(For this story, I asked myself a simple question: "What would happen if a frat bro wrote a really pretentious memoir piece?" It's the stupidest thing I've ever written, and I refuse to even try to shop it around. You're welcome, world.)
Consider the Quesarito
I walked into a Chicago Taco Bell in the South Loop at midnight.
I heard the Religious Studies kids liked to hang out there and observe people. Before that night, I didn't want any of that nonsense. I went to college for business and to hustle.
Gary V for me, sir, none of your whimsical kumbaya crap.
But that particular night, I had a yearning inside of me. I couldn't put my finger on it. Maybe it was the edibles I ate. Maybe it was my roommate's loud snoring. Maybe it was unprocessed trauma.
Maybe it was everything.
I ordered my usual quesarito with a Baja Blast and found my way to a familiar face.
He was sitting at a table reading a book in what I assume was Arabic.
"How long have you been studying?" I asked as I sat down.
"Time is of no essence in the realm of the Divine," he said.
I took a sip of Blast, "What?"
"My name is Steve," he offered his hand.
I shook it, "Patrick. So, what are you reading?"
"I'm not sure," Steve closed the book. "I like looking at the writing. I can't read Arabic."
I stared at him blankly.
"Haven't you ever stared at someone to admire their beauty before?"
"Like, to get laid?"
"No, to just admire them. You've never looked at your world or others and admired the beauty of who they are?"
I looked at his book and then at him, "Can't say that I have?"
He grabbed my quesarito, unwrapped it, and then waved it in front of my face.
"Consider the quesarito," he said, "how it defies definition. It's both a quesadilla and a burrito. What a mystical world we live in where something like this can exist."
"I've never thought about it like that before," I leaned back.
Steve took a bite, "Yes, friend, we never think. We go through life not observing beauty, and only seek ways to exploit it," he grabbed my drink and took a sip.
"I think I get it," I cleared my throat. "I've been studying for a career, but I haven't taken the time to really absorb what's going on around me. I never appreciate it for what it is."
"Nothing is permanent, friend," Steve took another bite. "Enjoy it while you can. One day, you'll regret not being in the moment."
Steve stood up, patted my shoulder, and said, "I'll see you around."
"You're forgetting your book," I held it out to him.
"Am I, friend? Am I?" Steve caressed my face slowly.
"I… uh, guess not," I stammered.
Steve wandered away, eating the rest of my quesarito.
I walked home from Taco Bell that night confused, frustrated, and hungry. I went to bed angry.
The next day dragged on. I couldn't get Steve's pseudo-wisdom out of my head. There had to be some kind of meaning to the nonsense. Some kind of logic.
Late night came around again, and I found myself wanting that quesarito that was stolen from me by that sneaky hipster monk with a non-descript spirituality.
I walked in, "I'd like a quesarito with a Baja Blast, please."
"We're sorry, sir," said the woman at the cashier. "We stopped selling those."
My heart sank.
Steve was right.
Nothing is permanent in this world.
I turned my head and saw a hippie woman reading the book that Steve left behind.
She looked at me and smiled.
I gave a little wave and ordered something else.
Of course someone like her was there.
After I got my order, I sat down and stared into space.
I realized all the broken dreams, lost causes, manic late night phone calls…
They were all one giant quesarito.
Here today, gone tomorrow.
The only things that are guaranteed it seems are the shells and tortillas that are willing to accept the ingredients with grace and dignity. Perhaps I could be a shell, I figured. Perhaps I was not meant to understand these things but rather to accept them.
Perhaps there is freedom in realizing that not everything on the menu is permanent, and there is wisdom in savoring every ingredient until it's gone - or even finding other ways to rejoice when those same ingredients are redone twenty-five different ways.
Steve may have exploited my late night cravings, but the lessons he left behind will remain with me for a lifetime.
This month, I was introduced to the works of Raymond Carver. I fell immediately in love with his short stories and poetry. He had a minimalist style. His characters felt real and they were accurate snapshots of blue collar life in crisis. As usual with every writer I come across, I have to find out what their personal life was like. And, per usual with almost every famous literary author from that period, there were addiction issues and depression.
I found out that Carver spent most of his life as an alcoholic. One of his last published poems was him reflecting on his life before he passed away. The last ten years of his life were the richest moments he had.
He writes in his poem "Gravy,"
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.” (Source)
Carver had a rich, full life near the end of his career. His best published works were during his sobriety. Reading about these writers finding constant redemption after hitting rock bottom makes me wonder why it's so easy to ignore the richness of life before hitting dark spots.
It reminds of a line in The Color Purple by Alice Walker that says: "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."
As a Christian, I'm reminded of all the various points throughout the Bible that speaks of God's presence, and signs of His presence, all around us. Romans 1:20 which says, "Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—God’s eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made. " (CEB)
It's mysterious, but it's so easy to miss if we decide to let ourselves be distracted. When we view life through an intentional spiritual lens that's both present and discerning, we also see that life is gravy. We don't need to lose everything to see it for ourselves.
It's hard to pinpoint Carver's spirituality, but he has said some things that point towards that kind of reality. He said in an interview once, "No, but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection." One of his last works was also a meditation on a line from St. Theresa's poetry. (Source)
And I think that's what it means to be present in this life: to be open to miracles and the possibility of resurrection. The worst word is the never the final word, and as a Christian I can take that in confidence. But for today, I have to take the invitation to listen to my life - with all of its complexities and nuances, and celebrate it for what it is today.
And when I view my life with that lens, I echo Carver's words:
It's all gravy.
Passage: Exodus 16:1-17
There was a famous movie made in the 70's called The Way We Were about a doomed romance between characters played by Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand. Redford plays a writer who doesn’t take himself, or life, seriously. Streisand plays a Jewish left-wing activist who is passionate about everything. (In other words, Barbra Streisand seems to be playing herself.) It doesn’t end well. There was a song that came from the movie that’s since become a classic, and it’s also called “The Way We Were.”
Streisand sings about this fictional romance and reflects on it. She sings: “Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line? … Memories may be beautiful and yet what's too painful to remember we simply choose to forget. So it's the laughter we will remember whenever we remember the way we were.”
How many of us find ourselves missing the past like that? Nostalgia can be deceptive, and make us misremember what was really going on.
Some of my most fond memories of Wisconsin are when I would go to a friend’s house to play board games and watch movies. Their names were Shaun and Ashley. I would go over every Thursday and we would choose something to watch. I spent Christmas with them one year. I got into Dungeons and Dragons, animated Batman movies, and learned an appreciation for video games. Their house was like a museum dedicated to everything nerdy. I loved going over to their house to spend time with them.
But the thing is that friendship developed when COVID first broke out. We were both temporarily furloughed from our jobs at the Boys and Girls Club. When I look back at that time now, I don’t tend to remember the fear or the crazy political tensions in my area. I don't remember trying to formulate sermons to speak to everyone's condition during a pandemic. I don’t remember worrying about the kids. I don’t remember being so stressed that I had a terrible sleeping schedule for eight months. I don't immediately remember sitting with my colleagues on Zoom as they processed COVID and the rise BLM in their contexts. All of those things were happening and they were extremely important, but it’s not what my mind clings to. Instead, what I find myself remembering are those cheesy movie nights and laughter.
I reflected on this when I read some past journals, and I realized that what was a pleasant time for me wasn’t so pleasant for everyone else. And it’s a weird feeling to know that the closeness I felt at that house was only because a worldwide crisis was happening.
In a lecture I once had in class under John Perkins, a black Christian activist. He told the story of when someone made a comment about returning to the good old days. John, being the blunt guy he is from a black Baptist heritage, asked the man: “Tell me, are those the days when I wouldn’t be allowed to sit and eat with you? Are those the days when I was a slave? What good old days are you talking about?”
And leave it to John to put things in perspective like that, but that’s what nostalgia tends to do: it downplays the negative experiences to uplift the positive ones.
Nostalgia is often a stress reaction for the brain to look back at the past and idealize it when things are going wrong in the present. Dr. Laurie Santos in her podcast The Happiness Lab points out that nostalgia can often be bad for us, both as people and as a culture. When we think that we had things a lot easier back then, we ignore the struggles and challenges that were there. Our brains tend to forget those moments when we get stressed. It’s a defense mechanism letting us know something is wrong.
In other words, our brains are trying to find a way to soothe the anxieties we feel often when we remember these things. But part of being faithful is believing God’s promise that the best is yet to come, while also recognizing the Kingdom of Heaven all around us. God was present with us in the past, yes, but imagine how much more so He is present for us now.
There is value in remembering the past in how God delivers us. Scriptures always point back to stories of God’s faithfulness in spite of the mess.The point of those passages isn’t to idealize what happened, but rather to show that God will continue to be faithful.
When we try to return to the good old days, we often frame those ideal times to the detriment of everyone else and reality. All the Hebrews could think in that moment was an idealized version of their past. If you notice in God’s response, there is no condemnation. There is frustration that they aren’t noticing the blessing, but He doesn’t hold those feelings against them. Keep in mind these were people who were enslaved. This was probably one of many trauma responses. They were so used to an order of life that God was patient with them and provided for them, regardless of what they’ve said.
When we idealize the past too much, we ignore how God is working today - and that includes how He is working in the marginalized parts of the world and our own communities.
I have a friend who lived in a country when a civil war broke out. She is a French diplomat’s daughter. She talked about this positive childhood experience, right up until things started happening in her own backyard. She talked about riding in a school bus seeing the devastation of the war going on all around her. She said, “I lived this life of comfort and serenity for most of my childhood, only to realize I was living in a bubble and that the people I was friends with were experiencing horrific things that I didn’t understand until I saw them myself.”
Part of following Jesus is learning how to pop that bubble, both in our minds and in our experiences. Because if we don’t pop those bubbles and have a willingness to learn, we miss out on what God is doing now and where He actually is. We miss out on that bread from heaven that he wants to give to us, or we can’t hear the voices that we need to hear.
I’m sure at least most of us can remember hearing a sermon or two or dozens about how the past had everything right. But another danger about idolizing the past is that it seems to isolate the people who need to hear that there is a future. What’s unique about the Anabaptist tradition is that there’s an underlying invitation to live in the present moment in the Kingdom of God that is continually unfolding. It’s an emphasis that we know that Jesus has already had the final word on the things that break our world today.
A dormant faith is a faith that thinks God is absent because things seemed better in the past. And ultimately, that’s what makes so many people miss who Jesus was when His ministry began. We find several times in the Gospels where people didn’t understand the full depth of Jesus’ message because they were too focused on preserving the past instead of letting God work something new.
Something I noticed about working in rural Kansas and Wisconsin was that there is a deep attachment to the past, and in some ways that is a strength. Traditions are important, and history can be a great motivator to keep things going. However, there are some things that should pass away to allow new ways for God to work.
There was a revival meeting back in Kansas I was invited to preach at. I was about 21 years old and I had a regular preaching position at a small Free Methodist church. I thought a revival would look cool, so I decided to participate. There were five other pastors there, all much more fundamentalist than me. But I was given the opportunity to be the one that offers people to come up to the altar to accept Christ. I sat in the background and tried to hid how intimidated I was by all these fundamentalist preachers yelling behind the pulpit. When it came my turn, I gave a short message about grace and God’s forgiveness and then I looked out at the crowd: “Would anyone like to accept Christ tonight?”
There was dead silence. No hands were raised. Nothing was happening.
I sat back down and the last pastor ended with a prayer.
I asked one of them if that was normal.
“Yeah,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone come to the Lord at one of these things in ten years. We just keep doing them because the community likes remembering the old days when this was more normal. Sometimes a congregant will switch churches though.”
On the drive home, I couldn’t help but think of how odd that was. But isn’t that the way it really is often when we idealize the past to the detriment of what we could be doing now?
So what’s the solution to this? It seems that God offers it later on in this chapter.
In Exodus 16:23-25, it says:
Moses said to them, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. But you can set aside and keep all the leftovers until the next morning.’” So they set the leftovers aside until morning, as Moses had commanded. They didn’t stink or become infested with worms. The next day Moses said, “Eat it today, because today is a Sabbath to the Lord. Today you won’t find it out in the field. Six days you will gather it. But on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be nothing to gather.”
God’s solution to this was to have them remember the Sabbath.
In other words, God was inviting them to rest in who He is and to pause everything they’ve been doing. Rest is often the solution to the anxieties and worries we face in this world. A common thing I’ve heard around therapy circles is that rest is 50% of mental health. If you’re finding yourself in this rut that things can’t possibly get any better, remember what God promises us and also remember that God is with you in the mess and He isn’t judging you for it. But just remember: Jesus has the final word, and there is beauty and redemption to be found still.
The everyday invitation of God to see things differently is always there - to experience Him in a way that is fresh and real. But part of that is accepting that Jesus has already conquered everything you’ve been through and deal with. All of that was nailed on the cross. And in His resurrection, we see a promised future - that even if things may not work out today or in this life, someday God will make things right.
As the author of Hebrews so eloquently puts it in chapter 12:1-2: “So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”
By all means, remember the way we were - the good, the bad, the ugly of it all. But don’t forget to look forward to the way we will be, because that is something that Jesus looks forward to celebrating with us. And friends, what a day that will be - when every tear is wiped away and every injustice made right. A day of rejoicing and peace will visit us, and we can see glimpses of that in our everyday lives. Hold onto those promises, participate actively in the Kingdom of God, and you will see them come true too.
When I lived in Wisconsin, I briefly attended a writing group that met in a small library. There was an older man there who brought his knitting needles and yarn to every meeting.
I figured he wrote wholesome poetry or was there to cheer people along when I first met him.
When it was time to share stories, he cleared his throat, put his needles down, and passed around his story.
My jaw dropped as he read one of the most graphic horror stories I think I've ever read. I'm not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but this made my eyes widen.
Everyone around the table was nodding their heads in approval, as if this was a normal Tuesday night for them. Like the entire room's posture was: "Yes, bestie, the same mind that makes light blue winter scarfs is also the same mind that created this story about cannibalism. He's also a beloved grandpa. This is normal here. This is Madison. We do this."
After we offered feedback, he pleasantly smiled and picked up his knitting needles again and went to work. I could tell whether or not he liked someone's story by whether or not he put down the needles as he listened. While I didn't stay at that meeting, I still think about him sometimes.
Truth be told, I was envious of his confidence to just knit in public and that he found a hobby that suited him so well - damning both unused free time and gender norms in a swift click of the knitting needle. Even in the writing community around Chicago, I haven't found someone with nearly that same kind of confidence and self-acceptance. What a guy.
I started thinking about more hobbies I could add in my free time. My doctorate ends soon, and I'm imagining my life without being a student. It's freeing thought, but I've also realized I was given a unique opportunity to explore things I've been putting off. And one of those things has been sketching and art, which I stopped doing when I was eleven when I found out I was a good writer. I won a short story context about Santa quitting Christmas, and the rest is history.
This was also inspired from a documentary I saw about one of my favorite writers, Hubert Selby Jr.
Hubert is a unique writer. He uses slashes instead of apostrophes, and writes according to a ryhthm. He didn't care about proper punctuation or grammar. He wrote as he felt it.
Here is a glimpse into that style from Requiem for a Dream:
“You see, you have feelings. You can appreciate the inner me. Like right now I feel a closeness between us that Ive never felt with anyone before … anyone. Yeah, I know what you mean. Thats how I feel. I don’t know if I can put it into words, but— Thats just it, it doesnt need words. Thats the whole point. Like whats the use of all those words when the feelings arent behind them. Theyre just words. Like I can look at a painting and tell it, youre beautiful. What does it mean to the painting? But Im not a painting. Im not two dimensional. Im a person. Even a Botticelli doesnt breathe and have feelings. Its beautiful, but its still a painting. No matter how beautiful the outside may be, the inside still has feelings and needs that just words dont fulfill.”
Hubert became a writer after a near death experience and decided to dedicate his life to a new goal. A devout Christian in drug recovery, he decided to use his own work to graphically, and bluntly, write about his experiences growing up in Brooklyn. His work shocked audiences everywhere as he revealed a side of the world that nobody really paid attention to.
He was an eighth grade dropout with no serious goals, other than to just write what he felt.
And he made his own rules as he went along.
When it comes to writing, a lot of people have made the comment to me that they wish they could write well. But the truth is, the only way to really write well is to first write. Most of the time, I carried around this impression that I wasn't a good artist because I believed that it was another inherent skill. Howevever, I have realized since that everything done with skill is something that needs to be practiced over and over again.
I started drawing again tonight while watching some Youtube tutorials. They're laughably bad. But I'm having a good time learning, and that's all that matters.
If there's a hobby you've been putting off or a dream that you think you can't do because you think you won't be good at it, the truth is you won't be good... at first. Practice means everything. And while I'm looking at my sketchbook now and laughing hysterically, I know perhaps there will be a day when I will know halfway what I'm doing. And that'll be awesome.
Be like Hubert. Do what's on your heart and let it flow from there. Be like that guy at that writing meeting who knits and don't care what other people think. Be a legend.
(If you want to see that documentary on Hubert, click here. It's free, and narrated by Robert Downey Jr. You can't lose!)
Photo: Sinan Antoon's professor page.
I have a huge heart for the Middle East. If I didn't feel that God wanted me stateside, I would be serving in either Palestine or Iraqi Kurdistan with my hippie friends. I spent a lot of my high school years around the Palestinian community in Denver, and I increasingly grew fascinated with Middle East culture and politics. I visited Kurdistan in September of 2017 during their referendum for independence, and it's forever a special place to me. While I know I will be back to visit some day, poetry and prose from the Middle East has been a way for me to visit the region in my heart now. So far, my favorite writer to come from this part of the world is Sinan Antoon.
Antoon is a scholar, novelist, poet, and translator who works for New York University. He graduated from the University of Baghadad and made his way to both Georgetown University and Harvard. He currently teaches Arabic fiction courses, as well as other Middle Eastern cultural studies.
My minimalist style borrows a lot from writers like Jay McInerney and Cormac McCarthy, but I like to think the way I explore emotion and the impact of trauma was something I borrowed from him. It's an absolute crime he is not more well known among western audiences. A great place to start to read him would be the two novels that wrecked me most - The Baghdad Eucharist and The Corpse Washer.
The first one, The Baghdad Eucharist, is about a Christian family reflecting on their heritage during the rise of ISIS. The second one, The Corpse Washer, is about a young man caught between wanting to be an artist and following the spiritual path of corpse washing according to Shi'a traditions during the Iraq War.
What is compelling about Antoon's work is that it shows the devastating effects of war, but somehow he combines themes of redemption, spirituality, romance, and despair. He shows the worst and best of humanity in times of crisis in a way that is fresh to my own western perspective. If you've ever wondered what it was like to be caught in the crossfire of war or conflict, his work shows the complexity of emotions involved for people who weren't directly involved in the wars.
For instance, the grandfather in The Baghdad Eucharist longs for the days where Saddam Hussein has a friendlier attitude towards Christians. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Hussein was a monster. But what makes the feeling complex is that the grandfather longs for the days where he felt safer because the dictator didn't focus on his own ethnic-religious group. A lot of westerners don't seem to understand that Hussein had a complex relationship with Christians, going as far as to donate $500,000 to a Chaldean Catholic church in Detroit.
Antoon invites us into a seemingly dangerous emotion to feel. For most westerners, this a feeling that is largely alien. We have never been put into a position of being forced to be politically neutral for our own survival. Adeed Dawisha, a professor at the University of Miami, shares: “Under Saddam, it was understood that if you don’t interfere in politics, then you are provided with a good life... If the Christians supported Saddam, not because they loved what he was doing, it was the fear of the alternative." (source)
During this time, Saddam was leading a genocide campaign against the Kurds with weapons bought from the United States. There were concentration camps set up to eliminate people who rose up against the regime. To this day, Kurds are still being discriminated against and oppressed by the Iraqi regional government - and now the Christians have been thrown into that bunch as well due to the elimination of Saddam. The Iraq War directly contributed to the ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle East. While I was there, a comment was made to me that: "During Saddam, there was just one dictator. After Saddam, there are a thousand."
There are layers to this too. That's not even going into the historic cultural tensions between Syriac Christians and Kurds due to the Armenian and Syriac genocides. Whenever there is a consistent history of colonialism and oppression, you can count on layered cultural conflicts.
What Antoon does brilliantly is capture those complexities and makes them understandable for an American like me. I don't walk away from the writing ignorant. Rather, I walk away with a deeper appreciation for the fragility and beauty of life.
This type of storytelling could only come from someone like an Iraqi writer. I still will flip through those novels whenever I am looking for an emotion that is hard to describe. The depth and journey of the characters is one I could not personally go on, but I have learned to the empathize and grow alongside them.
If a writer's duty is to tell and show the truth painfully, then Antoon has done his job - and he has done it well. I look forward to reading more of his work as it gets translated and released.
(Side note: Antoon also helped to translate Mahmoud Darwish's poetry book Unfortunately, It Was Paradise - one of my favorite poetry collections ever.)