“In the rabbinic tradition, they talk about scripture having seventy faces. So when you read it, you keep turning it like a gem, letting the light refract through the various faces in and unexpected ways.
“You keep turning the gem turning the gem, seeing something new each time.”
From What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell
Before I read Rob Bell’s book, a birthday gift from my wise, dear friend, Lorena (a wonderful book, by the way—funny, challenging, inspiring and insightful), I had begun to think of these essays as the mirror fragments of a disco ball. When the light reflects on one of the fragments, it illuminates a memory of a friend or teacher or family member and I write about it. Each mirror fragment is a piece of the whole of my life. It’s impossible to see the whole at once. The pulsing light that reflects the mirror ball changes rhythm with each new song. Some fragments are illuminated frequently; some are only rarely kissed by the light. The mirror fragments are not illuminated in a linear way, but in a seemingly random way; “seemingly” is the key word, in my soul I know there is nothing random about the illumination of the fragments.
The rabbinic metaphor of the gem is elegant and timeless, suited to a reading of the scriptures; the metaphor of the disco mirror ball is, I suspect, better suited to my life and times.
Yes, I did dance at Studio 54 on two different occasions. On one of these occasions legendary tap-dancer Ann Miller, who was dancing very close to me, lost her footing and nearly put my eye out with her heavily lacquered hair.
In the early 1970’s Ann Miller’s “as told to” autobiography, Miller’s High Life, healed me of Hepatitis B. I laughed so hard, I laughed myself well. I recommend the book whole-heartedly. I still have my copy.
After I submitted last week’s essay: Mystery School: an Overview, to my web maven, the gifted (she’s the one responsible for the visuals and the design) and endlessly patient, Julienne Givot, she responded with an e-mail that said, “The coyote is tricking you into writing a memoir.”
She may be right. There are many Native American stories about Coyote setting the stars. The one I remember is this: the animals had scheduled a party to celebrate the completion of the design of the earth and heavens. Coyote was charged with placing the stars. When all of the other animals had finished with their work, Coyote had still not attended to his assignment and the other creatures would not allow coyote to come to the party until his work was done. Coyote, always eager to attend a party went out into the desert and instead of carefully placing the stars, one by one, threw them all into the sky at once. “I’ve finished,” he said, and returned to the party.
Like Coyote, I throw my stories onto the mirror ball and they land where they will.
I only remember a few TV shows from my childhood; for some reason one of them is I Led Three Lives, starring Richard Carlson, stalwart hero of such cult classics as It Came from Outer Space and Creature of the Black Lagoon. Carlson played Herbert Philbrick, who spent nine years of his life as a communist, an FBI agent and a communist counter-spy. Every episode began with an announcer reminding the audience that, “This is based on a true story.”
If I end up writing a memoir, I should, in all honesty, put in a disclaimer that says “based on a true story.”
Herbert Philbrick may have led three lives. I have, I believe, thanks to Caroline Myss’s model as presented in her magnum opus, Sacred Contracts, led at least twelve lives. Each of my primary archetypes has different memories and a different narrative.
One of the most dominant of my archetypes, no surprise, is the Storyteller. When I admonish readers to remember that my stories are “based on true stories,” it is because the Storyteller is a tireless mythologizer, fascinated more by the deeper truths of a story than the actual facts.
The Jesuit theology teachers frequently reminded us that the authors of the gospels were not historians concerned with providing a literal record of events. They were apologists writing a passionate and personal faith response to the phenomena they had experienced.
Events last only a moment, just long enough to plant the seeds of experience. Experience unfolds gradually, growing out of the response to, interpretation of, and memory of events. The continuous refining of experience into meaning gradually, inevitably, colors and reshapes the memory of events. Hunger for meaning births the organization of experience into narrative. The narrative becomes myth. New events, particularly crises, sometimes challenge long-held beliefs and defy integration into the old myth and demand the discarding of that previously satisfying myth for a new one. Time and additional experiences provoke reinterpretation and give fresh, sometimes surprising new meaning to occurrences long past.
There is profound truth in the phrase, “an experience which lasts a lifetime.” Defining moments provide experiences which ripen throughout our lifetimes as we struggle to integrate and reintegrate them into the continuous unfolding design of our lives.
The same seed will grow differently depending on whether it is fertilized with acceptance or regret, watered with joy or anger.
In 1997, shortly before I was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer, I read a novel by Tom Spanbauer called In the City of Shy Hunters. One of the characters, an ancient Native American named Alessandro says
“God made man because he loves to hear stories,” Alessandro said. “That’s a good story, huh?”
Within days of receiving the diagnosis I landed upon the Scheherazade-like inspiration that, if I could keep my story interesting, God would keep me alive.
It’s not surprising that this strategy would occur to me.
“This reminds me of a story,” should be carved on my tombstone. Everything, in fact, does remind me a story.
Sometimes my mind seems to me to be a computer with files containing thousands of stories. Someone says something to me and a file with one of these stories pops into my head. I don’t think of them on my own. Someone will ask a question or make a comment and my brain hears, “Search all files and programs,” and a story appears.
This isn’t anything I studied or had to make an effort at. I intuitively perceive and organize the world and my experience and other people’s experience in it as stories.
I remember stories people tell me—family members, friends, students, and clients. Long time clients will mention an incident and it will bring up a story they told me ten or fifteen years ago. I don’t always remember names but I remember incidents, contents and meaning. Sometimes the meaning of a story in my life, as well as theirs, changes over time becomes richer, more revelatory, more profound.
My stories aren’t meant to be stories of a long-time cancer patient, although stories that include my cancer adventures will appear from time to time.
Mine are the stories of a storyteller; a few of the stories are about cancer. Many more are about the adventures I’ve had (and continue to have), the people I’ve met and the extraordinary gifts I’ve received and graces that I’ve experienced both before and after that fateful diagnosis.
God is, more often than not, a central character in my stories. I don’t ever remember not being curious about God. I never really doubted the existence of God because I feel God’s presence so much of the time.
That’s not to say that, as a child, I wasn’t confused about the notion that God lived in a gold box at the center of our parish church. My maternal grandmother added to the confusion when she taught me the following prayer,
“Every time I pass a church, I go in and make a visit, so that, when I have to be carried in, the Lord won’t say, ‘who is it?’”
Did that mean God lived in a gold box on the altar of all of the Catholic churches I visited with my grandmother?
The Baltimore Catechism, which all Catholic school children of my age were made to memorize, made God even more fascinating: God is a mystery!
Here are a few points from the catechism that are really hard for a literal-minded seven-year old or seventy-six year old to wrap his head around:
“God made me to know love and serve Him in this world so as to be happy with Him in the next.”
“We are made to the image and likeness of God.”
“God is mystery so we can’t ever really know him.”
I’ve puzzled over these statements a long time and made peace with the notion that if I am made in the image and likeness of God and God is a mystery who can never be completely knowable, then I am almost as much of a mystery as God is and I can never completely know myself!
Father Richard Rohr gave me a marvelous insight into mystery. Mystery is not something unknowable; mystery is something that is infinitely knowable. It’s inexhaustibly knowable. You can never stop knowing more about it. It makes it suitable for contemplation. That’s why great art is mysterious. You can never run out of knowing “Hamlet.” No matter how many times I’ve seen “Hamlet,” it’s remains mysterious because it keeps revealing more. Every time I revisit a great painting I discover something new.
God is like that. God is not unknowable; God is infinitely and inexhaustibly knowable. The God of my experience is always new, always a surprise.
Being made in God’s image and likeness, we are a mystery to ourselves, paradoxically knowable and not knowable. There are always surprises when the light hits a previously unnoticed fragment of the mirror ball.
Next week another fragment from the mirror ball. God figures in this one big time.
“A story is not a version of life but an interpretation of experience; it’s a way of telling, not a way of being, and it reverberates in every direction.” -David Denby