Posts Tagged ‘friends’

Today I saw happened to be walking by the house of an old friend in my neighborhood as he drove up. I waited for him to get out of his truck. We greeted, then chatted about the landscaping remodel of his front yard, now half finished.

I brought it up, his wife, acknowledged his wife, what had happened last year, how she was tragically killed in an accident. He talked about her, how he is working at surviving, going to groups, going on, doing the landscaping she had wanted. We hugged — three times. We were present to each other. He mentioned the need for a new hairdresser. I gave him the name of my friend who cuts hair in a shop and told him, “This guy has this awesome personality and doesn’t charge too much. You’ll love him.” Then I texted him the phone number.

After I left and returned home, he texted me.

“Thanks for stopping by and for the hair contact. Pretty much available to stop and talk anytime (if no appts or nap pending)? Great to see you.”

What is precious? Presence. Another person’s presence — that is of the highest value. Being with, being near, being proximate — this is superlative! Stopping to talk, standing within another’s magical realm — this is nonpareil! Lingering, listening, absorbing, merging with another being — it is always a mysterious encounter with a stunningly significant life form. Such moments are exquisite! Not doing, being, not doing business, but letting someone else’s state of being be our business — transcendent!

You and I can do nothing better with our time and then be present with each other.

Having different kinds of friends — so very interesting.

I have a bounce-off-of friend. I bounce stuff off him to see what it looks like coming back toward me with his spin on it. It’s helpful, the curve my ideas take on the rebound.  Yesterday we spent an hour on the phone debating the growth curve of organizations. Fascinating.

I have a never-let-go friend. She is my stick-tight friend. We have waded through years and yards of stuff, and she is still there. I love the safety of such a friend.  This week we reflect on a relational train wreck we both witnessed and survived. I totally adore, her loyalty — to me.

I have a calls-when-he needs-help friend. I don’t mind. I like being the go-to-guy for him. I like how he trust that what I say, or that what I don’t say,  is good. It’s good for me to be there for him,  in the sacred moment, when the masks come off. This week he told me that when he drove away from the house, after the fight, it was as if he was moving through a dream. “I couldn’t believe that I was doing,” he told me, “what  I could see myself doing, leaving, like that.” It was good, to deconstruct the dream, that was really — reality.

I have a conceptual friend. When we meet, ideas meet. We talk insights, theories, axioms, intellectual constructs. We discourse on aesthetics, theology, history, sociality. Recently we explored the kind of creativity that can arise out of devastation. Our friendship exists within the universe of our ideations. I love an abstraction, that we invent and then that we event. It  becomes other people’s reality. Fine, so very fine!

The other day I thought about a friend who is not longer a friend. We went through something hard and this friend didn’t understand what was to be understood within the thin and quickly ripping fabric of possible understanding and so we went on down the road with the clothing that had previously covered us, ripped completely off, and I found myself traveling alone. It happens. I recovered myself with the warm embrace of new friends.

It’s very interesting, the variation of sociality.

It is very interesting, the morph, the seed, the stalk, the bloom, and the sometimes surprisingly quick wilt of togetherness, the amazing sustainability of real love.

What to do?

Enjoy, the sweet ones you have been  given.

Grieve, the once dear ones, occasionally lost.

Look forward to the precious ones still to come.


Posted: December 29, 2010 in friends
Tags: , , , , , ,

Mostly we shot each other, with every kind of gun we could get our dirty little violent hands on. We often shot each other on Christmas day, after we had gotten a new kind of firearm. The best weapon I remember for blowing away family was a small hand gun that you filled with round silver bullets about three times as big as bb’s. Endless killing! You just kept pulling the trigger and watching your brothers fall. At a recent Christmas party in Los Angeles where everyone came and some were nasty, I thought of the old days and longed to fire away again, with perhaps a tranquilizing dart gun. But it wouldn’t work; I’ve lost my passion for sustained violence.

We also  found fellowship in riding things, like the day my brother herded a small steer into the corral, his friend Lonnie working the critter with him. Inside the fence they trapped the beastly transport system in a corner; Steve edged close and jumped — onto its back. The response was immediate. The steer, as if fired from a rifle, charged out of the small enclosure, into the woods, and toad’s wild ride was on.

Steve bounced on along the bucking steer’s spinal column, into the wild, green woods, past one then another then another and then they were scraping his legs on both sides, and the steer went scooching through and “bam” Steve was on the ground, downed by trees too tight on both sides, and Lonnie was yelling, “Yahoo!” It was a ride to be repeated, and repeat it we did.

Some of the best rides were on our pet steer, Moosehead. The difficulty with Moosehead was that he was broad, and so the rides were spread-legged, rodeo wild and short. He was a fun guy, a hairy  brother who we had nursed with a bottle, so he loved us, and getting on him was easy. He was friend. I now think, after years of studying the science of friendship that perhaps steers and dogs and cats make the best friends. Looking back, I’ve had more fun with of my cats, in the shower, my pet fish in the pond filter, my dogs and their puppies than some of my friends, but who is really to say for sure. Eventually we all come to realize that no friends last forever. The Moosester didn’t. One day he was present, the next  gone! It’s like that with friends, especially on a farm, here and then gone, and we never knew why or where.

Growing up my two brothers were my best friends. Think brother steer.  This is because they were my only friends, and my only options for friends, most of the time. In rural Missouri, the nearest house was a half-mile away, and the nearest house with children who went to our school, was miles and miles away. There was no neighborhood, just  brothers. Someone once said that friends are family you choose for yourself. They were, literally, for me; I chose my family when there was no other choice. And we chose to have fun. C. S. Lewis speaks of friends as being people not focused on each other, but on a thing between them that they both find fascinating. That was us.

We focused on rideable things, things mobile, each other, the Shetland ponies kept at the farm for camp children to ride in the summer, the  rideable cows, goats, dogs, skateboards with metal wheels, bikes,  coasters we constructed, sleds, a toboggan dad pulled behind the boat, water skis and eventually the ultimate ride — cars. The ponies were an obvious choice to ride, but they weren’t that much fun; they had to be led away from the barn, threatened, goaded and yanked. You’d think that unlike Moosehead, they knew they were being led to the end, but they weren’t. It got better when you headed them back home. Suddenly they were all animated and joyful; they began to trot and then grow younger and  sprint when they saw the barn, and then at the end they would become deadly serious and risk their lives in the home stretch as they flattened out in a dead run for the goal of life —  no saddle and rest.

We also drove cars and trucks before we had driver’s licences. We drove the Timber Wolf, a big old truck used to haul logs for firewood.  Especially crazy and fun was the old car my dad cut the body from. When he was done, the thing was just a hood, front fenders, a motor, and an open frame from the dash back, no roof, no doors, no trunk, no rear fenders and no floorboard.  My dad welded a folding chair onto the frame behind the steering wheel, and we drove it around the campgrounds for errands and fun. Crazy! If we had fallen off the chair, we would run over ourselves with the back tires.

Friends are people who have wrecks together or know each other’s wreck stories. We brothers crashed. One evening, on our way home, on our bikes, flying down the dirt drive, dodging the rocks, I hit a big one, straight on with my front tire. One moment I was pedaling hard, the next moment I ascended through the evening air, up over the handle bars and down again,  into the dust, hit hard and rolled.  I remember sitting up, feeling sick, looking at my bloodied arms in surprise and then grabbing my bike and heading on home with the brothers, but not fast. It was no big deal, it happened, to all of us, the battering, the bloodied skin —  it changed nothing, our speed, our wild abandon, nothing. I remember later, when my brother’s moved on to cars, and smashed up several in a row, we took it all in stride too, except my dad, who didn’t like it. But he was in on it, destroying stuff. It’s friend and family glue.

One day dad decided to haul a steer to town, so we could have steaks again, and not having a truck, he ran the steer up a dirt ramp and into the back of a jeep station wagon. Not so good. Half-way to town the steer decided that he was tired of looking at the radio, six inches from his nose, and he turned around. That didn’t quite work out as  he had planned, and he broke out all the side windows of the jeep. Fearing for his own life, dad stopped at a little country store where a real farmer was consulted, and he explained that a truck with side rails was best for this kind of job, so they completed the trip thus. I think at that point they should have let the steer go. He’d made a point. I’m sure, he would have beaten the horses back to the barn. The other day, when my family was together for breakfast, my dad told this story again. We laughed and hooted and spoke of his decision-making during that era, how he had almost burned down the town we lived near during a brush clearing project and how he had put buckets of coals in the back of the jeep, on the floor board, to keep us warm on cold night when we were driving to church. This is how family and friendship are defined —  people with crazy stories that they have in common.

The other day, my dad told  us again the story of  how he’d gotten the job on the campground in Missouri. Dad and mom had both grown up in California, and early in their marriage they bought a little track house in Torrance. There they attended a small church where Maurice Vanderberg, back from the war and recently married, was their pastor. After a time, Maurice moved back to Kansas City to run the Union Rescue Mission that his wife’s mom  had founded, but then needing help, he called  and invited my dad to join him in the work. So my parents moved. Moves change things, for families, for kids, but they are never consulted in such matters. Old friends lost,  new ones gained — no choice. The  move to the midwest eventually put us on the campground, which was owned by the rescue mission, and put my mom and us boys in a  isolated place that profoundly shaped our family, our friendships and more. My mom suffered badly, a California city girl transported to a small rural cabin without a bathroom, kitchen, or heat or neighbors to raise three little children. She lost some years there. No friends were present for her, except the boys and we were way too male.  Significant stuff — my brother Steve married a Missouri girl, Joyce, who turned out to be a good deal.  When we did leave Missouri, and returned to California, it was because another pastor, who my dad knew from the old Torrance church, invited my dad to move to El Cajon to work him. Friendships form the web on which we move, and catch food and are ourselves caught and eaten.

Part of the reason why the family didn’t always work for my mom was that destruction and violence provided most of the fun with my father and my brothers. I think that violence brought us closer to each other but  not to mom.  We blew up our little green toy soldiers with fire crackers, we killed the little clay spacemen by throwing their clay space ships onto the floor hard, we hit each other in the arms daily, we wrestled on the big, round braded rug in the living room until we either knocked over a lamp or somebody cried, and we eventually shot every kind of creature living in the woods nearby and caught, killed and ate every species of fish.

As I child, my favorite killing posture was not western style, the standing back-to-back, taking three steps, turning, quick drawing and firing. That cut the violence too short. I liked hunt-down-and-kill approach. It began with one of brother in one end of the house, another in the furthest extreme, the call, “Ready?” and both of us moving silently toward each other. Then the shooting commenced and proceeded until death. Shot in the arm, you had to switch your weapon to the other hand, shot in the leg, you were left with one hopper, shot in the torso or head, dead. I loved the final, trapped stand, both of us wounded, immobilized, having it at at close range, one behind the bed and the other shielded by the dresser. I loved it when a brother’s head peeked over the top of a bed and caught a round perfectly between the eyes. Then I would see him fall back, to the floor, man down and out with a final death rattle. You had to make a sound. “Cool, I just killed my brother.” True friends and loyal family are the people you can kill and then shortly after sit down to dinner with as if nothing happened. Your average American family does this regularly, the verbal assassinations followed by the evening meal.

When I got married and had my daughters, I continued in the same vein; I made my wife and daughters my best friends, built around our shared narratives,  games, interests and arguments. The thing missing was the violence, mostly. My girls and I did play shoot ’em up a few times. But mostly, in my own family, we gentilized. My wife and daughters and I have always shared a love for “getting out,” for water in all its playful forms,  for print and food and coffee and conversation in all their various addictive and nonadictive forms and we really like God, a lot.  There are other things, but fun has tended to glue us together. I see families where the members aren’t friends and it doesn’t look much fun to me. Some parents say you can’t be friends with your kids. I know what they mean, that you have to be a parent, which means sometimes being mean and saying “no” and doing things friends just don’t do. I know all that, and I’ve done it, and still do at times, but here is the deal. You can go back and forth, be parent, then friend; you don’t have to always play the same role with your children. I really like the times my girls and I are friends.

I took my daughter Rosalind to see the Little Mermaid for our first movie together when she was three years old. Outstanding fun, great Disney film, superb enduring memory for us. We still love the song “Kiss The Girl” and we love “Down by the Sea” and Sebastian the crab these many years later. Magical, the movie, our first father-daughter date, the many times since that we’ve reprised that kind of thing, gone out to eat, watched a football game together, played Yahtzee, taken a walk, talked long, wrestled on the floor and knocked over a lamp. The thing with friendship is not to define it too narrowly, within family or outside of family. We need it, we want it, in all its forms odd and familiar and normal and not.

I have a lot of different kinds of friends now, besides family.  I have friends from school. I have friends from work. I have friends from church.  I have friends in other countries. I have friends who are dead. I have friends who are not but pretend to be. I have friends who I meet for a tête-à-tête at Starbucks, and I have friends who add me on Facebook.

By friends we mean a lot of different things — people we got drunk with in high school but now have nothing in common with, a checker at Costco whose line we often choose, people who dabble in what we also waste time on, people who “get us” and leggo-people who used to get us but have now snapped off and don’t, furry friends, literary friends, our favorite dead poets, painters, novelists or philosophers, and lastly and most importantly, our real friends, the cherished soul-mates who hang on through it all and just won’t let go, like Taylor in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Pigs in Heaven, who won’t let go of little Turtle —  the mythic, profoundly archetypal lost child, “six pigs in heaven and the mother who wouldn’t let go.”  We all need a bit of this,  the will-not-let-go friend.

I’ve told my girls. There are all kinds of friends, from casual, even momentary, to life-long. There are all kinds of levels, and they change over time even with the same person. You can be close, then not close, then close again. And just because you are close, doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. It’s okay to let friendships change, even to let them go. Sometimes you have to.

Recently, my brother and I drove to a Idllywild, a mountain town half-way between our homes, about two hours away for each of us. We rented a room in a bed and breakfast and stayed overnight together. We talked shop, both of us being pastors, and we talked family and we ate good food. He had just bought a new sports car, a Mazda RX-8 with a 240 horse power rotary engine and so we took it out on the mountain roads to test its potential. It was the good old high-school days all over again, except we were driving fast Japanese rather than fast American, and  we weren’t drunk and there were no girls with us. What a shame, but maybe not. I’ve owned several sports cars and my wife claims that she doesn’t like being thrown against the doors in the sharp turns. So I slammed by brother against the door and went a bit too fast into a corner and missed a shift. It was all the same game again, flirting with danger, riding the steers, driving the cars.

In the morning, we broke out a plastic bat and whiffle ball and played a few innings of baseball.  It was fun. Depending on how you held the ball and because off the holes in one side of it, you could throw a slider, a curve a sinker and a rising fast ball. But we weren’t practiced up, and so after I hammered a few of his hanging curve balls up over the limb of the nearest pine tree for home runs, he started pouting and didn’t try as hard. It seemed like we had returned to our childhood again, two brothers killing and being killed in mock battle. But then in a short while he regained his form and struck me out and slammed a few of  my sliders that didn’t slide out of the park, and we both cheered up again. Brothers, friends, in combat and not — still.

Other friends in life, interesting.  Why did I make the friends I did?  What does it say about me? Having left our families, most of us find people who function as family. We meet them anywhere, somewhere, and talk, and touch, in time, on the same web, the same thread of the web, and then we climb along together for a bit. In high school it was John, Lonnie and Jim. We fished, hunted, drove fast, avoided girls, and engaged in boy-brother wildness-mayhem. Upon my move back to California, those relationships ended. In California I met a college student named Steve, and we surfed together and philosophized. I also met Jim, and we shared an apartment together with two other guys. It was cheap rent. He was an artist, using clay, me an artist, using words. I still have some of his art pieces, but not him. After college I met Tim, a won’t-let-go friend. We bonded over insight, books, faith. He became family, so to speak, and was the best man at my wedding.  We are still close. We go to the same church and we share a common passion for truth and radical love and justice for our community.

Fishing, wilding, cars, surfing, art, books, faith — my friends have often been my playmates, but more and more they have become my thought-mates. Time makes philosophers of most all of  us, clowns and killers alike. My friendships are now conversations. We  meet over coffee, books and food, and we talk, and talk and talk, but not always. A few years ago, my friend Tim and I fired off some loud, flashing fireworks near the house, and then ran when the police came. We hid in a fast food restaurant, bought cokes for camouflage, laughed like boys and  then headed for home to brag to our wives and children over what we  had done.

Friendship is and always will be a bit of safe violence together, a fast ride,  fast run, or fast pitch together, a laugh, a movie shared, a book discussed, a trip together,  a home run, a crash and a fire and a story to tell again and again until it gets good.

As I grow older, and fascinate more and more over  life, its people and problems and beauty, I find myself making more and more and more friends, of all kinds, in all  places. I am shamefully indiscriminate. Most anyone can be my friend, execpt a few former assaasins. Want to talk? You are my friend. Have something fun you like to do?  Tell me about it; you are my friend. Have a problem? Let’s explore it! I love a problem and the typical nearby solution.

What am I doing?  I don’t like living alone. The friend thing is now under my control, mostly; no one is moving me.

And so Iam adding friends. They are the family I am choosing for myself.


Posted: December 11, 2010 in close
Tags: , , , , ,

Picasso’s Guernica reveals the senseless destruction of an unsuspecting and defenseless city bombed  in Spain on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.  The painting is 11 by 25 feet of violence, suffering, pain and protest.  Picasso’s outrage is big, brilliant and eloquent.  Powerful forces  tear the world apart.

The Black Death, peaking between 1348 and 1350,  is estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of Europe’s population. It  reduced the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. Stunning! Catastrophic! What a huge number of lives, an incredible number of families  were affected.

Epidemics, plagues, famines, wars — they have shaped history, determined the length of  lives, brought huge amounts of pain and grief into our world.

A volcano  erupted in Tambora, Indonesia in 1815. It is estimated to have killed about 92,000 people. It cooled the world climate for more than  a year.  Bam, different, with one fiery belch of the earth — death, and cold, everywhere.

It is estimated that in World War II, from 50 to 70  million people were killed.  In the gigantic epidemics and wars, estimates are inaccurated by the millions.  Unthinkable — millions of individual lives, with names, ages and unique personalities lost and lumped into to a horrific number.  This is unacceptable!  But it happened, and not long ago. By the end of the war Europe had more than 4o million refugees.  How devastating to so many families. The memory of this is still with us.  I spoke to a friend this week who grew up in Ireland during the war. She remembers hearing the planes going over; she remembers the bombing of England, her blacked-out city, the news of devastation. She moved to London when the war ended to work as a nurse in a hospital.  

It hasn’t stopped — huge,  uncontrollable and unpredictable forces churn through lives. The Oslo Conference of 2010 reports that over 230 million people across the globe are now unemployed, an increase of 30 million since 2007 as a result of the current economic recession.  Not enough work, not enough food, fear, anger, hopelessness, depression — a huge blow to the world’s psyche, a devastation of confidence, a  tragic loss of  basic essentials for many. Hearts ache over the ache of the earth.

And all this is close, not far from us each of us, not far from me. People are caught in the blustering wind of economics, of political decisions, in the icy storms created by their own foolish decisions and they suffer terribly. 

 I live in a nice master-planned community, but I work where homeless people live. They camp in the weedy area down behind Target, also down by the flood control channel that goes along the 54, and I am told, down by the San Diego Bay in the undeveloped area at the foot of E Street.

These areas are trashy, weedy, hidden from the public view, unused tracks of land at the edges of businesses, freeways, water. Cities have often been established by water, homeless encampments too.

I meet these people who live on the edges, and I talk to them and try to listen.

A while back, I met Thomas; he was sitting on the steps at the church. From a distance – he was scruffy cool, in jeans and a t-shirt. Up close –  he was denim and cotton and psyche beat to pieces. He was with his new friend Robert who had been living on the street for a long time. As we talked Robert drifted off.

Thomas’s story came out in oddly connected pieces. He was sleeping behind the grocery store on E Street and showering at his girlfriend’s house. Her mom wouldn’t let him sleep at the house. He was recently out of prison, and he needed  money to attend a program that helps ex-cons get a job. Sometime back he had been diagnosed by doctors as bipolar, but he was smoking pot regularly. He had been smoking it pretty much nonstop since he was thirteen. He said it like someone saying, “I’ve pretty much been eating vegetarian food since I was thirteen.”

He told me his mom wanted him to come home so she could take him to a doctor for prescription medication. She would pay for the flight, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that. He didn’t think he would like the side effects of medication.

Then he blurted out something I didn’t see coming. Neither had he. A few years ago, he told me, looking down at his shoes, “I was driving a car, and there was an accident. My brother was killed.”

I heard him say that, and then we were in one of those moments when it doesn’t seem possible to say anything  remotely appropriate. I have a brother. We talk on the phone. My brother is part of my sense of connectedness to something like me, but bigger than me, my parents and my other brother and their kids and our sense of family that we go through life with.  “How does one speak about …”

I looked at the deep lines of anguish twisted across his cheeks. I’ve never seen so much pain compressed so deeply into one human being. The force of it almost drowned both of us on the spot. But at the same time, in that raw, open moment there was this – brutal, honest connection between us. The  space between us felt insanely holy. I was staring at him, and he was looking down at the steps and crying and saying, “After my brother died, I kind of went crazy. “  I got it, a little, as in waves.  I hated that this had happened to him.

Thomas kept talking. When he woke up, in the mornings, lying behind a dumpster, he didn’t want to be alive. But he didn’t want to kill himself; he just didn’t want to be here. It was good to be out of prison. He had a girlfriend, and he desperately didn’t want to disappoint her, but if things kept going like this she might get tired of him. He wanted so badly to get it together for her, and them. He had just applied for a cooking job, but he didn’t get the job. He told me, “It’s hard to get a job when you don’t have your own phone number. People expect to have a place to reach you.” He wanted to get a cell phone.  

 Then he told me that he had recently had an interview at a restaurant. He thought he had done well, and he said he knew he had the credentials. He heard nothing back for weeks at the phone at his girl friend’s house for weeks.

He went down to the restaurant and found one of the supervisors and  asked if he knew anything about why he didn’t get the job. All the supervisor would say was that he heard that the boss who interviewed Thomas had said, “He wouldn’t look me in the eyes.”  

I wanted to fix Thomas, right there, but I knew I couldn’t.  He looked up from the steps at me; I looked at him. The moment felt like an invocation. I prayed for him. I encouraged him to go home.  I haven’t seen him since then. I hope he went home.

A month or so later I ran into Robert downtown. He was zombie-like drunk. We talked. He was a bit embarrassed to be as he was. We talked about changing, but there was something helpless in how he presented himself. A few weeks later I heard that he had died in a nearby park, but that wasn’t the case. He was found in the park and died in the hospital – alone.  

I eat my lunch today. I cut up the fresh red tomatoes, the bright green cilantro, the orange peppers, dark romaine. I cook a crispy brown turkey burger and put the vegetables beside it on a white plate.  I blend a shake from strawberries, blue berries, soy milk and Splenda. I pour it into a clear glass. It is purple, with dark flecks of blue in it. I’m starving.  I’m taking care of myself. But I’m thinking about Thomas. I wonder where he is. One loses track of such new friends so easily.

I think of him sometimes when I feel afraid and uncertain what to do next. There is something in him that is a copy of something in me, a profound need to be connected to family, to someone to love. I think of Thomas when I meet other people who are living on the street. My street friends are beginning to collect in my thoughts. Now there is Carla.

I first heard about her on the phone. I had never met her, but I knew her. It’s possible, to know someone without having met them. I’ve been listening to her, through other people.  

Pat,  a substitute teacher, called me about Carla. She met Carla while giving out food to people here in town.  Pat told me that Carla had left her apartment because her boyfriend was abusing her, and that Carla was living on the street.  She called to ask me what she should do for Carla. On the phone, tired and kind of empty myself, I didn’t really know what to say.

Several days later, Carla surfaced again, though my wife.  My wife met Carla through our friend and  told me that she offered to take Carla to a battered women’s shelter. Carla refused. She said, “The shelter won’t take my dog, and I’m not leaving my dog.” My wife and I talked about it. We understood, but we didn’t. Maybe the dog was Carla’s safest relationship, but Carla herself needed to be safe. My wife called the shelter to see what they had to say about the dog.  They had seen this before and had a tougher point of view: The dog might be an excuse to avoid getting help.

We gave Carla more food, and she was down to the weedy area by the bay to find her own form of refuge. We thought of her as we went to bed that night, wondering aloud to each other if she was safe. We almost went down to look for her. We didn’t.

I don’t know what to do for Carla. She hovers in the back of my mind like a shadowy part of me that I want to bring closer. She is trying to protect herself.  I know what that feels like; I know that sometimes as you try to protect yourself, other people have no mercy and they attack you harder. I’ve been witness to that.

A few weeks ago George came to the door of my office.  He needed food. I gave him some. He is newly homeless. He has been living in a home with an older lady the last 16 years, but she just kicked him out. She found him smoking pot. He defended himself saying that he didn’t drink and only smoked a little to calm himself down.

He was anxious, disturbed. He explained that he was not used to sleeping behind a shed on Third Avenue  and eating hot dogs from 7-11. But he said he wasn’t very hungry. He noted, with the coolness of a psychologist looking at a text-book case, When you are afraid, you lose your appetite.”

He explained to me that he had been homeless before.  “But it’s harder now,” he said, “in the recession, out on the street, being older.”  He told me. “A while back some people roughed me up and took $150 of my social security money. I was drinking with them. I’m not going to do that again. ”   He is 51. He is bi-polar, he isn’t eating much, and he is afraid.  I asked him if I could pray for him. He said yes. I asked if he would pray for me.  It just didn’t seem like he was the only one who needed prayer. I did too. I’m not so comfortable with relationships where the giving only goes one way. It seems such a paternalistic way of treating adults. I don’t know what to do with his fears in the same way that sometimes I don’t know what to do with my own fears.

George asked my if I could put down my office address as the address where he could receive his Social Security check. I told him he could. This month his check came on my day off. I went down and waited for the mail to come with him. We sat on a wall and talked. He said he needs a plan, but that he can’t seem to make one. He lost his ID but is afraid to go to the DMV to get a new one. He could get an apartment if he was approved for section eight assistance but the wait could be years and so he hasn’t ever applied.

His procrastination is deeply embedded in his insecurities. He reflects that he fears that if he gets it together and takes medication for his bipolar and gets an apartment, maybe he’ll lose his Social Security. If he gets better, he won’t get assistance.  He talks, I listen.

He tells me that sometimes he wakes at night crying. He just wants someone there that he can talk to, or perhaps someone to hold him. He feels so alone.

I think about this, the aloneness. It must be the worst thing.

I finally met Carla the other day.  She is articulate, intelligent. She tells me her family has money. But she has lived like a nomad, all over the United States, in apartments, shelters, on the street, in room where people gave her temporary places.

She is terrified by the prospect that her ex-boyfriend will get out of prison soon, find her and force her back with him. She is worried that he will kill her. We give her food. We provide a chance for her to take a shower.

She tells me she is selfish. This wacks me in the head. Someone who has nothing is selfish. But she is. She is living alone because she is afraid of her boyfriend, but also in part because she won’t and maybe can’t live with anyone else. She has gotten so used to doing what she wants, when she wants, how she wants.

She lives in a tent shared with no one. She eats alone. She sleeps alone. She answers to no one. She is gradually becoming incapable of living close to anyone.

We find a place for her to live. Then she finally makes the choice. She will go to a shelter. It is winter. It is getting colder. She knows she isn’t safe, living outside in the cold, living near so many homeless men. Most of them are safe, but are they all?

The shelter will take her dog. They will help her change her identity. They will help her get a job.

I’ve been listening to people.  I know I can’t solve all their problems. I know I can’t fix their eyes or their hearts. I know one handout doesn’t solve the problem. I know I can’t heal all the damage done to them by what they have done or what other people have done to them. I know I can’t even make them take the next step they need to take to improve their safety or health.

But, nonetheless, I have been listening to people who don’t have safe places to sleep.  I am grieving their losses. I am identifying with their fears. I am holding them with dignity in an inquiring space in my mind. I want to meet more of them.

One of  my goals  — to be there to listen.

A friend called. She doesn’t have enough money to pay the security deposit for a new apartment.

A friend came by. He is getting kicked out of his father’s house and doesn’t have anywhere to go. This friend is almost 50 years old.

A friend took me aside. Her car is in the shop. She doesn’t have the money to get it out.

Another friend stopped in. He doesn’t have enough to eat this week. Food stamps come again next week.

A friend called. She just lost her job.

I read the news online.

There  is not enough food.

There is not enough shelter.

There  is not enough water.

There is not enough work.

There is not enough health care.

There is not enough opportunity.

Almost half the world, about 3 billion people, live on less that two dollars a day. One billion children live in poverty. In many cases, there is food available; people simply can’t afford it. Many people are spending up to 80% of their income on food. And with rising wheat and rice prices, it’s getting worse.

UNICEF reports that as many as 26,000 children die each day as a result of poverty. They “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world.”

Such realities overwhelm me. I can’t even appropriately imagine this horror. And so too often I don’t.  I don’t think about it. I don’t deal with it.  I  distance myself from the pain of it, from the overwhelming deprivation. It’s ugly, it’s sad. But the people. They are people. They want what I want.  I want to open my heart to them.  They want me to. I need to open my hand to them. They need me to.

The Bible says,  “If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.”   (Deuteronomy 15:7)

A friend of mine is back from Iraq. He has stories.  War has shaped life for children there.

He tells me that one day he and his comrades gave a ball to a Iraqi child. The boy immediately called his friends to play. The children came running. The ball was let loose among them, all day, all the kids, sharing the fun, bouncing with joy though the streets together. In the evening a family delegation came to the soldiers. The leaders of the family came  as a delegation. They were from the family of the boy who was given the ball. They wanted to formally thank the soldiers for the ball.

Burmese refugees live in my city.  Forces greater than them have determined that they now live away from their homeland, in San Diego.

This Christmas a friend of mine organized for families to give the Burmese children gifts. My family chose a child. On the day  the Burmese children opened their gifts an unexpected thing happened. The gifts were laid in front of each child, brightly wrapped toys and clothes. Then they were told they could open their gifts.  They just sat there. The translator spoke to them. “You can open your gifts now.” They just sat there. “Why aren’t you opening your gifts?”  The children came out with it. “They are so beautiful. We want to share them with our families.”  Most of them took most of their gifts home unopened that day.

I think about the fact that the recession has shape my life too, has made me afraid too, has changed my future. The great economic and social forces of lives look to me like the huge storms that swirl down from the Gulf of Alaska into Southern California each year, moving on the doppler, unable to be stopped, something we wait to “hit” the city. They bring rain and cold. They are good, mostly, but beyond my control.

War, diseases and economic crisises are similar, huge swirling storms. I can’t stop them. And yet, I  want to do something, not nothing. I want to listen to Thomas, and George and Carla and bring compassion and help to them.

It rained when I was in London recently, a cold, wintery London rain. I had an umbrella with me. I put it up. I held it over my wife, close.

Last night a young married couple called me. They are struggling. I went to see them. We talked and talked. Their lives have powerful, unwanted forces in them. We talked and prayed and hugged. It was better then, for the moment. They don’t know if the future will eat them alive, but it was good between them when I left. They were suprised I stayed so long. I wanted to.

I know all too well the powerfully destructive forces, my daugter Roz’s seizures, her brain damage, our inability to fix it. I have never felt so powerless as when I have held her and watched and felt her twist and shake and convulse and turn blue and seem to stop breathing — the heart in the throat, the 911 call, the rush to the hospital, the fear of the worst. It wasn’t the worst.

I refuse to believe that I am powerless before it all, some of it, but not all of it, not the angushed horse and man in Guernica.  I lift up my arms  with that man and ask God if I might be given a chance to help.

This week I bought 20 gift cards for children whose parents can’t buy them Christmas presents. I was able to do this through a gift somone had given our church. I thought about it being better to give than recieve. It is better.

In a few minutes, I’m taking my daughter down to help pass out food to people who don’t have enough.

The people of Guernica, these day I find myself wanting to bring them close.

I have a lot of friends.  I have friends from school. I have friends from work. I have friends from church. I have friends in my family. I have friends in other countries. I have friends who are dead. I have friends who are not but pretend to be. I have friends who are fun, and I have some other friends who are friends because they aren’t fun. I have friends who I meet for a tête-à-tête at Starbucks, and I have friends who add me on Facebook.

By friends I mean a lot of different things, as we all do — people we got drunk with in high school but now have nothing in common with, a checker at Costco whose line we often choose, people who dabble in what we also waste time on, people who “get us” and leggo-people who used to get us but have now snapped off and don’t, furry friends — our cats and dogs, friends who we keep on call by the bedside — our favorite dead poets, painters, novelists or philosophers, and lastly and most importantly, our real friends, the cherished soul-mates who hang on through it all and just won’t let go, like Taylor in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Pigs in Heaven, who won’t let go of little Turtle —  the mythic, profoundly archetypal lost child, “six pigs in heaven and the mother who wouldn’t let go.”  This is it, the core of it, the will-not-let-go friend.

I’ve told my daughters, trying to help them with the vagueness and occasional hurtfulness of the thing, “There are lots of kinds of friends, all kinds of levels and layers and lunacy. Enjoy them all.” It’s hard. Friendship is a garage that we throw a lot of different stuff in, and some of the stuff gets lost and some gets found again and then lost for good, but, “No,” found for good again.  Crazy!

Whatever the “How To” books tell us, friendship certainly isn’t something we can control — much. People will make their choices. They will do what they will do or not do, and what they don’t do will perhaps kick us in the head the most. Martin Luther King said it, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

King’s observation is clever, provocative, probably garnered in the civil-rights trenches and brutal, when it happens to you. Plain and simple: People — when things get messy — will shut up —  way too much! They won’t ask, and they won’t want you to tell.

Silence is the most eloquent monologue of indifference. Something happens. Silence.  More silence. Wow! It is singularly dysfunctional.

And then there are the friends who in the wars, switch sides and become the enemies. Funny how that works, “Et tu, Brute?”  Samuel Butler quipped that “Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.”

One feeds the chickens until one day — boom. Get out the crock pot, “I love my chicken falling off the bone.” And in a like manner, one man feeds the psyche of another man, until, one day, bam. “Strike three! You’re out!”

It happens. Life goes on. Time shows friendships, real and not. I’ll take the real, even with the not thrown in, the hurley burley of it all, the rough and tumble, the in and then out, it’s worth it. I love my friends. I love the people who love me. And the ones who no longer love me  make the ones who still do, seem sweeter yet.  

Someone once said, “A friend is someone who will help you move. A real friend is someone who will help you move a body.”

“Come on, help me hoist these cold, clammy bodies, buddy. Let’s move ‘em out.”

“Nice work! Hey, will you kick that foot sticking out of the closet back in so I can shut the door?”


“Thanks, friend.”