My friend, Joseph Kramer is a visionary and one of the most courageous people I know. Joseph studied for several years to be a Jesuit priest. Then he had his “aha” experience.
One of Joseph’s Jesuit housemates at the Jesuit Theologate in Berkeley, CA took massage training at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, CA.. Upon his return, he offered to practice what he’d learned on his Jesuit housemates, including Joseph, who at the time was a scholar who lived largely in his head. During the course of the massage, Joseph, in my telling, experienced, for the first time, full incarnation, full embodiment—body, mind and soul perfectly aligned. (Joseph doesn’t dispute this.)
In the early 1980’s I thought I’d found “the one”: Donald, a handsome “almost-former” Jesuit who had left—or taken a break from his preparations for the priesthood—a year or so prior to his ordination. I had never before met a seminarian who, when out of his cassock, dressed like one of the Village People. Needless to say I was smitten. I choreographed a romantic weekend for us in Big Sur, California.
“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.
In 1997, as word of my cancer diagnosis spread, the phrases, meant to be encouraging, that I heard most frequently were “You’ve got to fight this” or “you can beat the ‘Big C’”. (Thank you, John Wayne.) The problem is that I did not have then nor do I now have now more than trace amounts of warrior energy. But I tried. I tried really strict eating regimens, even macrobiotic (although not for long), and came to the conclusion that if this is how I was going to eat for the rest of my life, I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to live.
I spared myself the suffering that comes with the question “Why me?” I’d gone through a different version of the question during the worst years of the AIDs epidemic when I found myself asking, “Why not me?” The best answer I could come up with is that God would never give me a disease that has an unexplained weight loss. I kept that conclusion a secret until I let it slip at a dinner with a couple of HIV-infected friends and they howled with laughter at the gallows humor.
In the entry hall of my home, in a place of honor, is a lovely, framed, hand-tinted photograph of my paternal great-aunt, Jeanetta (Jean) Hermione Shea. I found it rolled up and bound with a rubber band in the bottom drawer of her dresser when I flew to San Francisco to settle her affairs and clear out her apartment after her death at the age of 99 on Thursday May 28, 1997, the day before my 56th birthday. Written on the back of the rolled-up photograph, lightly, in pencil, were the words, “high school graduation.” The portrait blesses my home.
Jean died while I was on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit her, which I had been doing every other week for months since she had been moved from her apartment to a hospice. We had said our goodbyes—several times, in fact. At the end of each visit, I would remind her that I loved her and knew that she loved me and that I would return to visit again in a couple of weeks. I also told her that if she felt like leaving before I returned, that was okay, too.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet Act I, Scene 5
One of the rich rewards of my work as a spiritual director is the discovery of how many of my directees have an on-going, rich and intimate connection with the communion of saints and the communion of ancestors.
Over the years of doing this work, I’ve lost all doubt about the truth of these events and experiences of communion these directees share with me.
I’ve wanted to write about Communion for a while and then today happened.
I was at Staples picking up office supplies and as I waited in the check-out line which is filled with displays of chips and candy, I saw a Toblerone bar and instantly I was filled with the presence of the late Phillip Blake, S. J. who, in June of 1982, guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Communion through a candy bar!
At the three way intersection of Vineland, Lankersheim and Camarillo, a five minute walk from my condo in North Hollywood, I noticed that a Chakra Balancing Studio has just opened one door down from the Halal Meat Store. Its neighbors to the south are the Odyssey Video Store (one of the few remaining video rental stores in Los Angeles) and the brand new Black Bottom Southern Café. To the north are Forever Young Pilates, the Fringe No Ho Hair Studio and the Idle Hour Bar and Restaurant which is situated in a two-story wine barrel, that was once home to La Cana, a flamenco bar operated for many years by a neighborhood legend, the reclusive dancer Dolores Fernandez, who lived on the second floor of the barrel.
Between the Halal Meat Store and the Chakra Balancing Studio is a building covered entirely by a weird and wonderful mural. If you look very closely you can find a hidden door painted to blend perfectly with the mural. (I’ve never seen anyone going in or coming out of the door so I’ve never had the opportunity to ask, “What’s going on in there?” I really want to know.
“Thanks for the Memories” was comedian Bob Hope’s theme song from the time he introduced it in 1938 until his death at the age of 100 in 2003. It played as comforting, entertaining musical background music throughout my childhood, adolescence and, even, through a great deal of my adulthood. The bittersweet undertone of the music and lyrics kept it from being nostalgic because, just below the surface, it addressed loss—irreparable loss. What had begun as a love song, over the course of at least a half-dozen wars—declared or not—became a kind of requiem.
Simultaneously, it became a hymn of thanksgiving. The memories being, sometimes, the only thing we had to sustain us through loss. For sixty years Bob Hope, regardless of his politics—barely remembered now—reminded us to keep the memories fresh, to keep them alive.
In 2003, four years before his death, the Hollywood-Burbank Airport was re-named Bob Hope Airport. Bob Hope Airport is still the airport’s legal name but in 2016, less than 20 years after Hope’s death, the branding name of the airport (whatever that is) is once again the Hollywood-Burbank airport. This news saddened me. Hope was a hero in our household.
Easter Sunday I joined my friends Peter and Greg for the 11:15 AM Celebration of the Eucharist at All Saints Church in Pasadena. The program for the service announced that it was to be a Festive Eucharist. And so it was. The church was filled to overflowing. Ushers scurried around somehow finding a space for each late arrival. There was such joy in the energy of the usher assigned to our area that her ushering itself became embodied prayer.
Little girls pranced around in their brand new dresses; one danced in the aisle throughout the service. Some of the women actually wore bonnets! The diversity of the congregation was represented in traditional dress that included elegant saris and regal kimonos. The church bulletin prints the Lord’s Prayer in English, Spanish and Korean with the invitation to speak the prayer “in the language of your heart.”
The music for the service was appropriately triumphant as befitted the occasion. The organist was accompanied by a brass and percussion ensemble. The youth choir led the processional, followed by the adult choir, the readers, the Eucharistic ministers and the clergy. There seemed to be almost as many people on the altar as were in the pews. One member of the youth choir was in a wheelchair and as he approached the steps of the altar, two other choir members produced a small unobtrusive ramp—seemingly out of nowhere—to assist his ascent to the altar.
Before the homily, an African-American woman recited Maya Angelou’s soul-stirring poem, “And Still I Rise.”
I could easily write “The Idiot’s Guide to Emergency Rooms,” I’ve found myself in so many over the past 20 years.
There was the ER in Cusco, Peru, where I was delivered by helicopter after falling off of the Inca Trail at Machu Pichu, breaking my right ankle and spraining my left.
I was carried out of the jungle on a makeshift stretcher (heavy blankets tossed over what seemed to be a short ladder) by four Peruvian jungle rangers armed with rifles. Peruvians are, in general, short and built close to the ground. The five-foot long stretcher reflected the difference between my 6’1” height and that of the Peruvians. I was unable to stretch out on the stretcher—either my head would fall off of one end or my injured ankles would dangle precariously off the other. I sat erect on the stretcher as I emerged from the jungle and was borne across the ruins. Fellow travelers took pictures of me as I exited from the wilderness; I could think of nothing else to do than to wave at them in the manner of Queen Elizabeth II. A few people formed a ragtag procession and followed the jungle rangers as we made our way to the infirmary. I was, of course, in shock, so I can’t swear to the fact that a weeping Caroline Myss rushed toward me much like St. Veronica encountering Jesus on the road to Calvary. That said, the memory, hallucinatory or not, remains vivid all these years later.
Recently I’ve noticed a series of public services announcements promoting “device free dinners.”
They put me in mind of my double-bill for May’s Pick(s) of the month: “I Remember Mama” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The disappearing ritual of family dinner is central to both films. All movie schedules are for Turner Classic Movies.
I REMEMBER MAMA: MAY 14, 8:00 EDT
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS: MAY 9, 6:00 PM EDT
Both films take place in the first decade of the 20th Century; before the United States became a player on the world’s stage. Both celebrate family life in an era before Sigmund Freud pathologized parents; before John Bradshaw pathologized childhood (contemporary pediatricians would have a field day diagnosing and prescribing for Tootie, the youngest child in Meet Me in St. Louis); before peculiar relatives were branded as dysfunctional instead of being lovingly accepted as eccentric; and before the phrase “family values” became a politically divisive cri de coeur.
The Lenten season led me to an uncomfortable examination of my life. Not that anyone’s examination of their life is meant to be comfortable. I’ve poured over the classic texts of a number of wisdom traditions and have never found any that proclaimed, “Blessed are the comfortable,” or “Thou shalt be comfortable.” Quite the contrary.
In the spirit of the season, I attended a day-long retreat entitled Responding to Fear and the Crises of our Time with the Spirituality of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton, led by Franciscan friar, Father Daniel P. Horan, OFM—more about that a little further on.
By the end of the retreat, my mind was going a hundred miles an hour (when I open my eyes in the morning, it’s usually idling somewhere between 35 and 40 MPH—ask anyone who has been in my vicinity when I awaken). I had just a few hours to calm down before going to the theatre with friends
I’m not entirely unused to such leaps of culture and consciousness.
I recoil from sentences that begin, “Somebody ought to . . .” I cringe in much the same way I did in school when someone made the chalk squeak on the blackboard. People I don’t know, or people I do know and don’t especially care for, put forth such sentences at large family gatherings, such as holiday dinners, when nerves, at least mine, are already on edge. The phrase is usually a preamble to someone’s opinion about what’s wrong with the world and what needs fixing. Seldom, if ever, have I heard a speaker offer to participate in the solution to the problem they have presented.
I can think of one exception. LeMond/Zetter, the talent management company I once worked for, represented an actress named Holland Taylor. You may know her as the narcissistic mother on the sit-com, Two and a Half Men.
In the early 1990’s, Ms. Taylor was convinced by old friends to accept a series regular role on their new television comedy. Once the show was in production, Ms. Taylor discovered that, week after week, the writers were giving her nothing to do. She asked for a meeting with the writers and her old friends, the show’s producers.
“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” – E. B. White
Saturdays I run errands—the post office, the bank, the dry cleaners, the pharmacy– if I need to refill prescription, and the library—if I need to pick up or return books. As I go about my errands, my radio is tuned to KPCC-FM the equal to if not the superior to any public radio station in the nation.
Last Saturday I was in a particularly good mood; the day before, the Republican majority House had been soundly defeated in its attempt to dismantle Obama care.
As I lost myself in the schedule of up-coming films my irritability and depression evaporated so I plan to use the last blog of each month to preview the best of TCM’s up-coming selections. There is such an abundance of great classic films each month that there isn’t enough room to write about them all—and I’ve seen them all, multiple times—really I have! Several are easily worth an annual visit. In choosing the films for each month, I’ve chosen to go with the ones that may not be as well known.