I met Ben at Dodge City around 9:30. The bar was half empty when I arrived, and practically empty by the time we left. I ordered a vodka soda, which the bartender served with a shot of tequila. “That’s for you,” he said kindly but forcefully. So this is how this is going to go.
Ben is an artist I met through a mutual friend years ago. But I got to know him through his photo blog, which is stunning. A boy from backwoods Louisiana, he captures New Orleans in a way that grips me. Several months ago, I was so drawn to one pic in particular, and the short reflection he wrote about it, that I messaged him and asked if I could buy a print.
One of the things that struck me about Ben’s work was its honesty. New Orleans is the asshole of the country, he wrote, where all the muck and shit of the country is dumped after its twisted journey down the Mississippi. People in New Orleans don’t turn up their nose, though. They accept and celebrate it. (I paraphrase.)
In that spirit, one entry was about reconnecting with a friend he met at a mental hospital years ago, bonded over anguish and healing. Here was some raw reflecting on the shitty side of life. I found it refreshing.
In a city like Washington, we put our game face on and our best foot forward. We are ambitious and successful. We have plans to save or change the world, or at least plans to make something of ourselves. So we relate to each other from our strength. But Ben’s writing reminded me that real communion happens in our weakness, our failures, and our deep seated insecurities. For me, that’s anchored in all sorts of Christian teachings about humility and the cross. For Ben, it seems to come from surviving and living a hard life.
Two drinks in (I’ve used that phrase a few times in this blog!), Ben turned the conversation around on me, “What you just said is pretty vague.” I had shared a few of my less attractive moments. I didn’t understand what he was getting at, until I let the question sink through the barrier. I was sharing the highlights and skipping the dark valleys. So I let it rip – holding the hand of my dying grandfather alone in the hospital, watching my mother suffocate, losing a job because of homophobic parents, losing a relationship because of…reasons not suitable for this blog.
He nodded in a shared understanding of hurt, then smiled and said, “Now there’s a story.” There was a story, to be told to those who can bear it and to find communion in our poverty.
I want to be careful here. I’m not proposing one-upmanship about scars: “Now look at THIS baby.” Nor do I mean you have to dive into your existential pain in order to make friends. But I do mean that moving, spiritual things happen when you let your guard down long enough to share your fears and failures. With or without tequila.
Photo by Ben Carver: http://www.bencarveronline.com