Anderson

May 20th, 2017

“When the peace treaty is signed, the war isn’t over for veterans, or the families. It’s just starting.” – Karl Marlantes

Hans lives in Anderson, Texas. More accurately, he lives somewhere near Anderson, Texas. Unfortunately, a GPS is not good at locating somebody with no physical address, who lives near a little town in eastern Texas. I tried to get some more precise information from Hans before went we drove down to see him.

“Okay, so where exactly do you live?”

Hans drawled, “Well, the travel trailer is behind the gas station on Highway 30. It’s on the right side of the road as you’re heading toward Bryan. It’s not that far from Yankee’s. You know, that’s the tavern we went to last time you were here.”

“That doesn’t really help, Hans.”

“Well, it’s pretty close to Carlos.”

“Carlos?”

“That’s a little town close by.”

“How about Mom and I just meet with you at Yankee’s? We can eat supper there.”

“Okay, let me know when you guys are getting close.”

Karin and I spent all of a Saturday driving though southwest Arkansas and northeastern Texas to meet up with Hans. The GPS took us through the hills and backroads of the Ozarks. It was all pretty country. It was to drive. Once we got to Texas, the names of places started to look familiar: Tyler, Palestine, Crockett, and Madisonville. Over the years, we had made so many trips to Texas that it was like driving back home.

Yankee’s is a biker bar. It isn’t really in Anderson either. The truth is that there isn’t much of anything that is actually in Anderson. Anderson is the seat of Grimes County, and it has one main street that ends up at the courthouse. Other than that, the street has an antique shop, a couple offices, a mean dog, and the Confederate Memorial Park. The park has a fine statue of a rebel soldier with the Stars and Bars waving proudly overheard.  Welcome to the South.

Yankee’s is a good place. It’s kind of rustic. It’s a Harley hangout. We arrived late in the afternoon.  The Toyota Corolla didn’t quite fit it in. At least we weren’t driving a Prius.  Inside there is a bar and some rough-hewn wooden tables. Lots of biker paraphernalia on the walls. Fox News on the TV. A few locals were holding down some stools. The girl behind the bar gave us a big smile and a “Hi, y’all” before she asked what we would like.

Karin asked for a water.

I asked for a Shiner Bock and directions to the bathroom.

We texted Hans. He was on his way to meet us. He had stopped at the Harley shop to get a new helmet. The old one had a crack, and wasn’t much good any more. I didn’t bother to find out from Hans how he got a crack in his helmet. Some questions are better left unasked.

Then we heard a Harley roll up, and Hans walked in the door. He was wearing old jeans that were stuffed into his scuffed up boots. He had on a faded jean jacket that had an eagle on the back. He had a fresh haircut. It was high and tight; shaved on the sides and the back, with just a fluff of reddish-blond hair on the top. Hans had a moustache that looked like an orange caterpillar on his upper lip. He had a scruffy beard on his chin and on his upper neck. He wanted to go back outside and light up a smoke.

After Hans burned one, we all ordered something to eat. I think each of us had a hamburger. Hans paid. He got himself a Miller, and he bought drinks for Karin and me. We sat together and ate, and then we all went outside in the evening twilight. Hans wanted to show us his bike, and he wanted to light up again.

Hans was starting to feel good. He talked with us, as he sat on a picnic table in front of the tavern, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other.

Hans smiled at me and said, “So, how does it feel now that you’re a felon?”

“Okay.” I smiled back.

Hans laughed to himself, “Well, you’re not really a felon, I guess. You’re not convicted yet. So, tell me again, what was all that nonsense in Nevada? What did you get busted for?”

“Civil disobedience. Disturbing the peace.”

Hans chuckled and shook his head. “My dad…” and then he laughed some more.

Hans talked a bit about the Hells Angels, and then we started talking about the Army. We always wind up talking about the Army. Hans looked at me, and he said with enthusiasm, “

That deployment to Iraq was the high point of my life! I will never again have the feeling and the brotherhood I had there!”

We followed Hans back to his home behind the Shell station about ten minutes down the road from Yankee’s. Hans lives in one of the old travel trailers. He showed it to us. As I looked at the outside, he said,

“Yeah, I know. White trash.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

Hans replied, “You didn’t have to.”

It was getting dark. There was some light coming from the gas station, so we could still see a bit while we were outside. Hans lit up. I could see a few stars. Facing away from the filling station I could make out some trees and fields. It was all country in that direction.

Hans started talking about the Army again.

He shook his head as he blew out some smoke, “Sometimes these young officers really didn’t know what they were doing. Our platoon leader, he didn’t get it. You know how lieutenants are.”

“Yeah, I know. I remember.”

Hans got really serious. “I disobeyed an order form the LT. You know why? If I hadn’t, he would have got us killed.”

“How so?”

Hans told me a story about his unit taking some rounds from guys who were hiding in a line of palm trees. Hans pointed out at a fence line in the distance.

“They weren’t any further away than that fence. The platoon leader didn’t want us to fire back. Fuck that! We went after those guys.”

Hans laughed. “I had a machine gun. I didn’t have time to set it up. I was doing the Rambo thing and firing from the hip.” He laughed again. “I didn’t hit anything. I was shooting all wild. But I managed to provide cover for the other guys, so they could do their jobs and get those fuckers.”

“How many were guys were in the palms?”

Hans took a drag and said, “We found around thirty bodies.”

I watched Hans as he told the story. Hans usually speaks slowly and in monosyllables. But now he was excited. His face was flushed and he spoke quickly.  A couple beers probably brought up the emotions. The fact is that, while he told the story, Hans was back there. He was in Iraq again.

Hans calmed down, and got serious. Then he said, “Yeah, I got in trouble for that shit. I had to talk to the battalion commander, with the CO and the First Sergeant there. One of my sergeants talked up for me. My platoon leader wasn’t happy though.

Then Hans laughed again. Hans said, “The colonel, he took my side. He was yelling and carrying on. He was even hollering at the CO! He said, ‘Specialist Pauc did the right thing! We’re supposed to engage the enemy!’ He was all wound up.”

Hans shrugged, shook his head, and said quietly, “Some people didn’t like me much after that. Nobody wanted to help me get promoted. I knew to get out.”

Hans put out the remains of the cigarette. We went inside the trailer.

 

 

New Clairvaux

June 3rd, 2017

Monastic communities are by definition counter-cultural. Their members have lifestyles that run contrary to the prevailing values and mores of the surrounding population. This has been the case since St. Benedict founded the first monastery in the West back in the 6th century. Benedictines embrace lives that emphasize personal poverty, obedience to authority, humility, and an intense devotion to God. Their days follow a rigorous schedule of “ora et labora” (prayer and work).

There is a direct connection between Benedict’s centuries-old monastery at Monte Cassino and the Trappist abbey at New Clairvaux in Vina, California. There is a fifteen hundred year lineage. New Clairvaux can trace its heritage back to St. Benedict’s original monastery in Italy. New Clairvaux is a Trappist monastery. The Trappists are reformed Benedictines. Actually, they are reformed reformers. The Benedictines had become somewhat lax in their rules by the 12th century and a group of monks, later known as the Cistercians, attempted to bring the community back to its earlier reliance on prayer and manual labor. St. Bernard was one of these monks, and he founded the Abbey of Clairvaux in northern France (hence the name of Californian monastery, New Clairvaux). A few centuries later, another group of monks decided to reform the Cistercians, because they saw them as slackers. These monks were the Trappists.

New Clairvaux is a monastery in its infancy, relatively speaking. It was founded by monks from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, back in the 1950’s, when the monasteries had a huge influx of novices, and those institutions were bursting with men desiring to be monks. The abbot of Gethsemane sent some monks forth to found a new monastery, and they did so in northern California, near Chico. The monks tried to make livelihood through dairy farming, but that didn’t work out for them. However, winemaking did work. So now, New Clairvaux has extensive vineyards, walnut groves, and plum orchards. The only problem is that they lack monks.

Karin and I were completely unaware of the existence of New Clairvaux until the day before we went to stay there. We were visiting the Earth Abides Catholic Worker farm in Calaveras County when Marcus, a resident of Earth Abides, told us about New Clairvaux. Karin and I had been trying to stay at Catholic retreat houses during our seemingly endless journey across America.  Marcus suggested that we contact the people at New Clairvaux and perhaps go there next.

I called the Retreat center at New Clairvaux. I talked to a guy named Will, who then put me on the line with a woman named Michelle (we found out later that Will and Michelle were married, and that worked together as guest masters). Michelle informed me that they had one room left at the retreat house, but we would need to stay there for three nights and two days. The monks required that anybody coming to the abbey make an actual retreat. The house wasn’t to be used simply as a spiritual motel. Karin and I were good with that, so the next day we drove north to Vina.

New Clairvaux is somewhat secluded. It is that way by design. The monks want to be separate from the rest of the world, and they arrange things to make that happen. The grounds have a very Mediterranean look to them. New Clairvaux could easily be somewhere in Italy or Greece. There are towering pines and cedars. We saw orange trees heavy with fruit, and great oleander bushes filled with pink, red, and white flowers. Near the retreat house are massive and ancient black walnut trees. One of them had to be at least six feet wide across the base. There is a church, and a great stone chapterhouse which is under construction. The monks themselves live in a cloister, set apart from the rest of the property. There are outbuildings that house shops and farm equipment. Fruit and nut trees extend outward from the monastery in all directions.

Karin and I met with Michelle. It was early in the afternoon of Friday on the weekend of Pentecost (Shavuot). She informed us that we had arrived a bit too early to check in. However, Michelle mentioned that we could stop at the Oliva Room to learn about the history of the abbey, and that right next door to that was the winetasting room. We told Michelle that we would be back in an hour. After sampling the monastery’s vintages and engaging with random conversations with total strangers, we returned to the guest master office to get settled.

Michelle gave us our keys, and then Will showed us to our room. Will is a short, wiry man. He has white hair and a goatee. Will is officially the “porter”. It’s an old-fashioned title, but it fits. Will cares for the grounds and he is there to get people settled in for their stay at New Clairvaux. Will is passionate about his work. He likes to talk, and that is what we did.

Will said, “Didn’t I just talk to you yesterday on the phone?”

I said. “Yeah.”

“Boy, Michelle got you in here quick! This place is usually booked solid. You know, she is already taking reservations for 2018.

Will asked us where we were from and what brought us to New Clairvaux. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I had been in the Army, and that our oldest son, Hans, was an Iraqi War vet.

Will is also a veteran. He had served in Vietnam.

Will walked us to our room. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I survived the ’60s!”

I asked him, “Do you remember much of it?”

He laughed again, “No, not really.”

Will told us, “When I got back from Vietnam, I just couldn’t fit in. I finally hitchhiked from Philly to Chico back in ’71. I slept in fields for seven days while making the trip. I did that sort of thing for years, well, until I met Michelle. Then my life changed.”

Will talked about the monks: “These guys pray. That is their real job. They keep this world from falling apart. I tell these young guys who are thinking about joining up that this something that is worthwhile. This is life that means something!”

Will showed us our room, and he explained to us how to operate the air conditioner. Our new home was actually two small rooms with a shower/bathroom. The rooms, like most everything else at New Clairvaux, were austere. The walls were all plain cinder blocks. There was very little decoration. The rooms were comfortable, but extremely simple.

Will took us to the dining facility. That too was simple. Breakfast was whenever we felt like eating. We were on our own in that regard. The monks brought hot food to the dining room for lunch and supper, but they just dropped it off and left. Our interactions with the monks were to be at an absolute minimum. Our interactions with other retreatants were going to be the same. The focus was on silence. Peace and quiet were paramount here.

Monastic life is based on a rigid schedule of prayer and work. The monks gather for prayer seven times a day. They start at 3:30 AM with Vigils. Then at 6:00 Am is Lauds. Then Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and finally Compline in the evening. The prayers consist primarily of the recitation of the psalms. Karin and I attended the prayers with the monks and got into their rhythm. We also went to Mass with them.

We had time. Being at a retreat house means putting the brakes on life for a couple days. A person is Internet-free, and suddenly there is time to read or walk. There is time to eat and sleep. There is time to think and feel. There is time to just be. I took to walking along the gravel roads that led past the groves of fruit trees and past the vineyards. At certain points I could make out the snow-capped mountains in the distance. If I got restless, I walked.

Hans called. It was early on the morning of Pentecost. I was walking past the straight lines of walnut trees when my cell phone went off. I saw it was Hans, so I answered the phone.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Hans yawned. He said in his Texas drawl, “Not too much. I didn’t hardly get any sleep last night.”

“Why?”

“An Army buddy called me in the middle of the night. I’m not even sure who he was. He woke me up from a sound sleep, and it took me a while to understand him.”

“Why did he call?’

“He wanted to tell me about a guy who went to Iraq with us. The guy killed himself yesterday.”

“What happened?”

Hans sighed. “Well, the guy decided to get crazy. He pulled out the twelve gauge, and he shot his wife and girls, and then he shot himself.”

I could hear my feet crunching the gravel on the road as I walked.

Then I asked Hans, “How many died?”

“Four.”

“What was the guy’s name.”

There was a pause, and Hans said, “Joe.”

“Where was he?’

Hans got irritable. “I don’t know. He was still in (the Army). He could have been anywhere.”

“Did you know him well?”

“For a while we were close. We used to barbecue together and stuff. Then I lost track of the guy.”

Hans went on, “After the call, I went to the gas station and bought me a twelve pack of Limeritas. I drank those until I fell asleep. Dad, you know, my mind was just racing. That was the only way I could get it to stop.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been there.”

Hans yawned again. “Well, I’ll let you go. I just wanted to tell you about what happened.”

“Okay. I’m glad you called.”

Hans said, “Okay. Bye. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I stopped walking. I looked at the trees. I breathed.

“Fuck! Doesn’t this shit ever end!?”

I went back to our room. I told Karin about Hans’ call. We went to Mass.

Sunday Mass at the monastery usually has more people in attendance than at any other time. The section set aside for lay persons was almost full. I was tense. Karin knew it. She can always tell. I emit nervous energy like a furnace does heat.

During the service, the congregation always prays aloud to ask God for help. The prayers are sometimes called “petitions” or “intentions” or “prayers of the faithful”. Generally, there are a series of standard requests that we ask of God. Each prayer ends with: “Let us pray to the Lord!” The response from the entire community to those words is: ”Lord, hear our prayer!” The petitions usually end with prayers from individuals in the congregation, personal requests.

At Mass the deacon recited the list of petitions. People dutifully, and perhaps without listening, responded to each request with “Lord, hear our prayer!” The petitions are all worthwhile, but they are also somewhat impersonal. It is easy to grow numb to them. It is easy to respond without thinking.

Then the priest asked if anybody in the congregation had a personal intention.

I spoke up: “For a young man named Joe. An Iraqi War vet. He shot his wife and kids, and then he killed himself yesterday. Let us pray to the Lord.”

There was a pause. Very brief. Perhaps no longer than a heartbeat.

Then, all at once, “Lord, hear our prayer!”

I shook for a while after that. Karin squeezed my hand. I went through the rest of the Mass feeling a kind of disconnect. I was there, but not entirely. I received communion. We sang the closing hymn. Karin and I left the church in silence.

I think that sometimes people go to monasteries expecting that God will magically keep the outside world at bay. It doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes the world kicks in the door, and screams, “I’m baaack!” The monastery is an oasis, not a fortress. It is a place to heal, not a place to hide.

Karin and I left the monastery the following morning. Michelle and Will asked us about Hans and about his friend, Joe. They really cared. I think the other people at the church cared too.

That’s good enough.

 

Christ in the Desert

May 27th, 2017

“There, in the desert, there’s hunger, thirst, prostrations-and God. Here there’s food, wine, women-and God. Everywhere God. So, why go look for him in the desert?” – Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ

“Christ in the Desert” has been called the most remote monastery in the Western Hemisphere. It is. I have no doubt of it. The abbey is hidden in New Mexico among mountains of breath-taking beauty, and it is an absolute bitch to reach. The journey to this monastery is probably easier than a trip to Lhasa in Tibet, but it also not for the faint of heart.

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert appears to be located near the tiny New Mexican community of Abiquiu. One might get that notion from the monastery’s website. This is totally misleading. This is like saying that Milwaukee is near La Crosse.  It is true that both Milwaukee and La Crosse lie within the borders of Wisconsin, just as Christ in the Desert and Abiquiu are both in New Mexico. However, that doesn’t mean that these locations are anywhere near each other, in the usual sense of the word.

The monastery uses Abiquiu as its mailing address, and for good reason. There is no post office closer than the one in Abiquiu. It is still quite a haul from Abiquiu to the monastery. First, a person needs to drive twelve miles north through the mountains along Route 84. Then the fun starts. There is U.S. Forest Service Road 151 that eventually takes the traveler to Christ in the Desert. This dirt road is thirteen miles long, winds through Carson National Forest, and it dead ends at the monastery. On a daily basis, the monastery posts the road conditions for 151 on its website. This is important information. If the road through the mountains is muddy or snow-covered, it is impossible to get to the abbey. Don’t even bother making the attempt in those conditions. 

               Forest Service Road 151 is not a private road. Other people, besides monks and visitors to the monastery, use the road for various reasons. The Chama River flows swiftly through a valley, and the Forest Service has set up recreational sites along the river for kayaks and canoes. There are a few ranchers in the area. So, this road gets more traffic than one would expect. It’s not necessarily busy, but it is not always empty either.

I didn’t mind the condition of the road. It was bumpy and dusty, but Karin and I traveled some other roads that were much, much worse during the course of our journeys. I wasn’t so much bothered by the steep grades and hairpin turns. I didn’t get too excited about the fact that 151 clings to the sides of cliffs without even the thought of a guardrail on the edge. I was concerned that this road had only one lane. True, there were occasional turnouts along the side, but these were few and far between. I was very worried about climbing around a steep curve and then suddenly facing an F-350 coming in the opposite direction. In that case, somebody needed to back up, and I wasn’t interested in doing that.

Karin drove the Toyota to the monastery. I drove us out when our visit was over.

Karin was amused by my nervousness.

As she went around a tight curve in second gear, she asked me, ”Are you scared? You’re holding on to that door handle pretty tight.”

“No, I’m okay.”

Karin smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m in control.”

“Focus on the road.”

“I am focusing on the road. Hey, that’s a beautiful view across the valley! Look at those mountains! We should take a picture.” The car got close to the edge of a drop off as she said this.

“Focus on the ROAD.”

“Just relax!”

Forty-five minutes later we arrived at Christ in the Desert. The car was coated with fine, red dust. There is no check in procedure at the monastery. Nobody greets you. There is simply a note telling you where your room is located. Ours was in the ranch house, just beyond the church.

The monks require that any visitors making a retreat stay for at least two nights. This seems reasonable. Why would anybody make this kind of trip and only stay overnight? We were arriving on a Friday night, so we would be spending most of the weekend at the abbey. It takes at least a two nights and a full day to appreciate the experience. We had arrived at the monastery after supper time, and the sun was setting over the tops of the surrounding mesas. It wasn’t dark, but the shadows were getting very long.

Christ in the Desert has a guesthouse and a ranch house for retreatants. Karin and I stayed in the ranch house. That house, like everything else in the monastery, is built in an adobe style. Massive walls painted a kind of reddish-tan color. Many buildings in New Mexico have that look. The thick walls of the house keep the rooms cool during the summer. The ranch house has three rooms for guests, and then another room containing a kitchenette, bathroom, and a shower. The guestrooms don’t have any of those things.

Our room had two single beds, each of them with a fluffy comforter. The beds also had extra-large pillows. The floor was made of brick with a carpet over a portion of it. There was a free standing, wooden closet for hanging clothes. There was a small desk and a comfortable chair. Of course, there was a crucifix on the wall.

The most remarkable thing in the room was a large reproduction of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. I didn’t get to see any of the other guest rooms, but I suspect that each one held some work of religious art. The monks have excellent taste. They have examples of religious art in most areas of the monastery: murals, icons, statues, paintings, sculptures. Everything I saw there was beautiful. Modern religious art tends to be cheesy and sentimental. For art to inspire, it needs to be a little edgy, a little mysterious. I looked at Return of the Prodigal Son several times, and I always found something new.

The monks had left guest instructions in the room for us. There were prayer times listed, and the times for meals. The instructions made it clear that we were not to interact with the monks, and to maintain a respectful distance from the other retreatants. If we had issues, we could speak with the guest master, Brother Andre. The note showed that there would the evening prayer, Compline, at 7:30 PM. We went to the church to attend the service, but the monks had some kind of meeting going, so Karin and I just went back to our room and got ready for bed.

I got up at 3:50 AM. That is when I heard the bells ring for Vigils, the earliest of the morning prayers. Karin had told me to take her along if she woke up on her own. She didn’t. So, I got up in the dark, dressed, and went outside to walk the gravel path to the chapel. I had to stop on the way.

It is difficult to express just how dark it gets at Christ in the Desert. I stepped out of the ranch house and I looked toward the sky. I have never seen so many stars. The Milky Way crossed the heavens like a ragged band of white. I could pick out a few of the constellations: Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Cassiopeia. Mostly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars, shining above me like frozen fire. After a while I had to look away again. My mind couldn’t take it all in. There was just too much to see.

I looked to my left and saw the open door of the church. The light from inside shown like a beacon. I stumbled toward the light.

The chapel is not very big. There are two sets of choir stalls facing each other. Near the entrance door are the seats for lay people. There aren’t many seats there, because usually there aren’t many lay people in attendance. The chapel is dimly lit. It seems much brighter from outside.

The monks find their seats and start chanting the psalms at 4:00 AM. The service starts with the sound of wood striking on wood. It reminds me a bit of how meditation practice begins at the Zen Center at home. The monks use Gregorian chant. They do most of it in English, but they occasionally say a prayer in Latin. The service lasts for almost an hour. The monks alternate singing the psalms. First one side chants, and then the monks on the other side of the church chant. There is a rhythm to the prayers that draws a person into them.

Karin and I went to Mass with the monks later that morning. We also celebrated with them on Sunday. They use many Latin versions of the prayers during the Mass: the Agnus Dei, the Gloria, the Sanctus. They do the Kyrie in Greek, but then it’s supposed to be in Greek. They love to use incense while they pray. Somehow, when these monks recite or sing the Latin prayers, it sounds right.

I have sometimes met Catholics who like to show the world how traditional and pious they are. They seem to have an intense nostalgia for the days before Vatican II, or for how they imagine those days must have been. These people bow and genuflect at odd times, and generally come across (at least to me) as being superficial and inauthentic. It is not like that with the Benedictine monks. It is all real. They are old school in a lot of ways, but that’s just who they are. They never have to talk about their faith; they live it. Their devotion to God is clear and clean, because it flows from the core of their being. These men seldom said a word to us. They didn’t need to do so. Their daily lives were a sermon.

Karin and I did talk with two of the monks. Brother Andre and Brother Benedict are guest masters, so they have to interact with visitors. Brother Andre is a short, compact man. He speaks in a clipped staccato that reflects his years of living on the East Coast. He’s wound tight. Brother Andre is a native of Connecticut. Brother Benedict is a tall black man with hair going grey. Brother Benedict has drooping eyelids that partially cover gentle brown eyes. He smiles slowly and broadly. He has a deep chuckle in his voice when he is amused. Brother Benedict is as relaxed as Brother Andre is hyper. They make a good team.

There must be around thirty monks at Christ in the Desert. Many of them are young. Many of them are from foreign countries. The community is multi-racial, multi-national, and dynamic. At other monasteries, the communities seem to be barely hanging in there. Christ in the Desert feels alive and growing. It would be interesting to me to find out why this group is different from the others.

The landscape around Christ in the Desert is gorgeous. The towering mesas have sheer cliffs that extend down into the river valley. The lower strata of rock are red in color. Above them are layers of yellow and grey stone. Pines cling to edges on the cliffs. During the day, the sunlight plays on the rock formations, and brings out the various hues. The Chama River flows green and peaceful down in the valley.

The land has an odd smell. I noticed it mostly in the water, but the scent is everywhere. It’s in the red dust. I can’t really describe it. It smells like flint. Maybe a little like iron. Maybe a little like blood. Maybe it’s just a desert smell. Whatever it is, it is now part of my memory of the place.

Years from now, I will forget many things. If I think back on Christ in the Desert, I will most likely remember stars and dust and prayers and blood. That’s not too bad.

 

 

 

Goddess Temple

This is from April 28th, 2017

It was early evening. I walked out of the yellow trailer that served as a guest house on the temple grounds. I stood on the deck. The sun had already set over the mountains to the west. There was still an orange glow in the Nevada sky. The crescent moon hung low in the sky. To the left of it I could just make out the faint stars in Orion. Above Orion I could see the shape of Leo. I stared at sky for a while to take it all in.

The temperature was dropping rapidly. I was glad that I wore my sweater. Dim landscape lights marked the edges of the footpaths that snaked through the temple area. I followed one of the paths to a shed that was also painted yellow. On one side of the shed was a mural depicting the goddess Sekhmet. It was illuminated by a flood light. Sekhmet is an Egyptian deity with the a lion’s head and a woman’s body. In Egyptian mythology Sekhmet was a warrior goddess as well as a source of fertility.The eyes of the goddess stared straight into mine. I moved on.

The official name of the place is “The Temple of Goddess Spirituality”. Everybody at the desert campsite just referred to it as the “Goddess Temple”. The temple is about three miles west of Creech AFB on US 95. It is set back somewhat from the highway, and has the feel of a retreat center. The grounds are covered with the usual desert flora, flowering creosote bushes and bursage. There are also rose bushes blooming in pink and red, grape vines on a trellis, some hardy pines, a couple mimosa, and two massive poplar trees whose trunks are as thick as my waist. Tall mountains loom to the north, still covered with snow at the high elevations. There is a constant wind. Sometimes a person can see a dust devil whirl across a distant plain.

The guest house is cozy. There a three bedrooms and a kitchen/dining room area. It’s a trailer that has been enlarged over time. Everything is painted in pastel colors. Lots of paintings and books. The reading selection is eclectic. There are Buddhist texts, a biography of Thomas Merton, Native American studies, Wiccan literature, and a guide called Pagan Parenting.

In a soft and gentle way, the whole setting screamed feminine. It’s not that I felt unwelcome there. Quite the opposite. People there made me feel very much at ease. However, deep inside I knew that I didn’t belong there. This was sacred ground for women. I was poaching on their turf. This was not, and could never be my home.

I had wandered the temple grounds earlier in the day. It was well laid out. The trails consisted of the dusty tan soil that is omnipresent in the Mojave. The paths took me to odd places. I stopped at a labyrinth outlined with white stones, I found a Zen garden with a bench, a fairy shrine, and a statue of Kwan Yin. There was a circle with benches all around and a fire pit in the center. Peace flags flew in the breeze. The whole meandering set of walkways seemed to encourage meditation.

At night much of the grounds was hidden from view. This was all right. When sight fails the other senses take over. The desert sounds became clear. The crunch of the soil underfoot seemed much louder. Not everything was lost in the darkness. Up on the hill I could still make out the outline of the temple. I walked up to it.

The temple itself is a small adobe structure, open on all four sides. There is no roof. Instead it has metal latticework on top in the shape of a dome. Inside the shrine is a fire pit. There are four alcoves in the corners of the building. In one corner is a statue of Sekhmet, surrounded by small offerings. In other space is a statue of Kwan Yin, along with images of other Asian goddesses. A third alcove has a mother image, a statue called “Madre del Mundo”. In the last corner are image of Mary, the Mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In the dark I could no longer see these figures. I looked up at the dome. I saw starlight filtering through the steel frame. The stars provided the faintest of light in the temple. I felt something, and I am still unsure what it was. It was something good, but alien in a way. I stood for a while. Then I made my way back down the hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Last Kiss

At the end of April 26th, 2017

“We go to Lost Wages, Lost Wages. We go to Lost Wages…”

Background lyrics on Show Biz Kids from Steely Dan

At the very last station of the release process, they give a person his or her cash back. Sort of. When I got arrested I had nineteen dollars and change on me. The lady behind the counter gave me my change back in a tiny manila envelope. Then she handed me a grey debit card, along with a multi-page document explaining how to use it.

She said, “This is your money on this debit card. Your PIN is your birthday (day and month). Use the card when making a purchase, or at an ATM. It will expire in a few days, so use it soon.”

I asked, “So, how long is a ‘few’ days?”

She replied, “48 hours.”

When I was outside the jail with the rest of the Creech boys, we got a ride from Marcus. He wanted to know if we wanted to go straight back to camp. We opted instead to stop at a Salvadoran restaurant for real food and cold beer. At the end of meal, I tried to use my brand new debit card. It was rejected by the machine.

The next day I was riding with Ray. We stopped at a filling station and I attempted to use the ATM there. I put in the card. I put in my PIN. So far, so good. I asked for money.

“Declined. Insufficient funds.”

Well, that made sense, seeing as I had less than twenty dollars on the card, and this machine refused to spit out a bill smaller than a twenty. Actually, it also demanded a $2.50 service charge to use the card. So, in reality, I needed at least $22.50 to use this card at an ATM. My money was gone, and the debit card was just one of my souvenirs from Vegas.

Total scam.

For me, losing nineteen dollars or so is not the end of the world. However, I bet it is for some people, like the homeless guy in the blue room. The police are skimming cash off people each and every day. It’s all perfectly legal, and it’s completely wrong.

“We go to Lost Wages, we go to Lost Wages…Oh Honey, can you hear me?”  Steely Dan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Blue Room

  Very, very late on April 26th, 2017

“No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Excellent. Another locked room full of unknown quantities. There were four guys sitting on a bench. They had on the dark blue uniforms and bright orange socks of CCDC. A mysterious cupboard door opened into another room and a black woman started handing out bags of clothes to the guys in uniform. One white guy with red hair did not get his bag of clothes. I have no idea why not. Another guy who had tattoos literally everywhere got all of his clothes except for a shirt.

People changed into their civilian attire, and then conversations began. Talk Show was telling the group about an acquaintance of his who had been caught with half a pound of meth. Somebody asked how much a half pound of meth goes for on the local market.

“Wholesale or retail?”, somebody asked.

The guy with the red hair said that half an ounce usually went for about two hundred bucks. A black guy sharing the bench with him said that it was more like $250 per half ounce. After further discussion, it was decided that half a pound, sold in bulk, should sell for between $2000 and $2500.

In the meantime, a homeless man wearing a Masonic t-shirt was describing his arrest. Apparently, the police woke him up by kicking at his feet, and then dragged him out his sleeping bag to arrest him in his underwear. His charge was something like “improper use of a sidewalk”. It actually said that on his charge sheet.

Brian and Mike of the many buttons were trying to explain killer drones to Talk Show. Talk Show said that we need to kill the bad guys. Brian patiently explained that the drone operators had a poor record for identifying bad guys.

At that point, a black guy on the bench with a black polo shirt said, “There ain’t no problem telling who is a bad guy around here! Every time we go out on the street, we the bad guys!” He pointed at himself. That was probably the most profound statement on racism that I have ever heard.

The conversation switched back to drugs. One man, who seemed to be an expert on meth, expressed his views on the drug:

“Man, meth helped me when I got off of coke. It reduced the cravings, all that shit. Speed made me more capable when I stopped using. Fuck yeah.”

Polo Shirt said, “I don’t care what you smoking in that bulb. Crack, coke, meth: if it’s burning in that bulb, you still a fucking crack head.”

Several conversations were going on at once. Then the door was unlocked. The guard called out for the guy with the tattoos. Nobody heard him. The guard called again. The noise never died down.

The guard said, “We’ll try this again in a few minutes.” He shut and locked the door.

Lots of bad energy in the room. Cruel disappointment. Recriminations…

“Stupid mother fuckers! Why didn’t you just shut the fuck up when the guard come to the fucking door?!”

A black guy wearing an orange t-shirt and bright red pants was standing around, singing a rap song.

A man sitting on the floor called to him, “Knock that shit off, Man!”

Orange Shirt looked at him and said, “Why? The song’s only got sixteen bars.” He started singing again.

The guard unlocked the door. Silence, well, almost silence.

The guard called out, “Tattoo!” The man with no shirt came forward.

“Paul!”

I walked up.

Several more of us were called out. We went into the hallway. The guard locked the door on the other guys in the blue room.

We had two more stations and about fifteen minutes to go. We signed more papers. We got our possessions.

Tattoo asked the guard, “Where’s my shirt?”

Guard: “There wasn’t any shirt in the bag.”

Tattoo: “I had a shirt when I came in. It’s gone now.”

Guard: “We don’t have your shirt.”

Tattoo: ” I need a shirt to go outside.”

The guard spoke to the lady behind the counter. “Do we have any of those ‘throw away’ shirts?”

Lady: “Yeah, a couple of them.”

Guard: “Give him one.”

Lady to Tattoo: ” Is this shirt okay?”

Tattoo: “Yeah. It’s good. Whatever.”

Guard: “That way to the release door. Good luck.”

 

 

 

Pod 11

Much later on April 26th, 2017

“There was all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people on the bench there There was mother-rapers father-stabbers father-rapers! Father-rapers sittin’ right there on the bench next to me! And they was mean And nasty and ugly and horrible and crime fightin’ guys were sittin’ there On the bench, and the meanest, ugliest, nastiest one the meanest Father-raper of them all was comin’ over to me, and he was mean and Ugly and nasty and horrible and all kinds of things, and he sat down next to  Me. He said, ‘Kid, what’d you get?’ ”

Arlo Guthrie, from Alice’s Restaurant

The guard stuck me into holding cell #11 with about fifteen other guys. The population was primarily black and Latino, with four whites in the mix. I was like a grain of salt in a pepper shaker. Almost everybody was either sitting on the benches or trying to sleep underneath the benches. There was a TV playing. I sat next to Mike the Guitarist. He seemed glad to see me. I didn’t know any of the other people. We had plenty of time to get acquainted.

The room was narrow with wooden benches on either side wall. The concrete floor was painted a dark brown. The television was in the corner of the room furthest from the door. There were windows on either side of the door, so that a person could look out at the hallway. There were phones built into the walls: three of them. The phones had no receiver. A person had to put his ear up against some holes in the wall to hear, and then talk into some other holes in the wall. The sweetest accessory in the room was the combination toilet/drinking fountain. How thirsty are you?

Sitting next to Mike on the bench was a big Latino guy. He had a long, black beard which he had braided. He was a little fluffy, but I think that there was plenty of muscle under the fat.

Across from Mike was an emaciated white guy in shorts. His face was covered with grey stubble and his eyes looked like two bleeding sores. He needed a good dermatologist. The man worked in a body shop, and he told us how he was being falsely accused of domestic violence.

Standing near us was a young black man. He had on a black t-shirt that said “Murder” on it.

Across the room was a middle-aged black man, well built with greying hair. He liked to converse. He would have been a great talk show host.

Big Latino asked the guard for a roll of toilet paper. The guard cracked the door open slightly, and tossed the roll into the cell. Nice.

Everybody in the cell seemed decent enough. Of course, we were all there because we had been accused of committing various crimes, but that’s okay. If things got ugly, there was always the panic button next to the door. I had my doubts that a guard would get here soon enough to prevent somebody from being hurt, but that’s all we had available.

Mike mentioned that two fighter jets had buzzed our campsite across the road from the air base. The talk show host wanted to know what kind of jets they were. We weren’t sure, and then a conversation started about military aircraft. Talk Show was actually quite knowledgeable, and we discussed American, Russian, and Chinese planes for a while.

Later the conversation turned to sports. It started with basketball. That made sense since there was game on the TV.

Talk Show: “Kobe. I got no respect for that guy. Cry baby. Kobe is like this: ‘Gimme the ball! Gimme the ball! Gimme the ball!’. The guy should have got a record for world’s biggest ball hog!”

Body Shop Guy: “They need another guy like Larry Byrd! Somebody to run circles around you black guys!”

Talk Show: “Larry Byrd! That guy was the last of a breed. You ain’t never gonna see nobody like Byrd again. He was the Last of the Mohicans!”

Body Shop Guy: “Well, there’s good white guys in other sports.”

Talk Show: “Like what?”

Body Shop Guy: “Boxing!”

Talk Show: “Boxing! Boxing? You serious? Who was the last white winner in boxing? Rocky Graziano? Shit. I mean you got guys like Klitschko, but they’re all Ukrainian. They don’t count. They are like black Russians. They’re like us! The Russians been beating down on those fuckers for years!”

The conversations were kept going to pass the time, but it still dragged. Some of these guys, like Body Shop and the Big Latino, had been in there for almost forty-eight hours already. People looked rough. Nobody knew when they getting out of the cell. The guards came by every few minutes to shuffle through the mug shot cards in the slot, but nobody left the pod. Actually, more guys kept joining us. The flow was all wrong.

Eventually, the guards brought in two young black men. One of them went toward the far wall, near the television. The other guy stood next to the door. Talk Show tried to welcome them to our little group.

He smiled and said, “Hi, new guy!”

The man at the door was staring at the TV, and never even glanced at Talk Show. He said quietly, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t care what you think. I just want to watch the game without being distracted.”

Oh boy.

The mood in the cell shifted ominously. It got worse when our new friend started talking with people that were invisible to me.

He kept looking toward the ceiling and saying things like, “So what do you want me to do? Why do you got to shove it up my ass all the time?”

I hope he wasn’t praying.

The guard showed up. He started sorting through his playing cards, and picking a few out.

Big Latino looked at me and laughed, “He picked your card! I could tell from your beard in the picture!”

The guard opened the door and started calling out names.

“Talk Show!”

“Paul!” (Close enough. I would answer to any name that got me out of that room).

Mike and the Big Latino got called too. Body Shop wasn’t so lucky.

We filed into the hallway and hooked up with some more inmates, including the other guys from Creech. We all walked down the hallway to a door. The guard unlocked it and we entered. The room had no windows.

The guard locked us in.