Bratislava

March 7, 2009

I wanted to spend the last of my Slovakian korunas before we left Bratislava, so I bought some pipe tobacco I didn’t want. Who knew when I’d be back. We found a restaurant called the Blue Moon Café and ate dinner outside underneath a striped awning. Dusk fell on the street. Still fresh to new to the art of being respectful in other culture, we were too loud and attracted attention. People looked right through us as though pretending we didn’t exist, or they stared openly with smugness or disdain. We were noisy primates at the zoo, rattling our cages. Their unsmiling mouths and sharp eyes communicated no curiosity. I guess they thought that they already knew all about us—ugly Americans. We carried cameras. We ordered too much food. We spent money just to get rid of it.

We rarely encountered open hostility. Most of the time, we could slide through the open spaces without feeling eyes on us, without feeling self-conscious. I got the feeling that to the Viennese, the Parisians, and the Romans American tourists, especially college students, are a necessary evil, helping the economy while spoiling the local flavor.  

We were young and green, as far as traveling graciously and inconspicuously goes, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, to savor our Wiener Schnitzel and knödel, to smell the zinnias in Salzburg and the roses at Schönbrunn.

However, while I was developing an appreciation for tapas in Madrid and Bernini’s sculptures at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I was also developing a taste for anonymity. If Herr Ober wanted to pretend that this flock of caffeinated college students abroad had not just seated themselves and ordered cheese pizzas and tap water, then we could pretend his long absences were a very professional austerity and respect for our privacy. Being ignored is a sort of freedom. Even more, what if after awhile we just blended in? What if we spoke in German?

We finished dinner at the Blue Moon Café, and I walked with Josh Elmore and Brandon Lokey back to the train station. People were waiting for their buses in the sheltered stops. His back to the road, a homeless man had pulled himself into the fetal position to fit on the bench. His pants had come down, and his dirty butt crack frowned at us.

A few benches closer to the station, a woman sat with her knees far apart bracing herself with her arms on the bench. She had a look of concentration fixed on her face, but she was gazing at nothing. Another moment, a few more steps, and I understood why. I heard a sound that did not fit in—water hitting a hard surface. The woman was urinating—in public, in plain view.

She sticks in my mind like a splinter. I cannot say I thought much about it then. I’ve seen plenty of homeless men relieving themselves behind dumpsters, in parking garages, and against the nearest wall. So, we passed by the woman, made sure not to stare, and found the bus that took us to the other train station across town where we could catch a late train back to Vienna. I was happy to hear German again.

I did journal about that woman later:

Another, a woman, fastened her eyes somewhere far away until they glazed. She sat with her hands propped on either side as if she would fall without the support. Her rigid form would not have attracted our attention had she not been urinating. Liquid splashed to the ground through the slats in the bench, spreading a dark puddle on the concrete. She wore a sweater and skirt. My heart sought to help her somehow, but I could not, for I was intimidated by something I had never witnessed and never wanted to witness again.

We told the story to the other students, and they, of course, responded with disgust. I cannot remember where we were, if we were eating dinner or walking and smoking pipes or having dessert in a room with centuries-old frescoes and vaulted ceilings. We probably finished our coffee and torte at Hotel Sacher or Hotel Imperial and went outside to breathe the magic of the opera house, Jugendstil architecture, and Stephansdom. Pistachio gelato and Gustav Klimt, Red Bull and Kinderpunsch, shopping at the Rathaus Christmas market—we were too busy making memories.

Now, I wonder where the woman slept the night we told our story about her.

I was alive. I was awakening to see my childlike curiosity fallen asleep beside me. I nudged it awake, and together, with my friends and their curiosities, we rode the Eurail across our years of textbooks, through the history of our collective way of thinking. After sitting through two years of Latin in high school, I was standing three and a half years later in front of the Colosseum. Outside, vendors hawked beaded skull caps and postcards, and inside, tourists stroked the feral cats lounging in the Italian sun. I thought of tigers and mock naval battles and Christian martyrs. A spring semester of art history my freshman year of college then four months later, I saw, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sliver of atmosphere between Adam’s finger and God’s. God’s breath jumped the lacuna and gave life to us all. The breath of life.

I was thinking recently about a phrase I have heard more times than I can remember, especially in prayers: the less fortunate. Please, God, be with the less fortunate. The least of these. “Please, God, be with those who have less fortune or no fortune.”

God gives and He takes away, but to some does He even give? “I need to refill the honeypot of blessings,” he says to the unborn soul, “but I’ve got to enflesh you before I can go out back. Too bad. Sorry. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And these are the people, these children of God, who end up wetting themselves on a bench in Bratislava. They get the breath of life, but they do not get good fortune. The lucky souls hurry past to their hot meals and warm beds, to their glorious memories still so new that they cannot shake them or the colors will run.

Good thing I bought the Old Dublin pipe tobacco and Danneman Sweets. Did I really need the venison kebabs, rice pilaf, and orange Fanta I ate for lunch? The caviar and sour cream on crepes for an appetizer? The beef filet in herb butter with potatoes, ketchup, and fried champignons for dinner? A Coke? And for dessert blackberry jam wrapped in crepes and drizzled with blackberry syrup and topped with whipped cream?

Who is responsible for the man curled up on the park bench? Me or God? What about the woman urinating on herself in public?

I cannot shake the image out of my mind. I will never see her again, but I will see someone like her. I will do something about it this time. I think God gave himself to us in Christ so that we can give ourselves to the least of these.

Introduction

While I was teaching at David Lipscomb High School, a close friend of mine from college was working as a barista in a Nashville coffeeshop.  Justin is good-looking, intelligent, and creative.  He made mostly As majoring in Communications, minoring in German, and earning quite a few credits in Missions classes.  Why would he be working a job with no potential for advancement?  Why would he be working in, ahem, the food industry? 

Well, because his gentleness, kindness, and true concern for others gave him special clothing of light in a dark corner of a dark industry. 

Yet, when people asked him what he was doing, what he’d been up to, his mention of Fido, the coffeeshop, was a conversation stopper.  Because he wasn’t embarking upon an illustrious career or going to graduate school, his education was somehow a waste.  He had missed the boat to a meaningful, respectable life.  Surely, he was lazy or immature; otherwise, why would he stay on at a dead-end job?  I don’t remember his feelings much pressure from his parents to “get a life”; they are extraordinarily supportive and open-minded, which is probably one of the reasons why Justin was contented to work somewhere he was needed, regardless of his job’s lack of prestige. 

I remember one conversation we had in which Justin expressed his frustration with people who, with a frown or dismissive, mouth-only smile, made him feel like a failure for earning a small income at a place he loved with co-workers who needed his love.  A light bulb went off in my brain:  We really don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wrote a short reflective piece called “Letting Go of the Desire to be Impressive.” I hope you enjoy it. 

Letting Go of the Desire to Be Impressive

Yesterday afternoon, which was a Sunday, I was buzzing on a double latte from the Frothy Monkey when I decided to shave my head.  We are in the middle of Lent right now.  I like the idea of a season that should be characterized by major changes and major sacrifices in our lives.  Do the people who have everything and do everything they want enjoy greater happiness than other people whose lives are more restricted by jobs and families and even bad health?  My good friend Aron Wright sings a song with a chorus that goes, “I guess some people get to do what they want…I guess some people get to do what they want…while we pay…while we pay.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I lead a pretty cushy life.  If I can afford to pay $1.65 for a small cup of coffee on Monday morning during my planning period, then I can’t have too much to complain about.

I was thinking about how I need a haircut.  I was also thinking about how I get tired of trying to look good or presentable or attractive, really just pouring energy into maintaining appearance.  Physical appearance.  Girls have it worse, I know, but that doesn’t mean guys don’t get sick of the expectations placed on them to be charming or smooth or powerful, any variety of stereotypical masculine characteristics we choose to build our facades.  I can’t speak for all the men I know, but I can speak for myself.  I say “facades” because most of the time my braggadocio, sarcasm, and striving to be funny are a cover-up. 

Most of the time, I feel like a wreck. I’m not saying I’m about to hyperventilate and have a nervous break-down. Guys get tired of jockeying for attention from girls.  Of dreading work and longing for vacations only to have them tainted by the dread of going home to the daily grind.  Of cultivating some degree of physical strength while knowing that our bodies will eventually weaken and finally fail.

I think we all get tired of looking like we have it all together.  Adjust your tie, fix your cuffs, put on your most convincing, fakest smile, and shake everybody’s hand.  “Oh yes, Bill, the golf game’s great.  Family’s great.  Business is great.”  But, Bill, let’s not talk about my daughter’s anorexia.  Or my wife’s depression.  My own struggle with pornography.  Let’s not talk about how tired you are because the burden of caring for your parents fell to you.  Let’s not talk about the rumors: you’re having an affair and your son has a drinking problem.”

I get so tired of having to be “impressive.”  Maybe I put this pressure on myself:  to make something of myself, to choose a career, to fulfill my potential.  Yes, God gave me certain talents and abilities.  People tell me they enjoy reading what I have written.  In the past, I have taken the compliment as a firebrand. 

It’s as if I am riding a horse at a comfortable trot, and somebody comes along and says I have a natural ability.  I am a good rider.  What do I do?  I put that firebrand to the flank of the horse, and off we go at a helter-skelter gallop.  I work so hard at trying to be brilliant at what I’m doing that the horse starts frothing at the mouth.  I’m killing the horse, I don’t notice the flowers’ perfume or the magnificent old trees on the edges of the pasture.  I don’t appreciate the sweetness of the breeze, the touch of the sun on my skin, or the immense power of the animal underneath me. 

I stop enjoying myself because I strive to earn a compliment that was given as a gift. 

Last night at a Spirituality Practice Group at Bongo Java, I realized how much I strive to earn grace.  Scott Owings, the Minister of Spiritual Formation at Otter Creek Church, has been leading us in some Ignatian Contemplation exercises, that is, St. Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order in the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Ignatius believed in the importance of “imagination” in the Christian disciplines.

This particular exercise involved imagining that an artist had sculpted my likeness for public exhibition.  The artist gave me a key and as much time as I wanted to examine the statue.  I imagined an old fashioned key with two teeth on it and a trefoil handle.  It let me into a room with hardwood floors.  Each step echoed in the dark.  In the middle, illuminated by light coming through the windows, was my statue.  I tugged the sheet, and it slipped to the floor.  I looked at the statue.  Exaggerated cheekbones; prominent, blade-like nose; deep eye sockets; a mouth opened and hard with effort.  I was naked above the waist and flinging a spear. I talked to the statue.  The statue talked to me.  Jesus came into the room and asked me why I was filled with so much rage, why I felt the need to take power for myself and use it.  “Why won’t you sit at my feet?”  

Why won’t we just sit at his feet? We can no more earn or lose his love than we can stop the sun from shining or change the tides. I’m learning to sit still and receive God’s love for me as the extravagant gift that it is.