Writing and Grief

My mother’s death has left me with … nothing. Maybe I should just say that it has left me. At times I feel in a fog. At times I forget. At times I remember and grief wrings at my heart the way my mother used to wring out wet clothes. It’s been three weeks. And there’s a nagging feeling that I should get back to life.

In some ways I have. I’ve been biking. I’ve been working. I’ve been going to church, going to dinner, going out with friends. In some of that, there is forgetfulness. On the bike, I can lose everything else and just focus on the sky, the trees, the sunlight, the feeling of the saddle, the peddles, the wind. At work, I can focus on the tasks that need to be done–although some of the bigger tasks feel beyond me at the moment.

Being with friends or family means grief can’t be overwhelming. I want to be with them, I want to TALK, I want to cry and scream and yell “MY MOM IS DEAD.” Instead, we talk of normal life, sometimes of inconsequentials. My words get clogged in my throat, unable to get past the tears traffic-jammed there. I want to cry out to them “help me in my unbelief.” Tell me that she still lives in the afterlife. Tell me that this isn’t the end. Tell me that I will see her again, that she right now is with my dad.

I want to be held while I cry, I want someone to say, “Shhh, everything is alright.”

In other words, I want my mom.

I should get back to life. So not just bike riding or working. I should get back to writing. Just a few words, I tell myself. She wouldn’t want me to stop writing. And yet, it feels so unimportant. Who the hell cares about a rescue operation run out of a bakery? Or a sin-eater named Moth? Or any of the other stories I’ve started and can’t finish. Words on a page don’t seem to mean anything compared to the ashes that rest beside me. They aren’t as solid as a graven headstone.

And yet words were important to her. She loved reading. Some of my earliest memories of her were in a library picking out books to read. She passed that love of reading on to me, and I was so excited when I got old enough to pick books out of the same section of the library that my mom frequented. She loved fiction, mainly mysteries, thrillers, horror, and she shaped a lot of my early reading years. To this day, I can remember the characters of those early books.

So again I ask the question of myself–who the hell cares? Are these things unimportant. No. They connect us to each other, and in some mystical, spiritual way, maybe my words will still connect me to my mom.

I should get back to life. Back to my life. Back to writing. Back to Moth. Back to the Salvatore bakery. As unimportant as they seem sometimes, they are my life.

Even as I write that, another part of me says “tomorrow.” Because right now, it just hurts too much.

 

The Journey to Become Real: The Tale of The Fisher King

movie poster of The Fisher King

Author’s note: It is with great sadness that I heard the news today about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams. Incredible comedian and superb actor, he will be missed. When I saw the movie The Fisher King, I was more than moved; I was transported. It has remained one of my favorite movies, and Williams’ portrayal of the deeply wounded Parry remains a moving portrayal of someone the world doesn’t understand and who battles demons every day that the world cannot see. I wrote this chapter some time ago for a book I was working on. I offer it now in tribute to his wonderful character. Peace, Mr. Williams, and God’s everlasting mercy. 

Throughout the history of philosophy and religion, one question perhaps more than any other has dominated discussion and debate. What does it mean to be human? The question has elicited numerous responses, and how you live your life may very well depend on your answer to the question. Plato believed that to be human meant to be trapped by the material world, the soul locked inside a physical body; the purpose of life, then, was to free the soul from the body through knowledge and eventually through death. Aristotle, taking a much more optimistic view of humanity, believed that the soul and the body are one composition. The highest attribute that separates humans from other animals is rationality, and so to be human is to be rational. Later philosophers believe that we are nothing more than the materials that make us up and that our “souls” or our consciousness are simply a result of our DNA, with all of our actions being determined by chemical responses.

A related question might be phrased “So what?” What does it all mean to anyone? Does any of it have meaning? If I am just a mass – no matter how complicated – of chemicals and their reactions, does it matter what I do to other masses of chemicals, or what they do to me?

The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam, shouts the answer “Yes!” through almost every moment of this hard-to-categorize movie.

We are introduced to Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a New York shock jock who is at the top of his trade. He rides in limos, his apartment is rich and modern, and he signs off his show by saying, “Thank God I’m me.” At one point, we are given an extreme close-up of Jack’s mouth; he is all mouth, offering little beyond the persona he projects into the microphone.

In his apartment, we see his reflection in mirrors and glass. If we recall that in the language of Hollywood, mirrors signify identity, we are clued in to the fact that the movie is about the struggle for identity. Jack talks about how he wanted to name his biography “Jack Lucas: The Face Behind the Voice.” He thinks he knows who he is, but the underlying current suggests he doesn’t.

Jack’s rich, privileged, and ultimately meaningless life falls apart when Edwin Melnick, one of his callers, misreads Jack’s shock-jock diatribe and takes a shotgun into an upscale yuppie restaurant and opens fire, killing six people before turning the gun on himself.

Three years later, Jack is jobless and living with his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), who owns Video Spot. She basically takes care of him, as he has become somewhat of a recluse, afraid of human contact. He says at one point, “I hate desperate people,” and she replies, “You hate people.”

While Jack may hate people, the one he hates the most is himself. He tells Anne, “I feel like I’m a magnet, but I attract ****.” Overcome by grief, he decides one night to kill himself. He is saved by an unlikely source, a homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams), who believes he is a knight called by God to perform good deeds, the greatest of which is to find the Holy Grail. More than a simple homeless man, though, Parry used to be a college professor until Edwin Melnick shot and killed his wife in the restaurant, thereby depriving Parry of not only a reason for living, but also of a reason to remain sane.

Jack’s guilt, always overwhelming and omnipresent, has seen a way out through his chance acquaintance with Parry. If he can just help Parry, if he can help him with money or help him get the girl of his dreams (every knight must have his queen), then maybe things will turn around for him as well. As surely as Parry’s quest is to find the Holy Grail, Jack’s quest becomes to find his own redemption.

As we saw with The Big Kahuna, things that happen very early in the movie can give a clue to what the movie is about. Three minutes into The Fisher King Jack is having a conversation with Edwin Melnick that will ultimately turn tragic. This lonely man, whose only contact with the world was through the radio, tells Jack that he thinks a woman may be interested in him. Jack argues with him; after all, who would be interested in this loser? Melnick assures him that this is the case. Jack replies, “And Pinocchio is a true story.”

Pinocchio is a recurring theme in The Fisher King, and it is not accidental. Chances are, what we remember best about Pinocchio, what is almost always referred to, is Pinocchio’s nose growing when he lies. We may also remember Pinocchio growing donkey’s ears, or his conversations with Jiminy Cricket in the movie version. The theme of the story, though, and what lends the recurring theme to The Fisher King is that Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Made of wood and controlled by string, Pinocchio believed that he would be loved when he was a real boy. And so we come to the question that opened this chapter. What does it mean to be human? What is, in the words of Pinocchio, a “real boy”?

Part of the answer comes in a conversation Jack has with the wooden puppet he is given one drunken night by a small boy who believes Jack is a bum. Jack sits and philosophizes with Pinocchio about Nietzsche, who believed that there are two kinds of people: those who are destined for greatness, like Walt Disney or Hitler, and the rest of us who are the “bungled and botched.” “We get teased and sometimes get close to greatness, but we never get there. We’re the expendable masses. We get pushed in front of trains and take poisoned aspirin, and get gunned down in front of Dairy Queens.”

Nietzsche’s use of the term “bungled and botched” was in Beyond Good and Evil, and although Jack misquotes him here (Nietzsche was referring to anti-Semites), the underlying current of power remains intact. Nietzsche believed that the bungled and botched as well as anyone weak should be annihilated. He was a man who had no tolerance for suffering, believing it to be a sign of weakness. Although he much admired Jesus, Nietzsche despised Christians and organized religion, because he believed that they encouraged people to become weak.

In response to weakness, Nietzsche put forth the idea of the ubermensch, the Super-man who represents the height of human development. In fact, he has progressed so far in human development that he is beyond the moral categories of good and evil. He asks, “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”[1] It is clear that Jack in the beginning of The Fisher King is the Super-man. He has it all in his glassed-in existence high above the grime of the streets. It’s telling that when he’s dancing around his apartment, full of satisfaction with his life, moments before he learns of the shooting at the restaurant, the song he is dancing to is “I’ve Got the Power.” If he were truly Nietzschean, however, when learning of the shooting, he wouldn’t feel guilty, much less let it destroy his life.

Nihilism of this sort, though, is difficult if not impossible to live out. As human beings, we search for meaning in suffering, for a higher purpose to our lives. If this is indeed the case, The Fisher King offers an alternative to, and perhaps an attack on, nihilism, on the will to power, and instead looks to love rather than power to make one a human being.

The Bible has a great deal to say about what it means to be human, about God’s divine grace, about the differences between love and power. Let’s take a look at these three points.

Being Human

First, what does it mean in the Bible to be human? There are a number of answers we can give to that, but throughout the Bible, which tells the story of human creation and God’s dealings with his creation, one thing is clear: human beings are fallen creatures in need of forgiveness and redemption.

Jack on some level knows that he needs forgiveness. After discussing the “bungled and botched,” and immediately before he tries to kill himself with Pinocchio strapped to his leg, Jack asks the question of Pinocchio that supports the theme of becoming (and being) human: “Do you ever get the feeling sometimes you’re being punished for your sins?” Having been the cause of a tragedy, Jack can’t forgive himself and can’t move forward. He tells Anne, “I really feel cursed. . . . I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home.”

That’s a human response – we want to pay the fine ourselves and go home. We don’t want someone else to do it for us. It’s an obligation that needs to be fulfilled. And so we begin to try to live better lives, to be good people, to follow the Ten Commandments.

The problem with that is that it’s cleaning up the outside without touching the inside. We might be able to clean up our outside behavior, but our fallenness is internal, it’s in our DNA. Galatians 3 addresses this issue. These Gentiles had accepted Jesus as savior and had become Christians. Eventually, though, they were told by well-meaning people that in order to truly be God’s people, they would have to be circumcised. That was, after all, what the Law commanded, and God had given the Law to his people. They wanted that outward sign.

This is Jack’s first response to the tremendous guilt he feels about Parry. He first offers Parry money, and although $70 is a huge amount of money to a homeless person, it’s laughable to think that it could pull together the broken pieces of Parry’s life. Jack’s second attempt is to help him get the girl of his dreams, Lydia (Amanda Plummer). Jack does what many of us would do to try and transform someone; he tries to make Parry into Jack. Remember, at one time Jack had been a man of power, the ubermensch. It makes sense, then, to remake Parry as Jack. He dresses Parry in one of his old suits, even stapling up the pant legs to fit Parry’s shorter stance.

It doesn’t work, of course. The demons Parry carries in his head – disguised in this instance as the evil Red Knight – are far too powerful. The Red Knight will not be fooled by a cleaned-up outside. The Red Knight is afraid of something, however. Parry says that the Red Knight is afraid of Jack. Jack has the power to destroy the demons that haunt and pursue Parry; he just isn’t aware of it yet. When he becomes aware of it, he will realize what it means to be human.

When we focus on trying to clean the outside, we’re relying on power. The Bible, as well as The Fisher King, reminds us that it’s not power that transforms lives, but love – God’s divine grace.

God’s Divine Grace

What does God’s divine grace look like? The Fisher King refers to God’s divine grace two or three times, always in conjunction with the Holy Grail. What is the Holy Grail? According to Ann, it’s “Jesus’ juice cup.” If we expand on that succinct definition, though, we must include what that cup represented: redemption for humanity.

When Jack awakens the morning after he has tried to commit suicide, he is in Parry’s domicile, the basement of an old building. Parry introduces himself to Jack. He calls himself “the janitor of God” and tells Jack that he is a knight on a special quest and he needs help. He was chosen to get back something special that God had lost. Parry tells Jack that “the little people,” invisible and cherubic angels, have told him that Jack is “the one.” One what? The one to help him retrieve the Holy Grail, the symbol of God’s divine grace.

After Jack tries to earn his own redemption through giving money to Parry, he tells him, “I gave it to you to help you.” Parry asks, “Do you really want to help me?” and he takes him to the mansion of millionaire Langdon Carmichael, where Parry is sure the Grail is located. Jack tells him there is no Holy Grail. Parry says, “Oh, Jack, ye of little faith! There has to be a Grail.” What Parry is trying to tell Jack, what the gospel story tells all of us, is that there is no redemption without the Grail.

This point is made in the middle of the movie when Parry tells Jack the story of “The Fisher King,” where a young prince is given a vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, the symbol of God’s divine grace.

“You shall be keeper of the grail so it will heal the hearts of men.” But the boy was blinded by greater visions of power, glory and beauty. He felt invincible. So he reached inside the fire to get the grail, but the grail vanished, leaving his hand in the fire to be horribly wounded. His wounds grew deeper until he lost all reason; he had no faith in any man including himself. He couldn’t love or feel love. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. But he didn’t see a king, he only saw a man alone and in pain. He asked, “What ails you, friend?” and the king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some cool water to cool my throat.” So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and gave it to the king. As he drank he realized his wound was healed. He looked at his hands and there was the Holy Grail – that which he had sought all his life. He asked, “How could you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” The fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”

 

In this story, Jack is like the boy/king, blinded by visions of power, seemingly invincible. What he really wants, though, is to be special, to be someone. At one point when Jack agrees to help Parry, Parry says, “You’re a real human being.” Jack replies, “I’m not. I’m scum.” Later in the film, he tells Parry, “No matter what I have, it feels like I have nothing . . . There’s nothing special about me.” His whole life, as horribly wounded as the king’s hand, has been searching for meaning, for someone to say that he is valuable. He only wants power, not realizing that what he has right in front of him is the thing that will heal him. Parry, of course, is the fool. Parry, who doesn’t see the lifelong quest but certainly sees the thirst that drives it, gives Jack what he longed for: specialness. The fool in the story offers service to the king, thereby showing his greatness, for he is greater even than all the brightest and bravest of the kingdom. In like manner, Jesus, the King of Fools, showed his greatness to us through service. He did it through identifying with human beings by becoming one of us, and by substituting himself for us. Jack will only be able to fully heal his wound when he lays down his life for someone else.

Love and Power

As I noted earlier, some transformations take place only on the outside (the same point was made in the movie Chocolat). Jack dresses Parry in his clothes in preparation of his “date” with Lydia. Anne paints Lydia’s fingernails, her own outward transformation from a shy, plain girl to someone more desirable. In a humorous sequence, Lydia is looking through videos at the video store. In her clumsiness, she knocks over an entire display. She puts one back on the shelf; it’s the movie Roxanne, the Steve Martin comedy about Cyrano de Bergerac. Once again, the filmmakers have taken pains to remind us of long noses, human ugliness, and the longing for transformation.

Before the issue of transformation can be complete, however, one must wrestle with identity. One cannot transform without the mirror of reality first being faced. Parry learns this after his date and first kiss with Lydia. As she shuts the beveled glass door, he gets a glimpse of himself, dressed in Jack’s suit, his hair combed as much as possible. The bevel distorts the picture, divides him, and for a moment he sees glimpses of his former life. This summons the Red Knight, the psychological manifestation Parry uses to keep reality at bay. He begs, “Please let me have this.” What he’s asking for, though, is an impossibility. We cannot have both reality and fantasy. In order to have the reality of love with Lydia, he must also embrace the reality of tragedy. As the Red Knight pursues him, so do his memories, until at last he remembers it all. Just as Jack had been overcome by grief and sought to kill himself, so now does Parry, even in the same spot. When the teenagers who had beat Jack come for Parry, he welcomes it. He doesn’t desire transformation; he longs instead for the blissful peace of oblivion. His retreat from reality places him back in the mental institution in his self-induced coma.

This would truly be a tragedy if left in its Nietzschean form. Anne, however, has named the panacea, the anti-Nietzschean remedy for both Parry and Jack. Anne states, “Love conquers all.” While referring specifically to Lydia and Parry, Anne has unwittingly hit upon the one thing that can heal these two tragic figures, the king and the fool.

In order to heal Parry, to awaken him from his coma, Jack tells him that he will get the Grail. He tells the unconscious Parry, “If I do this, it’s not because I feel cursed or responsible or guilty. I do this because I want to do this for you. For you.” Even though he has everything again, he has power if he wants it, it’s empty without Parry. Power, Nietzsche’s Super-man, would have left Parry to die, but Jack has finally learned that love is the only thing capable of healing.

He dresses in Parry’s clothes and experiences identification with Parry when he hears horses (“Parry would be so pleased”). A window in Langdon Carmichael’s mansion has a stained glass Red Knight, a signal perhaps that the demons aren’t gone. Jack’s substitution, his very identity, is complete when he sees a hallucination of Edwin Melnick, his own personal Red Knight.

After taking the cup, Jack sees that Langdon Carmichael has taken an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. He trips the alarm to summon the police, thereby saving Carmichael’s life. In doing the opposite of Edwin Melnick, doing in fact the opposite of what Nietzsche would do, Jack finally lays to rest his demons.

Jack’s healing and the love that prompted it become the vessel for Parry’s healing. Parry awakens from the coma with his hands around the Grail, the symbol of God’s divine grace. When he says to Jack, “Can I miss her now?” his transformation is underway. He has embraced reality with all its wonder and its pain.

Conclusion

As was stated earlier, Nietzsche despised weakness. His philosophy leaves no room for the homeless and mentally ill who permeate The Fisher King. The Super-man will not identify with those who suffer in order to relieve their suffering. For the nihilist, the parable of the Fisher King, as told by Parry, is inconceivable, a meaningless story.

We as humans, though, search for meaning. We seek to transform our suffering into something better, something stronger, just as coal is tortured into being diamond. Through recognizing their fallible humanness, through identification with another, through suffering, through laying down their lives for someone else, through an acceptance of God’s divine grace, Jack and Parry are both transformed.

The Fisher King ends in Central Park. Both men are naked as they try to “cloud bust.” Jack has become a little crazier like Parry, and Parry has become a little saner like Jack. And both have become, in the words of Pinocchio who lies on the ground between them, “a real boy.”

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, section 2.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus—In Glory

Happy Easter

____________________

Mary, the Mother of Jesus—In Glory

He died while I stood at his feet. And when they took him down, I held him – my baby, my son – in my arms one last time. I followed with the others as they wrapped him in burial cloths, and I remembered wrapping him in swaddling clothes when he was born. I laid him in the manger; they buried him in the tomb. And when they rolled the stone in front of the tomb, my heart was encased in a stone every bit as heavy.

That Saturday was the longest day I have ever lived through. I remembered the words that generations would call me blessed. How God? How?

My throat was ravaged raw with the tears I had already shed, the agony of wails that felt ripped from my soul. My heart ached, and I wanted to pray, yet no prayers would come. I went into the room that John the Disciple had set aside for me. He was a sweet young man and had taken Jesus’ words from the cross seriously. He would take care of me for as long as I needed. And maybe I could take care of him too. Maybe in some way he could help fill the aching hole that only grieving mothers know. Surely that was what my son had intended.

My son. My son …

The sleep I fell into was deep and dreamless, feeling more like my mind was trying to escape the pain rather than rest.

I don’t know what time it was when I woke, but it was still dark. I could hear rustlings outside as though the birds were starting to stir. Dawn wasn’t far off. My muscles felt heavy and my eyelids dragged downward. I should go to the tomb.

And with the thought came a feeling deep in my belly, like the birth of something great, something wondrous. I remembered how Aunt Elizabeth had said that her baby John had leapt in her womb when he recognized my son Jesus. I felt that way now. Something inside me had leapt. I laid my hand over my stomach.

What could be happening? Could it just be a part of the grief? And yet, there was no denying the little spark that wasn’t grief. I couldn’t explain it.

I could hear commotion downstairs. I walked to the top of the stairs but paused before going down. This wasn’t my house, and I didn’t want to interrupt. I could hear Mary of Magdalene talking excitedly to John. I heard Peter’s voice too. I listened closely for the words. The stone had been rolled away. The tomb was empty. I staggered against the wall and put my hand again on my stomach as I heard her words. The spark roared through me. The tomb was empty.

I turned back to my room, and there he was, shining with life, with the glory of heaven. He didn’t need to speak. My mother’s heart knew it. My son. My Jesus. He didn’t say anything, but he smiled at me and I knew a joy that surpassed everything, even the joy I felt the night he was born.

Simeon said a sword would pierce my soul. It had. I had treasured all these things in my heart. All of them. And it was true – generations would call me blessed. I am blessed.

He is no longer simply my son.

He is my King, my Savior. The Risen One.

Two Marys – Good Friday Monologues

I wrote these two monologues for Good Friday last year. My Easter monologue will be posted on Sunday morning. Please feel free to use them if you’d like. I only ask that they be attributed to me and that you let me know how you used them, if you do. Thank you!

Mary Magdalene

Have you ever met someone that you knew as soon as you met them that they would change your life? I felt that way when I met Jesus.

You see, I had been depressed for a long time. Some people said there were demons in me. Other people said I just had a lot of illnesses. To be honest, I didn’t care what they called it. All I know is that life was awful and I was miserable. Life was nothing but torment. My sister Martha and my brother Lazarus did what they could to take care of me, but I know it was stressful to the whole family. It was hard for us to have friends or to be a part of the community. I was an outcast.

But then I met Jesus. There is something wonderful when someone accepts you for who you are. He could see past the erratic behavior and the language, moans and shrieks that would come from me. He saw deep inside me. He saw what no one else could see. He spoke one word and the demons left me. Instantly I felt a peace I had never known before. I had been healed! Life would never be the same.

My heart belonged to Jesus from that moment on, and nothing would change that.

Jesus often visited our home, and there was nothing I liked more than to sit at his feet and listen to him teach. I could hear whispers sometimes that I shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t right for a woman to be taught in the same manner that men were. But where else should I have been except at his feet? His feet. The feet that walked down dusty roads.

I learned a lot from listening to him, and some of what I heard made me sad. He talked about his death, about things that would happen to him in the future. None of the disciples seemed to really pay attention to what he was saying. But I couldn’t get rid of the sorrow inside me.

How could I bear it if he went away or if something happened to him? I loved him. My whole life was wrapped up in his. I didn’t want to be like one of the other disciples and tell him that these things couldn’t happen. They could happen. They would happen. How could I show him how I felt about him, show him that I understood?

I remembered the perfume I had. It was the only thing of value I owned. I could think of nothing better for my Master. So one night when he was at our home for dinner, I took the perfume and poured it over his feet. His feet. The feet that walked on water.

The smell of the perfume filled the room, and I loved him so much that I would have done anything for him. I let down my hair and began wiping his feet. I could hear whispers then too, that I shouldn’t have wasted the perfume, that I could have sold it and given the money to the poor. I could feel my face burn with shame. Was it wrong of me to show my love for him?

But then he spoke. His word at one time had driven the demons from my body and my mind. And now his word drove accusations away. But I heard words even I didn’t want to hear. “My burial.”

Was I the only one who heard that?

And now standing at the cross, his mother beside me, I look at the bleeding and tortured man in front of me. His arms are stretched out as though they could embrace the whole world. His feet are nail-pierced. His feet. The feet I anointed for his burial.

I remember his words. But I remember other of his words as well. About death. About being raised. About promises of an afterlife. And although my heart is full of sorrow, there is life and hope within.

And I think about his feet. His feet. The feet that will walk down the road again.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus—In Grief

There were so many things I wanted to say to you, my son, and I always thought I’d have the time. And now it’s nearly too late. So I’ll say them now.

I was so young when the angel Gabriel appeared to me and told me about God’s blessing upon me. I was confused. I just didn’t know how it could happen. And I was a little worried too, worried about Joseph and how he would handle it. It seems now that all of that was a lot for a teenager to handle. I look now at the young girls in Galilee, ribbons in their hair and laughter in their voices, and I can’t imagine that I was ever that carefree, ever that young. I feel so old now.

When I look at you I see the little baby you were as I held you in my arms the first time. I was so tired. Your father and I had traveled by donkey to Bethlehem for the census. It was an uncertain time, so scary and tense. Your father tried hard not to show how nervous he was, but I could tell. And then when we finally got there and there was no room for us anywhere, he was almost at a breaking point. I know I was. He apologized so many times when he led me into the barn. But I didn’t care. I just needed some place warm and quiet so I could lay down. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

That pain was nothing compared to now. When I first became pregnant, I said to your Aunt Elizabeth that all generations would call me blessed. I’m not so sure now.

I never told anyone about the day we presented you at the temple. You’ve heard what the prophet Simeon said about you, that you would be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to our people. And you have been, my son! Your kindness to the outcasts has drawn people to you, and in you, people have seen the face of God. But it also drew unwanted attention to you, anger, hatred. At times I wanted you to be a little quieter, a little more cautious around the Pharisees. You could have! You didn’t always have to provoke! You didn’t always have to speak the truth, did you? And yet, I know that doing that, that softening your words or backing down, would make you a different man. Do I wish you were a different man? How could I want that? You are the hope of Israel, the hope of all mankind.

What I never told anyone was that Simeon said that a sword would pierce my soul. I never knew what he meant. But I know now, my son. I know now.

I always wanted to protect you from pain. I hated every bruise and scrape. But I couldn’t protect you from pain when you were little, and I was helpless to stop any of the violence inflicted on you today. I felt the lashes that fell on your back, the back I used to wash when you were a little boy. I screamed until my throat was raw at those who hurled awful names at you, the son whose name I whispered daily in my prayers. I wept when they crushed the crown of thorns on your head, the head I kissed goodnight every time I put you to bed. But when they drove spikes through your hands—hands I held as we walked down the road—I felt the sword pierce my soul.

I stand now at your cross. There are no miracles this time. The light has gone out of my life, even as it is draining from the sky.

All generations will call me blessed. I’m not so sure now. I’m not so sure.

Rebellious Choice – scrap of fiction

No one ever tells us where the red brick road leads.

No one ever tells us where the red brick road leads.

Just a little pinprick. Wasn’t that a scrap of song lyrics? Okay, okay, okay, just a little pinprick. There’ll be no more ahhh. Yeah, Pink Floyd. Not the one that air heads and acid heads with their ice cream habit listened to while watching the vertically challenged inhabitants of Oz dance like San Francisco queers down the yellow brick road. And where the hell does one end up if one dances like a fucking queer down the road constructed with red bricks? No one ever says. No. Not that one. Not that song. Just a little pinprick. Comfortably Numb. That was the song. Fuck. But what was the album? Does it matter? Well, yeah. The Wall. Another Brick in the Wall. The song about not conforming. But then you have to balance that out with Comfortably Numb. The song about being institutionalized. Because you think that the pinprick is a good thing. You’re thinking jojee and the sweetness that flows into your veins like the moonlit breeze that insinuates itself through your window in summer. You’re thinking joy popping with Aunt Hazel and the thick mellowness that drags at your eyelids like sandman sleep. That’s not the pinprick. Because after the pinprick, there’ll be no more ahhh. The pinprick takes that away. The pinprick is the fucking yellow brick road that leads back to nice, normal Kansas.

Fuck that shit. I’m dancing down the red.

Wisp Part Five: Luz

This is the fifth and final part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. As always, feedback is welcome.

Luz

Air drawn in through her nostrils fought its way to her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt constricted, compressed as though cinder blocks sat on top of it. The breath tried to wend its way through the small holes, shuddering and inept.  Respira, she commanded. Apenas respira. It was just a job.

Luz relaxed her grip on the steering wheel, aware in that instant that she had dug half-moons into the vinyl and had broken the nail on her fourth finger in the process. She glanced over at Franny, short for Francesca Maria, who was playing with her Barbie, oblivious to the world around her. She pulled the perfect platinum hair into a ponytail and then smoothed it out again. Luz could hear her whisper-singing, “Little bunny Foo-Foo hopping through the forest, scooping up the field mice and thumping them on the head.” Luz particularly despised the song, but she couldn’t resist Franny’s gales of laughter at the bad pun, “Hare today, goon tomorrow,” even though she couldn’t possibly understand why it was funny. Her next door neighbor had explained to Luz why it was funny; while the words might translate into Spanish, the pun, and therefore the humor, didn’t.

“Did you have a good time at kindergarten?”

Franny nodded and kept singing.

“Would you like it if we spent more time together?”

“We can’t,” she said in her most adult voice, repeating what she had heard said many times before. “We can’t because Mommy has to work.”

But Mommy doesn’t have a job anymore, she wanted to say. The words, though, remained lodged in her throat, choking her as surely as if they were a piece of meat.

Her boss had been very nice about it. And no one had ever really accused Bargaining Bill of being nice. He had taken her into his office, the large corner one on the second floor where the customers were never allowed. The windows overlooked the entire car lot, and from this vantage point, the concrete dotted with shiny colorful Matchbox-looking cars seemed to go on forever. Salesmen in their laid-back “we’re just like everybody else” sports shirts and khaki pants weaved in and out of the car aisles, video-game predators in search of prey. Did Bargaining Bill control them from this window?

She sat down in the seat he motioned to. Behind her were all the television promotional pictures of Bargaining Bill, and she could feel their eyes boring into her back. They were all there: Superman, the Cowboy, the Apollo 13 astronaut, the Fireman, the Indiana Jones adventurer, all of them saying that there wasn’t a bargain that he wouldn’t make in order to “get you into a new car — a Bargaining Bill car.”

“Luz,” he started, and she cringed. He always pronounced her name so that it rhymed with “buzz” instead of “bruce.” She heard someone once say that her name rhymed with “loose,” and everyone laughed. She didn’t understand why until much later.

“Luz, I’m sure you’ve noticed that business has gone down.”

She glanced out the window. She had heard that, but it didn’t look like it from up here.

“We’re making lay-offs in every department, and I’m sorry, but you’re the most recent receptionist. We’re going to have to let you go.”

She sat silently for a moment, unsure if she had heard correctly. Sometimes she still had trouble with English. “You are firing me?”

“No, no!” he said, his hands patting the air in front of him as though it were a dog he was commanding to stay. “Laying employees off is different.”

He had kept talking, using the same tone of voice she had heard him use to sell cars, but to Luz’s mind, getting fired and getting laid-off meant the same thing: no job. She wondered if his customers felt the same way she did, echar un polvo. Screwed.

The car behind her blew his horn, startling her out of her daze. She waved and started forward. The tears, which she had kept from Bargaining Bill, were threatening now, as though the car’s impatient blast had summoned them.

What would Manuel say? She took a deep breath and let it out. He would be glad, she had no doubt. He had come across the border six years ago and had gotten work in two different restaurants bussing tables. The money was good, almost as good as his false papers were. He had taken care of her and Franny, his mother and grandmother and two aunts. Un hombre in the midst of las muchachas. Women, she could almost hear him say, a smirk lifting his lips. It had made him more of an hombre to take care of all the women, the celebrated Mexican machismo. Strange, but in her eyes it had made him more a man as well. And even when he came home after working two jobs, sweaty and exhausted, smelling of left-over grease and dish soap, he wasn’t too tired to bed his wife.

Then she had gotten the job at Bargaining Bill’s New and Used Cars as a receptionist. She had secretly been looking for a job to help out, afraid that he wouldn’t understand her desperate need to get away from his relatives for a time. She had convinced them that the time away would be good, as would be the time they had to themselves when Franny went to school in the morning and daycare in the afternoon. She had it all planned.

And for a time, it had been good. They made more money than they knew what to do with, and it seemed the American Dream was theirs for the taking. They had moved from the cramped one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom. They still hung up a sheet to separate their bed space from Franny’s, but it felt more open; the breathing room felt more plentiful, as wide open as the mountain state they lived in.

Manuel, though, struggled with the fact that his wife made more money than he did, and for a while, the sex between them wasn’t as good, even with his mother finally in a different room. Luz didn’t want to admit it, because her taking a job had been her idea, but her respect of him had diminished when his salary did. Because she was on the phone all day, transferring calls to different departments, answering customer complaints when she could, she learned English must faster than Manuel had done. She had even begun listening to the car salespeople, convinced that eventually she could move up in the company. Not that she would ever leave Manuel, as some of her co-workers had done. Buenos Dios, no! He was still her esposo, the man, the head of her family.

Then Manuel had slipped in a puddle of water he hadn’t had a chance to mop up. He said he had felt his back pop when he hit the floor. And just like that, as fast as a back popping, Manuel had lost two jobs and incurred several medical bills. Worker’s comp was out of the question. Everyone knew he was an illegal, and he had no desire to risk the INS. She became the head of the family, but she cried when he called her la jefa de la familia.

And now this. What were they going to do? She saw them sometimes, the homeless who waited and asked for handouts on the corner. Even in summer, they wore layers of clothing, as old and worn out as their faces, as crumpled as the dollar bills that some pressed into their hands. They held signs, some that she couldn’t read, bemoaning whatever fate had befallen them. “Lost Job, Need Cash.” “Single Mother.” “Vietnam Vet, Please Help.” “God Blesses Generosity.” What would her sign say? She had seen them spit on, yelled at, chased by cars, seen soda cans thrown at them. “Get a job!” was always followed with a name that she wouldn’t call the street dogs in Mexico. What if they couldn’t get jobs? What if they were like Manuel and could no longer walk without much pain?

What if they were like her?

Where did they live, she wondered. When the day was done, when the number of cars passing any intersection had dwindled to almost nothing, where did they go? Did they sleep in the park or in abandoned houses? Did they stay in shelters where they had to listen to sermons before they would be fed?

Would she be one of them?

Would they sleep under bridges, she and her beautiful daughter who could sing “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” and who thought that Barbie was the ideal woman?

A tear rolled down her cheek, and she swiped it away before Franny could see.

At the next stoplight, she saw the smoke. She passed by the Henry and Green Mortuary and Crematorium every day on her way home from work, its cream-colored brick and burgundy sign somehow comforting in its very presence. It had always been and it always would be. Across the street from it, the restaurant had changed from a Pepe’s to a McDonald’s then to a Popeye’s Fried Chicken. On the other side, the gas station had closed months ago and had never been replaced with anything except weeds in the cracks of the concrete.

The crematorium, though, had remained, solidness in a shifting world.

But now smoke was coming out of the smoke stack, billowing blackness into the clear and crisp late afternoon air. Of course, she knew that they burned the bodies. Of course. It was a crematorium. But she had never seen the smoke. She assumed they did it at night for the sake of taste, for the sake of the families. For the sheer sake of humanity.

It reminded her of stories she had heard of the Holocaust where smoke stacks had belched forth human remains every day for years. Some said it had blackened the sky so much that the stain of the Great Sin committed against God’s people could never be erased. A friend who had visited Germany confirmed this. Even years after the war, the air remained bleak, dreary, awful. She now understood why in a way that she couldn’t have before.

The tears flowed freely now. Who had the people been? Had they been loved? Would they be missed?

“Mommy?”

She turned and looked at Franny, the Barbie doll forgotten for the moment. “¿Que?”

“What’s that?” Her stubby finger pointed at the sky, even now dissipating into twilight.

Nada,” she said quietly. “Nothing, sweetie. It’s just a wisp of smoke.”

Wisp Part Four: Wash

This is the fourth part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. This story contains references to sexual acts. As always, feedback is welcome.

Wash

Isaiah Washington, Wash to his friends, Father Washington to his congregation, stood in the small, darkened apartment, listening to the sounds of the city five stories below. Rap rhythms floated up from the street, from a radio or from the teenagers who regularly gathered around the lit trash can for warmth, he couldn’t tell. Somewhere tires screeched. Farther off and then nearer, sirens wailed, their whee-ooo-whee-ooo bouncing off the crowded buildings. Closed-off buildings, closed-off lives.

It didn’t escape him that this was his real congregation, here on the cusp of the Capitol Hill district. Mere blocks to the east, high-rises housed the original young-urbans, lawyers, bankers, paper handlers, those who transferred virtual money from one virtual account to another. And mere blocks to his west were the crumbling buildings that some of those young-urbans owned, rat holes that sheltered homeless teens, amputeed vets, drug addicts with their needle-punctured arms scabbed or scarred over.

He knew that one in twenty of the men on that west side would end up in prison, thus beginning a seemingly unbreakable cycle of recidivism. What happened to “paying one’s debt to society”? It was nonexistent, at least for the west side. That drug deal, the oh-so-easy exchange of money for a small baggie of heaven, became hard to resist when the baby’s screaming because she’s hungry and Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is bare.

It affected the women as well. He had more than one young woman — girls, really — in his congregation who stripped for a living, sometimes offering more so-called intimacy for extra cash. He heard their desperation in the close, stifling air of the confessional. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days, five weeks, eleven months, twenty years since my last confession. “He offered me an extra fifty dollars if I gave him oral sex, Father”; “He said he would pay extra for me and another dancer to have sex while he watched”; “He hit me, but I wouldn’t let him hit me in the face”; “I don’t know what to do, Father. I’m losing money, because I’m too old,” — and that from a twenty year old. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee.

It would be nice to think that east of the divider he called his apartment were happier dwellings, richer lives. But he would be deceiving himself. He saw the small deaths there as well, alcoholic mothers, sexually abusive fathers, parents who drove themselves to early graves as they drove their children to football practice, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis; piano lessons, guitar, trombone, Spanish, French, German. It was a never-ending battle to get their children into the best preschools, only the first step in the long journey to the Ivy League. And that journey was riddled with its own drugs. Very often their fathers did lines of cocaine at office parties, ambition snorted with each gram. The mothers, on the other hand, did Prozac, Wellbutrin, St. John’s Wort, Paxil, Remeron, Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro, Zoloft. Their children did the designer drugs such as Ecstasy and other methamphetamines, drugs that the west side kids couldn’t afford to use, but could afford to sell. And there was always the ubiquitous Ritalin.

Even an intact family, such as Scott and Laurie Webber, had unbearable suffering. Their seeming functionality in a world of dysfunction had not protected them. He had a score of them in his congregation — not ones that Nietzsche would have termed “the boggled and the botched,” but boggled and botched nonetheless. Cancer, divorce, joblessness, depression, restlessness, herniated disks, adultery, abandonment, emphysema, muscular sclerosis, diabetes — the list was as long as were the drug names to chase the world of shadows away. Blessed be the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.

Wash sighed and turned away from the window. His gaze fell on the kitchen table. The cup of coffee, now cold and with grounds no doubt settled at the bottom, sat on the newspaper, still unread but now cup-stained from when he had been called to the hospital. Duty called as surely as it did any doctor. After he had sat with the Webbers, he had visited the old woman. Bitter woman, he thought now, as bitter as the coffee he threw down the sink. He had, though, been able to help somewhat. He had taken the paperwork to the Henry and Green Crematorium, the same mortuary he had arranged for baby Grace. Two bookended lives, he thought. The small baby, so full of unmet possibilities, and the old woman, empty of everything, even now of breath.

He decided against perusing the paper. It would only be more of the same, more death, more hatred, more war, more suffering.

Breathe, man, just breathe.

Television? More of the same. If not suffering, then inanities.

Like an alcoholic man trying to break a habit who returns to it with even greater devotion, he picked up his rosary. The beads had been worn smooth by the countless hours of prayer by his mother, her callused hands imbuing the wood with oil even as each decade prayed imbued her spirit with the grace of the Son and the Holy Mother. He remembered her teaching him the rosary, and the feeling of warmth from her hands as they guided his small fingers over each bead. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. He had squirmed, anxious to be outside playing stickball, playing street hockey, playing anything, not understanding until much later the sacredness of the moment, not only between the supplicant and his God, but also between an only son and his mother.

He had been her fifth child and her only son, and he had never thought to ask why they all had different fathers, except for Teena and Tyra. His two oldest sisters were older than him by thirteen years and had been the product of his teenaged mother’s elopement. Their father had lasted only until his young bride turned twenty, and then he had left while getting a pack of cigarettes. Queenie had come next, a lighter skinned daughter whose father was never mentioned. It was assumed by all that she had been immaculately conceived. Tyra, though, had told him when he was seven that his mother — his mother! — had been lonely and a little drunk and the good-looking white boy at the bar had swept her off her feet and into his bed. He was gone the next morning, although he had left a twenty on the dresser.

Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.

Therise came next. Her father, whom everyone called Uncle Jim, still came by a couple of times a year. He always brought Therise a toy, sometimes a frilly dress, once a little puppy that widdled over everything until his mother gave it to the grocer in exchange for a bottle of Children’s Tylenol. When Uncle Jim came to visit, he usually brought Wash something as well. He bought Wash his first copy of Nicholas Nickleby; even now, decades and many editions later, it remained his favorite book. He couldn’t imagine the poor streets of London, but he didn’t have to imagine his own poverty. He saw all around him, as Dickens must have, the poor, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the abused, and he knew because he read it that even the poor have a place of belonging, a love beyond circumstance. The book showed him that words could create worlds beyond this one, and more importantly, beyond the easy school primers. It gave him a love of learning that never abandoned him.

It might have bothered him to have been raised by his mother, never knowing his father, if he had attended the white school a mere mile away. There, most schoolchildren lived with mother and father and knew grandparents who came to visit on weekends. At his school, no one enjoyed such luxury. Mother, aunts, grandmothers, older sisters, occasionally a grandfather. It was a world ruled by women.

It was only natural then for him to gravitate to Regina, the Queen of Heaven, to hear the prayer Salve Regina echo more in the depths of his soul than in the chambers of his ears. It had been his favorite prayer as a child, and he remembered the smell of candles and incense as he had lit a candle and prayed, “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our hope. To thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve.” When he was ten, he tried telling a boy in school that he also was a banished child of Eve. He got punched in the stomach for his efforts and from that moment kept his love of the Mother Mary to himself and to his Christ our Lord. Dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

He remembered as a teenager trying unsuccessfully to correlate the dates of Therise’s birthday and his own with the date his mother “found religion.” Queenie told him that the crucifix with its sad-visaged savior had gone on the wall the year before Therise’s birth, three years before his. But how could that be? How could the woman who taught him to pray Ave Maria, gratia plena, the woman who slapped his cheek so hard his head rocked when he muttered “goddamn” under his breath, how could she have had sex with someone without being married?

He had carried that idealism with him to the seminary, where he had been destined since the moment of his birth. It was many months before he suspected that Uncle Jim might be his father as well as Therise’s, and many more years before he could understand his mother’s normal longings for simple companionship, and years before he could begin to comprehend in the smallest way the grace that was offered by the blessed pierced Hand to all those poor banished children of Eve. Sed libera nos a malo. Amen.

That comprehension led him to offer grace to whomever asked. He couldn’t endure his evangelical counterparts who, with all their talk of freedom in Christ and Bible studies and fellowship groups, placed a heavier burden on the children of Eve than ever the Catholic Church had done. They couldn’t understand how he could let prostitutes and homosexuals in his doors, and he couldn’t understand how they could not. The chasm seemed uncrossable.

And yet, Scott and Laurie Webber had come to him, as were others who had become disillusioned with a religion contained in a plain brown wrapper. They wanted stained glass and holy water and candles. They wanted beauty and tradition and transcendence. They wanted Mystery.

He contemplated the Sorrowful Mystery, Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden only hours before His trial and crucifixion. Our Lord was abandoned by the Father. Now there was a mystery! Did Scott and Laurie feel abandoned, now that their prayers had been proven fruitless and their child lay cold in the mortuary? If there was anything that gave lie to faith it was that building, stone cold and unyielding, its smokestack silent during the day but belching out the remnants and illusions of life at night where none could see, its cemeteries filled with flowers that had outlived the person in the ground, graves covered with fake grass.

Were Scott and Laurie taking comfort in Mystery tonight? He doubted it.

And yet, he was their priest. He stood as representative between the all-too-solid and the Mystery. He felt his inadequacy. He rubbed the beads between his fingers. O my Jesus, forgive us our sins.

He felt his knee cramping up, its complaint at the long hours of prayer. He kissed the crucifix, said one last Our Father, and finished with, “Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”

He stood and returned to the window. Sirens still wailed, rap rhythms still punctuated the night, tires screeched, drugs deals were begun and concluded, loneliness was allayed by love bought and sold. If his prayers had had any effect, it wasn’t in the streets below, the streets over which he kept his vigil, over which he wept as had Jesus over Jerusalem.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Pray for us sinners. Now. Pray for us sinners. Now now now and at the hour of our death.

Mortis nostrae.

Our death.

* * *