Tuesday, July 14, 2009


In my mid-20s I flirted with getting a giant tattoo -- a simple, if vaguely Gaelic, inscription of the number: "2026."

I had around that time been studying the life of Francis of Assisi. Born a well-to-do Italian preppy -- it is said his tiny feet sprung from the womb already clad in medieval Adidas -- decades later Francis spoke an ode to his faithful donkey and died a lice-infested beggar, October 3, 1226. His donkey is said to have wept.

Centuries later, after a life lived split dead-even between receipt of ridicule and reverence, Francis has now become the patron saint of this, patron saint of that. And of all these patron sainthoods, those that spoke most to me were his love for the environment -- he constantly spoke homage to sister sun, brother wolf -- and even more, his renouncement of all things Adidas, his betrothal to Lady Poverty, his sticky service to lepers, his indigent freedom to serve and love without kowtowing monthly to the Bank of America. In my mid-twenties I came to love the man.


After all, how could I openly express such admiration for a man who'd become -- no, seriously -- of one flesh with poverty, when I was shelling out countless grand a year at a beachside seminary in Vancouver, B.C. and downing overpriced pints on Tuesdays? Emulating Francis would have to wait.

But in the meantime, I thought: the tattoo.

2026, exactly 800 years from the death of Saint Radical Simplicity, I would organize a pilgrimage from Assisi to Rome, a symbolic message to established religion that their so-called church, in its comfort and riches, had give up any lingering claim to be a servant of the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the lame, the blind, when it first crawled from the catacombs and made the first stained glass.

In that prophetic year of 2026, these marchers -- swarms of us -- would already have followed St. Francis's lead, would have sold and cashed in everything we owned: i-Pods, Subarus, earrings and banjos, laptops and 501Ks. And there at the Vatican's gate we would purge our bloated bank accounts as if our pens were wild fireman's hoses across the very last checks ever written in our lives. In hindsight, I took for granted there'd be a mailbox, into which we'd hurl our life-abandoning last letters, addressed to charities and shelters all the world over, to homeless drunkards, hapless old ladies abandoned by their children, starving Sally Struthers villages.

And after that, with nary a word, we'd all go home to our respective countries, wander the streets, beg our suppers, love and be the poor.


I didn't get the tattoo.

Instead -- and I swear I don't regret this -- I got married. Got a baby (pending -- Baby Boy is weeks away). Got a little bungalow with matching mortgage. Got a job. Ever since, I've roamed those wide open spaces, that staggering chasm, between what I'd dreamed, a life of pure self-sacrificial love, and what I got: the American Dream.

Who knows what might have changed if I'd gotten that tattoo, that jagged patch of printed skin to shame me into following through with such ridiculous, preposterous beauty, such naively prophetic grit? Then again, who knows what a pompous prick I'd have become as just such a tattooed troubadour, singing subtle judgments to audiences less radical than I, while in turn I forfeited this true, humbled love I now enjoy (humbled, and truer for it) of wife and family and daily-compromised love for neighbor, or, more often, just dreams thereof, thus leaving me today unable to cast judgment on others' inaction because I'm be still so hopelessly lost in my own?

What might have been. Whatever. From now on this lick-and-stick blog post will serve as interim tattoo, goading and prodding an upped ante -- as talk of love and justice always does -- into the heightened stakes of ultimatum. Talk enough about justice and love, and the only options left you are to do nothing and show yourself a hypocrite or worse, or do too little, and join ranks with all the other broken saints.

Baby Boy, if you read this years or decades down the line, remind me I wrote it, will you? And if it's not yet 2026, should we make plans? You tell me.


Dave said...

Hey, great to see you blogging again! You're right, the world doesn't need any more self-righteous pricks - especially those willing to give up banjos for the Cause.

Priscilla said...

love it. Always hoping you'll post. Glad when you do.

Been wondering if you have encountered the writing and preaching of Russell Rathbun. Think you might like him. He's a nut. His book is "Post-Rapture Radio." He's a pastor at House of Mercy in St. Pauls. Debbie Blue is also there, also amazing, also in print.

Nathan First said...

Dave: agreed. There's always hope for a prick with a banjo. (Now when will I follow through and get one myself?)

Both: Glad to be back! I have absolutely no excuses for such a long hiatus, and it humbles me how easy it was. So much for dedication, "writerly passion", all of that. Yours are still the only two blogs, other than my Dad's, that I regularly check, so it makes me grin when y'all stop by.

Priscilla: Following your tip, I Googled the man & wound up ordering the book. Thanks -- will keep you posted on the read.

thewhethergirl said...

Love this post.

Oodles of delighted thanks from
Your #1 fan

Anthrob said...

Nate--I just discovered your blogs. I like them. Now I will read them. Ever watched "Brother Sun, Sister Moon.?

Peter said...

Wow, does this describe me, too:

Instead -- and I swear I don't regret this -- I got married. . . . Got a little bungalow with matching mortgage. Got a job. Ever since, I've roamed those wide open spaces, that staggering chasm, between what I'd dreamed, a life of pure self-sacrificial love, and what I got: the American Dream."