“Write drunk, edit sober,” goes the saying, but the problem was, I had never been drunk. In fact, I didn’t even like the taste of alcohol, but fortunately for me — and unfortunately for you — my roommate had half a bottle of Absolut Vodka in the basement that I remembered, and I recalled that I could stomach the flavor, maybe even like it.
So tonight, after popping my melatonin and starting a new novel, I decided to give it a shot. Who knows how intoxicated I can allow myself to get, since I’ve been a teetotaler since youth, but we will see.
The tipsiest I have ever been up until this point was in a hot tub in Breckenridge. It was Gus-from-Pennsylvania’s homemade maple moonshine, and it was delicious. Six guys sat in that hot tub at high elevation and took turns saying something sad, then taking a swig. I swear, by the end of that night I had never felt closer to five men in my life. Dehydrated, elevated, and warm against the winter’s snowy night, we fell in love with one another and with life. And with Gus-from Pennsylvania’s moonshine.
I made the decision at exactly 11:40pm, Googled the dangers of mixing melatonin and alcohol, then after deciding it wasn’t life-threatening, snuck downstairs. My Asian roommate Andy was awake, loudly playing his meditation tapes instructing him to turn off his mind and surf on his soul, and I hoped those would keep him preoccupied enough to keep him from asking me what I was doing, going into Nate’s stuff and pulling out the half empty (or full?) bottle.
He didn’t emerge from his basement cocoon and I retraced the steps clinging to the neck of the bottle like a lamp on the path. Now I’m sitting at the pitch black dining room table, swigging and chunking away at these keys while Bon Iver croons through my bassy headphones.
You know what I’m trying to do? I’m trying to be honest. I think there is some sort of barrier — some sort of hill I cannot surpass — keeping me from being honest with myself when I soberly sit down and hack away at these here keys.
So maybe the alcohol will ‘flatten the hill,’ which is a funny term to use tonight. Tonight marks the first evening of quarantine inside our homes because of a virus that’s killing the world. So I will escape the previous season of loneliness into another lonelier season of loneliness. All the opportunities you constantly had available to you are suddenly gone. All the opportunities except sitting at home in your whitey tighties and watching reruns on Netflix.
Those opportunities are still available to you, and I daresay that Netflix has become the 15th (or whatever) amendment to the constitution. Take away our guns? We will fight, but it’s understandable.
But take away our Netflix? Never.
Tonight Bon Iver is teleporting me through time and space to the third story floor of a church. The church is in Dorchester, Boston, Massachusetts, and I slept there for two months. It was a season of my life I’ve happily overlooked when examining my past, and tonight, Justin Vernon is urging me to return.
The day I moved to Boston we were told that we were being evicted from the base building — a four-story ancient funeral home. You could have shot 6 horror movies in there and never used the same eerie hallway twice.
Everything went along swimmingly until I discovered the real nature of the base I was working for. It began to get weird when some of the staff and students wanted to go to the art museum. In a world-class city like Boston, the art museum is a phenomenal and necessary experience, imbibing the richest blossoms of humanity upon creative and impressionable young souls.
The director of the base, however, forbade a visit to the museum because there may be paintings of naked people. And there sure were. I found this out the rebellious way when several of the other staff and I snuck away to the museum anyway and caught glimpses of impressionist nudes and baroque countrysides. We saw sweeping and energetic paintings from the romantic era, like a young man pursuing a girl as she swung high on a swing draped from a tree branch. And there were naked bodies, but contrary to Doug’s belief, we did not burst into flame and blow away like chaff when they caught our eyes. In fact, to this day, I still recall one of the nudes I saw that evening. It was a small, skinny canvas hung vertically. It could not have been wider than a piece of ruled paper, maybe the height of two of them laid end to end so it hung on the wall like a long, thin keyhole and I was peeking through.
The subject was a woman with her hands raised above her head, fun. She was naked and her body may not have made it into the pages of any modern magazine, but she was classically beautiful. It was in that moment I finally understood (at the ripe old age of 20) the term ‘curves,’ I was suddenly arrested by the female form in a way I had previously not known. Before, I had believed whatever the world had presented as pretty — flat stomachs and toned legs — but this night something shifted. I saw through that painting into a deeper reality. One in which women are not judged by their weight or athleticism or visual appeal, but by their feminine essence. Yes, that is what I beheld that night in that small frame. It was the very essence of femininity, portrayed in a single woman dancing nude.
(We also weren’t allowed to watch any films rated higher than G. Also, everyone on the base was allowed to wear tank tops except me. Why? Because I would be the one to cause the women to stumble if I were to don a tank.)
And to think that I could have missed the discovery of feminine essence if I had listened to Doug. He was the worst. Doug’s weirdly feminine face contrasted sharply with his strict and merciless demeanor. As base director, he oversaw me, who had come from Denver to help rebuild the base for them. I wasn’t being paid, I was only provided for with food and shelter. Back then I thought I was serving the greater good by working for this terrible base. Now I wish I had spent those months making money. Or actually working for the greater good.
Doug would frequently drop in on me while I was working, and I quickly learned that he would say one of two categories of words to me: He would either spit out curses on how poor a job I was doing at the task, making me feel small and stupid, and tell me what I should be doing better; or he would say, “Okay, it’s done…here’s what you’re doing next.” I waited to see if he would ever praise my work or merely thank me.
Doug, the leader of this ‘Christian’ base, was the most ungrateful S.O.B. I ever met, right up until the day he told me I was like a ‘cancer’ to the base and (im)politely asked me to leave.
What was it I had been accused of? Flirting with the girls (not true; I wasn’t interested in any of them) and playing a Lil’ Wayne song in one of the vans (it was edited!). Those were the two actions that reflected my polluted heart and made me anathema to the students and staff of their precious base.
His son sat beside him while he told me this, and he meekly confirmed that indeed, I was the ailment running this base into the ground and I would surely do the base a favor by leaving.
So I did, but not before spending the next week in the basement of Doug and his wife’s house. I remember reading Christian books and feeling like I was the worst human who could have possibly lived. The students received no real explanation for why Ethan, this dude who had been living with them and having fun with them for two months, was suddenly quarantined (heh) away from them and not even allowed to speak to them anymore. Like they would catch the cancerous spirit who had latched itself onto my neck.
Looking back at it, I wish I hadn’t continued to work for Doug for that final week. Why did I work for him, knowing full well that he had just kicked me out and I wasn’t even being compensated? It’s like he owned me, but by no coercion of his own except for the f-ed up mind games he must have played to get another week of free labor out of me.
I should have given him the middle finger and hitchhiked to New York. I did that, only two weeks later. And without the finger-giving. I don’t know why I stuck around for that final week; should have just abandoned ship, covertly spat in Doug’s coffee, and dipped out.
When I finally did begin my journey south to the Big Apple, you know who the first person was to take me in? My gay friend Nic. He is now married to a kind Brazilian guy back on Cape Cod, but he was the one who took me in, made me a delicious panini, and let me watch whatever I wanted on his Goku. I watched a French film called L’Arnacoeur (The Heartbreaker). It was hilarious.
From there I trekked to Connecticut and cut across the green hills of Yale and the Havens to a small hood called Waterbury. The kindly CouchSurfing host and his girlfriend had a party that night, but they opened up all of their earthly possessions to me and left. I took a bike into town and saw a black man being beaten by white cops. He had been walking with his girlfriend on the sidewalk, and the next thing I knew he was on the ground being punched. He was yelling about how he didn’t do anything wrong, he was just walking on the sidewalk.
I saw an abandoned amusement park which was basically a miniature replica of Jerusalem, called Holy Lands USA, and it rested next to a dilapidated convent.
I made my way from there to Pennsylvania, where I relaxed with my grandparents for two days before moving on to NYC, the port where I would launch to Nigeria. The entire trip was a process of healing, of moving from rejection to acceptance. Of traveling from feeling like a bad person to being encouraged as a leader.
I moved from the hell which was YWAM Boston and its nepotistic staff, to a place where I was given authority, responsibility, and gratitude for my work. We raised funds and traveled and met with pastors. It turned into a wonderful event, attended by 1,500 Nigerians, and people were reached by the gospel of Jesus.
Now which of these two situations seems to have the Holy Spirit moving in it? The one calling people cancer, or the one which is encouraging and spreading the gospel to beautiful Africans?
Or the porch of my gay friend, from which I beheld the city lights as he let me crash on his couch and cooked me food?
Or the road in between the destinations, where I penned some of my greatest poems and thoughts on travel?
Where did God and His Spirit live?
Was it in the (forced) dances of the charismatic worshippers at the Christian base, or the freedom of the open road? Paul says that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom and there was certainly no freedom at the YWAM Boston base.
Before it all went down though, there was the one beautiful moment, or string of moments, when we slept on that church floor in Dorchester. I was consistently the last one to sleep and the first one to wake up, getting to the breakfast foods before anyone else could touch them and enjoying the peace of the 5am mornings. I don’t remember what it’s like to want to wake up before anyone else, but it was nice. I have become lazier and more of a night person since then. Perhaps because my efforts there were under-appreciated and quashed, I don’t try as hard. I’m not as motivated. Doug can kick himself in the nards. Should a man who cannot even partially maintain his own body be in charge of maintaining a base of dozens of people? It’s up for debate.
But none of this is what I was hoping for in this session. I didn’t want to air all of my angry grievances against Doug and the YWAM Boston base without hope of love, of redemption, hope of hope.
Instead I want to talk about renewal. I want to talk about the beauty of freedom and the God I see in Jesus, and despite the commonplace nature of that phrase, I don’t think it’s the Jesus I grew up knowing. Or the Jesus Doug knows.
He is a Jesus who is anti-religion. A Jesus who is so opposed to the current methods that He would rather the whole barn burn than raise up another crooked crop. A Jesus who eats with the lowest, and the thing I’m realizing, as I scrape the bottom of my own well of sin, is that I am the lowest of low.
And if you think otherwise, you’re just another Doug of the world, pointing fingers at the beautiful nude paintings of the world which reveal authentic humanity and calling them BAD.
Are you a Doug? Or are you trying to be like Jesus?
I think Jesus would walk into Doug’s home and turn over some tables; the man who — in the very name of Jesus and ‘purity’ — calls people cancers and is not only ungrateful for their work, but rather, expects it for free.
I can only hope that Jesus would side with the little 20-year-old who was being taken advantage of through some quasi-religious jargon and a fearful paradigm, and not the powerful old WASP barking orders at him like an insecure bulldog.
I can only hope that Doug’s heart is softened by this Jesus, because at the end of the day, it is Jesus Himself who instructs us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In 2012 I was persecuted by this organization and I am only now realizing that I left with a (mild?) case of spiritual trauma; that Doug wronged me, and that I didn’t deserve the outcome.
I have gained confidence since that season and wish I could go back and speak words back to Doug and his son as they sat opposite me, telling me my title (cancer). A title I subconsciously carried with me from 2012 into 13, and then 14…
Perhaps things like art museums and femininity are not the enemy of God. Perhaps you can learn something from a PG-13 film or, heaven forbid, an R-rated flick. Maybe everyone can wear tank tops if they like them, because some people care for their bodies in different ways, and good for them.
Perhaps Doug was just a jerk and I carried all of these weights on my shoulders the past 8 years and only this Absolut loosened me up enough to shake it all out.
Now there’s some hope. There’s some promising thinking. There’s my last sip of Absolut because I can’t hold my head upright.