John Michael

Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise VII

John Michael continues his series, reflecting on life and people encountered, with three new stories about compassion, feeling safe, and lying.


Sing with Compassion

I stepped out back of Starbucks to have a smoke. I have submitted, for the most part, to their no smoking on the front porch rule, although I did tussle with management about it for a moment. There was a little meth urchin of a girl out there patrolling around looking for half smoked cigarettes. She asked if she could buy one of mine, so I gave her a handful which she was grateful for.

There are so many people in our small community using meth and for many, including myself at times, they are almost invisible as we go through our busy days. How many people do you encounter and interact with every day that you don’t really see at all?

I noticed something about myself recently. A homeless feed I was doing came to an end and I took a sabbatical from my church. Part of me did not want to see the suffering that goes on in my hometown. Take me to a sunny spot, God, where everybody is happy—or at least fakes it pretty good.

Also, as I clear up my sex wound, the pleasure that I think is natural in the world is starting to feel natural in me. Not just sex, but the pleasure of a good book, a movie, or a hot bubble bath.

As I was handing my urchin friend those cigarettes, I had the thought I was afraid of compassion. I am not sure why, maybe I think that if I let my heart fully open to the suffering I see around me that the pleasure I am starting to enjoy will go away. But when I allow compassion in my heart, it too is a sweet, tender bruise of a feeling that has a pleasure of its own.

As I write, I am thinking that I am afraid to suffer. Like, once began, it will never end; or that, perhaps, I won’t be like everybody else. I know I have led a very unconventional life, but that just seemed to happen without me choosing. If my mind was doing its own choosing, and this is perhaps one of my greatest sins, I would be so normal as to be invisible. In other words, compassion may pull me in a direction that is not about my pleasure or being noticed by others.

Which leads to the other side of my psyche, the side that does not want to be normal. That side wants to be a rock star so I can tell all my naysayers where to put it. I was out at karaoke the other night and thought, sing with compassion. I thought, that is crazy, me singing is about me being famous. When I say sing with compassion, I mean to sing in a way that is not just for my own pleasure or to make me famous, but to sing in a way as to benefit others—from the heart so to speak.

A compassionate heart does benefit others and in an almost magical way. If I see someone in pain and I shrink from their pain, they believe I am shrinking from them. However, if I meet them head on and don’t resist their pain or anything about them, well, that creates a human heart bond that I believe lasts forever.

I do find great pleasure in singing and writing songs. Maybe people, when I am gone, will say, “That pleasure-seeking country music star sure had a kind heart.”


Walk like a Duck

Right before I became homeless I was a reporter in the Florida Keys for the Islamorada Free Press, a very well-read local weekly. Islamorada is the richest municipality in all of Florida, or at least it was at the time.

When you get that many rich folks together, in what was essentially a small tourist town, a lot of shenanigans tend to go on. My primary beat was covering city politics and I would attend council meetings every week.

Several other Keys papers were on the same beat. Right away I noticed quite a bit of deception going on within the political circles. But if you read the other papers you would think everything was just hunky dory. That is one reason I don’t trust most media to this day. All those journalists saw what was going on and pretended they did not.

I wrote recently about having agoraphobia and feeling cautious walking around in my hometown. I have also always been a fella in a hurry. What I am realizing is that the sexual trauma I experienced created a hell of a survival wound in me. I was in a hurry because I felt like I had a lot of things I wanted to accomplish and experience here on earth. But feeling like you could die at any second makes you hurry through things.

I started reporting on the stuff I was seeing and when the truth of things start to surface, you see a lot a chaos erupting. Strong denials and people calling me all sorts of foul things and power players trying to cover shit up like they always do in politics.

It was not a supportive work environment. I asked my boss several times to attend meetings with me; that kind of thing, never happened. Every week, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I honestly understand why many reporters avoid the muck.

The Keys is a series of islands and at the time every home and establishment ran on septic tanks. A big multi-million-dollar project to run a sewer line through part of the Keys was in the works. I had some pretty good sources and there were some real questions about the bidding process. Also, a local County Commissioner had some buddies who had put in a bid.

It turned out that a lot of cash was ending up in the Commissioner’s reelection fund and in several environmental groups formed for the purpose of expecting kickbacks, sort of like the Clinton Foundation.

The cash was coming from a Jersey construction company that ended up with the bid. I am proud to say the reporting I did stopped the project and killed the commissioner’s political career.

With my huge survival fear and the company being from Jersey, my fearful fantasies had me dying at any minute and that story was my last hurrah. I got myself quickly demoted to part-time sports reporter and ended up living in my car for a year before becoming fully homeless.

Some say extra weight is about not feeling safe. I went from 220 to over 300 in that year.

I was molested around this time of year and with all the sex abuse news exploding right now, that survival wound has presented itself in my psyche just begging to be healed.

As I write this, I realize me being on the streets made me feel safe, well under the radar so to speak, and able to disappear to somewhere else within seconds.

I was emotional recently and so I went out hoboing to take my mind off things. I have studied chakras just a little. They say that the bottom of the spine is the survival chakra. At any rate, that night I was having a cigarette and felt a sharp consistent pain in my tailbone.

In his memoir, Sherman Alexie wrote about watching a bird hit his window, get knocked unconscious, then slowly getting over things by shaking its body and walking in circles.

Many of you know that I am prone to odd thoughts on occasion. Several times on the streets I would think, walk like a duck. As I was having my ciggy butt, I got up and turned some circles in a very duck-walk way and the sharp pain in my tailbone went away.

Most of us are used to living in fear, even survival-at-stake fear, if you have been through some major trauma. I am finally starting to feel safe in my own skin, and I must say the idea of some real leisure without the fear of impending doom sounds mighty good right now.

You got some trauma? Well, shake it off, sing it off, dance it off, paint it off. Love it away, good people, love it away.


“We’re a Happy Family”

I remember the point as a kid when I became a lying liar. Things happen in families, I won’t call them dark, but to keep them hidden from the world and perhaps ourselves at the time will create spots in us where the light cannot shine.

Then, as an adult, if you want to find some peace, you have to enter your own dark and find what part of yourself you are hiding and expose the frozen-in-fear kid to your more mature and calm self.

The details are not important, and maybe they are, but I am not brave enough to share them and maybe I should not share them, as they are a collective family memory. Don’t let your imagination run too wild here, these things that happened have happened to many if not most families that are under stress.

But as a kid you come out of your room in the morning and sense something is wrong, maybe deeply wrong, the feeling puts you on your tiptoes and you are afraid of what you are going to find out, but you must find out because not knowing would be worse.

Then they tell you what is going on, but you know they are lying because the no big deal thing they tell you it is ain’t matching the emotions you are seeing and feeling.

So, instead of telling someone how afraid and sad you are, you tell everyone the same lie your parents told you. After enough of the lying, the truth becomes something that can seem very scary to expose to another human being.

I understand the desire of parents to protect their kids from things they might think are too painful. But a lie is always more painful than the truth.

Ideals are excellent. Christ was the ideal human for instance, and his teachings are optimal for reaching that ideal ourselves. But we can’t pretend we are at the ideal when there are still un-ideal things about us that are in need of examination and healing.

We had many ideal familial moments when I was growing up, enough to know that there may be no better feeling than to be part of a family that cares for each other.

“We’re a Happy Family” is an ironic Ramones tune that sort of captures many aspects of the American family. In other words, we are all pretending to be happy families. As a kid, after I learned to lie about a family in pain, or maybe because I wanted the ideal so bad, I pretended my parents were together after they were divorced.

A neighbor lady took the wind out of that lie by telling me she read about my parents’ divorce in the paper. I wish it would have taken the wind out of all my lying at the time; I am sure my life would have sailed on with a lot less pain.

For all of my adolescence and most of my adult life, if you asked me how I was doing I would have said, “Just fine, thank you very much.” I remember breaking down a few times in front of others when I was overwhelmed by emotion, but those moments were rare. Most people thought I was a happy-go-lucky fella. Hell, I thought the same thing myself; that is how good I was at lying.

These days, I am less afraid of the truth, but I still often wonder if what I just said to someone was a lie or not. I realize I struggle with intimacy, but the less I feel the urge to protect an idealized version of myself, the easier it is to share the vulnerable, troubled spots I have within me.


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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