So here’s a bit of biography of Merton’s early life. You can define him by contradictory statements: he was a noisy hermit, an ascetic who loved beer (and, he says, “to love beer is to love the world”) He was a compulsive and consistent writer who had a very ambivalent take on his art and craft, he often saw himself as a failure and said if he were ever to be a saint it could only happen in the midst of all his contradictions. He was there again for any sort of criticism, beginning with himself. T. S. Eliot said he didn’t edit enough, Evelyn Waugh said he should give up writing books and concentrated on letters concerning spiritual direction, in the end even the CIA was investigating him, but for a number of people his words, his contradictions, the messy stuff of his life is good news, fresh air rushing through in the inexact work of taking up the heart of life in order to give it away.
He was born in France with an Australasian-American alliance. His American mother parents had moved from Ohio to New York when Merton’s grandfather, called Pop in the family, made a small fortune publishing cheap picture-filled novelisations of silent movies. He did well enough to send their daughter Ruth to Paris to study interior design and where she met the son of family who had gone from London to New Zealand to be choirmasters and schoolteacher associated with the Cathedral at Christ Church,.. Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins met in a bohemian Paris salon and produced their first son Tom rather quickly after their Anglican wedding. He was born in southern France in 1915, towards the end of WW1 but went with his family to live with Ruth’s family on Long Island, New York towards the end of the hostilities. He’s from a mixed family; highly conventional people who delighted in being avant-garde, artistic, racy. But there’s much tragedy. His mother dies of stomach cancer when he is six and his younger brother is two. Merton recalls sitting in the back of a hired-car outside a public hospital in New York City trying to read a letter of farewell from his mother who is telling him she will never see him again. It seems a needless tragedy but research in the last two years shows evidence that the hospital had a strict policy not allowing children in the women’s wards at that time.
After her death Merton’s father left Tom with his maternal grandparents but came back several years later to take him first to Massachusetts and then to the island of Bermuda where Owen Merton was involved in a menage a trois with a married American couple – a novelist and writer — which lasted for several years and which Tom’s stubborn implacability to the relationship doomed. By the time Tom was nine Owen Merton had admitted defeat, and gone with Tom to a new life in a village in the south of France. He lived there with Owen, then Tom was sent to a local boarding school and, after a year, his father arrived to take him to England where he attended Ripley Court, a small school near his English family then went on to Oakham school at the age of 13.
I’ve already mentioned my theory that everybody has a table of twelve in the middle of their heads to give them identity and definition — and I bet Merton’s was a mixed bouquet by the time. His father was there – but a bit blurry wavering semi-Impressionist painting – as well as a clear cartoon sketch of “Pops,” the practical American grandfather. The memory of his mother left a sharper impression, both worried and severe, and then there was the American novelist, bitter in her attempt to marry Owen. His father died when Tom was 14 and he’d appointed an old friend, an English doctor, to be his guardian. He tended to be critical. and a few years before at his new boarding school his great aunt Maude had been a comfort to him but he had lost touch with her. He also held dear the visit of a New Zealand aunt to NY where she taught him to pray the Lord’s Prayer. To be blunt, it’s not much of a family.
Oakham changed his mind but might not have been that good for his heart. He said he would pray daily when he first got to Ockham, but one day the school chaplain said that, “The word Love in first Corinthians 13 could be replaced by the word Gentlemen” Merton became an instant atheist and a Marxist to boot. His table got more heady. Karl Marx would’ve been at his table, along with Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi, James Joyce, – you can imagine the dinner conversation. This is heady theories of mind and politics, alienation and youthful passion but also poets, martyrs and mystics like Gerard Manly Hopkins and William Blake were modelling transformational journeys and invite us to follow. There was a place for hope but don’t you see the disconnect? A boy with such sadness, loneliness, not solitude but endless action, evasion; not silence but such a lot of noise.
He lasted a year at Cambridge. He drank too much, studied too little, the rumour is he got a local girl in trouble and a court case was settled before a full scandal, but in any case his guardian wrote him a rather brutal letter telling him he had no future in England and he might do better in America.
It was a chance to begin again. There was enough money put away by his grandfather in a trust fund for his education at Columbia University in NYC with the help of a few part-time jobs and a lot of nights were spent listening to jazz in nightclubs, with afternoons tutoring schoolboys in Latin or answering questions of tourists visiting the top of the Empire State Building in addition to his studies. He tried out for the track team, joined a fraternity, started writing for the Humour magazine and the Literary magazine as well spending most of his time with his work in literature. But he found himself moving from an intense interest in literature, both the reading and writing of it, into a deeper exploration of mysticism that would change the way he saw the world and the way he lived his life. Part of this came from a class on Shakespeare. As Merton writes, “All that year we were, in fact, talking about the deepest springs of human desire and hope and fear, and we were considering the most important realities: “life, death. time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity.” And for the first time, I think, he felt himself surrounded by good, clever, funny friends, both professors and students, people he could trust, learn from, love; men and women to share the journey, to take the faithful path to another new beginning.
There is often a line crossed in a person’s life which can be seen more easily in others than in ourselves, where there is a motion from abstract thinking about something to doing something about it in a concrete way. For now Merton is ready to suspend disbelief and follow a more logical way as a student and a pilgrim. This required a reorientation on his mind with a higher understanding and value given to actions of the will. But he was also coming to understand himself as a poet and, even more, as a lover.
He was moved reading Aldous Huxley, in Ends and Means, that, “not only was there such a thing as a supernatural order, but as a matter of concrete experience, it was accessible, very close at hand, an extremely near, an immediate and most necessary source of moral vitality, and one which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” Then Tom began the work of training his will, budgeting his time, testing his priorities to meet the possibilities that he read in Huxley, heard from his teacher and friends as well as a visiting Hindu monk named Bramachari, and his increasing attraction and exposure to the Roman Catholic Church.
“I am not an idealist [for] the logic of the poet — that is, the logic of language or the experience itself — develops the way a living organism grows: it spreads out towards what it loves, and is heliotropic, like a plant.”
As he later writes in the text of The Seven Story Mountain, “The life of the soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings – by which man becomes one with God.”
And all his readings, late night conversations, meditations and listening to a sermon in the middle of a Latin mass all came together as a vehicle that would take him, within a very few years, to a new life in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. As he wrote on the early December day he decided to go to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, “I earnestly pray to give myself entirely to God”
“This is simply the voice of a self-questioning human person who, like all his brothers and sister, struggles to cope with turbulent, mysterious, demanding, frustrating confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions explanations and justifications become incredible even before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes incredibly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic, In which there is so much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is a the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that co one can talk about it and most cannot even believe it is there.
“I am, in other words, a man in the modern world In fact I am in the world just as you are. Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?”
Just before I dropped out of the seventh grade my parents enrolled me in a series of ballroom dancing lessons at the Crocker Dance Academy on 38th and Jay Street in Sacramento, where there were diagrams of something called a box step painted on the floor of the main studio. My understanding is the box step was invented and even patented by a man named Arthur Murray, who, with his wife Katherine, founded a worldwide chain of Dance Studios, all with versions of the box step painted on the floor. Looking back I realise we may have had an unauthorised version.
Doing the box step required six consecutive moves (one, two, three, one, two, three), first the left foot forward, with the right foot moving alongside, but not too closely to join the left foot, (listen to the beat), then the left food joining together with right foot, the right foot moving backwards, the left foot moving alongside, but at a distance, and finally both feet together. Counting, rhythm, memory and the diagram of the box step on the floor all helped for a while, but it also – to force a pun – tended to box you in, perhaps encouraged you to think there was only one way to do this, which is not the whole truth about dancing, but is what you have to get beyond in order to really move.
But I didn’t know that then. And I had a strong desire to know how things fit together, what things mattered most, where to put my allegiance, and how to get through all of this alive. So I prepared by making lists and putting things into boxes: including myself. There was a place for everything; what was better or worse, good or bad, to be spurned or to be followed, what I should walk to and where I should walk away. So, in all this, it was very important for me to have the facts. Can you be surprised that I was going to join a church?
I had a strong desire to know what things mattered most, where to put my allegiance, and how to get through all of this alive. I lusted after firm opinions so that I could make sound decisions. And when I first got into the church I found room for a whole new raft of them: expectations picked up from new friends and old books, ideas from sermons, choir room conversations, opinions on things like high church and low church, Anglo-Catholic and evangelical, liberal and conservative. Ask me something, anything, in those days, and I’d share my, somebodies, opinion. It felt just like life, but not quite!
Over time it started to get more real. The new acquaintances, people I met around the parish church, became friends, close as family, people I not only knew, but loved, and that turned out to be a crucial difference, made me realise the truth that St. Katherine of Hepburn mouthed in The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make up your mind about people is never!” But it took more than a good movie to dislodge this less than adequate map from holding space in my mind, and it still took more time.
For my history held me fast, and that table of advisors and their cobbled map of meanings was still my true religion. This amalgam of the Book of Common Prayer, various family members, favourite movies and books along with Bugs and Daffy, T. S. Eliot and Joan Didion and my mother and father and the landlord and the goat around a table in the middle of my head maintaining uneasy alliances while generating endless to-do lists pointing in various directions while I was just trying to maintain some internal compass based on a variety of conflicting information just to prevent the ship from capsizing.
But reading Thomas Merton at the age of 23 I met an author who made the journey look romantic. The Seven Story Mountain had early tragedy, romantic losses, hints of scandal, and a pilgrimage that tracked through some of the most glamorous places in the world — Ernest Hemingway’s France, T. S. Eliot’s England, Evelyn Waugh’s London and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Manhattan — mixing holiness, hubris and hangovers in a rich history of cocktail parties, late night conversations and early morning epiphanies happening everywhere from Catalonia to Cuba to Kentucky. And this eloquently romantic memoir was written when the author was not much older than me.
It was also the first time someone at the table was offering a map that could take me on a journey — and that made me look back at the table in a new way, and see a new way it could make sense in my life.
We forget the root word for religion comes from the routine of tying a rope or a line back on itself to make a knot: related to realign and reconnect. For although we have turned religion into pious views and attitudes, the original meaning can as easily point to practical actions: how we line our life up. With this definition basic religious actions are found in list making, budgeting and exercising: practical, ecological, relational, activities, thresholds, steps and images that get you through the business of life and community.
So, following that redefining of religion, a god can be re-defined as anything standing at the apex of religious actions, at the top of the tent of values and visions that motivate us. This widens the scope a bit. We’re so used to seeing basic source material for our religions in a temple or a church, that we overlook the religious plenitude that surrounds us on the web or at the mall. Our world is full of icons asking for realigned priorities and measured sacrifices of time and money, offering ways of thinking, feeling, convictions, connections. Just consider the spiritual and religious power contained in a pay raise, a sexual conquest, a sign of acceptance from a person or institution that has power, a new reckoning of knowledge. What mighty Gods walk among us!
But no blueprint can show how you are changed by the act of making love. That doesn’t mean that the blueprint is wrong, for that kind of knowledge tells us how much and how many, where and when; gives line, outline and location. But there are other ways of knowing that differ from the diagram as recipe and formula differ from bread and wine, as studying a road map to beginning a journey, as looking at a house plan differs from moving into a new dwelling.
This disparity struck me when I saw a schematic drawing of a popular sexual act. As an engineering blueprint it was accurate enough; showing all the equipment, where it was supposed to go and diagramming the sequence of action following — but it said nothing about loneliness and hope and desire, what you went to find and how you were changed, lost and found in the mingling and merging, the sweetness and the sweat of it. It didn’t mention how you felt afterwards.
We need to have deeper stories and reminders for that; to tell us who and why, give us hints on the identities and meanings that are possible, and even to stop us in our tracks and turn us around, gasping for new air and wide-eyed, looking at who and where we are as if we are seeing it for the first time.
Certainly recipe knowledge can help you to learn to cook but it won’t give you a sense of a keen hunger or the solid joy of biting into freshly made food carefully prepared for a company of friends. For truth is less like a diagram or a flowchart, and more like watching the changing colour of the sky at sunrise, examining the facets of a fine gem or simply standing face to face with someone you love — open to whatever happens next.
So, for in approaching certain important themes, I believe that only poetry and metaphor need apply. Plain and scientific speech, business and other dialects may offer declarative and straightforward definitions to keep you safe from confusion, but they will also restrict you from the richer allusions and possibilities of perception found only in the more subtle and ambiguous word-choices of careful prose and poetry. These are far more able to reconcile apparent dichotomies; allowing the expanse of image and breadth of allusion to reconcile spirit and flesh, infinite and finite, sacred and profane, life and death, in a way where all might be found in the immediacy of the present moment
It can be challenging to live with the possibility that a freshly made word might rudely wake us up in the very middle of our daily lives, but it happens. We’ve all known instances when we see a wider horizon, and start to follow a deeper understanding: opening to a world new with resonance, possibility, aliveness —where, quoting Rilke: “…there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”
For to look fully on any facet of truth can be blinding, may leave you speechless, unable to easily articulate what you have seen. And, in our present mythos we are yoked with a post-modern but somewhat scientific vocabulary and world view, a prescription lens that can both focus and limit, restrict and reduce the realms of possibility. But can we transcend the limits of our present vocabulary and find a realm of discourse that discerns deeper and wider viewpoints that might be, perhaps, more colourful than our present black and white solutions?
So we need to speak of words from other models of discourse, enabling new and paradoxical messages bearing larger concepts of the universe using ancient rhythms and mysterious images — surprisingly solid allusions of poetry to see the heavenly realms more perfectly — chancing to be enlightened but not burnt out in the process.
It’s a necessary peril. For to clearly hear this kind of message you have to stretch both subjective experience and objective language past its usual capacities in order to allow for the times when life opens deeper, love shines more brightly, where you turn a corner and the whole world is suddenly new and different and you deeply want to change your life.
The first century Greek word for messenger is Angelos, where we get angels. But the idea of angels doesn’t carry much punch lately, partly due to the artwork. C.S. Lewis writes that angels in the bible often had to preface their messages by saying, “Fear not,” where those pictured in most Victorian and popular art leads you to assume they’re here to softly say something like, “There, there.”
Neither angels nor religions are particularly sexy in the twenty-first century. The sad fact is that being religious in this part of the twenty-first century is like confessing a variant sexuality was fifty or sixty years ago. Obviously sex has become more popular than religion, but is that all? Nowadays it’s easier for me to state that I find more than one gender beautiful and desirous, my own being primary, than to confess that I am a faithful member of an offshoot of the Church of England. It is now common knowledge, for a vast number of people, that the actions formerly and collectively known as sodomy are now preferable, in many intelligent peoples views, to a propensity to recite the Nicene Creed in a public space.
And there are understandable reasons for this; for we are passing through an era where we have publicised sex while privatising religion and it makes for an uneven equation. Our recent first-world focussing on the former, how we stretch our collective intimates, has brought increased clarity and honesty on sexual and gender diversity, on various theories and practices of action and affect; while the personal and political aspects have been discussed endlessly, portrayed in various media from scholarly seminars to one-handed websites — some rarified and esoteric, others commercial and vulgar.
But remember the word vulgar stems from “common people or common practice” and there are good reasons for talking about, showing some strong lights on real life. For we’re finding when we share the actual stories concerning the way we love and the roads we travel, there is a similar commonality of feelings and a shared matrix of participation.
Speaking of my own corner of the puddle I cheerfully confess that the mainstream Christianity I know best is, after sustained reflection, a veritable hotbed of mediocrity: its internal struggles and divisive conversations are remarkably unattractive and its larger cultural irrelevance can almost be taken for granted — but not quite. For even with all the noble ruins of all the great religions in sight I am still convinced that if examined carefully, separating the wheat from chaff and sticking close to what seems to be evident from the radical visions and proposed actions of those early crafters as well as the deep bones of the resulting edifice, there is a simple and astonishingly poetic structure for a common true endeavour, a shared practice of compassion and creativity — even a common conspiracy for a more loving world.
This is not a new idea for me. I have vague memories of a stoned evening in the depths of the seventies when a friend challenged me as to how I could be convinced of the truth-claims of Christianity while being open to smoking grass, making love, and questioning authority — was even proud to enjoy all of them quite frequently. I smiled, passed the joint, and responded that most religions could be defined as dogma or doctrine, but they could also, just as easily, with equal evidence from ancient sources, be described as patterns of behaviour and incidents of charity, neighbourliness, love. And that’s where I was walking. I talked about the way an accomplished practitioner from any tradition would tend a garden, meet a stranger, sit in silence, heal a wound. I admitted that the vocabulary to describe each occurrence could be unique, exclusive, in some cases even restrictive, but the actions would have much in common.
So maybe it’s time for the great religious traditions of the world to be more forthcoming about – not the way we phrase our sets of beliefs, but how we work them out, massage them into the texture of our daily tasks and what it looks when we are successful and when, more commonly, we are not: actions rather than addages; less theorem and more practice.
And maybe the best way to use recipe knowledge might be as a sort of tentative map — accessing various areas of concern, but with no fixed names and identities, no capitol cities or main ports of call, a reference map that allow spaces to configure and constellate various areas of concern to be explored over time, depending on who we are with and where we are going. This does not have to be an ambitious project.
The simple practice of stretching before physical sport can be one model for this. As a young man I never bothered to do any specific exercises before playing tennis, but then in my late thirties I came home from a good game of singles and realised that I had injured my left shoulder to the extent that every time I turned in the night I awoke in a lot of pain. I realised that there was no longer an option not to stretch before tennis. It was a good thing to learn. Now, almost twenty years later, I find that regular stretching is helpful in preparing for the day ahead as well as meeting and mending the injuries that have come in daily life. It has become a semi-regular practice for me and I learn from it. Because now when I stretch I take time to listen to the recent history of my body, mind, soul and general neighbourhood, noting where soreness and stiffness need to be honoured, where limits need to be known and acknowledged before they can be touched, moved, released, enlarged. .
This has similarities with the actions of breathing — not just in meditation but in every moment of time: the give and take of it, the rhythm and pace, depth and demeanour. Years ago somebody advised me, “Look at something you think you know until it tells you something new.” So I’ve been looking at, learning to lean into, breathing with breathing, and I am learning that it gets bigger over time and it’s always hard to tell the simple truth of it.
I can write that breathing is not new for me, is an addictive activity that I started early and never got over, but that just panders to my tendency to play the lounge act of the soul, go for cheap laughs, try to introduce profundity through the family entrance. But the conscious act of breathing is really the most radical thing in the world. Breaking the world all open to a whole new spectrum of interaction, instructions and experience of intimacy that is closer than right next door — like the little girl in the first Poltergeist movie says, “They’re here!”
To begin to allow breathing to breathe us is to turn around the way we live and move and have our being. It is to lean into the possibility of a meeting place in the middle of the body where “who-I-am” meets something that is both bigger and finer than what I usually see as me, something else that challenges the way I separate the world into categories and choices, me and them, right and wrong, good and bad, all those inadequate and facile dichotomies that get lost and found in here and now.
To tell a story. Recently I woke at three in the morning to hear the remote speakers in the living room making sounds like muffled drums that stop when I turn off their power source, but when I go back to bed my mind starts racing like a greyhound chasing any available rabbit. It is still new to become aware of this inflamed vigilance, moving like an agitated animal from memory to projection, past to present to future, trying on ways of dealing with any possible crisis or feeling. So I find myself wondering, “Who let this one in the door?” while fully realising that this one is me!
So I observe the running tangent, feel the under-core of emotion providing the momentum for this marathon of reactivity; spraying conceptual gunfire on any perceived danger, continually scanning the landscape for threats and promises; it was not pretty. But I become aware there is a choice in how much I identify with, consent to, the level of my participation, to what extent I take part, in this paranoid procession.
Again I watch the wild monologue, feel the level of feeling under that, and am aware of another choice on this horizon: that I can go deeper into simply witnessing the process from another viewpoint. I don’t have to feel the fear, run to or from the action, can— let’s say — pet the cat laying next to me on the bed or attend to the rhythm of my breath. I do both of those, slowly withdrawing from the tangent of the man who has not been invited to share his monolog in my head but shows up anyway, and a little while later the cat and I go back to sleep. Maybe meditation is changing me.
So writing about breathing is about as difficult as writing about sex, altered consciousness or good musical theatre — all the stuff that really matters — because it involves everything I think I am and more, it stretches me physically, mentally, spiritually; and yet it is essentially unspeakable, unremarkable, simple and difficult, as easy as breathing and as easy to overlook. So what I try to do is listen, with my breath, to where I meet the boundaries, without too much thinking, and attend to what happens then.
I started exploring meditation in the summer of 1969 when I took our parish youth to a Saturday event on a ranch in the Napa Valley where we met a Benedictine monk named Dom Aelred Graham. He authored a number of books on the dialogue between Christians and Buddhists as well as one called “The Love of God” which Thomas Merton wrote was the best book he’d ever read on that subject. Graham had even visited Merton in his monastery and helped him plan his trip to the far east in 1968.
But that day Dom Aelred set a bunch of us down in a circle on the patio, gave some simple and specific instructions and sat with us in silence for twenty minutes. And something unexpected happened for me — an opening awareness of a kind of welcoming but silent neutrality, free of any directional signals I had to follow, or thoughts I had to respond to, where I could simply be a silent witness to the fact of breathing. It was a spaciousness that did not refute or exclude anything, a kind of clear and holy hospitality where shoulders could lower and the blood course and heart beat calm, and when distractions came (as they did) they could be taken and let go.
I was able to meet with him later that summer as well as occasionally for the next few years, and these conversations changed my life. I remember him quoting a thirteenth century Buddhist monk named Dogen who wrote, “Take no thought of good and evil, only cease to cherish opinion.” and that linked up with a line of St Augustine’s from the early Fourth century, namely, “Love God and do what you will.” Then he looked at me closely, with all the authority of a schoolmaster, and said: “If you are given something good, you don’t have to protect it, because it will stay with you. This means that you don’t need to be vigilant, or preoccupied, or overly concerned with orthodoxy, because God, who ‘has begun a good thing in you,’ will see it through to the finish.”
He told me that a sense of humour was essential for the religious life. For, if “faith” is an assumption that, in the end, “all will be well,” that means there is room to grow, room to breathe, even room to kid around. If the universe keeps faith, we can take the chance to be childlike, because the one thing necessary doesn’t depend on us. Then life is a gift that comes from someone else, somewhere else, and that process is trustworthy, can be relaxed into. So leaning into this world-view allowed room for ebullience and laughter in the tension living between where we find ourselves and where we want to be.
But for Dom Aelred this was not to be a passive consumer or a quietist. Instead we need to actively practice the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus, and that means sharing the journey with God. Not with the attitude of a supplicant or child, but in the spirit of an adult and a friend, where the one thing that is important is the return to the Father, the creator, the unitive source, “that we all may be one as you are one.” It was a kind of vision, where all is found via this open-hearted participation in that one final integrity.
He gave me an appreciation of the deeper wisdom tradition within the church and its affinity with eastern traditions and texts, showed me how Thomas Merton’s later writing and his contemplative connections might help me weave together the table of my history and hope in a new way, might help integrate the family I came from, the journey I was trying to follow, and the fresh air I increasingly found in the middle of the world — which was somehow growing larger and more intimate at the same time, turning out to be bigger than I thought — and I was finding room to change.
Part One – Spring longing begins…
“All theology is a kind of birthday
Each one who is born
Comes into the world as a question
For which old answers
Are not sufficient.
Birth is question and revelation
The ground of birth is paradise
Yet we are born a thousand miles
Away from our home.
Paradise weeps in us
And we wander further away.
This is the theology of our birthdays.” Thomas Merton
“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski
I’ve learned a lot from maps. I was born in Sacramento, California in 1946, almost a century after the city was founded where the American River came west from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and met the Sacramento River in its southward journey down the long valley and through the wide delta to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.
Sacramento started out mapping its streets squarely and naming them logically with the alphabet marching north to south and a sequence of numbered streets moving from west to east through the grid pattern of the town. It turned out the juncture of First and A streets was in the middle of the Central Pacific rail yards, and First Street would be named Front Street for its location on the riverbank, but 100 years later when I was a boy numbered streets still marched eastward to 57th and south to where Y Street was renamed Broadway and the next sequence of streets began — numbered again, but with the distinct suffix of Avenue instead.
There were anomalies, Streets with names like Mission Way and El Dorado Way (where we lived) interposed themselves within the number scheme and other streets like I (named Eye) and L (remaining L) seemed to appear sporadically and were occasionally lost with the sequence of letters jumping from H to J (Jay) and to M to Folsom Boulevard, the name that O Street took after 30th street, which had been renamed Alhambra Boulevard.
After 57th Street the Southern Pacific rail tracks curled south then east like a snake hugging the edge of the American River and both H and Jay Street tunnelled under the tracks to reappear between the new district of River Park and the site for the proposed State College before combining and crossing the Jay Street Bridge to become Fair Oaks Boulevard flanked by hop fields and various small farms being subdivided for more new housing.
As I write this, almost three quarters of a century after this chronology begins, online maps remind me of my memories inadequacies. The streets north of A Street and the railroad tracks but south of the River were named North A, B, C and following and current online maps note inner neighbourhoods and outlying towns I don’t remember, and the bus lines I used to know have been renumbered. And now I live, according to Google, 7,815 miles away from Sacramento, California in Wangaratta, two and a half hours northeast of Melbourne, Australia.
So things change, memories falter or become imbued with personal references and other background music, and the old foundational stories turn with times necessities to take on different shapes, serve other purposes and options, but the grid pattern I remember as a boy served as an initial map of meaning, somehow focussed my life, telling me where to go and when to turn and what to look out for and even mapped out the places where I shouldn’t look. I see them still.
My mother’s side of the family arrived in California early, some settling near San Francisco and others in Sacramento. Some were gold-miners, farmers and hotel keepers and others supplied workers for the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad, farmed and worked for the Wells Fargo Bank. Some were more successful; my great grandfather’s older brother , William Benson Storey, was the president of the Santa Fe Railroad and my grandfather’s younger brother was Herbert Hoover’s family doctor at Stanford University. Most of us were somewhere between comfortable working class or precarious middle class.
In 1922 when my mother (the youngest of three children) was six years old her parents moved from Chico, Butte Country, in the north of the Sacramento Valley, to Suisun-Fairfield, Solano County, on the outer edge of San Francisco Bay where my grandfather Chester Storey would become the manager of the branch line of the local narrow gauge electric railway. Their three children graduated from Armijo High School and in the case of their son Herb, went on to graduate from Stanford University. Ruth Ellen attended Chico State College briefly then went to Sacramento to work as a secretary for the State government. She was joined later by her sister Mildred and when, in 1940, Chet Storey inherited money from the president of the Santa Fe, retired from the railway and moved with his wife to the leafier suburbs of Sacramento.
My paternal grandparents, John Whalley and Mary Nuttall, had come to California in 1909 from Haywood, a village outside Manchester in Lancashire, where their families worked in the cotton mills and they had owned a grocery store with a post-office and a lending library. They bought a small parcel of land south of Sacramento to grow grapes and my father John and his twin sister Margaret were born there in 1913. An elder son had died at birth. They stayed on the land for about five years, then moved into central Sacramento where my grandfather took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad and my grandmother worked as a housekeeper in the public hospital. In the late thirties they moved to Pacific Grove, California where my grandfather died in 1944, After that Mary Whalley returned to Sacramento and lived there until she died in 1969.
My father and aunt both played tennis and had junior memberships in the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, becoming part of a fairly exclusive clique of young people. My dad won the state men’s doubles badminton championship in a tournament in Pasadena. My father and his sister graduated from Sacramento High School in 1931 and my aunt became the women’s editor of the local morning paper not long after. My father went into a three year printing apprenticeship program run by the state of California, to be trained as a printer and typographer. After he finished this he worked for a short while at a small paper in Quincy, a village in the northern Sierras, then returned to Sacramento where he resumed working for the state printing office.
My mother had been working at the State Engineers Office in 1937 when she met my father and they were married in the Chapel of intercession at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on January 22 the following year. Their first son, Thomas Herbert, was born in Sacramento on April 16 of 1939 and I was born in seven years and one day later on April 17 of 1946. I have wondered if being born less than nine months after the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki accounts for an more than occasional feeling of having walked into a room where an extended argument has just come to an abrupt and pregnant pause and I might be called upon to make some sort of response.
For most of my early life my father was a junior partner in a small printing business, and my mother was a housewife. Sometimes there was enough money and other times we came home from the tennis club to find the electric power had been switched off for lack of payment. My mother’s parents usually bailed us out.
Early in my childhood we lived at 838 El Dorado Way, between H and Jay, 53rd and 54th Streets, and when I was 10 my parents moved to a rented house at 951 41st Street near Jay Street . My maternal grandparents lived at 901 44th on the corner of Eye, my widowed paternal grandmother lived on H Street between 27th and 28th and was a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral at 2620 M Street (which had been renamed Capital Avenue), my father worked at 617 Jay Street and we were family member of the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club at 3951 N Street. As a family we had friends in the neighbourhood and the tennis club and frequently went to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Berkeley, Chico, Fairfield, Oakland, Oroville and Palo Alto.
As cultural Christians we were vaguely Congregational on my mother’s side while my paternal grandfather still attended the local cathedral and had raised my father as an Episcopalian — but the tennis club was the closest thing to a church we had in my youth. The club gave me some normative definitions of ways and means to live together. It gave community, a shared purpose, provided a place for both discipline and joy, a safe place for me and my family to go to meet the world.
Sutter Lawn Tennis Club was organised in 1919 and originally had grass courts, but by the fifties there were 5 composition courts and a new swimming pool. Sacramento’s climate meant you could play tennis most of the year and we were at the club most weekends. I had swimming and tennis lessons when I was 5 or 6, often played doubles with my family and, from late May to mid-September, played around the pool every Saturday or Sunday. But when I was in my early teens and the family was going through tough times I decided I didn’t like practicing or playing strategically: I’d try percentage shots that didn’t pay off, and I had a tendency to lose focus and get too tight when the score was against me. So I played a lot less and we ended up leaving the club anyway.
When I was a boy my family called me Bobby and, occasionally, Robby, except for my paternal aunt who used to called me “Robair” using an urgent and somewhat conspiratorial voice. I went with Bob in primary school and for forty years following until I changed my business cards to Robert and prepared for a late-middle age life change. When I moved to Melbourne Australia at the age of 54, I decided to open another new door and now prefer to be called Rob.
Two early memories I can date: First, a late summer day with my parents and brother meeting my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin next to the Golden Bears at the 1949 California State Fair on the 100th anniversary of the Gold Rush. The other was during preparations for the New Years Eve party that year at the tennis club. My parents were on the decoration committee, and were dressing up a mannequin dressed as the old year with white robe and flowing beard), when a former Olympic swimmer repeatably rehearsed emerging from the men’s locker room with a small white diaper over his silver racing trunks to celebrate the new year.
The following year we had season tickets to the Sacramento Music Circus where I remember seeing Showboat and Oklahoma. At a meal at the new Sacramento Inn following the second show, we saw the actress playing Ado Annie sitting alone across the room and I insisted on walking over to her table tell her how much I liked the show and that I thought she was beautiful. I was five years old.
At the age of six I began attending El Dorado School on Jay Street, a stuccoed off-white building with a red tiled roofed which I thought looked like a California mission with a centrally placed two story auditorium as the church, kindergarten, first and second grade to the left, middle grades, library and art room in a central wing and the higher grade classrooms in newer wooden temporary buildings to the side. My first morning in kindergarten when the teacher told a girl named Mary Ann that she had to stop crying which only made her cry more. I told the teacher that someone should slap her face and she led me to the principal’s office who called my mother and had his secretary take me to the lunchroom and give me a peanut butter sandwich. I was happy to see my mother but decided I didn’t like my first schoolteacher.
My third grade teacher, Miss Hussong, told stories while chalking large capital letters on the blackboard, then turning the letters into characters in the story. We also had weekly talent shows where I remember sang songs I heard on the radio or saw on Perry Como’s television show. Once I told a joke I had heard at home and Miss Hussong told me I was very witty. The next year in fourth grade some friends and I were scheduled to go to the auditorium to work on our musical play, the plot shifting depending on what movie I had seen with my father at the Esquire, Alhambra, Tower or Crest Theatre the previous Saturday, and generally I took the Frank Sinatra role, although after seeing Guys and Dolls I went with Marlon Brando. Summer vacation came before we ever had an opening performance.
My parents were nice people. They always hoped for the best, loved to laugh. One summer the teenagers around the pool told my mother that they had agreed she and my father were the most popular adults in the club. We played tennis and went swimming during summer weekends at the club, and took occasional day trips to the San Francisco Zoo or Aquarium or the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, stopping first for clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember summer trips to the mountains, the highway following the American or Truckee River upstream with the convertible top down and the sharp smell of pine forests. They loved to entertain and laugh, were well liked with lots of friends, gave great parties on Saturday nights, and shared ambitious plans for the future with a deep hope that it would all be coming true in the near future. Some Sunday afternoons my mother and I would visit houses “open for inspection” in better neighbourhoods where we hoped to move soon.
But when things did not go well the family tended to get quiet, avoid the pain in hope that it might go away, focus elsewhere. “Let’s not talk about that now.” So nothing was discussed, everyone kept quiet, looking in another direction. And when I was in my last two years at El Dorado School a lot went wrong; my grandfather was operated on for liver cancer on my eleventh birthday and died exactly two months later on the Friday before Father’s Day. The year before my father had sold his part of the printing business to pay for back taxes and we moved to a rental house, my older brother graduated from high school, started at the local junior college, took a part-time job and moved with a friend into his own apartment, a family friend who had lived with us for two years left the Air Force to return to his parents home in Florida, and everyone in the family worried that my maternal grandmother, who had a nervous breakdown five years before, would be unable to bear her husbands death. My parents argued more, the drinking got worse, and during that summer I remember sitting barefoot in the front seat of my mother’s Buick convertible outside a neighbourhood market while my father went in to buy liquor for a Saturday night, and looking down to see the summer sun shining on one thick dark hair growing on the centre of my right big toe.
I graduated at mid-term at the end of 1957 and went into the seventh grade early the next year, attending junior high school. My grades went down almost immediately and I would wake up on Monday mornings with reasons for not going like headaches, stomach pains, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea. I fell behind on homework and my grades went down and I would not walk into a classroom late for fear that other students would look at me and know about some betrayal that I did not understand; some vague disease that kept me home in the mornings behind semi-closed venetian blinds and made me fear crowds and avoid kids my own age. Finally I refused to go to school more days than not, and after the Easter vacation in 1958 I refused to go to school at all, and I didn’t want to talk about it either.
About that time I remember looking at the paperback rack by the checkout stand at that same neighbourhood market, seeming saw a copy of a famous stripper’s memoirs, “Gypsy – soon to be a musical starring Ethel Merman,” and asking my mother to buy it for me. I loved the story of 1920s and 30s vaudeville, burlesque and Broadway, and in 1959 when the musical came to San Francisco’s Geary Theatre with the National Company my mother and I saw Ethel Merman striding down the centre aisle demanding her eldest daughter, “Sing out, Louise!”
Then my mother and I were both seeing therapists and my parents were advised to not pressure me on return to junior high classes. And now my parents marriage was close to breaking up and rather than going to the tennis club on Saturday’s we were driving near the town where my mother grew up and a sheep ranch that my aunt’s husband managed for his father’s infirm sister and cleaning up the abandoned bunkhouse with plans for making it into a weekend retreat.
Sometimes on Saturday mornings we’d stop at the Italian grocery on Folsom Boulevard and get salami and cheese and bread rolls and beer and Pepsi Cola, then we’d drive through the downtown and past the redevelopment building sites west of the State Capitol. We crossed the Sacramento River on Tower Bridge, driving over the Yolo causeway, which flooded during wet winters, and past the University campus at Davis to Solano County to make a right turn off the highway at the Giant Orange where we sometimes got fresh fruit. We drove through Dixon on the narrow road bisecting green or yellow flat fields of grain or bright safflower and sometimes after autumn harvest sheep were feeding in the stubble barely separated from the road by spare wire fences that looked like musical notes should be hanging on them.
In 1960 my brother married his high school sweetheart and, when my uncle’s aunt moved to a nursing home, the main house on the ranch became available and my mother and I stayed there more often while my father came down on the bus or train most weekends. But after he was released from the hospital following a liver disease my father rented a small apartment downtown and my mother had movers empty the rental house in Sacramento and her cousin from Oroville helped us with a final cleanup and then the drive to the ranch with the movers arriving with the full van the next day. It rained hard as we drove down through the flat fields on dark roads. I remember opening the last gate and closing it behind us as we parked by the garage at the back of the house. I had felt lost in the house on 41st street where all I knew was where I wasn’t; but at least people knew who I had been, and who, I assumed, I should be — but now no one knew me at all and I felt like I was becoming invisible, castaway in a far off desert. I would return to Sacramento four years later to start a long journey as a peripatetic tertiary student, but I didn’t know that then.
My mother used to have what she called “A Happy.” This was a particular and sudden unsought but seized upon sense of joy which would show up in the present moment like sun breaking through clouds or fog. Sometimes it came in looking out a window, other times with the radio music or company present or something one of the dogs did. But to her it was a gift she was quick to receive and share. She would say, “I’m having a happy,” and we would all go to the sun porch ( with screened windows all ‘round, walls painted green with white wicker sofa and chairs, potted plants and orange covered cushions) which she called the thinking room — and we’d sit there with a certain sense of privilege brought about by fresh tea or coffee, the dogs or the canary, the morning sunlight, the sounds of the chickens ‘round the corner or a tractor in the distance; some present transient glory inviting us to wait, watch and respond to what was right in front of us, happening here and now.
I think it was the greatest gift she shared, this availability for responding to certain instances of freely given life: an ephemeral light brought into close focus by an acquired appreciation to be shared that came in listening for unintended humour or wisdom in overheard conversation, insights that came in witnessing some performance of street humour, music, drama, comedy, pathos; in light-filled sunrooms or in sidewalk awakenings where the evidence of glory walked into our daily life and made itself available to share in newborn thanksgiving. Looking back there a number epiphanies of the daily kind which opened into laughable and fresh-breathed mystery. Like Robert Browning’s poem on his Last Duchess, “She liked where ere she looked and her look went everywhere,” and accompanying her on these forays into the land of happy always seemed a gifted adventure.
Other stories came into play in those four years when, following the advice of a therapist, my parents did not enrol me in the local high school. I was very shy around people my own age and tended to be stilted with adults I did not know well: becoming one of those hidden adolescents trying to figure out the answer without understanding the question: scared, precocious, and very anxious to find a world where I would fit in, where I would make sense. I worked occasionally for my uncle around the ranch, but had no real friends outside immediate family: I worried that I would die and no one would come to my funeral. I was very anxious to find a world where I would fit in so I watched old movies on television and came home from the local library loaded down; some popular psychology and sociology, but mainly humour, biography and fiction. Looking back I recall three authors who gave me hope.
Elizabeth Goudge’s book, “Pilgrims Inn” was in my grandparents bookcase before I could read, and I recall sitting on the floor puzzling over the sketches of the main characters on the covers and inside the binding. When I was 14 or 15 I start reading it. The Elliot’s, a family in post-World War II England move to an old house on the English coast and find themselves recipients of a surprising love. Walking in nearby woods at dusk, Nadine Elliott has a realisation of the connectedness of life and the compassion it calls for: “Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, ‘We don’t need each other’”
J. D. Salinger’s first novel, “Catcher in the Rye,” was rich reading for an apprehensive teenager, and the two stories in “Franny and Zooey” touched me more deeply. The second story begins when a young acting student returns to her parents New York apartment home to have a religious breakdown/breakthrough. Her older brother Zooey accuses her of withdrawing from the family structure in order to pray. At one point he says something like, “How can you claim to be a pilgrim, to follow holiness, then turn down a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup we have in this house?” And when Franny says she no longer want to be an actress because it seems to be egocentric and self obsessed. Her brothers responds, “The only thing you can do now…the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to — be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?”
And then he reminds her of something their older brother told him when they appeared together on a radio show together; “to shine my shoes… for the Fat Lady.” He pictured someone with cancer listening to the radio, “sitting on a parch and swatting flies on a hot day” and asks if his sister is listening to him; “I’ll tell you a terrible secret… There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady… Don’t you know that… secret yet? And don’t you know… who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy… It’s Christ Himself…”
When I was seventeen I borrowed Joan Didion’s early first book, “Run River”, from the Rio Vista library. Set in the nearby Sacramento delta, Didion’s early work was loaded with scenes from the birthplace we shared: meals at the Capitol Tamale Parlor on Tenth Street and the shady veranda at the Senator Hotel around the corner by the park. In Slouching towards Bethlehem she shares a reoccurring sense of anomie writing that, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” and I found that comforting. As a native daughter and a pilgrim who had traveled far, she offered words, memories and meanings that linked me deeper to the city where I was born, the place I had left behind, and her memories grafted onto the lost years I was trying to rehabilitate. At that time my father told me he had received a letter from Didion’s father following the death of his own father in 1940. I don’t remember whether the senior Didion was president of the school board or on the board of the bank at Eighth and Jay Streets, but when my father shared the kindness of a leading citizen writing a sympathy letter to him it fused another facet of my own identity as a writer and a fourth generation native of Sacramento.
That summer after my father’s stay in hospital and our moving to the ranch I remember him pouring out tall glasses of ice tea from the carafe in the refrigerator and going out to his vegetable garden to hand water the plants, pick off tomato bugs, and gather fresh produce for dinner. He would end up sitting in an old red kitchen chair that had been appropriated from the wash-house to rest by the shade of the grapevines — sitting in the late afternoon sun with an appreciation of the garden that was almost palpable, was healing to us all.
It reminded me of times we shared when I was younger and taking the bus down Jay street with him on Saturday morning at the quiet print shop for a few hours, ending with lunch across Jay Street at an Italian cafeteria where high-hatted chefs lavishly cut slices off a massive side of rare roast beef for a dipped sandwich on a French roll. Sometimes we’d walk over to the capitol and look at the rotunda, check out the red and green chambers of the Senate and the Assembly.
I remember the two of us on Saturday train rides to San Francisco to the Oakland Mole when I was 10 or 11 and catching the “San Rafael” across the bay to the Ferry Building where the foot of Market Street met the Embarcadero and the city spread out like a open promise with un-numbered possibilities radiating out like the streetcars and taxis and trains and buses as noisy and fresh and rich as Benny Goodman’s big band sound.
Over those years my father came down most weekends and my parents marriage got better and in 1963, when I was 17, he moved down to manage a local branch of a large Sacramento printer in the nearby town where my mother had grown up.
When I turned 18 years old, I took a nationwide tertiary entrance exam and scored extremely well on the verbal sections and amazingly bad on the quantitative part. My totalled score enabled me to return to Sacramento, stay with my maternal grandmother, and attend the local junior college without a high school diploma. I was back in school but felt as though I lacked some crucial secondary socialisation, feared that I missed a special ingredient. I would spend a lot of time trying to make up for that.
Later that year my brother gave me a book by the editor of Esquire Magazine called “What Every Young Man Should Know.” It contained a one page list of all the proper clothing that the young man in the know should know about. educating myself in the serious business of being an adult, which seemed to be mainly a matter of getting the right accessories I checked the list as I could afford to buy the items. At the same time I decided that I join a fraternity, a tennis club and a church as well. This, I assumed, would give me a series of walls and safety nets to make the world make sense. I would have all my bases covered.
So fast-forward to the early nineties when I’m working as a tertiary chaplain in San Francisco and speaking to a priest of a nearby parish about my lost adolescence and unorthodox education. He surprises me by saying he respected my parents for easing the pressure and taking care of me that way, then told me that the previous year his high-school hating teenaged son had dropped out of school, run away from home, and was now living on the streets of the Haight Ashbury district of the city.
That opened a new and kinder light on my history, but there might have been other options. Looking back I’ve wonder if family therapy, facing and discussing problems and feelings, answering questions and telling the truth — maybe attending a few AA and AlAnon meetings or two would have made a difference; but that’s judging what was done then by what’s on the horizon now, and it’s a far different world. Looking back from here it’s clear that the the father was prone to drinking too much and likely depressed, the mother was uninfluenced by feminist writings and heavily co-dependent, the elder son was moving away from his family of origin in instinctual and understandable survival mode, and the younger son was smart, deeply scared and almost certainly gay. Nowadays it could be a TV series, though I am still not sure if it should be labelled comedy, drama or farce and looking back I still don’t know whether I want to laugh or cry or simply change the channel.
Nor am I sure whether I was hobbled or helped by the years at the ranch: the solitude, the sense I didn’t fit in anywhere — lost with a growing hunger to be seen, known and valued. But there was more to it too, more to be seen if I had known to enlarge the lens of my looking.
I remember one warm summer evening on the ranch when I was fourteen sitting in T-shirt and shorts with my back against the warm stucco wall on the front porch on the west side of that 1930s California bungalow ranch house watching the sunset turning white clouds mottled rose over the brown rolling hills some thirty miles away and something happened that surprised me.
Maybe vigilance was the focus for me at the time; trying to make sense of the world without a formal education or a peer group, figuring that if I look for all the clues the puzzle would make sense, and the chaos turn into order that I could control or at least understand. These things were on my mind that particular evening when, just for a moment, I became aware of a subtle change in the air.
I know now there is often a moment in a summer evening when the earth baked by the sun since morning starts to give up its heat to the cooler evening, when a fresh breeze announces that day is ending and evening beginning with a kind of give-and-take rhythm, almost a scent of silent music, and in that instance I didn’t feel alone.
It was just one moment and changed nothing: but all these years later I still wonder if the land I wanted to escape from in those days might have also been a place for faithful pilgrimage and might have contained, in those warm sunsets and silent mornings, the eloquent offering of a compassionate wisdom I’m still yet to fully understand.
So today it is almost Michaelmas, late September after a cold Australian winter, and in Wangaratta, 2.5 hours northeast of Melbourne, it is early spring and currently 7C with a forecast high of 18C. After almost twenty years in the Southern hemisphere it still surprises me that the beginning of spring comes here at the same time the Northern California clime where I grew up starts seeing autumnal colours and a few cold nights. Can it be both obvious and profound that the same world offers, according to the angle of geography, different seasons at the same time? Doesn’t it seem slightly magic to live on a planet where summer can be winter depending on where you are?
Here I am; a man, an old man (not that old, seventy-something is the new late-fifties), lying in bed next to his partner and writing in bed with that first steaming hot coffee cup on the left bedside table by the light, a Mac Book Air balancing gently on somewhat arthritic knees (the right one’s now titanium). But this isn’t just that man because there’s a teenage kid on a California sheep ranch who just wants to live his life but doesn’t quite know where to find it or how to recognise it, a perennial student and pothead, a struggling seminarian, some sort of surprised latent lesbian who emerges in early middle-age, a forty year old gay man trying to get the decor right. These together with the peripatetic printing salesman, pedant, poet and priest — all with the man who’s not yet reconciled to being awake at seventy-something yet trying to embrace it all as if there were no living alternative.
Earlier in the morning, sitting quasi-contemplatively in my 4:00am bathroom break, the girl cat Moxie pushes the door open and walks in to immediately turn around and face the door, waiting for her brother Snooks. We met them almost fifteen years ago in the breeder’s back bedroom in suburban Melbourne where, at first glance, a large moving mass of young interrelated felines seemed to be enacting some primal dance or procession, intensely engaged with two half-open sliding closet doors in a back bedroom with infinite kittens rapidly appearing and disappearing on either side of the doors — moving to attack, to run, return, go ‘round the other door and begin again. Now Moxie returns to the hall and her brother who waits outside
They precede me into the kitchen at the back of the house to be fed at 6:05, tails high like twin vergers leading the procession to high mass. I turn on lights, switch on the furnace, put water in the kettle for coffee, open the refrigerator, spoon meat into their bowls, push the button on the coffee grinder and fill the plunger with fresh ground beans and boiling water to take back to my bedside table. I pick up my laptop computer on the way. In bed with my partner John, who’s reading morning newspapers online, I place three pillows behind my back, pour coffee and start to write this, choosing for the moment to avoid web-browsing, silent meditation, morning prayer, going to the gym or starting the sermon due at the end of the week.
It still surprises me to have spent the last fifty years as some sort of Christian, for most days I despair of the larger institutional church, wonder about quite a few traditions, doubt the phrasing of many of the dogmas and doctrines, and am often nauseated by the more moralistic of my siblings in this dysfunctional family. In the middle of the last century Frank Lloyd Wright was taken to see the Civic Centre of San Francisco years ago. He turned with disgust from the large classically French-inspired domed building on a large rectangular plaza: “Only a city as beautiful as this,” he said, “could survive what you are doing to it.” In my experience he could have been speaking of the church today.
But even with these shadows I am convinced that the essential message of the great religious traditions carries valuable sources for poetics and politics, ethics and education, music and meaning, vocation and community. The centre does hold even as the paradigm is changing, and a revisioning of these ancient truths and wide traditions can offer new hope and healing that is happening even now.
For I also know the history of the Christian Churches is a long and winding river with a wide breadth and diversity of theory and practice; so —when I point to the values of tradition, liturgy and devotion over scripture, doctrine and dogma, of love over law, and conversations over commandments — I do so with a wide range of companions and a deep and shared history, and I am proud to follow and minister in this company, to follow this welcoming path.
Over the last fifty years, I’ve cobbled together a working life as a worker, salesman, student, lay minister, teacher, chaplain, priest and practicing writer. In reviewing that time I’ve gathered journal entries, sermon texts, class lecture notes and reflections on culture, drugs, friendship, nature or nurture, poetry, psychology, sex and sociology seasoned with surprising incursions of loss, love and luck. This continuing story of my life and love is my witness of what matters to me and what I want to share with you.
My own experiences began my exploration of the sacred. This was followed by reflections and reading on my own followed by university classes in psychology, sociology, literature, poetry – finally some graduate work in history and phenomenology of religion, primarily dealing with the experience of prayer and transformation rites. This took me into further dimensions of experience as an active member of a worshipping community, as I continued to explore deeper into the dynamic tradition of discourse and discipleship, shared silence and prayer, intercession and actions in both Buddhist and Christian communities. Then finally, in seminary, I started to encounter the rich resonant wisdom of the primary Scriptures and their radical vision of presence and justice and compassion.
People on the less individualistic, more conservatives avenue, at least within the Christian tradition, would reverse the order: starting with a primary role for studying Scripture in community and, when that has reached a critical capacity, moving on to study aspects of the community’s tradition, eventually combining these two cores with modern concepts of reason and connecting that with the experience of living with the demands of the contemporary world. I believe I have followed a path which may be more fitting for our times.
Ever since I was a little kid I’ve often had the sense of being accompanied, regarded, refreshed by some kind of sweet compassion. Not all the time, but occasionally and consistently — this surprising in-breaking, an awareness of a welcome and sacred dimension to the scene, lighting it from within and clarifying what it might mean to be human: coming with the changing light in the morning, the rhythm of breathing, the fact of our flesh, this sad and amazing, fragile and magnificent world seen face-to-face every moment, every day. All these plausible reasons to believe in a creation made, met and mingled within a conscious and continuing act of love.
Looking back I can remember digging in my parents’ garden when I was four or five, using a water hose to create a river under a rose bush, building a dam with one gesture of my palm, feeling the warm dirt and cold water as I refurbish the world. I can remember learning to swim under water a few years later, diving into a pool and moving from the noise of people talking, children playing, music in the background, and finding a realm of cool silence, wet and bright with bubbles in water, refracted sunlight, moving into new dimensions of motion and flying down to deeper silence or up into the noise and air again.
I remember the joy of riding a bike, pumping my legs and turning corners and exploring new neighbourhoods when I was ten or twelve. I remember playing tennis in my teens, shifting weight and learning to read the court like a song-sheet, responding to the rhythm of the opponent, the court, the flight of the ball, the air and light and weather, arms and legs and sweat and joy. I remember dancing and dating and exploring other people’s bodies and my own with all the intricacies and urgencies of flesh and blood. I remember realising this dance was shared with all the world — every body could do it, had done it, might do it again, soon, and wondering why we all didn’t.
Another strand came into play in 1965 when I was nineteen and went with friends to a liberal, middle class, suburban Episcopal Church where a group of people followed a simple and semi-solemn ritual of confessing faults, receiving forgiveness, listening to lessons, praying for themselves and others; all ending with intentionally incorporating something of the human love of God into their journeys. With music it took less than 55 minutes and, while I looked for rulebooks, expectations and demands, I was surprised to see the same underlying rhythm I found in gardens and water and exploration and getting lost and found and the sweat and sweetness of lovemaking. It both fed me and left me wondering how many other ways there might be to enact and understand, incorporate and step into this dance with whatever might be in, with, under everything that is, which might still be called love.
Since my sense of formal religion was something occurring inside buildings — architecture rather than the sense of experience I encountered elsewhere. I liked architecture, liked the work of designing the world from that first world I had rebuilt in the summer mud garden as a young boy, liked the lines and outlines of the tennis court and the sentences of a poem, but it left me with a question: how does love connect with structure?
A theologian once wrote that “God is a word for God.” After some pause I take that to mean that the word “God” stands for any collections of visions, values or prescriptions that ask for a sacrifice and offer a blessing. “God” can be an agenda to follow, a direction to travel and a list of what to take along the way. For love gets complex, dancing between history and hope and here and now. Evolving visions and values, roles and rules, all build walls, grow and change. offer larger blessings as well as demand more strident sacrifices. Encounters with family and friends calls for further definition about where we come from and where we’re going and why the traveling might matter. So even though one English mystic was convinced that “all will be well,” this need be balanced with a Zen Roshi’s response when asked for a two-word definition of his teachings: his answer? “Things change.” I’d agree with that and add two more, “Jesus wept” and “Shit Happens.” Still the question stays with me; how does the freedom of love connect with the demands that come with structures?
When I am around 5 years old, a neighbour’s daughter who is my occasional baby-sitter, gets married in a large wedding at the local Roman Catholic parish. My parents think I’m too young to go to the ceremony so my maternal grandparents stay with me in the car across the street from the red brick church and I remember looking at the building and wondering what’s happening inside.
Maybe it comes from a scrap of conversation overheard or a picture seen but I am sure the couple are to be married, ”In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Goat.” Even now I see the goat clearly; lovely, clean and white, with a necklace of coloured bells in the centre of the assembled company who are regarding the goat with the respect one gives a to an honoured visitor from a far country who carries an important message, albeit one not easily understood.
Another image from a few years later stays in the shadows but emerges after watching a popular movie in Berkeley in the eighties. Remember the character of Judge Doom in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Tall, grey, menacing, wearing a tall hat with long overcoat and heavy rubber gloves; the one who knows all the weak points of the law, all the codicils to hidden wills. The one out to dissolve the characters of Toon Town.
What I remember is the house my family rents when I am 12 years old, and the landlord, when my parents fall behind on rent, knocking on the front door. I’ve not gone to school that day and my mother, leaving for work, tells me not to answer the door if he comes. So I stay silent and still inside as he walks around the perimeter of the house, tries the back door, looks into windows — for I believe he has the right to do whatever he wants, and I wait for him to open the door, come into my families rented home and throw me out.
All will be well and things change too: Jesus wept and shit happens. For many years I move between those two childhood images of the Almighty. On one hand the sacred one as benevolent bellwether, member of the flock and leader of the pack; animated, omnivorous and polymorphous explorer, getting on top of anything, smart, interested and tenacious; not easily herded. On the other hand the silent judge or overlord holding rules and standards, watching and never to be trusted, keeping secret fate hidden up the sleeve ready to cast us into outer darkness, whatever that is.
The disparity between these two maps still leave me unsure whether to trust the journey or look for the rulebook; if I should consider the lesson of the sunrise or look for the covert agenda under the stated expectations. These two stories and the intertwining dynamics between them are the two recurring and conflicting set of lenses through which I see the larger scape, forming the basic questions I have sought to answer with the witness and work of my life.
I read recently that half the men who make seventy don’t live to eighty. When I told our family doctor he said I was likely to live to the late eighties, but I wonder — and approaching the prospect of death brings the present into abrupt, sharp relief. Not an easy task, for while I was just getting reconciled to more chins and wrinkles, rebranding them as a severe beauty, a new humility to be endured for the next fifteen or twenty years, they were simply preparing me for that final desiccation coming much sooner. Paraphrasing Woody Allen, I’m not sure about death, but I’d still like to be there when it happens to me.
For it hit me in my thirties that the most essential gesture in being human comes at that moment when you are presented with a road ahead, curving on to a future unseeable from the present perspective, requiring a walk with faith, to be negotiated with hopeful ignorance or blessed assurance depending on your history or degree of hope. Some days for me that’s not a lot, some days I allow more.
For on this day, seven hours after I awake, the world changes beyond expectation. I go to the local YMCA, diving into the pool for senior water aerobics to early Beatle songs, showering afterwards and snacking on yoghurt and nuts with friends there. Later I eat lunch out with John, pick up laundry, return home and end up spending the afternoon sitting and writing as a somewhat different person than I was just a few lines back, a few hours before. This day may be unique, but it is not uncommon: it is like that every moment of life, every morning I wake up, every day that I live so far. I get surprised.
But how do I approach this awareness of the curving continuum? Does it depend if we are pessimists or optimists? Sometimes I see myself as incorrigibly incomplete, but on better days I’m an unfinished production in process. The latter balances me better because the “incomplete” side of the equation points to a fear of being found out as lacking, losing the game before it’s over, while leaning on an “unfinished” mode allows transformation. It holds the tension better: something old might die but a new creation can show up right at the same time, on the same screen. I even find the way I use current technology offers avenues and images of larger realities where new connections emerge, offering avenues and images for understanding ourselves in relation to larger realities.
Anyone over the age of fifty knows the vast difference between typing a page back then and writing a document now. Here I blithely run through this black, grey and white world of keys and symbols, pushing squares and watching words appear, both the operating system — which I experience as a benevolent force — and the craft required to attend it has become gentle and more tender than in earlier times.
Thirty or forty years ago sharing words and meaning required carbon paper and mimeograph masters, white-out paste and sometimes thin and easily crinkled erasable bond. I remember one existential moment in 1984 deciding not to sharpen a particular sentence because of the effort required in correcting the choices already committed to the paper. I was aiming to listening to the muse and felt that justified bending to the demands of the craft might stop that process of aspiration.
Getting older broke that yoke. Now I relish doing less, on a good day I intentionally underachieve by allowing twenty minutes for a slow stretching routine, a bit more for morning meditation, breathing fresh air, prayer or time in the pool at the Y, stretching into my limits, meeting where I’m not, letting it all go, and still going on from there. Maybe it’s just me, but the world seems more forgiving and renewing.
And modern technology means this old man revises with abandon with no erasable bonds being broken, no papers torn asunder and, for the present, no memory white-out. It is a new creation right now, a graceful process akin to what one mystic called “continually renewed immediacy,” weaving art and craft, moving from process to product even while keeping evidence of conceptual virginity on each and every page. I find it an exercise approaching the ecstasy of meeting the God-head just in time — for when I touch Command/S, all things become new!
Even at this advanced age I am not sure where I am going, but I am increasingly aware, and thankful, of where I’ve come from and where I am now. I am a man formed in a particular mixture of history and spirituality, psychology and poetry, politics and piety called Anglican Christianity; but I’ve learned much from a Sufi poet named Rumi, lived for months in a Buddhist temple and loved it, and probably have picked up more practical wisdom from good Hollywood comedies and brassy Broadway musicals than I ever expected.
T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ranier Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver float my poetry boat and feed me rich images. Christian writers like Rowan Williams, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and Marilynne Robinson keep me breathing deeply, and the Buddhist community represented by Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodren and Norman Fischer increasingly offer me fresh air and new hope.
But Thomas Merton tops the page. The writing of this mid-twentieth century monk, poet, prophet, interfaith pioneer and social commentator witnesses a journey of doubt and faith, discernment and delight, poetry and politics that salve so many souls some fifty years after his death. When I was young I found Merton offered answers that helped me, later I saw he shared questions that challenged me, and now I see he made mistakes that surprise me. For all these reasons he remains a friend helping me to connect with life.
So this book aims to be a psycho-social-spiritual look at the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first seen through the lens of my own life and a few others. I’ll tell the stories of my own time; along with people I’ve loved and disliked, movies I’ve seen, failures I’ve survived, times I’ve wasted, tasks I’ve accomplished and oftentimes the unexpected fun I’ve had.
There’ll be some sex and drugs and more musical comedies, plus look at family histories, desire, disaster and dysfunction in a somewhat forgiving way, including the wasted times, breakdowns and breakthroughs, meals and meetings, tables set and journeys taken; all the places where I learned, over and over, to recover, redeem, renew; to breathe and begin again. And in this recollection there is, hopefully, renewal. On the way I try out new connections and new ways of talking about my experiences of Buddhist-Christian contemplative practices. And if that surprises you, get used to it.
In this post-Christendom era traditional expectations have faded away to leave a new silence, open to be filled with new voices and visions. It’s time to open the conversation further, with other sacred and secular gathered communities of wisdom and compassion, responding with our varied visions of wholeness and compassion or a shy common hope in the heart. And we need to approach this together as a whole society, interweaving sacred and secular in a new conversation, for the deepest reality of the twenty-first century is that we are already one — the spiritual task of loving the neighbour has become a political and ecological necessity.
There can be many gifts in being a listening neighbour. My own education and formation as a pilgrim and disciple in the Anglican tradition has been challenged, modified and encouraged to evolve and expand by meeting with radical Catholics, Methodists and Mennonites, a formidable female rabbi, an anarchist Theravada monk, and others Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Muslims of various kinds in honest conversation. I have also been challenged and educated by non-theistic wisdoms; ecologists, economists, feminists, queer communities and political theorists have critiqued and enriched my understanding of my own tradition and journey. I am better for their friendship.
A shared practice of wisdom and justice communities working together in a common direction can ripen to be a fresh presence in the old neighbourhoods. It can add value to the world of friends and family, wellness and illness, issues of money and housing, mind, body and spirit, integrating the whole person within a larger community of shared meaning. We just have to change the way we gather together.
The current post-enlightenment model separates secular and sacred traditions and does justice to neither; delegating issues of public meaning to civic ideologies shaped by capitalism and consumerism while downgrading institutional religion and individual convictions to personal and private piety. and demoting faithful convictions to stained glass sentimental devotions.
Can we encourage and incorporate the best of these age-old visions and values of wholeness and holiness: integrating their critical discernment and discussion learning, knowledge and wisdom into the education of whole persons in our modern multicultural society?
It is not an easy task. Mahatma Gandhi questioned how anyone who thinks they possess truth could be fraternal, can have civil conversation or learn from another, and that’s a fair call. We have to be extremely careful of both heroism and hubris with ultimate visions that concern either profits or prophets.
For every powerful tradition — capitalism, catholicism, communism , confucianism— holds unique visions and makes specific proclamations that can be strident and exclusive. Our world history still reels with their individual claims of orthodoxy. But our various wisdom, spiritual, justice and social traditions still might meet in a world of common orthopraxy — not talking the talk but walking the walk, These might meet sharing actions and occasions in measurable ongoing tasks and achievements, making a difference by creating new partnerships and possibilities. Common priorities might be areas such as ecology, economics, environmental concerns, working with youth and elders, the hungry and the homeless. All in the hope that a common cause in working for justice, love and mercy in common community might, in the end, make a significant difference in the world we must choose to share.
We usually go to bed before 10:00pm. The cats often leading the way through the dim hallway from our circle of sofa and chairs by the back room fireplace and television with the the glow of iPads and overhead lights. Most evenings are quiet, reflective, with occasional music playing or the rhythm of the dishwasher rolling through its cycles. It has been a good enough day, weaving occupation and ease, limits and freedom, intentional choices and routine tasks in a succession of actions and reflections modified by increasingly predictable seasonal and social rhythms as we grow older, become more enmeshed in habits and tradition.
Now John says, “Come along babies,” speaking to the cats and, while they don’t move immediately, they join us after we bank the fire and replace the screen, turn off lights and head for the kingsize bed in the centre of the house. Our common late night chores relate to the realms of toothbrushes and pills, filling water reservoirs in the sleep-apnea mandated CPAP machines, moving daytime pillows, plugging in and placing phones and pads on the table on the right side of the bed and, in my case, inserting an air-pod to listen to a favourite audiobook — tonight a new western take on a twelfth century Tibetan Buddhist text. The cats return to the hallway where they have some esoteric council. I start out on my back, stretching slightly and, listening again to Norman Fisher’s riff on relative Bodhicitta, and turn to my right side, when John — almost asleep – turns to cradle me, his warm belly against my back, and as I lean back to him, Norman Fischer reads,
“Resting childlike in openness of mind in this dream-like life, you will feel protected and at peace. You will feel not only that you are loved but that love is built into the nature of what you are and of what the world is, so that you are never apart from it. Knowing this, you can risk caring and loving. You don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.”
After a while Snooks jumps on the left side of the bed, manoeuvres above our heads and pillows and descends to nest between my chest and the right side of the bed, Moxie jumps onto the foot of the bed and positions herself between John’s shins and my calves. Norman Fisher continues,
“it is clear that as pleasant as love is, it must also be unpleasant, because people are sometimes unpleasant or go through unpleasant things, and if we abandon them at those times and run away from them because they or their situation has become unpleasant, we would have to conclude that there wasn’t much to our loving in the first place.”
At that moment a glitch in the house wireless network turns the air-pod off. I sit in an amenable welter of flesh and blood, memory and projection, past, present and future, not quite asleep or awake, with no voice in my head and unwilling to disturb this evening peace by restarting the necessary app. And at this precise moment I realise this is what it means to be in love.
It is mid-autumn at the end of March 2020 and next month I observe my 74th birthday anniversary and begin my 75th year, three quarters of a century, with a mix of disbelief, awe and increasingly simple thankfulness. I’ve got room to do this. Since we are currently blessed, cursed and set apart to live in the midst of interesting times provided by a worldwide virus, I approach this threshold with my partner in the context of what could appear to be a rather cushy monastic enclosure. It’s far from severe poverty if two men and two cats are restricted by a modern plague to home-based solitude with more than enough books and food and an abundance of appropriate technology. We abide as semi-hermits remaining intentionally connected with friends, family, neighbours, and the whole world through screen and web and prayer.
Still there is a silence here which encourages another level of wondering and pondering. A seminary professor of mine defined Eschatology as both “The Last Things and The Things That Last.” And anyway you look at it, these are end-times. We may not know it all, but we understand it will be different for awhile yet. And that very difference can focus us — on who and where we are and have been, who we’re with, what we’ve done and haven’t done, and finally on what lasts and why it matters. It is an opportune time to look at life and death and something else. Anyway I keep telling myself that.
I’ve never been very clear about the likelihood I might someday die, but even as a kid I knew it was around. I have vague memories around polio, of handwashing and stories of the public pool closing in Sacramento, of somebody’s daughter with a limp or someone else’s distant cousin in an iron lung; or maybe I just saw pictures in Life Magazine or on the television my brother Tom won at the California State Fair in September of 1950. Other people’s grandparents died too, and on June 17, 1957, my mother’s father died two months to the day after he had exploratory surgery for liver cancer on my eleventh birthday. Two days after he died I went with my family to view his body at the grey Victorian mansion housing Clark, Booth and Yardley Funeral Directors. We entered through the side door and I remember how silent the building seemed and my grandfather lying still in the wooden casket and my grandmother leaning into my father and sobbing quietly.
In 1962 I remember going to Sam’s Rancho Villa on Fair Oaks Boulevard with my parents and a couple of their friends in Sacramento during the Cuban missle crisis for prime rib, mashed potatoes, horseradish and assorted desserts and the surprisingly quiet conversations at all the round tables which I assumed were about the nuclear arms Nikita Kruschchev sent to Fidel Castro. I think we were driving home after when we heard the news that “somebody blinked” and America was safe until a year later when JFK was shot in Dallas and we drove into Sacramento to pick up my grandmother and all the flags on Capital Mall were at half-mast.
And I remember, though through a bit of a haze, the early evening of Thursday, June 6 1968 and walking from my dorm at the University of Oregon to a playground a block away from our dormitory to smoke too much Jungle Juice. Then I was suddenly convinced I was the same boy who had played at the playground at McKinley Park in Sacramento ten years before and would now have to walk down to Highway 101 and south to California. When my friend with the pipe asked me how I was I started to tell him this and he assured me I was having a bad trip and assured me, after he counted backwards from five to zero, I would vomit and immediately feel much better. He did so and I felt better and we walked back to the dorm. Later I was reading on his bunkbed as he sat at his desk studying for a final exam and the music on the local radio station was interrupted with what initially seemed to be a retelling of John Kennedy’s assassination but then I realised that his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy, who we’d seen the previous week sitting on the back of a convertible while campaigning for the Oregon vote, had just been shot in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California Primary.
Death touched the family again when I was in my mid-twenties and my eighty year old grandmother was close to dying of leukaemia. She had a remission for several months and when it ended my uncle, her eldest child, flew out from the East Coast, and I stood watching from the front window of the house as he — followed by my mother and my aunt – carried his mother in his arms from her home to the car to take her to the hospital for the last time.
It hit closer a decade later when I was painting my parents house. and fell through the roof of a carport to the concrete below. I could hear my back crack. A noisy ambulance drive and an hour later I was getting an xray thinking, “If I can just walk after this I will be much more thankful than I have ever been.” Three months later I wrote this poem.
At 5 O’clock
as branches lighten
in late October afternoon:
the surprising structure of tree
emerges as freshly thought.
One man, walking
With something else on mind,
is surprised by the fact of it
and breaks stride for a moment to see.
Man and tree stand
in late October afternoon;
A surprising structure emerges.
And then fifteen years later and almost twenty four years ago, six months after my fiftieth birthday, on a late afternoon in November, 1996 when I was ninety minutes outside San Francisco with my first cousin and her family in Fairfield for a long Thanksgiving visit. The weather was warm and I was wearing bermuda shorts. My cousin asked me about the black spot on the back of my leg. I looked in the mirror to see a sunken patch of skin slightly above the back of my knee.
So the following week I went to San Francisco General Hospital to get a small biopsy and returned to receive the results the following week. When I got to the second appointment I was met by the doctor, another nurse and a woman from the office of pastoral care, who all assured me they would be there for support: that I had a melanoma. The doctor explained they would arrange for a CT scan of my lymphatic system, take a deep excision as soon as possible, and arrange for a an interview with an oncologist who I saw a few days later. The specialist said that if the deep excisions showed malignancy and the scan indicated the cancer had spread into my lymph gands they would begin a series of chemotherapy treatments extending over a number of months.
Of the week following I particularly remember keeping still in several positions and laying on a sheet on the surface of a large flat machine while a larger machine positioned above me was adjusted to take pictures of my lymphatic glands. While this was happening I listened to the occasional clicking sounds from the machine above me and two technicians several feet way softly talking to one another in a language I did not know. I was aware of the thin hospital gown I was wearing and the nubby texture of the sheet on top of the metal machine. Then I somehow felt the air in the room somehow charged with a presence of radical caring which was breathing us all – somehow centered there yet still equally linked to some larger dimension of reality. Language falters here, but then I knew I was, we were, not alone, and this realisation was an instant relief for me.
A few days later I awoke with a dream where my mother and a cousin of ours were visiting a small valley where our family had lived many years before. We drove through narrow roads between full orchards flanked by lightly wooded hills on each horizon and came to a country crossroads with one of those one-stop stores that sells gasoline, sunglasses, soft drinks, beer, candy and a limited menu of food with small tables and metal chairs. When I told the man at the cash register our family had lived there long ago he asked for the name and I said it was Storey. He then said he knew Grace Storey, my great-great aunt who had died in the 1950s, that she still lived nearby.
We went back to the car and, while my mother and second cousin thought that the man at the counter was slightly off focus, but I believed he knew her: that in this particular valley as people aged they moved moved farther into the mountains, somehow becoming one with the rocks and the ground and the air: silent and slow, yet deliberate and deeply aware and still somehow alive. When I woke up I realized that Grace Storey could both be a proper name and the title for that dream.
I recall the third image came to mind again when I was talking to a student at USF, sharing that one image of heaven I carried was that of a really great party. A place offering the best drinks and hors d’oeuvres, flowers everywhere, great lighting, windows with great views on all sides, with the music of wonderful conversation, effusive and effervescence and something else too: with everyone taking turns serving refreshments, sharing conversations, seeing what’s happening, somehow all full of sense and witness and promise and presence.
And on at least one wall there’s a large flatscreen television where various of events play themselves out. Every genre: history, comedy, triumph and tragedy, art and science, noise and soft music, light and darkness all appear and go through their paces. And it seemed as though every once in a while someone would leave the party and appear on the long narrow screen going through all the events of their life and, when they returned to the larger room, others would asked how it had gone. And then I remembered I had written a poem twenty five years before on the same theme:
A red leather walnut panelled heaven
like a clubroom.
God strolling by, drinking aperitifs
before dinner – damask, sterling and Spode.
That’s one side of the vision.
Another would be an agape orgy.
continual coming in celestial light
beings merging, mingling,
with melody of sweat and endless orgasm.
And, of course, the tennis court afterlife:
elegant reprocity: whites, reds and green,
a courtly dance that rallies around eternity,
and, at every point, serving God.
Or maybe awe:
the spirit seeing
what it could never comprehend
and reverberating in total wonder.
Or all of the above,
a place beyond place,
An air beyond description,
a ringing light… An is.
That old poem, the more recent dream, and the image I shared with the student all combined with a certain amount of role distance, simple denial and tentative faith to carry me through the worried days before the results of an early morning deep excision in the outpatient clinic showed the cancer had not spread, the lymphatic system appeared clear and, with scheduling annual skin checks, I was pronounced well and safe. But this series of ideas and images still remained to this day. And even after all the years these are not easy stories to share, still harder to explain.
It is helpful for me to note they follow a pattern pointed to by Mircea Eliade and Victor Turner, two academics at the University of Chicago writing about liminal rites of passage, thresholds where (quoting Wikipedia):
“Participants stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes… During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.”
And for awhile after the cancer scare my life got pretty malleable. The threshold between living and dying opened on to a different kind of journey where encountering these supposed contradictions was somehow softer. I was easier about knowing what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t easily expose or explore concerning these places between. A few years following, I also started reading about the phenomenon of synesthesia and that began to open up another way to reflect about, clarifying my experience a bit more. My online dictionary begins to defines synesthesia as “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”— but it’s more than that.
For one thing, it’s not uncommon. Cribbing from Wikipedia’s font of information, I find that Vladimir Nabokov, Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman, Nikola Tesla, Duke Ellington, Rimsky-Korsakov and drummer Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead all had it. Each of them offering unique symptoms or gifts differing depending on your point of view. While Beverly Hills – Englishman painter David Hockney perceived music as color, shape, and configuration, the Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthesia combined color, hearing, touch, and smell. It may not be a common occurrence, but seems quite lush and seductive to me. Quoting the scene in that movie with Meg Ryan, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Or maybe, if I’m really honest, I won’t. It’s not easy. Writing in “After The Ecstacy, The Laundry,” Jack Kornfield recounts that one “famous study of American spiritual life found that the majority of those interviewed had had a mystical experience at some time in their life. However, the researchers also discovered that most of those people would not want it to happen again.” Kornfield asks why this is then offers a convincing answer. “What we have no words for, we cannot understand; it does not fit into our view of what is real. And if we stumble upon it… we may be taken by surprise, and frightened.” But It might be worth the fright, to take the risk. what if reality is that large, can contain larger contradictions, offer more options of experience and perception? If we only see what we look for, maybe we’ll miss a surprise that is more than frightening. And maybe we’ll miss a miracle that might be nearer than we had known.
Personal experiences require a public vocabulary. For most of my years in chaplaincy I began to use a half-dozen Greek words to dress my understanding with a little more authority, sort of like putting good slipcovers on an old couch, to illustrate these different ways of experiencing time and space, of coming to horizons. Two of these are Chronos and Kairos. I first used them in a sermon two weeks before Easter 1993, some 27 years ago and I’ve been riffing on them ever since. Here’s a sightly revised version of what I said then:
I have this fear that the 90s is the decade when nobody is going to get enough sleep, where waking up is very hard to do. In addition to the chaplaincy at San Francisco State University I work part-time as a resident minister, on the campus at the University of San Francisco. Sometimes I wake up at USF in the morning and after coffee I go to the gym for a workout, or do the daily office at home, maybe meet a student for breakfast in the Union, finally walk over to Haight Street to catch the 43 bus to Forest Hill to transfer the M streetcar to our headquarters in Ecumenical House at SFSU.
And there mornings when I’m standing on Haight Street and I am still not awake after a lot of coffee and various activities, not awake, just percolating lightly. So I stand there waiting and start making some plans for the day, ruminate a little bit about what I need to do, who to see, plans, all this mixing with memories too, maybe taking out the datebook and checking the schedule while I wait for the bus to get there. But not really awake
And then when I get on the 43 bus and we start moving, turn on Cole Street, turning again at the Tassajara bakery, and then right up the hill to the medical center at UCSF and when we get to the top of the hill by the dental clinic I look to the right and sometimes what I see is amazing, shocking, beautiful! With the Golden Gate and the Pacific ocean, the park and the Presidio, Richmond and Sunset districts, trees and houses and sky all together with the clouds and sun and morning fog. With blue and white and grey and green and I swear there are mornings when there are shades of purple and rose that even seem to colour, to transfigure, all the people on the bus. All of us touched with glory! It feels like such a shock of privilege that I want to open my eyes wider and see it all and look in every direction, and take the biggest breath I can take and to say out loud, “Oh God, thank you for all this amazing life!” Being a good Episcopalian, I restrain myself on this, but I think the idea is appropriate even if the action doesn’t seem quite right. To wake up to all this life!
Now the Greeks had two words for these two modes of consciousness and time. Chronos means linear time, like chronometer, chronology and even chronicle. At eight I do this in a nine you do that in the next 20 years the committee plans to do whatever; all that is linear. Chronological time is something to fill up, to plan, to use. But Kairos is the right time. Time to wake up, to plant seeds, to harvest, to make love: to look at that particular flower, or face, or surprising fact of life looking back at you. It is immediate, surprising, recreative, maybe a surprising gift.
If they were new cars Chronos would be a station wagon, built for the long run, to take you where you want to go: “you can put all your history in the trunk and still have room for the future.” But Kairos would be a convertible! “Take away the removable top and see the sky, the wind in your hair, the new view!” I remember when I was a kid in Sacramento, sometimes on Saturday we would go to Lake Tahoe for the day. We had a green Buick convertible and when we got past Placerville on Highway 50, we would take the top down and the road was entirely different! Kairos! The mountains, the water, the air and light, the mystery of it all right there.
So there’s a point in the gospel for today which has to do with Kairos and Chronos and how they meet. Remember the back ground story is that Jesus and his disciples are slowly approaching Jerusalem and dealing both with organisational tension with the troops and the increasing likelihood of his assassination. They stop on the way and hear that Jesus’s friend Lazarus is sick. Then a few days pass, Jesus and his disciples hear Lazarus has died and make the slightly delayed but appropriate visit to the bereaved family.
The story comes into focus when Jesus arrives and greets Martha. She says, “Lord, if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” If only! Anne Wilson Schaef writes in the book, When Society Becomes an Addict, we live in a world filled with three “ifs”: “as if, what if, if only.” And here note each of them is in the chronological mode, the way we generally live. And Jesus says, “your brother will rise again. Do you believe this?” — and I think he is saying, “how awake are you, Martha?” and her response is, “I believe that he will rise again, in the resurrection of the dead, at the last day.” And I’ll translate that roughly as, “I am hopeful, what if, things might change.” – A slightly chronological mode here. But Jesus raises the ante and says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And maybe he’s saying, “Just how awake are you willing to be, Martha?” Martha response, “you are the Christ, the son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
But Jesus keeps pushing, the story goes on, the crowd gets involved, the drama builds and Jesus finally says, “take away the stone!” And when Martha says, “Lord, there will be an odor,” (because Chronos has taken a toll and it is going to smell bad.) Jesus comes back and says, “Did I not say if you would believe, you would see the glory of God.” So they take away the stone, Lazarus comes forth, the glory of God shows up at the right time and Kairos wins that day!
But it doesn’t always. Sometimes Kairos and Chronos can get mixed up together and it gets complex. 20 years ago my 80-year-old grandmother got chronic leukaemia, later acute, which was the beginning of the end. We almost lost her several times, but then she had a remission. For a little over 90 days she left the hospital to stay at home, feeling pretty good, it was a surprising time to visit, to remember a lot of times, to say much of the stuff that needed to be said, I had never been so courtly, so solicitous and courteous as I was with my grandmother. We all were. The moment was pure gift
Then the remission ended, the numbers went wrong with white count up and red count down, and on the 93rd day I stood at the window of the house and watched as my uncle, her eldest child, carried her to the car, followed by my aunt and my mother, for her last stay at the hospital. Two things happened as I stood there, I felt the tragedy of it, a terrible sadness like the scene in the last act of Lear when the king comes on stage with his dead daughter in his arms, railing against fate; why should a tree, a flower have life, and not her his daughter. This feeling of tragedy. But the second feeling was like the Sanctos; “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of his glory.” Two impressions, but I knew only knew one thing: “Thank God we matter this much!” It only lasted a minute, I remember it still. I think it relates to Chronos and Kairos and how they fit together for us in this world.
It is not an easy place to stay in the middle between these two modes of reality, two types of time, between everyday tragedy and those special moments of transcendence. Because for most of us, most of the time, the stone is not taken away, the body does not come back. Jesus may be the resurrection and the life, but daily reality and memory tell us that miracles don’t always happen and that means a real temptation to stay in the safer space of denial and death.
But it’s tough when we come up to these big summary statements that are all over John’s Gospel: “I am real food, the bread of life, living water, the resurrection of the dead!” It is tough to reconcile all this in a world where many are hungry for daily bread, fresh water, just life; living poor and dying out, and the good news doesn’t seem to be here just yet. For while John keeps telling the stories of victory over defeat, of a radical renewal of life, “and when I am lifted up I will draw all humankind unto myself,” we seem to be just holding on or even going downhill fast. So what do we do?
Jesus says, “Take away the stone!” but it is not easy. The stone may be keeping in the pain and the tears, the stone may be what we need to keep ourselves upright, from another disappointment, sometimes we don’t need too much hope, it can hurt! We have made an adjustment, the stone may be part of our foundation. And Jesus says, “Take away the stone!”
In the next few weeks, through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, we are going to hear stories that stretch our understanding of reality, the good and bad of it, the tragedy and transcendence, Chronos and Kairos coming together in the middle of a deep journey. We need to prepare ourselves to be surprised by the road before us. This might disturb our sense of what is right and wrong and what can happen, it might not jive with what we had known before, and we really need to be ready to take the chance.
There is a great line in one of CS Lewis’s Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy. Some travellers are coming to the end of a long journey, they get to a safe place to rest from their travels, a walled garden, when suddenly a great lion comes over the fence. it is Aslan, the son of Emperor-over-sea. He calls them to come to him and it is more than a little scary. Then he says, “Do not dare not to dare.”
The Gospel that comes in the next two weeks is for people ready to hear good news, to awaken to Kairos, ready to dare to dare to be fully awake, to be a hungry people on a long journey, in sight of a safe place, reaching with empty hands for strong food and drink, hearing a new story and coming to a new understanding of who and whose we are, and how tragedy and transcendence move together and meet in a final miracle.
Do not dare not to dare! Listen with hope, look with all the possibilities, be prepared as you can to see the rock taken away and see Lazarus emerge, see Jesus come forth, see you and me, all lost grandmothers and the whole bus come through the opening into a new and exciting life as the top comes off to reveal a whole new world, with a brighter sky, deeper air and brighter colours than we can ever name. Into the life of resurrection we share with Christ.
(John 11:1 – 44.- St. Francis Episcopal Church, San Francisco, March 28, 1993)
I’ve decided to share a work in progress, some poetry and prose selections from a larger project I’ve been working on for a long time. “Lost Together With The Others” aims to be a compendium and revisioning of images, themes and concerns I’ve carried for most of my life. I honestly don’t know if the work will be finished before I am, and I’ve been around for awhile, but over time the process has evidenced a certain sustained consistency. At least it may be diverting.
William Blake writes that the “fool who persists in his folly will become wise,” and Emerson states that “daily consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind.” My life probably falls somewhere between. As Thomas Merton says we are better known by our answers then by our questions. My life has fewer answers now, even fewer questions, but at this point there is more appreciation, and that might be enough.
This proto-prologue/preface begins with a poem and continues with an overview: selections from the longer work follow. Since a webpage/blog format encourages, perhaps even demands tentative flexibility, sequence, order and style may all change over time. It may end up somewhat interesting. Check back often, share comments and questions via personal messages or the online spaces provided, and please be kind.
I’m glad we’re in this together.
These birds hallow place by circling,
Downward defining mystery —
Upwards like frankincense and
Sharp winged harbingers of what cannot be encompassed.
Yet their recurring liturgy outlines
Inchoate centres rising, receding
And returning they begin again
This sweet inarticulate witness.
Last night at dusk before dinner with friends
We walked amongst these highflown vortices of
Occasional mystery in plain sight —
And their transparent pentecost mirrors my own life.
When some repeated wandering takes flight
And acquires consistency in its own reiteration
Around an ever-renewing sense that moves me to witness —
An unseen centre that is the journey home.
I saw the Welcome Swallows one morning a few years ago when I was in the middle of Senior Water Aerobics at our YMCA indoor pool watching Lorraine standing on a rubber mat in front of large glass windows and leading us through some new introductory stretching exercises. Then I looked outside, just beyond her to see groups of small metallic dark birds, sometimes two or three together, flying in intricate patterns:, circling, up, down, around; defining some collective concern or another kind of gravity by the shape of their flight.
It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ writing in one of his 1940s space fantasies, where the protagonist encounters an eldil, an otherworldly messenger whose presence both relativises and renews the narrator’s sense of the world. So the recurring shaping of reality by the birds just beyond my windows move me into a further focus of what might be in plain view — somehow beyond my sight, something to do with limit and freedom and hope.
Maybe Joni Mitchell says it best:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time.
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.
My book attempts to juggle four recurring images, to dance through four occasionally consecutive seasons that seem to me to be circling in somewhat arbitrarily assigned patterns for the purpose of making sense of my life and times.
The first is a somewhat selective but straightforward summary of my life so far: birth and youth; adolescence and early adulthood, some moments of brief but bright maturity and a prolonged but not-unpleasant senescence: sometimes all occurring on the same day.
The second introduces three or four evolving archetypal images (building a table, taking a journey, letting a breath go and – after a pause – taking in a new breath) that I’ve both wrestled with and shared for the last few decades in my ministry as a chaplain, educator, priest and learning writer.
The third is my recurring hunch that, for me at least, the meaning of this mystery called Jesus might best be met in two motions; His actions as recounted in the actions of the Eucharist (take, bless, break, share), and the corporate pilgrim journey shared in the fourfold procession of the church year. Michaelmas and All Saints to Advent; Christmas and Epiphany to the end of Holy Week; the season of Eastertide and Ascension; and finally Pentecost.
The final group of images came as a surprise when, at the age of fifty-four, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area in northern California to Melbourne in southeastern Australia (There was very little choice: I was in love) where my experience of the Church year interwove with these southern seasons and opened a further understanding and a deeper participation of the faithful journey anew (Spring longing and limits, Summer life and shadow, Autumn loss and gain, Winter love and death).
This book will be the weaving of my head and heart over these four occurrences; prayerfully circling through a personal story shared with others and, in that, an incomplete and unfinished journey through history, mystery, tragedy, comedy and holiness unfolding as simply as the action of breathing, and yet somehow (mysteriously, hopefully) burning in every moment.
I am glad to share the journey with you.
I spent too much time in graduate school in the 1980s. One semester I submitted a paper entitled “Serving God” on the theology of tennis. I wrote that playing the game was a sacred dance, a graceful way of hoping, holding and opening to the deep holiness contained in every moment of time: “to serve, receive, and return bright vehicles of meaning.” I concluded by saying that “the only difference between tennis and theology is that “in tennis love means nothing and in theology it means everything.” The paper got a passing grade and almost forty years later I still believe it.
For I believe that’s what every human journey looks like in the lens of the life of Jesus and the way he moves to celebrate his Eucharist. And perhaps that old paper need be revisited in a world where we watch and wait, with the Corona virus, while churches are closing and spiritual communion is offered online and on television. For if tennis means “serve, receive, return,” then maybe Jesus means “take, bless, break, share,” and that might be a good game for the plague year. Even if we can’t gather around the altar like we are used to, we can still connect with Christ in the very body and blood we share, in the sacrament of any present moment, in the here and now . We can commune where we live and move with that underlying Love — larger than the creation, seen in Jesus, willing to meet with us in every breath taken up and let go.
In the original cast recordings Jesus takes up his life and lets it be blessed with an ever-enlarging understanding of light, love, charity, compassion, companionship. And his hopeful intention makes the world different. Love breaks down or through any situation, for anyone, anywhere, here and now, whatever the end may be — and opens the way up in sharing that life and death action with Jesus’ community, with us all.
So, just as you play tennis with “serve, receive, return,” you can join Jesus with “take, bless, break, share.” It’s a dance you can do on the court, round the altar, at dinner, in bed: wherever and whenever life turns around and the road looks new or the destination might be deadly. Because anybody can go a long way with those moves: taking up life and looking with love on where to go next, being blessed by the hope of a reality that’s bigger and better than we know, being willing to break open and share some new understanding of what can come in the compassionate love that just might be found in the middle of all this demanding mysterious existence. Everything’s included; every purpose, passion, plague. There’s room for all.
You almost don’t require faith or religion for this one. Thomas Merton quotes Meister Eckhart to the effect that “we should have such poverty [I’ll say a radical simplicity]… that there is no place left for God.” No place for holiness except an unreserved and common emptiness which is somehow full. It is a parable or paradox for the present moment, somehow contained or reflected in the rhythm of a quiet breath taking in and letting go. And this is not unlike tennis. I still remember the unspeakable joy of a sustained rally at net — when every sense of your body, of the ball, racquet, court, net, light and air and the opponent opposite all reconcile into one momentary and timeless dancing brilliance and you see and feel and know the game is love and love is everything.
I am not any kind of consistent meditator but I also know something like that can happen in contemplative prayer. Breakthrough moments when you realise that going with the flow, quietly acknowledging the distractions, victories, that inevitable resignation, is its own renewal. It’s like realising that the person who loves you the most (who you love the most) is going to provide the most wildly frustrating and wonderful moments of your life. There’s no place left to go after that. It’s a very simple homecoming.
Because it just may be that faithfully playing the game under the given conditions is going to ensure that every moment might be a winner. If there is no place else left for “God” to work, then “God” might have to be anywhere. Jesus says, “The one who saves their life will lose it and the one who loses their life will save it” and Kris Kristopherson writes, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Maybe Jesus means freedom, maybe Jesus means losing, maybe Jesus just means love in the last place you’d look. Even in the present moment, in this terrifying predicament, love leads us on.
Don’t give up. Keep watching television. Be social on media. Find new creativity in keeping community. But be assured that the tradition and family of Jesus has made wider turns than this in the past and is the better for it now, will be again. We won’t let that cup pass. Just take the body and blood of the present moment, of your greatest hopes and fears, of here and now. Serve, receive, return. Take, bless, break, share.