The Camera

This was the first picture she took with her new camera. Well, it was new to her and that was good enough. She found it at a pawnshop over on 9th Street, the street of lost chances and dead ends. Nobody went to live on that street if they could avoid it. But sometimes she went there to browse the pawnshop and see what she could find. There was always something there that she could find room for in her house. But that day she didn’t go to browse. She had decided she needed a camera, and the older the better. She didn’t want anything digital. She didn’t want her tools to be smarter than her. Sure, she had a smart phone that could take pictures, but she wanted something slower. Haste makes waste, after all, and being able to take a thousand pictures a day certainly created some bad shots. No, a roll of 24 shots was right up her alley.

She’d gotten into the mindfulness trend and decided her new hobby was going to be photography. Not that silly point and shoot business, but actually composing photos like you’d compose a sonata or sonnet. She wanted real pictures, with heart and soul.

But she ended up with pictures that were dark. They had soul, but it was of a dangerous bent. The camera never seemed to work when she tried to take a photo of a flower, or a child, or a puppy. Only when something tragic or scary happened would the shutter release, and she had no control over when that would happen.

It wasn’t like she pointed the camera at that car accident. She tried to frame a shot of the roadside flowers. The shutter clicked, or so she thought. She stood up and then the car came around the bend, going 90 to nothing. It hit a pothole in the road and flipped. The passenger flew out, arms flailing and then, the camera, slung on a lanyard around her neck, took the photo.

She didn’t know until she got the film back two weeks later in the mail. She’d spent the whole weekend taking photographs and none of them came out. Or rather – all of them came out perfectly – they just weren’t the photos she’d taken. The camera had taken them all. All weird. All strange. All disturbing. She noticed all the strange things that were happening that weekend she chose to learn how to use her camera. But she’d not focused on them. Who would point their camera at that? A decapitated doll. A strangled snake. And worse.

She was here to share joy with the world, and her camera seemed bent on showing junk.

She took the camera back to the pawn shop. Maybe she could trade it for another? There were no other cameras there that day, and the clerk mutely pointed at the “no refunds” sign written in 48 point font taped to the cash register. But he did offer her the name of the person who had brought it in. This was against policy, of course, but she was a regular and so patient with him so he decided to make an exception as a way to appease her.

Now she had a name. Perhaps this had happened to the last owner. Worse – perhaps the last owner had done something to make this happen. She did a little research. It didn’t take long to make contact. He owned a tea shop just four blocks away, on the other side of the tracks.

She decided to swing by to see what he looked like. Maybe she could get a feel for what kind of person he was. If he looked scary she would just leave. But he didn’t. He looked normal. So she approached him and asked if they could talk. He was used to this. People were forever coming up to him to talk about what was going on in their lives while he was at work – mostly what was going wrong. He often used to say that he should have been a priest or a bartender instead of owning a tea shop. He heard a lot of dark secrets and confessions.

She asked him about the camera. Yes, he recognized it as is. He’d pawned it because he’d gotten a digital camera and didn’t need this one anymore. No, he didn’t recall it taking strange pictures. He said he’d not used it in years, having stored away at his desk. It was the same desk where he made art every day after work. Every day his customers would pour out their problems, like buckets of rocks, into his head. It weighed him down. So he’d pour out all that misery into his artwork. It left him clear to start fresh the next day. It was how he survived. It was how he stayed sane.

They realized that the camera must have picked up some of that strangeness. It had taken up the same skewed perspective of the world as all those people who had unloaded on him. Now the camera, like the people, chose to see only ugliness and deformity.

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Soul Cave

A refreshing wave of cool, even sweet air filled her longs. A welcome respite from the oppressive heat outside. And yet, she wasn’t in a cave at all. It was a church, but it wasn’t a building. It was carved out from living rock, a sanctuary in stone.

And yet, it wasn’t. She was at work. From the outside all was the same as it has always been. It was inside that was different. She had done the work, using a spiritual pick-ax to hew out the limestone of her soul, removing the rubble handful by handful. It was the only way. There were no shortcuts with this work. It was slow going, but the other option was not at all. Only by doing this slow private work could anyone attain sanctuary. It couldn’t be found outside, not among the liars and charlatans, the shell games and shysters. Everybody who tried to sell others on their brand of salvation was a false Messiah, no matter how well intentioned.

She was lucky her stone was limestone. Some started with quartz, or marble, or even diamond. Too hard a core was very hard work. Most stopped too soon, barely making an alcove, barely enough to lean in from the rains. Homeless people sleeping in doorways had it better.

Yet others had caves of softer stuff – coal, or even chalk. Softer rock was certainly easier to work, but you ran the risk of the entire structure collapsing in on you. You had to plan ahead, taking out only some, not too much. You had to leave supports, like how stalactites met stalagmites. The best starting material was something strong yet also pliable.

Her soul rock used to be of denser stuff, but living water had softened it.

She thought back to that day when she had finally given up, finally relinquished her vain attempt at controlling her life and the actions of others around her. She gave over control to the still small voice she heard inside her, the voice that was breathed into every person when they were born.

Along with that breath, the first breath, was the quiet voice of the Creator. Outsiders (those who saw only the outside) thought that the child took her first breath, like it was something active, like it was something she did. Insiders knew that God breathed life into everyone, not just Adam. Every single person alive had been jump-started by God. This is why smoking was bad – it polluted that divine gift. This is why carefully regulating your breath was good – you were reconnecting with that gift. In rhythmically breathing in and out, you fell into God’s rhythm, God‘s embrace. You were calm because you had put your trust in the only One who had all the answers – even to questions that hadn’t been asked yet.

She sat inside her cave, just big enough for her, and looked out at the world. From here the light wasn’t so bright, the sounds weren’t so loud. She could experience it all with detachment, not anxiety.

Get with the Program

The asylum was a home to ghosts now. But then again, it always had been. Only back then it was the other kind. Back then the ghosts were bodies without a spirit, instead of the other way around. Or sometimes it was a body with more than one, or the wrong one – one that hadn’t come with the original owner.

People didn’t understand that bodies were a bit like houses. Sometimes they were unoccupied. Sometimes there was a new tenant. And sometimes there were squatters – people who snuck in and never left.

But the asylum’s founders never saw it that way. They saw it as a character flaw that people were less than stable. They were running a warehouse, not a hospital. It was more like a prison than a sanatorium. Nobody got sane there. In many cases they went even further down that rabbit hole. Sometimes so far they never came back.

That all changed when the new Program started. It was small at first – privately funded by a few far-sighted citizens and understanding congregations. It never wanted to take government money. Government money meant government meddling, and that meant nothing ever got done.

The Program’s motto was “Get with the Program” and they didn’t advertise or recruit. People found them through word-of-mouth. People who had gotten their lives back told friends they thought were ready for it. It was private, but not secret. But it was free to the people who needed it. Healing shouldn’t cost money. That cheapens it. But there was a cost. The clients (never patients) had to clean and cook. They were supervised and assisted but they had to do the work. Idle hands meant idle spirits, and the goal of the Program was to re-integrate body and mind. They did this by making the clients participate in their own recovery. They truly healed themselves – and more importantly they were taught how to keep that momentum going once they left.

They weren’t out on their own after the Program. There were weekly meetings to attend as graduates, to remind themselves of how far they had come and the path that led to life. All too often people forgot how they got well and so got sick again, entropy being what it is at all.

The natural way of life leads to decay. The founders of the Program knew that. They taught their clients a series of steps to do daily maintenance on their souls and bodies, just like with a car or house. This was their secret. It wasn’t pills or talk therapy that did the trick, but they were included too. It was more like occupational therapy than psychotherapy, with the occupation being living your life.

For some people, just being alive was work, and hard work at that. The daily tasks of self-care didn’t come easy to them, or they never learned them. So they struggled with tasks that everyone else did unconsciously. Or they did them for a little while – a week, or a month, or even a year – and then forgot, or assumed their stability was normal, forgetting the incredible framework they had to build all the time in order to prop themselves up and avoid collapse.

They were taught that sanity isn’t like taking penicillin. You don’t follow this prescription for eleven days and then stop. It requires daily work to keep away the decay in body and mind, the decay that leads to death. Maybe it isn’t an actual death, but a sort of living death, a half life. Maybe it is a zombie kind of life, one where you go through the motions, never really here.

The goal of the Program was life, full stop. A true integration into reality, an active participation. It included classes in mindfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness. It taught cooking and how to navigate grocery stores. It taught how to budget money, time and energy. It taught how to express feelings verbally and through art. It taught self-sufficiency and interdependence. And it did it all out of love.

Eventually, the building closed, because this new way of living became part of the community’s way of life.  Everyone followed the Program.  It became normal to take care of bodies and souls together, to not see them as separate, or as opposed to each other. It became normal to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit.  They kept the old building as a reminder of how far they had come, and as a warning to not go back.

(Written mid-July 2018, updated February 2, 2019)

Voyage – poem

My ancestors brought me here 
in boats, in planes, in their bodies.
They walked across the land 
that we now know as Spain
that we now know as France
they swam across the channel 
and they landed in Ireland and England. 
I am an immigrant too. 
I came with them,
invisible, hidden
within their bodies.
However they got here I came with them 
as a promise 
as a secret. 
However they came here 
I hitched a ride 
inside them. 

They had no way of knowing 
I was there. 
Or maybe they did. 
Maybe they hoped beyond hope 
that their dreams would
continue and their struggles
would be worth it. 

It is hard living up to the
expectations of people
you’ve never met, 
will only meet 
on the other side of eternity.
But they too had that same difficulty. 
How many people before me look through these 
blue eyes at this blue world
and wonder 
where to go next? 
How many people before me questioned 
should we go on 
or are we finally here?

How will I know 
when I have arrived? 
How will I know when it is time to settle down and
stop traveling? 
How will I know 
when I have reached the end 
of the race and I have
become the fulfillment
of all their dreams?

The fairytale that is called America – poem

They took all the people, 
all the ones who were huddled and tired and yearning, 
and they put them in 
low-income housing. 
They put them in a box
away from services 
away from bus lines 
away from any help 
any chance. 
They said they were doing it to help them 
otherwise 
they’d be on the street.
They put them in a box, smaller than a grave
smaller than their hopes and dreams 
of a second chance 
of a new life 
in the fairytale 
that is called 
America.