this

I’ve seen a face I won’t soon forget. It’s the face of an unsure redemption, of grace on the upswing. Of counting tenuous steps as tiny miracles. This face is a freshly washed used car whose surface is clean again, but whose frame within still carries the weather and rust. It’s a face leading a journey from point A to point B, its body taking those tenuous steps perhaps not for the first time, but nevertheless in abject terror. It’s a good thing this face is flexible, for its pieces can come together to form a portrait that is more pleasing and assured than the muddled innards it covers. A stoic smile, forward gaze, hopeful laughter—all evidence that the gears are turning still, that the car may be well used and probably unsellable but it is still a car on the move.

The face, you can see, is a powerful thing. I saw this power in the library the other day, on the train two years ago, and in the movie This Is Martin Bonner.

The man in the library came to the desk, to-go coffee cup in hand, with a question. “Where are your books about Alcoholics Anonymous?” I checked the catalog to see what we had in the stacks and we walked to 362, Social Welfare Problems & Services. “I have a meeting in an hour nearby and I just wanted something to read until then,” he said as I scanned the spines for what he wanted. A meeting? Oh. A meeting. He was unashamed to show that he meant AA, that these books weren’t for “a friend” or his mother. He was drinking coffee, going to the library, and then going to a meeting, all to make himself better. And he had that face in front of it all: sober in every way, clear-eyed, pragmatically hopeful, still emerging from the darkness but happy to do so.

I saw the same face on another man, but without the pat assurances of redemption. On a late train home I saw him sitting alone, he and I the only remaining riders in the barreling train car. His workman’s books, rugged jeans, and thick jacket told of hardy work and long days. His near-bald head was greyed along the sides, and his face—the face—was wrinkled by age and strain. But his eyes (isn’t it always the eyes?) told the rest of the story. They saw far beyond the train car he was riding with me through the darkness. They projected a hopeful vision of the near future, when he would leave the train and take a bus (or walk, or drive) to his final destination, a place that seemed especially trepidatious tonight. Whom was he going to see, and why? An estranged daughter he had wounded in too many ways? An ex-wife he wanted to win back? Whoever it was, they had his full attention. He clutched spiral notebooks, unfolding them now and again to sneak a peek, then closing them and trying to send his attention elsewhere. It was as if he had written carefully chosen remarks in those notebooks, a long-time-coming speech that would need to rectify whatever he was carrying that night from his past toward his approaching future. If his face indicated anything, it was his doubt of success. His fidgety hands preempted any attempt his face made to tell anything but the truth. And the truth was, as I saw it, he was terrified.

I saw the face, too, in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013), a serene and sure film about two men with a faith problem. Martin, a recently bankrupt former church business manager, is a volunteer coordinator for a religious non-profit that prepares inmates for life on the outside through a strenuous work program. The film opens with Martin pitching an inmate on joining the program, which emphasizes rebuilding the prisoners’ “commitment to community.” The inmate balks at this prospect: “What’s in it for me?” he asks with an edge.

Martin, it seems, could ask the same thing. Divorced, separated from his adult children, working for an organization whose faith he no longer holds, he gets through each lonely day with the face we have all worn at some point—the one that says I don’t know, but I’m trying. He buys art at auction and on eBay to decorate his barren abode. He attends (at his daughter’s behest) a speed-dating event despite strong reluctance and low expectations. He sits through a promotional video filled with earnest testimonials extolling the virtues of the inmate rehabilitation program, his stoic face belying his spiritual ennui.

Yet through all of this he becomes an unlikely refuge for Travis, a freshly paroled convict whom Martin picks up from prison. They go to a cafe and Travis tastes good coffee for the first time in years. It’s here we see in Travis’ face the dim light of renewal starting to emerge, the kindling dawn that trails a long, dark night. His face, cautious and humble, tells tales learned the hard way and behind bars as only small graces like good coffee can trigger. His past self—convicted of vehicular manslaughter twelve years ago—is gone. He has a new self now, but for what?

Travis dines with his assigned mentor, who in Travis’s words is “very Christian,” well-meaning and friendly but uncomfortably certain of his role as God’s disciple. When Martin and Travis meet again, Travis shares this with Martin and asks him, only half-jokingly, if he’s “very Christian” too.

“I’ve got a degree in theology and worked for the church for many years,” Martin deadpans.

“I should have known,” says Travis, resigned to more proselytizing.

“But that shouldn’t mean anything,” Martin replies. “I had what you call a ‘crisis of faith’ a few years ago. I woke up one Sunday morning and I didn’t want to go to church anymore. I felt I’d sacrificed enough of my life to God, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I woke up selfish and it hasn’t gone away.”

“So you quit the church?”

“No. I got fired for getting divorced.”

“And you still wanted to work for a Christian organization?”

“Frankly, Travis, they were the only people who would hire me. I applied for a manager’s position at Starbucks and couldn’t get an interview.”

I don’t know, but I’m trying.

Every day provides new opportunities for these men to struggle for tiny victories, for just a flicker of light to illuminate their darkened paths. Martin struggles to connect (quite literally) with his adult son, who for some reason won’t return Martin’s many calls. Finally, Martin receives a gift in the mail: a painting from his son, which might as well have been an olive branch. Similarly, Travis strives toward redemption in a meeting with his estranged daughter, who in his decade-long absence has grown into a young woman who doesn’t know her father. The conversation is awkward, stilted, each fumbling to connect with someone they know ought to love but can’t, at least not right now. Travis, desperate for his new life to begin, wants to make up for lost time, but his daughter, though willing to have a relationship, still wants to take it slow.

I don’t know, but I’m trying.

I could be wrong about these men and their faces. I don’t know their lives truly. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, and projected onto their faces stories I wanted to believe but didn’t know for sure were true. I was happy for the man killing time in the library before another chair circle, another Serenity Prayer, and another day in the struggle, but I could be wrong about him. I was hopeful for the man on the train whose destination I did not know but whose sincerity in getting there was evident, but I could be wrong about him too. And I was glad to see the two men in This Is Martin Bonner find each other as they traversed with fear and trembling the tightrope between faith and doubt, but perhaps another viewer would see in them something entirely different.

I don’t know, but I’m trying.