When We Dance Alone

I am summoned to the front of the pocket-sized room by a woman I take to be the funeral director’s wife. She calls up Lisa, too, who introduced herself previously as the legally appointed guardian of the deceased, a man I’ve never met who now lies dead in a resplendent, satin-lined casket to our left. The hospice chaplain, the funeral director, and two unidentified attendants comprise our audience. The woman arranges herself, Lisa, and me in a tight, uncomfortable circle; I am facing a large monitor mounted above the casket upon which disparate scenes of animals, sunsets, water features and wildflowers appear then fade away. The woman reaches for the first of three battery powered candles arranged on an elevated table behind us; I recognize them as the same set I recently purchased for ten bucks from a national chain store. She flips the switch to set the wick aglow and then pulls our three hands together clumsily to cradle the candle from below. As ancient speakers only partially concealed by dusty drapes in the corners emit the first notes of This Little Light of Mine, we lift the candle above our heads, hold it aloft for three beats, then lower it between us; she then returns it to its place on the small table. We repeat this awkward ritual with the two remaining candles, singing stiffly along with the cheery verses, before retaking our seats.

I did not know the deceased, whom I’ll call JG, a 64 year-old, neatly coiffed black man with a pencil-thin mustache who received hospice services from the agency where I volunteer. As a recent transplant to Cincinnati who has attended only a handful of mostly memorial services, I have no idea what may be appropriate attire so I fall back on black. Lisa, unaccountably clad in what look to be hiking pants, Birkenstock sandals, and a light green, short-sleeve rayon blouse, has spent the previous ten minutes paging through a sparse album containing faded photos from the 1970s of a young man and woman who look to be in their twenties with a small girl who might be seven or eight, presumably JG and his family. All that is known is that once he had a wife and daughter, both of whom have been dead a long time, Lisa explains. “JG was hard to understand,” she tells me. “He had that loose tongue thing, you know, where he rolled all his vowels.” I don’t have any idea of what she means, but apparently this is why she never learned anything about JG during the time she served as his legal guardian. She visited him only a couple of times, she admits. “I have 57 clients. It’s hard to keep track of the details.”

As the chorus disappears under a blanket of staticky electronic feedback, the chaplain commences his eulogy. Oddly, it is replete with anecdotes about his own wife and daughter while containing nothing substantial about JG. He recounts a remark JG’s roommate at the nursing home made about his snoring; he speculates about a female friend who made a flirtatious reference to his broad shoulders. Claiming to have known JG for eight years, the chaplain cannot provide any concrete details regarding JG’s biography before the nursing home other than his profession as a house painter. The sadness that first cornered me upon finding no family or friends in attendance now gains a sharper edge: here lies a man who danced for sixty-four years upon the skin of this earth, skipping to moments of laughter, bending under burdens of grief, holding fast to friends, celebrating momentous events – a man who was once a babe in his mother’s arms, who attended school and went to work and watched TV and drove a car and married a woman and had a child – yet left barely a trace of evidence of those moments or things or people who impacted him or whom felt the effect of him in his wake. How can that be? How can one live that long, have the perspicacity to purchase an expensive casket and the services of a funeral home in advance, afford a nursing home, keep a photo album and proudly display a Beatles poster on the wall of his room to commemorate attendance at a long-ago concert and yet not maintain sufficient human connections to garner even a small gathering at his own funeral? What happened to you JG?

After the chaplain winds up his sermonizing with a vehement attestation that the world was created in just seven days, yessirreee, our little group files outside to stand beside the hearse. As the O’Jays serenade us with Stairway to Heaven from its speakers, the funeral director releases three blue balloons into the sky. My environmentally-aware self shudders inwardly: I wait for the balloons to catch on one of the entangled threads of telephone lines looped across the horizon but they manage to sail above and quickly disappear, blue against blue an unfortunate choice of color scheme. Stairway to Heaven fades abruptly, mid-chorus and suddenly the funeral director is gathering me into a hearty embrace. (Wait – I don’t know you!) The rest of the group shakes hands effusively, apparently either feeling saintly that we gave good effort to this thankless duty or relieved that the dismal ceremony has finally ended and we can resume our daily grind.

As the rest of the group troops back into the funeral home, I make my way across the crumbling driveway to my car. Pulling out, I note a gangly man folded like a pretzel on his front stoop, nursing a tall boy. A healthy growth of weeds fans the curbside all the way down the block. As I navigate the backstreets of downtown Cincy, I drift into a worn groove of speculation about death: how some get to know ahead of time and for some it’s a surprise; that dying in one’s sleep can be a blessing or a curse; when particulars of geography and health and work and cost preclude the attendance of people who care; why the dispensation of corpses is more important to some folks than others; how notions of reincarnation or salvation or a reintegration with an amorphous, energetic life force or a complete erasure into a featureless void will inform the process of the inevitable. What I don’t know, can only surmise, is what JG thought about death, his own death, and the circumstances that resulted in a pitiful clutch of strangers bidding him a rote and generic adieu.

 

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

– “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne


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Success?

My time in Moldova comes to an end in exactly two weeks. I’ve been busy packing suitcases to ship home; trekking overflow items to Peace Corps office for adoption by other volunteers; saying goodbye to friends and co-workers; visiting a variety of restaurants I had no idea existed here; solidifying plans for various journeys I’ll take in the next few months – in short, distracting myself from reflexively seeking to affirm that three years of service have generated some notable positive outcomes. In a word: success! A fellow M27 just sent me an email in which he observed that, though he left Moldova over a year ago, he has yet to reflect or even talk about his time in country. I understand perfectly; it is an experience that I did not imagine completely absorbing for years, maybe even decades. Perhaps it would coalesce into clarity only on my deathbed, I thought.

I was wrong. Because this:

 :I boarded a bus yesterday evening to go say goodbye to a couple of friends, a delightful couple with whom I made a memorable trip to Poland (you will always remember the people who walked beside you through Auschwitz.) I was pondering our respective next moves, marveling at the circumstances that brought us into each other’s orbit – them career State Department employees who routinely relocate to a different country every 2-3 years, me having made an impulsive leap out of 20+ years of suburban stasis – when I unwittingly sat down across from this guy pictured above. At first, he was reclining with his head back, eyes shut, legs stuck out straight, for all the world as if his seat was a poolside lounger. I assumed he was a commuter catching a quick nap on the way home. Caught in my reverie, I was barely taking in the cues: wet, mud stained trousers, oil-slicked hair, crispy, sunburned skin. I’ve been living here long enough that my surroundings have receded into a backdrop and no longer command the stage.

A couple of minutes into the ride, however, he reared up, gasping, and the abruptness of the movement caught my attention. At this point I was sitting directly across from him, our seats facing each other in that oddly forced intimacy so commonplace in Moldovan trolleys. Through a milky film that occluded both pupils, his eyes locked onto mine as if grasping for a fixed point on a distant horizon. Like a dashboard bobble, his head seemed only loosely connected to an insubstantial neck. He had a harelip and a badly running nose. His eyes kept shifted from my forehead to my nose, to my mouth, to my hair, then back to my eyes again, perhaps trying to integrate the disparate signals reaching his brain. Far inside those murky depths, I sensed a drowning intelligence, a mind still fighting to surface but destined to be overwhelmed, ultimately, by a raging sea. Then he pitched forward, clutched my hands and collapsed face first onto my lap. I could feel his snot penetrating my pants and the grit on his hands abrading mine.

“Nu, nu, nu,” I murmured softly, hoping not to attract attention. “Nyet.” I disentangled myself and crossed the aisle to another seat, whereupon he slid sideways into his own, sinking slowly, inexorably downward for the remainder of my journey.

I’ve encountered sufficient drunks to recognize the acidic stench of an alcohol stew; this man did not give off that smell. For the split second his face was buried in my crotch, I caught whiffs of grass and dirt and sweat and a distant, lingering memory of detergent from his shirt. No, he had the vague, un-sanitized aroma of the mentally ill or of someone, perhaps, in the final throes of a devastating illness.

It is in these situations when that worn-out, abused meme elbows its way to the forefront in my brain: What would Jesus do? Not because I’m a bible-thumping, holier-than-thou proselytizer, but because I find the model of Jesus’ life and his philosophy, even more so than Buddha’s or Mohammed’s or the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s, the ultimate ideal of human compassion, generosity, and unconditional love. As Stephen Colbert trenchantly observed:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Now, granted, I was riding a bus in Moldova, not the US, and I have no idea what this man’s economic circumstances might actually be, but you get the picture. For all my aspirations toward idealism in joining the Peace Corps – living a more compassionate and caring existence, crossing cultural divides and viewing the world from a different perspective, appreciating the ties that bind us as a global family, yadayadayada – my instinctive response to the “poor” and “needy” when they face plant in my privates is to distance myself, cut away, feign ignorance. Please don’t snot or grime me. I don’t see you.

Although he was no longer aware of me, my gaze kept shifting back to him, a lone, crumpled assemblage of bones among upright rows of briefcase-toting professionals, young women reflecting themselves in mobile phones, grandmothers in shapeless housedresses, fathers holding babies.  Draped over the seatback and hand pole in a submissive posture of degradation and vulnerability, despite being clothed in what may have been, even recently, business casual dress and buffed leather shoes. What was his story? What had happened to him between womb and trolleybus? Where were his people – his parents, or siblings, or school mates, or friends? How had he been reduced from chubby-cheeked toddler to desperate adult, riding an endless bus to avoid the rain?  How indiscriminate, blind, the hand of fate?

I thought of the kids I had worked with for two decades back in California, foster youths, wards of the state, removed from dangerous or apathetic parents, trailing burgeoning files of nasty diagnoses: paranoid personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, anti-social/psychopathic tendency, etc., all usually stemming from the post-traumatic stress rooted in the horrific conditions and experiences of their pasts. And all I could do was get up and change seats.

It slammed into me then, that unsought assessment of what my time here has been worth, catching me unaware, unprotected against the futility and sadness of the epiphany. It is, indeed, a very small world. Six thousand miles and an intervening ocean don’t alter the face of the poor or the needy. It’s only the excuses that change. Back in the US, I had traversed the familiar stages of many a social work career, descending from occasional bouts of disenchantment to a more constant, simmering disgruntlement before landing in the bubbling cauldron of seething disillusionment. I was mad at office politics and national politics, city government and non-profit boards; frustrated by the blatant materialism encouraged in our clients to distract them from the challenges of their circumstances; anguished by the generational abuse I stayed long enough to witness, deeply defensive about the pervasive obstacles I viewed as outside my control.

The notion of Peace Corps – overseas service, a change of scenery, escape from the whirlpool of my cynicism – became the saving grace to which I pinned my faltering notions of what ‘being the change’ I wanted to see in the world really meant. I was going to make a difference. Again, at last, finally.

But what truth  I finally allowed admission here – one not endemic to the Republic of Moldova, but to most nations and most people, and, most painfully, within myself.  In both the villages and the capital, during training and throughout an extended third year, among other PCVs and ex-pats who had come to serve the needy, through a slew of projects and initiatives that purport to foster sustainable change, I encountered a new cornucopia of excuses, reasons why we failed.  And I suddenly realized that there will forever be excuses, we have two thousand years’ worth of reasons why we fail, justifications for why one can’t fit that huge, hairy camel through that ridiculously microscopic needle’s eye.  How prostitute’s feet have been shown to carry disease.  And how impossible it is to throw the moneychangers from the temple once they’ve got the keys. After all, Jesus was a special case, right?  And – even though the United States has cast itself in the role of world savior, a “Christian” nation that touts the four gospels of freedom, equality, opportunity and democracy – it has it’s own citizens safety to prioritize and ensure, doesn’t it.  And surely I cannot not be blamed for avoiding potential contagions or possible threats to my personal integrity, can I?

Please. Scroll up. Read Colbert’s quote a second time.  Spend a sobering 15 minutes seriously pondering the tableau of humanity above, as I did on that bus ride last night to visit those lovely friends who pondered the piled luggage and shorn hair and abandoned eyeglasses and moldering shoes alongside me at Auschwitz. Who spent a solemn three minutes inside a gas chamber, wondering how it happened.

An hour after this experience I was wolfing down a tender brisket, fried okra, baked beans and mac-and-cheese, some of the definitive staples of America’s Southern hospitality. A day later, I’m still doing my damnedest to digest that gluttonous feast, to shut him out, close my eyes, file through the myriad reasons I’m not to blame. But damn if he doesn’t keep thrusting out an intruding hand, chipping away at the glow of my final days, calling into question every moment of the past three years.

Leaving me with just one word: Nyet.

The Face of God

This past weekend I was fortunate to spend time in intentional retreat with a group of thirty women, most of them in their forties, fifties, and sixties, but one as young as twenty six who fit right in with the rest of us.   It was especially bittersweet for me, knowing that I have only one month left in the States and that I will not see the majority of them for a long, long time.  I know these women through a particular church – one with a very liberal, progressive, and non-dogmatic theology – that I began attending in 2008, many years after fleeing Catholicism in disgust during early adolescence.   I don’t see all of them every week; in fact, this annual weekend retreat represents my sole contact with more than half of them.  Amazingly, we pick up right where we left off the previous year, somehow still close in heart and mind despite having spent little or no time with each other in the interim.

My issues with organized religion are familiar to a host of others, I’m sure, who have been unable to resolve the ethical and moral dissonance demonstrated constantly in the disparity between message and action of so many self-identified “Christians.”   The Jesus who is portrayed in the gospels has no similarity, for me, to the “Christ” of those who denigrate and disparage others because of their ethnicity, vulnerabilities, sexuality, gender identity, alternate stories of God, or any one of the myriad qualities that define us as radiant, unique personifications of inspired creation.

What is refreshing and altogether captivating about being with these women is that for some 48 hours I am actually living within a community that aims to substantiate the gospels’ exhortation to love wholeheartedly and without judgment.   For a brief two days, barriers to acceptance are lowered and one can dangle a toe or finger in the heady waters of unconditional love.   There are tears and confessions and expiation and deep belly laughter and an ephemeral joy that sometimes swells and lifts us to epiphany.

They are not saints, or angels, or martyrs, these women; we complain, and kvetch, and gossip, and share private jokes that could prove to be hurtful if aired.  We are human and often fail to fully embody the challenging ministry set forth by Jesus to love all others unreservedly.  But girding our weaknesses and missteps is a powerful commitment to see and hear and hold one another, to create a safe space where vulnerabilities and transgressions can be revealed and acknowledged, shared, and reframed into a basis for learning and growing.  We are able to look unblinking into each others’ eyes and sing “You are beautiful, you are whole, and you are perfect; you are a gift to this world.”  As corny as this may sound, it takes an unusual degree of trust and hopefulness do this with conviction, with no hesitancy or shame or embarrassment.

It is experiences like this that I will miss so much, and wonder how to recreate in a land where the language is not innate to me, where the cultural mores are different, where religion is embodied in unfamiliar rites and rituals that have deep historical significance for its practitioners, but no meaningful resonance for me. Yet this is one of the integral reasons I had for joining the Peace Corps: the wish to surmount fear of the other, the uncomfortable, the foreign or strange.  So much in our current post-9/11 experience emphasizes our separateness, preys upon our anxieties regarding anything foreign, and magnifies our convictions that we as Americans personify the best way of being in this world.  But if one examines the basis of these fears and anxieties and convictions, one might be surprised to discover similar mental constructs separating us from our unmet neighbors; the homeless guy at his post on the off ramp; the hoodie-shrouded youths approaching on a darkened street; the sea of unfamiliar faces at a professional convention; the intimate huddles of conversers at a cocktail party; an authority figure presiding over an important aspect of our life; or a group of foreign travelers sharing our same flight.  We project dark forces and magnificent foes into the void of the unknown, imagining, conversely, that which is familiar to be somehow more fitting or appropriate to our survival or comfort, even if sometimes it has proved just as dangerous or malevolent in its manifestations.

Both times prior to my venturing into unfamiliar countries – Ecuador and Peru, then Guatemala – I have nursed an amalgamation of irrational fears, visualizing roving bands of armed thugs predisposed to hijacking tour buses; cunning tricksters sidling through crowds to surreptitiously liberate my passport or wallet; Kafka-esque labyrinths of unexpected bureaucracy that would entrap and preclude me returning to the US; narcotized, hallucinating drivers piloting rickety taxis over precipices; or sardonic vendors who would sell me tainted food in revenge for my perceived affluence.   All of these anxieties, while traceable, perhaps, to some apocryphal story of a friend of a friend or inflammatory media depiction aimed at the consuming masses, were born of the amorphous stew that bubbles up from the hippocampus, warning us to regard anything unknown as suspect and inherently dangerous, an ingrained, primal reaction that the disciples of Jesus so elegantly surmounted by welcoming the traveler, the Gentile, the leper, the thief and the prostitute into their midst.

I am so profoundly grateful for these women, their actualization of Christian love and the buoyancy they have breathed into my spirit as I embark on my lengthy sojourn half way across the world.  I trust that their legacy of love and encouragement will help me build connections with the new women I will meet, and find familiarity and comfort in them and their husbands and children and parents and siblings and neighbors and teachers and priests.  I am learning to acknowledge, then stay my irrational fears, relinquishing them in favor of an enfolding trust that all that is human is in common with me and is synonymous with  the face of God.

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

1 John 4:20