Monday, August 27, 2012

Mission Miracles and Revelations

Recently the whole Mission chapel hour was given over to guest testimonies about Jesus and the ways he saves lives and souls.  As always, guests were admonished to stay within 5 minutes, not to ramble, and to include the most important part--miracles performed by the Son of God.  As each eager testifier bounded up and regaled us with tales of divine intervention in their lives, I struggled with a dream I'd had the night before and fantasized about going up to the podium and asking for advice on interpretation.  Maybe someone in the congregation was the equivalent of Joseph, sold into Egypt, advising the king on his visions, or those dream handbooks on the discount table at Barnes and Noble (anything with crecent moons and pointy stars is a bad sign).  My dreams are almost always embarrassingly mundane, like being chased by a wolf, or taunted with a pot of gold by a tricky leprechaun.  However, this dream was so specific and pregnant with meaning, I wondered if I too had become a conduit of divine will.  I'll get to the dream after a couple of miracles and messages from above:

Raymond, a huge, muscular black Texan in his late 60s and sporting a shower cap, began by begging our forgiveness for using an old cliche'-- 'Don't mess with Texas.'   "Brothers, I spent 46 months on the chain gang swinging a hoe--prisoners do all the farm work in that state no mistake about it--we can beat any machine, put 100 men with a hoe and an hymn and we'll have the whole state plowed and fertile while they changing the spark plugs.  Haven't been in trouble with the law for nigh on twenty-three years and aim to keep it that way, had to do another stretch in FDC Houston broke my mamma's heart for my heinous crimes but I been wiped clean, by the state or feds or by the Higher Up Man?  You decide.  It's MY BUSINESS.

"Let me tell you about Heaven, the streets of glory we're all headed for, contrasted with the Fresno schools where some of my grandchildren go.   In Fresno the girls--and I partly mean 12th grade bitches walking around in spiderwebs and butt-thongs--they always right and the teacher always wrong.  Upside down, just like this world after Eve ate the fruit.  In Texas, a child come back 5 minutes late from the bathroom--they gotta swipe an identity card just to pee and it times them and if they half second late a police officer--not no renta-cop pansy-ass uniform boy--an OFFICER OF THE LAW! grabs them!  The principal tells that kid next time we gonna stick a MOST DEADLY VENOMOUS NEEDLE in your arm.  AND THEY MEAN IT!  It's Texas!  

"Whole place is organized like a bunch  of Temperance Society women who meet each week to knit and hit drunks over the head with churning paddles--people behave, and if they don't they get slammed so goddamn hard--sorry--they don't ever do it again.  Which is like Heaven on Earth, so Heaven is gonna be better than all that by a billion to a billion powers!  AMEN! Brothers! AMEN! [Amen! echoes the crowd] 

"And one last thing I want to share with you.  If you gonna live a life of crime don't be robbing no 7-11 or  Circle K.  Express yourself!  Get some big money if you gonna take that kind of risk!  They don't keep what you need in a cash register!"

Next up . . .

Colin, a man who channels Old World souls of indeterminate origin and accents.  "Brothers, many times I've stood before you to reflect on the train wreck of both my body and soul, and so with that in mind I want to relate a vision I believe was given to me by the Lord.  Close your eyes and imagine me stretched out for miles as if transmogrified into a  train on a supernaturally straight line of tracks laid down upon a flat desert with no oasis in site.  Coming toward me is a train pulling hundreds of freight cars laden with booze, exotic women, spices, Turkish delights, jewels, untraceable currency of every description--and all I have to do is reach out with me filthy paws--I've got thousands of them in this vision, like a millipede-- and pull a switch shunting me onto another track leading faster and faster to escape the pull of this fallen world and from there to the City of God.  Or I can reach out for gleaming and lubricious debauchery. DEBAUCHERY!  But I cannot decide, brothers,  I cannot decide . . . Perhaps when the time actually comes the decision will be made for me, if it's God's will.  Amen!  But the time hasn't come yet!  So you and I are in a state of suspense.  Will he?  Won't he?  This is moral dilemma on a knife's edge.  In Christ's name, Amen.

--While all this was going on I was thinking, what difference would it make after this stuff if I went up and recited my dream?  It went like this:  I was standing on the rim of an active volcano next to a beautiful woman who looked a lot like the young Winona Ryder, but it wasn't really her, it was just a dream woman.  Know how that goes? There were some other people scattered around us and we all seemed to be tottering over the smoking red maw of the volcano.  The woman threw her arms around me and shrieked, "My God!  There are thirteen of us!  Thirteen!  We're doomed!" 

"Silly bird," I said.  "You always forget to count yourself!"   Then the dream shifted to the deck of a sinking ship and the exact same scene played out, the fake dream Winona Ryder throwing her arms around me and screaming about the deadly number thirteen, and me comforting her with a grin and a chuckle like Cary Grant:  "And Baby makes fourteen!"  The dream shifted to other scenes of peril--quicksand, burning building, tsunami, earthquake--until suddenly the fake Winona and I were alone in a meadow and I was asking her suavely, "And how many of us are there now, darling?"  But before she could answer I woke up.

The dream was radically different from anything my subconscious had ever produced before and it had numbers in it and scenes of destruction.  It was kind of Biblical in its own way.  Maybe I should share it.  Sure.  Just for the hell of it.   But instead of going up I settled back in my chair as Connie, the Mission's village idiot, stumbled up to the podium to cheers and bellows from the guests.

"Hi, everyone, I'm Connie, most of you know me, I love animals and I have a story I know you'll all like and many of you have probably heard it before.   A man was on the beach throwing stones into the waves, and a man dressed in white came walked up to him and said, 'Hey, pal, be careful there.  You might hit a starfish.  Always be careful what you're aiming at.'

"Well, the two of them started walking down the beach together and neither of them said anything.  After a while the man got tired and lay down in the sand to take a nap.  When he woke up, the man in white was gone!  He looked down the beach the way they had come and he only saw one set of footprints, his own.  And that was pretty weird because he remembered walking down the beach with the man.  Then he thought, 'That man looked a lot like Jesus!  He was walking with me and didn't leave footprints!'  So it was a miracle."

At this point someone in the audience shouted out, "That ain't the way the story goes, Connie!  The man  sees two sets of footprints for a while and then he only sees the stranger's."

Utter bafflement from Connie.  "Well, I guess that means . . . The man walked in Jesus's footprints to follow him."


Somebody muttered, "That boy's all fucked up.  Seriously fucked up."

Connie tried again.  "Maybe the whole thing was like a dream, or maybe . . ." 

The pastor stepped in and put his hand on Connie's shoulder.  "Son, I think what happened was the man saw his footprints all alone and asked the Lord why he abandoned him and the Lord answered, 'That was when I carried you, my son.'"

After Connie was gently nudged off the stage and we lined up for showers, I felt cowardly and envious of the bold, if muddled, visions expressed by my fellow Mission guests.  That night I had a dream about going to a movie that turned out to be all loud, gaudy previews for two hours.  Then, in the manner of dreams, I went on a fruitless, circular quest through the labyrinthine theater to ask the management for a refund.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes: A Tale of Economic Woe

I started teaching again this week, and the required vocabulary word "dismayed" came up in a short story some third-graders and I read aloud yesterday.   The protagonist, an absentminded kid forever losing things--books, house keys, caps, gloves, notebooks--and thus a habitue' of lost and founds, was "dismayed" to find that some shifty classmates had submerged his book report in an aquarium minutes before it was due.   I tried, like a good teacher, to get them to define the word from context clues, but I got answers like, "He wants to kill them," or "It means fish ate the paper." 

"Let me tell you a story kind of like that where I ended up 'dismayed,'  I said.  "I was spending the night in a friend's backyard last summer--"

"Why were you doing that, teacher?"

"I like to look up at the stars."  Actually I'd been kicked out of the Mission my second night there because a paperwork error had misidentified me as a chronic dormitory litterbug.  

"Don't interrupt.  Anyway, I forgot about my friend's new black Labrador puppy,  and I left my backpack and cell phone and wallet sitting on a table next to the air mattress.   In the morning, I found the puppy had chewed my backpack to tatters, cracked my cell phone into three pieces, and had torn apart my leather wallet with about 50 dollars in it."

"It ate the money?"

"Tore it up into little pieces and slobbered all over everything then jumped on me when I woke up and got my t-shirt muddy.  So I when I saw all this stuff I'd lost I was dismayed.  What was I feeling?"

"You wanted to kill the dog!"

"You should have called the dog catcher!"

"I'd call the police."

"Why didn't you just go to the store and get change for your fifty dollars?  That's what my Mom does."  This from a smug little girl named Sierra.

I heard a pounding noise in my head.  A wall was fast approaching.  I had to swerve away.  (Earlier today I'd had a similar feeling during math and Bear Logic, which involved basic reasoning problems involving different colored bears running races: Me: "If the red bear comes in second, and the yellow bear doesn't win the race, what does the blue bear do?" Kids:  "He ate too much honey and fell asleep!"  Me: "How can we use Bear Logic in real life?"  Kids:  "If you go camping and meet some bears you can tell them what to do.")

"Look," I continued,  "the fifty dollars was gone!   Haven't you ever lost some money that you really needed? It was everything I had and I couldn't even call anybody to ask for help.  It chewed up my bus pass!  I was totally stranded because my friend had already gone to work!"

"Why didn't you drive your car?"

"Let's stick to the fifty dollars.  I was dismayed.  I was sad.  I was angry.  I was surprised and shocked.  I felt like crying and I'm a grown-up.  That's dismayed.  Who's ever been dismayed here?"  Hands shot up.

Now a curious phenomenon started bubbling that you usually want to clamp a lid on right away, but lately I've been letting things like this reach a roiling boil for the anthropological value and absurdity.  A classroom of thirty kids can be seized by a kind of mass hysteria that makes them more fluent liars than usual if they get focused on just the right thing--and the idea of losing fifty dollars was a perfect kick start.  Listen in:

"I lost a fifty dollar bill once."

"How'd it happen?  Were you dismayed?"

"A burglar took it." 

"A burglar, eh? Most inconvenient.  How did you feel?"

"Mad and sad."

The reaction gathered speed . . .kids glanced at each other, eyes rolled sideways and upwards, bodies squirmed with the cost of juvenile mendacity . . .

--"I had fifty dollars that I won at the fair but my cat ate it."

--"I was in the park playing with my cousins and I had a fifty dollar bill and it fell down a hole.  I think squirrels got it."

--"I saw a fifty dollar bill on the ground once, and bent over to pick it up but the wind blew it away way up into a tree."

--"I had a fifty dollar bill to buy some ice cream but my baby sister flushed it down the toilet."

--"I was at a picnic with my family and some leaf cutter ants chopped up my fifty dollar bill."

--"I got a fifty dollar bill from the tooth fairy because I had a whole bunch of teeth under my pillow but then Chucky stole it."

--"A Killer Klown from outer space stole my fifty dollars."

--"Freddy Kruger stole my fifty dollar bill."

--"A monkey at the zoo grabbed my fifty dollar bill and wiped his butt with it."

Roars.  At this point I interrupted.  "So how did you all feel when you lost your fifty dollar bills?"

"I was sad."

"It was jacked-up."

One last time.  I leaned over the kids, sitting on the carpet in front of me.  "If you lose money that you really, really need, what's a word we learned today?  You felt Di. . .Dii. . .Diii. . .? Starts with the fourth letter of the alphabet? Diiiii . . ."

Sierra, the girl who'd earlier advised me on economic recovery, threw her hands up in the air and shrieked, "DELIGHTED!"

And somehow she was right.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Which Came First?

Everyone here at the Mission has been slightly stunned by the reality of the gradual winnowing of guests and their ejection, starting with long-term residents who've been here years.   Most guests who've been given walking papers have rejected the option to remain on for a limited time as an unpaid "Disciple of Christ," perfoming menial chores for bed and meals.  The principle reason for rejecting this offer is one I can understand:  the religious devotion, rituals, chores, and Bible classes required are drooling and dunderheaded beyond belief, the worst kind of primitive religiosity crossed with lots of New Age uplift guff and prison-speak.

I spoke with Lee, a man who's been living at the Mission for five years, why he was choosing the uncertainty of the street over discipleship.  "I don't want anyone telling me how to worship, and I'm too old to be on my knees scrubbing shit.   My feet hurt.   Ain't doing no stupid-ass disciple program.  Lots of people here ain't even religious.  I'll sleep outside or get into the Village."

The Village is a small collection tool-shed sized structures across the street associated with the Poverillo House with no electricity or plumbing.  Painted soft pastel colors (from a distance the Village always makes me think of Disneyland) each tiny shelter has two shelves inside to bunk a pair men.  The waiting list for the Village is long and uncertain.  Beyond that option you can risk getting rolled or raped or arrested in parks and doorways.    That's about it.

I overheard a Native American homeless man and parolee discuss his fate with a companion while standing in line waiting admission to chapel:

"I already told my fucking P.O. [parole officer] I'll go back to prison before I do that Christian shit.   I'm an Indian, Lakota Sioux, we don't believe that shit.  The mission's supposed to be for everyone!"

"You got that right."

"These fake preachers--they're in it for the money.  When we sweat in the lodge that's the real spirit!  This place is drying up because nobody wants to donate anymore, that's why they're broke.  The Christian bullshit prison program gets state funds, tax-payer dollars, man,  the rest is donations and nobody's donating, that's why the food is such garbage.  Shit, Jesus ain't gonna help nobody!  We need somebody with real power like Superman!"

"Superman?  What's that shit all about?  You're an indian.  I thought you prayed to the Great Spirit or something."

"I don't pray, you don't understand.  I just like Superman."

"Well, you know, you can see Christian symbolism in the Superman story."

"What the fuck?"

"You know, boy comes to earth, has powers, saves people, his father gives his only son to us . . ."

"That's bullshit!  That's backwards!  The Christians got all that from Superman!  They stole it! Just like everything else!"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Over the River and into the Wilds

One day last spring I took a sub teaching job at a south Fresno school.  The bus took me only part of the way, and I ended up walking three miles into the country--green fields, clucking hens, ramshackle cattle sheds--following directions from the friendly school office manager, with whom I maintained cell phone contact.  She was an hysterically cheerful woman who brayed laughter when I told her I was walking. 

"Walking, hun?  Oh, fresh air! Fresh air! Ha! Ha! Haaaaaaaah! Just keep coming on down the road you're on and turn left just past the train tracks.  Don't go right or you'll end up at the middle school with all the hooligans!   I'll have some coffee ready for you! HAAAAAAHHH!"   I turned left after the tracks, just as she'd said, walked a another half mile looking about thinking, "I really am out in the country!  Look at all the evidence: barns, snarling dogs, billowing sheets hanging out to dry, barbed wire, ducks, a couple of horses, a hazy horizon, even a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada to the east.  And just a short while ago I was at the downtown bus stop looking up at the Holiday Inn bulking above the seedy, sinister casino watching a man on a fifth floor balcony perform Tai Chi in his underwear."

I'd had no sleep the night before in the Mission dormitory.   The fat slug next to me kept rolling over and smacking me on the chest while he emitted a horrid combination of snores, wet burbles, mutterings and groans. At one point he yelped "I'm not anybody's puppet!  I'm my own man!"  Glad to hear it.

At first look the little school had the appearance of an empty field surrounded by chain link onto which a few portable buildings and trailers had been airlifted and dropped.  It looked forlorn and scattered, like something a giant child might leave behind after playing with blocks and getting bored.   Closer, concrete walkways painted with strips to guide the kids appeared, along with a nicely standard playground--climbing structure and wood chips, basketball courts, a turfy, humpy athletic field. 

Finding my way to the office I shifted into silly simplification mode and reflected, It's all about lines.  Yes, that's all it takes to carve out a space in the urban jumble or the rural wilds for the sake of the kids and the Enlightenment: some straight lines laid down by the loyal maintenance crew, a bit of non-aggressive fencing,   some pointing arrows, some shallow furrows in the turf, a brief list of posted rules--and you've got a school.  Seriously, though, that's what I've always loved about elementary schools: once you've entered their mostly benign geometries (some administration offices have a trippy, disturbing Non-Euclidean aspect to them, depending on principal and staff), it doesn't matter where you are, boiling city or cold flat nowhere land, you're on  campus, in Kid Land, and the bulk of what goes on there (yes, we all know about violence and national education failure) is a scaled-down and believable utopian dream.  Even in south east Fresno.

This little school dropped down in the ragged country seemed an outpost at the edge of the wild, like something out of Joseph Conrad or early J.G. Ballard.  Then, instead of falling out of the sky,  its tacky temp structures, trailers, concrete walkways seemed to have sprouted whole from the ground like mushrooms after midnight,  here between awful, irredeemably doomed Fresno and the faint promise of open land still not gone forever in battered California. 

"Look, kiddies," I said to the chirpy third graders I had for the day. I was still sipping the coffee provided by the laughing lady.  "It's going to be a hot one today, so why don't we change the schedule a bit and have P.E. this morning instead of after science?"

"You shouldn't be drinking in front of little kids," one of the Hailies said.  It's a grade school law that if a class contains one Hailie (or Hailee or even HeyLee), it must contain at least one more, often three total. 

"I'm not drinking, you dingleberry.  I'm sipping coffee.  And you all have water bottles and Powerade."

"Dingleberry! Dingleberry!"  all the kids shouted, then giggled.

"Mrs. B says teachers shouldn't drink coffee or soda in front of kids.  And what's a dingleberry?"

"You are, and so is everyone else, me included, for doing this job, and living this life," I said, hoping to diffuse a discussion or argument. Or a trip to principal's office for me.  "You can all call each other dingleberries or wet smackers or boggy bompers or squiffy biffies and no one will be hurt or in trouble.  If you're good, I'll give you some other silly names that don't hurt and you can all call each other funny things.  Here's another: wonky bonky!" 

The kids tried out the names on each other.  "Write them down!" they pleaded. "Write them on the white board!"

"You're not supposed to call names," persisted Hailie.

"Yes, yes.   There are lots of things you shouldn't do.  Try very hard to be a bit more literal-minded, darling.  By the way, all of you are simply a scream to me with your rapper clothes and pouty looks and "Hannah Montana" backpacks and the glitter hair and so on.  Now let's get back on topic.  Who wants P.E. this morning after the spelling test?"

Some classes are more compulsive and protective regarding the posted daily schedule than others.  This one voted for hope and change.  A few kids whined but I quelled their objections by describing my P.E. proposal:  "We're going on a safari--that's like a Jungle Adventure you might have seen on the Disney Channel.  All sorts of dangerous and exotic animals.   Hmmm?"

I don't have the faintest damned idea what sort of act or persona works best with kids.  Today I was trying a patrician snob because I was tired and felt like a languid and dissipated scion of some obscure billionaire languishing in a New York high-rise apartment. Actually, I don't have any idea what that's like but it was my guiding star for now.

"I don't like it that you called me a dingleberry," said Hailie.

"Would you like to be my number one assistant on the safari, Hailie?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah!" She brightened right up.

"Okay, go find us two jump ropes.  Borrow them from someone, I'm sure you know where.  And no, we're not going to jump ropes.  It's something much better."  She skipped out.

"Teacher, where do you live?" asked Johnny, a miniature boy gangster in full street regalia.  "I saw you walking to school this morning.  Where your car, man?"

"I live beneath the roof of the sky, and tread upon the grassy earth, over hill and dale, companion of trees and animals.  Beholden to no man or human institution, I am as free as the unfettered autumn leaves." (Yes, and just this morning a felon with flames and big black spiders tattooed everywhere yelled at me to get out bed)

"But where your car?"

"Oxidizing somewhere, no doubt.  Now, study your words SILENTLY! for a few minutes, then we'll have the test, then the safari.  Ahh!  The ropes!" 

Hailie had just shoved through the door, trailing a couple of ropes with knocking wooden handles.

Outside I led the kids, most in school uniform--white shirts and some sort of blue underneath, navy skirts, blue slacks or jeans--out to the lumpy green athletic field.  It was difficult to find a place that wasn't muddy from watering or rain.

"Heads high! Shoulders back!  Watch your spacing!  Don't stamp, we don't want to attract the beasts or natives.  Chest out, eyes forward, but keep a sharp look out for snakes!"  I'd shifted into bluff, stiff upper-lipped and pith-helmeted explorer mode.   These were sharp, enthusiastic kids and most of them got into the whole jungle adventure thing.

"Sir!"  a girl named Brandy shouted.  "We're headed into Giant Black Widow Spider Swamp!"

Others chimed in with warnings about various beasts, mostly venomous, quicksand, cannibals and booby traps.  

After finding a relatively dry spot, I laid out the ropes,with Literal Hallie's help, in two parallel, slightly snaky lines.  Pointing at the space I'd just created on the turf between the two ropes I said,  "That is the most the most dangerous river in the world.  Absolutely lethal!  Death soup!  In that river are crocodiles, alligators--yes I know they live in different parts of the world but not in my river--sharks, angry hippos, stingrays, barracudas, killer octopuses, giant squids, electric eels, piranhas, poison stone fish, stinging jelly fish, giant lampreys, toxic leeches and many, many other deadly species not yet cataloged.  Plus the river is polluted and full of sewage."

"Some of those species are fresh water and some are salt water," said a scholarly kid named Jordan. 

"You should have told me about your scientific credentials before we started out," I said.  "I could have made you safari naturalist just like young Darwin on The Beagle. Now, here's how the game works.  You line up and take turns running and jumping over the river and each you all finish and are lined up again, Hallie and I make the river a bit wider.  Anyone who so much as touches the inside of the river with heel or toe is dead or injured and has to go the nurses station over there and sit down.  Finally we'll be down to one best jumper who's the winner.  Anyone played this game before?"

No one had.  Earlier they had told me they didn't get much P.E. time because the teachers were so busy preparing them for standardized state tests.  I got them lined up and started them running and jumping one at a time.  A couple of slugs deliberately stepped into the middle of the river to get out of the game.  One of these, a gangly girl named Sarah stood for a full ten seconds in the center of the river saying flatly, "Ow. Oh, ow.  I am being eaten.  I am being stung.  There is poison in me.  It hurts so bad. I am very sad.  Now I will go to the nurse and die here in the jungle.  Ow. Ow."

Beyond that the kids lit up with excitement.  This was something new.  I assumed this tossed-together school was an overflow measure of some sort, but there little taint of the dregs about these students, the dull-eyed signs of stressful home lives, hours watching horror porn videos after midnight with their piggy parents, meals of Mac and Cheese, Hot Cheetos and Coke.  They ran, leaped over the ever-widening river, cheering each other on and screeching when an alligator snapped, or jitterbugging when an electric eel slapped a bare leg.  

I couldn't help marveling again about what simple yet powerful things lines and borders and imagination can conjure in the middle of nowhere--all this laughing and yelling and straining and cries of "shark bite!" and "her heel touched the river!  An octopus grabbed her!"  "This is the best game in the whole world!  I want to play it again!"  (Actually, it's a pretty old chestnut) And most of the kids were seriously staining their uniforms, smearing them with grass and mud as they skidded and fell on the far side of the river.  When they stood up their palms looked coated with thick brown paint.
Yipping and yowling, several kids told me they never got to play any games.   "Be our teacher!  Be our teacher!  We hate ours!"   

"That's very nice," I said.  "Keep jumping."  I could get in trouble for this, I thought faintly, as I have many times as a substitute.  Oh well.

I'm fairly high-minded when it comes to educational standards, deplore dumbing-down and all that, am deeply suspicious of techno-solutions to the education crisis (computers can't do a damn thing for school kids--wake up, everybody), but still I was proud of this scene:  I had walked out of Fresno's expanding, creeping skid row, bused  into the country, strolled through the gates of this little school, demonstrated to staff with my identity badge that I wasn't dangerous, and created a jubilee of leaping joyful kids with a pair of lines in the grass beneath the open sky. 

Finally a stocky but locomotive-powerful boy named Giovanni, and Ally, a quick springy girl with pale skinny legs, faced off while the rest of the kids watched and shouted from the nurse's station.   The river was very wide now.  "The crocs and sharks are hungry!" I shouted.  Giovanni had been clearing the water through sheer pumping power;  he looked too big to make it but he'd cleared the danger again and again with brute pounding speed and piston thrust.  This jump was too much;  his booted heel landed squarely in the river. 

"Out!  Foot bitten off by a croc!" I yelled.   "Nurse's station."  Giovanni rumbled a bit, then shuffed off toward the other wounded.   "Ally!  come here!"   I put my hand on her shoulder.  "Last jump, girly girl.  Want to try it?  Or call it a tie?"

Her blue eyes darted about and she skittered on her pipe-thin legs like a colt.  "What do you mean, tie?  If I don't jump it won't be a tie, he'll still be ahead because he tried.  Tie?  I gotta jump, for crying out loud!"  

"Yes, yes--of course you're right.  Go to it, kiddo."  I was a bit surprised by her adamance and irritation.  She ran back to the starting line, set her face and tore toward the ropes.   When she leapt she gave out a high-pitched SQEEEEEEEE! somewhere between a scream and a bird cry and seemed to float above the river on an invisible seat, her arms thrust back, her legs dangling and kicking, her face flattened out . . . then she landed, skidding twirling in the flattened muddy grass and over a dozen feet somehow managed to dance her way upright.  

Cheers went up.  The uniformed and smeary  kids surrounded me, and Ally wrapped me in a hug, a man who sleeps in a homeless shelter and who'd entered this sancrosanct space of kids and lines as he did most days--with no idea what to expect and no clear plan aside from Just Try Whatever Works--wrapped me in a two-armed hug and said,  "Oh Mr. H!  Are you proud of me?"

"Yes, honey, I'm very proud of you."  And then, far out in the wild country,  I hugged her back. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Connie's Dilemma

When the pastor announced testimony time the other night, the chapel crowd chanted for Connie, the Mission's village idiot, to stand beside the pulpit, microphone in hand, and favor the congregation with another dizzy metaphysical ramble.  I've decided that Connie, with his startling pyramidal stack of blond hair rising above his slightly stunned face, is the real deal:  not affected or exhibitionist in the manner of many street crazies, but genuinely confused and demented, head full of overlapping facts and jumbled ideas from the Bible,  movies, old songs and, especially, nature and animal worship. 

"Okay," he begins.  "I saw something in Courthouse Park this morning that I wanted to share with everyone.  As you know I love animals.  They have smaller brains than humans do, except for dolphins maybe, but I love them anyway.  There are lots of animals in the Bible, one day maybe I'll count them or maybe it's already on the Internet, there are lots of good sites to learn from."

"Remember the Lord, Connie!" one of his supporters shouts. 

"Well," Connie continues, "everything is the Lord's creation, so no matter what I talk about it's about the Lord, that's the way I see it.  Anyway, I was in Courthouse Park looking up at the courthouse which always makes me feel really small, because of all the stuff going on inside.  Lots of crimes and judges and people paying for tickets, and I think there's a whole lot of trouble in this world and I'm just one person so what can I do?  One thing I want people to stop doing is riding their bikes on the sidewalk, it's against the law and pretty dangerous, and once a guy on a bike yelled at me to get out of the way and hit the back of my head.

"So while I was just standing there and looking up at the courthouse, I heard a little boy laughing really hard and I looked down and saw a boy chasing a squirrel around a tree.  The squirrel was already up on the tree but it wasn't going any higher, just running around in circles with its claws and this boy was running around and around trying to catch the squirrel and laughing really hard and saying 'Squirrely! Squirrely!  Be my friend! Be my friend!'

"Well, I know how he feels because I want animals to be my friend, too.  But I didn't know what to do.  What if the boy hurt the squirrel? I couldn't understand why the squirrel didn't just climb higher and higher and get away.  So they ran around and around.   And then I thought the boy might get bitten and might get rabies because nobody vaccinates squirrels. 

"But what could I do?  I thought about yelling at the boy but he was really young and laughing and having a good time.  And I thought maybe I could scare the squirrel off the tree, but I didn't know who was watching and I wanted to look around and see if the boy had a parent or guardian, but I was sort of frozen watching them go around and around in, just like in cartoons.

"People are always asking, what would Jesus do?  Well, I don't think there were squirrels in Jesus's part of the world.  Maybe there were.

 "Finally, the mom, I guess it was the mom, grabbed the boy and yelled at him, 'Stopping messing around with squirrels!'  and took him away.

"Then the squirrel started climbing up and up and finally disappeared right up into the sky, I mean it looked like right into the sun where it was too bright to see it anymore.  So I guess the squirrel ended up okay.   That's my story and I did mention Jesus.   Amen!"