Friday, October 17, 2008


I've been scarce lately. Sorry about that.

Last week it was due to a bookish streak. Every free hour I found I spent in a bum-rush on ecotheology: the study of the poor world, the world's poor, and the story of a mysterious God with strangely hidden loyalties to both. Feeling euphoric -- but recognizing my own flaky history of bold, forgotten promises -- I devoted my life to yet another One Big Cause. All in books, of course. All inhale, no exhale. A voracious consumer of others' anti-consumerist passions.

Then at the end of last week, it was time for a world-shift. Beyond this great, comforting refuge of books, Ms. V got her head stomped in and the dark beauty of her life left me speechless, feeling inept and angry, thankful and dumb.

No more Leonardo Boff. Instead, more prayers for for a tiny and oft-forgotten mother saint; more prayers for inevitable messes; for fridges full of dull, church lady-made PBJ's, prayers that each one might find a fervent angel to guide it to the hungriest mouth. That each smashed baloney-and-cheese would be chocked full of Popeye's spinach, to help its eater face the stares of incredulous children and condescending loft yuppies.

Then, this week I withdrew from blogging and books. Not out of protest or change of heart; just out of sheer busyness and the burned-out, stale-smelling wholeness of social services.

On Saturday, the new guy in the program -- let's call him Jimmy -- stole our company car and peeled out toward Oklahoma. I'd driven him in myself just a few days prior, down from the City to the Farm, where formerly homeless men -- my brothers -- now make it their sole ministry to help newcomers "take charge of their lives" and "get back on track." The trouble, as always, is defining the track. Some get centered. Some steal cars.

On the two-hour drive to the Farm, I tried to look past Jimmy's talk of "titty bars" and his bitter, perhaps even haughty judgment of Lazy People, as if they were a burden too great to bear. I hoped Jimmy wasn't racist, told him so, and was not quite comforted by his assurance that he was not "racist" but "prejudice," in a way that had nothing to do with race. I'm still not sure what he means.

Whatever else there is to say, though, it wasn't hard to see the middle-schooler in Jimmy, just wanting to get along. Wanting not to get picked last in basketball games. Wanting to get picked up by God's fat fingers and dropped down in a better world.

Just prior to our drive across Missouri, Jimmie's story included ten years on the street, one night robbing houses and stealing a car, and then eight more years in the Texas state pen. Where he was going in that stolen car I didn't ask. Maybe Oklahoma, same as now. It makes me wonder what he thought he would see.

At the gas station, on the way to the Farm, Jimmy was fresh enough out of prison to have never seen a Nutrageous bar. Maybe someone else can tell me why this sears itself so deeply in my mind. Something of Jimmy's demeanor made me think of "Red" Redding, with his stilted grocery bagging and his "So was Red" etched above the doorway in Shawshank Redemption. I should've known Jimmy wanted to go home again. I guess I missed the clues. The day before he peeled off, Jimmie told me he wanted to dedicate his life to writing letters of assurance to prisoners. He wanted, he said, to let them know that someone on the Outside knew they were there. Maybe he really just wanted to receive those letters himself.

Two hours after Jimmy left the Farm, the car ran out of gas. He left it there on the roadside, basically still intact. Then, three days later, when he was assumedly many miles away, he called to tell us which interstate, what mile marker, and that he'd left just enough gas to get it to the next station. That third part might've been wishful thinking: in the tank was nothing but fumes. Still, the guys all agreed at Thursday's Bible study that Jimmy's call was "almost noble." He wasn't the devil himself. He'd just made a dumb choice. Who hadn't? We prayed for him, and admitted we were still a little pissed he'd screwed us over.

Later in the day, the sheriff called to tell me they'd caught him, and thanked me for confirming Jimmy's middle initial and date of birth. And at that moment I felt strangely complicit on all sides -- in the theft, in the arrest.

Now the week is over, and I've hopped back into my own Stolen Car. A weekend with my beautiful wife. Books. News of the election. Idle talk of revolution. Tennis on the Nintendo Wii. And walking back out with the pups and the all-seeing moon.


Priscilla Gilman said...

Oh dear, I didn't know what a Nutrageous bar was either until I Googled it. My friends would be amused but not surprised.

I wish I had something substantial to say to match my appreciation for the way you put the complexity of living down. . . yes, "almost noble" that fits so well, as does your report of feeling complicit on all sides.

Priscilla Gilman said...

I meant, "for the way you put the complexity of living down in words."

Nathan First said...

Thanks much, Priscilla. I've appreciated the same in your writing -- especially "An Atheist Prays." As for the Nutrageous bar, I for one hope you take PRIDE in your ignorance. I would. Frankly, the world would be a far better place if most of us didn't absorb, from childhood, willingly or otherwise, an encyclopedic mastery of candy bar trivia. Am I being dramatic? Of course I am. But I stick to my guns in calling it a CURSE that a few of my rare (and therefore precious) braincells are forever consigned to the fact that Snickers Really Satisfies and that the Rice Krispies Guys are Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

Jen said...