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OxyContin, the Holy Spirit, and Townes Van Zandt

Her hair was red, but not nearly as red as the area rug that sat atop the aqua-green carpet in her living room. She was short and plump, yet not as round as the peanut M&Ms we ate while drinking coffee and discussing theology. Though nearly sixty years old, her Irish eyes sparkled with a childlike joy that, for a long time, I didn’t realize was caused by an opioid coursing through her veins. Her name was Mary Elizabeth, she preferred to be called Liz, and one day, high on OxyContin and almost-as-expensive Hawaiian Kona coffee, she exclaimed, “How come you’re Lutheran instead of Catholic? Jesus founded the Catholic Church, not the Lutheran Church! Why would you want to be part of a church an ordinary man started just five hundred years ago?”

A decade after my conversion, when recounting this incident to a priest, he said, “Ah… an OxyContin evangelical moment.” And indeed it was. For as surely as OxyContin had loosed her tongue, Liz’s questions prompted me to more seriously investigate both Catholicism and my own Lutheran tradition. By that time I had started watching EWTN, inspired by the homilies I could hear every day, especially those of Father Angelus Shaughnessy, an aging Franciscan whose love for Catholicism flowed through the television like sunshine through a stained glass window. Why God chose an Irish opioid addict to help an Irish priest nudge this German across the Tiber remains a mystery, but their disparity proves the wind blows where it wills—that God can use anyone, and any circumstance, to accomplish His purposes.

I met Liz the autumn of 2002 because after nearly twenty years in education I’d just started selling real estate, and hers was the first house I listed. A friend of hers I’d taught with at the local university—she, a full-time professor, me, one of countless adjuncts—had called and discreetly said Liz needed to sell her house. Thrilled and thankful for the referral, I quickly learned the situation was a bit more dire:  Liz was in danger of losing her house because she suffered from neuropathy, no longer drove, and therefore couldn’t keep her job as a social worker and pay the mortgage. It took me several months, however, to discover she was addicted to OxyContin, which had been prescribed for her illness.

Liz was estranged from her children, who lived in other towns, and I suppose that’s why she wanted me to be her friend as well as her Realtor—and for a while, it was easy to be her friend. First, she was almost two decades older than me, so there was no danger of romantic tension. Second, she had that childlike joy, making it fun to be around her. Third, she was intelligent and interested in theology, our main topic of conversation. Lastly, she was kind:  After finishing all the paperwork for the listing, I went outside and enthusiastically pounded—parallel to the street—a bright-red for-sale sign into her front yard, and just as I finished and stepped back to admire my work, wondering when the first showing would be, I heard the screen door open and she said, “That’s a beautiful sign, but why don’t you put it in the other way, so people driving down the road can see it? I already know the house is for sale.”

Despite my inexperience and her habit of smoking extra-long, menthol cigarettes—to cover the smell, we usually baked a frozen apple pie before showings—her house eventually sold a few months later near the end of winter, in those sloppy days when gray snow melted away from the curbs as steadily as money had been draining from my bank account. During that time I learned her nickname was Boo, she was an addict who could engage in lively conversation one minute and fall fast asleep the next—sometimes with a lit cigarette in her hand—and her middle-aged housekeeper, Donna, was a good friend and caretaker without whom Liz would have been lost. One afternoon when I was visiting, Donna was trying to get her to hurry up because they had to leave for an appointment, and from the open door of the bathroom, where she was putting on lipstick and drenching herself in hairspray as women of that generation were prone to do, Liz hollered in mock annoyance, “You’re not the boss of me!”

When her house sold, she rented a second-story condo with a view of a river, and there, both our theological discussions and her addiction intensified. Sometimes it was difficult for her to walk, even with a cane, so she gave me a key to the condo. After making arrangements with her on the phone, I’d drive over to her place, let myself in, brew a pot of the rich Kona coffee we both drank with half-and-half, she with sugar, and then, while enjoying the coffee and peanut M&Ms, we’d talk about our respective faiths amidst the haze of her cigarette smoke. Usually these talks took place in her living room, though on occasion, if the neuropathy and OxyContin were winning the day, she’d still be in bed, so I’d sit in a chair and we’d discuss theology in her bedroom. When I told her Lutherans believed in consubstantiation rather than transubstantiation, and that we didn’t have tabernacles because consubstantiation only lasts while we’re receiving Communion, she bypassed the necessity of a validly ordained priest to confect the Eucharist, and simply said, “Well, what does your pastor do, unconsecrate the hosts after the service?” Good question.

Since she no longer drove and hadn’t been going to Mass, Liz asked if I’d take her, and the first place we went was the cathedral of the local diocese—a diocese which, at the time, I didn’t realize was one of the most wayward in the country. When Liz and I entered the cathedral we were treated to tin foil stars dangling by string from the ceiling, folding chairs in place of pews, a little garage-sale altar in the middle of the nave, and up on the “stage” where, no doubt, a beautiful marble altar once stood, a man in an untucked shirt playing a piano. He was clearly meant to be the center of attention, this bedraggled Billy Joel—that is, if you could divert your eyes from the blasphemous Britney Spears Madonna to the left of the stage, a life-size gold statue portraying the Mother of God with a sensuality similar to the former Mouseketeer. Even though I wasn’t Catholic, and was still a year or more from beginning to pray the Rosary, I knew better than to disrespect Christ’s mother.

This cathedral, in which the tabernacle was hidden away in a side room, was quite a shock for a Missouri Synod Lutheran, because even if some of our theology was wrong, our churches still looked like churches—complete with altar rails—and we understood the importance of reverence. I don’t recall the opening hymn or the Responsorial Psalm being irreverent, though I might have been delirious from my surroundings and just didn’t notice. If so, I was painfully returned to my senses when the pianist started pounding out the Gospel Acclamation and singing a frenzied repetition of “alle, alle, alleluia,” resembling Jerry Lee Lewis more than Billy Joel. This Acclamation was so explosive, and so ill-suited for liturgy, I thought the man performing it must have written it himself, and half-expected him, like Lewis, to lift a leg and plunk his foot on the keys to signal the conclusion.

Liz looked at me and raised her eyebrows, and after Mass explained inner city parishes like this were usually more liberal, “social justice parishes” she called them, and said we might have to do a bit of searching to find a reverent liturgy. Driving around in my old Dodge Caravan, we eventually located such a liturgy, and along the way didn’t have to endure anything quite as offensive as we did at the cathedral—at least no blasphemous statues—though we did struggle to conceal our giggles during a so-called “polka Mass.” Imagine the worst modern Catholic hymns with an oom-pah beat!

We had fun, this Irish addict and I, and that’s why it was so sad the afternoon Donna called and said Liz had been seeing snakes crawling across the carpet of her condo, and insisted on being taken to a hotel. When I arrived at the hotel Liz was in bed, watching television, and though she was anxious about the condo and asked if I could see any snakes there in the hotel room, she could still differentiate between the salient and the superficial, and ridiculed whatever show she had been watching because of its fawning coverage of a Hollywood couple whose first names the media had melded into one. “Are we supposed to care about that?” she said. I pulled up a chair and did my best to assure her everything would be fine, and then read her some Psalms from the Gideon Bible. When I left, she seemed relatively stable.

The next morning, however, Donna called and said Liz was in the hospital, because during the middle of the night she had tottered up and down the hallway of the hotel, banging on door after door, and had been carted away by police. I rushed to the hospital and found her in one of those small emergency rooms with a curtain in place of a front wall—the curtain, the mechanical bed on wheels, the vital signs’ monitor and other equipment all proving things were as serious as a papal bull. Liz was lying in bed unconscious, her arms secured in restraints by her sides. I’d seen her in bed many times before, I’d seen her without makeup, I’d even seen her unconscious from OxyContin, but this… this was like a scene from a soap opera. “Oh, Boo,” I said, and then I prayed for her. Before leaving, I remembered her devotion to the Virgin Mary, and so, though not yet sure about the Catholic understanding of the Communion of Saints, I asked the Mother of God to help her.

From the hospital I drove to Liz’s condo, hoping I’d be able to find her address book, because I knew I had to make three calls:  to a retired priest she knew, and to both of her estranged sons. I felt like a thief entering her condo, even though I knew I was doing the right thing and had no intention of stealing so much as an M&M. Looking around her living room, I noticed her Bible and several other Catholic books on her coffee table—she loved her faith and enjoyed reading about it—as well as an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and an ornate, ceramic mug, half full of light-brown coffee. The address book was nowhere in sight, but a minute later I found it in her bedroom on the nightstand.

I returned to the living room and made the calls, and received responses as varied as the liturgies we’d attended. First I phoned the priest, who expressed his concern, thanked me for telling him, and said he’d go to the hospital right away. The second call, to her oldest son, was less amicable; the son’s wife answered, and from the outset she conveyed none of the priest’s compassion. Perplexed, I said I thought Liz’s son should know, since this hadn’t happened before. The wife barked, “What do you mean this hasn’t happened before!” Immediately, I better understood Liz’s estrangement from her family. Her younger son answered when, with some apprehension, I made the third call, and though distressed, he wasn’t surprised, and he was gracious.

Upon her discharge from the hospital Liz blamed her breakdown on another medicine she was taking, Neurontin, but nonetheless she stopped taking both that and the OxyContin, and in the following weeks her health gradually improved, progressing as steadily as the Church moves through time. She stayed awake during our conversations, her legs strengthened, and one afternoon when I phoned she said to meet her by the river behind her condo, because she’d be down there on a bench enjoying the view. She had rented the second-story condo, despite her infirmity, because she had lived by water earlier in her life, and claimed once you’ve done so, it’s difficult to live anywhere else.

What a joy it was to see her sitting on that bench, the sun shining on her Irish red hair. The river was at least sixty yards from Liz’s building, and getting there couldn’t have been easy for her. As I approached she smiled and, using the nickname she’d given me, said, “Hi, Bunky!” I sat down and we talked casually for a while, taking in the shimmering, slow-moving river, its grassy banks garnished by maples, birches, and pines—but then Liz mentioned the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, admitted they were difficult for her to pray, and asked if I’d ever heard of redemptive suffering. Although I would later learn about this Catholic belief from Fr. Angelus’ homilies, and years after my conversion have the consolation of putting it into practice, at the time it was as foreign to me as weeping statues or bleeding Hosts. Liz explained it a bit, and I realized, despite the delightful afternoon and her improving physical health, she was suffering.

Maybe that’s why she appreciated the music of Townes Van Zandt, the bipolar alcoholic whose beautiful, melancholy songs were so important to me then, and which she heard on homemade cassette tapes playing in my van. A few years before, overwhelmed by a devastating breakup with a woman and other trials, a period so dark I couldn’t even write, I rediscovered Townes’ Rear View Mirror among my CDs. It was collecting dust, having been listened to only a couple times after purchase—I’d been disappointed “Pancho and Lefty” wasn’t as up-tempo as the cover version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard—but one day, on the brink of despair, “something” drew me to that CD. I played it and, in addition to being impressed by the melodies and the precise, cliché-free lyrics, nearly every song comforted me, especially the life-affirming “To Live Is to Fly,” the second verse of which was exactly what I needed to hear:

Days up and down they come

Like rain on a conga drum

Forget most, remember some

But don’t turn none away

Everything is not enough

Nothin’ is too much to bear

Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there

To live is to fly

Low and high

So shake the dust off of your wings

And the sleep out of your eyes   

At the time I was an atheist who had stopped practicing my Lutheran faith, I couldn’t pray or look to scripture for help, and so day after day I internally repeated, “Nothin’ is too much to bear.” Focusing on those words, and listening to that CD, gave me hope. It’s not an overstatement to say Townes Van Zandt saved my life. Later I would learn he wanted to write at least one song having precisely that effect on people. I’d also learn I’m not the only person thus indebted to Townes—who as a college student purposely fell backwards off a third-floor balcony just to see how it felt, who abused every substance from airplane glue to heroin, played Russian roulette with a .357 Magnum, and was addicted to gambling as well as drinking, the synergy of these latter two vices memorialized when he lost all his money throwing dice on his front porch, still refused to quit, wagered his gold tooth and lost again, only to have a friend, using a pair of pliers, look away at the last second and pull the wrong tooth!

And yet, Townes has saved lives, because God can dispense grace through the most earthen of vessels. The “something” that prompted me to listen to Rear View Mirror was either the Holy Spirit directly, or else my guardian angel on His behalf. The same God who worked through Moses (a murderer), King David (an adulterer and a murderer), and King Cyrus (a pagan), is capable of working through a self-destructive songwriter or an aging opioid addict. Moreover, as St. John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.” Thus, when I think of Townes, I like to recall how when he left the stage after a concert, he might not only lose his wages gambling, but, unlike the Rich Young Man in the gospels, he would often search the streets for homeless people and give his money away.

That afternoon by the river, I didn’t realize Liz would soon surrender to her addiction like Townes always did. Her surrender unmoored me, and in the following weeks I couldn’t navigate the currents of her dependency. Most of the men in my extended family were German Lutherans, and they were drinkers—in heaven there is no beer, right?—and though I had quit drinking a few years before, I’d done my share. I knew how to deal with drinkers. They were generally predictable. And unless they were alcoholics, like my maternal grandfather, whenever they’d enjoyed themselves too much and came down with what we called the Pabst Blue Ribbon flu, they’d take it easy for a while. Booze didn’t control their lives like OxyContin controlled Liz.

One day, Donna and I went to the store to get Liz some groceries, and while there she told me she was going to quit housekeeping for Liz. She said her husband was sick and needed more of her attention, which she couldn’t give him while caring for an addict. She’d continue to pick up Liz’s groceries and medications, but would no longer devote so many hours to our mutual friend. I told Donna I understood, and when the time came I gave Liz the phone number of my dad’s housekeeper, a younger woman in her thirties, and thankfully she and Liz hit it off like coffee and chocolate, even though this woman was also busy and couldn’t be the caretaker Donna had been.

Liz’s condition steadily worsened. Walking became increasingly difficult and she spent more days in bed. She again dozed off in the middle of our conversations. It broke my heart to watch her drowning in OxyContin.

As a Realtor who didn’t have many customers, I spent my free time working on my novel, If I Needed You, which I named after the quintessential love song Townes always said came to him in a dream, and I tried to pick up some of the slack left by Donna’s absence. The writing went well, but my efforts with Liz were mixed. We continued attending Mass together when she was able, settling on a beautiful old church that still had, though of course didn’t use, an altar rail, and sometimes we did a little shopping, she riding one of those electric carts stores provide. I also took her to a local hospital for outpatient surgery. The great debacle of those days was when I drove her to see a doctor in the Detroit area—a doctor recommended by her disability lawyer—and though I had printed directions from my computer, I still managed, with the stereotypical incompetence of a writer, to get lost on the way. We arrived too late and she missed her appointment. Liz was fuming, but she held her temper.

She couldn’t do so, however, several weeks later, when I finally mustered the courage to confront her about her addiction. We were driving back to her condo one afternoon, and since I’d made subtle comments before, to no effect, I knew I had to be more direct, though as I pulled into the parking lot I didn’t anticipate what a mistake it would be to mention my conversation with Donna. That really got Liz’s Irish up, dooming my feeble attempt at intervention. Her eyes widened and she said, “You were talking with Donna about me?” “Ah… yes…” I stammered, “because we care about you.” Then, with a fierceness I wouldn’t have thought possible, she said, “Don’t ever let me be the topic of conversation!” Momentarily stunned, I finally managed to plead, “But you were doing so well…” to which Liz reiterated, in more detail, her displeasure.

That marked the end of our friendship, and the need for a mea culpa is mine alone, because Liz called a week or so later and left a message on my answering machine, trying to reconcile. When she said “I miss you,” I could hear the pain in her voice, but it wasn’t enough to, as Townes’ role model Hank Williams sang, melt my cold, cold heart. I was tired of watching her deteriorate, tired of quietly leaving her condo after she’d fallen asleep while talking about St. Thomas Aquinas or purgatory or some other engaging topic; I didn’t want to witness her next breakdown, hear her talk about snakes, or see her strapped to a hospital bed again. In short, I didn’t want to deal with a drug addict any longer. So I didn’t respond to her call. After a few more days she left a formal, yet polite message, saying I should return her condo key, which I put in an envelope and mailed to her.

Surprisingly, I saw Liz three more times. The first was on a weekday when I stopped in to pray at that beautiful old church we’d attended together. It was a little before noon, and as I knelt in one of the back pews, my forearms on the wooden pew in front of me, I saw her come in the side door. Focused on her mission, she didn’t look my way; helped by her cane, she walked slowly to the front of the church, bowed slightly before the tabernacle, and continued through an open door on the opposite side, where I later learned a daily Mass was held. I don’t know how she got to the church, because in addition to not driving any longer, she had sold her car before we parted company, but I was happy to see her.  And I believe now what I saw that day was grace in action, and maybe a saint—a drug addict practicing the faith, a wounded soul relying on, and going to receive, the Lord.

The other times I saw Liz were more complicated, because there was no safe distance between us. The professor who had contacted me about selling Liz’s house, called again and said she and her husband, a Methodist minister I also knew, were looking to buy a house for Liz to live in, because she was being evicted from her condo. The couple and I looked at houses together, they’d decide which ones might be right for Liz, and then I’d arrange for all of us to see those. I did several tours with the husband and wife, two with them and Liz, and after that second tour with all of them, during which we wrote up an offer, we went to a restaurant where the four of us sat in a booth—Liz and I next to each other. I could tell Liz was, like me, a bit uncomfortable, but while this muted the childlike joy I remembered, she was still gracious and witty as she always had been except that day in the parking lot, and I felt terrible for having failed her.

I never saw Liz again. A few years later I moved a different city to take another part-time teaching gig, where my meager salary was still more than I made selling real estate, and though I didn’t know it at the time, as I was casting my pearls before glassy-eyed millennials, Liz died. She had become a member of that church with the altar rail, and though her funeral Mass took place there, she was buried in her hometown, some seventy miles from where I first met her, from where she taught me how great M&Ms taste with coffee, and how the appointments of a house don’t have to be traditional to be attractive:  Her aqua-green carpet and red area rug were surrounded by white furniture and walls, and the total effect was lovely.

With faith, we can view the crosses and failures of our lives like that. Taken by themselves, they are dissonant, pointless, and sometimes bitter, but in the hands of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, they can be arranged more beautifully than the interior of any house. I never would have converted to Catholicism if Liz, suffering from neuropathy and strung out on OxyContin, hadn’t challenged me, and I never would have met her if Townes, despite all his substance abuse and mental problems—as a college student he was committed to a hospital for numerous rounds of insulin- and electroshock treatments—hadn’t sustained me with “To Live Is to Fly.” God can use even our woundedness to bring about good.

Hence the consolation of the long form of dismissal in the Sacrament of Confession, where, just before telling a penitent to go in peace, the priest says, “May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the Saints, whatever good you do and suffering you endure, heal your sins, help you to grow in holiness, and reward you with eternal life.” Not only does this reinforce the Communion of Saints—the greatest thing about being Catholic after the sacraments—but it reminds us how, with the right disposition, nothing, not even our suffering, is wasted. In fact, if we consciously unite our sufferings to Our Lord’s, and offer them to the Father, we can subordinately help redeem others.

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It’s easy to think Liz is a saint, but what about Townes? Objectively, the lanky troubadour who felt most at home on the road carried considerable baggage into eternity. Of course, that’s what purgatory is for, and only God knows his heart, the number of lives he saved through his music, the scores of people he helped financially, and, how much he suffered. Townes had a good sense of humor, once winning a hundred-dollar wager by going onstage during a Jerry Jeff Walker concert and standing on his head the entire time Walker sang “Mr. Bojangles,” and during his own shows he always told jokes to lighten the mood—but in those same shows of his, he sometimes broke down weeping, and his third ex-wife Jeanene said, “He had depression attacks so bad, that all I could do was hold his head and rock him.”

Such suffering suggests Townes displayed heroic fortitude by lasting until his fatal cardiac arrhythmia on January 1, 1997, by not killing himself like another bipolar alcoholic, Ernest Hemingway. So just as the Church teaches there is hope for suicides, I believe there is hope for Townes. I pray for him as I pray for Hemingway and Liz, and I ask each of them to pray for me.

In the last verse of “To Live Is to Fly,” Townes acknowledges we all have sorrows, “holes to fill,” he calls them, and he says we can either “dive into the sea” or “toil upon the stone.” In other words, the options that confronted Hemingway are the options confronting all of us, especially in times of crisis. Townes’ answer to that dilemma is found in the song’s refrain, and it’s the right answer, even though, at the very end of the song, when he repeats the second half of the refrain, he changes the word “sleep” to “tears.” With a poet’s precision, he gives grief its due, yet still advocates for life:

So shake the dust off of your wings

And the tears out of your eyes

I don’t know if that qualifies as saintly wisdom, but it’s excellent advice.

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