He’s more afraid of you

Late Saturday night becomes Sunday morning. It’s about 3:45 A.M. I pull into McDonald’s on Michigan, south end of South Bend. I order a six-piece Chicken McNuggets. I think about a McFlurry, but it’s too many calories.

“Please pull around to the first window.” There is a car ahead of me. I wait behind, my window still down. Fresh spring air wakes me up for that forty-minute drive home.

Footsteps rushing at my car. Startled, I jerk my head to the left as a kid screeches to a halt. He is maybe seventeen or twenty, has a little mustache. He recognizes immediately that he made me jump; he saw the surprise on my face.

“Whoa, no, no,” he says as he throws his hands out to the side, “Look, I ain’t got no gun or nothin’, look, see?” Puts his hands behind his head as though I’ve arrested him. Panic on his face. Approach the wrong car that way and he’s maybe dead right now, and he knows it. “No, I’m not… I just, I’m hungry, I wanted to ask, could you get me just like a chicken sandwich or somthin’. I’m not, look, I’m sorry. I just…” Sweats at nearly half-mast, hoodie not really enough for the cold. It’s April 3 and we somehow had a mini-blizzard that decorated the daffodils, the roads are icy tonight. Lots of accidents out there. “I’m hungry you know? I don’t get my paycheck til Friday, and, anyway I’m not homeless. Well, mostly not.” Kid needs to just ask for the sandwich and shut up, let me draw my inferences. He doesn’t even know how to beg, and that’s clear more by the way he rushed my car than anything else. He’s new to this. Paycheck? Friday? I sort of doubt it.

“Hey kid, you gotta be careful. Come on, walk up here with me.” I roll up to the window, ask the lady to add a chicken sandwich. It’s under $2. At these prices anybody can afford to eat this shit, can’t they? But not this kid. He’s not anybody.

Over at Notre Dame the kids about his age go to the bars and blow hundreds in a night. This kid could buy dozens of hoodies at Wal-Mart for the price of a single black party dress the young ladies wear, shivering, colder than he is, with their legs exposed, but unconcerned about what they will eat and where they will sleep, clothed to impress, not to survive. Those kids are anybody, they are somebody, when they want a chicken sandwich they just get one.

The other McDonald’s employee comes up and tells the girl who took my order, just loud enough for me to hear, “we’re not supposed to serve walk-ups, that’s how we got robbed the one time,” but I am there, so I instruct the kid to walk up ahead into the parking lot and I’ll meet him there.

Later I realize that kids like this are like little animals, like a fang-less garter snake or a bunny in a cage, hearts beating two-hundred times per minute, and when you are a little kid and nervous about touching the pet, your parents tell you, “he’s more scared of you than you are of him,” and it gives you courage to reach out and touch the thing and you find that it is smooth or furry and not bad at all. Just scared, just like you. Human, really, in that way.

Why do we go back to being afraid of people as adults? Because they make sudden movements? Because they don’t look safe? Because they dress funny? Because they’re nocturnal?

No, I think it’s because we have some sort of cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric that “our nation is founded on equality and the public education system making it possible for anyone to succeed,” versus the reality that there are lots of people who don’t have jack squat, zilch, a big X, for opportunities. That’s what scares us. It means we’re all closer to the bottom than we care to admit, because until this moment we preferred to believe there is no bottom. And we’re afraid of people because we’ve forgotten that when it comes to those who are at the bottom, usually they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. The Psalmist said “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27) But we fear the bottom.

I give him a sandwich and he is Jesus, I have given Jesus a sandwich, and so now that I am on the upside of the deal, not at the bottom, only encountering it briefly, and somehow I think I’m in a position to advise, I’m no longer afraid. So I tell him “be careful out there, don’t scare people so much, you could get hurt,” because that is what I always tell Jesus. I, too, am closer to the bottom than I care to admit, and I am very, very tired when I get home.



Peace (Thailand #4 – ish)

We’ve been working hard to set up an entire room full of artwork. I think the team that has been stressing to overcome jet lag and install the gallery is ready for the conference to begin. I don’t mean that everything is installed yet (and we only have a few hours left) but I mean in the sense that we are ready for the peace of mind that comes with saying “It has begun.” In fact, several of us will be adding to the art or working throughout the conference, but it’s a bit like starting a race. You train and train, you warm up (jogging) but you wait for the starter’s gun just so you can run some more. And then, after the initial adrenaline rush, you settle into a moment of peace. There is serenity in the journey. Somewhere between the preparations and the finish line is that time when you say “we have now begun to really run.” And we are ready for that moment, even if not all the work is quite in place.

Offhand I’d guess we have about nine to twelve people exhibiting some visual work, (several of whom are not attending, and so we have a team of people installing for them via instructions), and a musical team of seven (I count sound guys) and lots of other creativity beginning to flow. Megan leaned over to me and said, “This is becoming an arts conference. But I guess that is the point.” Well, not entirely. But the arts are becoming more and more a part of how we live and breath in a world where we work cross-culturally. Languages lose something in translation, but image can gain communicativeness, as can melody.

Thailand is a great place to be at peace. This sovereign nation resisted colonialism due to a strong monarchy, and there is room for rest here. We are already feeling it, and yet in some ways we still wait for that to be wholly unleashed.

It takes some work to be at peace with being an artist. The value of the arts is much discussed during this time, but becoming established if still elusive.

It turns out I’ll be painting. I’m going to primarily use words, and I don’t have to worry much about color. Thematically there’s a lot of black and white work here, with reds. I can paint that way. I’m content to have a 4×8 panel to work on, and ran my concepts by Megan. There are things I wish I was doing; for example I love to sing but have not done it with a team for so long that it’s not on anyone’s radar. But with blogging, photojournalism, and now a painting to execute plus lots of opportunities to listen to people quietly and ask them questions, I’m at peace with my role. You can’t do everything, and I’m doing a lot. I like to DO stuff, but to be at peace, BEING is the key.

I’m bringing that edge to my painting, as you’ll see.

I’ll start with something that looks pretty abstract. Letters.

Want to join in? Okay, here’s what goes at the top of my canvas:



Just letters? We shall see.

There’s more, but all shall be revealed in due time. The starter’s gun is about to bang, and then, we’re off. We’ll settle in, we’ll be at peace, we’ll rest together.

Congo Reflections Part 4: Coasting In Silence

David Law flew me back to Wembo Nyama. I was 14 and had spent four weeks away from my family. I needed a break from them, and everyone knew it.

The last straw was the night I smacked my little sister with a steel bowl, right on top of her head. At five, she was prone to running about naked, which embarrassed me, especially since we lived in a fish bowl. I mean that, at night, in one of the few houses with electric lights, it was not unusual to realize that neighborhood children’s eyes were peering in the windows. They were only naturally curious, wondering what these whites did at night in their closed-door, brick and tin-roof house, without a grasp of any social taboo of going to see for themselves. Seeing my sister, the nudist, in all her blonde Caucasian glory. As if we needed more reason for people to gawk. I was angry, peerless and alone, culture-shocked, stressed, dealing with my sister’s exhibitionism so my concern about the “paparazzi” was too much to bear, and I thumped her with a bowl and it sounded like a gong. And of course she cried quite a bit.

So they sent me to stay with the Laws for a while. A half-hour flight or so, in a single-prop Cessna to a different mission station. Take a break. Grow up a bit. Get some perspective. Stop fighting with dad. Socialize with some other Westerners.  Go for hour-long runs on the savanna where I could focus on my breathing and watch the occasional dung-beetle who also had to deal with his crap every day as he rolled his treasures across the same dry plateau; it was a chance to think only about as much as the beetle was thinking. I fell in love with running. It was one foot in front of the other, thoughtfulness without the need for a specific idea. You got your second wind, found your pace, and coasted along the dirt track in silence and slid back into the house unnoticed, sweating out my toxic anxieties in the process.

Before I went to stay with the Laws, I was going a little bit crazy, maybe a bit beyond the tolerances of normal adolescence. ‘Maybe’, I say, because even in retrospect, I realize that I only grew up once, and it happened to be in the middle of Zaire. So how would I know for sure if I was beyond my own ability to cope with being 14 in any way worse than it might have been in Illinois, on a strawberry farm where I knew the difference between fruit and weeds? But I’m pretty sure the added stress meant I was not coping as well as I might have in the States.

At the end of my retreat, as we flew back into Wembo, David said over the noise of the engine, “Check this out. I can cut the engine and we can glide the last two miles to the strip. Nobody will hear us coming.” Usually the arrival of an airplane was a major deal. Hundreds of people would show up at the strip to gawk at the plane, welcome strangers or say goodbye, help out with luggage somehow, hoping for a tip. To surprise my parents by walking in the door without anyone in town noticing, I liked this idea very much.

He cut the engine and turned the Cessna into a hang glider. The wings would bear us up just long enough to reach the strip and coast to the end. We began to lose altitude. I might have been afraid we’d crash, but my pilot was confident. The air rushed by, our velocity kept us moving forward, and all was still. A half-dozen noticed us coming, but there wasn’t the usual dozen-times-a-dozen spectators as we rolled down the last bit of clay airstrip, touching down like an ace at Wimbledon in that hush of the serve, just before the audience erupts in applause.

It’s significant for a person like me, who likes the bright lights of a stage, to have that desire to walk unnoticed. Coasting in silence on the outskirts of Wembo taught me that the ability to be at peace, and, at the same time, to be unnoticed while falling out of the sky, is a valuable art. That’s what I like about the riskiness of coaching someone – I can turn off the engine that drives my own decision-making process and let the wings of listening interact with the air of my client’s living and breathing and let them land on their own runway — or take off for jungles and oceans, all successes unknown.