The strip club marquee read “RIP Phil”.
I’m pretty sure it was 2021, but time has collapsed. My friends and I were driving across Denver and the sign was on our route.
“How does one go about being memorialized by a strip club?” As the conversation branched, it somehow landed on Phil Collins. One of us was singing. The conversation ran its course and the car became silent. The afternoon sun cast long shadows across the road. We were driving to the house that had recently become home to my friends. It was the first time we had seen them in two years. That night we sat around a backyard fire laughing and listening to a Nick Cave record.
I am sure that there is a tragic story behind the marquee sign. Our laughter was not a negation of tragedy so much as a way of acknowledging something. One of the many extravagant luxuries of survival is that you get to laugh at inappropriate times. When a place traditionally associated with celebration and excess puts up a sign of mourning it is indicative of the expansive reach of that mourning, but it is also such a stark departure from the norm that it becomes absurd.
It was also a reminder that I was with people I loved. These were the people I had only seen on Zoom for a year. It was the kind of free-form interaction that you cannot have on a glitching video platform. It made me feel at home, but it also made me momentarily aware of how alarmingly lonely I was. The bad was still true as evidenced by the mournful sign, but running parallel with the badness was this opportunity to celebrate. Somehow the misery and the joy were running in parallel.
So often we are trained that to experience one, the other must be negated. You can only be a joyful person if you have banished all sorrow. It’s an either/or proposition rather than a both/and. It took a long time for me to notice that both are often true.
I am prone to negate the ongoingness of life. I often overlook or minimize the good. It is something that I have always needed help seeing around and therefore it is the reason that I have friends. The things we lack can draw us toward those who see things differently.
As the weeks wore on after vacation we texted the same phrase back and forth a few times. The memory of the joy of the vacation embedded into the contradictory words, “RIP Phil”.
There are tiny windows in friendship when you realize how fortunate you are to have found other people whose presence makes you feel at home in your skin. Those moments don’t require the long shadows of a late afternoon drive. They land on your neck with a quick sting and disappear. An old relationship feels comfortable because it contains all of the seeds that grew into the framework of the house you reside in. They are a permanent part of you and you are a part of them. No amount of silence or distance changes the fact that you were shaped and defined by one another. The old jokes and one-off utterances cycle through the current of your everyday language as a way of keeping those people close to your heart.
Yesterday, I was speaking with a friend in the park. We were taking a walk with her because she was lonely and her husband was out of town. We were talking about how miserable and strange we had become in isolation. We watched our dog play in the grass and laughed about how terrible we were doing. These interactions remind me that being trapped inside of a limited body, with a limited amount of time, is a typical human experience rather than an aberration. It is not unusual or weird to simply not be doing well. So often we are trained to think that pain is the exception, but the older that you get, the more that pain becomes an integrated everyday thing. It is commonplace, like the position of your couch in the living room. It can be physical, but it can also be something internal. The haunting regrets that creep into your brain when you wake up at 3 in the morning.
People suffer and struggle. It is when we start inserting a “because” after that statement that we tend to go off the rails. The “because” is an effort to control the structure of an uncontrollable reality. It’s an effort to mentally cordon off yourself from the mysterious land of those suffering over on the other side. The danger in the “because” is that it becomes alienating when hard times come for you.
The ability to feel extends in both horrific and miraculous directions.
I am old enough to remember the now laughable proclamations that the worldwide web would unify the entire world. I remember the aspirational messages, the now darkly humorous images of people holding hands under rainbows. The most predictable quality about people is our ability to repeat the same mistakes in entirely new ways as if all of our creativity is bent toward self-destruction and making one another and ourselves miserable.
Laughing about awful things is a way of acknowledging horror while experiencing joy. It strikes me as resurrection-adjacent. To laugh at death at all is a playfully subversive effort to remove its sting. At the moment we would not say that this is what we are doing, but I believe the moments when we are the most open to receiving grace are the moments in which we are the least self-aware. One of the beautiful gifts of friendship is that space of assumed mercy. When you are with people who love you, there is the freedom to laugh at things you would cry about otherwise. This requires a strange, intimate kind of understanding and generosity. Maybe we recognize the pain that we carry in ourselves when we see it in other people and the capacity to “feel with” is what draws us closer.
As I get older I do not want to spend my life trying to pretend that difficulty is an anomaly or that it is impossible to understand. Having faith does not protect you from difficulty. Having more or less faith does not diminish the potential for things to go wrong.
When I returned to church in my early 30s it was specifically about the limitations of my willpower, or maybe more specifically that my willpower is directed most often at the things that make me the most miserable. I want things that do not work in the specific ways I want them to work, then pursue them anyway knowing it will not work out. The ability to step outside of this pattern often takes the form of a gift or a disruption. It is something that comes from outside of me and to me from an unusual source I was not necessarily expecting. Another “RIP Phil.”
Christianity is a faith of dependence. To believe in a God that resurrects dead things also means that even my faith is not resurrection-proof because faith is not contingent on my limitations. It is a given thing. A thing that is larger and more curious than any clear-cut, linear aspirational narrative. I believe in a God who works in death and loss rather than manageable circumstances. A strange joy from an odd angle.
To love at all in the long term is the offering to suffer alongside. Somehow in this process, the suffering becomes a strange celebration. In suffering together, it is the togetherness that makes it bearable. In allowing space for death, space is also given for life.
This was mostly written over a year ago. Since our last return to Denver, the sign has changed back to something more conventionally strip club-related. I don’t remember what it said.