“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 little blue-hippie 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 after 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.
@pattonoswalt 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.
BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:
“The Face of God.”
Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.
The Bible even tells us so.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27
When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.
Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.
That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.
Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.
Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)
Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.
That was the challenge posed by Larry Smith and Tim Barkow, founders of SMITH magazine, back in 2006. They took their cue from a literary legend about Ernest Hemingway who is said to have, as the answer to a bet, written a six-word short story: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
A few weeks ago, the folks at the ONE campaign — the international non-profit grassroots organization, co-founded by Bono of U2, that aims to mobilize supporters to work against extreme poverty and global disease — asked me to write a six-word story about motherhood.
As part of its new campaign to empower women worldwide (70 percent of the 1.8 billion people living in extreme poverty are women), Women ONE2ONE, ONE commissioned a few prominent women — actors, artists, advocates, politicians, business leaders, philanthropists and the odd ink-stained wretch — to write a six-word story, a la SMITH magazine, about mothers.
Yikes, I thought. I’m a novice at this whole mommy-hood thing. I’m not sure if I’m fully qualified.
I’ve been a mother for just a year now. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 2009 when my son, Vasco, then a terribly sick, not-yet-10-year-old African orphan we had helped bring to the States for life-saving open-heart surgery, climbed onto my lap, for the first time, in the middle of a church service and fell asleep.
Vasco chose me, even though I didn’t realize it in those emotional moments, mid-sermon, tears pouring down my face. Only in hindsight did I understand that it was precisely then that I became a mother for the first time.
Surprised by motherhood, you might say. I’m still surprised, reeling and indescribably honored by the 180-degree turn the trajectory of my life took last year.
My own mother, thankfully, is still with me and, in her late 70s, fiercer than ever. In crafting my six-word story, I thought about her and the other women who have mothered me throughout my life. And then I examined my own, wobbly-kneed foray into motherhood and all that I’ve learned about being someone’s Mom.
Here’s what I came up with:
“Agape dispenser, grace holder, fiercest advocate.”
Motherhood and grace are inextricably intertwined in my mind. A wonderfully wise man told me, while we were discussing grace a few years back, that many of us first experience God’s grace—that unearnable gift of unlimited, unmerited love, compassion and mercy—through our mothers.
We see grace first in our mother’s loving gaze. Agape is the Greek word for unconditional love and although mothers aren’t the creators of grace, we are, in a very tangible sense, its dispensers. Grace moves through us.
Not long ago, I asked another wise soul, the author and mother Annie Lamott, if she thought we could be grace for another person. She thought for a moment and answered, “I think we can hold space for one another.”
In that sense, I believe I held space in my heart for the child that would become my son until he arrived. I hold space for him still —grace space—for untold lessons learned, challenges met, and hurdles soared over—until he’s ready to move into them. It’s what mothers have done throughout human history; part of the job description.
Fierceness is the first quality that comes to mind when I think of mothers. I was blessed with a mother who is unfailingly fierce in her love for my brother and me and, now, her grandson. She is like Esther, the wily and faithful queen from Hebrew scripture. Daring. Brave. Wise. Strong. Dangerous, in the best sense of that word. And she, like Esther, is an advocate for her tribe and beyond, giving a booming, unwavering voice to the voiceless.
ONE has invited mothers and children around the globe to write their own six-word stories about motherhood at http://www.one.org/women/sixwords. By Wednesday morning, nearly 6,000 stories had been posted on the site.
This Mother’s Day, take a few minutes to craft your own story and lend your voice to a creative effort to empower, embolden and elevate women worldwide.
In the words of another ONE six-word author, Pam Cope, co-founder of the Touch A Life Foundation for exploited children:
“End poverty? Empower moms globally. Solved.”
HAM OF GOD:
ANNIE LAMOTT AND HER P-POPPERY IN OAK PARK
This is a clip from when Annie was in my village (Oak Park) a few months back to read from her latest, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I missed her when she was here as I was out of town flogging my own book (which you can still buy everywhere, including AMAZON — and please do, because every copy I sell is one step closer to the kids at Chisomo in Malawi getting more dough from me, which, frankly, apart from the generous people who have written to tell me how they’ve been touched by something someone said in The God Factor, has been the best part of this whole book-writing experience.)
Also, the “Annie Is My Pastor: Just Jesusy” t-shirts (the small percentage of the proceeds from the sale of which I receive go straight to Chisomo) are still available HERE
But anywhoo, back to Annie:
Oh, this woman. She has a gift. And I’d still like to be her when I grow up — some dayyyyyyyy.
In the meantime, I read and reread, listen and watch when I can, and give thanks.
Happy Sunday, kids.
For me, at least.
It’s almost always an appropriately cloudy, brooding day, as if the weather is setting the mood for what is, for many Christians, the most somber of days.
It’s the one day a year I know, with absolute certainty, that I am a complete and utter asshat.
The day to recall all the horrendous things I’ve done and do on a regular basis. Terrible, toe-curlingly uncharitable thoughts and deeds. Callous antipathy, more often than not, for the rest of the human race.
The lowlights of my life.
It’s the day I’m sure it’s all my fault. That I am a failure. That I’ve sinned and fallen short of the glory, if you will. That I must repent my evil ways.
Other religions have similar days or times set apart for serious reflection on the condition of our souls. For the Jewish people, it is Yom Kippur, a day of atonement for the sins committed in the previous year. For Muslims, it is Ramadan, 40 days of fasting, abstinence and prayer observed each year to commemorate the time their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
In the Christian tradition, there’s Lent, culminating in Good Friday, the day the Bible says Jesus atoned for the sins of the world by dying on the cross. (See the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John for more details, or “The Passion of the Christ” for a synopsis.)
In theory, all of Lent is supposed to lend itself to deep spiritual reflection. But Good Friday is the day my audit report arrives from the Eternal Revenue Service.
And it’s not pretty.
Most distressing is the realization of just how unforgiving I can be, how ungracious and unloving. Toward the people I love, and especially toward a few folks I don’t. (That “love your enemies” bit trips me up every time.)
As far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this annual exercise of lamenting the human condition in general, and my own in particular.
There are liturgies and, some might say, even entire religious traditions built around it. Books and music have been written about it, and art made to reflect its anguish.
A lot of people ask me what I turn to for guidance and inspiration this time of the year. (I’m no spiritual savante, so perhaps they ask me because I go to churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc. for a living. Who knows?)
I tell them that since 1999, when it was first published, I’ve read and reread Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith just about every Lent. In ways big and small, her thoughts on faith transformed the way I see myself, my spirit, the world. And God.
Over the years, I’ve bought at least a half-dozen copies of Traveling Mercies, but they always seem to walk off in someone else’s hands. It’s that kind of book.
If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. Lamott, a recovering everything, is inspiring with her stunning feats of boundless humanity and reckless leaps of faith. She’s my hero.
Last week, Lamott, who described herself as “a big ole lefty and a big ole Christian,” was in town for a reading and lecture at Chicago’s North Park University, a Christian college associated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, where Traveling Mercies is required reading for every student as part of the core curriculum.
At the college, Lamott spoke, variously, about faith, forgiveness, parenting, hiking regime change, Jesus and George Bush.
Everybody has those somebodies in their life that just make it difficult to do the right thing and nearly impossible to do the loving thing. The Difficult Ones.
For Lamott, it’s George W. Bush and his administration.
She has a hard time loving the president, she said, especially because Bush and many of his cronies are Christians. Just like her.
“I’m doing whatever I can that I think would not horrify Jesus,” she told the North Park crowd, referring to her opposition of all things Bush. “I just want to be one of the people who’s not a right-wing fundamentalist who totally loves Jesus.
“I think that there’s nothing that can separate us from God’s love and there’s nothing that is so awful and heinous and barbaric and evil that would have Jesus just go, ‘Oh, forget it,’ and stomp off,” she said.
Not even right-wing conservative Christians who have “stolen the Bible” or the architects of a war based on a lie that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, she said.
Earlier this week, as I picked up Traveling Mercies again, I had a conversation with Lamott (via e-mail because we’re both better with a computer keyboard than with a phone) about what was on her mind as she stared down Good Friday.
“On Good Friday, I have to think doubly hard about the resurrection, because if it is not true, then we are all going tourist class, and it is all truly hopeless,” Lamott was telling me.
“I do believe in the resurrection, and I have had my own resurrection story, and know many, many people who have, too — the end of the light, the end of all sanity and good ideas, and hope. And then grace steps in — and for some of us, this came as Jesus, and for other people, it came in other direct experiences of Divine Love — and salvation and redemption are jiggled out of the dark, brutal, hungry world.
“I thank God that Jesus seems to have such low standards that people like me are welcomed into the kingdom, and entrusted with his love, to share with others, as others have so freely shared with us.
“I try to keep things really shallow; I understand about as much as is in the songs we sing with our kids on Sunday: Jesus died, and rose from the dead, for me, and for Donald Rumsfeld and Karen Hughes. Go figure.”
She and Bush and everyone else in the world are suffering from the same “sickness in us that is fatal and progressive and disgusting,” Lamott said. Humanness.
“Inside, I’m just as capable of any madness or egotism that Bush has displayed,” she said, explaining that she feels sorry for him and empathizes to a certain extent. “But mostly I hate George Bush.”
“I am a bad Christian,” Lamott continued, echoing my own thoughts. “And Jesus is so sweet and kind. I think he watches me, and knows the inside of my heart and loves me anyway, and I guess — urrrr — he feels the same way about Bush and Cheney.”
So it seems.
Maybe on this bad day called Good, we’ll both find the courage to love The Difficult Ones in time for Easter, and pick up some traveling mercies for the coming year.