When you travel extensively a common question you hear is, “What’s the best place you’ve been?” Truth be told, my favorite places aren’t really places at all. A place is a scene, a background. The value of travel is almost never the place, it’s the unexpected interactions, the encounters with humans that make the story, that make the experience. That said, one of my favorite places on this particular year-long trip around North America was a grocery store in rural Virginia, the cereal aisle to be exact.
No cart. A few quick items to grab. In and out. Get back so we can start dinner. As I moved through the cereal aisle searching for an option a child would eat, but not cause diabetes, a woman in her late fifties approached me.
“May I?” She asked, pointing to the tattoo on my lower leg.
“Timshel.” I said jokingly. “Sorry, yes please, go ahead.”
She brushed off the obscure Steinbeck reference and began reading the scripture on my calf. Nearly two decades had bleed some of the letters together. I saw she was struggling slightly to read them so I recited the verse, “Then war broke out in heaven, Micahal and his angels battled the dragon and the dragon fought back. It's Revelations 12:7.”
She looked at me and in a soft Virgina accent asked if I was a believer. A man pushed a squeaky cart past. She stepped out of his way and closer toward me. Here was the moment. I had a chance to douse this little flame of a conversation with a cold bucket of don’t bother me. Or I could do what I did, which was to say, “I don’t believe in anything, which gives me the ability to entertain all things.”
She took this surprisingly well and asked, “Do you believe Jesus Chirst died for your sins.”
“From what history has told me, Jesus was an incredible example to humanity. An example of how to live. He was an inspiration which has guided countless people into a relationship with God.”
“And your tattoo?”
“It’s a Luca Giordano painting from 1666. It’s called the Fall of the Rebel Angels. It depicts the end of the battle for heaven.”
“Yes, I see that. Do you believe Jesus will return to Earth?” Her eyes were soft and warm when she asked. For a moment I saw the angel hidden behind the wrinkled human veneer.
“I’m not sure that’s why I got the tattoo. It has more to do with envy.”
I felt no hesitation in confessing my sins to this stranger, here among whole grain and white tile.
“Well, at the time when I got the tattoo, I was a soldier. And I had gone to Afghanistan a couple of times and I couldn’t figure out exactly if we were the good guys or the bad guys. I couldn’t figure out if we were the light or the dark. And then there’s this foretold battle. The greatest battle in history, yet to come. The battle for heaven. And the way the book I read made it seem like there was a clear good team and a clear bad team. And truth be told, that made me a bit envious. The clarity of knowing if you were a good guy or a bad guy, I envied that. I wanted that. I was covetous for that.”
“So are you a Chirstian?”
“I wouldn’t say so, no. I’ve read these other books, stories that point toward God. And what became confusing at first was how one book about God could be used to justify the killing of people who read a different book about God and I couldn’t see one as good and one as bad. Which was the light and which was dark. I didn’t want to, still don’t want to pick a side in a senseless gray war. Especially since each of the sides have essentially been fighting toward the same goal. So I’m more interested in the truth than picking a team.”
“And what is the truth?”
“Truth be told, I don’t think I’m smart enough to answer that question. Sometimes I think of God as a puzzle bigger than you or I could imagine. And there’s infinite pieces scattered out everywhere. And one great big important piece of that puzzle is Jesus. But another big piece is Buhdah. And so Krishna is another. And so is Muhammad. All of those pieces together still only make up a small part of the entire puzzle.
I went on,"Sometimes I think of God as the greatest story ever told. And if you agree that every person on this earth, and maybe on other planets, who knows right, if we are all the children of God, then it seems to me that God understands us, the infant nature of us, the way a parent understands their different children, understands that we have different cultures. A major part of culture is story telling. And that God, knowing all that, tells the same story just a little differently to their different children, so we can understand in our own way. But all the stories, all the puzzle pieces, they all lead to the same image. More importantly they lead to the same relationship.
"Christians have a story of God where God is the great creator. Makes sense then that Jesus was the son of a carpenter, right? The son of a creator. The story in the east is more like, instead of God being the set designer, God is the director, but also the actors, that’s you and me, and God is also the stage, and the theater and the parking lot outside the theater, and the gum stuck to the floor. I rather like that way of looking at God, but I wouldn’t call myself a Hindu.”
A woman with exhausted eyes and her two sons rumbled past us, each of the boys holding a box with a cartoon character on the front.
The older woman in front of me was nodding. A graceful witness to my confession. She didn’t seem to have anything to dispute, so I went on. “There’s this writer I like. He wrote, ‘God is not in might but in truth.’ And I believe, if I believe anything at all, that if there is any hope of finding the truth, that one must be open to as many perspectives as possible. Be open.” I said.
She asked me what I did for a living. For the first, and possibly only time in my life, I said I am a poet. Which was the truth. But I’d never been open enough to consider myself as such. The juxtaposition of the heavily tattooed man in front of her writing poetry caused her to shift her weight slightly onto her heels. The fluorescent light flickered above. She asked me about my time in the military. Once again I confessed my sins. With grace she held them.
Her eyes filled with tears. She told me that her son was a Marine. She told me he had some difficulties when he came home. She told me that he’d recently started writing poetry and I thought that was the most beautiful thing I’d heard in a long time. I told her how most of my favorite contemporary poets were Marines. This seemed to surprise her more than any of my ramblings about God. We spoke for another twenty minutes. We became friends there by the Coco Puffs and Lucky Charms. She was a light, a kind and open human with a different upbringing and different set of beliefs than my own. Yet none of those beliefs, or lack thereof, were barriers to our human connection.
I never thought I’d ever spend time in Virginia. Never thought I’d spend half an hour discussing God and war and poetry with a random older woman in the cereal aisle of a rural grocery store. But if it’s the truth we are after, then truth be told it’s one of the best places I’ve ever traveled to.
If you would like to read more and be notified when new writings are released please leave your email below.