Monday, August 8, 2016

The World We Choose to Live In

Sunday afternoon, an overcast, somewhat steamy day on the West Side of Los Angeles.

I'm writing in a Starbucks not far from Loyola Marymount, where I live.

Suddenly I hear the young woman at a table say "Oh my God. Oh my God!" I look up to find she has left her seat and is standing nearby, staring across the store out the far glass doors.

I don't know what I said, but I must have said something, because she told me that there was a fighting going on across the street. "It started here", she said, then said it again. Like she was in shock.

I didn't know what to do, starting with, should I look? I realized everyone in the store was. A few 20 something men were smiling, the whole thing an inside joke they were sharing with one another. The rest of us just stood there, watching, and I think all of us were kind of in shock. In fact a balding man in his late 50s who seems to spend a lot of his time in here reading newspapers and working bumped into me, not even seeing me as he tried to see what was going on.

The situation was not two guys fighting, but a group of four, in the parking lot of a gas station, their sides unclear, I think mostly because my brain had gotten stuck trying to figure out what I should do.

Which probably seems like a dumb question. Like, what could I possibly do? And I'd like to say it's the priest in me that wants to hurry over and try to stop anyone from getting hurt. But honestly, it's probably a lot more the kid who got bullied as a child who still instinctively wants to lash out at his own tormentors. I don't know who's in the right or in the wrong, but I want to jump in.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like such a strange time in our country, and not just because of the Trumpocalypse -- if you're a supporter, forgive me; I get the appeal but I don't get how one overlooks the enormous number of risks him as president poses.

Last week I saw a man and a woman arguing in another Starbucks in a strangely confrontational and public way, and my mind immediately went to the possibility that one of them might have a gun. About an hour later I was leaving the shop and I heard someone behind a high wooden gate yelling, and I immediately picked up my pace, considering the terrain with an eye on what might block bullets.

And maybe that's just me. I hope so. But the fact that in the face of a bunch of guys fighting across the street pretty much everyone in this Los Angeles coffee shop was immediately in a total fog, uncertain even about those around them tells me maybe it's not.

I happend to be in London days after the United Kingdom voted to leave the E.U. And the most striking impression I had from my time there was of how uncomfortable it had suddenly become to not be white. Day after day, newspapers reported stories of dark-skinned people, many of them British citizens for generations, being harassed by whites, in some cases even attacked.

A couple weeks later, on the Australian news program Q&A, a Muslim man described to a woman recently elected on a ban-all-new-Muslims ticket how his life had changed since her One Nation began their fiercely xenophobic rhetoric. He and his family had lived in Australia for eight years, and happily so, without a problem. But with the advent of the election campaign, he suddenly found himself harassed every single day. He told the audience if this continued he feared for his wife's life.

Both through our choices and our inaction, we create the worlds we all have to live in.

In the end, someone has called the cops. Even before they arrived most of us have snapped out of it and gone back to our seats, eager to submerse ourselves back in our Twitter feeds and our newspapers, feeling the hardness of the wood under us, tasting the bitter tannins of our cooling coffee, resting in the ordinariness of our lives. What happened becomes a crazy story to share on social media, or to laugh about over drinks later with our friends.

Until it happens again.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Where I Am and Where I Was

It's been a very long time since I posted anything here. Mea culpa! I got hired about two years ago to write for America Magazine, and since then most of my (publishable) crazy thoughts have gone to them.

At some point I'd like to come back to the original purpose I used this for, which is sort of sketches and thoughts about God and the world. But it could be a while...

For now, if you're at all interested in what I'm up to, you can find me at America's Dispatches blog writing about California, pop culture and spirituality. Or I'm on Twitter @popculturpriest. 

I also just started a weekly newsletter about pop culture and spirituality called "Pop Culture Spirit Wow", which you can sign up for here.

And for those who actually still get updates from this blog or occasionally check to see its/my state of disrepair, a little something for you.

In May I had the good fortune to go to Paris. I'd never been, had no idea what to expect. Was actually kind of scared about the trip, even more than going to China, if you can believe that, just because I don't speak French and I had heard Parisians don't take kindly to that oh so American reality.

As it turns out, the people were fantastic, and I had a great time.

And I noticed something there. Their cafes -- bistros, brasseries -- all have outdoor seating where the seats face not one another but the street in front of them.

Classic French Cafe Culture 

I don't know if that sounds like a big deal but it's actually kind of extraordinary. First of all, imagine walking down the block, coming around a corner, and suddenly finding like a hundred people staring at you.

Yeah, it's kind of weird. More than once I found myself turning right around and going a different way.

But when you're the one sitting in the chair, looking out on the world, it's such an extraordinary experience. Sure, there can be a little voyeurism or maybe even objectification. But really, it's like the set up of the chairs is meant to help you see that the world around is not just something to rush through, a set of obstacles to overcome, but itself a rich source of meaning and contemplation.

I ended up spending hours upon hours each day just sitting in patisseries, watching the world go by. The rain. The cars. The passersby, like the old man who stopped with his younger date at the end of their evening together, and put his hand up to her face and kissed her on the cheek in a tender but lingering way that invited something more, if she wanted.

She politely smiled, and said good night.

And he nodded, maybe a tiny bit bittersweet but only just that. Clearly happy for what he had gotten, even just that lingering kiss.

And he crossed the street into the night.

The world -- it's so much more beautiful and interesting than we usually have time for.

A shot from my favorite place my last night in Paris.