Sarah*, my friend and associate pastor, asked me to pick some things at her home to take her wedding this weekend.
That’s why I drove north on Fresno’s Maroa Avenue around 7:30pm on Tuesday evening and saw the man playing bagpipes.
It all happened more quickly than the time it took you to read this sentence.
My car was jammed with a ficus tree, a stool, a large metal pail, and many other items all mysteriously connected to Mike and Sarah’s wedding. (I didn’t ask, I just loaded the car!) I loafed along at thirty or so miles an hour, mind wandering as a long day finally concluded. Then I spotted a man with bagpipes, standing at the far end of his driveway.
We made eye contact for a split-second. He played. I drove.
End of story? Not really. What was he doing there? Why was he, clearly Hispanic (though perhaps he had Scottish ancestors), playing a bagpipe?
* * *
Richard Brautigan wrote short stories in the 1960s and 70s. I lost track of his career years ago, but I remember his stories were truly “short” and often comical. Like, for example, his “The Scarlatti Tilt.”
“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.**
Now that’s a short story!
And yet it tells a full, complete tale. And it’s as funny as it is sad, especially if you have heard someone learning to play a violin. It takes an awful lot of awful noise to attain the violin’s exquisite sound.
So I think of that guy and the bagpipes. I can imagine—and I might be totally wrong!—a little bit of his world. Of course he’s playing a bagpipe closer to Maroa Avenue than his home. His family and neighbors won’t let him do anything else! I further imagined that, though he doesn’t have any Scottish background, he’s part of a military outfit that uses bagpipes for ceremonial purposes and he volunteered to learn the instrument.
And then I also thought that he . . .
In those split seconds, I imagined many scenarios. Doing that reminds me of how complex we humans are. We all pass lives each day we know nothing about. We look at a stranger and see a glimpse of a face, a bagpipe or briefcase in a hand, a business suit or sweat pants the attire, and then they are gone.
I try to remember the beauty and pain behind every face I glimpse. They, like me, lead complex, grand, disappointing, worrisome, wonderful lives.
There are so many Gospel scenes of Jesus having brief encounters with people. The “woman with the hemorrhage,” the “Gerasene demoniac,” the “Syrophoenician woman,” the children he held in his arms, and so on and so forth. In every Gospel account, they come and go, glimpses all. Of the many themes of our Gospel tradition, the encounter with the stranger continually challenges me. How will I see the stranger? How do I imagine their lives? Will I remember they are more like me than different from me?
Every single person is a gift, with a life rich and textured. And every day, we glimpse the other. And they us. We barely know each other, but we are all glorious children.
* I stumbled across this essay from May, 2003. I am long gone from the church I then served. Sarah, in 2003, was soon to marry and soon to leave for southern California. A few weekends back, I saw her and Mike again. How delightful! She’s an Episcopal priest now. I wish I’d asked them about the ficus.
**Found in Brautigan’s REVENGE OF THE LAWN (Simon and Schuster)