Looking out for the woolly mammoth

Six weeks ago I was performing at the London Catholic Worker’s church in Haringey, close to my childhood home in north London. 4,000 miles from there, I am now about to perform at the Catholic Worker of Michiana’s premises in South Bend, Indiana.

Our Lady of the Road is the name of their building, which consists of a dining hall, kitchen, laundry machines and showers, and a new chapel.

The homeless, the destitute, the marginalised are all welcome here to shower, do laundry, and enjoy the evening meal on offer.

If it’s a day that a performance of some kind is scheduled, like today, then people can hang around after the meal is over and stay for that too. I am not performing ‘This Evil Thing’ in the chapel though, but right there in the dining hall.

At 4.30pm I set up my crates, marking out a playing space on one side of the small hall. The rest of the room is full of round tables and booths, all laid out ready for dinner.

Myself and Jon, who has volunteered to run sound, set up the equipment and check levels and cues. Jon is a musician, so I am confident his timing will be excellent.

At 5.30, he goes up to the chapel to attend mass, while I have a snack and continue setting up.
At 6.15, people arrive for dinner.
At 6.30, it’s served up and everyone fills the tables and booths. The atmosphere is lively.
At 7.15, plates are cleared up and everyone helps roll away the tables and set up rows of chairs just in time for the performance at 7.30. My dressing room is the Community Shop next to the kitchen.

When I embarked on this project I was keen to perform not only in theatre spaces but in non-theatre spaces too. A dining hall in a Catholic facility feeding the homeless in Indiana USA definitely fits the latter description.

Perhaps 40 or 50 people take their seats, including some who have travelled a distance, saying they missed seeing the play last week when we were in Goshen.

Jon times the sound cues to perfection, like the musician he is, and I enjoy giving the play in a smaller, more intense space than any I’ve been in for the last couple of weeks.

A woman who is washing dishes in the kitchen afterwards, is very solicitous towards me. She saw the play and is sure I would now welcome something to eat and drink.

‘Oh, please don’t go to any trouble,’ I say.
‘It’s no trouble,’ she responds, smiling so sweetly and providing me with English breakfast tea (at 9.30 at night) and some tasty snacks.
‘Oh, and you must have a jar of our honey.’
‘May I pay for it?’
‘Not at all – you’ve given us the play.’

Well, my Amish honey is almost finished, so I’m very happy to be given a delicious-looking jar of Catholic honey – from the shop which is also my dressing room.

Leah then tells me that this woman, who has gone back to doing the dishes, is called Marji.
‘She’s a Professor teaching moral theology and Christian ethics at Notre Dame University,’ Leah informs me. ‘Two years ago she was at the Vatican, along with others, meeting with Pope Francis to discuss nuclear disarmament. She’s so humble.’

Indeed. Marji has a quality I can’t quite define – but it shines out of her making it feel so good just to be in her presence. She of course would deny this, but I would say there is something definitely saintly about her. She and Leah and the other people here at Our Lady of the Road are not paying lip-service to their faith – they are acting upon it and living it out each day.

When everyone else has gone, Bill and myself, Marji, Leah and a few others stand in a circle for quite some minutes, just smiling at each other – and finding it hard to say farewell.

Next day, Saturday, Bill and I head back east the 400 plus miles towards Buffalo, passing Lake Erie on our left for a long stretch of the journey.

The water looks beautiful but when we have a quick stroll to the beach we are chilled to the bone.

‘Look at that!’ I cry.

A striking-looking piece of driftwood at the water’s edge has a row of icicles hanging from it.  Miles further on we both notice a strange light on the lake.

‘What IS that?’ asks Bill. He turns off the road and drives down closer to the lake’s edge and we see that it is not a strange light – but that Lake Erie is frozen over!

Waves are frozen in mid-roll, encrusted with glistening snow.  I tell Bill that back in little ol’ England I have never seen such a thing.

It’s a wonderful drive in bright cold sunshine on quiet roads empty of traffic (we just couldn’t face the Turnpike again today), and we reach the city of Buffalo just before sunset and search for the house we’ll be staying at.

‘Do you have any instructions?’ I ask Bill.
‘Yeh. The instruction is that if we see the woolly mammoth we’ve gone too far.’


But that is exactly what we do see. Though fortunately we haven’t gone very far. The woolly mammoth is right next to the house which will be our home for two nights – a short hop from the Canadian border and the roar of Niagara Falls.

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