Pagan Pride

THEY CALL YOU ANGEL THEN DEVIL

Have you ever had an experience so incredible that when you look back on it you are inclined not to believe it actually happened? In my life this has happened so many times I have come to see it almost as the norm. Sometimes it has amused me, often shocked me and always taught me but there have been incidents of this nature several times that have frightened me profoundly and it is one of these, the first one, that I want to tell you about now.

It was a hot but blustery day as we arrived in Minneapolis, the sort of day where the wind blew warm and although summer blanketed the city in a haze of heat something in the sky was changing. The three Australians I had been travelling with got out of the car and looked around, the city was airy and open and the car park vast, neat little rows of stores, grocery, photographics, laundry, cafes mingled at ground level with the block square buildings above and behind them containing honeycombs of offices, hives busy and bursting. The office blocks across the street came down to the ground though one had to look a little closer to see a mall of shops beneath them squeezed inbetween the large corporate entrances and on the corner of the block under the scrutiny of three sets of alien eyes sat Boomers Bar. It was noon.

We all of us needed to do laundry and so we disgorged the bags of dirty washing - six days on the road's worth - from the trunk of Terry's station wagon and sauntered over to the laundrette across the street from Boomers. The glass front of the store insulated the interior from the noise of the street and the friendly proprietor was happy to take our washing in for us for three-fifty each and to recommend Jim's cafe right across the street for breakfast - "Ham and eggs as good as it gets, boys."

I could see Jamie and Terry eyeing the bar but we went amiably on our way to Jim's and ordered all day breakfasts and coffee. I bought Marlboros and we smoked a leisurely cigarette while we waited for our food.

"I'm for moving on after we get fed and watered" noted Jamie, giving Terry, our transportation, a significant look. Terry said nothing but he nodded and I knew he would allow Jamie to talk him into moving on later that day. Andrew was his usual enigmatic self, he had no agenda except to keep on travelling unlike Jamie who had come to the States to purchase a Harley Davidson motorbike and was disappointed to have missed out in Milwaulke where the Harley engine plant is situated. I said nothing, something was afoot and although I greatly enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of these easy going Aussies I knew inside that it was time to go our separate ways; I needed a rest, to hole up and take stock a little. Just as I was musing on telling my companions that I would not be travelling on with them that day Jamie pricked up his ears and looked out of the window. The eruption of sound outside was that of an engine, a big engine and the sound was unmistakably a large motorbike. A huge, black Harley Davidson pulled into the car park next to our station wagon and a man climbed off and removed his helmet.

"Look at that baby" murmured Jamie through a mouthful of toast and it was plain he was smitten. The man casually removed his black bike jacket to reveal, surprisingly, a suit and tie with a crisp, stylish blue shirt underneath. He had transformed in an instant from Mad Max into the slick city business man he obviously was. I looked round to comment but Jamie was already out of his seat and half way through the door. Skipping amongst the traffic he cut a comic dash as he approached the owner of the dream bike. I almost laughed aloud watching Jamie try, too late, to compose himself and saunter up casually to the man. They chatted for a while, both looking at the bike as Terry, Andrew and I settled the bill and lazily rose to leave. When we got across the road Jamie was back to himself, blunt to the point of rudeness and the guy was almost cowering under the onslaught,

"So how about eight thousand cash right now?" Jamie was saying to the man who, with a smile, was shaking his head.

"I'm sorry but I love my bike" he said "And I wouldn't sell it for all the world."

Jamie was unperturbed, "Eight and a half then" he continued as if the other had never spoken but the man just shook his head and said he was sorry once again.

"Well, no worries, mate" continued Jamie, "I was just seeing if you and I could do each other a favour, its a lovely piece of machinery though".

The man agreed but said he was late for a meeting and nodding politely to the rest of us he made off across the street and into the office building next door to Boomers. Jamie took a long lingering look at the sleek black machine and sighed. "Well, guess thats one little baby I wont be calling mine today" he chuckled and shrugged philosophically. "So I reckon its time got the hell out of here and put some more miles behind us" Terry agreed and I told them it was the end of the line for me, I was staying in Minneapolis. It was cool, we all knew we wouldn't travel together forever and far from being sorry at parting we were all just glad to have known each other. We collected our laundry and stood a little awkwardly by Terry's car while I unloaded my guitar and rucksack. I wished Jamie good luck on his quest for a Harley, Terry good luck on his quest for adventure and Andrew on his for enlightenment. They drove away.

Looking around I realised with a start that I was out on my own again, living on my own wits and perspicacity and needing somewhere to stay for the night I figured I'd go over to Boomers Bar, have a beer and plan my next move. Realising I had left my cigarettes in the car and smiling at Terry finding them I stepped into the grocery store next to the laundry and bought another pack, some batteries and a three rolls of film for my camera.

Boomers was cool in comparison to the street outside, air conditioned and airy. Big plate glass windows took up two walls, a row of private booths along another, doors to the washrooms along the last and a long bar right down the centre. There were very few customers it being early afternoon and a working day and the jukebox was unobtrusive but audible. Putting down my rucksack and my guitar I ordered a beer and took out my travel guide to find a hotel, boarding house or hostel to stay at that night. I ran my finger down the list and picked the cheapest, Kaz's Home Hostel, friendly and quiet according to the guide and within a short bus ride of downtown Minneapolis. I looked around for a telephone and the barman disinterestedly pointed to the far corner. I slipped a quarter into the machine and made the call, yes they had room tonight, no pets allowed and did I mind being quiet since they had a disabled son who slept in the downstairs room. It was not ideal, too personal for my need of solitude and though Kaz sounded pleasant I wanted the anonymity of a hotel to collect my thoughts so I told Kaz that I would call her back in a while. I phoned several hotels, the cheapest of which was in the same neighbourhood as Kaz's but they were fully booked tonight. "We have rooms for tomorrow though" said the girl and on an impulse I booked for the following night. So that was set, I would have two nights in Minneapolis and three days before I moved on. Feeling settled to my plan I called Kaz back and arranged to arrive at 6.30pm leaving me the afternoon to check out the city. Not very convenient I realised as I got back to the bar and noticed my heavy and bulky rucksack and my guitar. What I also failed to notice was that the bar seat next to me, empty when I went to the phone, was now occupied by a woman in a baseball cap with wisps of faded fair hair poking rakishly out from under the long, narrow brim. She smiled and looked down at the guitar then back at me, right in the eyes, smiled again and said in the characteristic mid west accent "Play that thing?"

"certainly do" I said cheerfully, returning the smile and recognising the familiar look of uncertainty cross her face as she registered the foreign accent. Almost as if she were reading from a script I had written she said "Oh boy, are you a long way from home!"

Smiling I nodded and said in my best English accent "Across the pond, my dear" and drank in her aroused curiosity. She had a nice face, lined a little but strongly featured as if it were saying 'world ain't beat me yet' which, I was to discover wasn't far from the truth.

She introduced herself and welcomed me to Minneapolis in a mock ceremonial speech on behalf of all the citizens. I was charmed instantly by her quick sense of humour and ready smile. Her name was Judy-Jo but I could call her "JJ" since everyone else did. She wanted to know what I was doing in Minneapolis and I told her I was travelling America. She found it strange that I should choose somewhere so far off the tourist track and I explained that I wasn't a tourist as such, that I was on a quest to discover myself and the world and, to her credit and my surprise she accepted this strange explanation as if it were commonplace.

"I just love your accent, man" she said disarmingly and then, as if she'd been rude and it was the purpose of our conversation in the first place she asked about the guitar and if she could see it. I obliged and she asked me, half joking but like a small child in the presence of a conjurer, if I'd play it for her later.

Laughing, I agreed and, seeing as she was nursing an empty Budweiser bottle I bought us both another beer. She asked where I was staying and I recounted the tale of my telephone conversation. She threw up her hands in mock horror

"You should have said something, dude. My girlfriend, Barbara, she'd take in a guest at half the price of that hostel place."

I protested that I hadn't known her when I'd placed the call but she insisted that she call her friend and fix up for me to stay there the following night.

'Damn!' I thought as she went off to use the phone, I hadn't planned on this, I wanted to have some time to myself but as I watched Judy on the phone, smiling and waving at me across the room when she noticed I was watching something pulled at me inside and I decided that it wouldn't be such a bad idea to get to know this interesting and, I realised with a start, attractive woman.

When she came back she was beaming broadly, "Well, Ashley," she gushed "Barb says that would be fine but she has her kids' father staying until tomorrow night but if you're staying on after that," she paused to look exageratedly pleading at me, "She'd be glad to put up a friend of mine for a few days, maybe even a week if she likes you." She winked.

I smiled then for as the sun cut through the big windows from the street, the same sun, mark you, that had earlier beaten relentlessly down on the car containing four guys intent on whooping it up like guys are wont to do, I realised that I was lonely and in need of female company, the gentler viewpoint of a woman and not the enforced macho posturing of "being with the boys".

Barb was working all afternoon but she was going to stop by Boomers for a beer and to meet me after she finished at about 5pm and then she'd agreed to drive me over to Kaz's Hostel for the night. I told Judy how kind it was and she just laughed saying "Anything for a friend of mine". She had to go downtown to collect some wages from her work but I was welcome to come with her and see a little more of the city if I wanted. I pointed helplessly at my rucksack and other clobber and she was stumped for a second. Then it hit her. Judy had a way of lighting up like a bulb when she thought of something and as she did it now for the first time it fair took my breath away.

"I have a buddy in the offices in this building, Larry, you could put your stuff in his office until later if you like" then, as an afterthought, "You'll like Larry, Ashley, he's your kind of guy" just as if she'd come to know me well enough in that half hour to know what "my kind of guy" was like. She was shortly to be proved right, she did that, Judy, very often.

Larry was an easy person to weigh up quickly, early forties, his own law firm, mop of curly greying hair, sharp eyes but not unkind, quick to laugh and razor sharp intelligence, the kind of lawyer, I thought, who'd make his money from defending the little guys against the big guys and winning. I wasn't far wrong. Judy was excited by now and something was in the air, her friends seemed to treat her as a wayward little sister, I wondered if Larry had slipped her the odd fifty bucks now and again to keep her out of trouble. His office was plush but only by British standards, he was firmly American middle class and he looked well on it. I noticed his bookshelves, a lot of law and there at the end, as if defiantly, half a dozen books on bridge. I commented and within two minutes he was fixing up a game and promising to teach Judy with my help - something magnetic was happening here, if I'd have known at that moment I'd have picked up my things and walked out there and then, I was lapping up the attention; I stayed.

By 5pm Boomers bar was filling up with people on their way home from work, a lot of regulars, a lot of friends. There was the guy who shared offices with Larry, Larry himself, Judy's friends Sherry and her daughter Robin, Jeff - he was the guy who Jamie had tried to buy the Harley from earlier that day (another odd coincidence), Barbara and Ellen, Kristen, so many new people, all of them being frantically introduced to me, the crazy English guy with no home and a bunch of ideas. Judy and I had talked the afternoon away, music (I'd mentioned an artist called Melissa Etheridge just as her record came on the juke box - weird coincidence again), books, my family, Judy's family, life and the world in general and throughout the afternoon I had let myself get carried away with my subject, if only I'd been able to step outside our conversation a little I'd have seen the warning signs, a little less of Judy talking, a little too much attention to my own words, the gathering around of more people. By the time I realised it there was a small crowd around our corner of the bar, nice people, strangers becoming friends, good people all talking, talking, conversing, listening, talking, listening, listening, listening, listening . . .

I realised with a start, that was it, they were all listening, I was the only one talking, I was raised up on my stool addressing the throng, someone threw up a subject, a question and wanted to know what I thought about it . . . taxes . . . pollution . . . relationships . . . and I was answering, every subject I suddenly found I had an opinion on, everytime I said something it seemed right, made sense. Poverty . . . religion . . . family . . . the topics went on, I was at the hub of it . . . I loved it! The attention, the agreement, we were just friends talking, I was making sense, communicating, I'd finish something and they'd applaud, it was OK, it seemed natural, nothing unusual, the crowd was growing bigger, people were straggling in from other corners of the bar, people expanding the circle, the circle with me at its centre and they were smiling . . . more topics . . . more questions . . . "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" . . . "I believe there was a being on earth called Jesus Christ who did a great many good things for the people around him, yes." . . . "Do you accept him as your saviour?" . . . "Well, I'm afraid I don't quite see it as simply as that, I think if I felt an identity to him like you obviously do then I'd be able to converse with him and he'd probably be very wise and a great friend" . . . "Talk to him through prayer?" . . . "Not as such, no, you see space and time aren't real, they only exist because we choose to believe in them existing, so if I lift myself above that illusion then I can converse with whoever I wish whenever I wish to, Jesus Christ included." . . . "Well that's what I call praying" . . . "And it's what I call living" I found myself saying, "living as the best human being I know how to be at any given time, if you want to call it prayer then that's fine by me, I choose not to call it prayer, that is fine by me and I hope fine by you too. We live by consent, I allow you your freedom and you allow me, we come together sometimes to discuss and maybe learn from each other, we go away again, you thinking "prayer", me thinking "psychic superconscious archetypal contact" neither name has any meaning except we both know what we mean and we both know what each other means. Too many humans have refused to listen to each other because they don't like the nomenclature we use so if it stops you from declaring me an infidel and starting a crusade to kill me" - this drew a laugh - "then I'll agree to call it prayer, but so long as we both know what it is, it doesn't matter what either of us calls it".

Then the first warning sign:

"Don't you believe Jesus is the son of God?"

"I believe we are all the children of God, maybe Jesus was a lot more advanced and closer to knowing his own being than most of the rest of us but I think he'd be the first to tell you we are all the children of God in God's eyes, whatever we choose to see ourselves or each other as in our own eyes".

Another round of applause.

I was running dry in the mouth, there was so much more to say, I took another drink and continued.

Then the second warning sign (how did I not notice? Drunk on my own power, my own importance, why didn't I just listen to myself for a second?):

"Are you the son of God, Ashley?"

My reply was as swift as it was accurate (well I understood it, it never occurred to me that they would not)

"Yes, I am, as much as any of us are. We are all sons of God, equal in our own right to be here, to choose to live as humans on earth, same as any other creature, equal, exactly equal."

"Equal to Jesus?" (How could I still not notice?)

"Yes, equal to Jesus"

"You're a dangerous guy, going around saying things like that"

An angry look, a jostle and the door slamming as he left.

I ignored it, the rest crowded in to fill the space, we continued.

I woke up the next morning with all the events ringing in my head. The people, the smiles, the exercising of the brain. The popularity. The end of the evening, drunk and singing, all of us, leaving Boomers, Judy beaming . . . Judy . . . now there was a pleasant thought, what a wonderful person, how proud she looked to have been the first one to discover me. I basked in it, I was lying there in Kaz's home hostel where Judy & Barb had dropped me off 6,000 miles from home in a strange town and I was the talk of it. I revelled in the attention, we were communicating, human beings, the loathsome, nasty, spite-filled creatures were really the warm, eternal beings of great light and love I'd always secretly believed in. I lay there happy with the world. And still I couldn't see it.

During the morning I said my goodbyes to Kaz and family, it had been fine but I was moving on. I was checked into the hotel and there I headed. Around lunchtime I took a bus downtown and after wandering around for a while I found myself back at Boomers. I wasn't going to go in but the bartender waved at me through the window and I kind of mooched in. I had a beer and just hung out for a while then I saw a couple of people from from the previous night. Sherrie and Robin were two nice ladies, Sherrie being in her forties and the mother of Robin who would have been in her twenties and they were exaggeratedly pleased to see me. We chatted a while before Robin, rather shyly, brought up some of the subjects of the previous night, more attention for me, more speaking of what I thought were plain truths and then the bomb dropped. The cluster effect, fallout to follow:

"Ashley, I think you must be an angel sent down to us by the Lord God Almighty"

I laughed it off, it was so contrary to what I was saying, she'd misunderstood, for the first time since arriving in town I felt a wave of fear, the danger was close upon me, I was frozen immobile and I faltered. I said nothing, met the remark with silence, how could I have not known that the silence was precisely the wrong thing to do?

I made my excuses to Sherrie and Robin and left with the promise that I'd be back that evening. I retreated to the anonymity of the street and decided to wander around for a while. I went to change some money and the final alarm bell sounded - or was it a death knell? Standing in the bank I reached for my wallet and to my complete horror I found my credit cards both missing. There was a terrible lurch in my stomach, it was the final bolt of lightning and I was out cold. Fear gripped me, money, materialism all the things I had been denouncing were going to finish me off, the cruellest irony. America is not a place you want to be with no money I can tell you. Keeping calm I took stock of my situation but it was only seconds before the knot inside me tightened and I was consumed again with fear. As if the world had suddenly stopped it ground back into momentum again as I got back out on the street and almost collided with Larry. I was in too much shock to realise what a coincidence it was but there was no time anyway, Larry told me he was glad he'd found me and he seemed excited. The wheels of fate were rolling behind the scenes again and he'd had a phonecall from a local radio station who wanted to know all about the English preacher who'd been arousing such interest in Boomers bar and could they come down and record one of the sermons. That word really stuck in my craw, I was not sermonising, preaching or telling anybody what to do, it was just some people talking and discussing. I could feel momentum beginning to tumble me over . . . I was stupid, although I saw it all now for what it was I told Larry it would be fine and arranged the time for 8pm. This was awful, I had to find my cards, without them I had no means of leaving Minneapolis which was just what I wanted to do . . . preferably before 8pm.

The afternoon was spent returning to all the places I'd been since I'd arrived in town after phoning the bank in England to cancel the cards and report them missing. Five weeks was the shortest time they could fly me out replacements and would I be so good as to tell them which address I'd be at until then? I tried to explain, travelling, moving around etc. but they wouldn't help, they couldn't send them to my hotel in the next few days, oh no, five weeks was the time it would take! Then, just as I thought I was dead and buried the final humiliation, I passed the photographic shop across the street from Boomers where we'd bought batteries and film a few days before and the shop assistant came rushing out to me.

"Here," she said "You left these behind the other day" and lo and behold she was clutching the missing cards (now useless since the bank had cancelled them). I was relieved and grateful and she smiled at my humility,

"Are you going to speak in Boomers again tonight?" she asked me earnestly,

"I really don't know" I managed to reply,

"Well I'll be there for sure" she continued "Even after what they're saying"

"What who is saying?" I asked, now thoroughly alarmed,

"Oh those guys at the church, didn't you hear it on the radio?"

"No" I replied, losing my grip on reality once more,

"Well they say you have no right to tell people that God is personal and all that other stuff you say and they're going to come over tonight and expose you for the phoney you are"

"Well thank you for telling me," I recovered, "I hope you'll come anyway"

"Oh yeah, wouldn't miss it for anything" she replied with a relish I found macabre and disturbing.

Now I was really in it. I headed back to the hotel to find the relentless pressure had not let up, the disinterested (I was grateful to note) receptionist gave me my key and the seven (I counted with growing incredulity) messages for me. Larry, Barb (twice) and Judy (twice) and two ominously anonymous ones.

I imagine that this would have made a better story now if I carry on to describe the big showdown that night, the climax of the events I have described but I'm afraid that would contradict with the truth and since that was my point all along I will not do it. For those of you wishing to read such an ending you can do so in many a good book, for myself I will just tell you what really happened in the knowledge that this is the right way to end the tale.

I made my way along the darkening streets, I had declined Judy's offer of a ride for the need to walk and think. Then I saw Boomers bar, crowded, anticipating like (as I was to dream later) a snake watching its prey. I saw the ranks of faces, some familiar, some not, all chattering and jabbering away in their incomprehensible language about me and the likely outcome of my "preaching". I watched through the window as the radio presenter interviewed someone I had not seen before, no doubt lapping up their description of my previous speeches. The mood grew restless and, needing to compose myself, I headed across the street to Jim's cafe for a coffee before I went into the Lion's Den.

"Boy, did you cause a stir" was Jim's greeting as I slipped into the near-deserted cafe.

"Yeah?" I tried to appear disinterested,

"Well they've been going crazy all day over there, some guy from the church is organising a protest, he says you are spreading the word of the devil"

"From the mouths of babes and children . . ." I said quietly,

"Say what?" asked Jim,

"Nothing, I was just quoting" I replied, "Can I get a coffee?"

"You bet, but aren't you due across the street right about now?"

I smiled then, knowing I had made up my mind what to do,

"Sure am, Jim" I said with a wry smile. He made the coffee.

We talked then, Jim the mid west cafe owner, late forties, quiet manner, steady business, builder of model aircraft and me, English wise-man, world traveller, spiritually enlightened being, great prophet, angle of the Lord, devil of the church and as we talked it came to me that I was right all along, we are all the same, we are all humans, frail, obtuse, contradictory, helpless and all at the same time we are the beautiful enigma of creation and evolution, bright spirits that do not die because we are not bound by spacetime or any of the other ridiculous illusions we have made for ourselves. I realised for truth our freedom I had been speaking about over these past few days, and I realised my truth here and now as it was, I was free, certainly to go and teach those that would listen, or to fight with those who did not wish to listen or discuss, free to disappear never to be seen again or to choose to fly beyond space and time, right now, right this moment and become the being of spirit I know I am beyond this flesh or free to choose, as I did, to pass an idle half hour hearing about life in Minneapolis, about a small place out of town, a house, a family, model airplanes and free to lend a hand with wiping down a few tables. I'm not sure if Jim understood me or my ideas, I didn't renege on talking about them to him when he asked, but the dialogue was honest and, above all, two-way. I exercised my choice and it met with my own approval and that is why I was smiling as I left Jim's a little later.

Choice is a function of freedom and that is ours, always ours whether we choose to accept it or not, choosing not to be free is an exercising of our freedom, there's no escape from freedom! Maybe that is why I was smiling as I made my way back to the hotel and maybe that is why the radio crew who were angrily throwing their equipment into a large car outside Boomers and muttering about "time-wasting asshole religious nuts" chose to stop for a second to watch the smiling stranger making his way along the deserted street and never even glancing at the hullabaloo through the large plate glass windows of Boomers, intent only on getting back to the hotel, calling my friend Judy-Jo and keeping my promise to play the guitar for her and, as is the way for those who choose to accept freedom, that is exactly what I did.

Epilogue

I later found out that Boomers was packed with the local church organisers all bleating about antichrists and agents of the devil. It was so far out of hand, Judy had been jostled for admitting to the terrible crime of knowing me and all round it had been a pretty bad scene. I spent the next night staying at Barb's house and a few more after that, all in all I was in Minneapolis for nearly a month and the fuller story of what was to happen there is told in my book, "On A Line Of Light" yet to be published.

It's strange really but when you start talking about some subjects the rules of common sense seem to fly out of some people's windows, they call you an angel one minute and a devil the next, the lesson to learn is that we are free to make up our minds as we see fit and that by abiding by nomenclature we limit ourselves against our nature, I learned the hard way in Minneapolis.

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