Tuesday, March 2, 2010

leaving a trail of fire

"the only chance of renovation
is to open our eyes and see the mess."
samuel beckett

bubbles, in a narcotics anonymous meeting

matt and i just finished watching the hbo series "the wire" this weekend. if you've never seen the wire, it is a gritty drama set in baltimore, essentially about the american city. each season shifts its focus slightly while retaining core characters; the seasons highlight different facets of contemporary urban life - the illegal drug trade, the city's port, city government, education & the school system, and the local newspaper/media. the show is sort of the epitome of good but hard- it is so well written and constructed, but the reality and despair captured in the narrative as it portrays institutions within our cities is overwhelming. i could write an entire series of posts on this show, especially as a resident of oakland (a city that shares a lot in common with baltimore); after all, there are entire university courses devoted to deconstructing and analyzing the wire.

one of my favorite characters throughout the seasons is bubbles, a drug addict/informant for the police/sort of entrepreneur. in many ways, bubbles is scum-he is a liar, a thief, and an addict to the core. despite his flaws, he is a likeable, genuine character, who i found myself rooting for throughout the show. partly, i think we long for redemption in people, even those who seem so far gone that it seems hopeless; we see glimpses of glory in others (and ourselves) and we hope for a new story instead of the same old broken narrative.

i've written before about the current state of my relationship with my dad, which is intentionally estranged at my own request.

here i am, someone who follows in the way of jesus, purposefully drawing boundaries with my own father to have no contact. jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us, and to love our enemies. jesus hung out with and shared meals with the most despicable and messed up people in his society. he loved them even though no one else thought they deserved it. i believe in radical forgiveness. i want to love when all seems lost.

but i also think true forgiveness and authentic transformation comes slowly and painfully. it isn't just a switch in which you say the right words and magically everything changes. it's more than going through the motions and pacifying the people whom you've wounded.

throughout the seasons of the wire, bubbles has hit rock bottom multiple times. i keep rooting for him that he wouldn't get killed or die form his own vices.
miraculously, in the final season, and after a very close brush with death, he has been clean for a year and is living in his sister's basement. the door between the basement and her home is locked. she doesn't trust him, and for good reason. their interactions are minimal and cold, yet he tries to prove to her that he has changed, that he is winning his battle with drugs and that he won't steal from her or lie to her. on his year anniversary of being clean, bubbles shares at his narcotics anonymous meeting. he has invited his sister and her son, hoping they'll be able to come and support him. as he shares his story he scans the room and looks at the door for a sign of his family, but they never show up. in that moment, i wanted her to be there at that meeting. i wanted her to extend forgiveness and grace. i wanted them to end the scene with a hug of restoration and hope. but it didn't happen. she doesn't show up. my heart sank. but that accurately represents the slow road to redemption.

bubbles says, My name is . . . my name is . . . Reginald. Round the way, they call me Bubbles. I'm a drug addict. Celebrating my anniversary. My people couldn't make it here tonight. I left a trail of fire behind me. Time going to make it right, I guess.

"i left a trail of fire behind me."

that is what true change entails- openly acknowledging the trail of fire and damage, and then, recognizing how long those wounds take to heal. bubbles gets why his sister isn't there, even though he wishes she was. he knows that he is the one responsible for her mistrust and hesitance.

i watched this drug addict do something i have not experienced in my family's own trail of fire- he didn't justify, or blame shift, or make excuses, or backpedal, or sweeten the story. he owned it all, and more. he didn't just own it once or twice; he owned it daily. he made amends. he took inventory of his entire life. he laid bare every facet of himself to himself and his sponsor, even the most ugly parts. he waited. he lived in the basement with little hope of ever making it back upstairs.

the scene with bubbles and his sister is brief, but its authenticity resonated with me. it is so far from what i have experienced that it served as a reminder of what true repentance is: messy and slow. it is in incremental changes that take a very long time to add up, changes that maybe no one wounded will ever see or give credit for. it is when we look in the mirror and know we aren't hiding a single thing from anyone. it is when the change isn't to make someone else happy, but to make oneself whole. and that is where the healing begins.


  1. i love bubbes too, but I see why his family kept his distance. Even during the 5 seasons-- he was in a constant cycle of using and being clean. this is very real...it's hard to get out of those addictive patterns...

    And yes, a trail of fire has been left-- good thing that there can be growth after a fire, it can be restorative...but it takes a LONG time. I just went up to Tahoe and saw all the barren acres where there once was thousands of trees. There's not life yet, but maybe in a couple years. But for now, you just see all the devastation.

  2. bec, that is so true.

    and usually, the forest ends up being healthier because it burned and then was able to grow up new.

    (of course, as a wire watcher you know you DO see a glimpse of that future restoration in the last episode, but it looks like it is far in the future.)

  3. Beautiful and moving. Too often, some sort of artificial, forced act called "forgiveness" is seen as the ultimate and only goal of healing. This is usually preached by people who are uncomfortable with our pain, and who want it to go away by sheer force of will on our part. And hey, I'd be all for that, if it worked. But alas, the human condition is not so simple.

  4. Do I even read this post? I'm only at the end of season 2. I don't want any spoilers.

  5. OK, I am crying at how insightful, honest, transparent and talented you are. You put words to what Christians think about when asked to forgive. I can't help but admire you for your insight and love.
    Granma Pam

  6. It IS slow. I'm walking it (and I'm Bubbles). I guess I just wanted to say that when I sit in a meeting or group of other addicts, I witness redemption every time and it's holy and profound and yes, very very messy.

    Beautiful post. Now I need to watch that show :)

  7. love the writing, even if i'm partial to omar. thanks for the gift of your thoughts.


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