As the City Lights Burned the Nighttime Sky Bright

I stabilized while smoking cigarettes on the porch of a halfway house in October, 2009. I knew I had a job. I was laying brick patios for $8.50 an hour, but I was supposed to be teaching an Intro to Critical Thinking course at a small college in Northern New Jersey. Somehow, the school year had already started, and I was still in Richmond, Virginia. I’d been through all this before, but this was the worst it had ever been.

My nights were spent sleepless on top of my bed sheets in my single room in that halfway house, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, deconstructing my entire life. I couldn’t figure out what had gone so wrong. There was one thing I was certain of this time, though – this was my fault. My current predicament had nothing to do with my early childhood development, my parents’ divorce, or my mom’s solitary raising of me. It had nothing to do with either of my stepdads or their personal demons. It had nothing to do with my grandfather. It had nothing to do with my culture other than how I had interpreted it. My father’s death wasn’t even the cause of this. I was in that halfway house only because of me.

As a prerequisite for staying in that place, I had to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night. I’d been going to those meetings off and on for nearly twenty years by then. I’d put together three years clean three times. In fact, a mere five months earlier I’d been steadily approaching my four-year anniversary for the third time since I’d turned 15 in 1991. Once again, I hadn’t made it to that milestone. But for the first time ever when I tried getting a hold on it, not even AA made any sense to me.

Everybody was talking about God, and I couldn’t understand. I tried rewording that program’s 12 steps with words I could comprehend. Because the simple words the founders had originally chosen were just too complex. They said – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That was gibberish. As far as I could tell, a Power greater than me had driven me insane. And the psychiatrists said, once again, that wasn’t even the case. There was absolutely nothing.

Five months earlier, as June was drawing to a close, I was in the middle of visiting my family for a short summer break from New York City in Richmond. I’d finished all my papers from my second semester of grad school, and I was starting to put together a syllabus for that Intro to Critical Thinking course I’d been hired to teach in the fall. I crossed my legs in lotus position to meditate one night, a regular habit I’d been practicing since before I’d even gotten clean that last time in DC back in August of 2005. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I broke… again.

You know Who I am, Gabriel,” the voice started in my stomach. It coursed through my limbs until becoming audible.

Staring blankly at the wall in front of me, my heavily lidded eyes half-closed, I nodded. I’d met this voice before in college, long before any sort of mood disorder or mental illness had ever colored my mind, making itself undeniably manifest to me. This voice was familiar. This voice was true, and I knew it wasn’t me.

You know what you have to do now, Gabriel,” the voice continued.

Without breaking my spine’s concentrated position, again I nodded. Unlike when I’d been in college, today I had a name for the voice. This was the Hindu conception of Brahman speaking audibly. I was to be The Angel Gabriel, to live the earthly life of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, by going out from the homeowner’s life into homelessness.

When I stood back up, pins and needles shooting through my legs’ discomfort, I took the anti-psychotic medication I’d been taking regularly since my last psychotic break in Charlottesville right before my dad passed away. With the medication coursing through my system, I knew this time the voice was real. And that meant – it was time. I knew exactly what I had to do.

Taking long walks through the woods, going for hours long drives around the Virginia countryside, I contemplated this proposition for about a week. But when CNN was busy broadcasting the news that Michael Jackson had just died, I knew the moment had finally arrived. The King of Pop was our true father – the first to come, the first to leave. I called my mom into the living room I’d been walking circles around while manically putting together playlists that could sing the world into existence through my week of sleepless nights. I told her, “Mom, I need to go into the psych ward.”

Slowly, she sat down on the couch. Concern spread through her happy face as she set her palms down on her thighs. “Why’s that, Gabriel?” she asked.

I told her, “I’m hearing voices again, Mom.” But I didn’t tell her my plan. I needed to get into that psych ward.

I couldn’t keep anything straight. I was on so much medication in the hospital. People flittered in front of my face and disappeared. In a land of phantoms, I battled the Hindu goddess Kali. Putting her to sleep with my embrace, I awoke as Shiva. I wound up in a padded room. That wasn’t the first time that had happened. A week later, the doctors decided I was stable. Nobody met me at the exit. The nurse who’d discharged me gave me cab fare. In my hands, I held my bag and a prescription to get filled on the ride home. I didn’t feel like taking the taxi waiting for me. I told the cabbie I wasn’t the patient he was looking for, and against his protestations, I headed out across the parking lot.

My mom’s home was down a winding path to the left. If I turned right, I’d head straight into the city of Richmond. Following the advice of a previous AA sponsor, I turned right, kept straight and threw that prescription away at the first trash can I came across.

Finally free, I strolled up the sidewalk. The city’s downtown skyline loomed in the distance at the end of the road. I nodded to every soul I passed. My ministry began that day, an eternity in preparation for just one moment. A man approached to ask for a cigarette. I gave him one, and he wondered, “What’s in that bag?”

“All I own,” I told him.

“You got a Bible in that bag?” he asked.

I told him I didn’t.

“Oh. I usually carry a Bible in my bag,” he said.

“Wish I had one, friend,” I told him.

“You don’t have one?” he asked me. “You look like a prophet. I thought you might have one.”

“Not today,” I said.

“Well, come with me,” he said. “I’ll give you one.”

I went back with him to where he lived at his mother’s house. Of my own free will, I gave him my wallet and my money, keeping only an ID card with a rubber band in case I collected anything else. He never asked me for anything, and he thanked me for my kindness. I traded him for a smaller bag with a shoulder strap making it easier to carry, but he couldn’t find that Bible.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said to me. “I’m gonna put a Bible right in this here bag you gave to me, and next time I see you, I’m gonna give that Bible to you. You’re on a journey. That’s right, a journey,” he said.

I nodded, but I never saw that man again. He told me he was a minister. Right then, I knew I’d chosen the correct path.

Taking up on a corner down in Richmond’s bar district that night, I spent the early evening asking people only to please give what they could spare. I scrounged up just enough change to get a couple hot dogs at this place across the street, and I knew the Lord was watching over me.

As the night drew on, I realized I needed to find a safe place to sleep. I hiked underneath a long bridge heading back to Southside where my mom lived, and I searched out a safe spot underneath there to make a bed. Beside a lonely, little outcrop of rocks overlooking the James River, I set my bag down and pulled out some clothes to make a pillow to sit on. I crossed my legs in the lotus position, and I meditated as the city lights burned the nighttime sky bright in the darkness across from me.

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The Values I Embrace Today

Yesterday was Easter, and since Cora’s still at that festival in the California desert, I went over alone to a friend’s place for brunch. Luc was there, too. It’s his old apartment, the last one he lived in before moving out to Anacostia. He didn’t bring Leah, his most recent love interest, though. He still thinks their burgeoning relationship is a bit too fresh to subject her to his friends. After we ate, Luc and I were sitting at a table Luc made by hand when he first moved into that place with his ex-girlfriend, the grad student in her mid-twenties. Our current host’s stepmom and this other woman Luc’s introduced me to before, Medha, were sitting at that heavy, wooden table along with us. Luc’s known Medha for years, but she recently moved back to DC from Brooklyn to help out her mom who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. I was drinking coffee while everybody else was sipping the remnants of their mimosas.

Our friend’s stepmom was saying, “I think it’s simple. If you put people on an X-Y axis so you have four quadrants, and if you consider the Y axis to be the spectrum of depression and the X axis to be family upbringing, you can start graphing how people are going to react later in life. See, in this quadrant, you have depression with a good upbringing, which makes the chemical problems manageable. In this quadrant, you have a bad upbringing but good chemicals, which explains how some people overcome their circumstances. In the third quadrant, you’re good with both, which is the easiest way for somebody to be brought up. While in the last quadrant, you have bad chemicals and a bad upbringing. These are the people who are really in danger.”

“Sure. That makes sense,” I said. “But it’s really a spectrum on both axes, right? Not to mention there are so many psychological problems that don’t fall into the category of ‘depression’ per se, and that really complicates matters. Besides, what constitutes a ‘normalized’ upbringing at any point in time? I’d say trauma is the most natural thing that ever happens to a human being in this world.”

“Despite my hopeless romanticism,” Luc interjected.

I went on, “It’s simply because our culture places so much emphasis on the sanctity of youth that the most important part of a ‘normalized’ upbringing in this culture is to avoid trauma at a young age. But what about a culture where entire generations are traumatized early in life? Like, for example, a culture that survives genocide. Then, the abnormal becomes the child who is not traumatized.”

“Right,” Medha said, “I even think about kids in this country who grow up with poverty or gang violence. But I guess that’s how we wind up with the different cultural narratives we were talking about earlier…”

“Sure,” I said. “Except there’s no real reason to believe any one narrative is inherently superior to any other. There’s only the one that wins.”

“History is written by the victors,” Luc reminded us.

“Maybe,” Medha said. “But do you think that’s why Communism lost, though? Do you really think capitalism is ‘better’?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But I’d make the claim that Marxist communism is ideologically flawed, and the flaw lies in Kant’s idealism, which crept into Marx’s thinking via Hegel. I mean, the problem with Marx, in my opinion, is more or less a problem with the German philosophy of his time. It’s the inversion of the ideal and the real. Even though Engels claimed he and Marx actually set Hegel right side up. I simply don’t think that’s the case. For me, the antidote is Nietzsche, which he probably even saw himself to be. And Nietzsche is what’s actually at the heart of the American project even though we couldn’t have said that at the beginning.”

“Are you saying we’re the overman?” Luc asked with a smile.

“No. But we have the myth of the overman, the myth of the future. Not to mention the whole ‘that which does not kill you only makes you stronger’ mentality. But that’s why, I’d say, reality is even more than just the victors writing history. The only thing that makes something ‘good’ at all – and I pretty much stole this idea verbatim from Nietzsche – is whether or not it survives. And that’s why, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to believe there’s something to this American system I spent my twenties and early thirties railing against.”

“But the American system is actually two systems,” our friend’s stepmom told us. “One system is what people call capitalism and the other is more or less Christianity. And these two systems are constantly at war here. In fact, if you look at our elections, we’re split pretty much evenly at about 50/50. But it’s those two systems in conflict with each other that makes the United States what it is. We need the greed of the capitalists to move us forward while we need the morals of the religionists to keep us from completely destroying one another.”

“Sure,” I said. “But one thing I’ve really come to believe is that the America I know is necessarily anarchic. And the more I look at my life, the more I realize those are the cultural values I was raised with. So I have to admit, despite any of my past leanings, those are the values I embrace today.”

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