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Cleaning the street, seeking a way forward
July 25, 2019

n the month of June, the department of transportation resurfaced Broad Street to the Oriental Bridge. They moved on, leaving broken bits of asphalt littering the curbs. Summer rains washed the debris into the streets.

Soon, a man in a straw hat and jeans began showing up with wheelbarrow and a broom. The man was Christian Michaels, there to clean the road.

It was an odd sight, even for Oriental. He wasn’t wearing a public works shirt, and he didn’t live on Broad Street. But day after day he showed up, sweeping the streets and picking weeds from the sidewalks.

Christian sweeps the streets of Oriental.

Several people asked him why he was doing this work. Christian gave a variety of answers:

- It was left dirty.
- To encourage others to keep their part of the road clean.
- Because the ones who made the mess hadn’t cleaned it.
- To make it nice for the Croaker Festival parade.
- To help foster a sense of community.
- Because it was everyone’s road.

TownDock.net spoke with him, asking the same questions. On the face of it, he gave simple answers. But his reasons for wheeling his tools and bucket to Broad Street, cleaning up what no one else would, was personal, involved, and wrapped up in concepts of pleasure and joy.

Christian Michaels

Seeking the Joy
Before sweeping Broad Street, Christian says he had been looking for answers, spending time in meditation and prayer. He had been considering moving back to India, to a town called Rishikesh – home to several ashrams (spiritual retreats) where he’d briefly lived. But he came up empty and began praying for guidance.

“Ever since I bought my boat,” he said, “the effort has petered out and the momentum has degraded until I came up completely empty.”

For a while, Christian lived on Ann, a 32 ft Dreadnought sailboat, in the waters around Oriental. He bought the boat in 2011 and lives on her still, only now in a boatyard on the hard. She needs some care – a paint job, some engine work, and other maintenance tasks all boats demand through the years.

In buying Ann all those years ago, he thought he could buy something that was missing. His motivation, he says, was one all humans share: “We’re all wrapped up in pleasure and we consider pleasure ‘the joy’. And it isn’t.” He explained further, “The joy transcends pleasure completely. And when you’re seeking pleasure, you miss the joy.”

While Ann provided a home, it didn’t bring him what he was looking for.

“I realized it was a dream I had as a kid,” he said, “I’d already transcended that dream, and it was wrong to reawaken it.”

Christian sweeping Broad Street.

Coming up empty, Christian prayed. “I said, Lord, if I could just sweep the streets of Rishikesh with you in my heart, then my life would be fulfilled. And God said, ‘I’m in Oriental, too.’”

He initially declined several interviews with TownDock, net. Cleaning the street wasn’t about receiving recognition, or about doing good deeds. Christian felt it was a service to the community and to God; a path to joy.

“Some people think it [the cleaning] is an imposition,” he says. “Some people like it and some people don’t.”

Christian received no pay for his work; he’s not employed by the town or state. From the outside, his actions appear to be without personal benefit. But that’s not how Christian sees it. “I’m getting a whole lot; I’ve met so many wonderful people – and so much kindness. People would stop in the street to give me a drink. People have even made me a beautiful dinner.” Several have told him, he says, they’ll now help keep up their part of the street.

His task took several weeks to complete. The night before he finished, Christian found what he was looking for.

“I went into a state of joy and realized, ‘Oh, that’s the path I’m supposed to take,’” he said. “I got off on the wrong path. So now I’m trying to get back.”

Christian and a pelican during a flood on Hodges Street in 2017.

A Shifting Foundation
Events, not time, guide the shape of Christian’s story. He says he doesn’t pay much attention to time. And some events are harder to talk about than others.

His parents had divorced when he was still a toddler and though his mother tried to provide stability and positive male role models, she couldn’t maintain their former life. She eventually gave him and his two sisters over to an orphanage in Pasadena, which he counts as a blessing.

The stress of upheaval at an early age did not make for a good student. Teachers thought of him as a problem child. His third grade teacher had heard about his issues. On the first day of class, he says, she put him at a desk in the coat closet. “And I spent the whole third grade, seven or eight years old, in the coat closet.”

Christian holds a ukulele that he made.

It was then he says he mentally quit. Afraid of adults, Christian says he stopped participating in school, though he had to continue attending. He only did well in art and drama classes, places where he could express himself.

He says he studied drama in high school and that he was in all the plays. Until he had a run in with his theater teacher at a cast party. School was difficult for Christian from start to finish.

Eventually, he graduated. His graduation was more by design than merit; as his age group left the school system, so did he.

Then came Vietnam.

Christian had meant to have a career in the military, as his parents had. But his time in Vietnam changed that. “We were trained to think of them as animals; kill them all. They’re not – they don’t count. And then I saw that happen.”

He began reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s book, Autobiography of a Yogi while serving in the Navy. Yogananda is credited with bringing meditation to the West in the mid-twentieth century. Christian and his Executive Officer, who became a monk after leaving the service, bonded over the book and Yogananda’s teachings.

Despite the positive encounter with his XO, Christian’s Navy experiences left him severely depressed. “They finally threw me out as incompatible, with only six months left to go.”

Lichen Shopworks is the name of Christian’s woodworking studio.

That’s when he ended up living in a cave in Colorado. Built – and abandoned – he says, by a draft dodger trying to hide from the government. He called it home for nearly 9 months.

Soon after, with the help of his Executive Officer, he was working as a cook for a theater troupe in New Mexico, called there by friends he’d met while hitchhiking through the States.

The conversation meanders into a list of jobs and places. Working in the Allen Coal Mines in Southern Colorado. A woodworker with his own shop in Raton, New Mexico. A cook for for a theater troupe. A woodworker restoring Victorian homes in Pennsylvania.

He perfected his woodworking skills while living in New Mexico where he had his own shop: Lichen Shopworks. He learned how to make reproduction furniture, eventually taking first place in a national art show in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a Chippendale table reproduction and Best in Show for a tea cabinet of his own design.

There are no pictures of the designs, or of other art pieces he says he’s made over the years. When asked about the pictures, Christian says he burned his portfolio. He doesn’t say why. His woodworking skill is now put to use in the ukuleles he’s made over the past decade in Oriental.

A Way Forward
Around 1985, when Christian was living in Pennsylvania, he nearly died from what he calls blood dysentery. The near-death experience reminded him of the Yogananda’s Autobiography. He began reading it again, and fully launched himself into a spiritual practice.

It was after his recovery that he made a pilgrimage to Rishikesh, India. He spent half a year in and around the city, learning more about Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings. There, he encountered several other spiritual teachers, including Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, The Hugging Saint, whom he recently saw while in Washington, DC.

Christian tests the frozen harbor waters, January 2018

He speaks with enthusiasm about Yogananda and his time in Rishikesh.

But he says his first involvement with Yogananda was even earlier, a meeting he didn’t know about until his mid-forties.

“I was moving to India and I gave my mom his book. And when she saw it, there was a picture of Yogananda on the cover. She said, ‘that’s the man who baptized you when you were a little boy.’”

His mother was dating a devotee of Yogananda, Christian says, when he was 5 years old. The family were living in California and he says his mother told him they all went to see the yogi when he visited. It was there, Christian says, that Yogananda blessed and baptized him.

A few years after Rishikesh, Christian spent time as a gardener in an ashram in the Poconos Mountains. Many of Christian’s views on peace and community came from his study of and involvement with the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, in text and by living in these communal spaces.

Christian hopes he has fostered a sense of community along Broad Street and in the people who’ve watched him cart away the trash. A community where people participate “in the basics,” doing things that beautify the road for everyone’s benefit.

Christian with his ukuleles in 2013.

He points out the empty flowerbeds around the post office, how nice it would be for everyone if they had flowers in them. Additionally, a community composting site could help foster a community garden, he says, and then everyone could eat from it.

Christian says he’s always gardened when he had the chance, spending time at an ashram in the Poconos growing food for the vegetarian restaurant on site. He believes the giving and taking of gardening – sowing, caring, reaping – can help create community.

“There’s always going to be a few who are non-participatory, you know? They’re indifferent. And I’ll tell you, you have to forgive them and clean up after them, too.”

There’s a secret to dealing with the non-participatory. Christian says you have to respond positively to their negativity, “to the potential which is hidden in everybody.”

He tells a story about being in a subway station in SoHo, New York, trying to call a friend from a phone booth. Two men were fighting nearby, a woman screaming at them. It was loud and Christian could barely hear his conversation. He yelled to them to calm down.

As he ended his call, one of the fighting pair threatened him, yelling at Christian to fight. “I just lunged at him and I said, ‘No!’” Christian leaned forward, emphatic, “‘I just want you to feel the peace that I feel.’” Christian says the man was shocked into silence. “He just stood there like the breath was knocked out of him and he leaned up against the wall wondering what the hell happened.

“And I should have said, ‘Come with me.’ But I didn’t; I left. And as I was going up the stairs, that other guy saw him standing there helpless and jumped on him.”

Christian and SV Ann.

Christian says his practice is sometimes haphazard and unfocused, but he doesn’t let that stop him. Sometimes he gets it right, and gains a spiritual experience from sweeping the streets. And sometimes he doesn’t, reawakening dreams better left asleep, like the Dreadnought Ann.

Despite his misgivings, Christian still has hopes of restoring the dry docked vessel. Her bones are good, with an orderly cabin insulated against the weather and holding books, papers, and a few of Christian’s personal belongings.

He says he’d like to get her back in the water, but has also mentioned selling her. But before that can happen, he says he needs to get his shop back in order to fix her. He has a few needs: a dehumidifier to keep his tools from rusting, storage racks to keep his wood scraps off the ground. There’s no guarantee it will help get Ann, or Christian, back on their path.

For now, Broad Street is clean. Christian sees people doing their part to maintain it. Not everyone contributes. Not everyone can move forward. That’s just how life is.

Christian says forgive them anyway.

Posted Thursday July 25, 2019 by Allison DeWeese

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