Monday, August 31, 2009

Stop Making Sense

John, Zachariah’s son, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins,
“The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

Luke 3 from “The Message”

He woke up on his back but couldn’t see. Aware of ten thousand conversations all happening at once, his ears took him out to the edges of the auditorium. Then the circle became very small. Amos was aware of a circle of people standing just above him although he couldn't see them.

Slowly, it dawned on him that he was lying on the ground – waking from a dream – or was it a dream? If it was a dream, it was one of those where you try to open your eyes but can’t. He blinked his eyes but there was only blackness – only sound was reaching him. In his ear someone was asking, in a voice heightened with concern, “Are you alright man?”

He didn’t recognize the voice. “Yeah, its okay – I’m epileptic” he instinctively lied like a rug
“Get me outa here will ya?”

The Voice helped him to his feet and took his arm and they began pushing through the crowd of Talking Heads fans. It was the 1983 Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” Tour at the Vancouver Civic Auditorium. He sensed - because his eyes still weren’t working, that they were passing through a doorway and out into the halls. The dull roar of auditorium conversations dropped now into a more intense, flatter hallway babble. They kept walking. The Voice gave quick curt explanations “It’s okay – I’m just taking him back here.”

The babble stopped suddenly as they pushed through another door and into the empty echo of what Amos guessed was a washroom. The Voice put Amos’ hands on the cold porcelain of a sink.
“You okay?”
“Thanks, just give me a minute will ya?”
“I’m going to call an ambulance. I’ll be right back.”

Amos bowed his head over the sink. This was it. The edge. He was at the edge of totally losing it. They were gonna take him away; lock him up, medicate him – he could feel the spiral’s centrifugal force, sucking him down into a vortex that would take just way too much effort to escape. He’d been dancing around its edges for months and suddenly now he was in a state of vertigo on the tipping point.

“Its decision time Amos Brown” he told himself. He felt the sweat turning cold on his scalp. “Either you pull it together and get back in the groove, or they’re gonna take you away and lock you up.” His hands fumbled for the taps and he lifted water to his face. The cold splash was like waking up – like suddenly remembering from a deep dislocated dream where you are and who you are – still freaked a bit by the forgetting.

Raising his head, Amos saw a ghost in the mirror. A pale, scary, stupid expression stared back at him. “This is no time to fuck around man” he told the ghost “get your shit together – now!”

It was the first mirror he’d looked into in months. Amos Brown was so desperately trying to figure out who he was that he hadn’t wanted to get distracted by any superficial glassy impressions. He didn’t trust himself not to project some internal fantasies onto his own reflection. He’d devoted his twenty-third year on the planet to finally figuring out what was what with Amos Brown. Done with following a crowd, done with the influences of friends and families, he was doing only what he thought was worth doing. That is - without much money.

Now, his path had taken him to the edge of a dangerous madness. It would be so easy to just let it slip and let someone else take care of things. No one expects much of a crazy.

He’d been surprised that his conversion – his “religious experience” out on the tidal flats after Christmas – hadn’t really changed him much. He still had the same array of silly and sincere thoughts each day. He had the same hungers and wants and fantasies and worries. He was in the same skin. So what had changed?

He had a direction. Did he? Well, no not really. He still didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to be doing with his life. He kept doing shifts, driving the cab to pay the rent. He spent his Christmas tip cash skiing at Whistler mid week to avoid the crowds. Working on his carves kept his mind occupied. But on the long chairlifts back up again he’d wonder.

It wasn’t that he had a direction. It was that he had a guide. He’d met the one who knew him better than he would ever know himself. So, he concluded, why not let go of the wheel and ride the bus instead? There was a great sense of relief in that. And there was an incredible sense of excitement. Like there was an incredible adventure ahead. More than he could cook up for himself. Serving this Master would mean a ride beyond the boundaries he’d always try to hide behind. Amos Brown could cook up some fun adventures. But Jesus the Christ could take him places he’d never think up on his own.

It wasn’t that he had suddenly become a nice guy. He was still self consumed and petty. But now he knew that it was all about giving. Whatever he had in him - it was put there to give. He'd been trying to get somewhere with it, trying to figure out what he could trade it for. Now, because he'd met a friend who was there for him unconditionally, he would do the same. He was trying to look at his choices with another set of eyes.

He was still judging the characters that jumped into the back of his cab from his Scarboro point of view. But now, when he would think to take a second look, he could see what he hadn’t seen before. It was like he could see beneath a layer or two on the surface – like he got glimpses of the heart inside. Sometimes he saw a child in the hooker’s smile. Sometimes he saw fear in the guy who was being a prick. He saw how lonely the braggart was. He saw how sad the laughing party gang was.

He still was having trouble seeing where he fit in to the picture. His ideas about being an author were still buzzing around his ears like house flies. But more and more they were losing their potency as a pull forward.

When he tried to tell his Vancouver friends about his experience the words and phrases fell flat on the ground between them. They sounded cliche. His friends would look at each other and raise their eyebrows - and he didn't blame them. Instinctively he knew that what he was trying to explain couldn't be told except with action.

His sister called him one day to say she'd be arriving the next. He picked her up at the airport. Andrea was two years younger than Amos. If Amos had been his older brother's first accomplice, Andrea was Amos' first confidante. The first female, besides his mom, who he’d loved to spend time with. They’d shared innocent hours playing – lost in imagination’s mansion where endless doors could be opened for children to explore – scenarios, dramas, adventures, pushing their tiny experiences into larger than life dramas overheard from adults or soaked up from bedtime stories, or – who knows where that idea came from?

He had fun showing her around Vancouver, telling her stories about his cabbie adventures and the strange people and places they’d go. Andrea had always looked up to him and she was full of questions about what he was doing out there?

She met Danny and he was charming and sweet. Amos told her about his experience with Christ and what he thought it was about. He didn’t know how – but he knew he just wanted to serve.

Andrea immediately assumed that meant he wanted to be a Minister. Amos told her he’d thought of that – it was the family business after all. But it didn’t seem quite right. Serving in a church seemed so limited to him. So ordinary and normal – not the adventure he thought Jesus was getting him into.

She spent four days with him. They walked the cool grey January beaches. She'd knitted him a huge grey wool sweater. Took her all fall she said. It really was huge – even on him. She explained that she’d had to guess his size from memory – hoping it would be big enough. He really was larger than life in her eyes. He liked that. The sleeves had to be rolled up and it came down halfway to his knees. It had a zipper all the way up front and a big wide collar that sat around his ears. He loved it. When she left he wore it every day. It was like wearing a hug. Better protection even than the shield of a leather jacket.

It made him realize that no one loved him like his family. While he was seeking freedom from their too large expectations and to small judgments they’d impose on him, there were also strong chords of connection there that he could never totally severe – even if he wanted to. Could he be who he was while living in the box they’d provided? Their province, their lifestyle choices, their safe and sacred church. He was afraid he might lose the ground he’d gained out here if he slipped back into the mold waiting for him.

Amos and Danny and their pals had been looking forward to the concert since before Christmas. On the big day, they gathered at his place and got tuned up smoking dope and drinking Jack Daniels. They were ready to let loose and have some fun with some heart pounding music they all loved. David Byrnes’ lyrics crossed the border from Rock’s cynical anger to a new place – hints of a spirit place to dance from in the midst of modern madness. The "Speaking in Tongues" album invoked the wild rhythm of a world beat and a world soul moving beyond, or maybe beneath, the box of religion and respectability. They’d listened to the album a thousand times and knew most of the lyrics – discussed where Byrne was coming from. Was he suggesting a new spirituality? Hard to unravel from between his strange art school poetry and quirky images of insanity and fun.

David Byrne was acting out his life on stage. He was dramatizing Amos’ internal confusion and lack of identity. He was singing about madness and losing touch with what matters in the messy world of the silly and superficial. He was cutting Amos to the bone with surgical precision and making a joke of his ego's holy quest.

There, in a crowd of thousands of people, Amos was exposed as the sniveling, weak and worthless human being he really was. All charades were over. He was being portrayed on the stage for the amusement and mockery of all.

"Watch out you might get what you're after
Cool baby strange - but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

People on their way to work say
baby what did you expect
Gonna burst into flame

My house S'out of the ordinary
That's right Don't want to hurt nobody
Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
Burning down the house"

Suddenly the music stopped and the house lights went up. Exposed to the glaring stares of everyone around him, he began to leave, walking from the front near the stage down an aisle past rows of seated people. Every face he looked at was a face from his past. Some one who’d tested him, teased him, scarred or stabbed him. Aisle after aisle, he’d find in each row an enemy, a foe, a friend that’d betrayed his trust and was now mocking him. He’d quickly avoid that stare only to be confronted by another and another of those who had judged him and seen only what they didn’t like. Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, schoolteachers, that nasty Sunday school teacher he was sure he’d forgotten – but there she was. The floor was on fire. He quickened his pace keeping his gaze to the floor but the fire was kindled brighter by his haste. It enveloped him. He knew what was happening. The hero of his story was being tested in the furnace. The dross and ugly parts of his soul were ignited by shame and self hate and his psyche was being steeled by a consuming fire. All impurities were being burned and, if he survived, he would be a new creation. He passed out at the end of the aisle and hit the floor like a felled tree.

Looking in the mirror now, sight returned, he straightened. He saw something he hadn't seen before. Out in the auditorium he'd seen himself through the eyes of those who'd found him wanting. Now the Lord gave him new eyes. He saw in his own eyes the light of Christ. He saw how all his imperfections were but fuel for that fire burning bright within.

In that moment he knew that the one he called friend and Master would use whatever Amos offered to acheive the redemption of the world. It was a battle worthy of the best Amos could offer. It was won already. Not because of strength and skill but because of an eternal weapon that was unquenchable. Love without measure, without bounds, beyond judgment and fear, untouchable and intimate. It was so impossible that it put a smile on Amos' face. It might have been Christ's eyes that were looking but that smile was all Amos. He turned away from the sink and headed for the door.

A young man came in and said “Hey where’re you goin? The ambulance is here.”
He recognized the Voice as his guide through the darkness. He didn’t look at him - just said "Thanks for your help man" and kept walking. The ambulance attendants almost crashed into him as swung through the washroom door and strode out into the hall.

A small group who must’ve watched him being led like an invalid into the washroom - and were waiting to see him carted off - were startled like geese to see this large smiling man striding right through them back towards the auditorium brushing helping hands aside.

As if on cue, as he entered the arena, the lights dimmed and the band started playing. He slowed his strides as the crowd closed between him and the stage. But he never stopped - he began gently bumping into concert goers as if they were flotsam in his path. They’d turn indignantly and then, looking into his face, would step aside.

“My eyes must still be on fire” Amos thought – enjoying the startled reactions. When he was close to the stage, he found his spot and began to dance. The show that had mocked his weaknesses now celebrated his strengths and fed his courage.

"Whatabout the time?
You were rollin’ over
Fall on your face
You must be having fun
Walk lightly!
Think of a time.
You’d best believe
This thing is real

What’s the matter with him? (asked Byrne)
He’s alright! (the chorus girls sang)
I see his face
The lord won’t mind (they assured)
Don’t play no games
He’s alright (no doubt)
Love from the bottom to the top

Turn like a wheel
He’s alright
See for yourself
The lord won’t mind
We’re gonna move
Right now
Turn like a wheel inside a wheel

Tina Weymouth, the hot bass player noticed him and they began dancing. The ten yards between them didn’t seem to matter. Their eyes locked and their smiles played back and forth. Amos saw David Byrne glance over at Tina between verses. Surprised that her gaze was fixed and not returning his look, Byrne traced it across the crowd to Amos. Amos grinned wide at him - still dancing. And the spell was broken.

He had nothing left to prove. Amos left the front as the next song started - hardly believing what had just happened (no one else ever believed that story either). From the very front, he now made his way to the very back of the auditorium. At the top of the stairs - where the seats met the roof, he sat and wondered about what had just happened to him. His metal had been tested – tested and purified somehow.

Of course his mind had just gotten overloaded with whiskey and weed and his body had thrown a reset switch. Sure, that was true. But in his imagination – a place as real to Amos as the concrete steps he sat on – he’d passed through hell’s doors and could no longer be scared by his own shadow. He was bigger and stronger than any box he’d grown up in. He’d pulled the sword from the stone, slaughtered the dragon, found the key, the treasure was his to take home and share.

[Letter from Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz, Feb, 1959] Milosz, life is on our side. The silence and the Cross are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships must be tried. All loyalties have to pass through fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain.

Thomas Merton. The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, Christine M. Bochen, editor (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993): 57-58.

No comments: