By McCabe Coolidge — The Buzz
“I believe in the beauty of all things broken.”
Terry Tempest Williams
While recuperating from another bout with Lyme’s , I am paddling a kayak, counter clock wise around Lake Merritt. Just passing the boat shed filled with rowing shells , a man standing along the muck and grass of the shoreline greets me, “Sir, sir! Do you want a blessing?” I pull my paddle out of the water and lay it across the bow and coast closer to shore, wondering. He smiles , his skin like smooth ebony, dressed in black keds , jeans and a black, long sleeve shirt; he holds tight to a brilliant white scarf.
My kayak is still now. I do not know how to say “Yes! How badly I want, need a blessing! ” Just now, as I am trying to recover, finding a little strength and inspiration on these waters of a small lake in the center of Oakland’s downtown district. But I do not say a word or ask for what I need. I am mute. Me, a white man, a bit elderly, but okay economically, needing anything, anything at all from a stranger?
I nod my head, signaling ‘yes. ’ I look him in the eye. He raises his hand high, high, higher and keeps it there as if intoning for the heavens to open up.
“O God of all blessings , God of light and darkness , bless this man who is in the water, bless this man who is silent, bless him not with words. Bless him with your love! ”
He makes the sign of the cross and then stands still. Absolute quiet now. I cannot hear the traffic, nor the circling seagulls , or the kids on top of the hill chasing each around. And I cannot hear the voice in my head, warning me off this strange territory that I have drifted into. Warning me not to confess how needy I am now, adrift with a foggy brain, aching joints and a never-ending fever.
He wraps his white scarf around his neck, walks a bit up hill, turns around and gives me a so tentative wave…a smaller blessing, and then he stands there, a witness to this exchange of hope and despair, knowing he did what he could do.
I wave back, my paddle in both hands , dependent as I am on this paddle to bring me out of troubled water. One stroke, pause, then another, slowly, oh slowly not wanting to drift away and be alone again. I look off to my right…He is not there now. The green grass , the water lapping on small pebbles. The seagulls return, the kids now with their mothers and fathers.
Like I have lost all energy to help myself at this moment; I see the boat house, the dock, the shore and I know this. All it will take is one paddle, left then right, left then right and I will find my way back to an old security. My bike, Broadway Avenue, uphill, uphill to my daughter ’s apartment across the street from Safeway.
Last week, in my predawn jaunt to the Marriott Hotel for a free cup of coffee, about a mile from my apartment in Greensboro, I was walking across the railroad tracks , passing the store, ‘Just Be, ’ I heard a forlorn voice: “Mister, Mister, will you help me!”
Next door to ‘Just Be, ’ is vacant; the knee wall in front has recently been painted orange. Because of this street sanctuary, many homeless people now spend the night here. Blankets , sleeping bags and plastic containers ofwater spread about. I gaze in and see this man lying on his right side, reaching for something. I look down and it is a prosthetic leg. I am stunned. ‘What happened? ’ I mumble to myself.
“Must have come off by itself in my sleep,” he mutters. He is wiggling his whole body closer to his leg. Like a seal, squirming up onto the beach. I walk over as he reaches out and grabs the leg. I want to keep moving on and I want to stay and see if needs any help attaching the leg. I look around and do not see a walker or a wheelchair. ‘Does he need more help? ’ I wonder. But I resist these impulses and turn away heading north. He yells out, “Thank you for stopping, sir, have a blessed day! ”
On my way back, an hour or so later, he is not there. His blanket is gone. Urban Ministries is about four blocks away and starts serving breakfast around 6 a.m. ‘He is probably there I tell myself. ’ I wonder how he got there.
On my next visit to Oakland I am walking along Telegraph Avenue on my way to speak to a therapist. Her name is Anne. “A Buddhist Quaker” is how she describes herself. She listens well, speaking only when she has a question or in suggesting a different way to understand my life, unemployed, wandering. I am troubled by her questions since I sense they all have something to do with me letting go. Letting go of what that person, me, was like before bitten by the tick. And that person now, newly retired from a job I loved. Newly regaining weight, newly looking for a purpose in life. I feel like a blue crab scuttling over here and there, asking the question, “Is this for me?”
I pass by a small but permanent encampment along Telegraph Avenue, right next to the Wells Fargo Bank. Pretty much the same crew, blankets on the sidewalk, guitars and dogs , water in bowls. But they do not beg. This morning as I pass by, I slow down. Some kind of ritual is going on. They are in a circle. Some shrouded with blankets others with caps and gloves but one, is kneeling like those football players , ‘taking a knee’ , in prayer, before a game. I pause, keeping my distance. The one taking the knee, is touching and praying over a comrade whose left leg is all wrapped up in gauze. Dirty but not yet unraveling.
“O God who blesses all things. Bless this leg ofMark’s.” Heads nod. Mark is clutching the speaker like a lifeline to somewhere else. “Bless him soon, bless him quickly… ” And he lightly waves his hand up and down Mark’s wounded leg. Heads are bowed now. All is quiet. There are no ‘amens. ’ After some silence, they all return to the street side of the sidewalk to their possessions , their dogs , their life on the street.
For twenty-five years I was the one gave the blessings. I was the one who made the sign of the cross. I was the one who dipped my hands in water and blessed a new born on her journey into a life of sorrow and joy. I was the one who made a sign of the cross with ashes on Palm Sunday. I was the one who placed my hand on the bowed head of the penitents and said soothing, hopeful words.
But for these past twenty- five years I have not been that one. And now when I have been thrown a curve ball, I do not know who I am and what I need to be doing with my life.
Walking up a flight of stairs on the north side of Berkeley, I am going to sit with Anne who spends half her time in Myanmar, living and working with homeless children. And now, here she is welcoming me into her office filled with soft muted paintings. She stands , a slight smile on her face, waiting.
And here I am. Needing a blessing, not knowing how to ask for one. We share the silence. This solitude is warm; this solitude is dense, allowing some annunciation to move in around us. A slight, ever so slight drift of a breeze flickers the candle set between us. We both acknowledge it, nodding slowly to the wafting, to the settled sense that brokenness is here. Now. Mine. Hers. Her children so far away. But here, now, there is brokenness. And in this strange moment, I can see the beauty.
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