John Michael

Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise XVII

(cropped image from Flickr)

John Michael continues his series, reflecting on life and people encountered, with two new stories about childhood friends and taking action on important issues.


The Toughest Hill

In my slow but steady return to myself and my joy, I am grappling some with this Normal Hill I grew up on, and where my psyche and body took most of its blows.

I was at a third funeral in two weeks today. I hate to say I have been enjoying myself, because of the grief involved when someone we love dies. But it has been good to reconnect with people I care about and have not seen all that much in adulthood.

Sam and I were among the youngest in our neighborhood and were often picked on and mocked. But we were also included in most everything that happened. “Toughen up” is what most of our fathers passed along or tried to instill. I wonder where that comes from, because it is difficult to be tougher than, and simultaneously friends with, the people in your life.

Although, I hid or learned to hide because it was too scary or sad for people to hear back then about being molested. I felt a part of things here through sixth grade. Late puberty caused me to shrink back some in junior high around all those new faces and that “tough” ethic many of the athletic kids were displaying. So, I started gravitating to less aggressive, more humorous guys in search of friendship.

One of those guys was Scott Marsh. I attended his mom’s funeral today and it was a pleasure to see him and his siblings again. Scott was a great athlete who developed one of the softer shooting touches in the valley and could always be counted on to sink a long bomb when it counted, down at our home away from home the Boy’s Club.


My favorite memories were hanging out at his house listening to Kansas and Kiss on his big silver ghetto blaster and laughing at whatever we could find humor in.


Oh, that quest for friendship. My best memories with Scott were not on the athletic fields. In fact, cross country created some tension between us in high school. My favorite memories were hanging out at his house listening to Kansas and Kiss on his big silver ghetto blaster and laughing at whatever we could find humor in.

One wisdom I have gained in my years is that the most aggressive kids are always the ones with the most fear. So, try and reassess your bullies and know they may have come from worse trauma than they could deal with. It may sound like a cliche, but those are the folks whom kindness helps the most.

I was surveying the crowd at the Eagle’s, whiskey in hand and bullshitting with Scott some. I felt a small urge to flee, like maybe I didn’t belong, but then I realized I have felt that way for most, if not all, of my life no matter where I was, be it in the country, in a small town, or a big city.

Then I felt my heart, which has been healing up nicely, open fully for just a split second. Being that naked and vulnerable sent me into a small panic attack, however. But it was a very nice moment.

I took a nap when I got home and, in my dream, a film was about to begin, it was called, The Toughest Hill. I was excited to see it, but it did not start. I am interested in making films and that may be a dream many of us secretly have, but it is hard for dreams like that to surface in this community and its working-class sensibilities.

I know my dad, despite his exterior toughness, was a dreamer. So, maybe I will tell the story of this place in film someday. Like many of you, I grew up “tough” on Normal Hill, Goddammit.


Take Action

Now the ego always follows you into any spiritual practice. I used to roll my eyes a little at folks that are into Native American or aboriginal spirituality when they would say they saw “signs” when they prayed in nature. “And then a buck appeared in the field,” “and then an owl hooted,” “and then we heard a wolf howl,” they might say, beaming with self-importance.

I attended a Save the Salmon rally this weekend at Chief Timothy Park. A Nez Perce man sang a traditional prayer to start the event and I was amazed when an eagle actually did fly low and directly over our circle at prayers’ end.

I am going to stop rolling my eyes at others as it struck a blow to my cynicism. It also made me sit up and pay close attention. I am never sure what I am doing is the right thing, or if I am in the right spot. The eagle made me think this is a good place to be and that I should start paying attention. Full confession, drums and didgeridoos play a part in my spiritual practices.

There were several inspiring speakers, but I was especially touched by a young woman from the Seattle area. She looked Native American, but I did not confirm that. She and some friends were responsible for veering off course an oil company ship that was headed to Alaska. It ran aground for a couple of weeks. They were out there in the shipping channels on their kayaks and forced the ship to change direction. Can you imagine the courage?

I am inspired and a little envious of kids who are strong enough to take action on their convictions. At that age, I was so lost in shame I had no idea what my convictions were and remember shrinking back several times when I should have acted.


I am inspired and a little envious of kids who are strong enough to take action on their convictions.


When she started speaking, I felt like crying for some reason. She gave some information about the salmon and orcas I was not aware of. The orcas of Puget Sound depend on the salmon coming out of the Columbia River for fifty percent of their food. So, the low salmon numbers are deeply affecting the orcas, to the point of starvation. When she described an orca mother carrying around her dead baby on her nose for nine days, well, I did start crying.

Salmon recovery in Idaho has never been successful, the dams just create too much barrier for the young salmon headed to sea and those returning to spawn. The numbers have been crashing for the last couple of years especially.

A friend of mine said that nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan is doing more damage in our oceans than our government is willing to admit, and more than our press is willing to report. So, that may also contribute to the starving orcas and the low number of returning salmon.

We are so removed from our food sources that we no longer have any idea where our food comes from or what has been added to it. We live very convenient lives. Much of our water is unfit to drink without chemical treatment. Our tap water tastes terrible and yet, instead of changing our convenient ways, we go to the store and buy some Aquafina and add more pollution in the form of plastic to our seas.

Aboriginals were directly tied to their food and water sources and every tribal member contributed to the harvest. This created a great reverence for their food. Aboriginal creation stories often reflect this reverence and debt to the animal and plant kingdoms.

We are a part of nature and nature always knows what to do to correct herself when things are out of balance. We must listen to the dying salmon and orcas. But first I think we need to uncover the natural reverence we have for the great mother and Mother Nature that we have buried under our very convenient lives.


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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