Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 30, 2011

Help! I’m Stranded on Mars Hill (aka Blue Ridge Mountain Blues)

The view from Brokedown Mountain

     In a tired, alcohol-compromised state, I caused an auto accident the other night. Thank God, no one was seriously hurt. But my dumbass Ego died, probably in a good way. Thus I have been cast upon the mercy of strangers in helping me to recover from some durned foolish choices, and to understand what in the grander scheme this is all supposed to teach me.

I am now bonded out of jail for my DWI (my first ever, which many repeat offenders on the inside told me will be to my benefit in court, but doesn’t help my personal shame much), but I’m still stuck in Mars Hill, NC.

So lets tally this all up:

I am out of state,

probably out of a car (for now, maybe for good),

out of a driver’s licence for awhile ,

which will make it harder still to find a job back in IL,

I’m on the cusp of a divorce proceeding within the next month or so,

and am now alone in the “wilderness” (which was the effect I was actually going for by visiting the Appalchian Trail on Tuesday… I just didn’t expect to be THIS entrenched in the wild unknown, for several days afterward.

I am using my wits and every survival skill or tool I’ve got in my trick bag –both spiritual and practical– to get back on track. So, for example, my smartphone is still smart and getting a signal… but I’m still sort of dumb, and straining to make out the signals God is putting out for my benefit.

So for the time being,  I am faking my mental health, casting about for a good Samaritan to help me get home, and very much convicted that I am a fool in need of mercy from both God and Man.  To use a phrase borrowed from singer/producer T-Bone Burnett– who I just saw at the Wild Goose Festival down Durham way — I have come face to face with “the criminal under my own hat”, as he and Old Scratch done gotten me into a heap o’ trouble down here in the Bible Belt. Let’s play ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’, y’all! Okay?

I am also just barely insured –auto-wise, healthcare-wise, and all those other middle-class safety nets being strained to their limits right now. I have nearly become one of those unfortunate souls who fall through the cracks in 21st century fractured American culture. But I only just met some even more unsupported, unaccountable,  and sad “lost boys” in the Madison County Jail, and thus cannot in good conscience say I have fallen “off the grid”, where more severe measures are needed to sustain my life and hope. My troubles are still not as grave as those of millions of people around the world, with deeper wounds than my own, and fewer resources with which to trudge onward and build a life.

Because despite all the above misery (and believe me, I’m aware of how it looks, and really felling the pain of how it feels) I am nevertheless assured of this:  I am still not outside of God’s grace. Nothing I could do, nor anything done unto me, can take that away.

I’ve met some amazingly gifted and amazingly broken (but still gifted and loving) people in the past week: hardworking artists and speakers at the festival, my fellow festival volunteers, Sarah from Indiana (who I helped to process a major move of the Holy Spirit in a mystical way, as she journeys back from an abusive relationship and into “the fold”), some college students who — like me– are still idealistic enough to work at balancing a high view of scripture with the hard work of being inclusive of some of the more colorful “Others” whom we encountered at the admittedly liberal Christian festival, sold-out communitarians of several stripes, and the Portland, OR punks of The Bridge, who revel in dancing on the sharp edge of that above-mentioned grid as they reinvent radical love, service, and what “liturgy” can become when you set the Holy Spirit free from our own restraints and conventions.

Meanwhile in jail I met Carl, and Rabbit, and Big John (the Baptist? he certainly fit the part in some funny ways…), and a handful of others who are just trying to get through life while dragging a dumpster-full of regrets, poor choices and deep wounds. Guys with 5, or 30, even 50 years worth of falling off the grid, or getting kicked off of it, or jumping off of it enthusiastically in a moment of drunken or drugged-out or pissed-off distraction. At one point, I felt like I was in a Jim Jarmusch or Sam Peckinpah version of The Breakfast Club: the detention we were enduring was seedier, lasted longer, and the stakes were in some cases a whole lot higher than which “clique” will be a temporary home for us.

I also was reminded about sin… muymy own, and theirs, whether acknowledged or avoided out of shame and youthful ignorance. It’s not their intention to break the law, or to hurt themselves or anyone else. But in the absence of a consciousness of Grace, the Law has become their enemy, the enemy trying to restrict the freedom they think is their American birthright. Their crimes –and yes, there were a few who maintained their innocence and my have been telling the truth… not for you or me to say with certainty –are just the inescapeable seeds of sin in their lives. They grow from the sins that have been perpetrated upon them, as well as those that they have perpetrated in wild, selfish, sometimes desperate coping responses to feeling painfully out of step with family, with civil authority, with a culture inclined to scapegoat and avoid them, and with God’s better plan for their lives.

As already I’ve had to remind myself throughout the divorce mediation process, “Hurt people hurt people”. So here I am again, wounded and wandering in the wild, but grateful that despite how it looks, I am not lost, nor am I a lost cause. For I am fearfully and wonderfully made — which in my case means I’m solidly built, able to take a punch or two, but I’ll come back swinging any day now.



  1. Update: Now I find I have an old friend 45 minutes away in TN, willing to come down and help me –will pickup and put me up on Friday, then get me back North, on Saturday. This gives me great hope and comfort, obviously. God is so good: despite my only sometimes deserving God’s mercy, God has my life and holds it gently in His/Her hands (in this case, seems more like a Her with this comforting nurturance).

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