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Xìn rèn

“I live with my grandmother on my right shoulder, my grandfather on my left, my parents on my head, and God in my heart. I act as if they are watching and holding me accountable.”

When I first meet Gabriel, he is laying a bouquet of yellow lilies by the Nathan Hale statue on Old Campus, wearing an eccentric hat and carrying an empty cardboard pizza box. I am running to class. I stop, ask him if he likes the statue. He says Nathan Hale deserves to be remembered for trusting in his country. Inspired, he scrawls down the Chinese word for trust on the corner of the box. He explains the elements of the characters: the student holding the pen and tablet with text; the teacher sharing knowledge. That trust, he says, is more important than anything else because it allows us to learn. When I ask him for an interview, he agrees. “Trust,” he says. “Xìn rèn.” He rips off the corner and hands it to me, xìn rèn, a gift.

Perhaps to establish that trust, he advises me to contact him from a new email account under a different name and encourages me to bring a friend to the interview if it makes me feel more comfortable. During our interview a week later, he writes xìn rèn again on a scrap of paper and points to it when I ask if I can record our conversation with my phone. His blue eyes bore into mine with unexpected clarity. “I trust you to not manipulate my words into something different. I trust you to do what you will with this conversation. See? Our conversation started with trust.”

 

“’John 1:1 — In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ That word is divinity.”

Gabriel comes from a diverse heritage: his great-grandmother was born in Ahmednagar, India, to Christian missionaries; he calls himself an eleventh-generation Native American. His mother took him and his siblings to churches and synagogues and temples to experience different forms of worship. As he speaks about his family, five birds fly over and hop about the grass beside us. “Two sisters, two brothers, and one overseas,” Gabriel says, watching them. “This is the language of sparrows.” Like his ancestors, Gabriel believes in God, but anchors himself to other things, too. “I believe in miracles, mystery, life. We all come from miracles. We all come from mystery. We all come from life, and we all go to life.” The physical form decays, but the spiritual form is never extinguished.

When a friend’s husband died, Gabriel wrote a poem, “This Gift of Missing You,” for the funeral. At the exact same moment he recited it—9 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2003—the Columbia space shuttle exploded, killing the seven astronauts inside. That same year, three people died in a West Virginia mine shaft explosion and 100 people perished in the Great White concert fire. The poem, he says, has become a poem for anyone, anywhere, who has lost a loved one. It is a hope for comfort, from that divine force, in those divine words he believes in, preserving the spirit.

He performs the poem for me. There is no other word for it: he performs. His voice rises and falls with the cadence of the stanzas. He flings his arms out; he speaks to the oak trees, to the squirrels, to the sky. In his wildly decorated hat, unkempt graying beard, and shabby clothes he draws questioning looks from passersby, some of them classmates I know. But the poem is raw and powerful. He emails it to me later that day, as promised.

 

“Genesis 1:27 — ‘God created mankind in his own image.’ All life is created in the image of God.”

Gabriel remembers the full names of all the people he speaks of: first, middle, last. He fills his emails with ellipses and exclamation points (“I love languages, reading, learning… My newest, favorite saying is ‘FOR PETE’S SAKE, and for Heaven’s sake, BE ASTONISHING!’ We are ALL radiant Beings of Wonder……from MIRACLES!”); his poetry is dynamic and sincere, open and heartfelt. He answers questions in a roundabout way, with anecdotes, with Bible verses, with figurative truths that fit together when I think about them later. When I ask him where he is from, he replies, “I’m from God. I’m from miracles. I’m from mystery. You could also say I was born overseas. There are many ways of answering a question.” Frustrated, I try again: what would Gabriel consider home?  But I simply was not listening. Is a definite answer the point? Home, to him, is not a house. He lives everywhere. Home is the universe.

“Homeless is what people call people not living in four square walls. I think homeless is a lie, because it causes people living a nontraditional life to feel inferior, as if they’re missing something they should have. It is false. I haven’t paid rent since the 1980s. It’s a lifestyle I chose. My cousin raised his kids in a teepee. My family has built igloos. I have lived through winter in a nylon tent in 40 below zero-degree weather.”

We are distracted by the arrival of three sparrows. Gabriel seems transfixed by the animals. He had been the proud owner of a quartet of dogs, his loved ones: Ari, Lute-e, and Gen-127 (named for Genesis 1:27), all siblings, and Dak (named after the Vietnam War’s Battle of Dak To). Gabriel gave up Ari and Lute-e, the brothers, to the care of a seemingly trustworthy no-kill shelter one fall. When he learned in the spring that Ari and Lute-e had been put to sleep, he says he held Dak in his arms and cried in the shelter of a cedar grove. As he wept, a chickadee landed on his knee, then flew away. A moment later, another landed on his head, pecked at his tears, then flew away. “That’s why I believe that all life is connected. God could comfort me in this horrifically sad time by having two angels come. I was reminded that I am still connected to my dogs.” The three sparrows remind him again of Gen, Ari, and Lute-e; the spiritual form is never extinguished.

Gabriel finds meaning in everything. Anything can be a symbol if you look hard enough, and he looks. That is precisely why the statue of Nathan Hale means so much to him: it is a symbol, preserving Hale’s spiritual form in our memories.

To Gabriel, monuments can be statues or buildings but also songs, poems, art—anything that celebrates what is good. He considers the tattoo on his left shoulder a monument to the Vietnam War: the tattoo has four stars, the number 64, the word Vietnam, and the POW flag. POW stands for Prisoner of War, but to him it also stands for all of us—even those who are mentally incapacitated, handicapped, or sick: People of Wonder, People of Wisdom. The number 64 refers to the poem he wrote after visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall, “64: The Unbroken Circle.” The moment he says 64, an acorn drops from the oak tree behind us onto my notes. Two more drop together in front of us. “There they are again,” he says, smiling faintly. “Gen, Ari, and Lute-e.”  His hat, pinned with a diverse array of objects, is a monument, too: a reused nametag proclaims in serif lettering that he is “Gabriel, Professor of Radiance.” An iron nut acknowledges his eccentricity: “That is a nut. I am not a nut. People see someone who is different and call them a nut.” The “210 calories” on an On-the-go Trail Mix wrapper reminds him of Luke 2:10: “The angel came to the shepherds and said, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.’” Perhaps that is what Gabriel is trying to do: bring great joy to all the people. As he finishes reciting the scripture, another acorn drops behind us and two sparrows fly by.

 

“‘Isaiah 55:12—The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands.’ The voice of God, mystery, or miracle speaks in anything and everything.”

“We lived on bullets and bouillon, and now that salty brine comes back to us in your tears at The Wall we cry for you.” Gabriel is performing “64: The Unbroken Circle.” Hoping for a concrete answer, I ask if he was a soldier in the war. “I was a soldier, and I am a soldier. Sometimes I fight without fighting. Sometimes the soldier to admire most is not the fiercest but the one who is able to bring peace without killing. There are many types of warriors: women who sing, men who dance.” I ask for Gabriel’s occupation. He points to the name badge on his hat and calls himself a “professor of radiance.” He is here to help people discover their own radiance. He says he has another Job, too, Job 12:7-12: “Everything was taken from Job, including his family. In the middle of it all he turned to God, and God said to talk to the fish of the sea, the land, the birds. Job expressed faith in radiance, the source of life. He was blessed many times over, but he still suffered in the meantime.” I wonder if that is Gabriel’s life too, but that is the wrong question. I am learning to listen. Three ants crawl up the concrete path: one holding a piece of food, two following close behind. Gabriel points at them: “See? Gen, Ari, and Lute-e.”

From his pocket, he produces odds and ends he has saved: a scene of water, mountains, and sky printed on a small square of paper; a Nestlé “Pure Life” water bottle label, because he is trying to live a pure life; a red Pocky snack wrapper emblazoned with the motto “share happiness” because that’s what he tries to do. He is particularly interested in the phrase “share happiness.” The are in share looks like Ari. Everywhere he looks, he is reminded of the dogs he loved. He looks to the mountains and sky and remembers to share happiness. “Instead of dwelling on the pains of mine, remember the pines of Maine.” He gestures to the “pines” in “happiness.” “Be strong, be ever-green.” All this he gets from a wrapper someone threw in the trash. I wonder what it is like to see the shadow of someone you have lost everywhere and feel joy instead of loss. To trust that they are there with you. To have so much faith.

 

“Up at 09:24! Wow! Women-of-wonder! We-men of wisdom! POEMS may Appear For You in this bucket. HELP YOURSELF.”

Two days later, an explosion of signs on the corner of a bulletin board by the street catches my eye. The hand-lettering is unmistakably Gabriel’s; it matches the name badge on his hat.  A pink breast cancer awareness pail has been taped to the board, full of poems printed on slices of green paper. There are numbers everywhere: 17:44 and 17:49 bookend the five minutes it took him to write the poems; a measuring stick is attached to the board with pipe cleaners. He has dated and timed every single scrap of paper, documented the exact moment it was produced and put up. Leaves and colorful beads adorn his corner. Domestic abuse statistics printed on purple dress shapes honor Domestic Violence Awareness Month. He has written “women” and “we-men” instead of “women and men.” On a “Celebrating 314 Years” flyer, he has added “and you” with a smiley face in the O.

 

For a long time, I could not throw away things that seemed better suited for the recycling bin. I saved programs and flyers, old scribbled drawings and corks and bottle caps and receipts. I saved boxes of business cards I collected over travels, I kept leaves and pinecones that fell from the tree in my backyard. Everything mattered. Everything meant something. I filled desk drawers with these neatly packaged memories, these symbols, afraid that I would lose them. Gabriel comes from mystery, but in this I think I understand him a little. He holds on to his wrappers and poems and monuments so he won’t lose his family and friends. So he won’t lose himself.

Even then, he spreads his joy through his signs and words. I still have the cardboard piece he gave me, xìn rèn scrawled on it. He radiates optimism; he shares what he has. He is a mystery. He is a miracle.

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