Monochromatic Hero and Suicide

On Sunday, I painted my first monochromatic painting. It is an 11″ x 14″ acrylic on stretched canvas of André Trocmé in burnt umber. He is one of my heroes. That turned out so well, I followed it on Monday with an 11″ x 14″ painting of Bobby Glaeser in phthalocyanine blue. Bob was a classmate and neighbor of mine growing up. In early December 1974, a year and a half after we had graduated high school, he killed his parents, his younger sister Ann, and himself, with a 12 gauge shotgun.

trocmeAndré Trocmé was a Huguenot pastor in southern France. Before and during the Nazi occupation of France, he led his city and the neighboring city and surrounding countryside to give refuge to Jews fleeing Hitler’s genocidal death camps. It started with the boarding school his church ran. He did not believe in discrimination, so the school accepted Jewish students, who wore the school uniforms and lived lives indistinguishable from the Christian students. It grew into families sheltering families. He trained them on how to blend in and how to respond to the authorities. They set up an underground railroad to help families escape from France to safety in non-Nazi occupied countries. No one in their network betrayed a refugee into Nazi captivity. His nephew’s class was raided, where he was teaching a few dozen Jewish children. The Nazis seized the children to take them to a camp. Trocmé’s nephew insisted on going with them, as their teacher. He died in the concentration camp. It is estimated that they saved over 3500 lives.

I read Pastor Trocmé’s story over 30 years ago. It was also made into a movie.  As always, the book was better. He had with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and with Gandhi. He was a pacifist and had a strong ethical belief in honesty, charity and non-discrimination. He never made excuses for having to lie to the authorities. He felt that it was still sin, but to tell the truth would make him complicit in the deaths of fellow human beings, which would be a greater sin. He had been taught a hard lesson by his strict father, when he was a lad. He learned that it was not only right to do good; “it was essential to do the good on time!” It was his position that Hitler’s rule, the rise of the Nazis, and World War II was totally preventable, if only people of good conscience in Germany had done the good on time. Once he and his cohorts were in power, it was too late to stop him without doing evil and causing death and destruction. This is an important lesson and one that America needs to heed today.

We have both major parties putting forward the most despised presidential candidates in our history. Both are bigots. One is a capricious fool; the other is a shrewd politician committed to endless war. One would incarcerate Muslims and Latinos here; the other would (and already has) kill Muslims, Latinos and others overseas. They have 30% acceptance rating between them from the electorate. Yet people are deciding their votes on fear of one or the other, instead of doing the right thing and rejecting both.

It is time to do the good on time.

bobbyBobby was a good friend in grade school and junior high. His family lived two blocks away from mine in Golden Valley, Minnesota. We would bicycle together, sled and skate together in the winter, and sometimes camp out in our backyards together in the summer. He was a beautiful boy! He was handsome, with thick, dark hair, athletic and smart. All the girls loved him. Most of the boys wanted to be him. He did not appreciate all the attention. He was shy and became more withdrawn in his junior and senior year in high school; to the point of not allowing any pictures of himself to appear in the yearbook. This painting is based on his two pictures in the 1971 Robin. The pose is from the soccer team’s group shot, but his eyes were closed, so I looked at his yearly picture for details of his face.

The last time I saw Bobby was in the spring of 1974. I was visiting a few of my friends at the University of Minnesota’s main campus. At that time Pioneer Hall was for both men and women; every other room for each gender. I greeted Bobby as he darted stark naked from the showers to his room. I was shocked at this, not because of modesty, but his apparent lack of it. He had changed, and changed radically. Early December, 1974, we heard the news that Bobby had shot and killed his father, his mother and his sister, Ann, then himself, with a 12 gauge shotgun in the middle of the night in their Golden Valley home. A neighbor discovered their bodies four days after when North Memorial Hospital called her to check on his father, because he had not showed up for his on call assignment. He was a doctor.

Bobby’s case was written up in a feature article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He had suffered some sort of mental breakdown prior to this and had been in treatment. He left the treatment and had been alienated from his family. They reached out to him. He was home for dinner that night to discuss re-entering treatment as an inpatient. After they had all gone to bed, Bobby got his hunting gun and shot his parents and his younger sister while they lay in their beds. Then he shot himself.

The four of them had a joint memorial service at Valley of Peace Lutheran Church. Their were four, beautiful Christmas wreaths on stands in the front of the packed church. Pastor Stine gave this horrible message. He said, “Heaven is God’s gift to us at Christmastime. Bobby gave his family their Christmas gift early.”

I got up, then and there, and walked out of that church! What an ass! This was the same ignorant pastor who had kicked me out of confirmation class one month shy of completion for asking too many questions about heaven and hell, and how one gets to heaven, after my best friend, Steve Rainoff had died by falling through a skylight, chasing a soccer ball, in a locked school in New Jersey.

In the spring of 1975, the Mpls. paper had a feature article on Angel Dust. The authorities had just seen a rise in its use. The symptoms of its use and long-term effects sounded just like Bobby. I have always wondered if he could have been exposed to that, and that is what changed his personality so never know.

I painted his portrait in monochromatic phthalocyanine blue, from a happier time in his life. Bobby was a beautiful boy. He had all the advantages. That could have been me.

X

xMany years ago, I wrote an article in The King’s Jubilee newsletter about the Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which I recommended that every white man in America should read it. I got some feedback on that! Of course, the negative feedback was all from people who were too narrow minded to read it. Several people said that “everyone should read it!” That missed my point. To overcome racism, it is important to gain understanding from other perspectives. Malcolm X became a hero of mine not because I agreed with everything he said or did, but because he had the courage to live a self-examined life in public.  He was not so proud that he would not change his course when confronted with hard new truth.

I painted this with acrylics on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas. It is available for sale at www.shoutforjoy.net

Godfather, 4438 Shoreline Drive

godfatherI am the youngest of four siblings, yet my memories have always gone back further than my sisters and brother. This is a painting of the house where I lived for my first six years (June 1955- June 1961). It still stands. The outside finishes and windows have been updated, but it is still the same tiny Dutch Colonial. It is almost totally obscured by trees on Google Earth.  When we lived there, those Google Earth shots would have been impossible! The place was literally crawling with children! (also skipping, jumping, climbing, hiding & seeking, chalk drawing, running,etc.) 1955 was the crest of the Baby Boom after all. Crystal Lake was across the street. That is where the Ericksons, Hostermans and DeLays lived.

Our house was at 4438 Shoreline Drive, Robbinsdale, 22, Minnesota. Postage stamps were 4 cents. Flags had 48 stars. Everybody liked Ike. Our phone number started with KEllogg 7. I knew all this when I was three. My earliest and most powerful memory was being held in the arms of my godfather, Gordon, when I was just two years old, in the dining room of that house. He was looking out the door to the screened-in porch. I remember the feel of his laugh, and that it was one of the few times I felt truly happy and safe in that house.

Not long after that party, Gordy committed suicide. It wasn’t clear that he intended to. There was no note. Gordy had the form of acrophobia that would cause him to have a strong urge to jump from open heights. I have it, too. It is actually an idea, seemingly hardwired in the brain, that the scariness of being on the precipice would be relieved, if one would only throw oneself on the wind and fly.  Gordy flew. His wings burned up like Icarus’ in the Sun.  I simply never saw Uncle Gordy again; never smelled that smell; never saw that smile; never felt that embrace; never felt that laugh again.

That’s me, in the red jumper, asleep in Gordy’s arms. My therapist asked me, yesterday, when I showed her this painting, “So safety must be a big concern for you. What do you do to make sure you are safe?”

I asked her if that was a trick question.

We had much tears. The fact of the matter is, I have had little consciousness of safety since we moved away from that house. First Gordy disappeared, then we moved away from the Ericksons.

When a man strung out on heroin pulled a gun on me, I was too numb to be afraid. My safety is not on my radar. It was beat out of me at an early age. I just calmly sized up the man, determined what his real motives were and helped him achieve them in a way that was best for everyone concerned. It involved me driving with a gun poked in my ribs for 17 miles, but he got into rehab not prison, and, as a side benefit, I got to live.

(If you want to purchase this painting, or others by me, visit www.shoutforjoy.net)

 

I actually published a book!

Finally I have compiled a number of “Other People’s Children” into a book that will move you and inspire you. I wrote and edited more chapters to meet the deadline as well. Nothing like impending open heart surgery and a good 40% off coupon to get things onto the front burner, eh?

Seriously:

This little book is an invitation to YOU to step into a new comfort zone with your sisters and brothers in this world. We are all frightened children trying to find the silk edge of the blanket at times. Let us be kind.

The plan is, that this is just the first of several little volumes. This book contains 16 original paintings by me, plus one ‘artistic photograph’, so it is a large undertaking. The book is 8″x10″ in full color so you can appreciate the art along with the stories.

Buy a hard copy. You will want to hold this in your hands. Then you will want to give more copies as gifts.

Nebraska

Oh, to be young again!

Or, in my case, for the first time. I spent most of my time as a child with adults, or at least older children. I would help my older sister with her homework. My brother took me to college when I was 13, got me drunk; and I still held my own in theological discussions with the divinity graduate students into the wee hours of the morning. I still remember the discussion nearly 50 years later! I was born old! This was not the case for Nebraska.

Even though Nebraska had had a pretty hard knock life so far, he remained childlike, cheerful, confident; just a downright happy guy and a joy to be around! We hosted Nebraska (yes, that is his real, first name) for a weekend in our home, while he was staying at Liberty House prison aftercare program in Schwenksville, PA, in 1986. I was Mennonite Chaplain and Volunteer Director with Liberty Ministries at the time and had helped reorganize the aftercare program there, after it had closed in Phila. Nebraska was one of the early residents. He was just 20, and had already been in prison. He had been raised in the foster care system.  Who knows if he actually committed a crime? He was a dark skinned, black youth. He was irrepressibly cheerful. That is enough to get one locked up in any number of towns and neighborhoods in Pennsylvania.

We had a great time with Nebraska. The one memory that sticks out is our trip to Ikea. We all went to Ikea together, all seven of us: Bethann and I, our four daughters and Nebraska. Now Bethann and I were about 30. The girls were 9 and under. In the store, we got a little spread out, but we could see each other. One or another of the girls would exclaim, “Mommy, come see!” or “Daddy, come see!” when they saw something they liked. Then Nebraska exclaimed, “Mommy! Mommy! Come see!” loud enough for the whole floor to hear, and they all watched Bethann answer. We have been tickled by that scene every time we have recalled it, in the 30 years since!

nebraskaWe don’t know what happened to Nebraska after that weekend. I was so busy overseeing over 500 volunteers in eight different jails and prisons and starting several tutoring and other programs. We never saw him again in prison or in aftercare, or on the street, so I’m taking that as a good sign. But I don’t know.

This I do know. Nebraska was not a thowaway. He was not a ‘taker’. He was, and hopefully still is, a beautiful human being, and our brother someplace.

Kenny

missionaymentalitySKenneth Cobbs challenged me and instructed me like few other persons in my life in such a brief time. I can count on one hand the people who have had this kind of impact in this short a time, and they all seem to totally, irretrievably disappear. At least Kenny left me with a couple books of his poetry, including one poem about me. It is not particularly complimentary toward me. I was alarmed when I read it. Kenny and I discussed it. He stuck to his guns and defended it. This was how he felt. It cut me to the quick. I was grateful for the critique and thanked him for his honesty. I asked his forgiveness, for that was not how I wanted to come off or how I intended our ministry to be perceived. At the time, I published it in The King’s Jubilee newsletter as a confessional, with an appeal to help please, let’s all do better.

Kenny had given me two booklets of his poetry that he had typed up. He managed to photocopy several copies and staple and fold them. He would sell them for $5 each to raise a little cash. I made some copies for him. I told him I would retype and reset the booklets in nicer fonts, with full color covers. I did this. He never showed up to retrieve them or the money for the copies that I sold for him. I never saw him again. I contacted the nuns who he said he was visiting that week. they had not heard from him. I left my phone number. I have searched for him every couple of years, since, to no avail. That was in 1998. I keep hoping that he chose to disappear and become a Buddhist monk somewhere. He was an intense person, wise beyond his years, yet I fear the world was too rough for him. He had been part of the MOVE family and had not recovered from the terrorism inflicted by the city, and the lies and machinations to frame Mumia Abu Jamal for killing a cop; after Mumia dared to report sympathetically about MOVE.

Kenny took me down a peg. I was glad for it. He did it with honesty, in the spirit of true brotherhood and love. I have gone back again and again to our conversations and his critiques to see how I measure up “according to the Kenny scale.” If he knew, he would laugh so loud!

kennyI painted this from emotional memory. Kenny’s skin was darker. I have a hard time with painting dark skin tones and still getting feature definition. Sorry. My counselor and I talked about this painting today. This is the first time I have obscured a part of a face. I think this is because both of us were blocked in some major ways. He was dealing with PTSD from Mayor Goode’s bombing of West Phila. I was a recovering fundamentalist; had been abused by clergy, yet still playing the clergy game. Kenny’s right eyebrow is raised. This was done subconsciously on my part, but it makes perfect sense. Whenever I think of Kenny, I think of our conversations and his piercing, unflinching criticism. It is rare that I can find someone who can give as good as get. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Prov. 27:6) I measure my progress on stepping down from my “god complex” and getting over being a “white knight” on the “Kenny Scale”. This is the raised eyebrow and slightly more open right eye. (his right) The background color of orange and shirt as bright red were chosen because of the MOVE fire on Mother’s Day, 1985. My missing front tooth is from that night, as well. But that’s another story.

I think I’m doing pretty OK on the “white knight” problem. I’ve been invited to events by black friends. When I have shown up, I was the only white guy there.  I overhear their friends ask, “You didn’t say he was white.” My friend says, “Oh, I forgot.” At one party, they replied, “You forgot?!” My friend said, “Yeah. Chill. Just get him a beer. Talk to him for a while. You’ll see he forgot, too.” I think Kenny would be just OK with me now.

Robert and Joyce

I met Robert when he was an inmate in the Philadelphia House of Correction and I was Mennonite Chaplain. He was then transferred to the Phila. Industrial Correctional Center when it opened in 1986. He attended my Bible studies there. He asked me to bring some groceries, a Bible and a few other items to Joyce where she was living, Richard Allen Homes.

robertjoyceWhen the other inmates heard I was going there, they urged me not to go. They assured me it was far too dangerous for one such as me.

I went. I was shocked to find such deplorable conditions. Joyce was living on the couch in a tiny, bug & vermin infested apartment with an older woman who was dying of leukemia. Joyce was there illegally, but she exchanged care for the woman in lieu of rent of couch space. There was a waiting list to get into RAH. The entry hall had been firebombed and never cleaned up.

I dropped off the groceries. We had a short visit. As I was leaving, I saw that several cars in the parking lot had their windows smashed. Another car with its windows smashed out pulled in just then. The next thing I see is a group of tough guys sizing me up. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt; nothing to indicate that I was a minister of any kind. This was the kind of trouble the men at PICC had been worried about. Then, all at once, they all focused just above my head. Then I heard one of them mutter to the others, “Don’t mess with him. He’s a missionary man.” The tallest of them then said, “Have a nice day.” I replied with the same and proceded to my car, hoping to find it with windows intact. They were.

After Robert got out of jail, we had Joyce and him to our house for dinner. There were more grocery runs. Then word came that Joyce had died from AIDS and then word from the street a month later that Robert passed, as well. We knew them less than a year, but they left a mark on our hearts.

They were the first people we knew to die of AIDS. This was several years before World AIDS Day in 1991 and the red ribbon AIDS awareness campaign. I put a little anachronous AIDS ribbon earring in Joyce’s ear in the painting. Once again, these are not accurate likenesses, since we have no photographs, and it has been nearly 30 years. They are likenesses painted out of loving memory.

Ya Gotta Have Art!

art
“Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction.” – Evelyn Waugh

My art has become an obsession. I now have four paths for my art, and it consumes most of my waking hours. This is probably an improvement over thinking about the current election cycle, no?

The first path is decorative; the faux finish subway tiles, including the cartoon characters, etc. The second path is painting portraits to illustrate my book: “Other People’s Children”. These are portraits of people whom I have known who society has labeled throwaways: the homeless, prisoners, etc. The third path is a challenge from my psychologist to explore the abstract. This is a tall order, as I believe in order to do abstract well, one must have a firm grasp on realism. You see my problem.

heidnikThe fourth is meta in that it goes beyond all of these to challenge my own stated belief in the universal pro-life position. I need to paint a portrait of serial killer Gary Heidnik that is done with love and respect, recognizing that he was born with all of the same potential and hope that I was. I was once in his presence and could feel evil emanating from him before I turned to see who it was. Yet, immediately I was struck by the fact he was still alive. There was still hope for change, still potential for good. He was still a fellow human being. We should never go down the rabbit hole to attempt to understand why he did what he did, yet there are those two words of Jesus of Nazaeth that keep calling me up short: “Condemn Not!”

Angie

To say that Angie was not a pleasant person, is the kindest euphemism I can muster. Let me just say, when her body was found dead of murder, no one was surprised, and there was a long list of people with possible motive. Yet we considered it a joy to serve her a hot nutritious meal in the park, rain or shine, once a week for about fifteen years. I think she died around 2007.

Angie loved to tease people. That is an understatement; it was more that she liked to torment people. She wanted to tease and provoke until blood was boiling. She positively delighted in making other people angry. She was proud of being a Native American “squaw”. She was always bundled up and totally covered, even when the weather didn’t call for it. She always had some scam going. She would give one of the volunteers some tea or some special lip balm. The next week they were informed they owed her $10 or more; and, by the way, she had the rest of their order now. She didn’t care whether she was picking on children or adults. She could be relentless.

One time I brought venison stew down to the Love Park from a roadkill deer that Alex Smerkanich had picked up while it was still twitching alongside of the 309. A coworker and I butchered it after work. I just left the ribs long. I roasted them and served them as an added bonus to those who wanted them. Many of the people were puzzled as to what kind of animal these bones came from. I let them know it was deer. They asked where it came from. I told them. Angie was off to the races! And she didn’t stop until she died. She was constantly after me about sweeping pigeons off the pavement, running down squirrels, etc., to put roadkill in the soup. It frustrated her that I never got angry with her over this.

angieOne night, the entire McGraw family, all eleven of them, came down in their short bus to help serve. They even brought along their three-legged Great Dane. After we were done serving, they got the dog out for a little social time and walk in the park. Angie saw this dog and exclaimed, “What happened to that poor dog’s leg?!” Sweet little Elisa McGraw, who had never uttered a word down there before, immediately replied, “We put it in the soup!” We were all surprised. It sure shut up Angie.

I have painted a terrible picture of Angie, but I recall tender moments, as well, and times when she apologized with tears and said thank you. It is hard to imagine what torments she must have suffered to have built such terrible defenses for her psyche. We all start life with great potential and aspiration. No one looks at a little baby and envisions a bitter, contentious, homeless lady leaving conflict in her wake. Who and what did this to her? Why did it happen to her and not to me? When we start to ask these questions, we are starting down the path of understanding what Paul of Tarsus was saying when he said we should each look at ourselves as the worst sinner ever. (1 Tim. 15) This puts Jesus words, “Judge not”, to the test. People do what they feel they need to do to cope. We rationalize our own behavior. At the time, in the moment, our behavior, no matter how bizarre or hurtful, always seems rational. And we’ve done some pretty stupid, bizarre and hurtful stuff in our lives, no? Everyone you see is fighting a great battle. They haven’t had the same advantages, perspectives and privileges as we have.

As ornery as Angie was, we still looked forward to seeing her as part of the mix on the nights we would serve. I still remember her gruff laugh. I didn’t mind being the butt of her jokes. I could play along, if it kept her from picking on someone else. I just wasn’t raised to throw people away. And people she was!

Let us be kind.

Pops

I never learned Pops’ name. Everyone just called him Pops. He was happier than any man had a right to be who was living homeless in the parks or under the bridges. I wondered if he was simple minded, truly spiritually disciplined, or  was just born happy. Scientists tell us that people’s happiness centers in their brains develop differently in the womb. At any rate, he took the lessons his mama taught him seriously! If he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything at all. He wasn’t homeless for being lazy. He was always busy. He had a big shopping cart. He used it to collect recyclables to turn in for cash.

He would go around to the renovation and demolition sites and ask for any of the metal they would part with. Many times the union men would have him go in and do some of the particularly dirty work, up in the vents, etc., in exchange for the metal and all the wire. They usually didn’t get much, if anything for the wire, unless it was stripped. Pops would recycle all the aluminum, steel, copper and tin. He would keep the wire. He also snagged cords from the blinds on these jobs. Pops would then painstakingly strip the used copper electrical wire. He would then wind it into crosses. He used the salvaged cord from the blinds to tie necklaces for them. He always wore one and had several more on his person. He was in the habit of giving these cross necklaces away. He would say, “Just trust Jesus” or “Jesus loves you” and offer you a cross. If you told him he had already given him one, no matter, please accept another.

Over the years, Pops offered me four crosses. I passed three of them onto others. Pops eventually did succumb to the dementia that comes with Alzheimer’s. He spent his last year or so living on the street in a large crate with a loving community of four other men living in adjacent shipping crates under a parking ramp bridge. These men looked after him with sensitivity and love rarely seen in nursing homes with all the amenities. They knew just how to deal with him when he was present and when he ‘went off’. It was tragic, yet also beautiful, to witness. Pops was reaping loving care in the roughest of circumstances from the most unlikely caregivers after sowing a lifetime of simple love and cheer.

I have to say, though, to witness this in the USA in 2002, and to have no way to intervene to get him to a properly heated space with proper treatment, because we as a people lack the compassion to muster the political will to provide universal, easy to access healthcare as a basic human right, was heartbreaking.

Cross Pops made for me.
Cross Pops made for me.

When I was chrismated in 1999 in the Orthodox Church, my godfather, Alex Smerkanich, gave me a very nice, shiny, real gold cross, on a gold chain. I lost it, one dark winter night, while serving the homeless at 18th and Vine. So I had Pops cross blessed on the holy table at St. Philip’s and I started wearing that instead; in memory of Pops and for all my homeless brothers and sisters. When I started to tear out the wiring to rewire our house, I saved the old wire. I strip it and I make crosses like Pops did and give them away, for people to remember Pops and his simplicity; to remember all my homeless brothers and sisters; to work to end homelessness; to work for universal healthcare. It’s pro-life!

I painted Pops from memory. I made him younger than I ever saw him to reflect his childlike faith and unsinkable optimism. Yet I included his white hair and long white beard to reflect what a gift of wisdom this was. I made a small cross out of salvaged doorbell wire and fastened it to the canvas on the necklace.