John Michael

Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise LXVIII: Relax Into It

(Photo by John Michael)

John Michael’s column Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise ponders life and people. In “Relax Into It,” he shares a recent trip, helping a hitchhiker, and connecting with Bob Dylan. 


“It’s not who you are or what you are, but only that you are.” —The Sayings of Hobo John


The rain was pelting my car, the wind was doing the same thing, classic Dylan was getting drowned out on the CD player. All Dylan is classic Dylan, in my experience. I’m not obsessed there, but I have a bunch of his CDs from many decades. He is simply insightful into the human condition. The clouds further ahead were dark and lovely, but I had the thought they would clear up.

I was meditating an hour before. By meditating, I mean sitting in my chair and dozing in and out of sleep. Always pleasant to snap back into consciousness feeling relaxed. As I was snapping out of it, I saw the phrase, “Go to Moscow now.” I’m always begging God to tell me what to do, because I’m never sure. He relents, once in a while, with a direct message like that.

I live in a valley at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. Moscow is the home of the University of Idaho on the Palouse thirty miles from Lewiston where I live. The first seven miles of that are a very steep incline out of the valley.

I was pulling in to check the oil and buy some cigs before heading out and saw a woman walking with a couple of heavy bags. I must look like an easy touch, and I am. But she walks right up to my window as I’m parking at the gas station and asks for a ride back into the main part of town so she can rent a motel room.

She was playing the brave, vulnerable waif card beautifully. Notice how I phrased that? That’s my cynicism talking. My homeless game was “can’t take care of myself,” self-pity. It was a game I had been running since childhood because it got my needs met on occasion. No need for cynicism, because she really was a brave, small, vulnerable woman who had hitched down from up north in cold enough temperatures.


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Motels are hard to get for homeless people with a little cash. Many won’t take cash or want a large deposit if they do. So, I dropped her off at a cheap motel and slipped her a twenty ’cause I knew it would help, and to ease my guilt about not seeing her through the entire finding-a-place-to-stay adventure. I was anxious to get to Moscow.

I spent half an hour having some lunch at my favorite Moscow coffee shop. They have a long community table in the front room. Oddly enough, a man sat next to me, who looked like he needed a little conversation and I’m honestly not sure why I didn’t give it to him.

I left when I saw a little blue sky poking through and drove out onto the Palouse itself for some picture taking. I love the rolling hills, have never seen anything like them in all my travels. It is a world-famous agricultural area with rich and absurdly deep topsoil. It used to be covered in native grasses and flowers. Palouse is also the name French trappers gave to a regional Native American tribe that stuck.

I was on a gravel road when I saw some scenery that was pleasing to me, to take some pictures. I braced against and then relaxed into the strong cold wind that was blowing. That’s a hobo trick I eventually learned, no matter what the weather’s doing, relax into it.

As I was making my way back home, I had the thought, Small things mean a lot to people, which was comforting because I spend a lot of each day doing small things for people who need them. I often wonder if I’m spinning my wheels doing it. But I noticed, over time, I’ve become a lot more naturally kind.


As I was making my way back home, I had the thought, Small things mean a lot to people, which was comforting because I spend a lot of each day doing small things for people who need them.


Every Wednesday, I drive a small bus and pick up fifteen or so people for a weekly community dinner. I got a little heated because this young woman keeps running the same type of lies and manipulations by me, even though I call her on it. I rarely call anyone on this type of thing, because folks learn to manipulate when simply asking for something gets them punched in the face both metaphorically and for real when they are kids.

I stopped at a coffee stand on the way home and was chatting with a barista I have come to know a little. She said she felt a little like an ant, running around doing a bunch of tasks she maybe felt didn’t have that much meaning. Reminded me of me and my tasking a little.

So, I told her, “It’s not who you are or what you are, but only that you are.” (I’ve been writing spiritual phrases ever since my last year on the streets.) I was surprised how much it touched her, as she wrote it down.

I recently watched a Dylan documentary called Rolling Thunder Revue about his mid-seventies concert tour. Martin Scorsese put it together. Dylan has a song called “Hurricane” about a boxer named Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Dylan visited him in prison at the time. Scorsese interviewed Carter for the film, and you could tell Carter was touched by and admired Dylan. Carter looks great and is charismatic as hell. He felt like Dylan seemed to be searching for something. He would see Dylan off and on over the years and ask him what he was looking for. Dylan never answers him.

So, at the end of the film, Scorsese asks the close-to-80 Dylan what he is looking for. He answers: “The Holy Grail. I’m Sir Galahad. That is me and that is you whether we are aware of it or not. I’m getting there by doing small things, I guess, not a bad path.


(Photo by John Michael)


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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