Homeless Men on Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day and my three children are all grown and literally thousands of miles away. I miss them terribly. My own father died a few years ago, at age 93. I know it’s a contrived type of holiday but it did get me thinking about fathers and father figures. To a large degree when I was growing up father figures – coaches, uncles, scout leaders – at times had a bigger role in “raising me right” than my own father. Some had their own kids and some didn’t. Some were wise and inspiring like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and others were wilder but taught you lessons that you still needed to learn. I remember the poet Robert Bly saying something like: if you’re a grown man you should find a way to support young men and boys. Show them you care and be a role model for them. And if you are a boy or a young man you should find older men who can guide you, teach you things and who care about you. I see an example of this once a week when I gather with friends at the Pipe Smoker’s Club. The ages of men and women attending range from 18 – 92. They come from all walks of life, races, religions, political spectrums, but all of that is put aside for the pleasure of smoking a good pipe or cigar. And let me make this clear to any young people reading this: DON’T SMOKE! But what I like about the group is the caring, comradery and general bonhomie of the attenders. They welcome everyone. You don’t even have to smoke to join the group. (The second hand smoke is free.) People in the group have helped each other with getting jobs, learning new skills and information, and, I know with me, helping me when I was feeling a bit down. When my own kids were growing up I was both a good role model and a bad role model. The good is easy to guess; the bad, well, at least I could say to them: “Let this be a warning to you. Don’t do as I do.” My kids received lots of these warning while growing up; still get them. And that’s okay. I remember the Baptist Minister Will Campbell, in one of his books, has a character define Christianity in 10 words or less. I like the definition he came up with: We’re all sinners but God loves us anyway.
Which finally brings me to my motorcycle ride today. It was time to get my 2004 Harley Road King, Big Red, out of the garage. Having ridden across the country twice I’m pretty comfortable meeting strangers. Since I couldn’t hang out with my kids I decided to ride to a nearby town and visit a free meal program, a place I had visited a few times before, and maybe talk with other fathers, ones that were homeless and probably not feeling that great today. I don’t want to try and appear saintly. The two women who organize the place and serve meals 3 times a week are saints. I’m not a saint and I can give you plenty of personal references that will say that I’m not. I just thought it might be a nice thing to do. I didn’t know if anyone else would walk away feeling better after the conversation but I knew I would. So I went.
I ended up chatting with four men over plates of food and iced tea. One told me that he was a father. That one of his kids had died and the other didn’t speak to him. He was helping another older man find a suit to wear as his father had just recently died and he needed it for the funeral. He didn’t want to talk. Another man said he had kids but didn’t elaborate. His arm was in a sling due to a shoulder injury at work. He was waiting for workman’s comp to kick in. One of the women running the place gave him some information about a nearby place that helps people get the medicine they need. The man had been brought there by a woman who was staying at the same motel as he was. She was from Alabama and she and her husband had moved here looking for work. She said the price of food was more expensive here and also that the rent was so high. Her husband had finally gotten a new job and they were going to move to a nearby town if they could find a place to live. She didn’t eat anything. She had wanted to help the man in the sling out. The last person I chatted with was a young man who was maybe in his early 20’s. I had met him a number of times before. He asked me to rub some alcohol on a spot on his back where he had been stung by a bee. I did that. Then he sat back down and put his head on a table. Later on he lifted up his head to tell me that his real dad had died when he was 15. Then he put his head back down.
It was past time for the place to close and the two women there began packing up. One told me about the new water cooler and plastic capped bags they had for people who were living rough in the woods. They had hooks on them which made them easier to carry on a bike and were better than just using water bottles folks had contributed. It was 96 degrees outside. I thanked the two women for the work they were doing and said goodbye to the young man. I took off on Big Red with a lot to think and pray about.

Adventures in Motorcycling: Pub Theology. Have We Kicked God out of the Bars Now?

I’ve covered about 500 miles on the bike so far and have ridden through Georgia, Alabama, and Florida in the last two days. Right now I’m hunkering down at the Key West Inn in Fairhope, Alabama. Just back from McSharry’s Irish Pub where I had a really good Sheppard’s Pie and a pint of draft Smithwicks. And for the first time in my life I experienced Pub Theology. Apparently the first Wednesday of the month they bring religion into the pub. But I don’t think this is really necessary. I would argue that at least in the southern part of the United States God has never really left the bar. He’s mentioned in just about every other sentence or at least every other conversation. Come to think of it a woman friend of mine and I were talking about Jesus just the other day in Old Havana Cigar Bar in Rome, Georgia. We didn’t really come to an agreement. I thought He’d be okay with certain things that she didn’t think He’d approve of. Tonight was a bit different. It was more of a lecture by an older man who, along with others, had done some inspirational work in helping folks out. I want to acknowledge that. But frankly, a few other heathens and I decided to head for the smoking area outside.
In the southern part of the USA you can’t go far in any restaurant or bar without some kind of spiritual conversation taking place. This morning, a man singled me out at McDonalds (because of my biker gear) and spoke to me about motorcycles and Jesus. I enjoyed the conversation though I didn’t agree that Jesus had a preference for Harley engine modifications made by the Screamin Eagle Company. Yesterday, In Dothan I met up with a friend at the Waffle House and we talked about Buddhism and she gave me a Tibetan Buddhist charm for my motorcycle. Though I consider myself a Christian I acknowledge contributions and insights from other religions. On my motorcycle I have a medal from St Columbanus, the patron saint of motorcycle riders. The medal reminds me to be reverent in my travels. I also have the Taoist Yin Yang symbol on a bracelet attached to my mirror to help me remember to be balanced and to trust the journey. Now I have a Buddhist charm to remind me to stay in the here and now and to show loving kindness and compassion to everyone I meet. I also have a hula girl which is there to remind me to not take myself too seriously and to be silly sometimes.
I was in a great honky-tonk in Rome the other day; The Sports Page. It had been awhile since I listened to some country western tunes but I’m relieved to know that God is still in many of them. I managed to hear some of my old favorites and the lines: “It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels and taught all them good girls to go wrong.” And another I remember from years ago: “One night of love don’t make up for six nights alone. But I’d rather have one than none Lord ‘cause I’m flesh and bones.”
The south in the USA is Christ Haunted so expect Him to pop up not only on Sundays and Wednesdays in the churches but also in conversations anywhere, from the gas station to the bowling alley. And definitely, definitely in bars.

12,541 Motorcycle Miles Last Year. Reflections on My First Year in Rome, Georgia and Thanks

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12,541 Motorcycle Miles Last Year. Reflections on My First Year in Rome, Georgia

Last July I moved over here from Ireland. The kids had grown and my marriage had fallen apart. So after some painful reflection I decided to go home. I squeezed 16 years of my possessions and memories into four suitcases and said “goodbye” to a beautiful country and great friends. When I arrived back in Georgia, Jeff loaned me his Harley, Big Red, and eventually, reluctantly, he sold it to me. They are still on good terms. I promise. He can ride her whenever he wants to.

I had a tough time adjusting when I first got here. New land, new people, mixing with old memories, reflections and dreams. The dreams were the worst bit. I’d wake up feeling vanquished and shipwrecked, tossed onto an unfamiliar shore. I went through a period of mourning, which Freud says is love’s rebellion against loss. He was right. I viscerally lived out all the various meanings of the word: bereft. What has helped me survive and prosper has been my family, the incredibly hospitable folks of Rome, messages from friends in Ireland, God, prayer, and, of course Big Red. They all gave me hope and encouragement. I’m not there yet; I still have quite a few miles to go.

Big Red especially helped me stay in the “here and now”, practice my mindfulness and distracted me away from painful memories. All those miles, the long cross country trip, gave me time for peacefulness, silent reflection, centering, letting go of the past, prayer, forgiving, gratitude, redemption and for hope to spring anew. Prayer comes easily on a motorcycle, especially a Harley. Hope, for Emily Dickinson might be “a thing with feathers” but for me hope comes on two wheels, barreling down open and unknown roads, where sometimes you can see only as far as your headlight shows you. And that’s good enough for me.

Thanks everyone and thanks Big Red.