Sunday, February 28, 2010

Two Waters

“And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” - Luke 16:24

On the flight back to Taiwan, somewhere over the Pacific, I developed food poisoning and made it back to the apartment in Taichung seventeen hours later half alive. For the next twenty-four hours I lay paralyzed on the cold, tile bathroom floor in puddles of projectile vomit, spit, and filth. I kept telling myself, little breaths Brian, just take little breaths. But then I would imagine how I was holed up in the high rise apartment with the marble floors and the giant wooden swinging doors and how no one in the world knew I was there sprawled in the fetal position ravaged by icy chills. How if you asked a thousand people below passing by on the street to imagine what might be going on nineteen floors above, you might get a thousand different answers. That’s a beautiful thing about life, isn’t it, that we all see things differently? Yet no one can change your plight, your own individual struggle against the odds. Then I would pass in and out of consciousness and my thoughts were no longer my own. After thirty-six hours I had my first sip of water, drunk from a clay jar I had crawled across two rooms to drip from the tap before heading to the airport to pick up my children and their mother arriving from far away. These moments are crucial in our existence, when we come face to face with God. When we hear God’s voice. When God answers the question, “Yes, it does all makes sense in time.”
“Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.” - Ezekiel 36:25

Two days before in Tokyo’s Narita airport, I sat in the newsstand making up stories about the people who would pass. The old man in the leather Crocs was a Big Game hunger, trophy heads of Kodiak and Elands grace his den wall. The woman breastfeeding in the corner actually traffics in human organs. Livers. Kidneys. Hearts. She meets potential clients in airport bathroom stalls and directs them to vans sitting in temporary parking where the merchandise waits on ice. I stopped, for a moment depressed. How much better it is to share these funny jokes with another person, someone who understands your sense of humor, who is just as sick and twisted as you. Yet in the middle of these thoughts, I started thinking about the day I was baptized. Pastor Don Renchler walked me out into the murky green flowing Molalla River and held my shoulders as he dunked me under. I came up coughing after swallowing a belly full of icy current and ended up changing out of my soaked jeans and tighty whities in the back of the station wagon with my mother in the front seat. I studied people’s faces carefully that day to see if they detected any transformation in me. As if suddenly, somehow I was visibly a different person. As if I could see in their expression how I’d now miraculously become holy, redeemed, beautific. No one even noticed. I realized that day that some things in the universe will pass just between myself and God, and no one else needs to be the wiser.
“For He maketh small the drops of water: they pour down rain according to the vapor there of:” - Job 36:27

After five days in Taiwan I was back on my feet. I drove far out into the countryside where there are only strange faces and road signs I can’t understand and directions that are impossible to follow and parked that car and waited out by the abandoned train station in Ershui where the passenger benches droop in sadness and the man behind the window laughs with rows of black teeth that I have come seeking passage through his hands. White butterflies bounced off the green blades of grass, and the rain came down in little blister storms as I crouched in doorways and under awnings until the old engine train came and took me deep into the mountains, drenched in rice fields and little sopping wet towns that mean nothing to nobody.
Ershui in Chinese is literally translated as “Two Waters” and all the while I kept thinking, what are the different kinds of water? What form does water take shape in my life? Does it matter?
The Ershui train rumbles along and stops in the old timber village of CheChang at the foot of the Sun Moon Lake Basin. I exit and wander the twisting maze of streets, snapping pictures of old men sitting in wooden chairs next to canary cages and sullen doorways I wish I could pass through and pretend people knew my name. I watched a cat hunt a mouse in an abandoned field full of burned out engines, box crates, and roosters in a cage, and saw a white crane dive down over a pond and land on a hanging branch. Later I would chat with an old professor of history who carried a leather bound copy of Rilke next to his bored wife who seemed all too easy to pretend she was asleep. Then I drank green tea out of a paper Dixie cup at a bus stop station while the pattering of rain fell on my head. Sometimes you have to stand so far back to see the big picture, to hear the whisperings. Sometimes that causes you to fall off the face of the earth and you have to climb all the way back. Sometimes that is the only way. “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘the old is better.’”
- Luke 5:37-39


This morning my jet lag is still fierce and so I opt for a jog at 4 a.m. It is a good time to see the city. There is no traffic and the sooty air is uncomplicated and mildly clean. I put Lester Young in my headphones and listen to him so slowly drift away on his saxophone as I hit the dark streets. I adore old jazz standards. Songs like “Love Me or Leave Me,” or “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.” I’ve always admired how jazz musicians can take a song that was originally written with such care and precision but through constant play has been worn down to a toothless snarl. Yet through improvisation, through just the inspiration of the human imagination, it can be revitalized and become something new and beautiful again. I believe that is the exact nature of God, this beauteous capacity of free will to improvise our lives with spirit and nature, to transform like malleable water into so many forms but yet maintain our individual beauty we carry with us through eternity.
My run is good. I am stronger and faster than I have been in years.
As I round the turn and head the last mile toward the apartment the street lamps begin to turn off with the coming of the morning sun. One by one. Click. Click. Click. Down the park blocks in perfect timing to my sprinting. Our pace mirrors one another in the blue predawn light. How marvelous are these moments. I have always believed so deeply in the possibility of the world, that God gives us these little moments of poetry all the time. All the time. We either acknowledge them or do not, but God does not stop pouring them onto us.
Outside the apartment I slow and take the last hundred meters in the grass, stripping down to just my running shorts. The sweat from my shirt can be wrung out into the grass. I watch it seep deep into the green soiled roots as a gentle breeze blows on my shoulders, cooling me. I stand this way, letting the air cover my body and sink into my pores.
A group of early rising Tai Chi enthusiasts pause to stare my way. A vendor laying turnips and mushrooms on a tarp stops to smile. They all know my thoughts. We are light. We are glowing. When we come to this truth, we can never be doused out.

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