I can’t talk about everything. I can only talk about some things.
My wife and I have not slept much the past few days. In fact, I’ve hardly slept at all. Appetite is poor, nerves are jagged.
Wednesday morning, I attended the noonday chapel service at my church, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Oakland. There were seven of us there, a few more than usual, all women but for me and the officiating priest--Father Harding, an eighty-three year old African from Liberia, where he was nearly executed at least once (the pistol pointed point blank at his head failed to fire). He preached on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he calls the congregation (or congregations) he was addressing to be obedient.
Though I attend his namesake church, I mostly ignore Paul, being more Gospel oriented. This letter was written probably in late first century AD, before or after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, the Auschwitz/September 11 of its time. The message, urging unity among followers, may have been strategic and cautionary, though few understand that today. Reactionary Christians, disdainful of all context except when it might suit the ideology, take it as a call to mindless obedience for all. In other words, don’t be like Jesus, don’t be Christ-like.
I believe this call to obedience to be wrong under our new circumstances, and of course, I stung inside, as I’m sure most of you would (save for the reactionaries out there). Like Jews, Episcopalians are inclined—even encouraged—to talk back to God, often with the same great snap and salty anger that appears in the words of Jesus. After all (1), He’s the Creator of the Entire Huge Universe, so He should be able to take it, unlike that small-minded demon Donald Trump and (2) if He didn’t want us to talk back to him, He should never have given us brains to think with, eyes to see the world and tongues with which to speak. He had to know what He was getting into.
But though we disagree about many things—as I hope to discuss another time—we Episcopalian Christians still gather as one, always in fellowship, often in friendship and sometimes real affection. United by faith and practice over centuries, we are all children and sinners before God, however differently our minds see and work in the world.
Afterward, I cleaned up the altar. As I left, I stopped before the main altar, before the magnificent stained glass window of Christ stepping from the tomb, as I always do and bowed my head in prayer. This time, I wept.
Then I manned up and went about the day, trying to saddle up like John Wayne, while feeling the cold hand of dread, like a Lovecraft character.
I’ve been a loner all my life, from the second I burst from the womb, an accidental, very very late, last child. The family who dragged me into the world was much older, bigger, stronger, loud and terrifying. My house, and the grounds it stood on, were lovely but was also not a cage you wanted to put your hand in. We were fed well, but nothing could feed the near-constant anger, the gnawing rage: A foiled murder plot, physical and mental abuse, a car accident that put me in the hospital for two weeks. Self defense was not a right imparted to me. Around the dinner table, tyrants were sometimes glorified. My mother tried, but in the end, there was no one there for me.
I spent a lot of time out in the woods and fields out back. In some sense, I never quite came back.
I know from those authoritarian worlds. I know what they do.
There came a time, when everyone—including myself—became too scary to deal with. Best to stay alone, apart, unharmed, doing no harm. (It’s a long ugly story.) It was though I was convinced I would be run over any time I stepped out there door (and occasionally, I was). I felt scorned wherever I went, rightly or wrongly. You could have knocked me over with a pillow feather (though were occasions when, cornered, I would explode, as bad as the men in my family.)
For the most part, it was like that Peanuts cartoon, where Charlie Brown’s sister Sally rhapsodizes about the little boy in her class: “He’s so nice! He’s so sweet! You can hit him and he won’t hit back!” That seemed the only way to stay alive.
But you can’t do anything with nihilism. Of all the ideologies with which we imprison and destroy, it is the most absolute, the most total, the most complete. With the destruction of meaning, all action becomes wrong in of itself—even non-action. Even suicide.
Lately, being alone has not been an option. I’ve felt this way before. When a girlfriend passed away some years ago, I sought out people, crowds. I was amazed it helped not to be alone, even among strangers. Then again, when my mother passed on later and then again on September 11, 2001. Most people were kind, sympathetic, and those who weren’t, a word to the bartender or a friend sent them on their way.
Now that shadow is falling again. It will be upon us for a long time to come.
Now, I’m white. I’m male. I’m 62. What the fuck have I got to worry about? Just on a personal survival level, plenty. Like many workers, I’m wondering if Trump’s pirates are going to sweep in and make off with my wife’s and my retirement. And like all of you—all every single motherfucking one of you—are right now dealing with the consequences of climate change. We’re already late in the game on this and it’s rapidly rapidly getting worse. With this election, we may have chosen the path of civilization’s collapse and humanity’s extinction.
I don’t hoist ‘em anywhere like I used to, for which I am extremely blessed (and give thanks to my God). But I’m going out more, while counting my drinks carefully.
On Wednesday evening, my wife and I went to our local brew pub. At the other end of the bar, shouting broke out. It was hard to see through the crowd, but I glimpsed a young Trilby-hatted hipster shouting “Trump! Fucking Trump! Fucking goddamn Trump!?” The bartender, who was putting up with a lot, threw him out. The object of his rage seemed to be a beefy male of uncertain ethnicity, from whom I glimpsed a possibly smug smile, like a pleased vampire that had just snacked on a soul. I understood the hipster’s rage, but you don’t feed a demon like that. You find other ways to get him.
No, that doesn’t sound too Christian, at least as we understand it these days . . . but I’ll explain later.
The other night, I stepped out with my workmates for the first time since I started my library job in February. I felt a breath of calm, the breath of peace rose within and from without, from the both the distraction and from the companionship of good people.
And then I went home, to my wife, by whose side I belong, whose kind company I need most of all. Kindness. We hold each other in the dark, the helicopters roaring overhead in the night sky. I’m think they’ll be back again tonight. And more nights to come. There’s no denying the reason for them being there, the marchers below.
Last night, Veteran's Day, sporting that safety pin that is the current political fashion statement, I stopped by another bar for three beers and met a younger fellow who’d served in three theaters of war. “I’m glad you made it home safe,” I said. He threw back a smile, saying, “Everyone else says ‛Thank you for your service.’” He held up his glass and we toasted: “Thank you.”
He and others may well be going out again soon. Don’t think Donald Trump can just up and pull us out of the world. There will be blood, more than we’ve seen since before my generation was born.
Don’t be alone now, if you don’t have to be. You can find courage and peace standing among others. I refuse to be “ideological”; refuse to worry about whether I agree with everyone about everything. That’s not the point, that’s never been the point, no matter what the tyrants and other idealists scream.
I try, I struggle, to keep my mind sharp and open, my heart brave and open and my soul in touch with greater things. I think of the definition of courage as stated by a beloved (if controversial) pop culture: Courage is feeling scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
So let's go. Saddle up and ride!
Sure we'll give in. Sure we'll be nice . . .
....that'll be the day!
Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo of St. Paul's by author