John Michael

Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai

John Michael reflects on life and some of the people he has encountered along the way through four stories about self-care, practicing empathy, and staying centered.

 

Devil Tattoo

She has the devil tattooed on her wrist. A reminder, I guess. He is more cartoon than scary; the dark times are over for now and hopefully for good. Who else to blame but the devil when your life has been crazy, sad, and scary since you were a kid? Liz is in her thirties with both parents dead, the father by suicide.

I walked out of the hospital yesterday to have a smoke and saw her going through a small duffle at the bus stop. She was smoking too and had a sort of hobo look about her; dark, nondescript clothes, a wariness that may have been reflecting my own, and a little scared around the eyes.

I started a conversation and ended up driving her to the jail so she could visit a friend whose trailer she had been staying in. She said she was walking there, which is quite a long way and it was cold. That may not have been where she was headed, but seeing that I was a soft touch she may have taken advantage of me having my mama’s car.

I used to be nervous about driving women strangers around by myself, never sure how desperate they were and what they might accuse me of. But that has passed out of my system as more kindness has moved in.

Red hair, freckles, and a lean, sturdy farm-girl build, Liz grew up in a small town in Oregon. Towns like that are far from idyllic these days; as jobs moved out, drugs and ghosts have moved in.

We were sharing stories and Liz admitted to extreme social anxiety and PTSD. I talked about my PTSD and memories that surfaced later in life. She said she hoped that she had nothing buried because what she remembered was bad enough.

I have talked to enough hobos that sad stories don’t jolt my nervous system like they used to. Liz’s mom, however, used to rent her out in half-hour increments to whatever local pervert had some money, to do with her as they may. You hear something like that and think, Dear lord, can that even be possible?

Her mom was in and out of Liz’s life until she died. Liz said she found some compassion for her towards the end, but I find that hard to believe. Liz couldn’t explain it, but said her mom hated her all her life, even as she was taking care of her as she died.

She is designing an angel tattoo for her other wrist as a reminder of the good still in her despite the pain. May angels and God comfort her forevermore.

 

I Got You, Buddy

I was at a swanky restaurant across the river, celebrating a belated birthday dinner for my mom with some other family members. I was ambivalent about being there in the first place. All this dark wool I wear in the family dynamics is getting thin, so my blood pressure was up some as I defended myself from all those familial ghosts.

Coming out of the place, however, I looked at my mom and some anxiety came up; she looked frail, elderly, and vulnerable.

There was a little guilt, part of me is itching to start a life as a something: writer, actor, director, artist, or the like. But this is my life now as a human and I am getting the hang of the thing, in my own fashion.

I had some rage for a while against my mom. Any time she would ask me to do something, I felt the white-hot anger rise at the slightest request. Some of it is, Let me live my life dammit. But something subtler is going on as well. I like taking care of folks, it is a joy to nurture those in distress.

But, I myself learned caretaking before my natural time and when I was in a great deal of distress as a seven-year-old kid. I had a divorced, emotionally-injured momma, I thought it was my job to care for. She thought so too, I suppose.

I was surprised in fifth or sixth grade when she went into the hospital for a stretch and the utter relief I felt to know her caretaking would be someone else’s responsibility, if just for a moment.

I got some surprise relief the other day when I was waiting for her to get out of dialysis. Rage was burning away in my guts when this lady, with a lovely voice, was singing a folksy song on the TV. My consciousness shifted for a moment, I was in heaven, feeling just lovely. The rage gave way and I was at peace.

I have a somewhat playful personality and enjoy play in general, but never paid much attention to what they call inner-child therapy. But when I was in that sweet spot, I heard the small boy in me screaming out to my parents, Care for me, care for me, I am in need of some care here.

So, as I care for my mom and those around me, I whisper back to that kid, I got you, buddy, you are safe with me and we are doing just fine. Which is the truth of things.

 

Don’t Tell Yourself That

I was sitting at a coffee shop thinking about bringing some form into my color-friendly, abstract paintings. It is still a little scary. I have a sad memory of a teacher crumpling up some of my art in front of all those tiny, scared souls sitting in front of her and throwing it in the garbage. I remember the heat of shame, keeping my head down, not daring to look at anyone in case they might be smirking, and trying to suppress the tears tugging away in my heart.

Are you one of those people, like many of my friends, that claims to be not artistic? That is impossible. You probably had enough incidents like the one I described, someone shaming you when you were just starting out, so that the emotional risk seems like just too much.

When I came into the café, a kid and his dad were playing a board game. It was lovely to see, a father and son spending time together. Single, stressed mothers in a hurry, being followed around by some needy kids has become the norm around here. But my mind thought, That dad looks tight and smug, I know that look because I wore that look through my twenties and thirties. So, I assume the dad was like me back then, full of repressed rage protecting the shamed inner child. I thought, He is going to do everything he can to destroy his son at that game.

On his way out, the kid, I would say was about ten, with an intelligent face and kind demeanor, stopped to ask me about my painting. He proceeded to drop the board game and pieces went flying everywhere. He went into furious motion trying to get the pieces up before his dad came out of the bathroom, so I bent to help him.

“I don’t want my dad to see. I am such a klutz, I really am a klutz,” he said.

“Don’t tell yourself that,” I stated with as much fatherly wisdom as I could bring to my voice.

I could see him at age forty or so on the racquetball court, trying to beat some soul into the ground just to prove he was no longer a klutz. Kind of like that period I went through after coming off the streets. I was a whiskey-drinking, aggressive ass in the bars to prove to myself I wasn’t a pussy. Something I heard quite a bit as a kid. I still drink whiskey by the way, but with a much kinder attitude toward the bullying archetype.

Seeing things like that kid and his father used to make me sad, and maybe still does a little, but the universe does have a deus ex machina way of righting sinking ships like the leaky vessel I used to sail, and I’m sure those two will find their love for themselves and each other over the space of eternity God gives us to work out our sins.

Are you used to saying bad things about yourself to yourself as you go through your day? I am a klutz. I can’t do anything right. I am a pussy, a weakling, a coward. Well, let me give you some fatherly advice: start saying lovely things about yourself to yourself as you dance and sing through your life. If you don’t know it already, you must see yourself as beautiful.

 

The Thing about Modern Psychiatry

There may be a mockingbird or some demonic crow on the other side of visible things, hovering above his head, constantly listing off his sins. He cannot sit down or stop talking. He started wearing a hard hat a few weeks ago; protection from that bird or this inattentive world, I am not sure wish.

He makes my heart ache some; I am sure he just wants to be held, if he could only trust someone enough to allow them. He is tolerated at the homeless day center, loved even, but his constant agitation keeps people at a distance.

I know that anxiety state. I got fired from an after-school program in Taos, New Mexico, after reporting the small boss to the big boss. I remember one night full of rage, anxiety, and self-hate, doing twenty or so U-turns on a cool, high desert highway, debating whether I should go to the hospital and talk them out of some lithium pills.

Isaiah does have his wits about him enough, is functioning enough on this side of sanity so as not to be straightjacketed or kicked out of the places he finds companionship and support.

He has lost quite a bit of weight and I doubt he can sleep. I drove him around some the other day so he could get errands done. Whatever thought hit his mind instantly came shooting out of his mouth. Some of the free association stuff would make me laugh and, when I would look over at him, he would be smiling at me with his handsome mischievous grin.

A psychiatrist might tell you Isaiah is in a manic state. With mania often comes what they call, a flight of ideas. Around midnight, I saw Isaiah walking around his van in his usual state of agitation looking for his car keys. His van looks like a cyclone whipped through the inside and then blew out his front window, which happens to be minus the windshield now.

So, finding his keys was going to be an all-night affair. But then, sometime during the key search, an idea flies into his head and the port-o-potty sitting in a sunny spot during the day gets pushed fifty feet through a gravel parking lot to some shade next to the building. I know this because I helped him move it back the next day when the shelter folks were asking, “Just what in the hell is going on here?”

The thing about modern psychiatry (and I have been hospitalized, placed on drugs, and flew through some ideas myself) is that all those pills ain’t going to mend a broken heart. Only patience and love as expressed kindness can do that. I spent seven years on the streets watching my mania come and go, my depression come and go, my paranoia come and go, until it was all greatly diminished. I also spent that time letting God slowly convince me I was worthy of having around. Isaiah is worth having around as well.

I don’t judge people for taking meds or not taking meds. I know those seven years on the streets were greatly distressing to my family. Chances are you may have an Isaiah in your life greatly distressing you as well. But I am probably the only person in his life not telling him to get some help and I think he trusts me more because of it. I am saying some prayers, however, that the mockingbird will leave him alone for a while so he can get some rest.

 

John Michael

Hello, good people. I am rarely sure how to describe myself. If I say I am a Christian, many things may arise in your mind that ain’t necessarily so. I was homeless for seven years and learned more about myself in that stretch of time than in any other segment of my life. I read the Bible a lot out there and came across a passage in Proverbs that has shaped my approach to life: “A man’s pursuit is his kindness.” I am well educated with a Master of Social Work degree and have worked a wide variety of jobs in my 52 years. None have lasted too long however.

When I was homeless, the beauty of Texas wildflowers made me decide to want to live again. Along with kindness, beauty, play, and self-expression are life-guiding ideas. My shadow contains things like feeling sorry for myself, a truckload of defiance, a desperate need to please women, and no small amount of cruelty. A quote from Luke also has had a lasting effect on me: “For God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” When I read that I thought, “Hell, I have got a fighting chance.” I am here to tell you, you have a fighting chance as well. Besides Christianity, practicing Buddhist and Shamanic techniques inform my relationship to God and the world.

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