Day 29 – Drink and Dive

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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.

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Photo by Ben Carver: http://www.bencarveronline.com 

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Day 21 – Drink Beer, Talk Art, Get Serious

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I went to the Bier Baron Wednesday night to check out a drinking and discussion group. The special was a burger and beer for $10. The topic was art and how you learn to see. (Nice surprise to run into my friend Catherine.)

A local artist walked us through slides of art, describing how to see what they are about, how we process our reactions, and what this tells us about seeing things in daily life.

She drew particular attention to images of suffering–sketches of the homeless, photos from the Depression, images from 9/11. “Do you see these images or people,” she asked, “or do you look away?” Nothing goes well with beer like a robust conversation about pain. But something struck a chord with the twenty of us.

After the presentation several peopled mentioned that images of suffering linger in their mind more than sunsets or flowers. Others said suffering spurred them to action, while others said it caused discomfort. I wondered how being Christian shapes looking at suffering, since the cross is a key symbol of that faith. How you deal with pain, particularly when little or nothing can be done about it, is a big life question for those willing to ask it.

I am aware that my mind is full of vivid images of suffering. I lost a job unjustly. I held the hands of both parents, and two grandparents, as they died. For one, I was alone. I was mugged, beaten, and left bloodied in the street. Plans for a new career were put on hold, and questioned if they would ever happen.

I have much to learn about how to look at these experiences. One thing I have learned so far is that sometimes the only victory is not running away.

Stay. Sit. Hold the hand of a dying loved one so that they are not alone. Stare down the darkness and imagine a flicker of light. Look at the pain; don’t turn away. This too is true, though not the whole truth. Accept the hurt as a bleak sacrament that is itself and a mysterious opening to something truer and more real.

I can open my eyes to suffering because there’s more to see than the pain. What I am willing to see may break my heart, but I am convinced it will also break my heart open. There is more to receive, more to see, more to become, for those with eyes to see.

“The hearing ear and the seeing eye—the Lord has made them both.”

Proverbs 20:12

“Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”

Mark 8:18