About Me

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I write, mostly to keep my head from exploding. It threatens to do that a lot. My blog is the pixelated version of all the voices in my head. I tend to dive into what connects me to God, my community, my family and my doubt. I do a lot of searching, not as much finding. I’m good with that. I have learned, finally, to live comfortably in the gray. In the meantime, I wrestle with God, and my doubt and my joy.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Epiphany at the Gas Station

Tis the season, I guess, to talk of epiphanies.  I am in need of one.  Of course, when I talk of epiphanies, I always think in terms of angels dancing on the head of a pin, thunder and lightening, heavenly hosts singing hosanna to the Most High.  I want the drama, the wonders and portents.  I crave drama.  It feels more real, for some inexplicable reason, when I am snatched back from the very brink of despair and dire straits.

I want the earthquake, God as a Pillar of Fire.  What I mostly get is the still small voice.

Apparently, I get what I need.  Apparently, what I needed was the quiet voice of a stranger to give me that moment of clarity that allows me to hear the voice of God.

This was years ago.  Couple of decades at best guess.  I was breaking into Corporate America through a side door.  Having worked for a national poor people's organization for several years, whose unspoken guiding principle seemed to be "to organize the poor you have to be poor," and not being a trust fund baby like so many of my long-term colleagues, I was ready to actually explore the borders of capitalism in all its glory.  Don't get me wrong: I wasn't interested in becoming a capitalist.  No, I wanted to exploit the system for all it was worth.

I was approaching thirty, and everything I owned fit in the trunk of my car.  I had moved back and forth across the country about fifteen times in four or five years. It got to be that I knew, anytime I bought something that wouldn't quite fit in my car, my boss would fly into town and tell me where the next adventure would be.  It was never around the corner.  Mostly, it involved uprooting my rather tenuous life and driving several hundred miles, fueled by caffeine and the fervent, clear-eyed zeal of the True Believer in social justice.

After years of this nomadic existence, I was finally back in Chicago.  It was winter.  It was cold.  Really, really cold.  After a few months, the fateful phone call.  Not even a visit this time: time to pack up again, this time for the balmy climes of Minneapolis.  In January.  I couldn't do it.  Just couldn't start over one more time.  I was tired.  I was done.  I quit.  Now what?

Seriously: now what?  What could I possibly do, career-wise?  I had a degree in history and experience rousing the rabble, as it were.  What the hell was I going to do with the rest of my life?  Honestly, the prospect of living on my parents' floor did not fill me with whelm.  I remember reading a want ad for the CIA.  They were looking for spies, wanted someone smart, who spoke two or more languages and offered good benefits, including on-site daycare.  Talk about early indoctrination.  Sadly, I fit the bill.  Instead of leaping at my chance to dabble in covert affairs, I drifted towards something else equally suspect in my mind, and sidled into the halls of Corporate America through the time-honored tradition of nepotism.  My brother had a gig and gave me a job.  From community organizer to insurance salesperson in one easy step.  I held my nose and jumped, trying hard not to look back.

Trouble was, my life didn't change quite as much as I thought it would.  I was still broke--- or as close to broke so that it made no real difference.  My adherence to Democratic Socialism still rested firmly on the shoulders of my father's very capitalistic law practice (as my parents were so quick to point out).  My wardrobe still consisted mainly of loose, comfortable black, although every so often, I threw in a belt to give my clothes some shape.  I still slept on the floor of my parents' home.  Everything I owned still fit in the trunk of my car.

My car.

My car was becoming quite the issue.  It was old and tired.  My knowledge of all things auto was severely lacking.  I knew to put gas in it.  I was vaguely aware that oil was involved in some way.  Even with my singular lack of expertise, I knew something was amiss.  The car was complaining to me, softly at first, then with increasing stridency: grinding and squeaking, all the while hesitating a bit, chugging a bit more, begging for rest and respite in its car-like, pitiful way.  With every passing day, I could feel it poised for total failure.  Tires.  Exhaust.  Heating.  Cooling.  I'm sure that Newton's Laws of Motion were in question in regards to my car, especially as they relate to acceleration, which my car did only after I said please and thank you and left small gifts and other automotive sacrifices on the hood. The issues loomed larger.

And me?  I just kept driving, eyes straight ahead, all willful defiance and determined nonchalance.  If I refused to acknowledge impending doom, I reasoned, then there could, by definition, be no doom.  That I took my life in my hands (and, by extension, the rest of the driving public) every time I got behind the wheel was something that entered my mind only when it got very, very quiet.  Since my method of car repair involved intensive use of the volume control knob on my radio, quiet was never a reality.  Loud goes a long way in all things repair.  If you don't hear the grinding, squeaking, gasping, rattling, coughing knocks and noises, then they don't exist.  Right?

This state of plausible deniability went on for months.  With every new noise, every new stutter, every desperate twist of the volume knob, my shoulders hunched just a bit more, my breathing strained and got more shallow.  Everything wrong with the car got all tangled and twisted and enmeshed.  It was fast becoming like that giant ball of string that gets lost in the junk drawer: no beginning, no end, no real hope to unravel it.  I was broke.  I was lost.  I was facing a solid, impenetrable wall of Broken, all-encompassing and infinite in its looming menace, and had no resources to face it or fix it.  Like Atlas, I carried this weight on my shoulders, and all I wanted to do was shrug.  And me, being me, just piled on each new problem more precariously, higher and higher, until the pile threatened to topple and bury me under its weight.

Months into this insane dance, I stopped at a gas station.  Gas I could handle.  Mostly.  While I was there, filling my tank, one of the mechanics came out.  "One of your headlights is out," he said, nodding at the offending lamp.

I laughed, and I think some of my bitterness slipped just a bit.  "One more piece of Broken," I said.

And that's when it happened.  That's when the guy transformed (transcended? ascended? transmogrified?) from mechanic to avatar of God.  Or at least God's messenger.  Or something equally holy.  I sat in my car, that shivering, sputtering lump of metal, held together with nothing more than hope, and the waters of all that was broken and heavy parted, separated before me, to show a clear, dry, smooth path to the other side.

The mechanic/avatar/messenger said: "You know, we could run a diagnostic on the car, figure out everything that's wrong, and then fix them one by one."

One by one?  Wait.  What?

My brain spluttered at the thought: one by one?  Nonononono, I shouted loudly into my silent internal landscape. It is a lonely and wind-torn place, a black hole of forever where I go and set up camp, hunkering down for the long dark nights of my soul.  It's a bad neighborhood and I wander its tumbledown streets alone with some regularity, mugging myself and my psyche every so often.  My car is a giant ball of tangled messy string, a mobius strip of problems, an eternal quagmire of broken, with no beginning and no end.

And not just my car (though how simple if that were the case).  I ran my life like this: collected stray bits of problems and hurts and slights and sadnesses and fears and doubts and rolled them all into a ball and hid them all away, ashamed and overwhelmed and convinced that if I ignored them all long enough, they would just all melt away, leaving me whole and pure and happy once again.  There was so much, and they all just festered and rotted and melted together until they became one, a leviathan of Bad, immense and hungry and devouring.

And here, unasked for, was grace: get it all down and act, one by one.

I cannot do forever, no matter how hard I try.

I can do one.

And then another. And another.  And again.  However many ones it takes, I can do that.

I take my miracles where I find them.  As much as I would appreciate those miracles to be accompanied with flashes of lightening and blaring thunder, choirs of angels singing and doing the tango on the head of a pin, my life-altering truths tend to be much quieter.  They certainly help to get me right-sized and breathing. They slow the patter of my heart, quiet the chittering of old voices that whisper lies in sibilant hisses somewhere in my head.

So.  I can do one.  Then another.  I can give thanks for the small miracles and an avatar of God.  I can breathe. I can sing with angels, and then I can do one.