By Cat Jones
“Everything is broken.” — Bob Dylan
“There is a crack. A crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen
Addendum from the Twin Cities
So I’m in a bar in St Paul now, where I have found salvation after all. Yes, my sisters and my brothers. And this is how it all went down. I walked in here while on this pilgrimage, searching for God and answers on the I-94. I’ve stopped for the night, and while that usually just means camping out in a rest stop with my dogs, happy circumstances brought me to this hotel tonight. And it has a swimming pool, and a swimming pool-sized jacuzzi, and yes it has a bar. So naturally, here I am. And I tell you this tale over another Blue Moon. (This is Part II in a continuing story of pilgrimage and salvation. You can find Part I here if you want to, or you can start right here. It’s all a circle anyway.)
The bar is shaped like a horse shoe, and there are well-rendered, ancient-looking brass horse heads every few feet along the edge. My elbow rests on one, and I can’t help but pet it every now and then. Brass is always good to grazing animals; the golden metal wraps their broad, flat surfaces like the golden light wrapped across the hills of Wyoming, where this cosmic rendering started. The light guilds everything in ways that make me want to run my hands across these surfaces …in the same way that my body had to run through the hills out there, next to the Rockies, on my wandering, out in the endless wilderness.
So here I am. I pet my pony and sip my pint, and draw everything in my sketchbook. It’s quiet in here tonight, but not lacking in colorful characters. Of those, we have a rich tapestry. There is a biker couple sitting across the bar from me (I didn’t catch his name, but hers is Stacy and I drew her portrait, and she gave my dog a treat). There are two Somali businessmen on one corner, quietly discussing apparently important things, mostly in a language I can’t understand but occasionally in strands of English. And to my right, on the other corner, there is an obnoxiously drunk couple, blathering endless, pointless word lassoes, in a futile effort to connect themselves to others in a way that has some kind of meaning. They keep calling wrong numbers. They’re trying to call her “bes’ freyunnnd,” but they keep using too many numbers and incorrect numbers and not enough numbers to do it successfully. At one point, they use the right amount of numbers, only to get into an argument with “Chelsea” for not knowing who they are. She hangs up on them and they consider, loudly, what her problem is tonight, before it slowly dawns on them (long after it has quietly dawned upon the rest of us) that it wasn’t Chelsea. The bartender, stoically taking it all in, is a handsome brick wall of a man, very sweet and cordial and built like a Michaelangelo statue.
So this is the millieu in which this all takes place. Ah, the characters of life. The bartender turns out to be a former pro football player who is now a coach, aside from bartending, and I think he might be on TV here in St Paul. (I think he mentioned that, but I’m not positive, because I’m not really listening yet. I’m drawing.) I’ve never heard of him, but his name is Freddie Weinke, in case you have. Drunken Couple knows who he is, and they’re impressed. I get the feeling they drink here a lot.
I don’t care overmuch about football, so I’m barely listening to all that until he mentions that his wife is an artist. “No shit?” I say, over the top of my sketchbook. One of the reasons I’d come to St Paul tonight was to find out about its allegedly thriving art scene. I’d been hearing lots of rumors, and wanted to find out for myself. And anyway, I’m always interested in people’s art. So Freddie and I bond over this. He pulls out his phone and shows me photos of her work. He’s very proud of her. Which makes me smile. He clearly loves his wife and supports her work, and what could be sexier than that.
She’s from Detroit and is a Tigers fan. We all find this out because Freddie’s been leaning against the side of the bar for awhile, staring at his phone. Someone asks him what he’s looking at, and it’s a Detroit Tigers game. Drunken-Couple Man wrinkles his nose at the Tigers. “My wife is from Detroit,” Freddie shrugs. And that’s how we learn this extraneous detail. For some reason Drunken-Couple Woman wants to know, “Sah, how didjzhoo two meeeet, i’sheez from Detroit.” And that’s how we come to see this video of Freddie proposing to his wife on live television one morning, with the help of the Detroit Tigers mascot. Ah, St Paul, you had me at hello.
One of the Somali businessmen asks for a Stella.
“What?” Asks Freddie, blinking up from his phone.
“Stella,” repeats the Somali businessman.
“Stilla?” Asks Freddie, perplexed.
Drunken-Couple Woman wants to be involved, so she slings out a word lasso. “Whaaaah?!” She intones, with a furrowed brow and suspicious, wobbling eyes, focusing in and out on Somali Businessman in the way she might look at a bug in her glass.
“STELLahhh,” pronounces Somali Businessman carefully. “A German beer.” (Really it’s Belgian, I believe, but who am I to quibble.)
“Beck?” Says Freddie, naming the only German beer he can think of. “Bock?”
Unbelievable. Are they just fucking with this guy because he’s got an accent?
“Stella,” I pronounce indignantly from across the bar. And now it’s become a line from Streetcar Named Desire.
Somali Businessman throws his arms in the air in relief and grins a wide smile. “Yes!” He declares. “Apparently, she is my translator!” And I glare at Freddie, daring him to misinterpret this again.
But it turns out Freddie really wasn’t being a colonialist jerk; he really just had no idea what a Stella is. “Stella,” I say to his innocently baffled, furrowed brow. “Stella Artois.”
Still no comprehension. “Honestly,” I say. “What kind of bartender has never heard of Stella Artois?”
“YEuwww people uhr bein’ tooooo freakin fuhh-seeee,” says Drunken Couple Woman, who actually is being a colonialist jerk. “Jus’ have a freakin’ BUDweizshuuuubr….” (She says that while leaning precariously toward the poor man, in a looming effort to be intimidating.) Somali businessman takes it all well, laughs jovially as if he’s reading her like a joke, which he probably is, but I’m feeling a little exasperated with the scene now. And that’s when Chris enters the room.
He pops out of a doorway at the back somewhere. He had just been clearing out an office downstairs, apparently, and everyone knows him by name. He comes and stands right next to me to order some juice from Freddie. He stands a little too close, and that always puts me on alert. I set up silent barricades around myself when men get too close to me in a bar. I turn away, refusing to make eye contact; drawing, I ignore him. But then, “Is ka warran!” He declares warmly across the bar to the Somali businessman who had wanted the Stella. “Fiid wanaagsan! Is ka warran!” Cries Somali Businessman back. He comes over and the two warmly embrace. So, in light of the jerky, colonialist exchange that occurred right before he walked in, Chris has just risen considerably in my estimation.
They engage in friendly banter in two languages for a moment before Somali Businessman evaporates into the men’s room. Then, intrigued, I ask Chris about the words he’d just spoken. He articulates them again, tells me they’re a greeting. He teaches me several other Somali phrases, and then he explains, “You know, there are all these people who think everyone else in the world needs to learn to speak English to accommodate us. I say no way! We all need to be learning each other’s languages! It’s a sign of love and respect, and if we all do that, one day we’ll all be speaking the same language.”
Word up, Chris.
“Indeed,” I say, casting a sideways glare at Drunken Couple. They’re tearfully reminiscing about a dog named Kenny now. Totally oblivious. Kenny lives with someone they know. And they haven’t seen him in awhile. And he has a lot of hair.
Chris goes on. “I think it’s important that we learn to love each other.” He says “It’s all about love.” “Mmm,” I say, turning back to my sketchbook.
But Chris isn’t done yet. He remarks upon my drawing, tells me he loves art and wants to tell me a story about another drawing, done by a person he met in this very bar. Which he starts to do, but before he gets there he meanders through some other stories. He tells me he used to “own this whole establishment,” and by that I think he means the bar but it turns out he actually means the entire hotel, bar and all, because there are comped rooms in the stories, and I’m not sure how a bar owner could do a thing like that.
So yeh, I guess I’m talking to a former owner of this hotel. He sold it all a couple of years ago to devote all of his time and resources to his ministry, he says, and he’s just here tonight to clear out his office and offer salvation to a pilgrim in a bar. He started a foundation, the World Effort Foundation, and he talks to me about that work – about giving away free donuts, and donated furniture and things. He shows me pictures on his phone of poor people his foundation has donated resources to. And I’ll be honest here that some of this strikes me as too White Savior-ish, too Avatar-on-Pandora for my taste. He’s showing me a lot of pictures of black people in empty “before” rooms and then smiling in “after” rooms with furniture, or with new shoes on, or with donuts in their hands. I don’t mean to be impolite about that part, but I can’t not see it and my mind begins to wander.
Eventually, though, he gets to the story about the drawing, and that catches my attention back again. It’s a story about a troubled woman he’d met in this bar, who needed help once. He wound up comping her a room there for awhile, and helping her out. In gratitude, she had left a drawing for him. It turned out to be a drawing of a photograph he’d taken, that he’d secretly wanted to ask her to draw but hadn’t, and she drew it anyway. He shows me the photograph.
“It was a day of blinding sunlight,” he says, “And I took it blind.” (He acts out squinting and holding up his phone and snapping a pic with his face turned away. I was expecting a sun-blown, squinting selfie and I steeled myself up for that. But no!) It was actually a beautiful photograph of a cross on top of a church, with the brilliant sun blasting from behind it, swallowing the cross up in a conflagration of glorious light. This is of great interest to me, both as a visual artist, and because I had just been out in the hills trying to photograph God. Or religion, anyway. I had started off seeking evidence of the divine, and wound up seeking random suggestions of religious iconography in the landscape. Accidental crucifixes, mainly, because they’re everywhere, and they drew my attention as I was mulling over a lot of things, including the street preacher who had told me I couldn’t be saved.
So this seems like an interesting moment. There’s some cosmic synchronicity here, and I’ve learned not to ignore these things.
“I was told I can’t be saved,” I blurt out, eyeing this man cautiously, testing the water with a toe.
“Oh,” he groans, throwing his head back and to the side with all the suitable drama that the situation truly does require. He looks genuinely pained over this. “Who on earth told you such a thing?” And I tell him.
“It was a street preacher,” I say, inclining my own head in an invitation to Chris to defend his kind. “In New York.” And I give him the Cliff’s Notes regarding Sal and his cartoon God and his Jezebels.
“I would like to totally apologize to you,” Chris says, with the gravity of real sincerity, “on behalf of the true teachings of Love.”
A Minister, Not a Preacher
It’s here that Chris explains to me that he’s a street minister, not a preacher. “A minister serves,” he says gently. “While a preacher just preaches.” I think I understand, and if so, this is a significant difference. One is more about ego (Sal, the street preacher), while the other is about practicing from the well of love and faith, and possibly caffeine (Chris, the street minister).
We have an interesting conversation now, about Jesus being a radical, an anti-capitalist, and a teacher of love, forgiveness, and mercy – not fire and brimstone. About all religions just being maps from wherever we are to where we need to be. Chris got God from Christianity, but he agrees that other maps work just as well for other people.
Everyone is loved, Everyone can be saved, Chris asserts. He talks a lot about love, and a lot about energy. It’s all kind of a syncretic stew of New Age paganism, Jungian psychology, eastern thought, and Christianity. And he tells a lot of stories of redemption. No God pamphlets in his hand, no cartoon scribbles in the stagnant air, just stories and joy. His enthusiastic sincerity is captivating. I begin to suspect that I had initially misread him – maybe he’s not a “white savior,” mining powerless people for gratitude and accolades, maybe this one is for real. He really seems to believe in this work he’s doing, he really seems to believes in everyone he’s doing it for. I do suspect he’s had a lot of caffeine, because nobody can be this joyful, can they? But mainly, he seems like a good person, genuinely following his own path to salvation and eager to help other people find theirs.
Pulled toward him by the energy of his enthusiasm, I feel safe enough to mention the other part of that story to him, the one about the street preacher in New York. “He said he’d prove to me that there’s an afterlife,” I say, giving no more details than that.
“Oh I think I can do that,” Chris says. And then, as if to underline the strange symmetry between these two events, he adds, “I can tell you what I know in 5 minutes or less.”
“Whoa!” I laugh. “The other guy was gonna do it in 3 or 4.” Clearly this is a more serious answer, in that it’s going to take an additional minute.
Chris gets off to a slow start, by referencing the fact that some people have said there is an alleged .04oz loss of weight at death. Having a little familiarity myself with Duncan McDougal’s questionable 1907 experiments on that point, I interrupt with some skepticism. “I know some people have said that,” I begin, “But others have not found that to be credibly shown in the data from the original experiments and, as far as I know, it’s never been successfully replicated….”
“Bear with me for a moment,” says Chris, pausing and regrouping, expertly starting where the client is, as they say. “We can do it without even going there.”
And he does! He abandons the proof that wasn’t going to work for me, and nevertheless goes on to make a very good case for the probability of life after death. He does it without the usual tautological references to words in the Bible, too, which is a great relief. He doesn’t use his religious map at all. In order to show me why he thinks the soul is immortal, Chris uses physics.
“Are you familiar with the first law of physics?” He asks. And I am, very much so, as my first major in college was physics. (More synchronicity.) I think, at first, that he means Newton’s first law of motion, but it turns out he means the first law of thermodynamics, the principle of conservation of energy: Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed to another state.
Energy. (And matter.) They cannot be destroyed. Only transformed.
Our bodies are made of matter, which is transformed when we die to compost, refurbished and reborn into other’s bodies, from the microbes in the soil all the way up back into larger and more complex organisms like ourselves again. But the animating force within us, the thing that makes us “alive,” that is the soul, and that is energy. And energy cannot be destroyed. It is only transformed.
I laugh out loud. Not the derisive laugh I’ve grown used to hearing from myself, but a happy, joyful laugh. “Whoa,” I exclaim. “That was a very creditable explanation. Good job!” And it is, too. I mean, I still have my doubts, and I still really want some proof. Because it’s not like I haven’t mulled that one over a time or two myself, the possible energetic properties and survival of the soul via the conservation of energy. But in listening to this man’s sincere and well-rendered account, making no attempt to bludgeon me into believing something just because the bible said it… well I really do suddenly feel like he might be onto something.
“I can teach you what I’ve learned,” he says meaningfully, “And I can tell you what I believe. But I cannot tell you what to believe.”
A Flowing Body of Water
Indeed. I ponder mortality, immortality, and the strange brew of life awhile over my Blue Moon. After awhile, I decide this night is rich and full enough to retire to my room and consider it from there. It’s time to call it a night. I say goodnight to Drunken Couple, to both of the Somali businessmen, to Stacy and her man, and to Freddie. Chris, who’s been holding a harmonica, for some reason, ever since he walked in, asks if I’ll walk out with him so he can play me a song. Uh oh.
I eye him suspiciously. Oh, this isn’t all gonna just be deflated in a cheap come on, is it? And my skepticism must be showing, because when I glance at Freddie, his eyes are narrowed and his brow is cocked and his head is tilted to one side in a conspiratorial gesture of solidarity with my thoughts. “Uh…” I begin.
I mutter something about making it a practice not to be accompanied out of bars by strange men, no offense. But this isn’t what he has in mind, he pleads, very sincerely. He really just wants to play me a song. Somehow, he manages to persuade me that he means no harm, and that it might be good to hear what he wants to play. I did come here for the art scene, after all…
All right, I acquiesce. But only right down the wide, open hallway, within sight of the bar. So we walk down the hall between the bar and the lobby, far enough as not to be impolite with the noise, but close enough for safety, and Chris puts the harp to his mouth and begins to play.
It’s Amazing Grace. As if the night required any more intriguing spiritual turns, that was the song that Sid had asked us to play on the night that he was dying. It was the first moment when I really knew he was really going to die. I’d been fighting so hard against that realization. I’d been arguing with doctors, experimenting with every last “cure” anyone said might work, and making Sid promise me he’d live. All the way up until the moment that he asked me to play that song. It was such a cinematic thing, such a recognizable sign to me. He knew he was dying, and wanted to be sung out according to his gentle faith. (Like I said, I’m not really a Christian, but Sid kind of was. Not in the sense of that first street preacher, but more in the sense of this minister, mixed with a lot of other open-minded philosophies.) Sure, there are lots of reasons why Chris might have picked that song. But I want to believe it’s a wink from Sid, some kind of sign that he’s still here. Transformed, but present. Right here, still with me.
True to his word, all Chris had been after was the chance to play that song. As soon as he’s finished playing, we say goodnight, and he slips out through a side door and disappears into the St Paul night. (Saint Paul…Formerly Saul. He had a strange epiphany out on the road once too, as I suddenly recall. Hmmm.)
I turn to go back to my room, but on my way down the deserted hallway, I again see that huge swimming pool and giant jacuzzi, visible even in the dark, through glass doors that are closed but, upon investigation, not locked. I’ve got a thing about these kinds of watery places, going back a long way. How can I resist? I slip into the big, darkened, humid room. My footsteps echo across concrete and water in the hush. Knowingly, I push a big, red, “start” button on a column as I walk past, and with a low, vibrating, hummmm, the water in the jacuzzi comes rumbling to life.
I sit gingerly down on the damp concrete in the dark, next to the warm womb of water, feeling a glow that goes all the way to my soul. In such places, I’m always warmly reminded of the one thing about the time when I was homeless that I truly found joy in: breaking into hotel Jacuzzis in order to bathe. It is impossible for me to resist such luxury now.
And so, the night ends with a baptism.
I don’t have a bathing suit or anything, so I think I’m only going to stick my feet in. But as soon as my shoeless, sockless feet are dangling in the gloriously warm water, I realize that just kicking my feet in isn’t going to be nearly enough. I abandon decorum and I slide joyfully into the water, clothes and all.
I swim from end to end and back, and then I do it again. And then again and again. I splash around blissfully, rolling around in the glittering font like a porpoise.
I float. For a very long time, I just float.
At long last, I glide over to the underwater bench along the side, and I just sit there in the gurgling brew, watching the rippling waves coming up from the jacuzzi jets, and I meditate on them for a very long while. What is that animating force within them, that transference of kinetic energy from the humming motor, through the thrumming water, and onto the surface in the pattern of ripples and waves? Is that what we are? Are we a wave pattern? Generations of us, just crashing on the shore, as I have often thought?
Do the waves identify with the water, I wonder, or with their shape on the surface, in the space between the water and the air? Do they cling to this momentary form? Or do they recognize the transient nature of their ephemeral, rippling, form and identify with the deep unity of their essence, the deep well of water….
Matter, and energy. Joined at the hip, locked together in endless transformation. Never created, never destroyed, only Being, and in being, transforming and transforming and transforming….
I shake my head a little at these heady thoughts, tousling my dripping, wet, hair. I let go of the side of the little pool, I take a deep breath, and I float.
Indeed, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
re·demp·tionrəˈdem(p)SH(ə)n/2. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.