Excerpt “Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy”

Copyrighted Material

The car did it.

That green and white 1958 Ford Custom two-door sedan that uncle Amado bought for three hundred dollars with money saved through grocery store coupons has changed my life unexpectedly.

It has unleashed the Void.

Suddenly, Amado and his wife and daughters can go places.  Which means that I often come home to an empty house, because they love to do everything together, even if it’s only a trip to the A & P for a dozen eggs.

And when I come home to an empty house, the Void pounces on me immediately.

I try fighting it off, but it always gets the best of me.  Telling it that the house will be swarming with people soon doesn’t distract it.  Nothing does.  When I walk through the door and find myself alone in the house, all of my defenses against Absolute Absence evaporate instantly.

Pow. I’m knocked out in a flash.

Instant replay, each and every time.  It’s an emotional and spiritual endless loop, an eternal Now moment of the sort no one wants to have.  Absolute Absence, absolute pain….

the same thing keeps happening.  I come home to an empty house and I’m toast.  And every time it happens, the Void has an ever greater effect on me.  Pretty soon I’ll be burnt to a crisp, or worse.  I’ll be nothing but carbon atoms dispersing in all directions in the vacuum of space at the speed of light.

There has to be some way to beat this.  But how?

The idolater in me, the superstitious troglodyte, whispers:
“Pssst. How about that book that’s supposed to have an answer for every question.  The one your derelict parents forced you to bring along?”

Yeah, sure.  All previous attempts to obtain divine guidance from that chamber of horrors had been irredeemable failures.  That book was nothing but a source of fright and despair.

But my pain is so great, I’ll try just about anything.  Even this superstitious game, which, as experience has taught me time and time again, is not only futile, but always to be regretted.

So I open The Imitation of Christ at random, and my eyes spot a passage that says:
“Be prepared for the fight, then, if you wish to gain the victory…. If you desire to be crowned, fight bravely and bear up patiently. Without labor there is no rest, and without fighting, no victory.”

I’m astonished.  For the first time ever, this book is speaking to me, and what it says makes sense.  This has to be a fluke.

So I put the wretched text to the test again.  I flip the pages back and forth, back and forth, and settle on a spot towards the back of the book.

Another passage that makes sense.  No way.  This, too, is mere coincidence.  One more time.  I flip the pages back and forth and find yet another text that speaks to me.  This is too weird.  Maybe there’s something to this book, after all.  Maybe?  Just maybe?

Slightly unnerved by this thought, I put the book away, determined not to pick it up again anytime soon.

And the next thing I know I’m not just opening it at random, but reading it from front to back, little by little.  The more sense it makes, the more I read and the more confused I get.  What’s wrong with me?  This is crazy.  Maybe I’m crazy?  How can everything I’ve feared for so long now seem incredibly sweet, and so much like the key that unlocks all of the secrets of the universe?  Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.  Not even close to it.  Nothing has flipped on me so completely as this book.

Things are what they are.  What you see is what you get.   Pain is pain.  Evil is evil.  Ugliness is ugliness.  An iguana is an ugly-ass lizard, perhaps even a proof that God can’t exist, or that if he does, then he’s far from all Good.  An iguana can’t suddenly turn into Marilyn Monroe or Perfect Peggy in Mr. Noden’s class.

Then how is it that this awful book has pulled this trick on me?  Since when do self-denial, abject humility, self-emptying, devotion to a crucified God, and detachment from the world equal happiness?  Since when does abstinence gain you anything but frustration?

I read the book gingerly at first, much like someone on the bomb squad might handle an explosive device.  But before long I am deeply immersed in it, and nodding in agreement, even with the most repulsive of passages, which ask me to embrace suffering, and to hanker for a cross like those of Jesus and Spartacus.

No way. 

Years from now I’ll read about Buddhist monks who are brought to sudden enlightenment when they’re struck on the back of the head with a plank by their more advanced elders, as they meditate on illogical propositions. And I’ll know what that blow to the head must feel like, more or less.  I had no elder to whack me, but I did have a book that did exactly the same thing.

Everything changes, from top to bottom.  A veil rips, loudly, and light pours through, and nothing looks the same.  For the first time in my life I feel as if I’m master of my own destiny, not because I think more highly of myself, but just the opposite.  Accepting my own limitations is key.  So is accepting it as an unquestionable fact that some higher power is eager to help me overcome whatever the world throws at me, both from without and within.

It’s close to Easter.  My mind is reeling and so are my heart and my will.  I’m in Bizarro world now, where everything is the opposite of what it should be.  I’m no longer who I was two months before, and neither is the world itself.

Jagged is smooth.  Bitter is sweet.  Sorrow is Joy.  Dark is light.  Black is white.
The unseen illumines what’s seen.
Absurdity rescues logic.
Love of self leads to anguish.
Self-loathing leads to elation.
Abstinence becomes the highest thrill of all.
Praying becomes the only conversation that makes sense.
Believing becomes as natural and unstoppable as breathing.
Doubting becomes as unsurprising as exhaling.
Forgiving becomes the only sensible option.
Temptation drops its mask.
Remorse claims its crown.
Loss loses its sting.
Pain gains its wings.
Now becomes forever.  Forever begins now, forever.

Slowly, ever so haltingly, I catch fleeting glimpses of  Something so awesome that Carlos, Charles, Charlie and Chuck all feel compelled to bow before It,  thank It, and trust It without reservation.  This response is a physical reflex, not just a spiritual one.  Bowing, kneeling, prostrating oneself is as involuntary before It as closing one’s eyes to the full light of the sun.

Holy Thursday.  I come home, and the house is empty.  I stare at Corn
Belt Jesus, hanging there, above my uncle’s empty chair.  It’s late afternoon, and the fast-sinking sun is shining through the dining room windows.  It’s a weird sort of light, for there are  dark clouds out there, closing in on the sun, ominously.  The kind of clouds that usually prompt  tornado warnings.

The fear I’ve had for so long about being alone rises in me, in a savage rush.  I feel the Void about to pounce.  I know its ways all too well, and can sense it approaching, faster than the speed of light.

“Dukes up.”

Before I can do anything, in a flash, a Presence fills the room, and expands it to the size of the entire universe.  Light streams in.  The Void crashes into this Presence, and evaporates, instantly, in the blinding glow.  The force of the impact throws me off balance, physically, and hurls me to the ground, on my knees, right there, by my uncle’s chair, under Protestant Jesus, sweet Midwestern Christ, ever so human and infinite and present.  As I gaze at him, the god-damned Void hisses and spits and sputters and vanishes.

This is no mere knockout, I think.  This is some sort of annihilation.  Way to go.

It will take me several years to figure out what happened there, in that living room.  But I know for sure, as I rise from the floor, that I’ve just died again and that nothing can ever be the same.  I also know that this new life will be much better than any of those that preceded it.  Not because it’ll be less painful from now on, but because the pain will make perfect sense, and even seem like a beautiful gift from that Presence I felt today, for the first time.

Good Friday.  It’s good, really good.  Really, really.  For the first time ever.

Easter Sunday.  Now, finally, I understand what Easter is.  Resurrection was an empty word before.  Now it makes all the awful things look bright, even the very worst, such as each and every crucifix.

I no longer need to fear Absence again, or so I think.   But I have a lot to learn, yet.

Flash forward two years, exactly.  Spring, 1967.  I’m now living in Chicago, with my mother and Tony.

I’ve spent the past two months re-reading The Imitation of Christ, slowly, methodically absorbing everything it has to say.  Whatever effect that book had on me the first time around seems like a surface scratch on my soul compared to the nearly total immolation that’s taken place this time.  I’m on fire.  It’s not just because I’m older and have more deaths and rebirths  behind me, but also because this time around, I’ve also followed the book’s  instructions carefully and read the four gospels in the New Testament too.  I’ve gone straight to the source, and what I’ve found there has blown me away.  I’d been hearing snippets every week at church since infancy, but I’d never paid too much attention to those texts, and their power.   Not even after I first saw the light two years earlier.

If you’re going to imitate someone, especially a Savior, you should at least read the few sacred texts in which his words and deeds are recorded.

Now, everything changes, again.  Whatever I knew has been eclipsed, overpowered by a much brighter light, much like a tiny candle in a room that is suddenly filled with brilliant sunshine.  And that metaphor doesn’t even begin to cover the change that’s taken place in me.  Words fail.  Every metaphor fails.  If nothing like this has ever happened to you, no amount of explaining will help.  It’s a lot like trying to describe colors to a blind person.   Try explaining green, in all its shades.  And all the other colors too.  Good luck.

If you’ve ever fallen deeply in love with anyone, however, you may be able to understand.  How does one put that into words?  Poets have been failing at it since the dawn of time.

And my great good fortune this Lenten season is that I’m falling in love in two ways at once, with a higher Presence who demands total surrender, and with the girl who sits right next to me in history class, who demands nothing but my constant and total enthrallment.  The gospel burns me, incinerates me.  This blonde girl does the same, but not so totally.  She can’t. My bad luck is that these two kinds of love don’t mix too well, especially when the girl’s a senior and you’re nothing but a sophomore, and you only see her for forty minutes, five days a week, in the tightly-controlled environment of a history class.

As I see it, the gulf between me and God is much narrower than the one that exists between me and this perfect girl, even though she sits less than two feet away from me.

So I do all I can do, given the circumstances, I yield totally to both kinds of love, and hope for the best.  And in both dimensions, I’m on fire like Moses’s burning bush, always aflame, but never consumed.

My daily life changes most radically in the spiritual dimension, where my contact with higher things is not limited to forty minutes, five days a week.  I start to attend Mass every morning before school, and to pray constantly whenever I can, filling every minute, every second with a certain kind of mental conversation that Dr. Freud and most of his disciples would diagnose as pathological, delusional obsessive-compulsiveness of the worst sort, but Doctor Jung and other experts would not.  I also embrace fasting during Lent with all of the discipline of an Olympic athlete, and once Lent is over, I find it impossible to let go of that kind of letting go. The more I relinquish my will, the easier it becomes to tame it, the greater the peace I feel.  I vow total surrender.

Ay.  This surrender is harder than I thought.  Giving up food and drink is one thing.  But giving up the way this girl Christine makes me feel is impossible, despite the searing holy pain that comes with it.   She is so beautiful, and so smart, and so, so funny, so….so…so everything.  Name it: if it’s something good, she’s got it in spades.   If only she weren’t two whole grades ahead of me, I might have a chance to spend time with her outside of class.

Yeah, sure.  Dream on.

I have no chance with her, I know, but I surrender to her all the same, inside, and ride the huge tsunami that’s sweeping me away in the spiritual dimension.  What’s the use of opening up to her, of trying to spend more time with her?  I really should let go.  I should be a monk.  Yes, definitely.  Or maybe a priest.

I’ve got to sort out this dilemma.

So I talk to my pastor, Monsignor Picard.  I tell him I’m torn between God and this girl.  He advises me to enroll in Quigley Seminary, a high school run by the Archdiocese of Chicago in which boys my age are fast-tracked into the priesthood.  He writes down the address on a piece of paper and gives it to me, much as a doctor hands a prescription to a patient.

“Go there as soon as you can,” he says.

I carry this prescription with me on the subway all the way to the gates of the seminary, which happens to be wedged against Chicago’s nightclub district, Rush Street.  I stand at the gates and peer into the courtyard.  Pure, heavenly gothic.  Every detail directs your attention upwards and inwards and beyond.   I look at the piece of paper in my hand, at the perfectly symmetrical stone tracery of the rose window, the large doors, the soot and grime that has settled on the imposing façade, the spires, the skyscrapers that surround it and dwarf it, and my hands begin to tremble. Then my whole body feels as if it’s being squashed from above, below, and all sides, like a grape in a winepress.  An overwhelming feeling I can’t recognize surges from somewhere inside of me, and takes over.

It’s not fear.  It’s not indecision.  It’s a certainty I’ve never had before, ever.  It’s as if an invisible hand is pushing me away, and a silent booming voice is telling me to scram.  This is not for you.  This isn’t your calling.  Go home, go back to Senn High School.  There are other paths, many others, and yours is out there, waiting for you.  It will call to you.  Wait.

So I run away, literally, back to the subway, as if I’m fleeing a raging fire or an avalanche, and I head back north to my unholy neighborhood, Edgewater, where I belong.

It’s in history class, sitting next to Christine, that I will find my path.  Gradually, it becomes clear to me as the days lengthen, the air warms up, and the trees begin to bud, and Christine becomes ever lovelier, that I need to be a historian and a teacher, and that my focus should be the history of my own religion.  That’s why I’m on earth.  Nothing anyone will say to me over the next ten years will dissuade me from following that path I see stretching before me, so nice and narrow and straight.

As for my path towards Christine, well, it’s also very clear, unfortunately.  Dead end.  She graduates, at the summit of her class. College bound.  I have two more years of high school ahead of me.  That’s it. Adios.

All I can do is savor each and every day and repeat my mantra: Let go. Let go. Let go.

When that awful last day comes around, I wangle a ticket to the graduation ceremony, and say goodbye, good luck.  And so does she.  We go our separate ways.  Oddly, though, her absence only intensifies the feelings I have for her, and I’m mystified by this. How can it be so impossible to let go of someone who isn’t there at all?

Years later, St. John of the Cross will explain it all to me in his poems.

And sometime in 1978…  my path seems to come to an abrupt dead end. Whoa.  Nothing but tangled brush and a dark heavy jungle ahead.  And this choking nightmare forest envelops me, quickly swallowing up the brightly-lit path I followed, which dead-ends as painfully as my time with Christine.  All around, everywhere I look there’s nothing but a stinking, vine-strangled jungle on all sides, and I have no compass to follow or sharp-edged tools with which to clear it.  I can’t find a teaching job.  My marriage falls apart.  I lose interest in everything I’d once loved, including history.  I’ve stopped praying.  No one to talk to anymore, as I see it.  No Presence.  Just more sucker punches from the Void, now and then.   And when I finally do find a job, it’s at the edge of the world, in Nowhere, Minnesota.

All I have left to like is long-distance running, and I take that up with the same passion I had once reserved for prayer. I run therefore I am.

Flash forward to June 1980.   I’m now twice as old as I was when I came home on that Holy Thursday back in 1965.  I’ve been teaching in Nowhere and frequenting the Buckhorn Bar far too often.  I’ve given up on letting go.  Forget it.  Evanescent beauty is all I seek, for that’s all that cheers me and all I’m certain of.

Soul mate, schmoul mate.   Sure.  Dream on.  There’s no such thing.  A path?  Maybe for some, but not for me.  God?  Yeah, sure.  He definitely exists.  But only on my terms.

I’m in Paris, traveling alone, living like a bum.  I don’t have a hotel at which to stay tonight, but I couldn’t care less.  It’s a sunny day in June, and Paris is as heartbreakingly full of itself as when it’s grey and cold and damp.  The weather never makes a difference here.  Nothing makes a difference.  Paris is what it is.  Too much.

Way too much.

I’m sitting on the ground, my back against a tree.  I’m  in the Square du Vert Galant, a small park at the western tip of the Île de la Cité, which looks and feels just like the prow of a ship.  The Seine River flows at my right and my left and meets up to form one stream directly ahead of me as it runs undivided under the Pont des Arts.  I’ve been writing letters and post cards for hours, drawing pictures in them, and taking in the scenery, reflecting on how strange it is that this place I’ve never visited before should feel so much like home, and more so than any other spot on earth.  I feel rooted, for the very first time in ages, and more firmly anchored to this tiny island, here, than I ever felt to that large lizard-shaped island where I was born.

I suspect my late father Louis XVI has something to do with this.

I feel tendrils extending from the core of my soul, growing, burrowing into the soil beneath me, swiftly and doggedly branching out in all directions,  reaching down, down, to the core of the earth itself.   I don’t ever want to leave, and vow to stay put.  To hell with that teaching job in Minnesota.  I’ll work as a street sweeper here, if I have to.

Yet, I don’t know a soul in this city, and the locals stubbornly refuse to understand the way I speak their language.  If the Void really wanted to do me in, it could do it right here, in this strange place where I’m more alone than I’ve ever been.  It could drive me mad with Absence, push me into the Seine and drown me, as it’s done with many a forlorn lover.

“Come and get me,” I whisper, in English. “I dare you.”

Nothing.

The air is perfectly still.  The harmonious din of Paris reverberates down here, so near the water.  It’s as if all of the sound waves tumble down to this spot because they feel as much at home here as I do.   I try to detect the presence of my dead father, the one-time decapitated King of France, who may or may not have enjoyed being in Paris again.  He’s not here.  Absent, as always, despite his profound influence.

“Dukes up, bitch,” I whisper, again. “I double dare you.”

Nothing.

Instead, the Presence that first banished the Void from my life years ago quietly begins to snip away all the tendrils that had just sprung from the core of my soul.   Silently, wordlessly, It severs each and every one of these fast-growing roots and forces me to stand up and walk away.  Snip, snip, snip.  I hear no voices, I see no apparitions, but I know that It is everywhere and has always been and will always be, especially in that spot deep within me that had tried to root itself in this one place.  How I know this, I don’t know.  But I’m as certain of this Presence and Its boundlessness and Its nearness as I am of the fact that I’m right smack in the middle of Paris, walking up the steps to the Pont Neuf, headed for the locker at the train station where I’ve crammed my duffle bag.

It doesn’t need to speak at all.  It doesn’t have to say “let go.”   I already know this, just as I know that the Void will stalk me for life, but never prevail.  I reach for a passage I first read a long time ago in a certain book, which is etched into my memory, somewhere in there.

With my third eye I search for that text in my Vault of Remembering.  I see Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  They hand me a small brown book engulfed in flames, and hurl me across a turquoise sea to a strange and wondrous land, as they cry a river of tears wider and deeper and murkier than the Seine.  I open the burning book at random and read the text in question, which, curiously, is no longer in Spanish:

“He who knows best how to let go will enjoy the greater peace, because he is the conqueror of himself, the master of the world, and an heir of heaven.”

The flames from this passage leap up and scorch all the stubble left behind by the severed tendrils.  The light is blinding.  The fumes are sublime.  And the pain is absolutely exquisite.

Heavenly.