Quixote's EpistleThese are the main articles from our quarterly epistle.
In January 2003 I was 26, yet I seemed to be going through a troubled adolescence that would never end. Down on my luck and homeless in Tallahassee, FL, one evening I was standing in line to receive a meal and was talking about life with an artist friend of mine. I made some point about the futility of existence and a voice behind me intoned, “You should read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.”As most people in that line weren’t exactly literary-minded, this statement came as a mild shock. I turned around and saw a lanky man in his late 50s in a floppy boonie hat carrying nothing but an empty metal pail. A bright smile beamed on his weather-beaten face. My first impression of Mike White was that he was either crazy, a holy saint, or some combination of the two.
We began to talk about religion and self-sacrifice and soon became inseparable companions. Mike had patterned his life after Jesus and St. Francis: He had nothing, wanted nothing, never complained, and gave everything. I soon learned he had devoted a great deal of energy to something called the Catholic Worker Movement, and he loved to tell stories about Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and others he had know in New York City. His vision of the Church was one of the poor and oppressed living in harmony and dignity together with Jesus Christ as high priest. For what he called the “slow church” of wealth and complacency he had only a gentle mockery: He refused to go to the local cathedral or avail himself of their services. When we went to church he insisted on going out of our way to a church that served a Hispanic congregation of mostly agricultural workers. His solidarity with the poor permanently changed my outlook on faith and society.
Mike told me a little about his life. He came from a Pensacola family who had made a fortune tailoring uniforms for the naval base. He had wanted to attend Loyola University in New Orleans, but his father wouldn’t pay for it so he attended the University of Florida instead. When he was about 30, in 1974, he inherited $30,000 and used it to drive around the country doing good deeds and helping the needy. Soon he was homeless, and at that point he formally decided to adopt the mendicant lifestyle. He had two brothers who shunned him for the most part, but would occasionally give him a helping hand. One was a lawyer and the other was a professor of architecture, both in Tallahassee.
Just as mysteriously as he had appeared in my life, one day I saw Mike no more; he had given no warning he was going to depart. The seed, however, was planted. I made arrangements to visit the original Catholic Worker in New York City and the Peter Maurin Farm upstate in Marlboro. When I arrived in July, all the old-timers remembered Mike well. He showed up every morning to help serve breakfast and chat with the clients, but he never accepted any offers of shelter, even in the coldest weather. They said he lived in a cardboard box in the alley and were afraid he would freeze to death.
How someone could be so dedicated to a solitary life of service to his God and so thoroughly empty himself of ego staggered my mind. I then realized why he had carried around that empty pail. The last time I ever saw Mike White was a complete coincidence. In 2010 I was living in Pensacola, and one day driving down Scenic Highway into downtown I saw the unmistakable lanky figure in the boonie hat waiting to cross the street. I did a double take, but the traffic was too heavy to stop and turn around.
May the Lord bless that stubborn man of the people, wherever he may be.
– Brian McNeil
and I do not
That there will be a reason for all of this
That someone’s grandchildren will be alive to care
how someone their grandmother’s age
remained strong in their silence
refused anger and hatred
painted beautiful pictures
believed there was a reason to keep going
and I do not
That in fifty years the world will still be green enough to keep living in
That mother nature will take her smoking, awesome revenge
and then carry on
in her slow, unplanned but perfectly organized way
That in spite of all our
and giving less than a shit
She will come through with flying colors:
Replant the parking lots and replace our outdated species
(along with the thousands now extinct)
with creatures stronger, more supple, sinewy and pure.
Creatures stupid enough not to ruin that small patch of paradise we left
as we thrashed and connived our shambling way to extinction
that tiny patch of flowers and those three species of trees
that one bit of ocean too deep for us to bother polluting
as we grew so huge that there was nothing left to consume
but our own hands and feet
I believe in the creatures of the future
tiny and slow as sloths
who will require next to nothing but a view
a single leaf or blade of grass
to keep them happy.
They will sit still and let the fragments grow let
a weed become a jungle
But then, when that straggling, spindly jungle becomes strong and wild,
fruits large and protein plentiful
When the rain again comes down clean enough not to kill too young
and life reclaims her hungry birthright of passion
and produces new creatures
large, quick and abundant
Who will stop them?
Who will force them not to eat every single leaf
Not to slash and burn and kill?
Not the little quiet ones
Not the ones made only to survive
– Claudia Finn
On a crisp fall day in Eugene OR, a troubled but happy couple and their not-so-troubled and happy-enough teen-age daughter packed minimal camping gear and took a city bus to Delta campground near the McKenzie River. The campground is in a grove of old-growth trees, predominantly Douglas fir and western red cedar, that are centuries old. They provided a calm retreat for the three wanderers who hiked around a lot, sat around together a lot, and while the daughter painted a lot, the couple mulled things over a lot.
In this enchant(ed)ing setting, on September 9, 2001, the couple put in writing what they had been chewing on for years. They took the bus back to Eugene Sept. 11, and while that date has taken on a remarkable history of its own it did not change what the couple had composed two days prior. With minor editing it became their Liturgy of Penance and Dedication:
Our lives in this society have been characterized by an irreverence for life that we have manifested in violence, greed and selfishness, thereby contributing to the destruction of the balance of life on earth, interpersonal isolation, economic injustice, disregard for the future, and contempt for the wisdom of the past.
For this we are truly sorry, and we ask forgiveness.
Today we acknowledge our calling to live a new way based on Christian faith as we understand it. This understanding includes a reverence for creation; that “God so loved the world”—all of creation, not just people—that as a human being he lived and died for it, and so should we.
With God’s help, we promise
To live in peace.
Understanding that war is an inevitable outcome of the violence and destruction required to meet the demands of this society and that peace is not just the absence of violence but the presence of love, we will
Find and use habits of work, transportation, housing, food production and consumption, language, education, and recreation that respect God’s creation and encourage human creativity.
Oppose acts of war in any form, for any reason.
Offer sustenance and solace to those in need.
With God’s help, we promise
To live in voluntary poverty.
Understanding the selfishness and greed that resulted from our participation in the lifestyle of this society and having decided not to participate any longer, we will
Have only the food and shelter that allow us to live with a basic level of dignity and self respect.
Remember that some individuals have special needs unique to their calling.
Give away anything acquired in excess of this.
With God’s help, we promise
To live in community.
Understanding in Christ’s words, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” the truth that people together in love create a greater power for good, we will
Minimize our individual destruction of the earth.
Share our resources.
Provide mutual support.
Work together in a common faith for a common purpose.
We thank God for guiding us to this understanding. We have learned that acting for the good of all is good for us as individuals, and while rearing our children we learned that all of our actions model our reality, our faith and what we hope for.
We did not set out to learn these lessons; we were not always receptive to them; and today as we promise to live in their light, we cannot know how that life will look nor what we may be asked to do. We trust God’s continuing guidance and ask our family and friends for their love and support.
—Kris and Doug Finn
The liturgy today
As a co-founder and the primary key carrier for Quixote’s Garage I am often asked how I came to this work. Assuming you read the lead story, now you know.
It still surprises me that I helped to write something so beautiful. Call it Christian, spiritual, ridiculous, quixotic, whatever. All are correct because the liturgy is real, and as such it can cause discomfort, anxiety and fear, and joy, hope and excitement.
Much has changed in 14 years; much has stayed the same. While how we behave in this culture has become even more destructive in so many ways, there are signs of waking up.
Pope Francis shows great spirit in pointing out both. I am encouraged to read of his anger and apocalyptic nay saying about our greed and financial faith. I am also encouraged by his compassion for the earth and the poor among us. In The New York Times July 12, he said, “You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and the underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”
So does Jon Stewart, a great comedian and satirist of all things. On Aug. 5, winding down 16 years as host of The Daily Show, he gleefully reran clips where adversaries said he “eviscerated” and “destroyed” people and events. Then he showed current clips of what should have been reduced to rubble. Seeing it all alive and well, he wailed, “Things are demonstrably worse now than when I started! Is this my fault?”
Stewart and Francis are sounding alarms. Are you awake?
Some may ask, “What does Quixote’s Garage DO?” It fills a vital role in our community. This is my account of what Quixote’s did for me.
I was fragile when I came to Quixote’s. I had been living with physical illness in very isolated housing and this, combined with arsenic poisoning from the property’s well water, affected my mental health. I needed a safe environment to heal.
Homeless on the street there are two emotions you struggle with: Fear of police targeting you and of other people targeting you because you’re poor and homeless. And alienation, because you feel alone. You also feel that many people consider you of low value due to your poverty. It is all too easy, inside, to agree with others who see you as worthless.
Quixote’s provided a place where I was known and welcomed. A place where fear could take a rest, where alienation became friendship. Though poor, we are treated with respect and concern. For guests, it is an island of peace and safety in a troubled world. A place where we can heal.
I found I loved helping other people I met there. Things lifted my heart: The smile of the man huddled in drenching rain when I said “Yes” to his request for a ride to his campsite. That smile was like a sunrise. So was the expression of the hungry man, living rough, when I shared a ham and other food at Easter, and he caught sight of better food than he had hoped for on display.
Quixote’s strengthened me in many ways to face my future. It taught me something about myself and what God wants of me. I am so grateful!
Recently, in Phoenix, I took food to a group of hungry people who very much reminded me of Quixote’s, as this small group had received food caringly over a period of time from Christian volunteers. The feeling of love was strong. One man said, “I go to the same church now that members of the group attend because when I’m around them, I feel I make the choice to go the good way, not the dark, bad way.
This is what Quixote’s offers. When you feel cared for it makes you feel worth something; you make more choices for life, not death. That gives you hope for your future. And being at Quixote’s awakened in me the love of being one of the people who bring caring, love and hope to the poor, and see them bloom over time like spring flowers.
A few weeks ago, I grumbled to the Garage guests about not putting out a Fall Epistle. I’ve always said if it wasn’t worth reading I wouldn’t print one, and nobody had written anything and I had nothing to say, so . . . . A guest, lying on the couch in the middle of the room, popped up like a prairie dog. “I’ll write one,” he said, “Brain tumors can be fun.” His life, he said, had become mundane, routine, and then he got a brain tumor and that solved that. Really.
This is his story:
Brain tumors can be just as amusing as they are disheartening.
My name is Dave. I am 40 years old. Just an average, ordinary kid. Mid-April this year the “big” headache began and my vision faded to black. On April 29 I was diagnosed with a rare cancerous brain tumor. That’s when the fun began. Directly to Barrow’s Neurological Center I went. Within two days I went from a blind guy with a bad headache to a hollow shell of my former self: Unable to remember more than two sequential numbers and no longer able to assemble the words to deliver my thoughts in a meaningful way to another human and, possibly, to most life forms.
Jump forward 20 radiation and nine chemo sessions, and I’m back. OK. Here is where the fun really began. I have very little of my vision left, no sense of smell, little sense of taste, my ears constantly ring, and my fingers are mostly numb. (Please note, for those who don’t know me. I am not making a joke of brain cancer. This is just my take on what it means to me.)
Let me weigh the pros and cons for you.
I recently ate a Brussels sprout and only became aware of it when I was told what it was. (I can’t stand Brussels sprouts.) I can’t focus my eyes on an object, but I can throw WAY more accurately. I still love the outdoors, but rarely see the animals. When crossing the street stops being fun, I’ll use the crossing lights.
How many times have you thought to yourself, “I wish I hadn’t seen that?” There is no difference in the scent of rotten eggs or spring flowers. I can’t focus well enough to read a book, a paper, or a magazine. No upside to that. A mountain bike is a full-time, white-knuckle ride, and now I ride slower than a herd of turtles.
- Pro: I could eat cauliflower or Brussels sprouts and not know it.
- Con: I could eat cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
- Pro: Nothing smells bad.
- Con: Nothing smells good.
- Pro: Mountain biking is exhilarating even at a snail’s pace.
- Con, or maybe pro: I’ve learned to ride via echo location. For example, I called out, “Jack, where are you?” Jack answered, “Down here. Careful of the rut in the trail and the rock on the left.”
- Pro:I work on my mountain bike while staring at the sky.
- Con: One day, while talking to a friend, I apologized for not looking her in the eye. ”Headless friends creep me out,” I explained.
- Pro: Now I recognize people by their gait and voice.
Works out fine.
An ode to brain tumors
Lump in my head
What a dread
Might as well be night
Lack of smell and taste
Food and flowers go to waste
– David Meyer