You’re still alive
Oh do I deserve to be?
And is that the question? Oh
And if so, if so
“Alive,” Pearl Jam
I’m fascinated by Google Earth. Everything looks so nice and neat from a distance, but as you get closer and closer to the details you begin to see the messiness of where we really live. Not the bright blues and greens of a distant yonder, but the wilting daffodils by the mailbox, the old grill tucked away on the side of the house waiting to go to the landfill, the broken rail on the porch.
I feel the same about my past. On the whole, everything looks nice and neat and respectable. But there are parts of my past I would rather not call my own. In fact, I have actively avoided some episodes like the tousled hair morning after a one-night stand, moving on quickly in the brightness of a new day as if it never really happened.
But as much as I want to avoid the inevitable discomfort of making eye contact with my past, some of my experiences simply call me back and demand that I engage in a deeper dialogue to seek understanding and peace. Such is the case with my trip to New Orleans in 1994 when I went to visit a college friend and experience Mardi Gras.
World’s Biggest Party
It was the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, and the French Quarter in New Orleans must have looked like some science experiment from above. Eddies of motion swirled in random currents that started and stopped amid the mass of humanity flooding the streets. I had driven down from North Carolina with a friend to visit one of our former football teammates from college who relocated to Metairie, La. We were among thousands of people who had descended on New Orleans with masks, beads, and wild ambitions. Most of us good and drunk.
We had been making our way down Bourbon Street when I stopped to talk with a young woman who had inquired how she might obtain one of my cheap, plastic, pearl-like necklaces. The age-old Mardi Gras tradition of bartering to see if she would flash her breasts had begun.
We were well into our negotiations when her boyfriend appeared and began to take exception to the deal I was about to close. He and his two friends began encroaching on my personal space, which is saying something considering the tight quarters already required by the annoying physics of space and mass during Mardi Gras.
I stalled for time as I scanned the crowd for the faces of my friends. Nothing.
I turned my attention back to the guy who had just shoved me pretty hard. Talking my way out of this one wasn’t going to be an option. There were three of them, not including the young woman who was safely behind a wall of her male escorts now. The tea kettle pressure was humming just below the boiling pitch. The shit was about to get real, fast.
But a weird thing happens in times of desperation. The brain sends out a flare for emergency help. Even steeped in inebriation, my mind searched every corner for some useful information that might help. And then I saw something. The flare lit up the memory of a story from a friend who had been cornered during an altercation a couple years earlier. So, I seized on the idea like a man wielding an umbrella heading into a gunfight.
In my best “let’s-all-get-along” voice, I apologized again and explained I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. I suggested that everyone relax and have fun. “It’s Mardi Gras for heaven’s sake.”
As I’m talking, I slowly reached my arm around the boyfriend’s neck to emulate the camaraderie I was describing. Then, I looked once more into the crowd and saw one of my friends. Jeff, a former offensive tackle, stood about 6’3” and weighed in at about 250 lbs. He’s the type of person you wanted standing by you in such a situation.
The distance between us wasn’t great, but 15 feet takes awhile to cross when bodies are packed in the space between like the elevator of an office building at quitting time. With my eyes about the size of dinner plates, I frantically waved my free arm to invite him to get his ass over here. But I knew it was going to take too long.
The boyfriend didn’t appreciate the chummy gesture of putting my arm around his neck. He began to forcefully pull away. It was now or never. With my arm still slung around his neck, I pulled his head down and swung hard with an uppercut to where I thought his face should be.
It’s called a sucker punch – a morally reprehensible, cowardly and unredeemable approach to a fight. And it immediately ended his night of reverie.
In the sudden explosion of activity as people around us began to jump back out of the way, I found a crease between the bodies in front of me and ducked through it. I disappeared into the crowd.
Between the adrenaline and the alcohol flooding my bloodstream, I don’t remember the feeling of my fist slamming into his face. But I remember the blood. And then things began to get fuzzy.
Jeff finally caught up to me a few minutes later. “I think you broke his nose,” he said. “There was blood everywhere. As soon as I got there, you took off. I was left standing there with them cussin’ and shoutin’.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“They said you were an asshole, and I told them that sometimes you get drunk and act crazy. Then, I told them I better go find you before you punched somebody else.”
“Is that your blood?” he asked.
I looked down and saw the blood that stained my hands, shirt and pants. “I don’t think so. It must be his.”
Several minutes later we finally located my other friend John, and the two girls he knew from high school whom he had invited to come with us to the French Quarter. We all entered a bar along Bourbon St. in search of a bathroom. I’d already been warned once (as in almost arrested) by one of New Orleans’ finest that urinating in the street wasn’t such a good idea.
The five of us had spent a couple hours pounding beers at John’s apartment before driving downtown. And on the way to the French Quarter, I had taken a few long, hard pulls from a bottle of bourbon before deciding to stand up through the moonroof of Jeff’s car to announce our arrival. That’s the state I was in before joining the world’s biggest party.
Of course, my first priority upon reaching our destination was to order the famous drink of New Orleans — the hurricane. This sweet, but deadly concoction is guaranteed to knock you on your ass with about 4 ounces of light and dark rum disguised with passionfruit and lime juice. The storm was already brewin’.
After the altercation, we were all ready to find some relief in the form of a bathroom. We waded through a nearby bar to find a long line of squirmy people waiting in line for the same thing. The men’s room had a trough for the line of drunks to piss in, so we finished much more quickly than our female counterparts. Having a little time on my hands and a bartender nearby, I decided to order another hurricane.
I don’t remember much after that.
I have a vague recollection of being escorted out to the street by Jeff after almost getting into another scrape inside the bar. And I remember deciding to strike out on my own. In full disclosure, I’m somewhat of a wanderer, especially after a few drinks. In college I was known to abandon my friends and walk home from a party or wander through a graveyard for no good reason. It is an inexplicable attraction to darkness that pulls me away like a gravitational force.
So, while others were distracted, I wandered off down the street. I left behind the only people I knew among a throng of thousands. I did not know the address of John’s apartment or how to get there. I was gone.
My next memory is waking up the following morning. It took me a minute or two to recognize what I was looking at when I opened my eyes and my dull consciousness started to slowly absorb the surroundings. I was lying on top of my gray sleeping bag on the floor of John’s apartment. The milky pink stuff on my sleeping bag, I realized, was a dried pool of my own vomit — signs of the hurricane’s destructive path. And I didn’t remember any of it.
What happened between the moments of consciousness that morning and the previous night is something I still have difficulty understanding or explaining. I was lost in a most real and terrifying way, and worse, I had no conscious awareness of the fact. Since I have no memory of the rest of the night, I have had to rely on the memory of others for what is still one of the most profound events of my life.
Apparently, at some point in the early morning hours, Jeff and the two girls decided to catch a cab back to the apartment after having no luck finding me. John stayed behind and headed back to the first bar we stopped at in hopes that I might show up. Jeff and the girls made their way out of the French Quarter and hailed a cab.
Several blocks down the road, Jeff casually glanced out the window and saw an unusual site in what looked to be a sketchy part of town. In a field about 40 yards away, a large man standing about 6’5” and weighing close to 300 lbs. was dragging the limp body of another man by the collar of his shirt.
Somehow, Jeff realized at a quick glance as the cab drove by that the limp body was mine. “That’s Paul! Stop the cab!”
The girls assumed he was kidding. “Yeah, right. Shut up, you’re drunk,” one of them said.
But Jeff was confident. “I’m serious. That’s Paul. Turn the cab around.”
The cab stopped and Jeff approached the much bigger man who was holding me by the collar.
“That’s Paul,” Jeff said. “We lost him. We’ve got to take him back to the apartment with us.”
The man acquiesced, and Jeff pulled me into the cab and saved my sorry ass from whatever unimaginable fate I was headed for.
Lost and then found.
Grace and Resurrection
Math was never my strong suit, but I’m guessing the odds of Jeff recognizing my limp body being dragged down a street well away from the thousands of people I had last been seen with and from about 40 yards through the blurred windowscape of the cab are infinitely small. The kind of infinitely small odds that people talk about when they talk about the Big Bang creating a planet in a galaxy that could sustain life as we know it today.
The weight and significance of the experience began to slowly seep into me as Jeff and I drove the 15 hours back to Greensboro, N.C. the following day. Most of the time I wasn’t driving was spent in the backseat of his old Mercedes diesel. I was laid out, hung-over and feeling intimately close to something bigger.
It is strange how sometimes we are only able to see the bigger picture and understand and draw meaning from an experience in retrospect. Despite how real, painful, joyful or numbing the experience, the close proximity doesn’t allow us the context to appreciate anything other than knowing something significant has occurred. It was years before I had enough distance to see the patterns and then decipher meaning from them.
On the ride back home, my body and my mind ached with longing. I drank a lot of water to address my body’s needs, and I started making a list of words that gave my mind some peace — simple words that had pleasing sounds when spoken. Rainbows, mud puddle, midnight, moon shadow, deliquescence. Somehow these words comforted my mind and my soul, which were still wrestling with the events from the weekend and their meaning.
There was nothing redeemable about my actions that night in New Orleans. I was a first-class fuck up in every possible way. Had I been arrested for any of my infractions that night, a judge would have rightly thrown the book at me. If, as Martin Luther King Jr., suggested, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, then I should have met whatever fate awaited me along the streets of New Orleans. That would have been justice.
I kept drinking. I pissed in the street. I broke someone’s nose. I walked away. I struck out on my own. I left my friends behind. I got lost among the masses.
But I was found. I was saved from that fate. I was returned to those who cared for me, those who made sure I didn’t drown in my own vomit.
That isn’t fair or just. It is grace.
Grace is a word born bloody and beautiful from the womb of experience. It is a grace I didn’t and don’t deserve. A grace that transforms and brings new life. When I wandered down the dark streets of my mind looking for an escape, God found me and brought me back. It was my own resurrection. I was found, and I was made new. Again and again.
My experience in New Orleans is how I understand the unconditional and transformative power of God’s love. Because salvation isn’t something we wait for in the next life. It is something we are offered and asked to live out today.
We are all recovering from something. We are broken in a million different ways. We carry our own secrets and pain and hide our scars from the world. We all wander our own dark streets and get lost among the multitudes hoping not to be found. We even die our own deaths. But God continually resurrects us and makes us new. When I don’t know how to love myself, God is still able to love me. I made it back. That’s grace, and it makes all the difference.
During the days after my trip to New Orleans, I could not fathom why I had been saved. Still today I struggle to understand God’s purpose for my life. It’s one of those frightening questions that I tend to avoid like looking directly at the sun. But I’ve learned that God’s purpose for us is one of those inescapable questions of identity. The question of identity can be just as intimidating, so it usually is more manageable to consider who am I this week, this month, this year, and then create the quiet space to reflect and listen for what that means now.
A good pastor friend once told me that when giving holy communion, St. Augustine used the words, “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” Those words so beautifully capture the paradox of identity. We are exactly who God has made us to be. Behold, we are beautiful creations. Yet we must embrace that person and our gifts to live out God’s purpose for our life, to be the grace we have received. Some days that is harder than others.
Faith isn’t about absolutes or easy answers; it’s not about a life free of struggle or challenge. Life is still full of pain and joy, suffering and celebration. But having been lost, having walked down the dark streets and away from everything, I was able to find something, too. I found that I wasn’t alone. I was never alone. And maybe I needed to wander away to discover it.
I still tend to wander away from who I am called to be and what God is asking of me. Sometimes I just get sidetracked, sometimes I don’t find the space to listen, but other times, I’m more willful in my resistance. Face it, sometimes the things we are called to do are hard and painful and messy. Mostly they require us to look beyond ourselves, our routines, our to-do lists, our personal desires and our ambitions to help someone else. So God reminds us. Sometimes we just need some minor course corrections; other times we need something a little more dramatic to get our attention.
My prayer is that we open our eyes to see the grace God brings to us in a dried pool of vomit and the other ugly messes of our lives. That we might recognize the new life we have and the responsibility we now share. That just as God used someone to find, renew and build us, we might offer the same for someone else who may be wandering their own lonely streets, lost among the masses.
The festival of Mardi Gras grew out of the religious tradition as a pre-Lenten celebration. It is the proverbial last call before Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of prayer, reflection, repentance, atonement and preparation for the resurrection of Easter Sunday.
Owning this story and my past was an important part of my own Lent, even before I understood and appreciated the historical and spiritual context of what it represented. The essence of Lent was embodied in my experience in the same way the Holy Spirit is embodied in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. By confronting that night and calling it mine, I also now own the extraordinary grace that comes with it. Each year, as Lent comes to a close and we approach Easter, I am reminded again that Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
And so must we.