employee, a young man with brown skin, a gentle manner and a light accent of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. I gave him my order: Two sandwiches, please. Turkey, bacon, lettuce, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, ranch.

As he assembled them, the young woman in question entered with her companion. The employee spoke with them, took their order, then turned back to me to finish and ring me up.

“I’m really thirsty,” the young woman declared with sudden urgency. “Can I have a cup?”

He looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“A cup,” she said. “A cup. A cup.”

“A cup? What kind of a — ”

“A CUP,” she repeated. “A CUP? Do you know what A CUP is? Have you never heard of A CUP?”

Saying nothing, he reached for a large paper soda cup.

“Are you the only person working here today? Is anyone else here?”

Still saying nothing, he handed her the cup. This failed to placate her. She started shouting.

“I said, IS ANYONE ELSE WORKING HERE TODAY, OR IS IT JUST YOU? Are you alone here? Are you IT? Is NO ONE ELSE HERE?”

That’s when I said: Hey. Hey. Give the guy a break. He just didn’t know what kind of cup you wanted.

Startled to hear from an outsider, she shot me a glance filled with acid.

She said: Mind your own business!

I said: If you’re rude to someone in front of me, it is my business. This is a public place. The guy just works here. Leave him alone.

She said: You’re not my mother! My mother is dead! Mind your own business!

What I should have said: I’m sorry your mother is gone, but you still have no right to treat this guy badly.

What I actually said: I have a dead mother, too. And my dead mother taught me to speak up when I hear someone being treated with disrespect.

Immediately I recognized this as a mistake. I should not have countered her Dead Mother with my Dead Mother, as Dead Mothers, once invoked, have a way of ramping up any conversation. And it did indeed ramp up. The young woman went completely ballistic, flailing her arms, shouting, spewing F-word upon F-word upon F-word while I howled CALM DOWN CALM DOWN CALM DOWN and made repeated “time-out” gestures like some ineffectual and somewhat desperate hockey referee.

I thought: Shit! What did I do?! She’s totally lost it!

I thought: Shit! How can I stop this?!

Then I thought: Shit! What IS it with me and total strangers!?!

Meanwhile, the young man with her —  friend, boyfriend or brother, I have no idea — looked pained and exhausted, as though he’d been through this way too many times before. He spoke her name tenderly, knowingly, urging her to leave. “Let’s go. Come on, let’s go, let’s go,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy.

But she kept at it. More flailing and shouting. More F-words.  I don’t recall the exact substance of her complaints, but the gist of it was unhinged, toxic outrage at being judged — by the world, by anyone, by me. I had no right. How dare I. She didn’t need this. Who was I to say. Et cetera.

Only when she slammed the paper soda cup onto the floor did I realize it was filled with ice. For a split second, the four of us — we two ladies, the employee, the friend — paused and stared as the scattered cubes shushed across the floor. Then the young fellow took the woman by the arm, uttered one more urgent “come on,” and they were gone.

That’s when another woman entered the store. “What happened?,” she asked, picking up the cup. We told her. She asked if I was all right. Yes, I said, and we all looked down at my shaking hands.

“Do you want me to call the police?” asked the employee.

No, I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, I said. I thought: That would ruin her day and maybe her life. And she didn’t hurt me. She didn’t even touch me. She only swore and fell apart.

I regarded the young sandwich-builder before me. He was utterly poised, calm and quiet. Not a peep from him throughout the whole ordeal. Not a flash of anger.

I said: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

I said: I didn’t mean to create such a scene — to do this to you in your workplace. I only meant to tell her she shouldn’t be rude to you.

Again I said: I’m so sorry.

He shook his head. “I work here, so I couldn’t really say anything. It’s my job,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy for him, too. I wondered how often customers were rude to him for indiscernible reasons, and how often he stifled the urge to talk back.

Then he shot me a look of quiet bafflement and sorrow. “Some people,” he said, shaking his head once more. “Some people just don’t respect their elders.”

At that I almost burst out laughing. The kid was talking about me. I was an elder. Of course! The white-haired lady assailed with F-bombs by the obstreperous youngster!  In his country and culture of origin, such a scene would be unthinkable and appalling — far worse than the woman’s rudeness to him was her rudeness to me, at least in this young man’s view.

I wanted to hug him. Instead I asked his name. I said thank you, goodbye and God bless you. And I left with my turkey sandwiches.

Afterward, I replayed the episode over and over in my mind. I wondered what had motivated the woman’s short fuse and incivility. Was it the man’s race? His (presumed) religion or immigration status? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe I was, too. Maybe this woman had had an absolutely, positively shitty day. Maybe she’d been fired from her job, ditched by her boyfriend or — who knows —  ripped to a million little pieces by a total stranger in public. Maybe her mother had, in fact, just died.

I don’t know. But I know she isn’t having an easy time of things, whoever she is, and I also know her name. I know the sandwich man’s name. In a strange way I can’t quite understand, much less explain, I feel a bond with them both, having shared a moment of plain, painful, unfiltered humanity that was stripped of all protective layers. In that one volatile moment, we were naked together. Defenseless. And in our defenselessness lay an odd sort of intimacy.

Sometimes I think this is the challenge and calling of life: to witness each other at our worst, and to do our best regardless.

So I feel close to those people that day. I always will.  Once total strangers, they’re known to me now.  They mean something. They matter. I can’t shake them off, I don’t expect to shake them off, and I won’t try.

But I am never, ever, ever setting foot in that sandwich shop again.

 

fear, love and the jesus i follow

I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. No, this isn’t normal. Yes, I’m a churchgoing Catholic, but I am not that holy. Lately, however, I’ve been envisioning my Lord and savior slumped in the kitchen over his iPhone as he scrolls through the news: xenophobia, Islamophobia, fear of the immigrant, fear of the Other, loathing of all, so much of it fomented by those who call themselves Christian. And as he reads, he’s yanking at his hair and yelling, DIDN’T THEY LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAID?!?!

Backtrack a week or so to my participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where I met this guy holding a sign intended to bring people to Christ. We didn’t exchange names, so I’ll just call him The Evangelist. He was hefting a sign emblazoned with scripture: “Jesus Said ‘Unless A Man is Born Again He Can Not See the Kingdom of God.’ John 3:3.”

jesus-signHmmm, I thought. That won’t do. That won’t persuade anyone to leave their nets and follow Him. Not in this crowd.

So I went up to the guy.

ME: Hey, there.

THE EVANGELIST: Hello.

ME: I’m a Christian. A Catholic. And it’s good you’re here. But I gotta tell you, you won’t be making a lot of converts with that sign today.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: The translation. You should have used a different translation. One that doesn’t use the word “man.” Especially today. (Gesturing at the crowd.) Here. Now. At the Women’s March.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: I’m just saying you might want to find a Sharpie and scratch out the word “man.” Replace it with “person.” Or add “woman.” Or something. Because you’re at the WOMEN’S MARCH, right? Which is about including people, not leaving anyone out. And the translation you’re using leaves people out.

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

ME: No no no! I’m not offended! I’m trying to do you a favor. I told you, I’m a Christian. But the thing about Christ: He didn’t leave anyone out. His message was meant for everyone, right? Isn’t that the point? Everyone? So, look, if you can just find a Sharpie, and. . .

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

And that was that. I gave up.

Afterward, I wondered about these habits of exclusion, small and large — not just the one guy, with his one sign, but all the myriad ways that people of faith can wall off entire populations. When my fellow Christians do it,  it drives me bonkers. Jesus was really, really, REALLY clear about this: He came as a messenger, as a reconciler, as a literal, physical embodiment of God’s love — and he came for every last one of us broken people. We’re all broken. We’re all loved. We’re called to love each other in our brokenness. It’s that simple.

And yet this simple truth gets twisted in service to — what? Self-righteousness? Tribalism? Nationalism? Fear? Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Neither Jew nor Gentile. Nor Muslim. Nor refugee. Nor Mexican.  Nor anyone or anything else.

Or consider the parable of the good Samaritan, the stranger who came to the aid of a beaten traveler. Imagine how unlikely — outrageous — that story must have seemed when Jesus first told it. Samaritans and Jews did not get along. They did not chit-chat about football and kids over the backyard fence. In fact, they loathed one another. But that was exactly the point: human boundaries and prejudices don’t matter, in the end. Anyone who helps and carries another is a good neighbor. Jesus razed barriers. He didn’t build them.

I’m no theologian, and I’m certainly no saint. But the Jesus I follow calls me to love, not hate. To include, not exclude. To see the light in others, not deny it or ignore it or disparage it as darkness.

Jesus didn’t wall people off. Christians shouldn’t, either.