Reality Check Two

“I refuse to be intimidated by reality. What is reality anyway? Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.”

From “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” written by Jane Wagner and performed by Lily Tomlin

In the book “Sacred Contracts,” author Caroline Myss describes the archetype of the Saboteur as the Guardian of Choice. The challenge of making a good choice is governed entirely by the clarity of our perception. If our perception is sabotaged by projection, prejudice, pride, fear, anger, distortion, insufficient information or insufficient reflection, the likelihood of making a wise and clear choice is severely diminished, hence: sabotaged.

I spent much of last Friday at the Norris Cancer Hospital at the University of Southern California. I had fasted from 8:30 AM in the morning in preparation for both a PET-Scan and a CT-Scan which were scheduled for 2:30 PM.

When I was ushered into her office, the lab technician and I recognized each other. She said, “I remember you.” Then, as she poked a needle in my arm in preparation for an IV line, she said, “We have to stop meeting like this.” I loved her for that.

As Joan Crawford once famously said, “This is not my first rodeo,” and yesterday was not my first scan. I’ve been getting them annually for several years.

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Joy As An Act of Resistance

This morning (11/6/17) when I turned on the news, Gayle King was interviewing Texas Governor Greg Abbott on CBS This Morning about the mass-shooting in Sutherland Springs TX the previous day. Ms. King said to the governor:

Ms. King

“Governor, we’re hearing stories that eight members of one family lost their lives on that Sunday morning going to church.  So now we’re at a place where you get shot at a concert, at a school, at a movie theatre, and now, in church. Do you now think we have to think this is the new normal in this country for the citizens who live here?”

Governor Abbott

“We need to understand one thing here: killing in this country is illegal.  And we’ve seen challenges in all different kinds of ways, as you know. Just last week we saw a person use a truck to mow down people in a bike lane. As you know we’ve seen bombings at concerts, in London, as well as knife stabbings.”

Ms. King (interrupts)

“But right now we’re just focusing on the guns.”

Governor Abbott

“That’s what you are focusing on.

It’s important that we understand two things: we have evil that occurs in this world whether it be a terrorist who uses a truck or whether it be a terrorist who uses bombs and knives . . . We have evil and, hence, the greatest response to evil is what I encountered in Sutherland Springs Texas last night. And that is the key focus is victims’ families that I got to hug and hold and pray with. They wanted one thing: they wanted a stronger connection to God; they wanted to be able to pray as we shared a candlelight vigil. And it’s important that we go back to the fundamentals of our faith-based nation . . .”

Ms. King (interrupts again)

“Praying and hugs are good, we all agree. But what can we do to keep these weapons out of the hands of people that you were saying yourself are evil? What can we do about that?”

Governor Abbot

“I’m going to use the words of the citizens of Sutherland Springs themselves, and that is, they want to work together for love to overcome evil, and you do that by working with God.”

Ms. King tried repeatedly, and in vain, to get Governor Abbott to address gun violence.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-church-shooting-governor-greg-abbott-on-gunman-devin-kelley/

Governor Abbott’s performance reminded me, as things often do these days, of M. Scott Peck’s disturbing and essential book, The People of the Lie. The gist of the book as I recall it is: the worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves to maintain the ego’s false image of itself so we don’t have to change.

Prior to turning on the news this morning, I had begun this week’s essay this way:

“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”

From the preface of Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

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Calling Batman

NOTE: This post is not meant to be political or partisan. It’s intended to be patriotic and prophetic.

I try with varying degrees of failure to limit my intake of news. I subscribe to the New Yorker and to Time magazine (old habits die hard, I grew up with Time). I subscribe to the New York Times and the Washington Post on line. I try to listen impartially and open-mindedly, but not always successfully, to William Kristol and Rich Lowry of National Review. I watch Rachel Maddow and, from time to time, Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, and on Sunday mornings I watch Face the Nation on CBS and Meet the Press on NBC, and on occasion, George Stephanopoulos on This Week on ABC.

I think of my spiritual hero, Thomas Merton, and what he would have made of 24/7 news coverage—biased news coverage.

As a citizen, I think it’s my duty to be informed. As a human being I sometimes feel like a goose being force-fed by tubes in order to produce pate. At some point the news makes me nauseous. I know I’m not alone in this. Yet, as an, I hope responsible, citizen I can’t ignore the news entirely.

I didn’t post a blog last week because I overdosed on news and it left me with a rotten hangover.

I wonder if there is any correlation between the onslaught of 24 hour cable news and the opioid crisis. Do the farmers raising the geese ease their agony with painkillers?

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Homesick for Oakbrook

In the past six weeks I’ve seen two exceptional low-budget, independent films. Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, it’s unlikely that either will be showing at your local Cineplex. I’m sure they will be available soon enough on Netflix, Amazon Prime or On Demand. This is an okay way to see these films, but it’s not optimum. Both deserve to be seen with an audience, in the intimacy of a theatre, cell-phones and other electronic devices turned off and put away for the duration of the screening.

Each film stars an actor that I represented when I was a talent manager during the nineteen eighties. I have great affection for these two artists. I worked with them both when they were in their early thirties and their careers were just beginning to take off.  Now, three decades later they are in their early sixties and are currently doing their best work in years—maybe career best.

As I watched these movies, I was filled with a longing that I haven’t felt as strongly in some time. I didn’t long to be back into show business; I longed to be back in Oakbrook, IL at a CMED reunion so I could introduce these two marvelous films to my friends, colleagues and students, my CMED family.

If anyone has any ideas for another platform for doing film weekends, I am wide-open to suggestions.

I was at the Academy Awards when my former client, Willem Dafoe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor in 1987 for his performance as Sergeant Elias in Platoon. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Willem’s performance is the soul of the movie. I feel comfortable saying this because I read several drafts of Oliver Stone’s screenplay and found it disturbing and largely lacking in humanity—that’s before I saw what Willem did with his role. There are not many (if any other) actors who can convincingly play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and Green Goblin in the Spiderman franchise.  This season Willem is featured in The Florida Project, far and away the best film I’ve seen this year. If any of you are struggling to get a clear handle on the archetype of the Guardian Angel on assignment (fulfilling his Sacred Contract) watch Willem’s performance. I expect him to get an Oscar nod again for this performance. I’m happy as a clam, however, to watch the ceremony at home and fast-forward through the commercials.

I returned to the Academy Award Ceremonies two years later in 1989 and was there to share in the celebration another former client, Geena Davis, received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist. In that film Geena embraced the Wounded Healer archetype expertly stripping away from it any fake sentimentality. If Willem’s performance is the soul of Platoon, Geena’s performance is the heart of The Accidental Tourist.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Geena in a movie. She’s on television occasionally but apparently devotes most of her energy to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Late this summer she returned to the big screen in a film called Marjorie Prime in which she costars with Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption). At the center of the film in the title role is veteran theatre actor Lois Smith reprising the role she originated on stage. You may not know her by name; her face is unforgettably beautiful.

Both The Florida Project and Marjorie Prime speak powerfully and prophetically to the bleak, alienated times we are currently experiencing. Both films are filled with compassion for the present malaise and, almost miraculously, hold out some hope.

The central metaphor for The Florida Project (the code name that the Disney company used while purchasing the real estate and designing Disney World) is a brilliant one. The entire film takes place in the seedy motels (the projects) of Kissimmee Florida, an impoverished and largely itinerant community adjacent to Orlando both a stone’s throw and a million miles away from the “happiest place earth.” A substantial number of the inhabitants are children crowded with their parents or grandparents and all of their possessions into motel rooms with a single queen-sized bed. Stacks of clothes are piled in laundry baskets—there’s no place to put them away. The trash bags that line the walls of the rooms are not filled with trash but with the sparse worldly goods of its denizens.  The residents live like refugees, taking with them only what they can carry or pack into a car if they are fortunate enough to have one. All the while America’s culture of consumption is fed back to them 24/7by the always turned-on television sets that cast a cool eerie light over the proceedings.

The central location of the film is the Magic Castle Motel. All of the motels on the strip have names that just barely avoid copyright infringement lawsuits by the Disney organization.

The paradise that is Disneyworld and its contrast with its downtrodden neighbors reminded me of Elysium (2013), a science fiction movie (or allegory) which starred Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Damon, like the citizens of Kissimmee is trying to crash paradise, while Foster is charged with denying him entrance. Elysium is an imperfect but highly watchable movie. Star power!

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) explaining motel rules to one of its more colorful guests

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the patient, kind, pretty much unflappable, manager of The Magic Castle which is an eye-punishing shade of purple. When Bobby is not mediating conflicts between residents or trying, without much success, to enforce the residency rules of the Magic Castle, he spends his time touching up the purple paint of the building.

The dominant colors of the film seem to be drawn from the old eight color Crayola box. The garish orange juice stand (a two-story orange with a face painted on it) perfectly captures the primary color palate of Binney and Smith, the founders of the Crayola company.

Against this backdrop the film focuses on the childhood adventures of a six year-old named Moonee and her two friends Jancey and Scooty.  Moonee lives at the Magic Castle with her single mother Halley, a multi-tattooed feral creature with green streaked hair (again Crayola) who herself seems barely out of her teens.

Moonee and her mother, Halley, in The Florida Project

Scooty, Moonee and Jancey in The Florida Project

The glory of the film is that these children, at least for the present, thrive in this environment. Their adventures and mischief making are endlessly inventive and often hilarious. Bobby seems always to watch over them. In one telling scene, Bobby spots a sexual predator moving in on these children. Bobby gently guides the predator away from the children until the kids are out of earshot and then brings down the wrath of hell on the would be perpetrator. Willem moves with the grace of a dancer; there is also something dangerous and unpredictable about him, and he employs these qualities majestically in this performance. With the exception of Dafoe all of the actors are amateurs. The performances that director Sean Baker elicits from them are astonishing—in particular those of Mooney (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).

The film’s unexpected and exhilarating ending left me in awe of the resilience of children. I exited the theatre both shaking and smiling.

Jon Hamm and Lois Smith in Marjorie Prime

If The Florida Project is about the resilience of children, Marjorie Prime is about making peace with the unavoidable limitations of aging. It is a sly masterpiece of film making that explores our experiences of our parents, spouses and children both as they were and as we would like to remember them. It’s an almost contemplative meditation on the loneliness of loss and the longing for do-overs. I can’t describe the plot without spoiling its surprises, so I won’t. Most of the film takes place in one location, much of it shot in close-up. The performances offer a master class in the art of fearless and ego less acting. This film is as muted and subtle as The Florida Project is lurid and in your face and it is every bit as powerful. Make sure that you are wide awake and attentive when you watch this film; the shifts in tone and plot are subtle and seamless thanks to the skills and talents of director Michael Almeyreda.

Your Job Is Joy

“Gladness of heart is the very life of a person, and the joyfulness of a man prolongeth his days.”
Ecclesiasticus 30:22

In the early 1990s I was introduced to “plant medicine” by friends of mine who had spent time with shamans in the jungles of Peru and had invited them to bring their rituals and ceremonies to the California desert.  I don’t know why I felt called to attend but I did—in large part because I trusted the integrity and wisdom of the people who were hosting the event. I went on to participate in about a half dozen ceremonies over a period of eight years.

The name “Ayahuasca” means “Vine of the Soul” in Quechua, the language of the indigenous peoples in the area of the Andes that was once home to the Inca Empire. It is a brew concocted of the vine and a few other plants native to that area. The mixture creates a psychoactive substance that, when ingested, induces a spiritual experience.

There are those, I know, who are skeptical of the validity of a spiritual experience that involves any use of substances. The use of such substances is an integral part of the spiritual life of many indigenous peoples. My own experience affirms the authentic power of these sacred substances.

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The Divine Ms. Myss

I had never heard of Caroline Myss when I dropped by the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood CA in mid-June of 1997. The center of the new books display was devoted to Caroline’s latest book, Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can. Since I had been diagnosed with cancer less than a week earlier, I thought it was worth investigating. I bought the audio cassettes and listened to them as I drove about Southern California meeting with radiologists, oncologists, nutritionists and others in an effort to discern the best treatment options for me. And there were lots of options.

A week later I returned to the Bodhi Tree and bought the audio cassettes for Caroline’s previous book, Anatomy of the Spirit and a recording called Spiritual Madness. I’ve listened to Spiritual Madness dozens of times over the years and it remains my favorite of all of her teachings.

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Lench Archuleta: Wind Spirit Teaching

It was not easy to explain to my business partner and to my clients my decision to spend two weeks in the Arizona desert with a Yaqui shaman at the height the television casting season—the busiest time of year. Regardless of the consequences to my career, I felt I had to make this journey. Since my cancer diagnosis a year earlier, my discernment process had switched from an “I can’t afford to” attitude to an “I can’t afford not to” reality.

A limited knowledge of Carlos Castaneda’s books had led me to expect a Yaqui Shaman to be mysterious, intimidating and unapproachable. Lench Archuleta, when I met him in February of 1999, was none of these things. He was a welcoming, down-to-earth, middle-aged man living with his second wife, Patty, and their infant son, Eli, in a modest two bedroom house on the edge of the Arizona desert.

Lench had served in the Vietnam War as a “tunnel rat.” He was assigned to search the underground tunnels that the Vietnamese soldiers built and to make sure they were abandoned and not mined or booby-trapped. Lench survived for a tour and a half because of, as he characterizes it, his intimate relationship with the earth and living things which he learned as a child from his father and grandfather.

Lench told me this story the first evening:

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Coyote Medicine

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live one’s life in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  -Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard

Shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1997, I was introduced to Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s work by my therapist, Jim Fain, who had recently heard Lewis speak at the annual Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe, NM. Jim suggested that I get a copy of Lewis’s book, Coyote Medicine, that it might be helpful in discerning the most appropriate response to the cancer diagnosis.

I was inspired and reassured by the book, especially by Lewis’s insistence that healing necessitates the integration of spiritual practice, complementary medicine, and allopathic medicine. He also stressed the importance of story in the work of healing. One of the first pieces of intuitive guidance I had received after my diagnosis was that “if I could keep my story interesting, God would let me live.”

I made arrangements to spend the first week in January, 1998, a quiet time at work, at the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh where Lewis was Medical Director.

I arrived in Pittsburgh in the midst of a blizzard and below freezing temperatures. The storm had delayed Lewis’ return but he had given his staff instructions for an immersive week-long nine-to-five healing intensive which included a physical, acupuncture, meditation classes, shiatsu massage, sessions with a nutritionist,  sessions with a psychiatrist who practiced hypnotherapy, and with a woman who practiced energy medicine and was a psychotherapist.

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Would You Just Try It For Lent?

As I write this, the president will reportedly announce his decision on DACA in the next 24 hours. If he continues to be true to form the decision will be a cruel one.

Justice and compassion for the children of DACA is personal for me. I know firsthand of the sacrifices and hardships they and their parents have made in order to have a new life here. I know firsthand of the contribution the immigrant community—whether documented or not—has made to the culture and community of both Los Angeles, the city where I’ve lived for 44 years and Denver, CO, the city where I was raised.

In the fall, winter, and spring of 1982-83, I suffered through an almost year long bout with suicidal depression. I was unemployed (and, at that time, probably unemployable) and low on funds. This was barely a year after my experience at the Camaldolese monastery where I had experienced the love and intimacy of God more deeply than I ever had before. I had plummeted from the ecstasy of that experience into the darkest time of my life. Many days I barely got out of bed.

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Holy Curiosity

In the almost ten months since I have begun posting weekly blogs, I’ve become aware that if there is a unifying theme to them—I say “if”—I believe it is freedom. I’ve been reflecting on what experiences in my lifetime have inspired my impulse to freedom. I track its inception back to my four year liberal arts education at Regis College (now University) in Denver and to two teachers, in particular. These two teachers, more than any others, encouraged—even insisted—that their students think outside the box.

The invaluable Merriam Webster dictionary app on my iPhone defines liberal arts as: The studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.

The old joke about a liberal arts diploma was that it and a nickel would buy you a cup of coffee.

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I’m Being Called To Be What???

In February of 1979 I became acutely aware of the fact that I see things differently, that not everyone— maybe not anyone—sees the way I see. I don’t remember when I began to see the sacred in secular symbols. It always seemed normal to me and it didn’t occur to me for a very long time that not everyone saw things this way.

This way of seeing likely developed in high school and college where the Jesuits taught us “to seek the presence of God in all things,” a core spiritual practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

I don’t remember committing to this practice consciously. Then in 1979 I attended the Advocate Experience, an intensive coming out workshop for LGBT community. A friend of mine recently referred to the encounter I had there as a “Baptism of Fire.”

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Do You Want To Risk Sending Your Parents To Hell For All Eternity?

Throughout my life I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers beginning in fourth grade with Sister Jane Mary, who, to my mother’s dismay, insisted all of her students have library cards and use them. Every other Friday afternoon the good Sister marched her class to the corner of the school playground where the blue bookmobile was parked. I loved checking out new books. The problem is that I almost always forgot to return the old ones. Overdue notices with two cents a day fines turned up regularly in the mailbox. My mother would mutter under her breath when she opened mail from the Denver Public Library and berate the good sister (never to her face) about how irresponsible it was to trust a nine-year-old with library card. “This is your last warning,” she would warn me, “from now on the fines are coming out of your allowance. If I get any more overdue notices, I’m tearing up your library card.” She never did.

I still have and regularly use my library card.

From the beginning it has been a gateway to freedom and the exploration of new and previously unimagined worlds and ideas. Reading, attending movies and being taken by my parents to see live touring companies of Broadway shows like Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific (before I was in my teens) all contributed to the creation of an inner world far more exotic (and as a child and adolescent far more fulfilling) than my outer one.

My father introduced me to adult literature when he recommended Herman Wouk’s World War Two novel The Caine Mutiny while I was still in grade school. I devoured it. Wouk’s next book, Marjorie Morningstar, was published my freshman year in high school. I was eager to read it although I had no idea what it was about. My mother, who did know what it was about, insisted I get permission from one of the Jesuit priests who taught at the high school. I took the book to Father Lander, the school librarian and told him my mother insisted I get permission before I read it.

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My Godmother Harriett Stumbles Upon My Soul’s Code

A couple of years before my mother died in 1995 (a few months short of her 81st birthday) she had an epiphany and called my oldest sister, Mary:

“Did you watch Oprah Winfrey today?”

“I missed it,” Mary replied.

“Mary,” my mother confided, “I think my family might have been dysfunctional.”

Mary has never said as much, but I imagine she bit down on her lower lip hard enough to draw blood. “Oh,” Mary said. Mary does noncommittal and non-confrontational better than anyone I’ve ever known.

As soon as Mary hung up with my mother, she called me and our two younger sisters to alert us to our mother’s a-ha moment. “Just take it in,” Mary advised.

All four of us had long since come to this conclusion about Mother’s family and thought it close to miraculous that she escaped with as few scars as she did.

Had my mother had this revelation some 40 years earlier, my life might have been quite different; but she didn’t.

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The Day We Buried My Father

My mother and I were waiting for my sister Deborah in the backseat of a mortuary limousine in front of my parents’ condo when a manifestly bow-legged man walked passed us. My mother started to cry.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Every time, that man walked past our building, your father would say, “Oh what manner of man is this who wears his balls in parenthesis.”

The limousine driver chortled, accidentally hit the accelerator, and, for a moment, it looked like we were going to rear end the parked car in front of us.

My mother’s crying became sobbing. “I’ll never hear your father say that again,” she gulped between sobs, “I miss him so. What am I going to do?”

Deborah got into the backseat and asked, “What’s the matter?”

I shook my head and mouthed, “Don’t ask.”

“Are we all here and ready to go?” the driver asked solemnly, his composure restored and his professional mourner’s mask back in place.

My parents’ marriage was not just a marriage; it was a life-long love affair.

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What is Mine To Do?

 

Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr is among the most challenging of contemporary spiritual teachers and a long-time favorite of mine. I have at least a dozen of his books on my bookshelves and a drawer filled with his recordings. His CD series, Great Themes of Paul, transformed every bias I had held about St. Paul and, seeing Paul from Richard’s perspective, have come to love and revere him.

For a while I was a Rohr groupie and showed up at every lecture, class or conference he gave in Southern California and I attended several weekend conferences that the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) presented in Albuquerque.

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