Saturday, June 27, 2009

Loquetur pacem

The first thing I noticed was her smile. You just don't get many smiles like that in customer service––genuine, warm, and directed. I've given my fair share of fake smiles from behind the counter, mostly in response to the overwhelming lack of humanity I begin to feel at all the mechanical interactions and orders mouthed while talking on cell phones. But to see a genuine, warm smile directed at me is a rarity indeed.

The second thing I noticed was that she had a tattoo on her inner forearm written in another language. Sneaking glances, I suspected it was in Latin (I am in fact a language geek), so I asked what it meant.

Tattoos are funny like that. They can be intensely personal, and yet out in the open for all to see. They sometimes beckon, prompting the viewer to get below the surface level to what is beneath. In essence, I was really asking her, "What's the story behind that smile? What's your story?"

But there is only so much you can ask from behind a counter, from behind a green apron. Sometimes the divide between us is too wide to cross in a single encounter.

In a tiny village a few hours outside a small town with plastic palm trees in Western China, I once met poor Tibetan children who had some of the most radiant smiles I've ever seen. Contentment was written all over their faces (as well as curiosity at us foreigners) but without speaking Tibetan, there was little else I could learn about them. I remember being amazed at how little we take advantage of the opportunity to ask about someone's story when we speak the same language.

"It's in Latin," she confirmed before pausing. "It means, 'The Lord will speak peace over his people.'" As she said this last part, I watched the divide rise up between us. Her beautiful, beautiful smile turned heartbreakingly sad as she remembered her story. As she remembered what had moved her to inscribe those words indelibly upon her fading body. "It's from when I used to be a Christian."

Then she walked over and stirred cream into her coffee.

One of my favorite things in Islamic cultures is how Muslims greet one another with "Asalaamu alaikum", Arabic for "peace be upon you." It reminds me of Luke's story about Jesus, how he sent out seventy-two of his disciples in pairs to the villages where he would soon arrive, villages like that one in Western China. The first thing he told them to say was, "Peace be to this house!" I think there is forgotten power in the pronouncement of peace over one another.

When the terrible things happen, there are often no meaningful words to say. Just empty promises or well-intentioned but misguided assurances that everything will turn out fine. But, the reality is that many times things do not turn out fine. What is there to say then? When we have sat with our loved ones in silent mourning for seven days and seven nights (like Job's friends before they started pronouncing judgment and giving advice), what is left to speak but peace?

In the speaking of peace over someone, we are not describing reality as it is. We are speaking of how it should be. There is simultaneous acknowledgment of the desperate brokenness of a situation, the hope of healing, and our utter powerlessness to bring it about alone.

But in speaking peace over someone, we are also saying, "Don't be afraid. You don't have to do it alone," and it is powerful. It is the first thing Jesus says to his gathered disciples after his resurrection––peace to you.

It's what I wanted to say to her from behind the counter, from behind my green apron. Not because she used to be a Christian, but because she is sad that she used to be a Christian. Because maybe hearing the Lord speak peace over us starts with some guy on the fringes of mainstream Christianity who smells of coffee and chonga bagels saying, "You don't have to do it alone."

Maybe next time I'll have the courage to speak across the divide, "Asalaamu alaikum."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A city in the clouds

The nights grow longer now. The solstice has carried us over the apex of daylight hours, is guiding us down to the valley floor. What's down there? It seems strange to be at the beginning of summer and realize that we are in decline. Is that what gives these months such frantic energy? We are reminded with each sunset that the days are fading, their exuberance shortening, our somnolence growing.

Portland is renowned for its rainy months, but driving tonight I was struck anew by a persistently overlooked feature of this city––the clouds. Being only a little more than an hour from the coast and mere minutes from the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge, we find ourselves spectators of the mass migration of clouds of all shapes and sizes, colors and consistencies. Quite simply, they are spectacular.

The clouds fit the temperament of Portland's denizens. We are a hapless lot, locked in step with dreams bigger than our ambitions and besotted with the startling enchantment of this place that will never fully be ours. Portland is a city of dreamers indeed, with all the attendant depression and alcoholism tucked into the folds of bewilderingly genuine creativity and optimism.

I was watching Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back a few weeks ago and was reminded of Lando Calrissian's Cloud City. Here is a man who was a gambler, scoundrel, and thief trying to make it legit as a city administrator of a mining outpost. He was trying to leave a lifestyle behind, but the cutthroat in him had to be resurrected when offered the opportunity to ensure his security by turning in a friend from the old days. Even before Darth Vader kept changing the deal, had Lando's betrayal already lost him the real Cloud City––his dream of being legit?

All you non-Star Wars fans can pay attention again. Portland is a Cloud City of sorts. Local author Chuck Palahniuk called his offbeat tour guide of Portland Fugitives and Refugees because of the double lives that so many of us lead. We often come from all over with demons on our trail, chips on our shoulders, and the elusive dream of a new start clutched against our breasts. This makes for some great art.

It also makes for some spectacular failures. What happens when the dream falls to the cold, hard ground of reality below? What happens when it shatters into a thousand tiny fragments of rejection and regret?

Oh, how painful it is to watch a dream descend from the heights of possibility! See the horde of disgruntled pilgrims in its wake! Do you see those migrant dreamers over the horizon, swaying with the ebb and flow of the tide? In waves, we come and go, realizing the demons on our trail were all along in our heads. The dream could not escape the seeds of nightmare buried beneath the surface of our reinvented selves. So we leave again, in search of a cloud bank sturdy enough to hold our legacies.

The clouds are gathered on all sides tonight, towering behind the West Hills and lurking behind Rocky Butte. They resemble mountains, dark and impassive, peaks reaching for the sky. It could be a brochure for another country, Portland being swallowed up by some granite utopia beyond the Columbia.

But I look at the crescent moon hanging in the sky, and I can't help but laugh at how much it looks like nothing so much as a glowing toenail clipping. The things I want to cut off keep growing, inexorably. They remind me that this pilgrim has a long way to go in finding the balance between hope and disenchantment. I'm just glad I am not alone in the journey, for the days grow shorter.