Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Carolyn Arends, "A Summer In The South" / "The Journey Home"

A Summer in the South

The summer of 1993 was uncharacteristically humid in Nashville. At least that’s what the weather men and gas station attendants all told us. Any summer we spent in Tennessee, the locals, by way of apology, claimed the heat was unusually bad (as if under more typical circumstances a refreshing ocean breeze was known to waft down the Cumberland River, keeping everything perfectly reasonable).

We arrived on the fourth of July and hit the outskirts of Nashville just in time for the fireworks. We were flattered to receive such an extravagant welcome, but it was hard to keep our bleary eyes open. There are just over 2500 miles between Nashville and Vancouver, and we had driven them in three 18-hour days. We had seen most of America’s mid-section through the bug-stained windows of our little white Chevy. Now all we wanted to see was a bed.

Aside from a nasty run-in with a ticket-wielding Missouri-state trooper, we’d had a good trip, and we had spent much of it basking in the romantic, poetic light of our adventure. At 25 and 29, we could still (we hoped) be considered young, we were definitely in love, and if you squinted at our ‘89 Cavalier the right way you could almost be convinced that it was a sports car. It would have been a nice touch to have the wind blow through our hair, but for most of our journey it was too hot to open the windows, so we kept the air conditioner on “high” and achieved approximately the same effect. Now that we had almost reached our destination, the celebration -- complete with pyrotechnics -- seemed rather ridiculously perfect.


We stayed with Chris and Sally Jones. Our friends themselves were transplants -- Sal was from Alberta, Chris was from New York -- but if their creaky house’s 100-year-old walls could talk, they would undoubtedly speak in a genteel southern drawl. After all, you couldn’t throw a rock over the Jones’ backyard fence without hitting the grave of a confederate soldier. The whole place seemed to rustle with history, animated by -- not ghosts, exactly -- but a palpable sense of other times and other lives.

The house was also animated by, well, animals. Mark and I were only two of the many strays Sal took in. Three new cats had also joined the menagerie. I wasn’t really a cat person -- truth be told, I was almost a little afraid of them. Growing up, my father’s allergies had made our household rather hostile to any feline presence. Cats as a species were far too secretive, and I always had the feeling they were barely tolerating me.

Sally’s cats must have smelled my fear. The creatures sought me out day and especially night. In the wee hours they would creep into the guest room and slink onto the bed. Inevitably, the cats would settle on my chest and spend the rest of the night relentlessly kneading my rib cage with their paws. Even their purrs of contentment seemed a little menacing in the dark, their pleasure rattling in their chests like the rumble of distant thunder.

I don’t know what it was, exactly -- perhaps the oppression of the heat or of the cats, the lack of sleep or of anything familiar -- but I began to get a strange, alarming sense that all was not well. I tried for several days to shake it off or explain it away as fatigue or indigestion -- I kept impatiently reminding myself that the feeling made no sense. We had come to the South for the express purpose of nurturing my dreams as a singer and a songwriter, and it seemed as if the dreams might actually be coming true. But every night I would lie tense and disquieted, my brain buzzing ominously like the cats.


To this day, I remain almost completely baffled by what happened next. The vague and cloudy sense of foreboding began to take a more definite shape, until in the middle of one particularly sweltering night the walls of our little guest room closed in like a coffin and I lay trapped in a sweaty panic. Everything sane and solid and good in my life, everything I had always believed effortlessly (instinctually and spontaneously, so that my believing was as natural as breathing), seemed all at once to disintegrate into absolutely nothing. Physically, I felt sick to my stomach, heart racing, fists clenched. Emotionally, maybe even spiritually, I was in cardiac arrest. The life-giving oxygen of faith and hope that had always sustained me was suddenly, inexplicably cut off.

I could not feel the presence of God.

I had said many times up until that moment that I simply could not understand how a human being could rise every day with the sun, could hear Bach or The Beatles, could hold a squirming newborn or taste double-fudge ice cream or participate in any of the infinite number of small and persistent miracles of this life, and not believe in God. Certainly I knew what it was to doubt -- I had wrestled with the apparent contradictions I had encountered in Scripture, in my church, in my own nature. But however brave I felt I was being, however adrenaline-producing it was to stare down the barrel of my own mental pistol, it had always been a game of Russian Roulette in which the gun was not loaded. Because the doubt was intellectual -- doubt of the head, rather than existential -- doubt of the gut, the cellular tissue, the soul. However dark it might occasionally seem without and within, there had always been a place deeper inside where a little light flickered away resolutely. I believed. I always had. And I thought I always would, until that stifling night in Franklin, Tennessee, when the air grew too thin to sustain the flame, and -- in a perfectly still, awful instant -- the light went out. And I had only fear, and sadness, and the desolation of an unspeakable emptiness.


My Nashville schedule remained frantic, and I was grateful for the distraction. The storm inside my soul settled down to a dull roar, and sometimes I was almost able to convince myself that nothing was wrong. But there were so many questions lurking just below the service. I would sit down with Mark and Chris and Sal to watch the evening news -- perfectly-coiffed and tanned anchors cheerfully listing the day’s tragedies -- and find myself overwhelmingly disturbed by the problem of pain in the world, the suffering of innocents, the injustice that universally characterizes human experience. I had certainly pondered this question before, but now it had progressed from a riddle to a threat. I would open my Bible, hoping against hope that I would find comfort and certainty in the pages, and instead I would find myself bewildered by an apparently angry and alien Old Testament God who seemed only to willing to smite a whole Nation of men and women and innocent children to prove a point. Or I would just hold my Bible to my chest, trying with all my might to recapture the confidence I used to feel in the men who had written and assembled it, wondering how I could have been so unwaveringly certain that they had gotten it right.

That certainty was what I mourned the most. Growing up in the North American evangelical culture of the 1970s and 1980s -- where all the sermon points started with the same letter or formed an acronym, and the enigmas of redemption and sanctification were demystified into three or four easy steps -- I had somehow absorbed or manufactured the idea that if I was a strong enough Christian, God and His interaction with the world and His children would make consistent sense to me. With complete sincerity I had embraced a sort of sit-com spirituality, in which all those gloomy trials and sufferings the apostles insisted on mentioning were viewed strictly as foils for inevitable victories -- fleeting problems to be dramatically, swiftly and neatly resolved, preferably within one 30 minute episode. I was raised on stories of the great moments of the faith, from the parting of the Red Sea to the arrival of the Israelites in the Promise Land. We had tended not to dwell on the 40 years of wilderness in between.

Pinned beneath the cats in the Jones’ guest room, peering tensely into the dark, I suddenly found myself staring into the gaping chasm of the infinite number of things I did not -- could not -- understand. I was left questioning everything -- including and especially my right to question anything -- and I could not shake the uneasy feeling that, in the words of my southern friends, I didn’t know “come here” from “sick ‘em”. It devastated me to think I might be turning my back on God or letting Him down. Hanging over even the lightest and brightest moments of that summer was a dark, brooding storm cloud -- the sense not only of betrayal, but of being a traitor.

I went about my business, and oddly enough it was a productive time. We went to concerts and movies, caught up with our Nashville friends, and, of course, complained about the heat. Life went on, much as it had before, except that now I was constantly praying a singular, desperate prayer.

Please, God, please, make it like it used to be.

The Journey Home

We drove back the way we came, and for most of the first two days we hurtled like the Batmobile along Highway 70, all the way from St. Louis to the center of Utah. Kansas -- which was somewhere in the middle -- was even flatter than we remembered it, and we liked it that way. Mark discovered that in the long, straight stretches he could steer with his knees, dig out a well-worn deck of cards, and beat me soundly and repeatedly in games of Gin Rummy and Hearts. I never won. My heart wasn’t in it.

My memory is oddly selective, so I’ve had to ask Mark what he recalls of that journey back across the wide open spaces of America. He tells me that somewhere near Topeka, under cover of the dark of the first night, I began to haltingly speak more openly about my crisis of faith. He even has a vague memory of putting forth his own tentative, newly developing theory that God’s truth was more expansive than we had previously imagined, and that maybe it was just possible that part of the reason I was feeling so fractured was that God was forcing His way out of the box we’d been keeping Him in. Apparently I burst into tears, terrified my husband was turning into a Make-Up-Your-Own-God-Universalist, or, even worse, that he was almost as wretchedly uncertain about everything as I was. He tells me that between my sobs I managed to choke out something along the lines of “Then we don’t even know the same God!”. I personally have no recollection of that particular conversation. (Some memories are better left suppressed.)

There is one memory, however, that Mark and I don’t have to coax each other to recall. As the sun was setting on the second day of our drive, we began to cut our way across Utah on Highway 15. We were still a few hours outside of Salt Lake City, and we were absently discussing how long we could wait before we needed to stop for dinner. I was feeling antsy -- keenly aware of my continued misery -- ready to crawl out of my own skin and be anywhere else. In need of a cool compress, I was leaning my feverish forehead against the air-conditioned glass of the passenger-side window, staring into space. And then it happened.

We found ourselves right in the middle of the canyons of Utah. We have since discovered that other people have heard of them, but at the time they caught us completely by surprise. On our trip down seven weeks earlier, we had hit this stretch of highway at night, in the rain, and we had seen nothing but the beams of our own headlights. But now the canyons were filling every window -- golden red, incandescent, and chiseled into an infinite number of intricate, exquisite angles -- a billion glimmering diamonds carved out of the stone. While we gaped the sun descended, no longer distant and aloof, drawing lower and closer to warm the ruby rocks -- first into glowing embers, then into blazing fires, and finally bursting out in explosions of glory. It was so intensely brilliant we had to look away, but there was no where to turn. Before us and behind us and on every side, we were hemmed in by unbearable beauty.

Once again I was aware of a constriction in my chest, once again I could not breathe. I had spent an anguished summer cajoling and begging and commanding God to answer my questions, devastated by what I perceived to be His silence, and now all at once it seemed even the rocks were crying out on His behalf. I became in that moment a sort of poor man’s Job -- infinitely less tried, immeasurably less true, but nonetheless able to see in a holy flash a little of what it must have been like for Job to stand awe-struck, repentant, wildly joyful and gravely humbled by the voice of God.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? When I fixed limits for the sea and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt? Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clouds of earth stick together?
My own tears were a welcome rain -- a desperately needed watering of the sticky clouds of dust that had had become my soul. We drove silently through the canyons, as slowly as the traffic would allow, and even when the sun had set and the rocks were shrouded in darkness, we could still feel their looming presence. By the time we reached Salt Lake City, I was weary with wonder, and I lay my head on Mark’s shoulder in an exhausted acquiescence. I was praying -- as deeply and directly as I’ve ever prayed anything -- a simple prayer.

Thank you.


To this day I still mourn the simplicity and certainty that evaporated in the heat of that sweltering summer. God never did answer my desperate plea to make my faith like it used to be. Once I entered a little ways into the Mystery, there was no going back. I could no longer list all the things I did not understand about God as threats to my faith -- instead, they became the primary evidence that God was, in fact, God ... and that I was, in fact, not.


In the fall of 1995 I returned to Salt Lake City on official business as a recording artist. I decided at the last moment to deviate from my normal set list in order to sing a geographically-relevant song I had written about the red rocks that were only a stone’s throw away. Afterwards, a young couple dropped by the autograph table and asked me to describe the canyons Mark and I had seen. “You can’t have been far from one of our favorite vistas,” said the girl, with a secret smile, “a place called Angels Landing”.

Angels Landing. I checked a map, and that really is the name of one of the clusters of canyons. It seems that I am not the only one who has heard the rocks cry out somewhere near Highway 15, and seen -- if only for a moment -- something of the Eternal glimmering there in the golden red clay.


Both excerpts are from Dancing With Angels, by Carolyn Arends

Luci Shaw, "On Retreat"

New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur

This early morning, in the chill before light,
I lie open, face upward on the little bed,
a supplicant, body reflecting soul, ready
for something I cannot see, but crave.

I’m waiting, like any fern in a garden,
to be rained on, or sun-drenched.

Oh, I am little, little.

The day lifts its face over the Pacific
and a corner of sun touches the thin pillow.
I shift my head under its warm hand;
it moves across my face as I lie quite still.
It blesses my forehead with its holy oil.

What is blessing but a largeness
so immense it crowds out
everything but itself?

Luci Shaw

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kevin Kelly, "Dead In Six Months"

So what if you knew – what if you really knew the date and time of your own death. Well, Kevin Kelly spent most of his twenties wandering around Asia. He was a freelance photographer. And he found himself photographing a lot of religious ceremonies. He found himself drawn to religious ceremonies. He was confused about what he believed.

I would get twisted and caught up, and these things were sort of in the background, consuming me. And actually I found that I could think about little else, for many many months. That behind all that I was doing there was always this unresolved question: Was God real? If he was real, then how could we ignore him. And we were trying to not ignore him, what would we do? And if he was real, then what about these other things that people said about God?

Then all that changed. When he was 27, he came into Jerusalem. It was the weekend of both Easter and Passover. And the city was flooded with tourists.

So I entered Jerusalem on Easter with the simple expectation that I was going to photograph yet another religious ceremony, another religious festival. And then for various reasons I got locked out of my hostel room. They had a curfew and I didn't make it back in time. I was in quite a fix because I was a stranger in this very strange town. I didn't have enough money to stay elsewhere, nor did I even have knowledge of where to go, so I wandered the old town of Jerusalem. At night. Which had been shuttered up, and was like a time machine. As if I had been transported back to the fifteenth century. Because all the souvenir venders were gone. And what was left were the labyrinthine paths of cobbled passageways.

I wandered around for a number of hours, and it was getting colder. Eventually I found myself at the one place that was still open. Which was some of the churches. I finally settled into the Church of the Holy Sceptre. Which is viewed as the church built over the mound where Jesus Christ was crucified.

I was getting very tired and there weren't many people around and so eventually I laid myself out on about the only flat area that was left, which was this marble slab underneath some pendants that had incense on them. And this was presumably the slab that commemorated the exact position of the crosses.

So I slept there. I slept on the crucifixion spot that night because it was the only place... No place in the inn.

I slept there until early morning, when the activity seemed to increase and people started coming in. I went out and followed the crowd where it was going. They were going out to the tombs area, in Jerusalem. And I went out, and there were some chairs set up, folding chairs set up in front of this tomb area. And as the sun was coming up on that Easter morning, I was staring at empty tombs. And, for a reason I cannot comprehend, as I sat on that chair contemplating this view of the early morning sun coming into the empty tombs, all that I had been wrestling with for the past many many years and thinking about religion sort of became resolved in my mind, and at that very moment I, I believed. That Jesus Christ had indeed risen from those tombs.


In an instant the tension of trying to figure things out was resolved because now suddenly everything was figured out. It was as if you'd been working on a problem for a long time and suddenly the answer was there and it was very clear that that was the answer. And although there were many things that were still not clear to you, you were very certain that you were on the right path.

Having that realization that Jesus Christ had actually risen from those tombs did not settle a thousand and one other things about what one was supposed to do about that. What I was supposed to do with that. Did that mean I was supposed to be a monk? Did that mean I was supposed to be an evangelist? Did that mean I had immediately to renounce all that I had and get into sack cloth and ashes and march out into the desert? All that was left unopened, and that is in fact what occupied my mind as I went back to my hostel to lay down and think about it. Because I had no clue, what it really meant to me ultimately.

And that's what I was pondering when I sort of was laying there napping and— I wouldn't say it's a voice but there was an idea that came into my mind that just would not go away. And that was that I should live as if I would die in six months. That I should really truly live. And that I could not tell for certain whether I would really die, but that either way I should live as if I was going to die.

And so, that was the assignment. I'm pretty logical and after thinking the thought that I should live as if I was going to die in six months, the first thought that comes to my head was, you know, 'Well that's pretty silly. I have no evidence whatsoever. I could live like I'm going to die in six months and not die at all." It would just be kind of an interesting exercise.

But at the same time it was equally probable that I might die in six months. It happened all the time. And there was no guarantee that I wouldn't die.

And so fairly quickly I decided that I was to live as if I really believed that I was going to die in six months. Which is what I set out to do.


The next couple days I had a kind of joyous experience of saying 'Okay, what do I do? Answers to that surprised me as much as the assignment. Because after thinking that through and contemplating it the conclusion that I came to was that what I wanted to do was to go home and be ordinary. To go back to my parents, to help them take out the trash, trim the hedges, move furniture around. And to be with them.

I was really shocked by that. Because I thought that, given six months to live, I would climb Mount Everest or I would go scuba diving into the depths of the ocean or get in a speedboat and see how fast I could go. But instead I wanted to go back home and be with my family for that time.

I of course did not tell anybody my crazy idea. This is in fact the first time I'm really talking about it publicly. Because it was a very scary and sort of alarming idea. I never told anybody why I was coming home.


I got back to where my parents live in New Jersey and things were unbelievably ordinary. And yet I found myself relishing the ordinariness, and finding it in some ways as exotic as anything I had traveled to see. So I helped around the house, dug up shrubs, I worked on a deck, I moved furniture, washed dishes. And I was intending to kind of spend my last remaining six months at home getting to know my parents better. And myself, hopefully.

But about three months into that, I guess my travel urges got the better of me, and... What I was most concerned about was, I wanted to see my brothers and sisters who-– I had four brothers and sisters and they were scattered all across the country. And so I felt very strongly that I wanted to see them. Before I died. And I got the idea that the way to see them was to ride my bicycle across the country and visit them on bicycle.

The path that I had to visit all my brothers and sisters was not a direct route. Going from San Francisco to New York I actually had to go up to Idaho and back down to Texas, and then back up through Indiana, so it was a 5,000 mile trip.

The day which, coincidentally, was exactly six months from when I had this assignment was October 31st. Hallowe'en. And so the plan would be that I would ride back home so that I would come back – to die – on the day after Hallowe'en.


I think there are a lot of people who have trouble staying in the present. There are some people who like to slip into the past, as a means perhaps to fantasize or escape. And they find that the past place that they retreat to...

I often retreat to the future. I was not a person who planned, or had a career staged out or who had a particular woman he wanted to marry someday, or some vision of a house. The future I found so hard to give up was a much more insidious type, it was that of, I'd like to buy this record, because in the future I want to hear this song again and again. Or, I will read this book, and there's some cool ideas in it, because someday I may write an article about this, and it's good to know that.

There was a sense in which my entire life was shifted to the future, and the thought of doing something now, for the enjoyment or the pleasures or the principle or the function of just right now, without any sense at all that it would ever be used again, that it could ever be brought forward, was extremely difficult and disconcerting, and I fought it day by day.

One of the ways I dealt with this was that I was actually able, by the last weeks, to not think about my life beyond Hallowe'en. There was a way in which, each time a thought came up about something that was beyond this horizon, I just said 'Nope, can't think about it, doesn't work. You have to dwell in the present.'

At the same time I was doing that - and I was able to do that - I also decided that it was an entirely unnatural and inhumane way to live. And that having a future is part of what being human is about. That when you take away the future for humans, you take away a lot of their humanness. That it's not actually a very good thing to live entirely in the present. That one needs to have a past, and one needs to have a future, to be fully human.


So he bicycled across the country. And as he did, he found himself increasingly obsessed death, with dying. He was making drawings and writing haikus along the way. And as he went across the country, they became more and more dark, more and more preoccupied with death.

It was a journey that began at the tomb of Jesus and, as I set off to my own presumed death, I did in fact think about Jesus Christ. We have the history in the gospels of Jesus' torment in his soul as he approached what he know of his annointed time to die, so it was again that very harsh information of knowing when you're going to die, and Jesus' soul was in great turmoil and pain because of knowing that. And I think I did experience some of that, not because I had the same weight, it was just my own life, but Jesus prayed that his burden be lifted, and there were days when I did pray that. That if I didn't have to die, I really would rather not.


By late fall I was pedalling through the Appalachians and it was getting colder and colder, and my hands were freezing on the bicycle, and there was ice on my tent in the morning when I got up. As each day went by, I was coming closer and closer to terrain that I was familiar with and that felt like home. And I was riding into New Jersey, and I was elated. I was elated that I had accomplished this long journey, and I was elated that I was home to see my parents.

I came into their house on Hallowe'en day. And I was so filled with ideas and things and emotions that I didn't really say very much. I couldn't say very much. I think we had a wonderful dinner, they were of course glad to see me, cause they hadn't seen me in a long time. They knew when I was coming back, and we had a wonderful dinner, we had baskets of candy which I gave out to the kids.

We had a discussion that night which was about nothing in particular, it was not about the future, it was just talking about our family, my brothers and sisters, and I was telling all that I'd learned about them. It was a very together, and not a very dramatic, evening, but just a pleasant one. The kind of one that you might have a memory about as you were dying. Not a special evening, but just an ordinary evening.

I went to bed that night – which was a very difficult thing to do, because I was fully prepared at that point never to wake up again. I had been praying, I'd gotten everything arranged. At that point I'd fully gone through in my own mind, my own soul, all the things I might have regretted, and I had righted as many of those as I thought I could, through letters, and I was prepared, as much as anybody could be prepared to die.

I went to bed while the kids were still ringing doorbells. And I went to sleep because I was very tired after that long trip. And I didn't know what was going to happen the next day. I thought that I had done all that I could.

And, the next moring I woke up. And. The next morning I woke up and it was as if.

The next morning I woke up and it was as if I had the entire, my entire life again.

I had.

The next morning I woke up and I had my entire life again, I had my future again.

There was nothing special about the day. It was another ordinary day.

I was reborn into ordinariness.


What more could one ask for?


Nearly two decades after that happened, Kevin Kelly is now the Executive Editor of a magazine about the future, Wired Magazine.

* *

This Ira Glass interview with Kevin Kelly - slightly edited here - was broadcast as part of the very first episode of This American Life, November 11, 1995. You can - and really must - listen to the original interview here.

A.J. Jacobs, "Prayer"

Day 2

I don't think I can be debated into believing in God. Which presents a problem, because the Bible commands you not only to believe in God but to love Him. It commands this over and over again. So how do I follow that? Can I turn on a belief as if it flows out of a spiritual spigot?

Here's my plan: In college I also learned about the theory of congitive dissonance. This says, in part, if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behavior. So that's what I'm trying to do. If I act like I'm faithful and God loveing for several months, then maybe I'll become faithful an dGod loveing. If I pray every day, then maybe I'll start to believe in the Being to whom I'm praying.
So now, I'm going to pray. Even though I'm not exactly sure how to pray. I've never prayed before in my life, not counting the few perfunctory uplifted gazes when my mom was sick.

For starters, what do I do with my body? The Bible desrcibes a multitude of positions: People kneel, sit, bow their heads, lift their eyes skyward, put their heads between their knees, raise up their hands, beat their breasts. There's no single method.

Sitting is tempting, but it seems too easy. I'm of the no-pain, no-gain mind-set. So I settle on holding my arms outstretched like a holy antenna, hoping to catch God's signal.

As for what to say, I'm not sure. I don't feel confident enough to improvise yet, so I've memorized a few of my favorite prayers from the Bible. I walk into our living room, stand in front of our brown sectional couch, hold out my arms, bow my head, and, in a low ut clear voice, recite this passage from the Book of Job: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

It's a beautiful passage, but I feel odd uttering it. I've rarely said the word Lord, unless it's followed by of the Rings. I don't often say god without preceding it with Oh my.

I glance at the clock. I've been praying only for a minute. I've promised myself I'd try to pray for at least ten minutes three times a day.

All I can say is, I hope I get better.

Day 36

I don't expect the level of interaction that the patriarchs had. I don't think God is going to put me in a quarter nelson. But I'm having touble even sensing the presence of God.

Day 64

A spiritual update: I'm still agnostic, but I do have some progress to report on the prayer front. I not longer dread prayer. And sometimes I'm even liking it. I've gone so far as to take the training wheels off and am testing out some of my own prayers.

Today, before tasting my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: "I'd like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown."

Technically, that's enough. That fulfills the Bible's commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: "I'd like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone's deli and told me 'Lots of love.' Thank you."

It sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle East spread. But saying it feels good.

Sometimes I'll get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight – the people who designed the packaging, and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. My wife Julie has usually started in on her food by this point.

I'm not sure this is what the Bible intended, but it feels like a step forward.

Day 97

It's a Tuesday afternoon in December, but I feellike I've just experienced my first real Sabbath.

The doorknobs in our apartment fall off on an alarmingly regular basis. Usually I screw the knob back on. Problem solved. No big deal. But this morning, it became a big deal. At 9:30 I stop typing my emails and shuffle over to the bathroom – and close the door behind me. I don't realize what I've done until I reach for the nonexistent inside doorknob.

For the first ten minutes I try to escape. I bang on the door, shout for help. No answer.

The next half hour I spend going through a checklist of worst-case scenarios. What if I slip, cut my forehead on the bathtub, bleed to death, and end up on the front page of the New York Post? What if there's a fire, and I'm forced to hang by my fingernails from the window ledge?

At 10:30 the phone rings. At 10:35 I make a pledge to myself to put more reading material in the bathroom if I ever escape. 11:00 I've become the world's greatest expert on this bathroom. By noon I'm sitting on the floor, my back against the shower door. I sit. And sit some more. And something happens. I know that, outside the bathroom, the world is speeding along. That blogs are being read. Wild salmon is being grilled. Reggaeton is being explained to middle-aged white marketing executives.

But I'm OK with it. It doesn't cause my shoulders to tighten. Nothing I can do about it. I've reached an unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I'm savoring the present. I'm admiring what I have, even if it's thirty-two square feet of fake marble and a crooked electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence – without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.

At about 1:30 I hear Julie come home. I call out and pound on the door. After a few seconds, she opens the door. I am free. I can return my emails, make my calls. It's kind of a shame.

Day 103

I've discovered another category of prayer that I like: praying on behalf of others, for the sick, needy, depressed – anyone who's been kicked around by fate. Intercessory pryaer, as it's called.

I love these prayers. To me they're moral weight training. Every night I pray for others for ten minutes – a friend about to undergo a cornea operation, my great-aunt whose sweet husband just died in their swimming pool, the guy I met in a Bible study class whose head was dented in a subway accident. It's ten minutes where it's impossible to be self-centred. Ten minutes where I can't think about my career, or my Amazon.com ranking, or that a blog in San Francisco made snarky comments about my latest Esquire article.

The Bible says not to boast, so I'm not going to say that I've turned into Albert Schweitzer or Angelina Jolie. But I do feel myself becoming a slightly more compassionate person.

Day 204

Today I'm taking a rest from a walk on a set of stairs. Stone steps, which are cool and shaded and have a bumpy surface that makes them look like a Rice Krispies treat.

I have my head bowed and my eyes closed. I'm trying to pray, but my mind is wandering. I can't settle it down. It wanders over to an Esquire article I just wrote. It wasn't half bad, I think to myself. I liked that turn of phrase in the first paragraph.

And then I am hit with a realization. And hit is the right word – it feels like a punch to my stomach. Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God – if He exists – He created the world. He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetls and the stones for these steps I'm sitting on.

"Praise the Lord," I say out loud.

I'd always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I'm not used to talking like that. It's so over the top. I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn't be insecure. He's the ultimate being.

Now I can sort of see why. It's not for him. It's for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain.

Day 169

I've taken a step backward again, spiritually speaking. My faith is fragile. Little things jolt me back to pure agnosticism.

I'm still praying several times a day, but when I do, I'm saying the words with as much feeling as I give to a Taco Bell drive-through order. I often think of this verse in Isaiah where he lashes out against the Israelite hypocrites:
Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote.
That describes me right now.

I even find myself being skeptical of those times when my heart was near to God in the last few months. Perhaps it was an illusion. If I prayed to Apollo every day, would I start to feel a connection to Apollo? And what if I'm drawn to spirituality simply because I'm bored of the dry, dusty, rational mind-set that I've had these many years? I get bored easily. I can't sit through a sequel to a movie because I'm already tired of the characters. Maybe spirituality attracts me for its novelty factor.

Day 226

In the past couple of weeks, I've taken not quite a leap of faith, but a cautious baby step of faith. I'm not sure why. I think it's that the three-times-a-day prayers are working their mojo.

The point is, I don't see the world as a collection of soulless quarks and neutrinos. At times – not all the time, but sometimes – the entire world takes on a glow of sacredness, like someone has flipped on an unfathomably huge halogen lamp and made the universe softer, fuller, less menacing.

I spend a lot of time marveling. I haven't stared at a forklift yet, but I'll marvel at the way rain serpentines down a car window. Or I'll marvel at the way my reflection is distotred in a bowl. I feel like I just took my first bong hit. I feel like Wes Bentley rhapsodizing about that dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.

I've noticed that I sometimes walk around with a lighter step, almost an ice-skating-like glide, because the ground feels hallowed. All of the ground, even the ground outside the pizzeria near my apartment building.

from The Year of Living Biblically

David Rambo, "Hugo"

It's no big secret I was once a bit what you might call wild. Wild? Saturday nights drinking, all kinds of drugs, sex I don't half remember with anything on two legs – and I do mean anything. Pretty ugly picture. But I was too drugged up to see it that way.

Sunday mornings my poor mama would drag me out of bed and stick me in the one jacket my daddy left behind when he run off with the divorcee from the next trailer who had three breasts. I'm not making that up, she did: we all seen it.

Well, I'd sit there on them painful wooden benches in church, still half stoned or hung over, my momma clutching me so I wouldn't run and hide. Surrounded by every ripe young baptist female in town. Preacher hollering in the pulpit. Sweat pouring down my backbone. Head pounding. Room spinning – and I just up and vomited right there. Preacher and everbody's yelling, "Praise God! Jesus expelled Satan from deep within this sinner's body right out onto the carpet." But after it happened a few more times, they kicked me out.

I joined the army, turned total alcoholic, and one night in Honolulu paid fifty bucks to have "Jesus wept" tatooed on the right side of my behind.

I got a dishonorable discharge from the army and I just drifted. Motorcycle repair, odd jobs, video production, burglary, dealing drugs and what have you. And over the years I sort of made my way back to Texas.

And one night, sitting at a bar in El Paso, I heard a voice. It sounded like—like what I remember my daddy's voice being like. I hadn't given him a passing thought in twenty years. For all I knew he was long dead. This voice – right here in this ear, so close it tickled a bit – said "How long you going to keep on trying to kill yourself?" I spun around like that to see who was taliking – but the only people in that bar was me, and way down at the other end the bartender, and a yellow-haired transvestite, and a crippled man trying to get free drinks doing tricks with hard boiled eggs and a spoon.

I got sick to my stomach and shot right out of there. And right there, under a streetlight, there was this nice middle-aged sort of man, preaching to a crowd. Was he excited about Christ. Man! He looked right at me, right in the eyes, and he said, "God loves you. He sent his son to die for you. You been running all your life long, but you're not running any more, 'cause I got you. And I'm Christ's rabid dog.

Christ's rabid dog. And he was. He would not let me go. He prayed with me, letting me cry all over him and mess up his nice jacket. We talked all night.

And he found out I could do video production, and he told me that RBC was just getting the network up and running. He said pray and God would provide me with a job.

Saved on a streetcorner and led here. To the Rock... of my salvation.

When I look down from here, I see the devil there, in ice cold, black water, swimming in all that evil from my wild past. Part of me wants to jump in, just for a quick dip. But I I know if I do, I'll never find my way back.

from God's Man In Texas
by David Rambo

David Rambo, "On Listening and Theatre"

My play GOD’S MAN IN TEXAS is a play about listening.

Listening fascinates me. Always has. I sometimes make the excuse for waiting a bit late in the game to start a writing career by saying, “I just listened for thirty-six years. Then I started writing it down.”

Some of my most vivid memories of storytelling and compelling human interaction involve being the wide-eyed, open-eared child at the table, listening to my elders tell jokes, quote scripture, read the newspaper, fling accusations, defend opinions, make excuses, reprimand, flatter, terrify, seduce, humiliate, ennoble, inspire, confess, and lie.

The act of listening is not a passive one. To listen, really listen, takes effort. The payoff is not always what the listener may have hoped for. The end result may be wonderful. It may be awful. What is heard, or overheard, may be information that was never intended to land upon the listener’s ears: that insight, that sharp observation, that admission of guilt. It may be a vindication, or a call to action; it may soothe, or sting.

My Great-Aunt Bertha saw to it that my mother, growing up in the hardscrabble coal-mining region of central Pennsylvania, was given elocution lessons at an early age. Years later, when I was at a similarly early age, Mom and Aunt Bertha would “do pieces” for me. I loved listening to them. Still do. If you’ve never heard James Widdicomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” recited to make your eyes pop, your jaw drop and the little hairs on your arm stand up, let me take you a certain assisted-living facility in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, where Great-Aunt Bertha, now ninety, needs little prompting to give a private performance. Just ask the maids.

The Greeks crowded in amphitheaters, those perfect arrangements of audience and players, to hear masks and myths brought to life by human voices. In my play, a preacher asks to hear God’s whisper. The Greeks not only heard their gods whisper, they could hear them participating in human life, not a bad reward for spending a few hours at the theatre.

A few millennia later, the Elizabethans, blessed with the most sublime use of language in western drama, understandably referred to going to the theatre as “going to hear a play.”

In our room, the theatre, listening to one another is a vital component of the art. That‘s what I love so much about working in the theatre, all the listening. The greatest actors aren’t the ones who just expose the nakedest of emotions. Watch Brando in the film of STREETCAR, notice how, after he howls and whimpers with that primal need for his Stella, he listens. He needs to hear her response, and, in his silence, so do we.

When actors listen, the audience listens. The experience is, I think, a divine communion.

I believe that we come to the theatre for that communion, to try to make some sense of the experience of being human. Ever since the first homo erectus rose to enact the hunt that led to the kill sizzling on that night’s fire, we’ve gathered together round that fire for more than just warmth. When that acting-out of the hunt included imitations of the men and women involved, of the prey, of fear, of need, of triumph, we - in the persons of those ancient peoples - watched, experienced, and listened. We listened to each other round that fire, and we’re still listening.

I think listening - listening to one another and to our planet - is critical now. We live in times when things shift as violently as the tectonic plates beneath California. The concepts of security, of who God is, of how old is old enough to die, of what the climate should be, of how fast an idea can be shared, of disease and wellness, of whether it’s significant that a chunk the size of Rhode Island broke off the Antarctic Ice cap – everything keeps changing.

Listening is so important, beyond the manner of the Greeks or Elizabethans. Our art has evolved to one with which nothing else can compete as a means of illuminating, enriching and elevating the human experience. We come together round the fire, the Gods speak, Aunt Bertha recites, Shakespeare spins gold and the fairies twinkle with never-before-seen illumination.

I’m there. You’re there. And, together, we’re listening.

We’re listening.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Csikszentmihaly, "Baboon Leisure"

"Baboons who live in the African plains spend about one-third of their life sleeping, and when awake they divide their time
between traveling, finding and eating food, and free leisure time - which basically consists in interacting, or grooming each other's fur to pick out lice. It is not a very exciting life, yet not much has changed in the million years since humans evolved out of common simian ancestors. The requirements of life still dictate that we spend our time in a way that is not that different from the African baboons. Give and take a few hours, most people sleep one-third of the day, and use the remainder to work, travel, and rest in more or less the same proportions as the baboons do. And as the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has shown, in thirteenth century French villages - which were among the most advanced in the world at the time - the most common leisure pursuit was still that of picking lice out of each other's hair. Now, of course, we have television."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Finding Flow"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Covers for Mike Mason's "The Furniture Of Heaven"

Years back, Mike Mason and I collaborated to turn his short story collection "The Furniture Of Heaven" into a story theatre piece for Pacific Theatre. Now, in connection with the launch of his new website and the October release of his new novel, "The Blue Umbrella," the short story collection is being reissued, and Mike wanted to feature one of my photos on the cover! Here are the ones we considered, mocked up by another pal from our writers group, Tim Anderson.

The first of the images was taken in my back yard a couple years ago. It's the one Mike gravitated to right away, and remained his choice once all the others had been considered...

This next one is probably too dark (and peculiar!) to fit the tone of Mike's book, but it was fun to consider. I took it about midnight, driving home from writers group at Mike's place, about half a mile from the real Five Corners in Langley, which he reinvented to become the setting of "The Blue Umbrella," complete with Porter's Store. I took the shot with the camera I bought from Luci Shaw, also a member of our writers group, so this was a strong personal favourite for me, for all sorts of reasons completely irrelevant to the book itself...

Very early morning in the snow, April Fool's Day, Cox Bay, Vancouver Island. Fits the contemplative feel of Mike's work, but probably lacks the whimsy...

I also loved the connections with the angel wing photo, taken last fall beside The Cathedral Of St. John The Divine in New York. Which was Madeleine L'Engle's church, a nice literary fit with the fantasy qualities of Mike's fiction writing, and a little nod to her lifelong friendship with Luci...

This one's too "postcardy" to fit with Mike's book, but I'm quite partial to the image. It was taken at my buddy's cabin on Bowen Island...

The sky/building/umbrella shot looked cool on my computer, and evoked stuff about heaven (and umbrellas) (which are furniture, right?), but once it put in the context of the cover it looked too corporate. I guess that's what comes of shooting pictures while lying in a chaise lounge beside a pool at the Orlando Marriott (I was there for the CITA conference this June)...

A chance photo of the sky over Steveston and the unlit lamp might almost have been my first choice for the book cover, though it might be too sparse for the purpose...

The floor at Pacific Theatre, during a lighting hang for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. A bit dreary to sell books, perhaps, but it ends up being all allegorical and everything in this context. And I like the way the text fits with the image...

And a wonderfully eerie picture from the set of REMNANTS: A FABLE. Again, I like the way Tim has placed the title...