EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:
Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.
My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.
I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.
Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.
Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.
What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.
May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.
When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.
What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.
But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.
“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”
That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.
“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”
Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.
“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.
“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”
Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.
“Yes,” he says tensely.
Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.
Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.
“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”
Has he sinned?
“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”
So, how did he learn his definition of morality?
“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.
“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”
“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”
“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.
“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.
Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Me, too, I tell him.
“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”
Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.
Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.
Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’
“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”
He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.
The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)
Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.
“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.
“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”
When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”
“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”
As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)
There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.
“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.
“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”
So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?
“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”
Love is all we need?
“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”
Me neither, Hef. Me neither.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
“This is my charge to you. You are to be a light-bearer. You are to choose the light.”
— Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light
It was after noon by the time I dragged myself out of bed on Nov. 9, repacked, loaded the car, and pulled away from parking lot of the hotel on the outskirts of Phoenix, Ariz., bound for my home in Southern California 400 miles away.
Twelve hours earlier, I’d been killing time at the “Democratic Victory Party” in the ballroom of a swankier downtown hotel people-watching and watching election returns come in while I waited for my friend Jen, a longtime Democratic operative who was in town from D.C., helping with GOTV efforts, to turn up for a celebratory drink.
The day before the election, Jen had asked whether any of her friends in California might be willing to drive to Phoenix to help canvass for voters on election day. For most of my adult life, I’ve been a newspaper journalist and such political endeavors were verboten. These days I’m not an officially ink-stained wretch, having lost my newspaper staff position, as so many of my colleagues have, to corporate downsizing, budget cuts, and pathological short-sightedness.
Jen is the kind of friend who could call me out of the blue and say she needed me to shave my head for the greater good of the planet and without hesitating I’d reach for the clippers. I’d voted early in Orange County and had a little free time between freelance and consulting deadlines, so I said yes and quickly prepared for a last-minute, solo road trip — my favorite variety, truth be told — to The Grand Canyon state.
Heading southeast from my home in Laguna Beach (a small hippie blue island in the midst of otherwise bright red Orange County), I watched the sun rise over the high desert listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree album as I skirted a corner of the national park from whence it took its name. I was going on hour three of attempting to perfectly harmonize with the The Jayhawks’ latest — Paging Mr. Proust — when I pulled into the parking lot of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association union hall in Phoenix (a staging area for GOTV canvassers) a few minutes past noon.
I spent the next five hours or so canvassing a largely Hispanic, working-class neighborhood in southeast Phoenix with a lovely woman named Miranda who had flown down from Los Angeles to volunteer. It was a heartening experience—the people were kind and engaged. More than once we met entire multigenerational families who had voted or were leaving to vote together. Grandmothers and sons and their 18-year-old daughters voting for the first time. It made me proud to be an American and hopeful for the future.
By 9:45 p.m. PST, Miranda had flown back to California, Jen was stuck in fevered meetings with other Democrats somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, and I found myself sitting on the floor of the ballroom staring at the giant TV screens that lined the room and blinking at my smartphone in disbelief. Friends from all over the country and abroad were texting and posting Facebook updates and Tweets about their horror, anger, and fear. The first wave of panic descended, I felt my throat tighten, and my eyes filled with tears. I literally didn’t know what to do. In that moment, I turned to my Twitter feed and saw a post from comedian Patton Oswalt.
#Election2016 update: Driving to Barstow and paying a trucker to punch me unconscious.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) November 9, 2016
It made me laugh. Out loud. In one sentence, Patton shone a light into the darkness. I quickly tweeted a response.
Yeah. We love you, P. Please keep making us find the funny. Without it this moment is unbearably fucking bleak.
— Cathleen Falsani (@godgrrl) November 9, 2016
And much to my surprise, Patton, whom I do not know personally but admire greatly, as an artist and a person and a parent, responded:
I won't stop. I'll work twice as hard now. All of us will. You'll see. https://t.co/qxIbq2nwjX
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) November 9, 2016
And I teared up again. Not snot-crying angry or sad tears. Grateful tears.
In that moment, Patton’s extemporaneous words—funny and empathetic, human and inspirational—were the tiny psychic life preserver I needed precisely when I needed it most, as discombobulation that accompanied the reality of the election’s result began to hit us like tsunami of radioactive, face-melting sewage.
I got up, found Jen, had the world’s saddest glass of wine to her tragic beer, took a taxi back to my hotel, snapped at the driver for saying the president elect was “not so bad,” crawled in bed, and eventually fell asleep without turning on the television or opening my laptop. I wanted to pretend what was happening wasn’t happening. Plausible deniability. Blame it on the apnea.
In the morning, I stayed in bed with the black-out curtains drawn as long as I could, pushing the late check-out I’d asked for to its outer limits. Begrudgingly I arose at noon, checked my email, confirmed that my memories of the night before hadn’t been a bad dream, grabbed a coffee in the lobby, and began the long schlep north.
As I mentioned earlier, I love road trips. Always have. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of driving in the early 1970s from Stamford, Conn., to Columbia University in New York City where my father was working on his doctorate, in his Karmann Ghia while we listened to the AM radio—traditional jazz on WGBO or Imus in the Morning on WNBC—and shared a box of Cracker Jacks retrieved from a secret compartment between the cushions of the backseat. Among many wonderful things, my father was hilarious. A dry wit with a face made of elastic. He always made me laugh.
Before Nov. 9, 2016, I can remember only one other road trip where I could not bear to listen to music—it was too evocative and my emotional state too tender—and that was the drive from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut the morning after my father died almost exactly four years before, on November 14, 2012. On that mournful trip I drove in silence for an hour or so before stopping at a Cracker Barrel in Maryland to rent an audiobook for the rest of the journey. Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds kept me company driving into the night after the unfathomable had happened and I faced a world I literally could not imagine—one without my father in it.
I sat in my car the morning after the election and tried to think about what I could listen to that wouldn’t rattle my nerves further or break my heart even more. If I could have willed or I-Dream-of-Jeannie-blinked my best friend from St. Louis to the passenger seat, I would have. Alas…
Instead, I turned to Audible.com and began perusing. I wanted something funny and a familiar voice. Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes, Please scrolled into view.
For the next 7 hours and 31 minutes, Amy road shotgun with me and it is not an exaggeration to say I don’t know quite how I would have made it home that day without her.
She made me howl with laughter, never more so than when she related the story of losing her shit when faced with an entitled, misogynistic, middle-aged male passenger in first class who whinged that Amy and her traveling companions were too loud.
“All of my lower-middle-class Boston issues rose to the surface. I don’t like it when bratty, privileged old white guys speak to me like I am their mouthy niece. I got that amazing feeling you get when you know you are going to lose it in the best, most self-righteous way. I just leaned back and yelled, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOU.” Then I chased him as he tried to get away from me.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
She made me cry when she dropped some truth bombs about pretense, perfectionism, and the creative process:
Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I wrote this book after my kids went to sleep. I wrote this book on subways and on airplanes and in between setups while I shot a television show. I wrote this book from scribbled thoughts I kept in the Notes app on my iPhone and conversations I had with myself in my own head before I went to sleep. I wrote it ugly and in pieces.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
She gave me hope:
“A person’s tragedy does not make up their entire life. A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
And Amy showered me with joy by reminding me, on several occasions, of what matters most and brings the brightest light in this life of ours:
“When your children arrive, the best you can hope for is that they break open everything about you. Your mind floods with oxygen. Your heart becomes a room with wide-open windows. You laugh hard every day. You think about the future and read about global warming. You realize how nice it feels to care about someone else more than yourself. And gradually, through this heart-heavy openness and these fresh eyes, you start to see the world a little more. Maybe you start to care a teeny tiny bit more about what happens to everyone in it.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
It’s been a long 127 days since the election (and an even longer 54 days since the inauguration). Thankfully the initial shock and dismay largely has given way to action and resistance, here in my own little universe and around the globe. Still, there is much work to be done, a lot to bemoan and fight against, and plenty of news (daily, hourly, by the minute) that can wear us down and summon the black dog of despair.
In times such as these, those noble few who bring us laughter—especially when it is the product of incisive commentary or satire (I love you so much, Kate McKinnon, I could hurl from sheer delight)—are even more precious to our republic. Those women and men are lightbearers and joybringers. They are the threads that hold this whole schmatte together.
— Pete Holmes (@peteholmes) March 14, 2017
There is no better example of how humor is essential to keeping this mortal coil thing spinning than HBO’s new semi-autobiographical series Crashing created by Pete Holmes and produced by Judd Apatow—both exceptional joybringers, lightbearers, and deeply menschy guys.
Pete is quite possibly the funniest human I’ve ever met, and he’s also one of the smartest and most empathetic. Crashing is undeniably funny and heartbreakingly poignant in its truth-telling about messy relationships, when inspiration and aspiration collide, and how we manage to keep walking when the world tilts off its axis.
Crashing’s third episode was especially rich as it followed Pete and fellow comedian TJ Miller (on whose couch, or rather giant bean bag, he was crashing in New York City a few weeks after catching his wife in flagrante with another man—“Leif” played by George Basil), on a trip to upstate New York to rescue some of Pete’s belongings from his ex’s elicit tag sale.
In one memorable scene, TJ jovially lays into Jessica for her treatment of Pete and in defense of comedians and comedy, a vocation he deems “noble.”
TJ Miller: What you need to understand is that comedians are the new philosophers.
Pete’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Jessica (Lauren Lapkus): You think you’re a philosopher? Did Socrates ever talk about his nut sweat? Did Plato ever talk about jerking off into a trash can?
TJ Miller: I’ve had fans write me letters about how my podcast saved their life after they split up with their wife. So hopefully something I do will make someone like Pete, who got totally fucked over by you, be able to make it through their day for the next six months instead of giving up on life entirely.
— Season One, Episode 3 of HBO’s Crashing
Like so many of us, I heeded the call to shore up the Fourth Estate by investing in good journalism. I subscribed to magazines and newspapers and magazine and newspaper websites. I donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the ACLU and other organizations that defend our free speech, civil rights, and common humanity.
Such endeavors got me thinking about comedy and comedians, and how we need to invest in and shore up our joybringers and lightbearers.
TJ Miller: Comedy is kind of a new religion. You’re traveling, preaching to people this ideology of seeing everything with a smile, ya know? People need it.
Pete Holmes: You think touring comedians are like preachers?
TJ Miller: Yeah. Exactly. Except we’re better than priests because we’re not lying.
— Season One, Episode 3 of HBO’s Crashing
So along with my new subscription to Mother Jones, The Nation and The Guardian, recently I’ve made a conscious effort to invest in comedy and comedians as well, on TV, in actual books and audio books and podcasts and downloads and streaming and in the movie theater.
I’ve also invested in tickets to live performances, where the magic really happens.
I’m lucky enough to live close to Los Angeles where an outing to the theater at the Ace Hotel to see Alec Baldwin interview the marvelous Megan Mullally and her husband (my spirit animal) Nick Offerman for his “Here’s the Thing” podcast or to The Largo to watch Judd or Pete or Patton (I was too slow on the uptake this month and Patton’s gig is sold out, but there’s always next month…) or Tig Notaro or Sarah Silverman or Louie Anderson (if you haven’t seen Baskets yet, do—Louie playing Zach Galifianakis’ mother is a REVELATION) is within the realm of fairly regular possibility.
But you don’t have to live near LA or New York or Chicago to see live comedy. Support your local lightbearers. Check the websites of your favorite joybringers to see when they’ll be nearby. Comedians get around.
So this is my long-winded way of saying thank you to the people who have helped me survive the Drumpocalypse, other tragedies and traumas the preceded it, and more than occasionally set a fire under my ass to be an agent for change, to resist and persist, and to keep laughing.
I think it was Ms. Lamott who said, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Thanks for that, Annie.
And thank you, Amy.
And Kate. And Melissa “Spicey” McCarthy, while we’re at it.
And Petie Pants. And TJ. And Artie Lang. And Lauren. And George.
And Alec. And Megan. And Nick.
And Zach. And Louie. And Martha Kelly.
And all y’all lightbearers and joybringers.
May you always have plenty of both.
A few of my friends are consummate thank-you note writers and senders, the latter being the most important part of the thank-you note process.
They always send a thank-you note.
For gifts, dinners, advice, favors, and other kindnesses. It’s not unheard of for one or two of them to send a follow-up thank-you note for especially wonderful thank-you notes they’ve received from someone else.
I, on the other hand, am terrible about sending thank-you notes.
I have beautiful stationary. Several sets. And I’m great about saying thank you and sending thank-you emails or posting thank-you posts on Facebook and occasionally via Twitter or Instagram. But I have a mental block about sending actual, physical thank-you notes.
While I am unsure of the definitive source of this strange block (strange for someone who is, generally speaking, deeply grateful and who says “Thank you” all the time to all sorts of people for all sorts of things, and stranger still for someone who, ya know, writes for a living), I believe it has something to do with my First Communion when I was in second grade. I received a load of beautiful gifts from family and friends and my mother — who still is a consummate thank-you note writer and sender — oversaw my writing of thank-you notes with all the zeal of a hangry drill sergeant.
I’ve had the thank-you note yips ever since.
I still feel badly about the thank-you notes I didn’t send for some of the gifts I received when I graduated from high school almost 30 years ago.
This note (which is one of what will be a several-part series of overdue thank-you posts) is not that overdue, but it is much later than it should have been. If it were a wedding present that I’d not yet sent, I would have about six weeks left to mail that Le Creuset four-quart Dutch oven in Marseille blue from what remains of the happy couple’s registry and still make it under the one-year wire.
Happily, etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute insist that, “It’s never wrong to send a written thank you, and people always appreciate getting ‘thanks’ in writing.” So here it goes.
But first, a little background:
Two years ago I traveled to Nepal for the first a few days after the first of two devastating earthquakes struck the Himalayan nation that had occupied my imagination since I was a teenager. The trip was planned long before the quake struck. When it did, I delayed my departure for a few days, pivoted my purpose from semi-pleasure with a side of social justice to freelance journalism with four duffle bags stuffed with water filters, medicine, and whatever else I could carry with me to help the survivors of the quake.
Suffice to say it was a life-changing trip and I fell hopelessly in love with Nepal and her people.
Then about a year ago, my son’s high school spring break was approaching and we were trying to decide what to do when I had tea here in Laguna Beach with a friend I’d met in Kathmandu. She spends part of the year here and part of the year there where she runs a marvelous group home for orphaned and other vulnerable children. Come visit again, she said. Bring your son.
When I returned from tea I began Googling and quickly discovered that a couple of RT tickets on Etihad Airways from California to Kathmandu and a week’s accommodation in Nepal for spring break were more affordable than most of the other options we’d considered, including Cabo, Dublin, New Orleans, and New York City.
So off to Kathmandu we went, my 16-year-old son, Vasco, and me, for what I imagined might be the last mother-son trip for a while. Manhood approaches and such adventures hold less appeal, at least for one of us.
Even from the west coast, Nepal is far, far away. I’d flown Singapore Airlines on my last trip, but this time we rolled the dice and went with Etihad, one of two national airlines of the United Arab Emirates. We’d flown on thet other, Emirates Airways, to Malawi and back in 2010 when our entire family had to make the journey for Vasco’s adoption hearing. There were a few hiccups, but by and large, the service was good — even in coach. Reviews for Etihad were largely enthusiastic, so I booked our coach seats and hoped for the best.
I used to be a terrible flyer when I was in my twenties, worried that every tiny bump of turbulence was the beginning of the end of my life. Over the years, that fear has disappeared, but a few of my tics and habits from my terrified-to-fly era remain. Namely, every time I board a plane, I pause in the threshold for a moment, put my hand on the side of the plane, and thank God for a “safe, uneventful flight” and for the angels that go with us, protecting us on our journey.
While domestic air travel is something one survives or, at best, endures without incident, hope still springs eternal for international travel where small kindnesses and attention to detail make a huge difference on a 16-hour flight. I don’t recall much about our flight to Kathmandu—and that’s a good thing, i.e., no complaints, no horrible food, no surly flight attendants, no stranger with his seat reclined in my lap for half a day, etc.—except that we were comfortable enough to sleep a little and arrived in Nepal more refreshed than frazzled.
I did, however, remember one thing enough to make a note of it in my journal: before we took off, the airline played a video on all of its screens that included what sounded to me like a prayer in Arabic. I didn’t know what it said, but I found it—the sound of the words, the gentle music that accompanied it—soothing.
My son and I spent a wonderful, if too-short week in Kathmandu with friends of mine who quickly became friends of his, saw a lot of things I couldn’t see the year before in the wake of the earthquake, and made hopeful plans to return someday soon when we had time enough to make a trek along the Annapurna range farther west than we had time to visit. Spring Break Kathmandu was a wild success as a perspective-giving, spiritually-inspiring, bonding mum-son adventure. Mission accomplished.
On our last afternoon in Nepal, before heading to the airport we made a quick run into a neighborhood in Kathmandu where a lot of textiles are sold. I was looking for locally-sourced sheep’s wool to bring home for knitting projects. After a few false starts at dealers hidden behind elaborately carved wooden doors tucked into nooks along a warren of tiny dirt lanes, we found a dealer on the main drag, hopped out of the jeep (that carried at least six or seven members of our host’s family) and bought about 20 pounds of wool, much of it spun but un-dyed and carrying the pungent aroma of its former wearer with it.
In that last wool dealer’s shop, I felt something in my eye. I tiny piece of fiber or a speck of dust. I blinked and rubbed my eye, didn’t think much of it, until a few hours later when my eye really began to bother me. My friend Gautham kindly offered to take me to the doctor in his neighborhood, the same place he takes his own children. We had a night flight and I was concerned about being uncomfortable on the 17-hour ride home, so I said OK and off we went. We found the “doctor” at his stall a few blocks away. He looked at my eye, gave me some drops, and said to try to flush it out with water before we headed to the airport.
I followed the instructions, put in the drops, had our last dinner with Gautham’s family where they prayed for our safe journey home. Born in Bhuthan, Gautham became a Christian as a young adult and now is deeply involved in his local church in Kathmandu. Late last summer, his eldest son married the daughter of one of his pastors. Faith runs deep in the family’s bones, as it does among most Nepalese people, whether they’re Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or just simple but robust believers in the goodness of mankind.
A few hours later, by the time we were boarding the first of what were supposed to be three flights home to California (Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi to New York, New York to Los Angeles) my eye was watering nonstop. Not long after our flight from Kathmandu to Lucknow, India (an unscheduled stop to refuel because Kathmandu was experiencing a fuel shortage at the time) took off, I was really uncomfortable. My eye was swollen and I realized the water I was wiping from my eye had turned into pus (think the Beatles’ line “lemon yellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye), and in truth, I was beginning to panic. I called for a flight attendant who responded with calm concern. She brought back the flight purser and they quickly determined I was having a serious medical incident.
They moved other passengers away from my son and me, a precaution just in case whatever was going on with me and my eye was contagious. The cabin crew were wonderfully attentive, bringing me cups of ice and damp cloths. About halfway through the short flight, I began asking to deplane when we got to Lucknow. I wanted to see a doctor, STAT. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the purser, who had consulted with the pilot, strongly encouraged me to stay on the flight until it reached Abu Dhabi five hours later. There, the airline could ensure I received proper medical care. In India, they couldn’t guarantee it. They’d take care of me and my son, who was starting to come down with a nasty chest cold. They’d get us to the United Arab Emirates and a medical team would meet the plane when we arrived.
We made it to Abu Dhabi, the medical team met the plane as promised, put me in a wheelchair and quickly wheeled me to the airport’s medical clinic a few terminals away, while Vasco followed carrying our carry-on luggage. Shortly thereafter, a kindly, efficient doctor examined me, took some swabs (to rule out conjunctivitis or anything else contagious/communicable that potentially preclude me from air travel for a while), gently lifted and turned my eyelid inside out to discover a scratch not on my eye but on the inside of the eyelid itself. It probably happened a few days before, got infected, and then the cabin pressure on the first flight brought it to a head (literally) and it burst.
But at least we knew what we were dealing with. The doctor flushed my eye several times over the course of an hour, administered prescription drops, and sent Vasco with a prescription to retrieve antibiotics from a pharmacy in another terminal. After a few hours, the doctor fitted me with a not-so-swashbuckling eye patch, and told me that I couldn’t fly for 36 hours and only then with the permission of a flight doctor.
Before I could begin to ask about logistics and accommodations and how we’d manage to eat etc., another Etihad employee appeared to collect us, said the airline had arranged rooms for us at the airport hotel (so we wouldn’t have to go through customs and that bother), and had our meals covered, and cheerfully began pushing me in the wheelchair back to the hotel near the Etihad terminal. The airline would check on us and reschedule our flights for us. Just rest, he said.
Back at the hotel in the early hours of the morning, we both crashed. Vasco’s cold was getting worse. He slept for 16 hours uninterrupted. Couldn’t even get him to arise for some food. I kept him hydrated and found whatever over-the-counter cold medicine I could, had several delicious meals at the hotel’s restaurant, and tried to rest while my eye began to heal.
A day later, I walked over to Etihad customer service and was told by a genial man that the airline was working on new flights for us, hopefully a direct flight to Los Angeles so we’d not have to change planes. That was thoughtful. The idea of traveling in coach for 17 hours in the shape we were both in was not appealing, but we needed to get home. I tried to find not-middle-seats online for various flights, but it looked grim.
Heading into the 30th hour of our unexpected layover in Abu Dhabi, we just needed to get home. I walked back down to the Etihad desk in the departures terminal and was told we had a flight early the next morning. They’d assign our seats when we checked in. Fine. We bathed, climbed back into the same clothes we’d been wearing since Kathmandu, grabbed our carry-on bags and headed for the check-in desk. There the gentleman manning the phone asked us to wait for a moment, he had to make a call. My hopes began to flag. What now? More delays? Middle seats? Another visit to the doctor? The kind folks at the Abu Dhabi airport were taking good care of us, wayward strangers in their midst, but we just wanted to be home already.
A moment later, the manager appeared. He looked at the bill-of-health the airport doctor had signed, made a quick phone call, then looked up at us with a smile. You’re all set. Your bags are on the plane and we’ve put you in Business Class to make your flight home more comfortable. Also he was going to walk us through immigration pre-registration so that when we got to LAX, all we had to do was get off the plane and head to baggage. No customs and immigration. That was taken care of in Abu Dhabi.
Please, Mrs. Possley, follow me. Right this way. Your’e all set. And have a safe flight home.
Thank you, I said. Shokran.
It’s been our pleasure and privilege, he said.
I began to cry. To weep, really. I was so relieved and moreover, so grateful for the kindness of strangers. For the gracious care with which Etihad had looked after my son and me, half a world away from our homes, sick and tired and a little bit scared.
Etihad perfectly exemplified the spiritual practice of hospitality, something that is at the heart of Islam, as it is an essential teaching of its cousin religions, Christianity and Judaism. The Quran says, “Let the believer in Allah and Day of Judgment honor his neighbor. Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment honor his guest.”
It also tells the story of Abraham who, when strangers approached his home, welcomed them with greetings of peace, (even though he thought, “They seem unusual people”) and then turned to his household staff and quickly had them roast a fattened calf for the unexpected guests. The idea, as I understand it, beyond just being welcoming is to anticipate the needs of your guests (expected or not) before they even know what they are or have time to ask. It’s a radical hospitality that goes beyond the call of duty, with joy, treating the guest as a child of God.
“The goal of hospitality as an act and as an attitude to life is far more radical; it demands a transformation of the self toward goodness and grace, toward how God wants us to be with one another,”Mona Siddiqui writes in her 2015 book Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name. “At the very base of hospitality is compassion, a compassion that shakes our complacency and leads us to think about more generous ways of being with one another. Compassion creates empathy, solidarity, and has the power to reduce personal and social conflicts. And often it is this compassion toward others which first sows the seeds of surprising friendships—the most challenging but rewarding experiences of our lives.”
When we boarded the flight each of the flight crew members greeted us by our names and with what sure felt like war, genuine smiles. We crawled into our spacious sleeper pods, and Vasco was asleep before we took off. A flight attendant came over to check on us, asked if I needed anything, offered me a glass of juice and a flute of champagne, while I took off the socks I’d been wearing since Kathmandu and put on the soft ones included in the airline’s gift bag.
I leaned back, took out my knitting, put on my headphones, and took a sip of champagne, grateful. So grateful.
Before we took off, the same video I’d noticed when we departed California a week earlier began to play. It’s a verse from the Quran, a prayer that the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers to pray when embarking on journeys.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
سبحان الذي سخر لنا هذا وما كنا له مقرنين
Glory to Him who has subjected this to us, and we could never have it (by our efforts).
وإنا إلى ربنا لمنقلبون
And verily, to Our Lord we indeed are to return!
صدق الله العظيم
Allah The Mighty has spoken the truth.
Once again, tears came to my eyes. I was overcome with gratitude.
For the gift of travel, very real traveling mercies, and most of all for experiencing radical Muslim hospitality in all its great compassion.
Thank you, Etihad. Thank you to all the brothers and sisters who care for us.
Azak Allahu khair. As salamu aleiykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Special thanks to Sheikh Jamaal Diwan of the Institute of Knowledge and Yousif Alanazi for their kind help in translating the dua for travel from Arabic to English.
That’s usually how I describe my hometown of Laguna Beach, Calif.
It’s a groovy artist’s colony and bonafide surfing town of about 22,000 souls where everybody seemingly knows everybody else and many of us don’t lock our front doors or cars. It’s a sun-drenched village on the Pacific coast, where the high school sports teams were known for years as “The Artists” (until changing it to the “Breakers,” as in a surf break, in recent years); where there is probably more macrame than there are guns per capita, and where the father of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, lived for a time before he got busted for pot possession the day after Christmas 1968 and split.
Laguna is a place where, generally speaking, it feels as if people don’t care how much money you have (although plenty of our neighbors have plenty of it), what you look like, or what you do, as long as you are kind and trying—in whatever way you can—to make the world a better place.
My husband, son, and I moved here from the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 2009, drawn to this idyllic place—a progressive blue island in the sea of scarlet red Orange County — not just because of the weather and the vista (both beautiful), but because of the sense and kind of community it has been and is. That our son, who was in grammar school when we moved here, is a black child who was born and spent the first nine years of his life in Africa and would be among the 0.8 percent of the population in town who are black, gave us not a moment’s pause because of how we understood Laguna to be.
And when we arrived, sure enough our neighbors—the kind-hearted Hobbits of our Shire—greeted our little family with open arms.
My son wasn’t simply “tolerated” or even “accepted.” He was celebrated.
When our son left the house to ride his bike or go to the soccer pitch, or, as he got older, ventured down to the beach with his boogie or surf boards on his own, I didn’t worry. Or at least I didn’t worry in the way so many mothers of black children must worry every time they leave the house, and in some places, even when they’re still at home. I didn’t worry about my son’s physical safety, beyond a rogue wave or crossing Pacific Coast Highway barefoot to get to his favorite surf spot.
And when he became a teenager, we gave him more freedom and independence, and a few months ago when he earned his driver’s license and started driving the family car, my heart beat faster and I worried more than I had when he was little, but off he went without incident, insha’Allah, as our Muslim friends might say. We’ve taught him about keeping his hands on the wheel and in plain sight if ever he were stopped by police; how to ask permission to reach slowly for his wallet to fetch his license and registration. And when he’s not coming off the beach in town with his locks full of sand and salt water, we’ve asked him, please, not to wear his hoodie up.
It’s not fair. We know. And it shouldn’t matter. But it does. So please don’t wear it up. We’re just trying to keep you safe. It’s not you. It’s them. We don’t worry about you in Laguna because here everybody knows you. But out there …
And our son complies, without complaint. Because he is a good kid, respectful and kind, and he doesn’t want his mother to worry. Because as a tiny child, he lived alone on the streets of Blantyre, Malawi—one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in the world—and he has a tremendous sense of self-preservation.
Because my son is wise beyond his years—beyond the years of most of us.
While he may be one of (statistically) perhaps nine African-American students in Laguna Beach High School’s 1,140 student body, much of the time he goes about life unmolested and unfettered, largely living the life of a typical American teenager.
And then something happens that reminds us, and not in the good way, that he is not typical. At least not here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea. At least not in the small minds of a few who have let stupidity, arrogance, entitlement, privilege, and hatred take root in their hearts.
On Dec. 27, 2016, shortly before 9 p.m., our family was just sitting down to eat dinner and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with my brother, an Air Force pilot who had recently returned from a six-month deployment overseas fighting ISIS. This was the first chance he’d had to see his only nephew in more than a year. We watch the comedy classic together every year and laugh at all the same places. My brother wasn’t able to make it to us by Christmas, so we were a few days late and looking forward to tucking into our Thai food and watching Chevy Chase chew the scenery.
Then we heard something outside. Our front door was open, as it almost always is, and we heard shouting. It got louder and some of it sounded high-pitched. We thought perhaps someone was having a fight on the street. I worried it might have involved a woman. All of us adults began to move toward the front door. My husband got there first, just as we heard a thud, and screams that sounded like someone calling my son’s name, Vasco.
My husband, Maurice, turned in the threshold and came back into the house. “We just got punked,” he said, his face ashen. “Somebody just threw a watermelon at the house.”
“A WATERMELON?!” my brother and I said in concert. I immediately looked at my son, who sat silent in front of his Massaman curry. He wore an expression of pain and disbelief.
I called the police and took pictures of the melon shards that riddled our driveway, while my husband and brother talked to neighbors. Within 10 minutes, a police officer arrived at our home to take our statements. She was professional, apologetic, and thorough. When she left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal. He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.
More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled.
“I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,” he said.
There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.
Not long after we put away the food—who could eat?—my husband mentioned that he thought he saw a sticker on a shard of melon. So I grabbed the fireplace tongs and dug around in the tall waste bin in the driveway until I found it. Maurice Googled the brand and discovered it was locally distributed. I phoned one of the supermarkets in town (we have three) and quickly learned that several boys from the high school (they were wearing various hoodies and other clothing bearing the Laguna Beach High School name and sports teams) had been there perhaps 15 minutes before 9 p.m. and bought a watermelon. A clerk at the store later recalled them discussing whether to buy one or two and when they settled on one, which one. They were blocking the aisle, she recalled—strapping athletes that they are—while they conferred and made their decision to go with just one melon, which one of them held aloft like a trophy.
All of this, we later discovered, was captured on store surveillance video, as was the boys getting into the pick-up truck outside the grocery store. A different security camera caught the truck pulling up outside our home not long after. It takes approximately seven minutes to drive from the store to our front door. They came straight here.
Police continued their investigation with vigor, led by a detective who is the first African-American police officer in the history of the Laguna Beach Police Department. They asked us to keep the incident quiet over the school break—it was the holidays, some folks were out of town, school wasn’t in session and school officials would need to be involved, too—until classes resumed. Then, the police could speak to all five of the boys identified via the video tapes at the same time. We told only a few close family members and friends who we trust to keep a secret, even a terrible one. And to his credit, so did our 17-year-old son, demonstrating the almost preternatural self-control, discipline, and character he has had from the moment we met him by the side of a dusty road in African nearly a decade ago.
On Jan. 9, police and school officials interviewed all five of the boys, some of whom we know, some not. And all five of the boys made statements implicating themselves, police and school officials told us. Through the boys’ statements, we learned more details of the racist incident.
Earlier on the night of Dec. 27, the five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to that grocery store where the video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items — including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant — to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate. They chanted our son’s name in unison as they drove up the hill and down the street to our house, where they stopped and called Vasco’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside. Then one of them hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.
You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.
So much for Mayberry-by-the-Sea.
This is the part where I am supposed to say I was surprised by the attack on our home. But I can’t.
Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no.
That’s not meant to be a commentary on the particular community where we live. Rather it reflects an awareness of both the current zeitgeist in our nation and its troubled and troubling history with race and racism.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Vasco was targeted in a racist incident. It was the second. The first happened last spring in a classroom at the high school where three students made remarks to our son that were, he and we felt, racist. Words were exchanged. Video clips from Django Unchained and Captain Phillips were thrust in his face in a classroom where a substitute teacher had lost control. When that happened, we were outraged. The school handled it swiftly. Parents were notified and punishment was doled out internally.
We knew one of the boys—he and Vasco had been friends when they were in grade school but, as children do, had drifted apart when they hit adolescence. The other two were unfamiliar names and faces. We never heard from any of the parents offering apologies or anything else, which we thought was odd at the time. But life moved on quickly and so did we, figuring we had learned some hard lessons from the incident and so had the boys.
Sadly, we appear to have been wrong. Two of the boys from the incident last year also were involved in the incident on Dec. 27 at our home. And let me just call it what it was: A racist attack.
It also was an escalation from last year, when only words were exchanged. This time, the incident took place off campus. The boys planned, conspired, targeted, and came to our HOME. They lobbed a heavy object—with its obvious racial connotations—at the door, after unsuccessfully trying to lure our son outside. One of the boys involved in last year’s incident is the thug who yelled, “F — you, n —!” as they drove away like an elite suburban lynch mob.
History tells us that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior tends to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not — who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, call it out, and try to stop it.
Some of the boys involved in carrying out those acts in December we know, and we know their parents. The parents we do know are not frothing-at-the-mouth bigots. We can’t imagine their sons learned racist ideas at home.
But they learned them somewhere.
Racists and bullies aren’t born. They are made.
I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of any particular celebrity or public figure, candidate or politician, although the President-Elect’s public speech and actions are not doing a single thing to model the kind of behavior most of us would want our children to emulate. I agree wholeheartedly with Meryl Streep when she said in her Golden Globes speech the night before police interviewed the five boys in Laguna:
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”
With our children in particular—even if you have people at home saying to them, “That is not how we behave; that’s wrong”—such blatant disrespect, incivility, and hatefulness permeates the air like sarin gas. We all breathe it.
We are blessed to live in a community where the prevailing culture says racist attitudes and behavior are neither acceptable nor tolerated. Despite what happened two days after Christmas, we still believe this to be true. The scores of neighbors who have reached out to us directly or indirectly and spoken out publicly to express support for our son and condemnation of the behavior of the five perpetrators are a testament to the prevalence of “higher angels” here.
But here’s the thing about racism that makes it so dangerous: It hides. It secretes itself behind wealth and privilege. Behind gates and reputations and influence. Behind bullies of all ages and threats spoken and unspoken.
The racism that lives here is the most pernicious kind.
I was born and reared in Connecticut, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, the child of educators (my father spent nearly 50 years of his life teaching in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the nation.) Our family was solidly middle-class then as mine is today, but I always have been well acquainted with the rich and powerful. They were neighbors and friends. They still are.
The town where our family lived throughout my teen and college years, just a few miles away from Newtown, is fairly Norman Rockwellian in terms of New England ideals. And yet, when I was a junior in high school, just as my son is now, a neighbor in our quaint Connecticut town, became the “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—the “top klansman” in the nation.
It was a fact so incongruous to the values and culture in which my brother and I grew up, that I thought it might be an apocryphal memory. It’s not. While his racist wizarding days have come and gone, contrary to my memory that he was “run out of town” when neighbors discovered his bigoted proclivities, the guy, now in his 80s, still lives in my childhood home town.
I guess that story telegraphs the most important point I’m trying to make in writing this: Racism is perhaps most dangerous, pernicious, and destructive where people assume it doesn’t abide.
I learned long ago that racism doesn’t stop on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. It doesn’t seem to care whether the company it keeps has a billion dollars or two cents, a PhD or a GED, a white collar, blue collar, or no collar at all. It’s alive and well on the East and West Coasts, just as it is in big cities and tiny villages all across these United States.
To think that it is not is to do a disservice to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children.
In the nearly three weeks since the racist incident at our home, a line from the little-seen Roland Joffé film There Be Dragons has run through my mind when I’ve considered the five boys and why they chose to do what they did:
“In a child’s heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow.”
All of us must be vigilant. When racism or any other kind of hatred rear their ugly heads, we must call them out, name them and shame them publicly. We must do our best to prevent their seeds from taking root and bearing ugly, horrifyingly strange fruit.
We have heard that a few of the boys involved in the watermelon incident are trying to parse their culpability. They were “just passengers.” They were “uncomfortable.” They “felt terrible” immediately afterward—and yet didn’t step up to admit what they’d done until confronted by very unhappy police detectives, school administrators, and coaches.
I have a lot of things I’d like to say to all the boys, but to those who believe they were somehow “less involved,” let me remind them of the words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew’s:
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
“Don’t forget, Vash, you have to stand in your power and use your voice—only you can do that.”
That’s what the woman who takes great joy (as do we) in referring to herself as “Vasco’s Jewish grandmother” told him by phone from her home in Whitefish, Mont., last week.
A week or so before the watermelon landed on our doorstep, Ina Albert and Allen Secher (her husband, a rabbi, who is our son’s joy-filled “adopted Jewish grandfather”) became the targets of alt-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups who posted their names, likenesses, and contact information online. They were harassed, threatened, and called the most awful names.
Because they are Jewish.
Because they have spent a lifetime standing up for what is right, decent, and just. Because they insisted that in their very beautiful, very white, very privileged town in Montana love will always trump hate.
In 1962, as a young rabbi just out of seminary, Allen joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Freedom Rider in Georgia. He was arrested in Albany, Georgia. Two years later in 1964, Dr. King called on rabbis to join him for a march in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen and 16 other rabbis headed to Florida, where, the day before he arrived, a protestor had been shot and killed. Allen ended up leading the march, hand-in-hand with a young black woman singing freedom songs.
Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day…
I wish everyone I love could have listened in on that phone call between my son and his chosen grandparents, encouraging each other to be brave and courageous, to stand up for what’s right because it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us. And if we don’t, who will?
While we all are angered and disgusted by what happened, and by some of the excuses still being offered privately by some of the perpetrators, we are not interested in retribution. We don’t want revenge.We are Christians who try daily not to horrify Jesus while we fulfill our duty as the hands and feet and voices and faces of God’s love in the world.
We would like to see the boys who did this held accountable for their actions. Moreover, we’d like to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the miracle of truth-and-reconciliation that our vicar, the Rev. Lester MacKenzie of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach—who, when he was the same age as our son, lived as a black person under the apartheid system in South Africa—has taught us so much about. Father MacKenzie is walking closely with Vasco and reminds us that, no matter how quickly many of us would like to rush to kumbaya, we can’t get to real reconciliation until we first have truth.
This is a teachable moment and we don’t want it to be squandered. So we are working closely with school and community leaders to make sure what happened isn’t swept under the rug. Again. We have heard from dozens of neighbors, parents, and students that this kind of thing happens here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea a lot more often than any of us would like to imagine or believe.
You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this?
Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up.
Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.
He would like to have the chance to sit down with the five boys and ask them about the choices they made. “I want to know why they decided to do what they did, and why to me,” Vasco’s told us. “I want to understand what they were thinking.”
I don’t believe Vasco or any of us ever truly will “understand” the thought or lack thereof that fuels such horrendous behavior. While he may not get the answers to his questions now or ever, our son is fine. He is brave and mighty, as our prayer and blessing for him has been each day that he’s been our son and long before that.
I am so very proud of and grateful for Vasco’s heart. Being his mother is the greatest honor and privilege of my life.
Every day, though even more acutely on the day we celebrate the life of a man who gave his life so that—generations later—my son could enjoy freedoms he never got to see his own four children experience, Vasco gives me hope for our collective future.
And a child shall lead them…
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW BETWEEN CATHLEEN FALSANI AND MAURICE POSSLEY
WITH TWO LOCAL REPORTERS IN LAGUNA BEACH, CALIF.,
REGARDING THE RACIST INCIDENT AT THEIR HOME ON 12/27/2016:
(The interview transpired between Cathleen, Maurice and two reporters from Laguna Beach media outlets in the parish offices of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and in the presence of the Rev. Lester MacKenzie, St. Mary’s priest in charge. The transcript is complete but the reporter’s names have been removed for the sake of privacy. The interview began with Maurice reading his statement, copies of the statement were given to them [and can be found HERE].
Then the conversation opened up to questions from the reporters.)
Reporter 1: “How has the school responded?”
Maurice Possley: “Without characterizing or without being specific, they are responding, I think, in a very appropriate manner, given that this did not happen on school property and on a break. There are measures that will and are being taken. But as you know, these are juveniles, although we know who they are. The disciplinary or what will become the disciplinary actions are something we will be aware of on a confidential basis because these are juveniles.
Reporter 1: “So the administrators have said there will be some punishment?”
Cathleen Falsani: “They are working through the repercussions.”
Maurice: “Let me just back up and say something about last spring.”
Cathleen: “OK. There are two boys who are involved in this who also were involved in an incident in a classroom with our son racially harassing him.”
Reporter 1: “Also reported?”
Cathleen: “Yes. Not to the police, but to the school [Laguna Beach High School]. And the school dealt with it in what we felt was an appropriate and swift manner. The two boys clearly did not learn much from that incident. Our son has had almost no contact with either one of them since. I mean, it’s a small high school. You see people. One of the boys was, when the boys were little —so in grammar school—they were very friendly. But I’m not friends with my fifth-grade best friend either. Kids grow apart. There was never a big falling out or anything. They move in different social circles, they play different sports.
Reporter 1: “OK.”
Cathleen: “So, that was very distressing to us to learn that those two boys were involved in this again. And, in fact, the one who threw the racial epithet was one of the two boys.”
Maurice: “And just to make it clear, the other of the two boys knew where we live. It’s not difficult to find out where people live, but when you see what the video [time stamp from video at the grocery store] says and they are up at our house before 9 o’clock”
Cathleen: “It takes seven minutes to drive from that grocery store to our front door. They came directly to our house.”
Maurice: “They didn’t waste any time.”
Reporter 2: “So it was premeditated, what they were going to do.”
Cathleen: “It is my understanding that the other boy who was involved in the incident last year, told the boy where our house was because he had spent time at our house a number of times before. So the fact that it was an escalation for at least two of these boys from what happened last year on school property words and some actions, though nothing physical—”
Reporter 2: “You’re talking about the previous incident? It was just verbal?”
Cathleen: “Largely, yes. [To go from last year’s incident] to coming to our home, premeditated, deciding who they were going to target, how they were going to target him, what kind of fruit to throw—and obviously there is a racial component to picking a watermelon that was not lost on them—that is an escalation that is troubling and is also a reason why we are speaking out publicly the way we are. Because history tells us that if left unchecked, these kinds of things tend to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically fine and unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not—who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, and call it out, and try to stop it.
“The fact that this happened in Laguna was, to me, shocking because that is not the quality of the character of this town. That has not been the experience we’ve had living here. We arrived with Vasco 7 ½ years ago only a few months after he arrived in this country.
Reporter 2: “And how old was he at the time?”
Cathleen: “He as nine.”
Reporter 2: “And today?”
Cathleen: “He is 17 today. The story of how we came to adopt him is well-documented. You can find lots of information and I can send you links online if that would be helpful. But he is a very special person. And when we arrived here in this very beautiful and very white place—and I grew up in Connecticut—
Reporter 2: “Equally white—
Cathleen: “Equally white although perhaps slightly less so in the part of Connecticut that I’m from, but still. He wasn’t—nobody wants to be ‘tolerated.’ I mean, you tolerate a bad had cold, you tolerate a boil on your butt. As a human you don’t want to be tolerated, you want to be loved. And this town embraced him and celebrated his arrival, and our family. And that has been, by and large, our experience the entire time we’ve lived here. So to have something like this happen was shocking.
Reporter 2: “Can you speculate to the reason, timing-wise? Is it because they’ve become teenagers? Or is it the political climate?”
Cathleen: “We have no idea, but we are all aware of whatever is happening in the zeitgeist right now. It’s a fairly dark moment for us, and we’re afraid that because people in power and in the public eye who are in positions where they are meant to be respected for whatever reason, whether they’re political or cultural or other reasons, have, of late especially, have been using a lot of language that is mocking, is hateful, is disrespectful. And I think with our children in particular, even if you have people at home saying to them, ‘That is not how we behave; that’s wrong,’ it’s in the air like sarin gas. We all breath it.
“And so who knows? With some of the boys who were involved in this, we know them and we know their parents. And I think it’s fair enough to say that for at least a few of the ones we know, that they would learn this at home?—I can’t fathom that. But we can’t control all the influences on our children’s lives, or what they consume in terms of traditional media, social media. We know there’s a problem with bullying in this country. We know there’s a problem with bullying at this his school. There’s a problem with bullying in most high schools.
“At the time I was in high school (and I’m in my 40s) we’ve done a lot as a society to combat bullying. We’re aware of it. Kids are trained early that it’s not acceptable. We talk about it. We didn’t talk about it [when I was in high school] apart from saying so-and-so is a bully. But it’s still there and it’s corrosive.
“So I don’t know. I don’t know why they did this or why they decided two days after Christmas was the right time for them to do this.”
Reporter 1: “But Cathleen, it’s more than this is bullying. It’s racial.”
Cathleen: “Oh no, make no mistake: this is a racially-motivated hate crime.”
Reporter 1: “The police have yet to say that. They will not say that.”
Cathleen: “No, they probably won’t until—“
Maurice: “I think what we can say is that it is a police matter and I believe—they’re limited because it’s still ongoing and they’re juveniles—but I expect that this will be referred to the district attorney’s office.”
Reporter 1: “They all are. The cops don’t prosecute.”
Maurice: “Well, police can make a decision not to send it over—“
Cathleen: “Or how to send it.”
Reporter 1: “There is a prosecutor who specializes in hate crimes. Has he been referred?”
Maurice: “I don’t know. The boys were just interviewed on Monday. If you take into account that before any kind of referral could be made, you’d have to do paperwork. So I don’t know the timing, but I’m very confident that it will be referred if not hand-walked [to the district attorney’s office.]
Reporter 2: “So they waited until the school year started on Monday?”
Maurice: “They asked us to keep it as quiet as possible because what they wanted to do was to get together with school officials when school was back in session. They knew, because we had told them, of the prior incident (and by ‘they’ I mean the prior bullies.) And people were on vacation. So they wanted to get together with school officials to coordinate it.”
Reporter 1: “What was the discipline of [the boys] in the first incident?”
Cathleen: We actually don’t know. They cannot tell us.
Reporter 1: “Was there discipline?”
Maurice: “We believe there was. This is my speculation: is that it was in-school suspension. But we don’t know that for sure.”
Reporter 1: “Alright. That’s the question.”
Cathleen: “The school district can’t tell us.”
Reporter 1: “Well, ya know, some of that, those suspensions, they does show up in the school board agenda, when there’s an expulsion or when there is a long suspension. They do become public records. They’re never identified.”
Cathleen: “But honestly, we don’t know.”
Reporter 1: “So you don’t know for sure whether that there was discipline?”
Cathleen: “We were told there was disciplinary action taken. We don’t know what it was.”
Reporter 1: “OK. So you were told this by [the LBHS vice principal]?”
Maurice: “It might have been [the vice principal]. If it wasn’t [the vice principal] maybe it was Vasco’s teacher or another administrator, but I’m not sure.”
Cathleen: “I’m fairly sure it was [the vice principal.]
Reporter 2: “Was they told to apologize or was there an attempt to apologize at that point?”
Cathleen: “Last year? I think it was—I mean they were told to stay away from him. But I recall that at least one of the boys asked if it would be OK for him to apologize and we said yes and he did. The other two didn’t, as far as we recall.
Reporter 1: “So there were three kids involved first incident?”
Cathleen: “Yes. And the boy who apologized last year was not involved in this incident this year. We also never heard from any of the parents, last year.”
Reporter 2: “Really? That stuns me.”
Cathleen: “This year, because, like I said, we know some of the parents, we have asked the police and the school to tell them [the parents] to please wait until we say it’s OK for them to approach us about anything. It’s just too soon. While we appreciate that there are people who immediately want to apologize and to ty to make amends, we’re self-caring for our family. This is not ‘We’re angry and we don’t want to talk to you,’ but sometimes when people come to apologize they need more from you than you need from them. And we just don’t have a whole lot of reserves to give to anybody else right now. We will.
We’re meeting in the offices of the church where we worship. We are people of faith. We are Christians (or at least we try to be Christians) and reconciliation and redemption are idea of our faith. As you can see the way we’re talking right now, we’re not spitting angry. Are we angry? You bet. But we’re not looking for revenge, we’re not looking for retribution, we’re not looking for the boys’ lives to be ruined in some fashion, we’re hoping, just as Maury said when he read [his statement], that this is a teachable moment, a learning moment for all of us. But some of these lessons are very painful. This has not been easy for our family. This has been painful for my child.
Reporter 2: “How is he doing?”
Cathleen: “Remarkably well. He is—I said to somebody yesterday, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up. He has these deep reserves of peace and calmness and wisdom that are not only well beyond his years, they’re rare in any human. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has handled this with such grace and thoughtfulness.
Reporter 2: “What was your immediate reaction when it happened?”
Cathleen: “I called the police. Maury mentioned my brother, who is an Air Force pilot, was sitting in the living room. We had just ordered a curry and were sitting own to watch ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ because we watch it every year and my brother hadn’t been here in time for Christmas. We have a sunken living room and we were sitting down there. And the front door is open because it’s always open. And Maury is the one who got up and went to the door just as the watermelon landed. He turned around and said, ‘We just got punked. Somebody through a watermelon.” And my brother and I immediately said, ‘A WATERMELON?!’ I immediately went for the phone. My brother immediately went outside to take a look at what had happened. Vasco was just sort of stunned. He knew that a watermelon meant something different than a roll of toilet paper being thrown at the house.
“He spent the first nine years of his life in Africa, so there are some thing—well, in fact there are many things about racism in this country that he didn’t absorb, thank God—so at some point later we had to explain to him the nuances of the racial connotation of the watermelon. That was heartbreaking.
“But he is—the night it happened, he went down to his room and wanted to be left alone, which is unusual. But he was writing in his journal. A little while later I went to check on him again and said, ‘Are you OK? Can I make you a hot chocolate? I’m so sorry, honey. Is there anything I can do?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t understand why anyone would hate me like this.’ Words a mother never wants to hear her kid say.
“So he, more than ‘What’s going to happen to them? What are the police doing? Are they going to be punished?’ —more than anything what we’ve heard him says is, “At some point I would like to speak to these boys and ask them why they did it.’ He doesn’t understand the thought processes that went behind the choices they made that night.
Maurice: “One of the things we’ve talked to him about is, What is a victim? And what we stressed is that he was a target, not a victim”
Cathleen: “He’s not a victim. Because a victim is something that you can almost absorb into your identity, and he’s not that.”
Maurice: “It can become like a cloak.”
Cathleen: “There is a fear that can come attached to that word that we don’t want him to feel. And we don’t think he does. He is a pretty brave boy. I know [Reporter 1] knows more about his story than [Repoter 2] does, but just the two-cent version: He was born in Malawi. Both of his biological parents died, we believe, by the time he was about five or six. He spent a considerable portion of his life living on the street as an orphan. And he was also born with a congenital heart defect and he was in very poor health for most of his life; and when we met him in 2007 when we happened to be traveling in Africa as journalists, he was dying. It’s a long story and I can send you some clips if you want to know more, but the fact that he survived long enough to make the trip to Chicago, where we lived before we moved here, to have heart surgery is a miracle. His doctors have all said he is an incredibly strong person physically. Even when he had the lung capacity of an end-stage emphysema patient he could still—I remember our son-in-law teaching him how to hit a baseball, and the second time he did (and this was before he had the heart surgery) he hit the ball over the roof of our garage in Chicago. He is a strong human being, and deeply, deeply kind.
“If you ask any of his friends at the high school, any of his friends, anyone who knows him here in Laguna beach, or who has known him throughout his life, one of the first things people say about my son—and I’m not just saying this because he’s my precious baby angel and he is—is that he is incredibly kind. And he’s not going to lash out in anger. And he thinks about things very deeply. He’s not a loud person. He’s got a great sense of humor, but he’s not the class clown. He’s not the one who’s going to be the loudest in the classroom. But he’s been even quieter than usual lately because he’s thinking.
Maurice: “For us, he’s lived with us for almost eight years, but we still learn things about him. It was interesting to see when the police came to the house with the video from the [grocery store] to ask him if he could identify any of the boys, and he was able to identify four of the five. And the detective said, as we were kind of hanging back, he asked [to Vasco]: ‘What do you want to happen?’ I kind of involuntarily twitched and my first reaction was thinking that it was kind of an unfair question and pressure. But to his credit, [Vasco] said: ‘I’m still processing this. It’s too early to talk about that.”
Reporter 1: “Hmm. That’s a very mature answer.”
Cathleen: “It was. And this was maybe two days after [the incident] happened. We didn’t coached him to say anything.”
Maurice: “The way it unfolded, he we were there but we were hanging back. We’d talked to him about what happened, obviously, but didn’t tell him what he should say or feel.”
Cathleen: “And because we wanted the cops to be able to do their jobs, we had to ask him and ourselves to not talk to people about it. So he went all of Christmas vacation as a 17-year-old boy and didn’t manage to blab to anybody about what happened. Toward the very end, he did tell his two closest friends, but not about the police. Just about what had happened. So he’s exhibited a herculean amount of self-control, far more than his mother has. He is an extraordinary person.
“We’re blessed to have a community of friends and chosen family for him, many of whom live here in town. He’s got two godfathers who live here in town and are wonderfully supportive. One of them has two boys who have come through the high school and are just a few years older [than Vasco.] [Father] Lester [MacKenzie] has been a great gift to our family and I would say a great gift to this town and he’s been remarkable in talking with Vasco. For many years we worshiped at Little Church by the Sea and [Pastor] Jeff Tacklind there is a dear, dear family friend and he’s been wonderful. And the friends we do have in town who know and who are starting to hear [about what happened], the support is—there aren’t quite words for how heartening and affirming it is, of many things but also of the quality and character of this town, which was a big part of why we moved here—to live in a town where people know each other’s names and care about each other. It feels like a community.
“Growing up outside New York City in Connecticut, I really didn’t have that. Living for years in Chicago I might have known one or two neighbors’ names. But living in a small town now, where, for better and for worse, we know each other’s names and business, has been, until just recently, has been a beautiful experience.
Maurice: “Can I just say that, if you don’t know much about my background, I couldn’t be characterized as a lifelong died-in-the-wool supporter of police. I work on and write about wrongful convictions and that often takes you into the territory of police who make mistakes, some intention and some not. I’ve never had any dealings with the police department here [before]. But the response to this has been not just reassuring. Detective Cornelius Ashton and his partner have been fantastic. I don’t know if you know you much about him but he is the first black police officer on the Laguna Beach Police Department. Ever. And he has been, just dealing with Vasco, superb.
Cathleen: “Both he and his partner have been amazing. I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, but the first time Cornelius came to our house to talk to Vasco, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. We’ve never done this before, so our living room is to levels—they sat up above and I sat down below listening. Cornelius was there for about 40 minutes and spent 99 percent of that time talking to Vasco about Vasco’s character and reputation in town, and what Cornelius knew of it when he started asking people questions about it and what he learned, and how, as a young African-American man how proud it made Cornelius to know that Vasco has that kind of character and reputation. Cornelius is a person of faith as are we, and he talked about God’s hand and call and essentially purpose in life, and what trials such as these can do to your character, and how they can be used as opportunities to make the world a better place, help the people around you. And none of this was putting any pressure on Vasco. He was encouraging him in a way that I couldn’t believe it was a cop talking to him. It was so far beyond the call of duty, and I mean that in the very best of ways. His primary concern, and we’ve talked with Cornelius now many times, is always for Vasco’s safety and wellbeing, holistically. How is he doing? How is he feeling? If he needs anything, any time, if he just wants to talk. ‘Think of me as a big brother.’ It’s been just beautiful.
“I was a reporter in Chicago, too. I dealt with police too, though not as often as my husband did. I’ve never had bad experiences, but I wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself a fan until now. They’ve been just fantastic. From start to finished.
Reporter 2: “You mentioned that knew four out of the five boys have been identified.”
Maurice and Cathleen: “No, he only recognized four out of the five boys from the videotape.”
Cathleen: “The fifth boy’s identity we learned on Monday and that’s when we realized it was one who had been involved in the incident last year and that was very upsetting. We had to tell Vasco who the fifth boy was.”
Reporter 1: “What about your description that they had gone out to eat together? Where did that information come from?”
Maurice: “We were given that information and that information emerged—“
Cathleen: “From interviews with police and school officials.”
Reporter 1: So the interviews with the police and school administrators? OK.
Maurice: “Yes. That’s the story that has emerged. Part of the story is so there’s a label on the watermelon and I Googled it and it’s a local farm. So who would buy from a local? …
Cathleen: “I called and talked to the [grocery store] night manager (because this happened close to 9 p.m.) and asked if they carried that brand of watermelon. Yes they did. Strange question, but does anyone remember anybody buying one today? Yes. In fact a group of boys had bought what not long before. And we shared that information with police and that’s how they got the video, inside and outside. And it’s very clear images.
Reporter 2: “Could you see, were they laughing and joking?”
Cathleen: “Yes. And carrying it above their heads. And it was from the video that we were able to identify and police saw and were able to identify that they all were wearing various items of athletic team [spirit wear] from the high school.
Reporter 1: “So what, did you think they had just come from a practice?”
Maurice: “No, no. They were wearing sweatshirts and shirts—I mean how bad of a criminal can you be if you’re basically advertising where you’re from?”
Reporter 1: All the LBHS spirit wear stuff? So they weren’t exactly hiding?
Cathleen: “No. But clearly unaware that they were being videotaped.”
Reporter 2: And clearly not thinking that what they were about to do was terrible or worth worrying about.
Maurice: That’s the question. I think they knew exactly what they were doing. They bought a watermelon and they threw it at the black kid’s house. They bought other stuff, which we believe, we don’t know, probably was used elsewhere, because no toilet paper was thrown at us or no eggs or no eggplant. So that’s concerning, but it’s not part of what we’re aware of. So when you take the trouble to do that, and you come straight to the [our] house, and you use the ‘n’ word and an obscenity, and two of them were previously involved in a racially-motivated incident on school grounds—there’s no doubt in my mind what the intent was. Now, they might not have thought it was in league with burning a cross, but it’s an act of hate based on race.”
Reporter 2: “It’s sad that they didn’t realize what they were doing was—“
Cathleen: “It’s shocking that they didn’t realize what they were doing was as bad as it was. So there are differing degrees of who was driving and who threw the thing and who said what.
“But a word about some of the passengers, if I might. You know, there’s culpability, legally and otherwise, on different levels. What keeps sticking in mind, knowing some of the boys, is that none of them stopped and said let me out of the car or said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘This is a terrible idea’ or ‘I feel sick’ or make an excuse.”
Reporter 1: “How do you know that? How do you know that didn’t occur some place along the way?”
Maurice: “We assume that didn’t happens some place along the way because the story is they were all there.”
Reporter 1: “They were all there.”
Maurice: “The story is they were chanting his name as they drove up the hill.”
Cathleen: “And as they drove away.”
Reporter 1: “And how do you know that?”
Cathleen: “We were told that from police and school officials.”
Maurice: “What we have and what we’re telling you is based on what we’ve learned through our conversations with the police and school officials.
Reporter 1 or 2 (hard to tell which because there was cross-talk): I mean chanting his name as they drove toward your house.
Cathleen: What got our attention, because we live in a particularly quiet spot, and it was evening and the front door was open and we’re all talking—who got the Massaman curry?—and the movie is about to start and where is my papadam? And I said, ‘Is that someone yelling?’ It sounded as if someone was having a fight. And one of the voices, I remember, sounded kind of high pitched, which put me on alert—is a woman in trouble? — and that’s when [Maury] started to walk toward the door.
Maurice: I heard Vasco’s name called…
Cathleen (interrupting): And I didn’t hear Vasco’s name. My brother did. Vasco did hear his name called at some point. I just heard the yelling and that’s what brought us out there.
Maurice: “But it was stillt he tenor of ‘VASCOOOOO’, trying to call him out.
Cathleen: But louder and taunting to call him out. So but what we learned after police and school officials talked to all five boys, this is what was reported to them, they were chanting his name—‘VASCO! VASCO! VASCO! VASCO!’—as they drove up the hill, down our street, and then as they pulled away, which is when one of the boys yelled what he yelled, which we didn’t hear.
Reporter 2: “That gives me chills.”
Reporter 2: “I mean, that’s like a …”
Cathleen: “Lynch mob?”
Reporter 2: “There you go. I was going to say The Klan.”
Cathleen: “In a pick-up truck, too.”
Maurice: “It’s a mob mentality, too.”
Cathleen: “I mean it’s gross. All of it is gross. And as we’ve said, this was awful and jarring and shouldn’t have happened, but we are keenly aware that our son is safe and whole and at the high school right now, but there are a lot of parents in this country and elsewhere whose children aren’t, because they have been physically attacked, harassed, killed, because of the color of their skin.”
Maurice: “Again, to stress, we are sitting here now because we didn’t want this to become the subject of over-the-fence, back-alley, gossip and misinformation. I hate to say it but in a growing time of fake news, we didn’t want this to come out in dribs and drabs and in forms of misinformation. So we are here to say this is what happened, please be aware of it. Let’s do something to stop it.”
Cathleen: “Everyone needs to be vigilant.”
Maurice: “I believe—we’re both journalists. We believe sunshine is a great curer of ills if you feel that you’re subject to scrutiny.”
Cathleen: “But also know, you are the only media we’re talking to. I could have flipped a switch and had the entire media establishment descend on this town. We’re not interested in that.”
Reporter 2: Don’t you think it’s going to happen anyway?
Cathleen: “It might.”
Maurice: “And if it does, we will respond. But our instinct was—“
Cathleen: “But this is OUR town. And YOU’RE the media here. If you hadn’t called we probably wouldn’t had called to say hey let’s talk.”
Maurice: “If people are reaching out and it doesn’t take long for word to spread—“
Cathleen: “I mean, how long did it take? Half an afternoon before people started sending you emails about what they’d heard? So there we are.
Reporter 1: “So I mean, as much as you want this to be a teachable moment, don’t you also expect the backlash? You’re calling out five kids as racists.”
Cathleen: “Well, five kids drove up the street chanting my son’s name and threw a fucking watermelon at the front door of my house, excuse my French. I’m not calling them racists.”
Maurice: “They engaged a racist act. We’re not saying these kids are racists. They committed an act of hatred based on race.”
Cathleen: “Vasco has an uncle who lives abroad and is a very wise man. He sent him a note the other day talking about hating the act, abhorring the act, not forgiving or forgetting the act, but the perpetrator—at some point you have to get to forgving them. They’re not monsters. They’re 16-, 17-year-old boys who did something stupid. But it wasn’t just stupid. It was hateful.
“Maury and I are not afraid of standing up and saying this is what happen. The police and the district attorney’s office and the school district can call or categorize it or label it in whatever way they do. This is what happened. Labels don’t do much for me unless it’s a can of beans or an explosive device. I mean, for humans labels are whatever.
“What they did, in my mind, was clearly racist. Are they racist? I don’t think the answer to that question is particularly helpful. They’re boys.
In terms of people’s backlash? We’re not afraid of that and we’re not expecting that. There are always a few people who do not act as their best and highest selves. There are people who are going to be fearful. And make no mistake: there are racists in this town, there are racists everywhere. There are people who are motivated by fear and hate everywhere.
But we can’t let that dictate what we do when we know something is right. And to hide this, to slink away, to allow ourselves or our son to be intimidated, would be the wrongest lesson. And we couldn’t do that.
This wasn’t a decision we made lightly, by the way. How are we going to talk about this? Are we going to talk about this? What are we going to do?
Maurice: “The thing is, we didn’t choose this. We were targeted. And we decided we are going to respond.”
Cathleen: “And this was not a falling out at a party. It wasn’t a fisticuffs in a locker room after a game. This wasn’t somebody was dating somebody’s girlfriend. No. This was seemingly out of nowhere and they came to our home, two days after Christmas, and this is what they did. And you know, people reading this, make of it what you will, but this is what happened.
Reporter 2: It wasn’t at a party. This is more invasive.
Cathleen: Yes. When what happened at school last year happened, we were not happy. And that was the first time anything ‘racial’ had happened with Vasco. And as a white mother of a black child, I knew—I’m an eternal optimist, but I knew—at some point, something was going to happen. And in some ways I think we were really lucky that it took this long. I mean, it could have happened when he was 10 or 12 or 13. Anytime. He’s becoming a man now.
Reporter 2: I thought, how did those kids even know about the watermelon thing?
Cathleen: Isn’t that interesting? It’s kind of an old-timey thing. But I had a conversation with I won’t say whom, but with a friend as is my right in the privacy of her home, and her younger son overheard some of it and said, ‘Oh, I know all about watermelons.” His mom said, ‘You do?’ His mother grew up in the south and she said, ‘But we’ve never talked about it.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s all over social media lately about how all African Americans love watermelon.’ So I don’t know which social media that is or where that comes from.
Reporter 2: There have been some memes about President Obama and watermelon. I wouldn’t be surprised if those have gone viral.
Cathleen: “Lovely. So this young boy who has grown up in Laguna and, whose parents certainly wouldn’t teach him anything about that, says, ‘Oh I know all about that.’ He didn’t know why or what the connotations are, but he said it was ‘all over social media’ that ‘All African Americans are “addicted” to watermelon.’
Reporter 2: And that’s the watered-down version of it.
Cathleen: “Oh believe me, I know. We had to explain the nuances of it to Vasco a little later on.”
Reporter 2: “I was wondering what the origin of that depiction was.”
Cathleen: “One would hope it wasn’t something that any of the children learned at home. One would hope.”
[small section redacted for privacy of outside parties]
Reporter 1: “Would you be surprised to hear about racial incidents at the high school previously, not involving your son?”
Cathleen: “No. We’ve heard from some Laguna Beach High School graduates about incidents that we had not been aware of.
Maurice: “In all honesty, that played into our decision to not stay quiet about this. We have to speak out.”
Cathleen: [One young man] “urged us to do so. ‘You have to,” he said. ‘It’s been swept under the rug for far too long,’ he said. It’s not an epidemic but it has happened and he was aware of it.
Reporter 2: “How many African-American students are at the high school?”
Cathleen: “I’m not sure. We have to look that up.”++
Reporter 1: “How long ago did that student graduate?”
Maurice: “Four years ago.”
Reporter 1: “How many racial acts did he say he was aware of?”
Cathleen: “Three, I believe.”
Reporter 1: “So what does that suggest to you?”
Cathleen: “That we have a problem. And that we have a problem everywhere.”
Maurice: “Look at society. I spent most of my life living in Chicago, that has been and is to this day one of the most segregated cities, particularly north of the Mason Dixon line. Race drives so many conversations to this day across this country. We just had an African American as president for eight years. Did that change anything?
Cathleen: “Even he said in his final address last night, and I’m paraphrasing, but it wasn’t the magic pill some people thought it would be. But it is better. Some things are better than they were 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.
Maurice: “But we don’t talk about it here. You don’t feel it here.”
Cathleen: “We don’t talk about it here because we don’t have very many children of color.
Maurice: “It’s ‘not an issue’ because it’s such a small minority here. A minority of a minority. And that’s driving this, our feelings about [what happened]. Just because it is whatever the number is—10, 12, 25—whatever it is out of 1,100 or whatever the enrollment is. I mean it’s more than just African-American kids who are minorities. There are kids from the Middle East, there are kids from Latin America—
Cathleen: “And we’ve heard stories about kids who are Middle Eastern or perceived to be Middle Eastern or perceived to be Muslim being harassed, about LGBTQ kids…
The idea to pretend that it’s not happening in Laguna because it’s Mayberry-by-the-Sea, and it’s so beautiful and we’re all so happy and we hold hands because we’re hippies—which is how I describe the place often and not really tongue-in-cheek because that’s how it feels a lot of the time.
To pretend it’s not happening here is delusional and really not helpful, and it lets it grow and fester. Is it the prevailing culture? No. But it does happen here and we need to fix it.”
Maurice: “And these are kids. They’re gonna learn. And some of them have not learned, apparently. We can only hope that the learning curve flattens out a little bit here.
Cathleen: “I started to talk about the kids who didn’t get out of the car that night. What’ the quote? All it takes for evil for flourish for good people to do nothing, to stay quiet. That’s what I keep thinking about with two boys in particular.
Maurice: “There’s a line the moving ‘Mississippi Burning’ where Gene Hackman, who’s the kind of the old Southern sheriff now in the FBI says, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ and Willem Dafoe, who’s the straight-laced guy, says, ‘If we don’t, who will?’ So that’s’ something to keep in mind, certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?’ So it’s something to keep in mind. It’s certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?
Cathleen: And obviously we are speaking to you today because Vasco is a minor. He can speak for himself, but we’d rather he not, that’s also his choice right now. He knows we’re doing this and we have his support, and he knows that it’s important to not hide it. And people have asked what might be helpful for him—from kids to grownups to folks on the other side of the world. Just expressing your support for him.
Maurice: “He said, ‘What do I say when people come up and say they’re so sorry this happened?’ and we told him, ‘Just say thank you.’ People want to express their support for you. They aren’t in your shoes but they feel badly that this would happen to you or happen at your home, and they want to self-identify with you. And all you have to do is say thank you.
Cathleen: “We are expecting that we will hear all kinds of support and that, at some point, we might be able to channel that support into some kind of action in our town. Whether it’s something that originates at the high school with other students…We’re hoping this isn’t the end of the conversation. Yes, it’s a terrible thing that happened and we’re exposing it to the light because that’s’ what you do. And at some point perhaps this will transition into a way to make sustainable change.
Maurice: “Kids, people need to understand that they have a voice. They can have a voice. Some think, ‘Well, it doesn’t make a difference what I say.’ It does. It does.
++[Ed note: The latest publicly available demographics say the black population of the LBHS student body is about 0.8 percent of 1140 students. So about nine.]
The following was the statement written and read by my husband, Maurice Possley, about the events of 12/27/2016 to two local newspaper reporters in Laguna Beach, Calif., the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 in the office of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where our family worships:
“On December 27, two days after Christmas and just 15 days ago, our son—and our home in Laguna Beach—were the target of a hate crime because our son is black. He was targeted because of the color of his skin.
“We are here to today to tell you what happened, to denounce such behavior as repugnant and offensive, so that our friends, our neighbors and our fellow citizens will understand that even though we live in the bubble of Laguna Beach, we are not immune to hatred.
“And that it must stop now.
“This is what we know:
“Earlier on the night of December 27, five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to a grocery store where video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items—including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant—to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate.
“Chanting our sons name in unison, they drove to our house where they stopped and called our son’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside and then hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.
“Inside, we were sitting down to eat a celebratory meal with my wife’s brother, an Air Force pilot who had returned recently from a six-month tour of duty fighting ISIS. It was his fourth such tour of duty and the first time he’d seen our son—his only nephew—in more than a year.
“You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.
“On Monday, the five boys were questioned by Laguna Beach police and Laguna Beach high school officials. All have made statements implicating themselves in this hateful behavior.
“We want to praise the police department and school officials for their prompt action and full attention to this matter. At this point, it remains under investigation and therefore we will have no further comment about it or what punishments—legal and civil—the boys may receive.
“We want to emphasize that we are speaking publicly about this matter because we believe that this kind of racist, hateful, intimidating behavior is not what Laguna Beach is about. We are not here to talk about retribution or to paint ourselves or our son as victims. Because he is not. We are not. He is not. Our family was, however, targeted precisely because of the color of his skin and not the quality of his heart or character.
“Make no mistake about it. This was a hate crime.
“We are here to let the people of Laguna Beach know the facts of what happened to us and call upon everyone to stand together to send a clear, articulate message that this kind of hateful act is not tolerated in Laguna Beach. Not because of the color of someone’s skin. Not because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Not because of their religion, their ethnicity, or country of origin.
“Moreover, we are speaking out publicly with the hope that by doing so, we can help stop this from happening again. To be silent might embolden others to consider to commit similar hateful acts, believing there would be no consequences for their actions—that they can get away with it because their potential target would be too afraid or ashamed to go to the police or to call them out publicly.
“To remain silent is to give tacit permission for others to engage in similar corrosive behavior. We will not be silent.
“So let this be a teachable moment for our community. We’re known as a community that not only “tolerates” diversity and individuality but EMBRACES it.
“Let’s embrace everyone—not just those who are similar to us, or with whom we agree politically, spiritually, or in any other way.
“We have to try harder as a community. We must do better as a village, as models of behavior, character, and values for our children.
“The actions of these five boys do not define Laguna Beach and should not. We must have ZERO TOLERANCE for any acts of hate, no matter who the perpetrators are or how they express their vitriol.
“We are better—more generous, open- and kinder-hearted, than this, Laguna. Hug your children. Be kind to each other. Welcome the stranger. Reach out to those on the margins. Speak up when you see or hear anyone being mistreated.
“Love is stronger than hate.
(First printed in the Chicago Sun-Times October 3, 2003)
Is God a Cubs fan?
Arnold Kanter certainly seems to think so.
Every Yom Kippur for the last 20 years, Kanter, a 60-year-old, self-described “recovering lawyer” and Cubs season ticket holder, has stepped up to the microphone at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston between services to plead his case.
In 1999, he published his collected Yom Kippur musings in a slim paperback titled, Is God a Cubs Fan? (Its second edition, Is God Still a Cubs Fan?, was published last year.)
“It’s a question we’re continually exploring,” Kanter was telling me the other day. “If he’s a Cubs fan, he’s probably got a lot of explaining to do over the years.”
“Wrigley Field, it’s such a religious place to be. Where else do you get 40,000 people together rooting for someone they’re pretty sure is going to lose? That’s a real testament of faith.”
For Kanter, arguing about whether God is even a baseball fan is pretty much the same thing as arguing about whether God exists.
How can God not be a baseball fan? Of course God is, he says.
God, Kanter insists, is a season ticket holder at all 30 baseball clubs. National and American leagues.
God’s got great seats, too, come to think of it. And being omniscient, never misses a game.
But how does Kanter know that the Almighty prefers the Nort-siders to the Sout-siders, or any of the other venerable ballclubs?
Process of elimination.
1) God is not a Yankees fan. That’s just a given.
2) God would not be a fan of any team with a domed stadium. Blocks God’s view. So, sorry Seattle, Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Houston and Milwaukee.
3) God wouldn’t be a fan of any team that offends Native Americans. Bye-bye Atlanta and Cleveland.
4) God wouldn’t root for any team that had artificial turf. Ever. The White Sox lose on this point. (Anyone remember the “Sox Sod” Astroturf at old Comiskey?) It also rules out Kansas City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis.
5) God clearly would not be a fan of a new team. If God’s a Diamondbacks or Devil Rays fan, then who did God cheer for before 1998?
Kanter has reasons to eliminate every team in Major League Baseball except for two: The Cubs and the Red Sox.
“Sometimes those two teams seem indistinguishable,” Kanter writes in Is God Still a Cubs Fan? “Both play in great old ballparks, neither has won a World Series in over 80 years, Cubs first baseman Leon Durham blew the 1984 pennant by letting a ground ball go through his legs and ex-Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner blew the World Series for the Red Sox with an error two years later.”
So which is it? Cubs or BoSox?
“We do what the ancients do,” Kanter says. “We look for a sign.”
Kanter says he’s seen signs at Wrigley before. Honest.
“When the Cubs put in lights at Wrigley, it was about the driest year Chicago ever had and the first night with the lights the game was rained out.”
Mmm. Yes. Biblical even.
But God’s not supposed to take sides, right? In wars or on the playing field.
Well, if the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures are true, God may love everybody, but God does have favorites.
Look at the Israelites. God’s chosen people. So why not God’s chosen team?
Actually, the biblical history of the Israelites has parallels with that of the Cubs. Or at the least, their fans.
Both wandered in the wilderness for a long time. Forty years for the Israelites. Ninety-five for the Cubs. But who’s counting.
Both were faithful and believed — for the most part — that eventually, God would lead them to the promised land. (Now, will Dusty Baker be a Moses or a Joshua?)
Both have been persecuted by their neighbors and had some less-than-effective leaders from time to time.
In Scripture, both Hebrew and Christian, God has a clear preference for the meek and downtrodden. Clearly, God likes underdogs.
For sure, God loves people of faith, and Cubs fans are nothing if not faithful. Quite literally.
The Bible tells us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
That certainly describes the opening-day crowds at Wrigley. Even when the Cubbies are cruising in last place, what do the fans say? “Maybe next year.”
It may sound silly, even sacrilegious, to say God could enjoy baseball enough to have favorites. But why not? God is God, after all, and there is nothing too big — or too trivial — for the Creator.
In Christian tradition, there is something called common-grace theology which says, basically, that God takes pleasure in all of creation — including culture — and that all goodness is God’s goodness. Including good baseball.
That’s not to say that God doesn’t also equally enjoy Sumo wrestling, competitive yoga, Greco-Roman wrestling, surfing, bowling, synchronized swimming, or any other number of physical pursuits that can showcase the beauty of the human spirit.
And nothing says triumph of the human spirit like winning the World Series after being perennial losers for most of a century.
So, is God a Cubs fan?
Hey, hey! Holy cow!
To order a copy of Kanter’s Is God Still a Cubs Fan? for $14.95, call the Jewish Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, (847) 328-7678 or go to www.jrc-evan ston.org/publications.html.
It’s been three weeks since I returned from Haiti and a fortnight since Hurricane Matthew made landfall along the southern coast of the Caribbean island, bringing its category-5 devastation to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
And in the time that has passed since my first visit to Ayiti (as they say in Creole), I can’t stop thinking about her.
Not the demure yet mighty woman named Josef, a 49-year-old farmer and mother of 12 from Haiti’s Central Plateau region, who gave birth to her first 11 children at home. It wasn’t until varicose veins compelled her to seek medical treatment at a local USAID-funded Project Medishare clinic that she learned about contraception and family planning. Josef delivered her youngest child, now age 7, in a hospital and then underwent a tubal ligation. Given the choice, she wasn’t interested in expanding her brood to a baker’s dozen.
Not Raphael, Josef’s fiercely bright 21-year-old daughter, whose first child died in infancy, and who now gets quarterly injections of Depo-Provera so she can decide when or whether she wants to become pregnant again. Haiti has one of the highest fertility rates (3.5 babies per woman) and at maternal mortality rate (359 per 100,000 live births) that is the worst on this side of the planet.
Not Chantal, the soft-spoken, exhausted mother of two-month-old baby Jackson from the Delmas 32, perhaps the commune (neighborhood) of the capital city Port-au-Prince most damaged by the 2010 magnitude-7 earthquake. Nearly seven years later, most of the rubble has been cleared and many repairs made in Delmas 32, but we still had to step carefully (several of my traveling companions slipped and fell) as we made our way through the steep-and-narrow lanes to Chantal’s back yard, where the new mom (a beautician by trade) listened patiently as a community health agent from J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) talked about breastfeeding and infant nutrition while our delegation of journalists, philanthropists, activists, and others observed.
Not Destine, the 28-year-old wife of a voodoo priest and mother of four young children, who told us about her plans to have her tubes tied. She appeared to be as skeptical as the rest of our delegation when a community health agent extolled the virtues of what most of us might call the “rhythm method” while her youngest child, a baby boy, napped nearby on a grass mat in the shade of a pistache tree. I wish I’d snapped a picture of her world-class side-eye when a health official mentioned vasectomy as another viable family-planning option. (So far, we were told, precisely one man has taken advantage of the free vasectomies offered by the nearby clinic.) Meanwhile, there’s a waiting list for tubal ligations.
Not the dozens of women—some babes-in-arms mothers, some married, some single, and more than a few young women standing on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood—and a few men, too, waiting in long queues to meet with health counselors on what turned out to be World Contraception Day (Sept. 26) at the Medishare clinic in the Central Plateau town of Marmont, about two hours north of Port-au-Prince. Marmont, where fully a third of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, is mostly unremarkable but for one disturbing statistic: before the 2010 earthquake, the mortality rate for children under five was 187 per 1,000 births—the highest in the country.
Not the scores of mothers with children who lined the corridors and courtyards of the GHESKIO Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Some had come so their kids could receive vaccinations that protect against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping-cough, hepatitis B, and a kind of influenza that causes pneumonia and meningitis. But others had brought their children to GHESKIO for treatment in its pediatric AIDS unit. As we walked the grounds of the hospital, one of the doctors said something that stopped me in my tracks: The busiest HIV clinic in the Americas —in the Western Hemisphere—is a pediatric clinic in Port-au-Prince. Founded in 1982, GHESKIO was the first health care institution in the world dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS. And Haiti’s HIV/AIDS programs are among the most successful anywhere. The HIV-infection rate is just 1.7 percent overall—that’s about 130,000 people living with HIV—but each year GHESKIO’s pediatric AIDS department still sees about 800 babies, the majority of whom receive pharmacological treatments that prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child.
Not the grandmother—or was she the mother—of the emaciated infant in the GHESKIO pediatric ward being weighed by a nurse. She was so thin. Malnourished. Wizened. Just like the baby she never took her eyes off of while the hospital staff dutifully and tenderly administered their expert care. I had to walk away. Too much. Too much….
Not Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps, GHESKIO’s passionate, indefatigable general secretary—the heroic physician who, for 33 years, never has looked away or allowed anyone else the luxury of doing so if she could help it. A native of Port-au-Prince, as a young woman Deschamps went abroad to study. “I returned in 1982 and I said I will never leave again,” she told us, adding that about 80 percent of Haiti’s “trained human resources,” i.e. physicians and other professionals, flee the beleaguered island nation, never to return. “If you stay, you are an optimist,” she said. The optimistic doctor has helped GHESKIO evolve into a center for comprehensive health care—particularly for Haiti’s most vulnerable women.
The Port-au-Prince metropolitan area is about the same size as Chicago, with a population of 2.6 million and no sewer system. Today, GHESKIO is flanked by The City of God and The Eternal City—massive slums that an estimated 200,000 Haitians call home. Deschamps recalled how, as a child, she would ride bicycles with her father along Le Boulevard Harry Truman, a central thoroughfare through the capital city that runs in front of the hospital. “Can you imagine?” she says to the latest assembly of sweaty, well-intentioned visitors to her busy hospital. “How did we let this happen?”
The busiest HIV clinic in the Americas
—in the Western Hemisphere—
is a pediatric clinic in Port-au-Prince.
After the earthquake in January 2010 killed more than 250,000 people, injured another 350,000, and left 1.5 million homeless, the GHESKIO campus became home to a tent city of more than 7,000 refugees. When the worst cholera epidemic in recent history broke out a few months later, Deschamps and her colleagues pivoted, creating a vast community health outreach that went into the City of God where the cholera outbreak did its worst. To date, the hospital has treated more than 33,000 cholera patients and helped to immunize more than 50,000 at-risk residents of the City of God against the water-borne disease. Deschamps’ latest project is a rehabilitation and training program for women (many of them survivors of sexual violence) where they learn an artisanal craft or skilled trade, such as sewing textiles, print making, mask making, and high-end carpentry—empowering women with actual power tools. Her energy and ingenuity, like her stubborn optimism, seem boundless.
As our group left the hospital after a couple of hours, I flagrantly broke two cardinal rules of journalistic detachment: I hugged the good doctor and I got choked up. “Merci, Dieu, pour cette femme,” I whisper-prayed in her ear. “Thank you, God, for this woman.”
But Deschamps isn’t the her who hasn’t left my mind since I left Haiti.
(All photos by Josh Estey/CARE unless otherwise noted.)
The woman I can’t stop thinking about is someone I never saw.
On Sept. 25, our delegation, led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, visited a J/P HRO health clinic in Delmas. Frist is a medical doctor, heart-lung transplant specialist, and longtime champion of health care in the developing world. He was instrumental in the creation and passing in 2003 of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (better known as PEPFAR), a program that has supported lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for more than 9.5 million people worldwide. Frist’s group, Hope Through Healing Hands, and CARE organized our “learning tour” of Haiti. The actor and activist Sean Penn, bless his heart, who spent many months living and working in a tent city on the golf course at Port-au-Prince’s Petionville Club among 50,000 displaced Haitians after the 2010 earthquake, founded J/P HRO, which continues to do impressive work on numerous fronts, including health care—no small gesture in a country where an estimated 40 percent of the population has zero access to basic health care and nutritional services.
While we listened to a doctor at the J/P HRO clinic talk about community outreach and maternal health, I thought I heard a woman cry out and then moan. It was a Sunday afternoon, so the urban clinic was not busy and, therefore, relatively quiet. I kept taking notes and asked a few questions in my limping French. Then I heard it again: the unmistakable, primal sound of a woman in the throes of labor.
I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her.
I don’t know her name or whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl or both. I don’t know how old she is, whether it was her first childbirth, one of many, or her last. I don’t know if she is married or single or a widow or divorced. I don’t know whether she wanted the baby or if the thought of its birth terrified her.
I don’t know.
A week almost to the hour after our plane bound for Atlanta left Port-au-Prince, Hurricane Matthew arrived with its 145-MPH winds and misery, dumping an average of 20 inches of rain (and up to 40 inches in some areas) on an island where everything is unstable, from the government to the actual land itself—given to erosion and landslides after 200 years of rampant deforestation. There is scant infrastructure in Haiti of any kind and the country is still struggling to find its footing nearly seven years after the devastating quake.
The hurricane battered Port-au-Prince, but not as badly as it did the southern coast of the island where entire communities such as Les Cayes and Jeremie, were practically decimated. The death toll from Haiti’s latest natural disaster has exceeded 1,000, an estimated 175,000 people are homeless (again), and the UN says urgent humanitarian aid is needed for 1.5 million Haitians—about 15 percent of the entire population. And as the flood waters begin to recede, standing water throughout the country means Haiti is bracing for yet another torrent of water-related diseases, including a potential cholera outbreak worse than the last, not to mention malaria and Zika.
Back home in California, I’ve watched television coverage (such as it was and what remains) of the aftermath in Haiti. I’ve read the news, the analysis, and the pleas for aid from all quarters. (For suggestions about how and where to donate, click HERE or HERE.) In church and out, I’ve prayed for Haiti, for the people we met, and the millions more we didn’t. The morning the hurricane hit, Laura Sewell, CARE’s director in Haiti, told NPR there were 60,000 pregnant women in the country’s south region alone. “What’s going to happen to those women,” she asked.
What happened to those women? What happened to the woman laboring in Delmas the week before? I’ve sent emails asking after her. So far, no word.
Still, I hear her courageously birthing new life and new hope into Haiti—a place too many people dismiss as hopeless.
And I just can’t stop thinking about her.
Grace comes in surprising packages.
Sometimes grace, that hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognize quality, arrives in a kind word from a friend, an extra week to pay a bill, a soft breeze on a sweltering day.
Two weeks after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, for me grace arrived, unannounced and unexpected, in the form of a jazzman.
It was the first Saturday night after life forever changed on 9/11. People waiting patiently to enter the Park West Theater in Chicago were unusually quiet as security guards checked and double-checked IDs, even for those who didn’t intend to drink. A queer pall of uneasiness hung in the air.
Many of the smartly dressed folks waiting to hear the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling sing selections from his album Flirting with Twilight had had to force themselves out of the house that night, had to take a deep breath, say a few prayers, and put on something festive, even though that was the last thing they were feeling.
Inside, the nightclub glowed warmly with candlelight; a few concertgoers milled by the bar ordering cocktails while others found seats set up clubstyle in the intimate venue. But still, that nasty pall hovered.
Elling took the stage with his five-piece band and played the national anthem.
Everyone stood. Everyone sang. Some people cried.
Then grace entered the room.
“I came to sing for you tonight because someone wants us to suffer,” Elling told the hushed crowd. “Someone wants us to fail—as a nation, a culture, as a people. We fold? They win. We stay home in fear or depression? They win. Culture must continue. Joy must come out. Life is stronger than death.”
Then Elling, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician and all-around hip cat, quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
“We are not encircled by darkness. We’re surrounded by a circle of light whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. We have beheld this glory; it is full of grace. If we were to ask such a God of grace, what do you think God would say?” Elling asked.
His band answered, playing the first few notes of “Not While I’m Around,” a Stephen Sondheim tune from the musical Sweeney Todd.
Strange choice? Listen to the words:
“Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around. No one’s gonna harm you, no sir, not while I’m around. Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays. I’ll send them howling, I don’t care … I’ve got ways.
“No one’s gonna hurt you, no one’s gonna dare. Others can desert you, not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there. Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while. But in time, nothing can harm you, not while I’m around.”
Yep. There you have it.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house, and the pall blew away.
“It was a special honor and a challenge and a service, a moment of being a servant for whoever showed up,” Elling told me a few days later, reflecting on that night. “People needed to be fed. I wanted to make sure they knew that they had access to this other way, that you listened to this music in this other way.
“I do have a belief that what is happening is a sacred thing.”
Elling is a really interesting fellow. A Rockford, Illinois, native, he’s the son of a music minister from the conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.After college, where he studied history and religion, Elling enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Were it not for a pesky German exam that he never passed, he says he’d have a divinity degree. Not that he ever intended to be a collared minister, or to use his jazz pulpit for anything more than singing.
Elling, who refuses any religious label for himself apart from “artist,” is definitely not the Michael W. Smith of the jazz world.
Still, his deep spirituality and religious background permeate his music. Just not in the way you could sum up on a bumper sticker.
That Saturday at the Park West, Elling was funny and profound, sexy and spiritual, following in the footsteps of other jazzmen like Duke Ellington. Elling wove songs about soul food and romantic love in between quotations from the German poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Hölderlin, and from the Bible.
“I think music has this service to play. Most of the time it doesn’t need to be explicit,” he said.
“People will accept whatever information that you lay on them in a way that they’re ready for. I don’t think that it’s about spoonfeeding anybody what the deal is. Part of the beauty of it is the discovery of the individual. It’s a beautiful thing because you’re discovering art.”
And, occasionally, grace.
From GG’s first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
Editor’s Note: First off, please let me offer heartfelt apologies for taking more than a year to share this little gem of a conversation with you. In June 2015, on a Midwestern musical odyssey road trip from St. Louis to Chicago to see live performances by Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, The Flaming Lips, Dawes, and U2 (among others), I had the great pleasure of catching up with two of my favorite people on the planet—Lin Brehmer and Terri Hemmert, legendary DJs from Chicago’s WXRT (i.e. the best radio station in the country, if not the world.) I lured them to Heaven on Seven with the promise of all the cajun food they could eat and a conversation about stuff we like, namely music and all things spiritual. Specifically, I wanted to hear what they had to say about spiritual or religious or transcendent or whateveryouwanttocallit experiences they’d had at live concerts for a journalistic project I was working on at the time.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited gently for flow:
GOD GIRL: I don’t know two people who have been to more live music events than the two of you. And you’re both spiritually bent, though some are more ‘bent’ than others…
LIN: I’m very spiritually bent.
TERRI: Psychedelic, too.
GOD GIRL: Have you had a spiritual experience at a concert or live performance you can talk about and if so, what was it like?
LIN: I can go first.
Woodstock ’94. I’m there in a professional capacity, part of the professional national radio broadcast team. And I spent most of all these concerts in a truck looking at videos of these people performing. But occasionally, in the evening I’d get out to see artists perform. The headliner the last night was Peter Gabriel.
So I manage to get out to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers before Peter Gabriel, and that was fun, they were fine. And then Peter Gabriel came out…and he does all these songs that have this real emotional, powerful effect on me and, as he often did, he ended the show with one song that always lays me to waste. But first he passed out candles—somehow he managed to pass out candles to thousands of people, so there are thousands and thousands of people in this field in upstate New York at 11 at night and it’s just a forest of lit candles. And you hear the strange percussion that just creeps up your spine of the beginning of ‘Biko.’
And I go, oh my God, he’s going to do ‘Biko’ now and I’m not going to be able to handle it. Because that song just destroys me. It was business as usual in whatever room it is in the lyrics and goes into ‘Biko.’
By the end you have 40,000 or 50,000 people all with lit candles lifted in the air chorusing, ‘Biko, Biko, Biko…’
(Lin’s voice cracks with emotion and I get all verklempt here myself )
And I generally tear up when I hear ‘Biko’ on a stereo, but that, I said, well this is a moment that some day I’ll tell Cathleen Falsani about.
(Terri starts laughing)
GOD GIRL: I was in seminary at the time, so you planned that well.
LIN: In ’94?
GOD GIRL: Yep….Lord, you almost got me goin’ there. That song!
TERRI: That song is just amazing. That’s a great story.
LIN: (to Terri) Come on! You can do better than that!
GOD GIRL: It doesn’t have to be a story about something that happened to you. The idea is, is it possible to have this spiritual or religious experience, whether it’s the audience or the performers themselves, and not even realize that it’s happening?
TERRI: Does it have to be live or could it be recorded?
GOD GIRL: I guess it could be recorded. Why not?
TERRI: Because I’ve had many spiritual experiences listening to recorded music. But one that comes to mind just off the top of my head is this: my sister was killed in a car accident more than 30 years ago. A 19-year-old kid. Somebody took my baby—I was 16 years older than her. Just a wonderful kid. Off a college. Somebody fell asleep [at the wheel]…so that’s why I started going to St. Clement’s. I thought, no amount of therapy or anything is going to help me through this. I need to pray. So if I go here for six months, I’ll be fine.
That was more than 30 years ago and I’m still there.
So I was really close with a couple of high school kids there—Lin knows these folks—Erin and Aileen—and out of the mouths of babes: they came to me once and said, ‘We think you should join the choir. We’re going to do the Mozart Requiem and we think this might be therapeutic for you.’ I thought, how did they think of that? I mean, they’re 16 years old. And I said, ‘I don’t have time. My schedule’s really busy…’ And they said, ‘Make time.’ Then they started really badgering me. So finally I talked to the choir director and he said, ‘You can miss rehearsals. It’ll be fine. I understand.’ So I said, OK I’m going to commit to this, I’m gonna do it.
And they were absolutely right. It was the most therapeutic thing, getting up and going to rehearsals for this thing, and understanding the requiem mass and how it reflects the whole spectrum of grief, and how healing that music is. So I did it and it was amazing. We did several performances and every time we’d get off stage I’d go off and find a place and cry. Amazing.
Well, not too many years later then, because she was getting ready to go off to college, Erin was in a near-fatal car accident a block from my house. I’d just seen them. I’d been out on the block at the choir parties. She was DOA and they resuscitated her. She was literally six weeks away from being in college where she was going to study to be an opera singer.
And, of course, she had to change her plans because [the accident] ruined her vocal cords and all kinds of stuff. She was in a coma for a week. And she walk up and had a head injury nightmare for years. Now she’s in her forties…
LIN: I can’t believe she’s in her forties now!
TERRI: It was just really horrible…but she finally worked it all out, and she’s wonderful. We’re still really good friends. She’s a musical therapist. …The moment I remember vividly was she was in a coma. I learned a lot about how to read the monitors and REM and different levels of [consciousness.] You think of someone in a coma as if they’re sleeping but they’re not. It’s pretty chaotic. They have a lot of anxiety and it’s really not pretty to watch. One day I came in with a Walkman—it was that long ago—with a cassette and I had our recording of Mozart’s Requiem and I came in and put the headphones on the pillow next to her head and turned on the Kyrie. And all of a sudden I saw her leaning her head toward the headphones, and I started reading the monitors and she had calmed down. She had a moment of peace that she hadn’t had in like five days. And it took my breath away.I thought it would be a nice thing to do but I had no idea she would have such a physical and psychological reaction.
I’ve encountered that piece of music over the years. One time I was having a hard time. I was in Door county—I was just thinking about this because I was just there a week ago. I was on the bay side and I couldn’t sleep at all. I was having a really hard time. So I finally got up, got in the car, drove across the peninsula and watched the sun come up with the Mozart Requiem playing on cassette—the same cassette of our performance—and I thought, you know what? I can do this. I can get through this.
It was a moment of feeling a strength I hadn’t felt in quite a while.
So for me, sometimes listening to recorded music when you’re alone, even more than when you’re in a big crowd, can either mess you up or take you out of whatever gloom you’re in. Sometimes I find it even more intimate because they’re aren’t any people around. But your story (she’s talking to Lin here) is amazing.
LIN: I think we’ve both had moments at work because we have a very insulated experience. We’re in a sound-proof booth and we can be in there hours without people interfering with us, less so for me because I do have a producer—the pesky Mary Dixon—
TERRI: I love her. She’s the best.
GOD GIRL: Love that Mary. Give her a hug for me, please.
LIN: And depending upon what’s going on in your life, music can really whipsaw you. There are a few songs where it’s kind of beyond understanding, where you don’t know why this song does what it does to you. But you et caught up in it. And you can be alone in the studio with no one else around, and it doesn’t have to be a sad song—like Garland Jeffrey’s ‘R.O.C.K.’ rock anthem that came out in 1980 that nobody listened to and nobody cared about, and I think we’re the only station left that probably still plays it, but I consider it one of my theme songs.
The chorus is, ‘R-O-C-K rock saved me from a fate worse than death.’ It’s a music-for-salvation kind of song. And when I’ve had rough patches in my life or am caught in a moment of reflection about what I’ve done with my life and what I’m doing with my life, and there I am in the studio doing a radio show for literally dozens of people in the Chicago area, and I think, I haven’t played this song in a while. It starts out with this in-your-face piano fill, and it builds. And that first guitar chord hits and I’m like, Oh shit, here it comes. And I melt.
KELLEY: I think it’s amazing when you don’t even know, when it’s not the lyrics. Sometimes it’s just the music, just a chord progression or all of a sudden you find yourself weeping at just the sounds.
LIN: I have explained to people that whatever else happens at my funeral—and I hope there’s a lot of whisky and a lot of beer—but at some point the John Fahey song ‘Sunflower River Blues’ must be played because of all the acoustic, instrument music I’ve heard, that song—it’s almost got an Indian Hindu drone—that song completely takes over my mind.
Because in my mind, it’s very much like the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That has a progression that sounds like a man trudging to the end of his life. Aaaaa aa aa aaaaa … What happens at the end is that the song resolves itself musically baaaa bump bump baaa bump… so there you are, you have this struggle, but at the end of the song it slides you back up again. It’s kind of the same thing with that John Fahey song.
TERRI: Well, you’ve got to carry that weight a long time. I wrote that to Mavis [Staples] once when she was going through a hard time. I said, ‘Well, you know what the Beatles said, boy you’ve gotta carry that weight a long time.’”
You know there’s another piece that has that same kind of progression, Mahler’s Fifth, the fourth movement. I do a lecture series on the symphony and what I do is I throw a box of Kleenex in the audience and I say, take one and pass it down. Because by the end of this, if you don’t weep I don’t want to see you here next week because you’re not my friend.
GOD GIRL: Because you’re dead inside.
TERRI: I’m serious. … It’s not a four-movement symphony, it’s five movements, so it’s not the last movement. I said, usually you can feel the progression, you can count the bars—one, two three four; two, two three four—and you instinctively, physically move with the measures. But with this, it’s more like water swirling. It’s almost Eastern. There’s not that Western, Beethoven kind of thing. I said to him, ‘He wrote this for his wife, who was pretty weird. She was kind of like the Yoko Ono of her time, and not in a good way.’ But I said, ‘He loved her passionately. How many of you have been in a dysfunctional relationship?’ And everybody raised their hands. I said, ‘In the wrong hands this movement can sound like a Hallmark greeting card, isn’t everything beautiful. But when it’s played well, like by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does, there’s a subtle sense of angst and just a little bit of dissonance that just takes your breath away. Because in every beautiful thing there’s that push and pull, a complexity, that everything isn’t just that simple. It’s a beautiful piece of music because it takes you first into this dark place and then takes you out into this gorgeous, shimmering piece of music. I can hardly breathe when I hear it.
LIN: And she’s noted publicly how much Mahler looked like a young Lin Brehmer.
GOD GIRL: Is that true?
TERRI: Yep. I actually did that on a blog. I put their pictures side-by-side and he does! But you don’t live with a psychotic woman, Lin.
I don’t know if these experiences are strictly spiritual or religious or if they’re just overwhelming emotionally or if there’s really much of a difference between religious and overwhelming emotionally, but when my two brothers and I get together at least once a year—they’re all very bad musicians; I play guitar, my brother David plays banjo, and my brother John plays mandolin—and my son Wilson is a very good guitar player. Really the only time we play our instruments to any great extent is at our family reunion and because we’re such bad musicians the only kind of music we can play is old-timey folk songs. And one of the things my father loved beyond all measure when he was still alive was to have all three of his sons and his grandson singing Woody Guthrie songs and singing songs from the songbook of O Brother Where Art Thou? We’d sing ‘one fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away,’ and with my son, who is actually musical, we’d get a two- or three-part harmony going and it was really, for a bunch of amateur brothers getting together, it was really beautiful. And my father would say, ‘Boys, no matter what else happens, when I die, I want you to promise me that you’re gonna get together and sing this song for me.’ So when my father died, we had a little service for him … in the retirement home’s little auditorium with a stage. My dad was a very affable guy, everybody in the community knew him. So it was a packed house in this little auditorium of these old people and some of the family that we had that flew in, and my two brother sand my son on stage singing, ‘I’ll fly away, O Lordy, I’ll fly away…”
And that song now, when I come across it in the soundtrack while watching the movie or hear it someplace else because it’s a fairly easily reproduced song and you hear folks singers play it all the time, it takes me to a very special place.
GOD GIRL: I think the Irish call that a ‘thin place.’
LIN: I love that.
TERRI: What is it?
GOD GIRL: A thin place. It’s where the veil between this and the more, or this world and the next is so thin it’s gossamer—you can almost put your hand right through it.
LIN: Oh yes. That song brings me to a thin place in a small hour….OK. No more crying.
TERRI: Music will do that to you!
LIN: We have based our entire careers on a belief that music can make people cry and it can make people laugh and it can make people say “I’m gonna get through this day because I heard ‘You saved me from a fate worse than death, R.O.C.K. rock!”
TERRI: Radio is a thing where we can’t see our audience so we can’t see how they’re responding. And once in a while, someone will come up to me, like this one guy who said, ‘We were listening to you in the hearse on the way to bury my father and you played “Hey Jude” and that was just perfect.” I had no idea.
And then there was this other guy. I had just played ‘Don’t Give Up’ by Peter Gabriel—
LIN: OH GOD!
TERRI: “—and he said I just want to tell you that I woke up this morning and I was very depressed. I was going in to be tested for HIV. I got up and got ready and I was running early so I just sat there on the couch, zoning out with the radio on. I’ve heard that song a hundred times but I’ve never heard it like I heard it today.’ He said, ‘I had this transformational moment while I was sitting there on the couch listening. And I’m calling to say thank you for playing that, and no matter what happens, I’m not going to give up. I do have friends. I do have a reason to live, no matter how long it is.’
Who knows how long we’re going to live? You don’t have to have AIDS to know that. It could be a minute.
I said, ‘Would you please call me back and let me know how this turns out for you?’ And a few days later he called me back and said, ‘I’m OK. But I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. That song renewed me and gave me a sense of purpose.’ He was just a lovely guy.
I know two people who came out of their comas while listening to the radio and later told me, yours was the first voice I heard coming out, and my friend would put [you on the radio] because they knew I’d like it and recognize your voice.’ The voice is like the human musical instrument and it does have a lot of power.
GOD GIRL: You were on the air, Terri, on 9/11 right?
TERRI: Yes. You were too, Lin.
LIN: I was on the air when it happened.
GOD GIRL: I was driving into my office at the Sun-Times during the hand-off from you to her and you two were the voices I was listening to as I drove down Lake Street into the city, looking at the building ahead of me going, ‘Please God, no.’ We didn’t have any idea how many more planes were in the air or what might happen next. It was terrifying. I don’t can’t remember what you two said, but I do know that just hearing you was comforting.
LIN: Well, that was the day we stopped playing music and we just talked to the listeners.
TERRI: This showed me how weak newspapers can be in their coverage. Somebody wrote an article about how radio stations responded to 9/11 and they said they turned into ‘XRT and ‘they were playing the same old blues song.’ Do you know what I was playing? It was right before we cut off the music. I was playing Pop Staples’ ‘Hope in a Hopeless World,’ goddamit. That was a damn good song to play at that moment, and this guy’s saying I blew it off. He didn’t call me to ask what the song was or if there was a significance to why I was playing it. And, my God, I couldn’t have picked a better song.
So it’s been more than a year since Kelley and Terri and Lin and I had lunch and talked about the power of music and the spirit. After lunch, Kelley and I headed to the United Center to see U2 perform. They played “Gloria” live for the first time in many years. It was the first time I’d watched them up close and in person perform the song that, as a 12-year-old, jump-started my soul and set me on a trajectory that I’m still following today, 30-odd years later. The first time I heard “Gloria” on my friend Rob’s living room HiFi in the early 1980s, it felt like my soul did a back-flip. When I heard it again, live for the first time, at the United Center, my soul did a full floor routine with flips and round-offs and splits in the air, while tears streamed down my face and goosebumps covered me from head to toe.
Frederick Buechner famously said:
Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.
Behold, the spiritual power of music.
Amen and Hallelujah.
My conversation with Terri and Lin originally was meant to be research for a series about spiritual experiences at live music events. Sadly that series was killed before it took off. But my brilliant soul brother Tripp Hudgins has picked up that ball and runs with it at Sonic Theology. From time to time we conspire together on such things, too.
We’d LOVE to hear about your own spiritual/religious/woo-woo experiences at live concerts or in your encounters with music elsewhere, so please tell us things in the comments or send us your stories via email to email@example.com and we’ll share them here in future posts.
The following originally appeared in my debut book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, ten years ago. With the news of Professor Wiesel’s passing today,
I wanted to share it with all of you here.
“What was he like?” a number of friends asked me after my first meeting with Professor Elie Wiesel at a Chicago synagogue a few weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It was like sitting with God,” I told them.
I’m not really sure what I meant, but I was certain of how it felt. I wasn’t being flip. At that moment in time, after God’s children once again had been so cruel to one another, I imagined God would be wearing the same mournful expression as the good professor. Woebegone and shrugging, with an inexplicable undercurrent of hope.
During that visit, Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, author of more than forty books, and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, had told me about how he was sitting in a cab in midtown Manhattan when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He could see the smoke from the doomed towers rising in the taxi’s rear window. His son worked in New York’s financial district, and it would be more than an hour—an excruciating wait—before the man who had survived Nazi concentration camps that claimed the lives of his mother, father, and younger sister would receive word that his only child was alive and well.
“The question that kept working itself through my mind was ‘What does it mean?’” Wiesel told me in 2001, the permanent furrow in his brow seeming to grow deeper as he talked. “What does it mean? Hours and hours, glued to the television. What does it mean? How could some man just do that? … Strangely, I had thought the twenty-first century was going to be a good century, better than the last that was so fraught with danger.” During our brief visit that day in Chicago, we talked about violence, terror, goodness, and God. We both had more questions than answers.
In the spring of 2005, I had the chance to visit with Wiesel again, this time in his study on New York’s Upper East Side. I wanted to know more about his spirituality, how he, of all people, had not lost faith in God or, for that matter, in humankind.
Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.
“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly. “The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”
And yet you continue to wrestle with God?
“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.
You could walk away.
“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not. But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently: No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”
When he was fifteen years old, on May 16, 1944, Wiesel and his family were forced from their home in Sighet, Transylvania, and deported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother, Sarah, and younger sister, Zipporah, were murdered by the Nazis. Young Elie and his father, Shlomo, endured one camp after another until his father succumbed to dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion just two weeks before their final destination, Buchenwald, was liberated by American troops in April 1945.
In his 1958 book, Night, which recounts in stark detail his experiences of torture and depravity as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi concentration camps alongside his father, Wiesel described how witnessing such inhumanity led him to abandon faith. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky … Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes,” he wrote.
Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.
“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly.
“The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”
And yet you continue to wrestle with God?
“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.
You could walk away.
“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not.
But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe.”
His transformation—from a religious teenager who spent hours praying and studying Jewish texts to a disillusioned young adult with no use for the God he felt had abandoned him—did not happen in the concentration camps themselves. Quite the opposite, actually. “My father and I continued to pray at Auschwitz,” he says. “Not begrudgingly. My father and I would get up early to pray, and not alone. There would be a hundred people with us at least. We stood in line in the barracks to pray because somebody bought a pair of phylacteries for ten portions of bread or something from a Pole who had managed to sneak them in. We still stood in a line to say prayers.
“If I could pray there, how can I say I cannot pray here?” Wiesel asks. “For a child, God is a loving God. Later on you realize that God can manifest himself not precisely in compassion but sometimes in punishment. There are two attitudes to have toward God. One of love for God and the other of fear of God. Both are powerful for the Jewish faith. God is to be feared, God is to be loved, and there should be a balance. Not too much of one, not too much of the other.”
After his release from Buchenwald, Wiesel went to live in an orphanage in France. “I tried to be as religious as I was before,” he says. “Later I had to ask myself, Why did I do that? In retrospect I understood why. I wanted to close the parentheses and say to the enemy, ‘You will not succeed. You succeeded in taking my parents away, my grandparents, everything else, even my childhood. One thing you did not take is my faith. It is still here.’ And then came the crisis.”
When Wiesel was about twenty years old, he began studying secular philosophy, trying to find answers to his esoteric questions apart from faith. “I felt that I would not be honest with myself if I did not visit other possibilities,” he says. “But there was never a question of whether God exists. I never doubted God’s existence. I doubted his justice, his presence, his kindness, his compassion, his love, all the attributes I loved. And after a few years what saved me not only from total despair but also from insanity was my passion for study. The moment I came to France, I asked the orphanage for a copy of the Talmud, the same one I had to leave behind at Auschwitz, to continue exactly and open it exactly to the same page where I was interrupted,” he says. “That passion sustains me to this day. I have a passion for study, not only for Jewish studies, which I do every day, but study in general. Plato or Euripides or Dostoyevsky. I love to study. That’s why I’m a teacher and why I have never given the same course in thirty-five years.” He has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University since 1976 and has also taught at the City University of New York and Yale University.
Wiesel says he continues to pray the ancient Jewish prayers he learned as a child. But I wonder if the quality of his prayer life is different from when he was young. “My prayers are the same, but I’ve turned them into arguments. I argue. I argue with God. I never stopped arguing,” he says.
“Basically the same question,” he says.
“How can you allow these things to be done? But I don’t have to go farther. In our tradition, the Jewish tradition, you can say that. The prophet Jeremiah goes much farther than I do. Jeremiah is the only one who predicted tragedy and survived tragedy to tell about it. He says, ‘You, God, killed without pity.’ I wouldn’t go that far. But he says it. ‘You killed without pity. You slaughtered without pity.’ There is no other religion in the world that allows such attitude toward God, such language with God. In the Middle Ages people would have been burned at the stake for less, much less,” Professor Wiesel says. He’s referring to a passage in the second chapter of the biblical book of Lamentations, which, according to tradition, was written by Jeremiah, in which the prophet says, “He has destroyed and had no pity, letting the enemy gloat over you and exalting the horn of your foes … You have slain on the day of your wrath, slaughtered without pity.”
Does God cause bad things to happen to people? Or does God simply allow the bad things to happen?
“I love Jeremiah too much to dispute him, but at the same time, I cannot repeat it in my own name,” Wiesel says. “I may quote him, but I cannot repeat it myself. I cannot go that far. I say maybe God is to be pitied. I had a teacher, a great teacher, who once asked me, ‘Who is the most tragic character in the Bible?’ I said Moses, because he was a solitary leader who had problems either with God or with the people. There was always somebody who didn’t like him. Or maybe Abraham, who was asked by God to bring his son to be sacrificed. Or maybe it was Isaac, who realized all of a sudden what his father was going to do. My teacher said no, no, no. I said, ‘Well, then, who is the most tragic character?’ And he said, ‘God.’”
What does the professor believe God was doing when he and millions of others were suffering at the hands of the Nazis?
“Look, God, by definition, is everywhere. That means he was there, too. So I have a choice to believe he was on the side of the perpetrators or on the side of the victims. I want to believe he was on the side of the victims. So therefore, the pathos of God, the sorrow of God, can move one to tears. Look what they have done, what the killers have done, not only to us, but to God,” he says.
“I am a person who has problems believing, and yet, in spite of them or perhaps because of them, I do believe,” Wiesel continues. “I think the right to doubt is one of the most important rights given to human beings. But I believe in God. In fact, I never stopped believing in God—that’s why I had the problem, the crisis of faith. If I had stopped believing, then I would have been much more at peace. It would have been okay to be disappointed in human beings. What else could you expect from a human being who is the object of seduction and all kinds of ambitions, right? It is easier if God doesn’t enter the equation. The moment you start to believe in God, then how can you accept the world? Do you then accept God’s absence? Do you accept God’s silence? God—why doesn’t he try to make people better, make them lead better lives and be kinder to each other? Why doesn’t he do it? A few times he gave up. But the floods were not a punishment for sins against God but for crimes against each other. What are they doing to themselves? God thought. So he brought the floods. And it didn’t help. I cannot understand two aspects of human nature: indifference and nastiness. I cannot understand. At my age, I should be able to understand. But I cannot. I do not understand. Indifference and nastiness on every level, on petty levels and on high levels.”
In the Jewish tradition, shaming someone publicly is the same as murdering them, Wiesel explains before revealing what he says is one of the great regrets of his life. “When I came here from France, I was very poor. I’ve said in my memoirs there were days when I had nothing to eat. My salary was $180 a month, including hotel, expenses, everything. There were days I had no money to buy bread, and I confess, I used to steal soap from the men’s room at the United Nations. In order for sustenance, I joined the Jewish daily Forward, which was at the time a large Yiddish-language paper. And I remember once I wrote a review of a Yiddish novelist. And it wasn’t very flattering because the book was silly. I regret it to this day. Why did I do that? Therefore, now, if I cannot praise a book, I do not review it.” Nastiness. He cannot abide it.
Nor can he tolerate indifference. He recalls a trip to he made back to Auschwitz. Walking through the town that housed the concentration camp, “I saw four men on the street, one of them a priest. I said, ‘Are you from here?’ And the priest said yes. I said, ‘Were you here during the war?’ And he said, ‘Of course.’ I asked him, ‘Where did you live?’ And he said, ‘That house, there.’ I asked him, ‘Where was the camp?’ He said, ‘There,’ twenty feet away. I said, ‘You could see it?’ He said, ‘Of course, through the window.’ I asked him to describe a typical day, and he gave a full description about the music and the marching. I said, ‘Could you sleep at night?’ And he said, ‘To be honest, in the beginning it was difficult. Then we got used to it.’”
My God. How chilling.
“Yes,” Wiesel says with a tone of resignation, as if to say And not much has changed. “Look at Darfur or Rwanda,” he says. “And suicide killings. The cult of death. They don’t realize that when they’re killing in God’s name, they’re turning God into a murderer.”
Believing is hardest for Wiesel when he thinks of those who did not make it through the Holocaust. Like his father, mother, little sister. And so many millions more.
“Some people speak about miracles. I don’t like them. If God made a miracle for me, God could have made a few more miracles for people worthier than I. It was just chance, luck. I was the wrong candidate for survival. I was always sick as a child, always. And how was I saved? I didn’t do anything. I never took any initiative. I was a coward. I did not want to be beaten. Who knows? And why not others? A million and a half Jewish children were murdered. How many great sages would have come out of there? How many Nobel Prize winners? How many poets, how many scientists, how many doctors? I know now that since I don’t find a meaning for my own survival, I must confer a meaning from it. That is why I teach, why I write. That is why I’m involved in all kinds of human rights activities. To justify my existence,” he says.
“No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”
~ Elie Wiesel
His legacy, he goes on, is his son, his grandchildren, and his writings.
“I hope my son and his children will live in a better world. Maybe to a small degree that will be because of the things that I’ve tried to do. Maybe strangers one day will be in a place and pick up a book because it is there on the table, and they’ll read a sentence, and that idea or desire may help them get through one more event or one more sadness,” he says.
Words are powerful and Wiesel understands that power.
When he was born, his given name was Eliezer. It is a biblical name, the name of Moses’ son by his wife Zipporah. But the Hungarian government, which had control over the area where he lived, would not accept biblical (i.e., Jewish) names. So his name was changed to Elie. “Biblical names are so beautiful and meaningful. Eliezer means ‘help of God,’ and Elie means ‘my God,’” Professor Wiesel says. “There is actually one thing I’ve tried to do; in all of my novels, the name of God is in the name of each of my main characters.”
Elhanan in The Forgotten. “Whom God has graciously bestowed.”
Gamaliel in The Time of the Uprooted. “Reward of God.”
Elisha in Dawn. “My God is salvation.”
Perhaps God is the main character? “He must be,” Professor Wiesel says, his pained stare lingering as he looks me straight in the eye, the silence between us indicating that we’re not talking about his novels anymore. “If not He, who?”
~ NOVEMBER 2001, APRIL 2005
Find a copy of The God Factor book HERE.
While he waits for the Brazilian faith healer to arrive, Paul Simon is supposed be meditating quietly with his eyes closed.
Instead, he’s peeking.
“I want to see what’s going on,” Simon said, recalling his visit to the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola in Abadiânia, Brazil, where, in the summer of 2014, he underwent a “spiritual operation” performed by João Teixeira de Faria — a medium and psychic healer known as João de Deus (or “John of God“).
Eventually, John of God enters the room where Simon and about a dozen other pilgrims, a few lying on gurneys, await with varying degrees of patience, anxiety, and faith.
“He speaks in Portuguese — I assume a prayer — and he leaves,” Simon said. “And then everyone gets up and leaves the room. And I say to my guide, ‘Well, when is the operation?’ And she says, ‘No, that was it. You had it.’ … I felt nothing.”
While in Brazil — a 10-day trip he took at the urging of his wife, the musician Edie Brickell, who had traveled to Abadiânia for her own “spiritual surgery” several months earlier — Simon began writing the song “Proof of Love,” a six-minute epic that is, arguably, the centerpiece of his masterful new album.
I trade my tears
To ask the Lord
For proof of love
If only for the explanation
That tells me what my dreams are made of…
Stranger to Stranger, his 12th solo album, is rich with the singularly vivid storytelling that long ago earned Simon his place in the American music pantheon. He invites listeners on a sonic journey with more than a whiff of spiritual exploration — a familiar theme for careful listeners to his half-century of music-making.
A Half-Century-Long Musical Conversation
Expressed in his music, Simon’s spirituality is experiential, what the German theologian Rudolf Otto might have called “numinous” — it expresses a connection to the “wholly Other” that is deeply personal and awesome (in the literal meaning of that word). In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James might have described it as “mystical,” as in “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge … illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.”
It also is in a sense ineffable, a conversation about transcendent experiences that unfolds as much in the sound as it does in actual words that Simon sings.
Since the 1960s, Simon’s musical dialogue with his audience has been an adventure: through the mean streets of pre-Bloomberg New York City, on a bus across America, with a runaway bride, into the townships of South Africa, Chernobyl, the Amazon, fatherhood, the deep South, the ups-and-downs of enduring love, questions about mortality, and dreams of the afterlife.
That conversation (and adventure) continues with Stranger to Stranger at the velvet rope of a nightclub, with a homeless “street angel,” in a hospital emergency room, at the riverbank, an insomniac’s bedside, and a village in central Brazil that some might describe as a “thin place” — where the veil between this world and whatever lies beyond it is like gossamer.
Simon, who turns 75 this year, hadn’t made the journey to see João de Deus because he was physically ill. In fact, he’s in pretty great shape. But he has suffered from violent nightmares for most of his life and in the months leading up to his unlikely pilgrimage, the bad dreams had become more frequent — sometimes once or twice a week.
“I was kicking and punching in my sleep,” Simon said, “and Edie was saying, ‘You better go down there.'”
Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:
In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)
As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.
Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006
C: Can everybody hear us ok?
I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.
B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.
C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.
How would you describe yourself spiritually?
B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.
I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.
I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.
And that was the beginning.
I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.
And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.
So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.
C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?
B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.
C: What flavor?
B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.
My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.
We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.
So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…
C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?
B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.
But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.
So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.
C: What do you think God is now?
B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.
But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.
If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.
I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’
Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.
I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.
So that’s what I currently work on.
C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?
B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.
She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.
Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.
So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.
We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.
But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.
Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.
But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.
C: I know I wouldn’t have…
B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.
So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.
C: And here you are.
B: And here I am.
C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?
B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.
C: You’re in good company, Bruce.
B: I think so, actually.
But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.
You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.
I don’t know the answer.
I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.
And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.
C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?
B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.
B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.
So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.
B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.
But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.
So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.
C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?
C: It’s a pop quiz.
B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…
C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?
B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.
But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.
But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.
C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …
B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.
But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.
What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.
C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…
D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.
I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.
I’m accused of that.
C: They’re always great stories.
Do you worship? And if so, how?
B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.
I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.
But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’
But I think it does.
C: How do you figure it out, though?
B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.
I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.
C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.
B: Oh, man, yeah.
C: It’s a great story.
B: Well, I don’t know…
C: I think it’s a great story.
B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.
So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.
We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.
And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?
C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?
B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’
The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.
But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?
C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.
AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?
B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.
This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.
AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.
B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.
It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.
AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.
B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.
AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?
C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.
Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.
I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.
So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.
B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.
C: Are you sure?
B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.
Had a ball last night in a far-ranging conversation with radio host Billy Fried talking about pretty much my whole life story, and my most recent visit to Nepal. It’s a long one (81 minutes long, to be precise).
Have a listen HERE.
With 36 hours left in our too-short sojourn in Nepal earlier this month, I yearned to escape the “strange, bewilderin’ time” of Kathmandu and its cacophony of humans, motorbikes, sequined lorries, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, giant hens and cockerels, wandering bands of ill-tempered goats, dozy cows, and incessant beeping that together comprise the intoxicating, maddening heartbeat of the capital city.
My 16-year-old son and I had hoped to make it far out of the city to Pokhara and the foothills of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, but time was not on our side. So we opted instead for an overnight in Nagarkot—a village in the Bakhtapur region of the Kathmandu Valley with what is generally agreed to be one of the best views of the Himalayas (including Everest) in country. If the weather allows it, that is.
Whether my boy and I were able to glimpse Chomolungma (as the Tibetans call the sacred, tallest mountain on Earth) didn’t really matter to me and he was more excited about the hotel pool and hot tub than anything else. I just wanted some quiet, alone time to reflect on our week in magical, mystical Nepal—my second visit to the country I first visited days after the devastating earthquake in April 2015.
Eight of us piled into our friend Gautham’s Mitsubishi I-guess-it’s-a-small-SUV for the two-hour journey (because of the aforementioned cacophony and thick traffic jams that produce much of it) to Nagarkot. Only three of us would be staying the night. The other five just came along for the ride and the chance to gulp some fresh(er) air in the mountains outside Kathmandu and stop twice (TWICE) for the delicacy known as King Curd (a cross between yogurt and custard that is best enjoyed in the Bhaktapur region; it’s delicious).
Of the nine of us, save for the driver I was the only passenger not to feel the effects of motion sickness as Gautham deftly navigated the switchback dirt mountain roads with potholes the size of small caves. (I’m generally a world-class nervous back-seat driver. But not in Nepal. Even amidst the craziness and hair-raising maneuvers, I don’t wear a seat belt. Nobody does. And the more nerve-wracking the driving gets, the more I laugh. It’s an unfettered, I’m-not-in-control-here kind of belly laugh.)
After Gautham, his lovely wife Reykah, their son John, soon-to-be-daughter in law, and chosen nephew Arjun grabbed some lunch on the hotel’s expansive deck facing the mountains, they headed back to Kathmandu, while my son and Gautham’s eldest child, David, adjourned to their room and the indoor pool.
Alone. Finally. I love my friends in Nepal and my traveling-companion child, but my inner introvert—which has taken to exerting itself with greater frequency in my 40s—really needed some solitude.
I placed my overnight bag in my room, grabbed my smartphone and my Canon (opting to bring only the short lens), and returned to the panoramic deck which, much to my chagrin, was occupied by a group of yuppie types from China, all smoking actual cigarettes and talking loudly into their cell phones.
I ducked back inside to find a more peaceful perch from which to (perhaps) glimpse the mountains and, alternately, watch the sunset over the valleys to the west. Three flights up and a few minutes later, I found myself on the rooftop deck of the hotel, completely solo.
I stood on the edge of a parapet and stared east, to where the Himalayas and Everest were supposed to be. I saw nothing but for the terraced farms of the verdant valley and wondered if I was facing the wrong direction. A quick check of a nearby map with arrows pointing in the direction I’d been facing told me that, yes, that was where the mountains were. But they were completely obscured by haze, clouds, smog and/or a combination of all three.
It’s not that I was disappointed or surprised. I knew before we alighted Kathmandu for Nagarkot that this time of the year, spotting the mountains was a dodgy bet. “If it rains tonight, even for ten minutes,” Gautham assured me before he left, “you will see mountains at sunrise.” So there was another chance and even if the Himalayas still were obscured at daybreak, Nagarkot is a beautiful spot no matter the weather.
The thing is, knowing the mountains were in front of me without being able to see them was, somehow, disorienting. They were there, right there, right in front of me—the most majestic range on the planet. But I was seeing through a glass dimly, if you will.
The sensation was strange, as if I were one of the Hobbits standing in front of Mordor just blinking into an abyss of wan sunlight filtered through a thick layer of khaki-colored smog.
A little lightheaded (Nagarkot sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet and I spend most of my time at literal sea level), I sat down at one of the many empty, metal cafe tables and pulled out my notebook, perhaps to write or doodle. After a few moments, I realized I’d been humming a musical phrase from Cat Stevens’ “Katmandu” song all day, so I took out my smartphone and (thanks to the 3G network in Nepal, even at such great heights) found a live performance of the song Cat gave in 1970. Played it twice. Sang along. Then I let YouTube take me, as it does, to the next song in the play list: Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You” from another live performance recorded the same year, a few weeks after my birth.
I found myself in tears. At first I wasn’t sure why, but as I reflected on the lyrics to Stevens’ ballad, I began to see what it was, or at least what I think it might have been.
Whoever I’m with
I’m always, always talking to you
I’m always talking to you
And I’m sad that you can’t hear
Sad that you can’t hear
Now in midlife, things aren’t quite how I expected they might be. My life and my physical person have changed in ways that sometimes bring more than a whiff of despair to my breath, which is, as someone taught me long ago, the truest form of unceasing prayer. There is much in my life that brings me unfathomable joy and I see grace all around me, all the time. And yet, there’s a sadness that lingers in the corners of my room.
Many people I love dearly have passed out of my life and this world in the last several years and I know that mourning is anything but linear. Surely that’s part of it. Disappointment as well. At things professional and otherwise that went pear-shaped and haven’t yet found their original form and maybe never will. That I’d peaked a decade ago and have since begun a slow descent into the never-ending adulthood of blighted hope.
All of that. The tears were for all of that. And still, I saw neither mountain nor setting sun.
So I decided to take a walk—something more than a stroll and less than a trek, even if I was wearing the hiking boots I’d bought before the earthquake last year and had worn (in Nepal) precisely once—that very day in Nagarkot. I thought I should at least try to get them dusty.
The grounds of the hotel where we stayed are expansive and had the feel more of sanctuary than resort. Being Nepal, there were Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind from trees and in courtyards; shrines and tiny temples to various Hindu deities, and brass prayer wheels affixed to the wall every few feet along the warren of corridors. I ducked out through one of those courtyards and kept walking downward until I found a trail that led along the edge of a bamboo forest (at least that’s how I’d describe it) along the eastern side of the property, in the direction of Everest and the clouds.
Lost in thought I walked and looked at flora until the path ended at the back side of the hotel amidst rudimentary construction equipment. I probably shouldn’t be here, I thought. Not exactly what the hotel management would want guests to see. But it was Nepal and the pervasive easy-breeziness of the culture assured me no one would come out yelling.
I walked on, as the path darkened and the pine trees on one side made a canopy with the bamboo on the other. Ten minutes later, after wandering without paying attention to direction or the setting sun, I stopped in my tracks, realizing I might be lost.
It was at that moment I heard Harold Ramis’ voice in my head. Ten years ago, I’d interviewed the late actor-director for my first book and he’d told me a story. Harold was born Jewish and embraced Buddhism as an adult. He described himself as “Buddh-ish.” I loved that guy. Anyway the story went like this:
“Watching other people on their journeys forced me to think reactively about it: Well, what do I believe? You don’t believe in past lives, so if you don’t believe in the continuity of the soul, what do you believe in? I never was able to give myself over to another human being as a spiritual trainer or leader. I could never affiliate with an organization, any doctrinal organization. I could never have a guru or a spiritual teacher because I always believed it was so personal. It seemed to me logically impossible that there could be a concrete answer to a spiritual quest—by definition—and so anyone who said they had an answer was immediately suspect. I’m right now convinced that no matter how much I seek, there wouldn’t be an answer. It’s like when you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
It was that last part that echoed in my mind: “When you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
So I did. On a ramshackle wall on the pine side of the ersatz trail. And another sacred word came to mind, this time from Stephen Hawking who said, “Remember to look up and not down at your feet.” A favorite college professor used to remind us of the same. Look up. You’ll be surprised what you find if you change your perspective.
I looked up. And there, perhaps 100 yards above me in a clearing in the woods, I saw a man praying.
And then I heard faint music. I started to walk toward the man and the music, clambering through a rocky path in the woods until I came upon a house.
Once again, I stopped, worried I might be trespassing, an unwelcome guest and interloper. But this is Nepal, I told myself, and slowly walked toward the building when, surprising both of us, a young man appeared carrying a cup of tea.
“Namaste,” I said.
He bowed slightly, one hand in front of his chest in half of the prayerful posture with which most Nepalis greet each other. (His other hand still held the cup of tea.)
“I think I’m lost,” I continued.
“Where are you trying to go?” he answered with a the kind of genuine empathy and tenderness that is uncommon in most places.
Where am I trying to go? I thought, spotting someone in my peripheral vision. The praying man.
It wasn’t a man, per se, but a statue of Sri Chinmoy, a well-known Indian guru and meditation instructor who passed away in 2007. One of the mountain peaks in the invisible range in front of me is named for him.
“Is this an ashram?” I said.
The man bobbled his head in affirmation as Nepalis do.
“You’re lost?” he said.
“Maybe not so lost,” I said, as my voice cracked and tears filled my eyes. “May I sit down for a minute?”
“Of course,” he said.
I put my head in my hands and had a big boo-hoo cry like I haven’t in a long, long, clearly too-long time. And the kind man didn’t stare or shift uncomfortably. He just sipped his tea and stayed with me, looking up at the sky. I composed myself and said I was trying to get back to the hotel.
“Ah,” he said. “It’s just there.”
Sri Chinmoy’s statue, I quickly realized, sits a few dozen yards away from the hotel’s helipad. I wasn’t lost. I just couldn’t see where I was going.
The sun was almost down and I thanked him for his kindness, and began walking toward the hotel entrance. If it’s possible for one’s ears to come into focus, mine did just then, and I heard the music that was playing inside what turned out to be a kind of ashram gift-shop where the man worked.
A woman’s voice sang the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.
The singer was Snatam Kaur, an American-born Sikh musician and peace activist. I opened iTunes on my phone and bought it immediately.
Later that night, after dinner with my son and our friend, we all retired for the evening, hopeful that sunrise would bring a view of the mountains. I fell asleep listening to Kaur sing St. Francis’ prayer on repeat.
I awoke before sunrise and sat on my balcony alone in the dark, hoping to see the mountains at first light. When it came, I could see nothing but clouds and haze.
Still, the light was beautiful. And I had faith that the mountains indeed were there, even if I couldn’t see them, and that they would wait for me to return to find them another day.
I had SUCH fun talking to Wendy Snyder and Bill Leff on Chicago’s WGN radio yesterday about Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. Have a listen below.
Papa Frank’s “apostolic exhortation” Amoris Laetitia is at times beautiful and challenging and worth a read (all 250+ pages of it). For those of you less inclined, here are a few of my favorite bits from the his “Joy of Love”:
++ “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.”
++”We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations…We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
++”At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.
This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”
++”We have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”
++”Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel…It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”
++”A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families.”
++At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity…We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance…That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth.”
++”Keep an open mind.. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both.”
And in perhaps my favorite passage, which reminds me of a few people I’m blessed to know, particularly this guy:
++ “The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: “Ah, how you will delight the angels!” It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give
freely to them and thus bear good fruit.”
Rainer Maria Rilke would have turned 115 today.
Not sure what ol’ wise Rainer would have made of the world today and its recent horrific events, but I will leave you with his 8th Duino Elegy and urge you to take a few minutes to read it and find somewhere peaceful to reflect, quietly, and look for the light. It’s always there. #advent
With their whole gaze the creatures behold what is. Only our eyes
are as though reversed, and set like traps around themselves,
keeping us inside. That there is something out there
we know only from the animals’ countenance,
for we turn even the young child, forcing her
to look backwards at the shapes we make,
not outwards into the open, which is reflected
in the animals’ eyes.
Free from death. We alone see that.
For the animals, their death is, as it were, completed.
What’s ahead is God. And when they move,
they move in timelessness, as fountains do.
Never, not for a single day, do we let
the space before us be so unbounded
that the blooming of one flower is forever.
We are always making it into a world
and never letting it be nothing: the pure,
the unconstructed, which we breathe
and endlessly know, and need not crave.
Sometimes a child loses herself in this stillness
and gets shaken out of it. Or a person dies
and becomes it. For when death draws near, we look beyond it
with an animal’s wide gaze. Lovers come close
to the open, filled with wonder,
when the beloved doesn’t block the view.
It surges up behind the other, unbidden. But it’s hard
to grasp, so it becomes again the world.
Ever turned toward what we create,
we see only reflections of the open, overshadowed by us.
Except when an animal mutely looks us through and through.
This is our fate: to stand
in our own way. Forever
in the way.
If the confident animal, coming toward us,
had a mind like ours,
the change in him would stun us.
But his own being is endless to him, undefined, and without regard
for his condition: clear,
like his eyes. Where we see future,
he sees all, and himself
in all, made whole for always.
And yet in the warm, watchful animal
there is the weight of a great sadness.
For what at times assaults us
clings to him as well: the sense
that what we strive to reach
was once closer and more real
and infinitely tender.
Here all is distance —
there it was breath.
After that first home
the second feels invaded, and windy.
And we: always and everywhere spectators,
turned toward the stuff of our lives, and never outward.
It all spills over us. We put it to order.
It falls apart. We order it again
and fall apart ourselves.
Who has turned us around like this?
Whatever we do, we are in the posture
of one who is about to depart.
Like a person pausing and lingering
for a moment on the last hill
where he can still see his whole valley —
this is how we live, forever
taking our leave.
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Compassion can be tricky business. It’s a lot like empathy—the human ability to imagine what it might be like to experience what someone else experiences and feel what she or he feels—that’s hardwired into most of our hearts and minds.
But compassion transcends empathy. It’s more than that, and it asks us to be and do more, too. Compassion has a conscience and heartbeat, legs that will march, arms that embrace, and hands that beckon, rise in solidarity, and defend when necessary.
As the Innocence + Experience tour heads into its final stretch, compassion (and its inextricable partner, action) have emerged as a theme that unified fans from North America and Europe.
From the racially motivated tragedies and traumas in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere in the United States and the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the epic strides made this year toward true equality for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters via the Irish referendum and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and how very close we are to seeing the first AIDS-free generation become a reality, each night’s concert stoked compassion and sent it home into the streets.
If compassion isn’t tied to action, it’s little more than an interesting notion. But when it causes us to move beyond ourselves and our comfort zones, when it inspires us literally to reach out—to the margins, to our neighbors, to those seeking refuge, justice, comfort, or grace—it becomes the special sauce (and a tangible sign that the Spirit is in the room and not down to street having a pint.)
Standing in London’s O2 and Glasgow’s Hydro SSE last week, waves of regret and joy washed over the audience as the lads took them by the hand and asked that we recall the “stolen voices,” those whose lives ended too soon or too violently, taken by preventable illnesses, war, ignorance, greed, or the most pernicious of all killers: indifference.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Bono told the audience in London, recalling the words of the late Nelson Mandela.
Bono changed the lyrics of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to include alongside Dr. King and Jesus Christ, precious Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and broke our collective hearts.
Images of bombed out buildings that could have been from Syria last week or Sarajevo two decades past, flashed across The Cage while the band sang “October.”
A few verses from “Zooropa” introduced an extraordinary rendition of “Where the Streets Have No Name” that had the entire Hydro crowd on its feet, dancing, arms (and consciences) raised.
We’re gonna dream of the world
We want to live in
We’re gonna dream out loud
“What do you want?” Bono asked the Scottish audience the second night at the Hydro, an extraordinary show where compassion flowed like lager, filling the cup of mercy to overflowing. “What do you want? A Europe with it’s heart open or a Europe with its borders closed to mercy? I know what I want. A place called home. A placed called home, somewhere, anywhere. Here! HERE! Open. Open people. OPEN!”
As the band heads to Paris and then on to Belfast (for its first concerts in nearly 20 years), before their homecoming in Dublin at the end of the month, the calls to compassion and action feel as if they’re continuing to reverberate long after the U2 crew has left the building.
As Bono said one evening in Scotland, there’s something in the air, isn’t there?
Yes. Yes there is.
Intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes…
I spent the week of Pope Francis’ first apostolic visit (and first visit ever) to the United States following him around Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia for Sojourners. Best people watching week of all time.
Below are links to all of those stories, from newest to oldest. I also shot a lot of photos, which you can find interspersed above below as well.
So, why do we love Pope Francis? What does it mean and why does it matter?
Last year in Rome, while reflecting on Francis’ nearly universal popularity inside and out of the church, one member of the Curia in Rome put it this way:
- People came to St. Peter’s Square to see Pope John Paul II.
- People came to St. Peter’s Square to hear Pope Benedict XVI.
- People come to St. Peter’s Square to feel Pope Francis.
Why do people want to “feel” Francis?
Because he has thrown open his arms wide to all of us, without caveat or exception, and extended the unflinching, unfailing love of God. And because he has broken down the walls, real and imagined, that separate the hierarchy of power and privilege from the rest of the world.
Whether it’s choosing to ride in the backseat of an economy car instead of an armored limousine, wearing black work shoes (his only pair) rather than the finest red leather slippers, or referring to himself most often as our “brother” and equal than as a father speaking to his children, he comports himself as a humble pilgrim who asks us to pray for him.
Francis is selfless in the age of the selfie, and yet he appears to take great delight in obliging requests, particularly from young people, to take a selfie with him as he did outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem last month.
When he stopped the papal Fiat on the tarmac in Philadelphia to greet a 10-year-old boy in a wheelchair, the pontiff didn’t just give the lad a quick pat on the head. He practically dove into the boy’s space, enveloping him in an embrace, cradling his face with both hands, and kissing him on the cheek. It wasn’t just an “I see you” gesture. It was “I love you and I am with you” in 20-foot-high letters.
That, my friends, is how you preach the Gospel.
READ MORE HERE
Sept. 28, 2015, Sojourners
Last week in his historic address to Congress, while expounding on society’s “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” the pope expressed his concern for prison reform and clear support for the global abolition of the death penalty.
“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” Francis said.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
Pope Francis’ focus in both word and action on prisons and prisoners during his U.S. papal visit was a thematic lynchpin in his ongoing pastoral outreach to the marginalized, disenfranchised, and even demonized of society.
Inmates at the Philadelphia prison include some of the most violent offenders, including murderers and rapists. But Francis insisted that God’s grace covers all manner of sins for all of us.
“All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. All of us,” the pope said, repeating the word todos (“all of us”) in Spanish as he pointed to himself.
Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned
Sept. 25, 2015, Sojourners
“Brace yourself, Father,” I said, taking a seat in a plastic chair facing my would-be confessor in Madison Square Garden’s dimly lit Madison Bar on Friday, a few hours before the start of the papal mass.
The bearded Franciscan priest in his dove gray vestments laughed and said, “No way. It’s all fine. Think of it as a big embrace of forgiveness from your heavenly father.”
OK. I tried to warn you.
“Let me see if I remember how this goes,” I began. “Bless me father for I have sinned; it’s been 35 years since my last confession.”
He tried not to look startled and almost pulled it off.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” he said, smiling kindly as he reached beneath his cassock to pull out a small paperback tract that, he explained, contained a list of questions that he could ask me that might make recounting all of my trespasses since the third grade a little less daunting.
READ MORE HERE
In U.S., Pope’s Actions, As Usual, Tell a Richer Story
Sept. 24, 2015, Sojourners
Wednesday marked the first time we’ve heard this pope speak at length in English. It is at least his third language — his first two being Spanish and the Italian he spoke at home with his parents, who emigrated from Italy to to Argentina before he was born.
Language is a powerful medium and in his native tongue(s), Pope Francis is wonderfully articulate — poetic, even. As we listened to him speak at the White House, those of us who have followed him closely immediately noticed the uncharacteristic uneasiness with which he spoke. I couldn’t help but imagine how frustrating it must be for a man who so obviously loves language not to be able to express himself with his usual playfulness and nuance.
Some commentators have said they thought the pope looked uncomfortable, even angry as he listened to Obama’s address Wednesday on the south lawn of the White House. He sat nearly motionless with a rather dour expression. But I don’t think he was annoyed or uneasy. I think he was concentrating on understanding what the president was saying. It’s his “resting pope face,” if you will.
Reportedly, Pope Francis has spent many months boning up on his English in advance of his first visit to the United States. Learning a new language is never easy, and English can be especially challenging. Can you imagine tackling English’s implausible spelling and grammar in your late 70s?
You might pull a face, too.
First Impressions: Pope Francis Arrives in the United States
Sept. 22, 2015, Sojourners
As Pope Francis’ motorcade made its way from the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., late Tuesday afternoon, it made a hard left from scenic Rock Creek Parkway onto Massachusetts Avenue, wending its way northwestward at a fast clip along the manicured thoroughfare known as Embassy Row.
Riding in the passenger-side back seat of his tiny, black Fiat 500L, the 78-year-old pontiff leaned his body toward the open window, stuck his arm out, turned his smiling face toward the street, and waived at the modest clutches of pedestrians law enforcement had allowed to stand along the sidewalk to greet him as he whizzed by.
Along the way, Francis passed dozens of embassies representing nations from six of the world’s seven continents, a group of school kids with signs that read “Te Queremos Papa!,” and one lemonade stand where three boys from the neighborhood were selling cold drinks for $1.50 a cup.
(No, the pope didn’t stop the motorcade to buy a drink and a cookie. But he might have — he’s been known to make such unscheduled stops to visit with regular folks, the kind in whose company he seems far more comfortable than he does hobnobbing with heads of state or captains of industry. )
The pope rode past the South African embassy with its statue of Nelson Mandela, right arm raised in a fist of solidarity, out front — and then, almost directly across the street, the hulking statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill raising two fingers in a peace sign (or to hail a cab) at the southernmost end of the British Embassy’s sprawling grounds.
The Mandela and Churchill statues almost high-five each other across Massachusetts Avenue while the pope’s humble hatchback, surrounded by massive Secret Service SUVs and swarms of police motorcycles, passed beneath their outstretched arms.
I wonder if Francis noticed the statues, and thought of the men — so different from one another, but each remembered as a hero — and wondered what his own place in history might be.
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~ Bernadette Peters as the Muse in Woody Allen’s Alice
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