provision, part two

When we last left our heroine, she had defied all odds and managed, through credit card advances, persistence, and luck, to arrive in San Antonio alive, her trusty cat Max at her side.

In Corpus Christi, I managed to drive my beat up Accord to a local mechanic. I was wearing pleather pants, which convey a sense of power and control, so I’m sure I wasn’t swindled when the mustached shop manager said the engine was full of holes, he wouldn’t charge me for looking at it, and he had a mechanic who could take it off my hands for free. Grateful that I didn’t have to pay to unload my car, I accepted a ride home from the manager in his Pontiac Firebird.

You can’t really get far in Corpus Christi without a car (they drive everywhere there, even onto to beach, it is so painful for a northwest hippy), so my first couple of weeks post-divorce were mostly spent reading the newspaper and watching movies with English subtitles. My new roommate, a long-time friend, bought groceries and I cooked as payment. We decided to try being vegan, for kicks. He was already vegetarian, but I ate meat four times a day, so this prospect seemed daunting to me and I was pretty sure the phase would be over before it really began.

The vegan thing stuck. But that’s another story.

A few weeks after I arrived in Texas, I was on the road again, this time to Pensacola, Florida. We crammed the few personal belongings that the Navy hadn’t moved into his tiny Honda del Sol, Max in her carrier on the ledge behind my seat. It was January, but hot, which is wrong. We stayed overnight at a youth hostel in New Orleans where the dreadlocked owner gave me a room full of bunks to myself (that’s the pet-friendly part of the youth hostel scene). It was cheap and I was grateful, even though there were no overhead lights and I’ve blocked the memory of the bathroom from my mind.

My friend and I moved quickly to find a house to rent. He wanted to be near his work, so we ended up in Milton, Florida, about 30 minutes from Pensacola. It was not a hopping town, unless you count the Texas Roadhouse or the Piggly Wiggly. No bus, too far to bike (and no bike), I tried to buy a scooter from a local dealer, but with a lot of debt and no income, that plan fizzled quickly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was facing a classic problem of the poor – need a job to earn money, need a car to get to a job, need money to get a car, need a job to earn money, etc.

Three days after we moved into the three-bedroom house we rented from a local couple, me in my own bedroom, not crashing on a couch or a flea-bag motel for the first time in a long time, Max ran away.

It was my fault for not communicating clearly to our houseguest, a woman who would later go on to be killed in combat while flying helicopters for the Marines, that when I said Max “didn’t” go outside, what I meant was “Max would love to make a prison break, but she is a cat and doesn’t realize that cars, raccoons, and people are dangerous, so please do everything in your power to prevent her from exiting this safe building.” Jen, the houseguest, chatted on the phone late that evening with the back door open. The next morning, after I realized Max was not hiding somewhere in the house, she explained that Max had hung out contentedly on the back patio while Jen talked, but when Jen told Max it was time to come inside, Max bolted into the dark forest behind the house.

Let’s recap. My marriage is over. I am in Florida, in a town of 9,000 people with no car and one friend. I have thousands and thousands of dollars of debt and no job, no degree, no prospects. My brain is not sure why I have suddenly cut off its supply of SSRI’s. I have kept Max alive and safe through a harrowing cross-country trip only to have her saunter out the back door. All I can think about is Homeward Bound. I imagine Max will make friends with a stray dog and show up at my parent’s house in Oregon in three or four months. I break.

I run through the neighborhood and search the forest, whistling “You Are My Sunshine” through choking tears. I check the sides of the roads for little furry bodies. I pray so hard. My roommate drives me to the grocery store where I make hundreds of copies of “Lost Cat” fliers and then helps me post them throughout the town. As night falls, I stand by the back door, willing Max to return, and I leave it ajar until the moon is high in the sky and the mosquitos start to swarm in.

Tearfully, reluctantly, I close the door and sit at the dining room table, defeated.

And then, a scratch. Could be roaches, because Florida. But there it is again, a scratch, at the back door. I rush to it in hope while simultaneously preparing myself for one final disappointment, fling open the door, look down, watch Max cross the threshold and head straight for her food bowl.

This was the night that I started to see dimly how I was being cared for, watched over. What helped my vision clear…next.

the greatest of these

An itty bitty preview of the opening of a chapter on loving the Other, from my forthcoming book with Zondervan.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28

I have never got along all that well with children. As a child, I chose books over other kids more often than not. I never had a huge group of friends, always preferring the steady company of a few intimates. As a high schooler, I got jobs in food service instead of spending my evenings and weekends babysitting for car insurance and spending money. So when I was pregnant with my son, I was grateful to read that some mothers don’t instantly bond with their newborns, and that it might take a while for him to grow on me, even after he’d grown in me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, at his birth, I felt a powerful, visceral, overwhelming, aching love for this little purple-red creature. A love that has only increased as the years have gone on. A love that is courage-giving and terrifying, powerful and vulnerable and utterly confounding. Confounding in part because he’s not always very nice to me. There is a lot of whining. A lot of ingratitude. Some screaming and tantrum throwing and “I hate you’s.” He can be demanding, spoiled, selfish…just really obnoxious. There are times when I just want to roll my eyes, tell him to shut up, run away, show him how much worse he could have it.

But I love him with my whole heart. And when the day is over and he’s finally asleep, I look at his face that is a mirror of my own, and I listen to him breathe, and I curl his tiny fingers around mine and thank God for entrusting me with this miracle of life, this funny, sweet, smart, often-caring, fast-growing little boy.

As my son was born of me, we are born of God. The loving gaze with which I watch my son is tepid, the aching love a shadow compared to the fire of love God carries for us.

And so it should come as no surprise that the God whose love catalyzed a universe asks us to love not only those who are easy to love, and not only those to whom we are biologically pre-conditioned to love, but those who are least like us and who like us least.

Grace is costly, and love is hard.

Jesus’ life was an ode to the love of Other. He gathered rejects, bridged social and traditional divides, and turned the notions of hospitality, mercy, and justice on their heads. Piety is out, compassion is in. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn that neighbors are those who love “the least of these.” In this chapter, we explore the limits of love. How are we called to extend mercy to “the least of these”? Who is our neighbor? And we will ask especially what it might mean to view animals as our creaturely neighbors and to extend neighborly love to them.

provision, part one

Nineteen is too young to get married, but I didn’t learn that until I was twenty two. By then, I had thousands of dollars of credit card debt, a prescription for a cocktail of antidepressants, and bruises from where I periodically knocked my head into a wall in an attempt to feel anything but grey.

The time from my middle-of-the-night decision to divorce and the legal end of my marriage was two weeks. I had just turned twenty three and I thought it was the only way I had a hair’s breadth chance of happiness.

My mom and two best friends helped me pack a small trailer with a couch I loved, some clothes, CDs, and a load of books. I had the local U-Haul attach a tow hitch to my vintage Honda Accord, hooked up the trailer, flushed the cocktail of drugs down the toilet, and headed south on I-5 with my cat, Max, asleep on the seat beside me.

I’m fond of rain and cool weather, so naturally when I needed a place to start over, away from the disfunction I had stewed in for too long, I decided a couple weeks in Texas followed by a few months in Florida with my friend in the Navy was a great idea.

The Accord started to smoke just south of Sacramento and I called my ex, crying and screaming, cursing the car I’d taken from the divorce (the one we owned outright, that didn’t require a monthly payment). With no job, no college degree, and no money in the bank, I felt helpless and hopeless. He agreed to advance me enough to rent a U-Haul truck for my trip. After sneaking Max into a “no pets allowed” motel, I hobbled into Stockton, California early the next morning.

I had never seen blight before. Never driven past an empty park or iron-barred windows. I stopped at a gas station to use the restroom and was shocked when I walked in and every surface of the filthy room was covered with graffiti. I was sheltered, I was unknowingly racist, and I was afraid.

I found my way to the U-Haul dealer, which was the side business of a used-tire yard run by a middle-aged couple from Mississippi. The woman had dirty blond hair and yellow teeth and the man sported an impressive beer belly. They had thick Southern accents that my ears and addled brain couldn’t understand. It took a long time for them to rent me the truck. The details are fuzzy now, but they couldn’t find the truck first, then they seemed unclear about how to actually rent the truck to me. Perhaps I was their first customer? My patience wore thin as the morning dragged on, but I was finally able to load my couch, CDs, and books into a filthy 14-foot truck, drive my car onto the auto transport trailer I had to add to the mix, and continue south.

By the time I hit Los Angeles, it was rush hour and the busiest city I’d ever driven in was Seattle. I kept talking to Max, telling her everything was going to be just fine and to hang in there. But the engine temperature indicator on the U-Haul had skyrocketed into the red zone. Then I noticed steam coming from under the hood. Terrified of breaking down in the middle of the freeway, I took the first exit and pulled into a gas station parking lot. I fumbled for the rental paperwork and called U-Haul’s roadside assistance. Through tears, I explained my predicament and they agreed to send a replacement truck. Two hours later, a young man arrived with my own, very clean 17-foot U-Haul. It started to rain and he started to take the keys to the broken van and turn away. I asked if he could help me move my things from one truck to another and showed him how little was there. He said he wasn’t allowed, and it started to rain harder.

It only took us a few minutes to move my soggy belongings from one truck to another. I hugged him, thanked him profusely, and got into the new truck. I slept that night at a friend of my dad’s, in Claremont, California, just a few blocks from where Dad grew up, and the next morning started to head east. The next night, I stayed in Phoenix, with another friend of my dad’s, a woman whose husband was dying of brain cancer. We talked about faith and marriage and new beginnings. Her son was a fan of the Bare Naked Ladies, but didn’t have their first album. We went out to my huge U-Haul and I dug it out of one of the CD carrying cases. The cover was still wet from the previous afternoon’s rain.

My plan was to drive east to San Antonio, Texas, where I was picking my new roommate up from the airport and from there to head south to his apartment in Corpus Christi. I drove late into the night in Texas, looking for a place to stop. There was snow on the side of the road, and construction. It was harrowing to drive a big truck towing my car along a narrow highway, the lights from oncoming traffic and construction barriers dancing in my already pretty crappy vision. I saw a wolf on a ridge at the side of the road, or a deer, and started to worry about hitting an animal, to boot. But Max and I made it safely to a motel, and we rested another night.

The next morning, I piled Max back into the U-Haul and headed for the San Antonio airport. Despite the mishaps and breakdowns, I had hours to spare and was planning how I’d spend the free time as I pulled into the airport complex, trying to follow the signs for oversized, long-term parking.

But excitement or fatigue or bad signage led to my truck pointed straight at a dead-end in the handicapped parking section of the airport parking garage. Every spot was filled. My 17-foot truck, with the Accord firmly strapped to an auto transport trailer, was hopelessly trapped, and anyone who came looking to leave that little section of the garage would be trapped with me. The thought of inconveniencing someone was almost as mortifying as the thought that I’d never be able to leave the San Antonio airport.

For about half an hour, I tried to reverse out of the garage, but the trailer kept jackknifing. I flagged down a man returning home from a business trip and asked him to help. He tried and failed for a few minutes and said he needed to move on. Panicked and panting, with my little Nokia phone almost out of battery, I dialed 411 and then airport security, to beg them for help. They said they’d come if and when they could.

As the battery on my phone died, a lightbulb pinged in my head. Working as quickly as I could, I loosened and removed the straps holding the Accord to the transport trailer, backed it carefully off and parked it around the corner. Defying all liberal arts major stereotypes and a history of trying to fix things by hitting them, I unhooked the trailer from the U-Haul (wires and all) and pulled it like a rickshaw away from the truck, around the corner, and to the front of my car. Freed of its trailer burden, I could now back the U-Haul out of the handicapped parking section with ease and did so, then quickly hooked it all back up again and pulled out of the dark garage into freedom, with a half hour still to spare.

Tomorrow…part two, or, when things got really bad (but also good).

Max (Fall 1998 – August 21, 2014)

Max on Bed Close-up
Max Withrow King (1998-2014)

I adopted Max from the Idaho Humane Society when we were both babies. She was a tiny orange ball and when I saw her, I knew I was there for her. I learned years later than most orange cats like her were boys. She broke the mold in more way than one.

I was an idiot back then, no idea what it meant to take care of a kitten, and living in a campus house that didn’t allow animals, but she was my girl and a couple of lame rules weren’t going to get in the way of our happiness.

kitty in a lunch bagShe was a feisty girl, who loved to play, all day and all night. She played with my comb, grocery bags, and my shoes. I would frequently find her attached to the window screens, and that’s probably what prompted the notice in my mailbox that I had 30 days to vacate or re-home Max. My mom happened to be visiting, and she graciously agreed to bring Max home to Eugene with her, since I knew I’d be moving back in a couple of months. Mom was pretty entertained by Max’s love of paper bags and bemused at her habit of sitting on the ledge of the bathtub whenever Mom took a soak. Of course, Max loved the idea of water much more than the reality. She fell in to my bath once. It wasn’t fun for either of us.

In her lifetime, Max travelled across the U.S. by car twice and airplane once. She lived in fifteen different houses or apartments with me, and stayed more than a few nights in hotels and hostels across the country.

One night, shortly after arriving in Pensacola, Max disappeared for a day, after having been accidentally let out the back door by a houseguest. Totally devastated, I spent $15 I didn’t have stapling up reward posters all over the neighborhood. Long before I had a digital camera or smartphone, the posters simply gave a description of Max and said “she comes when you whistle a tune.” I walked the streets and the woods behind the house frantically whistling her favorite song: “You Are My Sunshine.” She arrived home late the night after she got out, scratched at the door, and walked straight to her food bowl when I let her in—not a girl long on ceremony.

image (5)One of Max’s favorite games was fetch. She would drop a tiny foam ball into my hand and wait patiently for me to throw or roll it across the floor. She’d run after it, paw at it for a couple of minutes, and eventually bring it back to me for another throw. She loved playing fetch on the stairs. The bouncier the throw, the better. As she slowed the last year, she stopped wanting to play and would instead leave the ball in my shoe—a gesture of nostalgic love.

When I started work at PETA, she was my carry-on bag, and her litter and food was one of the two boxes that I checked in Portland and picked up in Norfolk. She was angry at me for three days after the plane ride, and I came home from dinner one night to find that she’d squirmed out of our attic room, found her way into a bathroom in the middle of renovations, and managed to get trapped between the floor and ceiling, taking out a few ceiling tiles in the meantime. I was able to coax her out with the help of a co-worker and a can of wet food.

Max was food-obsessed. I woke up once to find a plastic box of pastries on the floor of my studio apartment, a giant hole ripped in the top and bits of turnover missing from the contents within. I quickly learned that nutritional yeast needed to be in a sealed tupperware container. And if a sandwich or toast was in play, she’d straight up paw my plate in her attempt to get a nibble.

max and giehl snuggle

Max wasn’t very fond of most people or animals. She fought nearly daily with Katie, distrusted even the gentle Emma, and read Isaiah with a hermeneutic of deep suspicion. But she loved Giehl. And she continued to tolerate me. The last year, as her health declined, she cherished opportunities to snuggle up on Giehl’s chest whenever he came near our bed. She’d talk to him nightly, telling him it was time for her wet food and time for him to lay down so she could go to sleep.

After sixteen years together, I’m sure there are stories that I’m missing. As I held her tonight, as she lost consciousness and drifted away, I told her that I loved her, that I would always love her. I whistled our song, prayed that I would not forget, and thanked God that we would one day wake up with Jesus together.

that moment

That moment when you realize that the…

  • aches and pains
  • bone-crushing exhaustion
  • total inertia
  • mood swings
  • hiding from people
  • flaking out on responsibilities

Might not be PMS or jet lag.

And you’re already getting pharmaceutical help.

So, there’s some shit you really actually need to deal with, like for real.

Pushing it down with food isn’t working.

Ignoring it isn’t making it go away.

And you don’t really know where to start.

Well, you do.

Well, I do.

But prayers turn to sawdust on my tongue. Tangle in my brain.

If I’m tired of my own voice, surely God is, too.

Tired of the same questions, the same doubts, the same struggle.

So tired.

 

at a loss

My walk home from dinner tonight reminded me of this Louis CK bit:

My belly was full of vegan gastro-pub fare and a beer brewed less than six miles from the hip restaurant, which was packed with people even on a Tuesday night.

I was walking east on Sunset Boulevard and saw him from 200 yards away, staggering. I watched him drop to the ground, slowly, deliberately. For a second, I thought maybe he had dropped something and his hands were groping the ground in search of the lost trinket, key, coin.

I kept walking. Realized he wasn’t looking for anything, wasn’t getting back up.

And I thought to myself, “I wish I could cross the street before I get to him.” Just like the fucking Levite and priest.

I felt afraid, though there were dozens of people also making their ways east and west on Sunset.

I felt helpless. And ashamed.

I watched as the man sat, then slowly lowered himself to lie on the ground, his hands resting beneath his cheek. Peacefully asleep? Passed out drunk? Dying?

I don’t know. I won’t know, because I didn’t stop.

Yeah, I paused. I looked worried. I looked back a few times to see if he was still there. To see if someone else had stopped. Maybe that kindly Hispanic grandma? Maybe that young guy, headed into a convenience store, who also noticed the laying-down-man?

I didn’t just think “ew” and move on. I’m not completely heartless.

Here are some of the thoughts I had:

  • What if he’s crazy or drunk and hurts me?
  • What if I ask him if he needs help and he doesn’t answer?
  • What if I ask him if he needs help and he does answer?
  • What help can I possibly give? I don’t have any money, or a car, and I don’t know where he can go to get help. I’m basically useless.
  • Ohmygod, Jesus would never walk by the way I’m doing. Jesus would stop.
  • Why aren’t you stopping? WHY AREN’T YOU STOPPING?
  • Should I go back?
  • It’s starting to get dark. I don’t want to be out after dark. If I go back, I might get caught up in a whole thing. That makes me feel uncomfortable.
  • Should I call the police? Would they even care? I don’t want to give the guy a hard time.
  • Gosh, the systems of poverty and mental health and homelessness are so big! I can’t possibly make a dent, I don’t even know how to help one person.
  • Remember the starfish story? How throwing one starfish back into the ocean doesn’t make a dent, but makes a difference to that starfish? Dammit, why the hell do you overthink things so much?
  • You can’t stop and help every time you see suffering, Sarah. There’s too much. You’ll never get anything done.

And on. And on.

Something similar happened the last time I was in Los Angeles. I was walking downtown, on my way back to the hotel after dinner, and there was a woman laying on the sidewalk in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. I passed her, too.

If the man tonight was younger, lighter-skinned, cleaner, a woman…would any of these made a difference? Would I have made a more compassionate choice?

It’s easy for me to talk about the story of the Good Samaritan. Easy to talk about extending compassion despite danger; finding heroes in unexpected places; showing mercy. And, honestly, what should I do? What do you do?

Hypocritically and ashamedly yours,

Sarah

p.s. Yes, this is mostly a confession of my failure, emotional hardness, lack of mercy, and hardness. But I am also really asking: what should I do? What is the most loving and responsible thing I can do when I see someone in such dire straits?

a list compiled in retrospect: 24 things to ask before you book on airbnb

  1. Apartment or house? How many units in the building?
  2. If apartment, is there a secure entrance?
  3. If apartment, what floor is the unit on? Is there an elevator? Does the elevator smell of urine?
  4. Does the entrance to the building/house smell of urine?
  5. Is the entrance to the building/house conducive to hiding individuals with nefarious purposes? Are there little alcoves right in front of the door serving as excellent hiding/sleeping spots?
  6. Carpet or hardwood?
  7. If carpet, installed which decade? Describe origin of visible stains.
  8. Are sheets and towels provided? Toilet paper? A garbage can?
  9. Where is the nearest Target?
  10. Water: drinkable or diarrhea-inducing?
  11. Central heating and cooling? If no, are the windows painted shut?
  12. Is smoking allowed in the building?
  13. If there’s no central air and smoking is not allowed in the building, is the bed situated in front of a window under which the neighborhood teenagers gather to smoke pot every day from 6:00-8:30 pm?
  14. When you lie down in bed at night, are you faced with the bottom half of gold-plaited male mannequin? Is it oddly slender?
  15. When I look at the bed and sofa, what is the likelihood I will suspect they contain bed bugs?
  16. Is there a shower?  Or are guests limited to baths?
  17. If shower: would you describe the shower pressure as firehose-like, normal, or the equivalent of tiny fairies splashing you with morning dew?
  18. Is there a spider nest hidden in the bathroom window?
  19. Is your toilet “fussy”?
  20. Is there wireless? Does it work regularly? Does one of your neighbors have a wireless network called “Penis Penis Penis”?
  21. Is there food in the refrigerator? When’s the last time you looked in there?
  22. Is there a coffee maker? Do you only buy decaf coffee and herbal tea?
  23. Will one find silverware in a drawer, or will one search frantically for flatware for fifteen minutes before realizing it’s all stuffed into a glass near the coffee maker?
  24. Do the coffee shops in your neighborhood open before 6 am? Before 7? Come on…before 8?!
  25. Please select the number of hours your neighbors practice musical instruments, sing, or watch their theater-sized TV with full surround sound daily: 1-5; 6-10; more than 10.