Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Scotland: Queen Street Station

The conductor for the shuttle bus pointed all in the direction of a tiny inlet of asphalt. He rattled off instructions in a high Glasgow tongue and several of us disembarked, stepping uncertainly in the way that he indicated. The small cul-de-sac was actually a car park for cabs, several of which idled there on Woodside Way like oversized bees waiting for passengers. Above them stood a white portico with the words “Queen Street” emblazoned on the side of the grimy overhang. My luggage rattled behind me on the bricked sidewalk as I walked through the automatic sliding doors, which would have closed had their efforts not been punctuated by a steady stream of people rolling out onto the street.

Hiding its bulk behind shops and tiny stone inlets, a cathedral of transportation arched its back above the seven sets of tracks. The sun shone through the frosted glass skin of the station. People sat quietly in bunches or drank coffee or paced or plowed forward with bits of luggage in hand. The spindly ticking of bicycle wheels and the snuffling of dogs mingled with a river of human voices. My nagging loneliness from the long journey was lost in sheer amazement at this grand business of moving people. Men and women of Indian descent stood about pressing the crowds to buy cell phones. A group of German accents congregated jovially and walked through the gate to board a train. The marquee on the wall flashed its heraldic scheduling as the trains all left on time – that is to say, within fifteen seconds of the clock changing to their scheduled minute of departure. It was an impressive showing of punctuality.

I found an automated ticket machine in the breezeway outside the grandeur of the terminal. After retrieving my ticket, I decided that it was high time to get the sound of native speech in my ears again. I walked back and forth down Georges Square looking for a local dive before deciding on the pub right outside the train station. Two women who might have been mother and daughter squeezed out the thin red door under the sign advertising “The Junction Bar.” A tall, well-built young fellow with long dark hair who could have passed for an American manned the bar. A couple of old men stood at a high table working their way through several pints and laughing over business. The quickest reminder of the many tasks and problems at hand was lopsidedly planted two tables down from me. A man whose age had been furthered by drink sat and preached a stream of incoherent cursing at the invisible person in front of him, who, judging by the man’s conversation, was waffling between occasional acquiescence and outright denial. The vibe in the pub seemed to indicate that the drunken man was something of an embarrassment. He was by far the loudest representative of the clientele. I pulled my luggage up beside me at the table and glanced over the menu trying to remember the song and dance of ordering food in a foreign country. After no one came over for a while and I remembered that it is customary, in a pub, to order one’s food in person at the bar, I walked up and asked for the haggis and a pint of whatever local stout was on tap. It is always a puzzling sensation to thank God for beer. My conscience which tells me that I should pray thus also suffers from the erratic spasms and hissing fissures of legalism. But I was glad to have arrived and to eat, and sitting back with a plate of local fare and listening to conversations, I let the sense of the place – what the French call terroir – wash over me.

Taking pictures inside a public train station in a country that is beset by terrorism is not the healthiest of endeavors, but not to be deterred, I forewent dessert at the pub in lieu of finding the right shot. A man in a uniform came up to me and politely informed me that I should not take photos of the station. Understanding his concerns as a representative of the government, I left my post outside the front doors and went to take more covert photos inside the station proper where so many good shots were hidden amongst all that Euclidian architecture and steel framework. Trying to get a finger on the pulse of the country, I picked up a free independent weekly and flipped through the articles, landing on one about a British musician that had moved to Montana to find writing time away from the frenzy of recording and shows. Still, peace eluded me. Often, the Peace of Christ is something I try to find by seeking out instead of resting in. This anxiety causes me to avoid my iPod or anything else that could be entertaining in order to keep from being what Neil Postman called “amused to death.” But, finally, when I got on the train myself and discovered that, unlike in the airliners, I would be alone at my table, I acknowledged the fact that God made me a musician – and that music, to me, is much like a lubricant to the wheels of prayer. I turned up Rich Mullins in my ears and Glasgow rolled away as we entered darkness beneath her streets. The distance and movement was measured only by my body telling me that we were rocketing onward. My face stared back at me from the darkened window until, without warning, we emerged far from the crowds in golden fields of oilseed rape beneath a cobalt sky.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Scotland: The Hat Exchange

Not to be contradictory (although I am), but in lieu of doing an entire story like last time, I've decided to leave this as a series of smaller vignettes. If this disappoints you, know that it disappoints me as well. But, I've got some other writing to work on, and I can't have this hanging off my neck like a vampire bat. I've also got some other exciting developments coming up that I've got to get ready for, so I do hope you'll pardon my use of a smaller blog-friendly format. In our microwavable McWorld, I'm sure you won't mind. I'll try not to mind too much.

Ward Road, between the hours of midnight and 4 o’clock, is a thoroughfare of debauchery. Modesty whispers unnoticed from every young lady’s closet, and what little clothing makes it onto the street is outmatched by bare skin in sheer volume. London, a smaller club which is infamous for its admission of minors, spills out into the road to the immediate northeast of Central Baptist Church, its crowds barking at the edge of riot. To the east is a short walk to Fat Sam’s, Social, Liquid, Déjà vu, and a host of other establishments.

Our group, of which I was the youngest by far, walked back onto the street at about 2:30 a.m., gathering around the hatchback of Andy’s car, where we set up shop giving out free tea, coffee, and hot chocolate to anyone who would accept it. We also gave out flip-flops to any girls who had tired of navigating the broken sidewalks in torturous three-inch heels. It truly is an amazing feeling to give things away to people who don’t deserve it. This is harsh to modern ears, but to approach the truth, we must understand that none of us deserve anything good. Certainly, when we are drunkenly staggering about the street and vomiting the curses of repressed disappointment onto any and all bystanders, we do not deserve a free hot drink, free shoes, and a patient and open ear. Gary, Andy, and I walked up and down in the throng, attempting, with perhaps a surprising degree of success, to convey that there was something helpful to be had at no cost. I walked on toward the blue neon lights of London and asked around.

“Do you guys want a free coffee or cup of tea?”
“Coffee,” I persisted. “We’ve got free coffee and tea just down at that silver car.”

This exchange sometimes ended in the dulcet tones that nothing is free and that we must be peddling something, though, looking back, I hope it was never us doing the peddling. A young fellow ran by and snatched my hat off my head as I was talking to some people. He never turned, but placed it on his own head, ran down the street a bit, mooned me, and continued on toward parts unknown. The two girls I was talking to, presumably out with the young opportunist, apologized profusely. I thought of Jesus saying, “If someone takes what is yours, do not demand it back.” In my head, I heard it voiced by Gerald Lay, who played Jesus in a passion play at my parents’ church years ago. I wandered toward the car, hoping that the guy would decide that the joke was over and bring it back. After a while, he and his friends did come back in our direction.

“Is that your hat?” said Andy, seeing him.
"Yep,” I said, feeling that old pride creep up that I had not said anything to that point. It was all a bit funny.
“Did you give it to him?” Andy asked, wide-eyed.

Then the Irishman in Andy took over, and he strode mission-mindedly after the drunken young man, returning a few minutes later with a somewhat crumpled version of my wide-brim hat. I would have enjoyed being a fly on the wall for their brief conversation.

The sky began to suggest dawn as 3:45 rolled past, and the crowds began to dissipate. There had been no riots between the marines and the police, and we thanked God that the night had been rather peaceful, considering. The ladies with us, a quiet, cheerful, and diligent bunch, began to pack up the milk and sugar and cups with an industry that flew in the face of the late hour. We carried everything back across the street and into the office to do the washing up and to pray. The streets, as we left the office, were astonishingly, quiet. A few rogue seagulls tossed on the early morning wind above countless bits of paper and old fish and chip boxes that littered the pavement. Not a soul moved in the street beyond ourselves as we bid each other goodbye and I got into Andy’s car.

“You know people who talk about second-mile Christians,” he quipped as we drove to Paton’s Lane, “I think you’re maybe a third or fourth-mile Christian.” This was in reference to my doggedness in staying up late and getting up early – though “early” is debatable – in the past week. Though my tirelessness was more akin to stupidity and stubbornness than to any sort of righteous industry, I mentally added our small conversation to a short list of comments that I won’t soon forget.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Scotland: Decompression

It's Saturday now. I got back in the States Wednesday night, and I still haven't had the time to decompress. Like a shelf with one bookend, I have several volumes of experience from the past two weeks, held up on one side by multiple gatherings with the rest of the team. We prayed, talked, sang, took communion, and rehearsed some light sketches. I felt, for the first time, decently prepared. Now, I am staring at the latter end, and hoping that the books don't topple into a useless heap. I need that pause for reflection, and I need to write it all down - to write the Hell out of it, and dwell graciously on the Heaven that is left after editing. That's probably not accurate theology per se, but I think it's a pretty good writing assignment.

Hopefully Sunday and this evening will provide the time that I need to work through this. I have been and shall be doing something I've not often done before: praying over my writing. A friend at work told me that, if I'm going to write something about this trip (as I have before; see A Diary of Dundee), she'd like to read it. I have to laugh at myself that the Holy Ghost should need to nudge me to do what I'd like to do anyway. So, when I have it all compiled (I hope it won't take more than a week), I'll post it here as a finale to the "Scotland" series. I hope you don't mind some repeated events; I don't want to break up the continuity of the narrative.

Oh, and pictures are coming.