Sunday, June 05, 2005

Two red doors

In downtown Portland, there is a building with two upper rooms. Every afternoon, these rooms fill up with men , some of whom are trying to leaves their own personal Hades, with the sounds of alcohol and drugged footsteps calling back to them. I use the underworld metaphor, because these men are told by the people who run the building with the two upper rooms that it is The Light they must walk towards. Redemption and a meal are promised if only they praise the god of baptist america. In the rooms, the men watch television, play pool, and discuss next week's laundry schedule.

On saturday morning, us international scholarship students were driven to this building with two upper rooms, in order to paint the walls of the two upper rooms a pale yellow, and the doors of the two upper tooms an earthen red. A thing that we found ourselves volunteered to do. Brushes and overlarge T shirts given to us, kindly instructions on how to pour paint followed. But rid yourself of the illusion that I disliked the idea- There was stories to be heard there, and so I went. Why pale yellow and earthen red? A breathless, blue eyed art student in a red coat assured us that they were psychologically proven to be colours that made people think happy thoughts of sharing and caring. Ergo, pale yellow and... yes, well.

Roll brushes are fun to paint with, especially if you have a nice colour and a rough surface. My compatriots laid siege blissfully to the bare walls, and finished most of the work in 2 hours. I did not paint walls. For the breathless, blue eyed student in a red coat told me there were two doors to paint an earthen red. I felt my hand go up when she asked for a volunteer.

I did this because of the thought of my grandmother, and two paintings that never lived because of me.

[I wonder at this constant need for coming full circle on all things, at this need for finding a cap for every permanent marker. Bear with me. Sigh.]

Red coat-- whose name is Rebecca-- Showed me how to open the paint tin, the degree to which you tip the thing so red goop spills out into the waiting pan. Plastic covering all things that were meant to stay unreddened, and I let the roll brush travel slowly down its first burnt sienna track on the white door.

The instinct of the hunt, that belongs to wolf and man. There is something about a tool of change in your hand, and surface area that will not fight you. Red gash at the place where thumb and forefinger meet, red glare in my sight, and the second stroke was a frenzied side swing, hard and bloody against the white wood.

My mind pulled me back to those thoughts that had me pick up the red brush first. Summer 12 years ago, and ammuma trying to teach me to bring life to tree bark on paper. It was in the stroke, the amount of water, the mix of colours, because nothing was ever solid poster paint out of a 30 ml bottle. I refused to listen, and walked away to the balcony rails, to stare moodily at the rain tree who was laughing at me. A few years after that, and the same thing happened again, except it was oils this time, not watercolour.

The red glare faded, and memories of karate kid II and the old man telling the kid to paint straight up, down. Steady strokes. Memories of ammuma telling me to not over-layer the ochre on the burnt sienna, to dry the brush more, to use longer strokes. And I did, conciously feeling ham strings and knees protest and then give over to the work they were created to do- Start from the top with a dipped and shaken roller, slow bring down, filling in edges and corners with the bristly brush.

At lunch, tattooed, moustached, weathered men, large & small, silent and loud stood in a circle, waiting for us volunteers to start with the soup before they did. Grace-- For yes, that Had to Be Said-- was 2 words from each stolid receiver of His Gifts. They said thanks for many things, like sandwiches for lunch, and volunteers who volunteered. There were some that made me say amen with toes getting a little deeper into concrete: things like "thank god for another chance, every day", "praise god for living" and "praise god for the universal power of music". Big men, alone except for their fellow tatooed and alone big men, who waited outside this rescue mission for food twice a day, who sometimes went on sponsored fishing trips. The coconut cream pie made it only more Hallmarky. And yet, and yet...

One of them, with burnished locks, bristling moustache, straight nose and piercing blue eyes sat opposite my colleagues from Syria and Morocco and proceeded to genially ask these two arab boys why they weren't eating the meat. Lesser, wiser and more non-confrontational mortals would've claimed vegetarianism. Not Adel and Bilal. In that den of bible-readers, with a salvation army outpost next door, they said the meat wasnt halal and they didnt eat meat that wasn't halal, because they are muslim.

And the beauty of the thing was that the darkest and most horrible of evils in the world today was sunning and curling itself in front of my eyes, over sandwiches and salad, in a christian rescue mission home in downtown portland. So damn simple, and so delicately done. No trumpets, but there for those who wanted to see, to see.

What ensued was no forced exorcism, no burning at the stake, no mass prayers- Just a theological debate, man on one side of the long table, boys on the other. All was said: the need for tolerance, respecting differences, living in harmony, principles differences in doctrine, a shared root holy book. Needless to say, the boys left in about 2o minutes, affronted and enraged. The man genially shook hands.

Apart from the fact that such debate is pointless, and often damaging to one's own faith in one's self, and one's perceptions... Apart from the fact that the guy in charge said the man was homeless coz he didnt have any social skills, do ignore him... apart from the fact that claiming vegetarianism or deslike would've ended the discussion then and there... Apart from the fact that I took gleeful delight in seeing the levels and onioned layers of how different people offend-- for like all 21 year olds, they do offend, these colleagues of mine-- and are offended... Apart from the fact that I still believe the boys were so pissed off due to the fact that they weren't the ones who left with the last word- Apart from all of this:

what I saw was Fear. Fear of being untolerated, fear of being prodded and poked, and noticed for being different. The need to protect, desperately, one's faith, one's self. Fear has an ugly nose, and laughs a lot.

Pie eaten, boys driven back, I returned to my red doors. I wish my grandmother could've seen the finish on them. Bends and corners and coats led up to me standing there and feeling happier than I have felt in a long time, with something I "did" in realtime.

Its hard to listen to anyone telling you how to do a thing. You fear your own right to it being taken away. Its hard having to listen to anyone tell you in a quiet and sure voice of the beauty of the god he or she believes in, who died for love, and who then asks you to talk about your god. Its hard feeling not good enough.

Adel and Bilal painted walls like heroes till lunch though. And sang arabic songs out loud while doing it. The doors are red, without any signatures, like the walls. People will use them to come and go...

As we all do. As we all do.