I‘M DOING A CLEANSE,” Odin says. “Me and Mara. Just broth all day.” We’re standing at the corner of Grant and Polk by city hall in San Francisco, waiting for our ride to the Headlands where we will meet DT and do the vernal equinox ritual—“I know of a sacred tree,” he’d said, “at Rodeo Beach; I want you, Odin, and Wells to come—I’ll lead us.”
As far as I know, it will just involve nature, mark the first day of spring. Fine with me. I feel most at home outside anyway. And unlike my past church groups, there’s no dread of commitment—I can do this thing and bail if it does nothing for me.
Odin exhales, juggling his blue cell phone, shifting his head to watch for Wells. He does look thinner than the last time I saw him. He befriended me when I first moved to California from the East Coast seven months ago, days after I turned thirty. Since then I’ve been a waiter, a house-sitter two times over; I’ve worked as a temp in the largest gun shop in the West, taking inventory of which snub-nosed guns were needed by San Quentin prison guards, and which ones were needed by a Mr. Martinez, living in Martinez. All of California’s novelty: tofutti treats, girls eager to share with me their deepest secrets before they knew my name, sun in January, the brilliance of the bay, the tool-lending library in South Berkeley—the wonder of all that has worn off, evaporated.
“My toxins are gone, but my brain’s going, too,” Odin laughs. His hair is also going, I notice—he’s shaved it close to his skull, so that his eyes bug out more than usual. When Odin does something, he goes all the way. Vipasana meditation retreats at Spirit Rock—weeklong, no talking. Predawn sun salutes on a mountain to greet the New Year.
Odin is a Dude, and, by association, so am I. The other Dudes—all eight of them—are older than I am. The Dudes have done things. DT has trekked into the jungles of the Amazon to seek visions with medicine men; Wells is ten years my senior, our social director, knows all the single women in San Francisco. And Odin, well, he is the guy who knows each of us one way or the other, who sent out an email in October of 2003 to suggest we go see Jack Black’s School of Rock flick. I missed that one. We’ve not yet been able to assemble all at once. Some of us get together every month or so and jam on guitars, make sex jokes. They don’t seem to mind that I am the only Christian among them.
I recently moved into the Salvatorian House of Studies in Oakland, part of a Catholic religious order, because I was broke and homeless. No matter that I’m not Catholic. My rent covers food, utilities, and a private bathroom. I just have to cook a weekly meal for the two fifty-something Salvatorian men living there. When Wells heard I was subletting a room from them, he dubbed me “Monk.” “Dudes, let’s go over to Monk’s house and get down,” he said. It’s either “Monk” or “JC.”
The Salvatorians share a weekly mass with me, too. I don’t mind. The ritual reminds me of my Episcopalian roots, a dutiful gesture to my past.
I have prayed on my own. Cracked open the red Book of Common Prayer, found the right day and lectionary year, picked out a few words like talismans, like friends, then repeated them on the in and out breaths, kneeling on a prayer stool in front of the bank of windows in the Oakland apartment building’s chapel in the morning. Through the thick glass panes, I could see the Bay Bridge zigzagging to Treasure Island, then the Transamerica Pyramid building in the city piercing the sky.
But I want something different. And the Dudes, they are different.
Wells zips up a minute later in his Outback, slows down just enough for us to pile in, acknowledges us with a lift of his eyebrows, then jams his right foot, big and hairy in a flip-flop, onto the gas pedal and charges down Divisadero and up the hill toward the Golden Gate, straight into the blazing sun. Wells is funny, and a bit angry. Maybe it’s the red hair. He used to be an Episcopalian. He looks it: Waspy, patrician, the right clothes, tongue-in-cheek humor. I first met him in Odin’s living room—he paced the floor of the rambling triple-decker house, laughing in short barks, and trained his laser-blue eyes on me. “So what are you doing here?” he asked.
In the summer of 1987, I was fourteen, one of seventy-eight boys who processed every Sunday into Camp Pasquaney’s outdoor chapel in white shirts and ties and gray shorts with blue stripes down the sides, long blue socks hiked up over our calves. In the shadow of New Hampshire’s Plymouth Mountain, we sat on wooden benches built among the trees and stared at the pine needles under our feet, bronze like fire. The director, Mr. Gem-John, led us in the recitation of the General Thanksgiving from the Episcopal Church’s 1928 Prayer Book: “that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days….”
In my father’s family, men had taken the General Thanksgiving to the ultimate level. One of them, Melancthon Jacobus, a New Testament scholar and Presbyterian minister at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, died suddenly at his desk as he prepared his sermon in 1876 (“From where he daily climbed to the topmost round of Jacob’s ladder,” his admirers later gushed in a published memoriam, “he stepped directly into heaven”). Gordon Hall, a Presbyterian minister in upstate New York, literally preached himself to death in 1879; according to the family genealogy, “he was forced to relinquish the service when drops of blood fell from his mouth on to the hymnal.” My grandfather Henry Callard, a prep school headmaster in Baltimore, stoked the school boiler and patrolled the grounds for trash during World War II (the “gentle elder in the rumpled suit seemed less an administrator than a walking conscience,” an alum later wrote).
I carried the General Thanksgiving’s words within me like DNA, and not without some pride—these values created great men, I thought, half-saints even. I was descended from them in apostolic succession. Perhaps I, too, was meant to be admired by others for my behavior, my conscience. But at other times, its words weighed heavily.
I spent my twenties in Boston living in fear of my own mind, ever since I had been hospitalized for depression at age sixteen. Before heading west I was a churchy guy—seminarian, young adult worship leader, choir member. People urged me to get ordained. But what I wanted most was to feel as I had felt before I’d entered the hospital, to feel like a child—whole, unbroken, strong, “free.” Wearing a collar around my neck and bowing to a bishop did not appeal to me. My own burdens mixing with others’? Could I even bear this?
And yet. “Your vocation is your medication,” a friend said to me once. If I figured out what I was supposed to do in life, then my depression would dissolve into the greased track of a calling—I’d no longer need to take Effexor and Zoloft together or separately, Welbutrin either, or Seroquel at night, Ativan or Xanax to calm me down. I would not need to keep a mood chart, track side-effects. If this was what God wanted me to do, perhaps depression descended from ignoring it—and God.
I started asking about “discernment”—a word people in the diocese threw around in the elevator as they climbed to the fifth floor to speak with the bishop about how God was calling them to serve the church. A word that swung back and forth like a gate: on one side, the congregation; on the other, the clergy, the ones who felt compelled to wear the collar.
I went to the Episcopal Diocese’s Discernment Day in deep December, months before I left for California. I stepped into the basement of Boston’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and a large Jamaican man, a former Jesuit who fell in love with an Italian woman, described God unpacking him like a Russian doll. Something broke open inside me. Unpack me, God. Tell me what you want me to do.
And God said, get out of here.
In August of 2003, I fled Boston, the General Thanksgiving, my family, and the church and arrived in the Bay Area with four thousand dollars and no job, clutching a walking stick I had found in the Sierras and scanning the Budget Rent-a-Car lot in Berkeley for a guy named Bill, whose cat I was to care for in exchange for a roof.
Where my pursuit of God had once meant donning a purple choir robe and worshipping with others in the cathedral on Sunday mornings, now, God was my only other congregant, and my church was the outdoors. If I got silent, and got alone, God would come creeping along—through the wind that ripped a page out of my Bible as I paced the beach at sunset at the Point Reyes National Seashore, or in the form of a deer on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley one night after I finished waiting tables—like a horse it clomped suddenly across someone’s porch, and I swore it was a sign.
God was in my writing, in the words I wrote to God in my journal. I’d be God’s free agent, not bound by the church.
I wanted a God for the twenty-first century, a God with no additives or preservatives, a free-range God who lived among those who did not even profess God’s name, among real people who did not go to seminary or wear a collar or kowtow to a bishop. Perhaps God lived among the Dudes.
Wells blasts Olu Dara on the car speakers. I’d never heard Dara’s music until I met the Dudes. His name is Nigerian (Yoruba for “God is good”), but he was born in Natchez; he played jazz cornet, but stepped to African highlife music, sang with his rapper son Nas. To me, steeped in white-bread classic rock—CSNY, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin—Dara was like the Dudes—exotic, otherworldly.
Your lips, your lips, your lips, your lips, are juicy. Mmm-mmm.
Twangy guitars, bongos, a trumpet. As he drives, Wells chatters to someone else through the headpiece dangling past his ear.
Odin is on a headpiece too, riding shotgun, talking to some hot Hawaiian woman he used to have a thing for. I’d met her once. She lived in a loft in Cole Valley. Big eyelashes, played the ukulele. Your lips are juicy!
We hit the Golden Gate Bridge and the temperature suddenly drops. The tires hum. Outside the window, fog rises like smoke from a growing fire. How far would we go on this ritual? Would it just be a drug-fest? These guys smoke pot. I smoked with them once, watched my mind fall into my mouth, felt my teeth expand and forests grow in my throat as I crashed on Wells’s living room floor at two in the morning. I’d stopped taking antidepressants due to side-effects. After years of pharmaceuticals, no more mind fucking for me.
“So I’m not digging this girl as deeply, but we’re fooling around anyway, and I feel conflicted,” Wells says. “We all have our animal sides, I guess.” He wears shades. He could be my older brother. The Outback corkscrews up the road into the Marin Headlands.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Odin says. “She’s an adult. She knows what she’s getting into. You don’t owe her your life.”
“I guess there is something ethical about it,” Wells says.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with ethics,” Odin says.
They go back and forth like this, and we keep climbing. The sun is a half ball on the sea.
“What about you, JC?” Odin says to me, peering over the seat.
“I’m stressed,” I say. “Working the two jobs, riding a bike between them each day. It’s affecting my writing.” To them, I am the writer. That’s how I most want them to know me.
I still am not used to their openness. This expected fluidity of talk, of sharing stuff I usually hide, makes me uneasy. I don’t want them to know about the phone sex or the anxiety attack at the Tufts football game after I tried Paxil. Or the years I stuck with my research job cramped in the little green house in Medford because I was worried change would cause me to have a nervous breakdown. Or Amy, the postulant for holy orders whom I met in Boston one summer while I was living in a friend’s dorm room at Episcopal Divinity School. Amy lived right down the hall. We threw ourselves into passion within days. We attended the compline service chanted by the monks at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist; we wrote daily prayers to each other on Post-it notes, slid them under each other’s doors. A month into it, when she wrote that she saw “the Christ” in me, I balked, and FedExed her an overnight letter to her seminary in New York. We’d gone too fast. I had to end things because I was overwhelmed, I said, frightened of losing my focus on figuring out my vocation, fixing my mind. I haven’t dated since.
The Dudes seem open, they don’t judge, but now, as Wells drives past a lagoon and I smell the sea, I don’t want to scare anyone away with my story. I’m scared enough myself.
DT sits waiting for us on a log in the Rodeo Beach parking lot. It’s four, five maybe, but the place is still packed. A flock of boys in sleek black wetsuits, their lips blue, jubilant as seals, fresh from the water, surfboards hanging from their wrists. Men and women in fleeces, their dogs chasing each other. We were sweating in the city, but here everything is overcast and cold.
DT has big shoulders, sports a three-day growth. We’d played pinball a month before on Odin’s birthday at Zeitgeist—this biker bar in the city with hubcaps on the walls. I’d ordered a burger and the chef cooked it and shouted out, “Jonathan, your fuckin’ burger’s ready,” and flipped it off the grill onto my plate.
DT had told me he’d come from Boston too. His mom was a state senator, dad a businessman. He’d headed west to get away from their expectations, to heal himself. He kept talking about his healing. His black hair curled around his face, which kept splitting into a wide smile, huge white teeth, as the Drive-By Truckers chugged through their latest album. We were heathens in their eyes at the time / I guess I’m just a heathen too. We’d both played high school football before getting bad injuries. We’d both starred as lead singers in college rock bands. “We’re both on a journey, JC. This is awesome,” he said in the din of the bar, then wrapped me in a bear hug, enfolding me in his huge lambswool sweater soaked in sweat.
Now we’re almost running after him, away from the beach and the parking lot and the people. Within twenty-five yards we bang off the trail and climb up toward a high hill and then tumble down into a swamp with vegetation towering above us. Mud and big plants that Odin says are calla lilies. Wells swears in his flip-flops. I watch my boots sink into something like runny shit.
We’re crouching like commandos in the jungle, four soldiers looking to escape the Viet Cong. DT ducks under the branches of a tree that bow all the way to the ground, forming a hollow umbrella shape. He’s been here before, he says, but always on his own.
They said there’d be a full moon tonight, but the sky’s a white sheet, the sun’s dipping down. I want something to hit me straight in the forehead. Maybe this random gathering of guys, devoid of the rote recitation, standing, and kneeling I’ve known, will unleash the sacred.
With my own prayers like latent time bombs ticking from the moment I set them in the chapel of the monks’ apartment, it was only a matter of time, I thought, before whatever the Dudes brought to the ritual would ignite the right thing in me, catch fire. I would burn into a new existence, my salvation saved.
I tear my way through something like Spanish moss dangling in bunches, and at first just see black. We are in a bowl in the ground.
“Welcome brothers,” DT says. He smiles in the darkness. His teeth glint.
The Eucharist is very simple. All you need is bread, wine, and a priest. You can do it anywhere. Three years before the Dudes’ ritual, when the bishop flew seven young adults, including me, from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to San Francisco to get ideas about alternative worship, Jep consecrated a donut. We knelt on the basement floor of the church on Van Ness. Jep, our trip leader and dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, raised a plain sugar donut in the air and broke it in half. Crumbs and sugar crystals trickled onto his lap.
“The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” he said. He blessed orange juice instead of wine. “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” No one objected out loud. Jep was the shit. He had a bushy moustache, thick eyebrows like a Saint Bernard, and punctuated his sentences with the words, “Yeah! Yeah! That’s God! God’s in that!”
I met Jep my freshman year at college, back when he was a chaplain at Boston University. Once, we talked about Jesus, how you could pray and imagine him sitting beside you, talking and listening, as if he were a real person. I pictured a shadowy form crouching intensely like Rodin’s Thinker, head bent toward me, as I spoke my heart.
During our visit to San Francisco in 2001, Jep swung on a rubber bungee harness at Fisherman’s Wharf, bought a whoopee cushion from a Chinese street vendor. He was a Red Sox fan, a Patriots fan. He was married, then divorced. He had a son. I could talk to him about girls, about anything. “Remember,” he told me during one meeting when I was in my early twenties and hating my job. “Jesus didn’t figure out what he was doing until he was thirty.”
Jep always kept the Eucharist chill. Jesus sharing grub with his friends. We could do it, too, and when we did, Jesus was among us. Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you, Jesus says; whenever you eat this, do it in remembrance of me.
“‘Drink this, all of you,’” Jep recited to us on the church basement floor in San Francisco, lifting the carton of Tropicana aloft with both hands. “‘Whenever you drink, remember me.’”
“Protection juice,” DT says. He jiggles a vial from a black pouch.
“To protect you from what?” Odin squawks from across the bowl of mud. He looks foldable in the small Crazy Creek chair.
DT purses his lips. “Whatever you need it for, bro. This work makes you vulnerable.” He hands me the vial. I smear drops of the silver liquid over the bony top of my right shoulder, an old rotator cuff injury from high school lacrosse. Over my face. Under my shirt to cover my chest. The rough physicality of the action delights me. How far I feel from my nine-year-old self, stuffed into a blue blazer on Sunday, the cuffs’ golden buttons clinking against the church balcony.
He lights a stick of cedar. “To purify our time together,” he says. We pass it around, and when it comes to me I wave it in the air in the sign of the cross, remembering the bishop swinging the censer on a golden chain down the cathedral aisle.
DT packs some leaves into a small pipe and lights it. I’m ready to inhale, even if it’s pot. Just this once again.
But it’s sweet. “Apple tobacco,” DT says. As I breathe in the smoke I picture the shamans handing these leaves to him as a gift, welcoming him into the inner circle of the inner circle of the inner circle. Keeping their hearts unclenched, like the Episcopal Church’s Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid….”
I pass the pipe to Wells. “I’ve got virgin lungs,” he cracks as he coughs, sucking from the pipe with his eyes closed.
“I just could not get into the Nicene Creed at church,” he told me once (“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen….”). “Just a bunch of words.” I understood—I knew the creed so well then that I didn’t think of it anymore, just stood and performed, hoping the effort of speaking might please God somehow.
Now, on Sunday mornings, Wells darts across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin for something called Sweat Your Prayers. I’d gone with him once—we danced to Johnny Cash and the Stones for two hours, urged on by a Prince Valiant lookalike who exhorted us to follow the Five Rhythms. It felt like a middle-school dance to me—it actually took place in a middle-school gym—and while I’d bellied up to attractive women, admired the swooshy Thai pants they wore, I’d preferred the end, when we all flopped down on the gym floor, exhausted, and lay in silence.
Wells sits with a group in the city. He says that after the meditation he wants to process what comes up for him, but there is no time. A picture of his mother, who died of cancer, rests on a shelf above rows of self-help books in his apartment.
I’d tried half-heartedly to tell him of my experience with the New Wine young adult worship service in Boston, when we stood around the altar and shared our reactions to poetry we read aloud, or to a Gospel passage. Antidotes to loneliness. But I’d always faltered.
“I was thirty when I first drank the potion in the jungle,” DT says. His voice is strangled in his throat. “I just kept vomiting and vomiting, and it’s like all the darkness inside me I saw on the ground. And I tell you brothers, I tell you brothers, I saw my old self, squirming there on the ground. It was my birthday. Then a tree fell nearby. Just dropped.” He smacks at the wet ground. “Burdens fell away from me. The trees knew. They could tell.”
“That’s powerful, DT,” Odin says. We’re speaking slower than we did in the city.
“I spent a lot of time with one medicine man in the jungle, doing dream work,” DT says. “And he told me about a villager who kept coming to him until the visions he had matched his heart’s desire. He just refused to give up until he saw what he was looking for. Sometimes,” DT says, “it takes a long time to hear what the earth is saying to you. Takes a long time to burn away the darkness.”
No one’s talking about Jesus. I may be done with the church, but I’m not done with Jesus. His walking the earth for a time. Appearing among us, as he did with the disciples locked in the upper room after his crucifixion: “Peace be with you.” Showing them his wounds. I cannot shake this. I can find nothing like that here. I just sit there and watch them, dim forms, and feel hungry.
“I came here with nothing. But I have all I need,” I say. It sounds good. Powerful. In control. Why dirty the waters with the truth? Jesus had said it would set you free, but I only remember the female high-school counselor in baggy sweater and bangs, jotting down my suicidal ideations. Days later I was strip-searched and institutionalized.
I place a hand on the mud, feel its coolness, press my palm against it to make an imprint. “I want to put down roots. I want to go deeper in my writing. Make it the center of my life.” It’s all I can give them at the moment.
Besides counselors and shrinks, the only person I really talked to during high school was my journal. When I burned it, I burned the voice that had betrayed me to the psychiatric ward. By ripping the pages out of the spiral rings and dropping them into the cooker, making them go black and flit into flakes in the air—I could start anew.
Wells unzips his backpack. He pulls out a four-by-six portrait, raises it in the air for us to see.
“This is me at age four with my parents,” he says. It’s a black-and-white shot, 1960s. Wells looks like he is slipping off their knees in his white baby shoes.
“My father is an alcoholic. My mother, you guys know, has passed. I’m still working through some things with my father.” He pauses. His voice breaks. “Just today I was getting a massage. I don’t know if it was the waterfall in the room, or the music, or the woman touching me—she was beautiful—but I just began to weep. Like my shoulder was holding something in, and then whoosh….” He stops.
I’ve never seen him like this. He’s the one who organized a scavenger hunt in San Francisco in January that sent thirty of us all over various neighborhoods recording things on camera. Hug a cop! Change clothes with someone of the opposite sex in public! Wells plays well. Wells is solid. Wells is rich, grew up on the Philadelphia Main Line. He barely works, it seems. He’s left his job with Chabot Science Center, and yet he lives in a condo in Cow Hollow with little concern.
Wells grimly places the picture frame in the circle, next to the fat wax candle DT has jammed in the mud.
“I want to open up,” he says. His lips are chapped in the cold. “Risk more with women again.”
We become Wells’s confessors. Confession of Sin, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1928: “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” I associate such telling with talk therapy. I have done plenty of it; it has the power to heal. But in speaking, I also allow others to judge me as the patient, the broken one.
Then Odin sees the deer. He points over my head. I turn and—yes. Standing in the grasses, watching us from fifty feet away. Its head, as if drawn by a child, swung sideways against its body, stiff as a board. We stop talking. The seconds tick. It’s God, I think. Sending an emissary to watch me. To watch us.
It leaps away.
“It’s a sign,” I say.
“Animals can sense good energy,” DT says. For a moment we are silent, as if the deer has reminded us of the world outside. The wind beats against the branches.
Wells keeps talking. I feared such confessions with Amy, the priest-in-training I dated, knowing it would lead to places that I could not control, that I would become that person Jesus alluded to when he told his disciples, “when you are older, you will open your hands and allow yourself to be led by another into places you would rather not go.” Admission of my deepest faults. Commitment to others. A throwing away of all security against the winds.
There’s a famous painting of Christ at the door: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” The painter left out the latch—Jesus cannot enter unless someone opens the door from within. How safe it was for me then to stay behind the door, to revel in the Dudes’ honesty, each of them freely ministering to each other, and not a priest in sight. But they were sharing things that didn’t always make them look good. Who was I to hold back?
“Right on, Wells,” Odin says softly. He speaks about his grandmother who just died, how she was a “fucking bitch” and if she weren’t Jewish she’d be a Nazi; he’d written a poem about it. I gaze at the ground, memorize the marks my hands make in the mud. I want to tell them how terrified I am. I’m flying blind, really—hoping that the Bay Area sun will fix the depression that fell from long dark Boston winters, a depression I treat now with exercise and prayer and constant movement for fear that if I sit alone too long with my mind I’ll think myself into a black hole. But I have no community to lean on, no therapist. That’s just the point—to prove to myself I’m not broken, I’m normal. If I were to speak, I’d break the spell of possibility, lose my volition. I stay silent.
Odin clears his throat. “Once I did a retreat at Spirit Rock. Just me.” His voice sounds far away. “I saw a woman counselor there. ‘Find a tree and go talk to it,’ she said. So I did. I told it all my secrets. I wept there for forty minutes.”
The sun has completely disappeared into the waves. A bunch of hikers parade down the trail above us, but we are invisible to them.
DT picks up another vial between thumb and forefinger, tilts it toward his face, stares at it, then back at us. It looks like piss. “I just want us to mark the circle.” He’d brought it back from Peru. “Medicine,” he calls it, the potion prepared by the shamans from a vine in the Amazon. Ayahuasca. A hallucinogenic.
“Side effects?” I ask.
“Seeing what you need to see,” DT says. He narrows his eyes at me. “You’ll be okay. We’re just doing one drop. We’d need a shot glass to start visions.”
“So we’re not going to turn into deer and run away into the trees or anything,” Wells says. “Four guys go to Rodeo Beach and no one sees them again, but the game warden notices four more bucks in the herd.” He’s got that fast-talking, joking tone, but I wonder if he’s done this before—if he’s ever done anything like this. He’s almost forty, as he likes to remind me, but I’m still seeing him as a baby in the picture in the middle of our circle, sliding off his parents’ knees.
DT closes his eyes, shakes his head. Is he for real? Does it matter? He hands me the vial. I can’t breathe. Fear, or the cold? Maybe something will happen. Once I lift the drop to my lips, something will fall away, leaving all that I liked about the church—its use of ritual to create communion, the accountability in kneeling together, sharing bread and wine that hinted at miracle, grace, redemption—to mingle with all that I liked about the Dudes—their lack of seriousness and dogma and structure, where I could plug in and out of their world as I wished.
Maybe the drop would be that magic pill that I had sought in Boston, the one that would trigger a mood shift that would keep cycling, like a wheel, after the ayahuasca passed through my system. A one-time shove to my neurotransmitters and serotonin receptors that would jolt them back to their normal place.
I turn the vial upside down. A tear, a yellow tear, pings my palm. It smells like vanilla extract. I lick my hand.
DT empties a brown sack; a hand drum hits the ground. I reach for it. He nods at me approvingly. He starts to make a low rumbling sound in his belly, like a truck in low gear chugging uphill. Odin and Wells join in, somberly. I close my eyes. Part of me says what the fuck, tries not to laugh. We skim voice lines over and under each other.
We would transform gut sounds into something holy, and then, then, the weight of working two part-time jobs, of feeling alone and unable to love, of being broke and insolvent, of feeling far from any home, my family only faint voices on the cell phone—then, then, then, all of this would vanish for a moment, and that moment would kick me forward into this new life that I had sought, and the wheels would roll down the highway and the head would clear.
I chant high above them—I’m a trained singer, this I know how to do, this I can soar at. (In the cathedral choir in Boston, we processed down the marble aisle in our purple robes and white surplices; the organ blared a cushion of sound that hovered above us.) I work the skin of the drum with my fingers, numb in the cold. Fill the beat. Add riffs. Show them my skills.
“Pull your taps back,” DT whispers at me, holding his palm up like a conductor.
Is this his ceremony? I want this for myself. Wells can’t sing for shit. Swing low, sweet chariot, he bellows, but we don’t follow him.
Part of me keeps leaving our circle, flying up to the branches of the tree to look down and judge us—four privileged white guys, getting oovy-groovy. Me in my wool cap tucked under the hood of my raincoat, Wells shivering, Odin rocking in his Crazy Creek chair, DT above us, looming against the trunk, his body a triangle in the large llama robe, lighting another stick of cedar that makes his face flicker in jagged cracks. The stupid men’s groups of Iron John and Robert Bly. I left the church for this? Nothing’s happening. I’m not seeing color. My stomach vibrates. My throat thrums.
But we could be there forever. We shouldn’t stop. When you sing you forget. You forget fear of depression stealing up on you—smelling the lack of pharmaceuticals, it grabs your shoulder, throws you to the ground. You forget.
The foghorn lows from Point Bonita. Light fading now. Our voices trail off.
I don’t know who said it or started it but we grab each other’s hands. Here is the moment when a priest would bless the Dudes and me, when we would pray to God, to the specific but indefinite being, mention Jesus.
But we just sit there. No one makes any jokes. In the dusk I see through the slits of my eyes how white our hands are, how they are like fluorescent sticks, the ones you got on Halloween when you went trick-or-treating, pale things.
No thinking. No straining. No doing. Just being—together, not alone.
“This is rare. I want to thank you guys,” Odin says.
We jerk our heads forward, but say nothing.
Then it’s over. It’s over? We stand up quickly, shaking our legs alive, brushing off dirt. DT clicks on his headlamp, stabs it this way and that, illuminating the towering pine above us, our faces. We talk faster now, words tumble out in triplets. DT rests his hand on the grooves of the trunk. I remember Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, how the tree gives the boy all he desires until it has nothing left.
“Come feel the tree, guys,” I say. Wells and Odin pitch toward us.
“DT, if I lose one of my balls to frostbite, I know who to blame,” says Wells.
“When do I start seeing visions?” Odin cries, playfully throwing DT against the tree, his voice rising in pitch.
They run ahead of me in the darkness. If we were locked into a church community, I’d know that they’d come back, we all would, next Sunday. Like in New Wine at the Boston cathedral—6:30 pm sharp, without fail.
But here, DT, Odin, and Wells are wisps in the night. And they’re less sure of it all, of themselves, than I thought. Which both relieves me and unnerves me.
I track them by the lights of their cell phones on the road. We’re walking so fast, and I’m trying to save in my mind what just happened, what was said. Did we promise anything? The wind blows hard in our faces.
The parking lot is empty. DT drives away. In the front seat of the Outback Odin fingers his cell phone wire like a rosary, mumbles to Mara. He looks exhausted. Wells spins the tires onto the road hooking through the mountains to 101 and the bridge. He chatters rapidly, barking orders for a rendezvous at the X Bar in Cole Valley. He looks smaller; I can see wrinkles on his forehead.
I don’t know what time it is. My legs ache. My eyes want to close. Suddenly I want to be alone again on the fourth floor of my Oakland apartment, climbing the steel yellow steps past the picture of Jesus with a lamb slung around his shoulder, past the two Salvatorian guys, to my own bed, a plastic mattress resting on a piece of plywood that one of them helped me lug back from Home Depot on the roof of his car.
In a Gospel story, two disciples, brokenhearted at Jesus’s recent death, mystified by his empty tomb, encounter a stranger on the road to Emmaus one evening. They invite him to supper, and when he breaks bread with them, they realize it is Jesus himself (“And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight”).
Within days of the ritual, we would email each other about doing another one. Committing to making it a regular thing. I pictured Wells, Odin, and DT joining me on the soft white rug of the chapel in my apartment, going deeper as Dudes on my own turf. Our breaths mingling with those of the Salvatorians, with the word “Jesus”—maybe I would speak of him (“Did not our hearts burn within us, when we met him on the road?”), and the Dudes would not mind. Maybe I would speak of Amy. Maybe they would urge me on, give me the confidence to take chances with love again. Be my warrior army. My new family.
But Odin pleaded schedule—he was living an hour and a half away, in Winters. Wells emailed his “grati-Dude,” but he was in the middle of some serious work with his life coach—not sure yet about a time slot. DT’s email blessed us as brothers, but his nonprofit meetings were heating up, sorry, he had to balance those energies.
I did not pursue it.
We’ve left DT’s tree and the ritual and the beach fifteen minutes behind, crossed back over the Golden Gate. Wells pulls up outside his house. Odin remains in the Outback, glassy-eyed. Through the car window, he seems catatonic, as if he is trying to say something to me, but his brain does not connect to his moving lips. I follow Wells inside to take a leak.
Wells showers and changes. I wish I had brought city clothes for the X Bar; we’re going to meet some ladies, Wells says. My rain pants are covered in muck.
“Gotta wash the protection juice off my head,” Wells calls, switching on the faucet. I see him in the harsh yellow light of his bathroom, bent over at the waist in front of the mirror, spruced up in a white collared shirt, khakis. His right hand rubs his forehead vigorously. He laughs. “Still waiting for the magic stuff to kick in.”
“Here are those two other Henri Nouwen books I mentioned to you, Wells,” I say, digging them out of my pack and brandishing them in the air. “I’ll just leave them here on the shelf for you. They’re on prayer.”
Wells ducks out of the bathroom, shuts off the light, adjusts his belt. “I only read one book at a time,” he says, reaching for the car keys, snatching a windbreaker. I’d given him Nouwen’s Out of Solitude already. I squint at his books lining the shelf by the door—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Power of Now, Getting to Yes.
“So you don’t want them?”
“Why don’t you wait on it,” he says.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.