Give Freedom Away (or give it back)

I wrote this post last year on the 4th of July from the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago near Grant Park. I hope you enjoy!

Today is the fourth of July. In America, this means something.

IMG_2970

I have a tattoo on my arm that not a small number of people have asked about. It’s not that it’s entirely unique, or even that it stands out. It’s actually the smallest of the one’s I have, and it’s hidden by every shirt I wear.

When it is exposed, some people ask, “Is that Africa on your arm?” Others: “What does that writing say? What is it outlined with?” Most, however, ask: “Is that India?”

It is, in fact, India.

The writing on the inside says Psalm 67:1, 2.

I should say that I’m not a huge fan of faith-based tattoos, but only because I don’t like being boxed in. I don’t really find myself “edgy,” nor do I find any need to take allegiance with it.

Nevertheless, I have a tattoo with a verse from the Hebrew Bible on my arm. That verse says:

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us,

Selah

that your way may be known on earth,

your saving power among all nations.

Eight years ago I was in India for the second summer in a row. This summer, unlike the previous, I was traveling around with a translator telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a tool called the “Evangecube”. Basically, it’s a Rubik’s Cube-looking thing that only unfolds one way. It culminates in a picture of two hands meeting, symbolizing a relationship with God. They say pictures are easier for people to understand.

So here I am, a six-foot oaf with a bandana, a green canvas bag, and slacks I bought at a thrift store, walking from hut to hut doing the absolute worst job at re-telling a contrived version of Jesus’ LDR via the E-Cube. I am watching Bengali men and women look me in the eyes, folding their arms at their chests, as if to say, “Really? That’s what you came all the way from America to tell me? That a God I don’t believe exists wants to save me from something I don’t believe I need to be saved from?”

Heh. “Yeah, I think so,” I’d say.

A few days later I sit in a chair looking out upon the city from my hotel. I am in anguish. I hate what I am doing, all the while knowing that people need to hear about Jesus someway. Perhaps this team, these cubes, these intrusive tactics are their way. Perhaps.

From the street I can see taxis bumping each other and honking, men driving and beeping the horns of their tuk tuk’s. Dogs meander, sniffing grass. Cows stand in the middle of the road and drivers take great effort to avoid hitting them. There is a dump truck that pulls in front of the hotel and stops. Two men get out and hurl piles of trash into the back of the truck. I watch plastic bags, food wrappers, and dried out fruit rinds soar into the air, some of which don’t make it high enough. The trash men don’t mind.

One package of trash lands right at the top and I am stunned to see that it splats atop a man lain across the top of the heap. He is still in sight but quickly being buried. He does not move as trash flies at him, he only lays. His eyes are blank, his expression, empty. His demeanor, nothing. There is a human mind in this truck bed. There is a beating heart; a mother’s son.

The Dalits are at the bottom of India’s caste system. They are “untouchable,” and known as less valuable than work animals. There are approximately 160 million Dalits in India.

This man is likely one of them. His sunken eye sockets, his joints and bones ready to pierce through his skin, are emblems of the story he carries. And so far, it is not a hopeful one.

I want to confess to my team leader that I don’t think door-to-door evangelism is working, and that I think helping Dalits, or something like it, is a better use of our time for the gospel. Instead, I wind up telling him that I saw a man who didn’t have hope today, and that I’ve been handed hope for my entire life.

“I don’t need to worry about a thing,” I say. And it’s true. I have means to money, I have people who know my name, I have a warm place to lay my head, I have food whenever I want it. I am a king by a Dalit’s standard. Truly, I am the untouchable one.

“I didn’t choose this,” I tell him. “To be born white, privileged, and in a place like America. So why did I receive it while people like that man are treated like trash?”

All the while my mind is racing: Why did I get the easy way out? Why wasn’t I born here in India, where life is real and people suffer? Why aren’t all countries, neighborhoods, economic situations the same? Why do some of us get to live in suburbs with SUV’s, laundry detergent, extra blankets, and safe places for our kids to play? God, this, is injustice.

My leader doesn’t try to fix me. He doesn’t tell me that I had been blessed and that God was showing me favor. He doesn’t even try to explain why people are born into third world countries. Instead, he shows me Psalm 67:1, 2. He reads it, and then he hands me his Bible so that I can read it.

And then, it was like I knew all along.

Today, when I approach that passage I do a little interpreting when I read it:

God, you have been gracious to me and have blessed me

But you have given to me because you want me to give it all away again,

so that people will know it was you all along.

This fourth of July I try to remember my trips to India. I try to remember the friends I made, and the stories I heard. I try to remember that if I didn’t grow up in America I may never have had the opportunity to tell my Indian friends’ stories today; I may never have known how deep poverty can swim in this world, and that while Americans are mostly surface swimmers, more than half of the world will remain stuck upon the ocean floor.

Why Do You Do What You Love to Do?

Recently, I read a short article on how to write with style. In it, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word were mentioned. It was a great read. Some points hit home, namely: Find a Subject You Care About. Vonnegut said:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I’ve always had a suspicion that it didn’t matter as much how I wrote but what I wrote about, and that an audience (albeit mine quite small) would see past my well-placed commas and thesaurus-mined words. That people are willing to sift through my 5th grade reading level prose and structure in order to be impacted by the elements of a great story proves that they get something. A beautiful sentence might cause one to reflect for a day, but a beautiful story could change their entire life.

But, it’s easy to shimmy around on a mediocre plot when you can flower up your dialogue with wit and tight grammar. Soon, though (and we’ve all been here), the reader grows tired and the inevitable realization that they’ve been staring at the same page for several minutes and don’t have an idea of what it’s said sets in (this is not always the writer’s fault—though sometimes it is).

Were someone to stop me on the street and ask me, “why do you write?” I am afraid I would hesitate a little longer than I would like to admit. Why? Because it’s one thing to care about something, but it’s another thing to get bogged down by how you want to convey it. In fumbling through my mind to answer the question I would wind up saying something idiotic like, “Oh, well, I like to try to write about bicycles. You know, because they’re good.” My problem would not be the subject of my response, but the thoughts that premeditate my speaking it. The thoughts that, of course, say, you better say this in a convincing way, or at least in a beautiful way, or they’re going to think you writing about bikes is ridiculous.

But that is ridiculous. We all know that. If we have the gall to stand up for what we’ve decided to give our lives to then few will be able to blame us. In this way, confidence, assurance, and die-hard belief leap further than physical strength, beauty, or well-punctuated paragraphs any day.

The reason for this is, again, because a beautiful story can change someone’s life. A painter who slaves at her canvas, day after day, fighting back thoughts about giving up and starting over, has a chance to impact thousands who might see it in a gallery; a business man who deals in medium-grade sod because he knows it will, at least, provide for his family might increase the opportunities his children have later in life; a data entry clerk who enters numbers into spreadsheets, but who chooses to do it meticulously, might be compiling statistical data that could eventually alter the way the world looks at injustice.

Belief precedes product every time.

So why do I write? What subjects do I genuinely care about?

I write because I believe in honesty. It propels people. After fame, strength, knowledge, etc., fade and fall, honesty always remains. People don’t say, “oh, well he was that strong all of his life,” or, “she was always able to out think us when it came to quantum-physics.” But they do say, “she was always an honest girl,” or “he couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.” I have seen people dramatically open their lives to others because they were inspired by another’s honesty, and likewise, I’ve seen people’s lives utterly destroyed because of dishonesty. There is a keen power in honesty then. It doesn’t come with prestige or flashiness, but it does outlive most everything else.

I also write because I’m on a journey. I know that sounds cliche, just bear with me. I can’t say I’ve always known which journey I’m on, or that the journey has always looked the same (because it hasn’t), but I do know that I have had chances to experience sights, smells, people, beliefs, colors and tastes that others haven’t. I see this as an opportunity for others: some of my most profound realizations have come by reading other’s words about their experiences. Mingled with my knack for writing (and really my enjoyment of it), I want to tell the kinds of stories that change people. Not for me, but for them, and for the God who (for whatever reason) gives me the chances to do it (and believe me, I’ve squandered plenty of them).

That’s why I write and, genuinely, keeps me at it. What about you and your passions? What keeps you at it?

On Meeting Bill Kulchin

August, 2013

Medium height. Thin. Jeans, a white collar, a navy blazer. He had old red hair that was recently cut. He stood in front of my display holding his chin like he was looking at Rembrandt.

“I love it,” he said, walking over.
“Thanks.”
“Are you the designer?”
“No. Just wholesale and office work.”
“Gotta start somewhere, right?”
“I’m Bill,” he said, handing me his card. “I do apparel insurance.”
I’d never heart heard of such a thing. I turned his card over. It read: KULCHIN ROSS INSURANCE SERVICES.
“Are you out of L.A.?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Downtown near the fashion district.”
“Gladys avenue,” he says. “I know the area.” He’d picked up a card of mine from a stack on the stand in front me. They were next to another stack of half-sheet informational cards, and a stack of line sheets that still smelled like ink and wood, hours off the press.
“Oh yeah, are you local to downtown?”
“My office is there.” He studied my card. “A writer.”
“Ha. Yeah.”
He pointed at the card and read aloud: “Writer and operations.” He paused. “What does that mean?”
“Oh you know, I do office management and oversee wholesale. And I write.”
“Is that what you’d want to do?”
“What. Writing?”
He nodded.
“Oh man, I’d write day and night if I could.”
He seemed to watch me, crunching the edges of my card between his finger tips. “Oh,” he said.
I shifted my weight.
“Well that’s what you gotta do then.”

Take Two

Portland, OR

In three and a half weeks I am going on an adventure: I am moving back to Portland.

If you didn’t already know that, now you do. About a month ago, I was accepted to Portland State University as a post-baccalaureate student with the intent of transferring into the M.A. in Writing the following year. I will begin taking my first classes this fall. Honestly, I’m pumped (more on those specifics another time).

On May 1st, I will be picking up a rental car, swamping it with my stuff, and swinging through LA to pick up Les before heading north. As it always has, we expect the road to teach us lessons and tell us stories. With a rental car with unlimited miles, the table seems pretty well set.

If you’ve ever driven toward Northern CA, Oregon, or Washington, then you know there are at least three main routes: US-101/1, I-5, and US-395. Allow me to indulge you for a moment:

IMG_4002 101/1 is Steinbeck land, followed by wine-country and the forest where George Lucas filmed the chase scene of Endor in Return of the Jedi. It is like looking at a picture for 15 hours, and it is no wonder it is known as one of America’s best road trips (or bike rides) in the world. It is Redwoods for days. It is marked by length, winding roads, mist and rain, and absolute beauty.

I-5 passes through cities you’ve probably never heard of (Los Banos, Maxwell, or Yreka ring a bell? I didn’t think so), and if you have then it was because your gas tank was below E or you had a hankering for a three-day old convenience store hot dog. On the bright side, if you’ve ever needed to get somewhere fast in California, then you’ve likely taken I-5. Straight as an arrow with plenty of farmland, the color brown, and cow pie stench to go around.

US-395 is by far the road less traveled, in fact I’ve never heard of anyone taking this route further than Tahoe. I’m guessing it is because it seems longer and less inhabited, which perhaps the latter is true, but in terms of distance it is only 40 miles longer than I-5. From Santa Clarita, two roads diverge: one is I-5, and the other leads NE toward Lancaster and eventually highway 395. Unique to this route is that from the foothills of the Sequoia’s until you reach Klamath Falls, Oregon (approximately 800 miles), you spend most of the time a couple thousand feet above sea level.

We’ll drive one of the above routes. Or at least it’ll start out that way. I’ve ridden my bike and driven in cars up and down Highway 1 before, and I’d do it again without hesitation. An indescribable serenity exists in its wild, wet tree-canopy forests. I’d live there someday even. I-5 sounds akin to being dragged by my ankles out the back of a car all the way to Portland. So that’s out (okay, it’s not so bad after Redding, which is two-thirds of the trip). That leaves US-395, or at least pointing the car in that direction and seeing what happens. There’s ample time to stop and smell the flowers, and when I think about it, that’s what I want this three-day adventure to be about: just kind of seeing what happens.

I’m turning a new page, trying out new opportunities, dipping my legs into fresh water. I’ve been to Portland before, but it makes sense this time to travel along a new route. It’ll parallel the other routes, and in this scenario all roads lead to Portland, but not all that’s worth gleaning comes with arrival. This journey is not about the destination. Nor will the next three years be.

If I learned anything from the last time I lived in Portland, any shred of wisdom, it was that I put far too much pressure upon a city to meet my needs. Sure, it was a great time, and I did plenty of new things. But it should be no surprise that after four months and several thousand dollars I was right back in Orange County spinning my wheels again. That, I think, is what happens when you grant authority of your heart to a destination. Places never come through; none are better, only different. I don’t expect this next move to blow me away, though I do hold my hand open to it. I just kind of want to see what happens.

When I get to Portland I’m going to write about Les and my road trip. I’ll recall some of our topics of conversation, sights of mountain peaks and desert planes, smells, tastes, etc. Then I’m going to post it. It’ll be pretty raw and unedited, because a friend mentioned that my writing is more interesting when it’s raw (or at least how I understood it). I hope you’ll join me in reading.

Skipping Between Tenses: a journal entry about moving

February 5, 2014

When I moved from Fullerton to Los Angeles in April of 2013 I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to move back. It was a resolving feeling to drive away from my old apartment, like kicking the dirt off my shoes and pointing my eyes upon the road ahead. It would be dirty, weathered, older, but it would still be in operation. The road would lead me along alright, because that’s what Los Angeles does. It brings people in.

Les and I didn’t know what to talk about that night as we drove from Fullerton to Los Angeles. Sometimes with your best friends you don’t need to have words to say. We looked at the blurring city lights and freeway signs just like we always had when we’d commute in to work. They weren’t different, but they were a little more ours, because we were moving in among them. We were part of the city now too.

The train goes up and the train goes down, gently. I am in the second car from the locomotive, the bike car, as it always was. My bike strapped to the railings downstairs, and I with my feet across the seat in front of me (not allowed), sitting above in the second-story passenger area. The car has 52 seats and there are 12 of us. We are feeling the rumble of steel wheels upon the track, up and down. Gentle.

I’ll probably ride my old route when I get in to Union Station. Spring Street, over the 101, through downtown, left on sixth, through skid-row, right on Stanford. Home. Or, work. But work has always been my other home. My Los Angeles home.

In July of 2013 I was traveling. I flew to Pennsylvania and road-tripped back to California with my brother. Then, I flew to Boston and drove to Burlington for a week with my old high school friends. It was our ten-year reunion, and we chose to make memories on a farm playing games, looking at animals, and drinking beer. And we did. When I came home, to Los Angeles, I told myself I was home. This is just it, I thought. This is were I live. This is it. I looked from my apartment rooftop across the evening skyline at buildings shooting heavenward. I watched airplanes arrive at LAX. One every minute, I’d surmised. There were no clouds in the sky, only empty blackness. I’d wait and watch the planes and the buildings like something was going to happen. But nothing ever really did.

Living with Carl has been brief but relieving. At least I have a place to call home. It’s a 600-square foot studio back house with an oft-not working bathroom faucet and a backdoor that gets jammed every time it is closed too hard. The neighbors are quiet; I’ve met none of them. The library across the street has never been open when I’ve been home. Carl’s friends come over and I say hello. They drink wine and talk about playing Smash Brothers while I look at the walls and wonder where my story will lead now; I wonder if it will be below the crown-molding of another set of walls somewhere else, in some other city, in another time, with different people.

When I was mailed paperwork stating that my rent would rise I knew it was a sign. The foot-traffic in downtown Los Angeles has been on the rise too. Call it from God or just the way things happen (because maybe some things just happen sometimes), but I knew I couldn’t even afford what I was already paying. I looked down at the concrete floors, poured and glazed in an artistically industrial fashion for me to walk on, representing my rent dollars. My over-sized windows (my favorite part) breezing the evening air. I felt indignant, if even only slightly, because I knew the time to say goodbye was near, and I knew that for this place and many like it in Los Angeles, the price was simply too high. Guys like me that are interested in bleeding the color of LA but can’t because we can’t afford the rent.

I can still see the skyline from the train as I ride. The US Bank tower stands above the western United States as a beacon of something (of what I’m still not sure). The other towers are its sisters, looking up at her like one day they might stand for something just as tall. There are gaps between those towers, however, and I know that given the rising cost of living, the new fleets of parking sharks, and the whelming programs to clean up the streets, that soon bigger things will move in. The US Bank tower will not be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River forever. It might become the third, fourth, or fifth tallest. This is, after all, the era that Los Angeles is trying to rebuild itself. LA might finally be a place for people to stay.

The first months after my arrival I did little to settle in. Les and I were like our rolled out sleeping mats on the apartment floor: unmade and carefree. We worked down the street, and we did little more than move boxes in and fall asleep and rise for work. That’s how the production life is in the handmade apparel industry. If it’s not rushing fabric to a cut and sew house or shirts to a screen-printer, then it is brainstorming fresh ideas, showing samples at trade shows, or moving product at street shows. That’s how the startup life is too: trying on hats and wearing them to bed.

Delani and I drank beer and ate reheated ribs on top of a box in the middle of the living room. Like the first few months of living there, my bed was again upon the floor, the walls empty, the dishes all in boxes, and my clothes on hangars stuffed into the trunk of my car. We played guitar after we ate and opened another beer each. Les was in Chicago applying for grad schools, living his dream, and Delani (the other roommate) and I were sweeping the floors and spackling holes to try to muster up some security deposit money. I’ll need it to buy food in Fullerton for the next month, I thought, and Delani will need it for food money in Portland, where he’s moving next month. I tossed a clean rib to Jack wondering if he’d lick it, chew it, or break it and swallow it. Probably all three in succession. He sat there and I said, good boy. He looked at the rib earnestly, and I wondered how long Jack could live with my parents while I’d be with Carl. Jack is family, and so is Carl. But Carl says the apartment is too small for Jack, so I won’t push it.

I’d love to move in for three months, I said to Carl one night in January. He said, sure man. Stay as long as you need, or want. I had expected him to say this. I planned on it when I called him, actually. I didn’t have a backup plan either. I was sitting at the apartment in Los Angeles, not knowing what an empty version of that place would look like a month later. I was thinking, and praying, here and there throughout my last days, and the thought of three months came up. I don’t know how or when, but it did, and I went with it, taking it maybe as a sign from God again. Three months, I’d heard myself start to say to friends. But why? I’d wonder. Or better, for whom?

My first month of riding the train, in 2012, I would un-velcro my bike lights from my seat post and handlebars and lock my bike to the railing with my cable. Then I would sit nearby and inadvertently watch people board, wondering if they’d look at my bike, and why. It was a commuter line into Los Angeles, so how sure could I be? They were normal people working normal jobs with normal ideas and temptations, but my Dad had a number of wallets lifted on buses in Los Angeles. It was a feeling in my gut that began leaping into my throat if my gaze got too far from my bike. Paranoia: welcome to the big city.

Tyler and I were sitting on a knoll at the LA Historic park just north of downtown. We were at FYF, an indie music festival, and he insisted on buying me a beer. We were corralled between four long walls of six-foot high chain-link fence that they’d called a “beer garden,” forced to stare distantly at bands, or people, while I sipped. He didn’t seem to mind so I decided I wouldn’t either. He told me he needed me to step into a new position in the company. I need you to become the Wholesale Accounts Rep, he said. My stomach leaped, but I wasn’t sure why. Was it because I felt valued in the company enough to take on such a crucial responsibility? Or was it because I was unsure that I’d be up to the challenge, or that I even wanted to in the first place? He looked at me and I knew then that there was a reason he was asking me. There was something deeper going on. I told him that I would give it my best shot and he said, good, because I don’t know if you really had a choice. We laughed and I choked on a gulp of beer.

The first time I ever considered moving to Los Angeles was on that day at FYF. I stared off at the hillsides and saw houses built deep into them. I’d never noticed them before, nor had I noticed the century-old architecture, the winding and almost vertical residential roads of Echo Park, and Silver Lake. Anything could happen in those hills, I thought. I imagined the morning views and planting a garden, and most of all, writing novels from my writer’s shack. Yes, the first time I ever considered moving to Los Angeles was on that day.

Like the US Bank tower, I will stand and watch now from a distance. I will know it all but will no longer be called a native Angeleno. I might keep riding the train, up from Fullerton, and down from Los Angeles home, gently and on-schedule, and I’ll probably see the skyline from a few miles away each time and wonder whom Los Angeles wants to call its people. I thought last July that it was I, but I found in February of the next year that it wasn’t. At least, for now, that sounds about right.

“You Inheritors”

Here is a piece I wrote for LOVE NAIL TREE during the spring of 2013. It was originally published here.

You Inheritors

Rebecca finds her mother in tears. They live in a tiny apartment where they eat rice, beans, and week-old bread for dinner most nights. Rebecca has two t-shirts, one pair of pants, and one pair of shorts. Her shoes have holes in them, as do every pair of her socks. She has never owned a new hairbrush. Mother weeps because of a note she has read. She pulls her daughter close and hugs her. There will be one train without a search, she says. Nobody is supposed to know, but this will be our chance. Mother is not crying out of pain or sorrow, but out of joy. The family will get to move to America after all.

Continue reading ““You Inheritors””