Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Heartbreaking Conclusions" on Memorial Day

Anthony Martini of Chicago mourns his brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Philip Martini, at a Memorial Day weekend display in the city’s Grant Park, where 3,400 pairs of combat boots representing the U.S. military death toll in Iraq covered an area the size of two football fields.

Cindy Sheehan, the California Catholic mom, who became "the face of the American anti-war movement" after her 24-year-old son Casey , a former altar boy, was killed in Baghdad, announced on Memorial Day that she had come to some "heartbreaking conclusions."

"Good-bye America," she said, in what she described as a "resignation letter" in her online blog. "You are not the country that I love and I finally realized no matter how much I sacrifice, I can't make you be that country unless you want it." She concluded: "It's up to you now."

Sheehan did not go gently into the dark night of retirement. Casey, she said, "did indeed die for nothing...killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think." The final straw for her was seeing the Democrats cave in to George Bush. Rather than sacrificing his life for a cause, Sheehan said he died for a country that "cares more about who will be the next American idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives."

Sheehan did not fade away like an old soldier. Criticizing blind party loyalty on whichever side, she called the current two-party system "corrupt" and said it was sliding, without checks and balances, into a "fascist corporate wasteland."

Camp Casey, which she established two years ago down the road from the President's home, is up for sale. Sheehan, whose 29-year-marriage ended during her crusade, said she was going home "for awhile to try and be normal."

Cindy Sheehan was not the only parent to publicly mourn their loss on Memorial Day with strong words for the government responsible for their death. Andrew Bacevich, a historian at Boston University, writes in the Washington Post a heartbreaking account about his son who died two weeks ago after a suicide bomb explosion in Iraq. Bacevich has been an outspoken critic of George Bush and the Iraq war. Describing himself as a Catholic conservative when he first began his career as a public intellectual, Bacevich writes that he "genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond. This, I can now see, was an illusion."
The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."
After his son died, Bacevich's state senators Kennedy and Kerry telephoned their condolences. His congressman attended the wake and Kerry the funeral mass. Such gestures were appreciated. "But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff," Bacevich writes. "More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don't blame me."
To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove -- namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.

Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought.

Like Sheehan, Bacevich is fed up with politics as usual. "Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels...It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent." This is not some great conspiracy, Bacevich concludes; it is the way our system works.

Two columnists in the New York Times, writing over the weekend, had equally critical comments about the system that would allow Bush & Company to ride roughshod over American democracy. "The nightmare of the Bush years won't really be over," declares Paul Krugman, " until politicians are convinced that voters will punish, not reward, Bush-style fear-mongering. And that hasn't happened yet."

Despite the voice of the voters last November, Congress seems powerless to stop the epic disaster that is Iraq. Krugman quotes outlandlish lies about Iraq from Republic presidential hopefuls Giuliani, Romney and McCain who hope to portray the Democrats as being weak on terrorism and not supporting the troops. Bush resurrects Osama as the demon to be defeated, neglecting to admit that he had nothing to do with Saddam, the how deceased demon.

"Until belligerent, uninformed posturing starts being treated with the contempt it deserves," writes Krugman, "men who know nothing of the cost of war will keep sending other people's children to graves at Arlington," the sons of Sheehan and Bacevich among them.

Frank Rich, another voice of reason in the Times, wrote last Sunday about the hypocrisy of blaming the victim in Iraq. Bush & Company claim to have brought freedom and democracy to Iraq, and now that the occupation is going badly, "the war's dead-enders are pinning the fiasco on the Iraqis themselves."
Iraqis are clamoring to get out of Iraq. Two million have fled so far and nearly two million more have been displaced within the country. (That’s a total of some 15 percent of the population.) Save the Children reported this month that Iraq’s child-survival rate is falling faster than any other nation’s. One Iraqi in eight is killed by illness or violence by the age of 5. Yet for all the words President Bush has lavished on Darfur and AIDS in Africa, there has been a deadly silence from him about what’s happening in the country he gave “God’s gift of freedom.”
Calling it the worst humaitarian crisis in the Middle East since 1948, Rich points out how the doors to our country have been shut to escaping Iraqis, just as the Jews were denied admittance even when the Holocaust was known. Thousands of Iraqis who have worked for our side (5,000 as interpreters alone) have "an assassin's bull's-eye on their backs," in Sen. Kennedy's phraseology, but only 69 have been given sanctuary here in the last seven months. Recently Congress voted to admit another 500 this year.

The administration's assistant secretary in charge of refugees at the State Department, Rich tells us, "is a twice-defeated Republican candidate for governor of Maryland with no experience in humanitarian crises but a hefty resumé in anti-abortion politics. She is to Iraqis seeking rescue what Brownie was to Katrina victims stranded in the Superdome."

Bush's position is that it's the Iraqis fault, a "blame and run" policy Zbigniew Brzezinski called it. "The Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude," the President said, and wondered aloud "whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq." Neocon cheerleader Charles Krauthammer wrote: "We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war." Bad Iraqis, bad Iraqis.

The message is clear, Rich writes. "These ungrateful losers deserve everything that's come to them. The Iraqis hear us and are returning the compliment...The American-Iraqi shotgun marriage of convenience, midwifed by disastrous Bush foreign policy, has disintegrated into the marriage from hell. While the world waits for the White House and Congress to negotiate the separation agreement, the damage to the innocent family members caught in the cross-fire is only getting worse." This is not a metaphor to Sheehan and Bacevich.

We had our own Memorial Day celebration in Santa Cruz yesterday. Organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, with help from a variety of peace organiztios including Pax Christi and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom," several hundred residents, wearing mostly white or black and carrying flowers, gathered in Mission Plaza under foggy skies for a Silent Memorial Peace Walk. The ecumenical gathering including representatives from many faith traditions -- Catholic and Protestants, Hindus and Buddhist, Muslim and Jew, Unitarian and Quaker, as well as secularists and even atheists. Carrying Buddhist prayer flags, banners and flags, the group walked three abrest down Pacific Avenue to Cathcart and back up the other side, communicating its respect for the dead, from every side in war, with its silence. At the top of Pacific, the left their flowers in front of the War Memorial which was built in the 1920s to commemorate the dead from World War One, the "war to end all wars." Tourists who had come to celebrate another holiday in the stores and on the beach were given something else to think about. Returning back to Mission Plaza, representatives from different religious and peace groups read the names of Iraqis and local residents killed in the Iraqi tragedy to the ringing of a meditation bell, against the backdrop of a huge scroll 250 feet long depicting symbolically the names of 66,000 Iraqis killed in the war (even at that, an absurdly low number). They included Basma Zaha, aPalestinian Muslim woman from Watsonville (see the photo above), Ann Simonton of Women in Black, April Burns from the GI Rights Hotline, Nancy Abbey, of Women's International League for Peace & Freedom, Father Joel Miller, Episcopal priest from Calvary Episcopal Church, Reb Chaim Leib (Howie Schneider) of Chadeish Yameinu, Jewish Renewal Community of Santa Cruz, and Mel Nunez from Pax Christi.

My friends, these are perilous times and no amount of spinning and pontificating will make the significance any less. The barbarians are within the gates, and there is no savior atop a white horse on the horizon ready to make it all better. We may indeed be living during the last days of the decline and fall of the American Empire. My current personal solution for this disaster is to cut and run, to fly off to Thailand where I will live in exile, scanning the web for the latest bad news. I will not forget you, but I can no longer play fiddle on the deck of the Titanic. Will more ceremonies like the above, more vigils, more protests, keep the ship afloat? I wish I believed in them, but my political faith now is as fragile as my religious. The ship, my friends, is sinking. Prudence rather than prayer seems appropriate to me.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Gift That Must Be Given Away

Today in the Christian calendar is Pentecost, the commemoration of the gift of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. As lector at the 8:30 mass this morning, I read the passage from Acts of the Apostles which describes the descent of the Spirit:
They were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues of of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus appears to his disciples after the crucifixion, and tells them that "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you."

Something happened to the followers of Jesus after his death in Palestine two millennia ago. They tried to explain it with stories that were poetic mixtures of analogy and metaphor rather than factual reports. These stories were written down a generation later and today the various Christian churches largely treat them as descriptive and historical.

The priest today spoke to us as if we were in agreement that all this rhad eally happened exactly as the words say. "You will never be alone," he told us, "because the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, was given to us by God at Pentecost." The assembled congregation, many of whom wore red, the liturgical color of Pentecost (under my red shirt I wore the black "Heretics: In Good Company" tee shirt which includes the name of Jesus), understood by this that the Spirit, one person of the Trinity, is essentially co-equal with God and Christ. To have one is to have the other. They perhaps found this a comforting thought, that God=Christ=Spirit is always with us, an beneficent imaginary friend, so to speak.

In my new role as a recovering theist and Roman Catholic, I did not find this explanation at all helpful. It was aimed at the priest's listeners, faithful Catholics who come to mass on Sundays to hear the word of God and partake in the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine magically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. They would leave the church certain that they had done the right thing by participating in the weekly ritual of story, song and communion.

I've never really understood the doctrine of the Trinity or why God must be "three who are one in heaven," as we recite at the Hermitage. Of the three, however, I am most drawn to the Holy Spirit, or the "Holy Ghost" as some churches say. In my current understanding of the ultimate mystery, I believe all humans, perhaps all of creation, contains the divine spark, and this I can identify with the Spirit. I think Jesus exemplified this to his followers, but he meant to show them that we were all divine, Gentile and Jew, man and woman, free and enslaved. He never meant to say that he was the only Son of God.

And just as this Spirit is given to us, by birthright and only symbolically confirmed by baptism (at least in the Christian understanding), we are meant ourselves to give it away through service and love to others. The divine is not separate from creation but totally implicated in it. We express this by saying that we are the hands of God. Only through us can God act. And in acts of justice and love between human beings, God comes to be, by co-creation.

What was missing from the Pentecost homily this morning was a coherent explanation of the response we must make to the gift of the Holy Spirit. While the priest did speak of the air that grows stale in a bottle when it is not shared, he did not explain how we can pass the Spirit on to others through justice and mercy. By comforting us with the information that none of us is alone because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, he neglected to impress on us that the Good News does not happen in a vacuum.

There is entirely too much comfort being given in churches. We should be discomforted by the realization that sitting on our asses in the pews feeling good is not enough. We must be alert to the needs of others, all of them. Jesus broke down all barriers between human beings, including the walls between religions and sects. As long as people are dying from hunger and disease, and from violence in wars, justified or not, we should feel uncomfortable. When we sit silently in church, humbling receiving our weekly spiritual fill-up, the divine spark within us is dim, nearly extinguished. We must fan the flames by our actions, not by nice comforting thoughts and habitual rituals.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift that must be given away, and only by giving can we continue to receive.

Of course, this is only a Christian perspective, using language and stories with which I am somewhat familiar. I have no doubt that a similar explanation for the presence of the divine within, and how we must form communities of justice and mercy, can be given by all the other religious traditions.

Here is what Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, a persuasive spokesperson for peace and justice issues, says about other traditions in the June issue of that fine magazine, The Sun:

At the very end of an interview with her, after the writer asks her, "What's the biggest personal question for you now?", Sr. Joan replies:
That would be something like: In what way do all the great spiritual traditions of the globe intersect and require the presence of all the others? What great gifts do we each bring, without which the other religions are incomplete?
For me Catholicism brings to the world a tremendous awareness of the sacredness of life, the notion that all life is holy, can be made holy, must become holy. What does it lack? The wisdom of the Upanishads, for example, which say that the individual person is face to face with God, that the institution of religion does not mediate God but points the way to God. The fact of the matter is that the Catholic believer comes to God through the instrument of the Church, rather than simply throuugh the tradition. I admire the spiritual depth of Hinduism and Buddhism. I admire the communal nature of Judaism and Islam. These other faiths stretch my mind and make me think deeply about the insights that Catholicism gives me.
We need to get to a point where we can say, no matter what religion or spiritual tradition we belong to, that we are all a part of the mind of God.
Amen to that, Sister.

And this just in from Cyprian, a quote about the Spirit from Ewert Cousins' Christ of the 21st Century. "After dealing with the Neo-Platonic idea of the World Soul and Teilhard de Chardin's adaptation of it, he goes on to write about the theology of the "cosmic Spirit," saying that
the presence of the Spirit in the Universe overcomes any ... dualism; for there is no realm of the universe where the Spirit is not present and working. Therefore, there is no autonomous nature that stands apart from God, as a Deist world-machine or a purely isolated mechanical process. For the Spirit works in electrons and atoms as well as in mystical ecstasy. Hence there are no purely natural laws. This does not introduce a supernaturalism or magic in the cosmic process; rather it means that what the scientist discovers as natural laws are manifestations of the energy of the cosmic Spirit. In this light, Darwin's principle of natural selection would be seen as a scientific way of charting the Spirit's selection of the species that will survive in the evolutionary process. Furthermore, the religious counselor cannot merely dismiss the findings of depth psychology as belonging to the "natural" realm; for even here in the depths of the unconscious, the Spirit works. In a theology of cosmic Spirit, the theologican can see that at the bottom there is no radical split between the sacred and the secular; for the Spirit works in the economic and political structures of society and in the ongoing scientific enterprise.
The ubiquity of the cosmic Spirit is a worthy replacement for the theistic God that Bishop Spong would like to consign to the dustbin of history. Nuff said.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


This is Memorial Day weekend, the traditional beginning of summer and a time for remembering, mostly of the dead but also the past. I don't know how the holiday powers that be decided that summer's debut and death fit nicely together, but they did. And so it's my cue for looking back (something I said the other day that I did not want to do, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, dontcha know).

The cemetary above is in Stowe, Vermont, and I took the photo last October during my journey in New England to see family, friends and the Fall leaves. The bones of the dead rest comfortably there, forgotten by all but amateur genealogists bearing their surnames. Why, in our culture, do we bury bodies? Why not burn them like the Hindus and the Buddhists? Probably because Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead, and that's why we love to be scared by skeletons. The Thais believe in ghosts but their specters in filmed tales look more like fugitives from "Dawn of the Dead" than boney remains. I don't know about you, but if God is going to resurrect me on the Last Day, I'd like to look a little better (and younger) than I will on my own personal last day.

Cars were clogging the roads into Santa Cruz yesterday afternoon in anticipation of the three-day weekend. Most head to the Boardwalk (celebrating it's 100th year) for fun on the roller coaster, a dip in the frigid waters of Monterey Bay, or a sugar rush from cotton candy. But the fog rolled in on its little cat feet last night and this day looms gloomy and gray. Inland, the temperatures will rise into the 70s, prompting people to get into their cars to drive to the seashore, where -- surprise! -- it's foggy and cold. Someone somewhere has a sense of humor about this.

I'm remembering my use of the word "expatriate" in yesterday's blog, and was reminded by a friend of an alternate spelling (or misspelling) -- "expatriot." Yes, of course! But I've long been an ex-patriot. I'm in agreement with Samuel Johnson that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And with Thomas Jefferson that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism." And with James Branch Cabell, “Patriotism is the religion of hell.” For a long time, my email signature has included a shorter version of this from G.K. Chesterton: “'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'” Dontcha just love Google? (for more pithy sayings about patriotism, click here). So no, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an unthinking, knee-jerk, flag-waving, rabidly ethnocentric patriot. But I do love the land that Woody Guthrie sang about (strange now that right-wingers regularly quote from that radical "This Land is Your Land" written by a dedicated socialist), and I'm going to miss it. We should all be ex-patriots.

And I am remembering Julie Christie. I have seen her several times in the past week, on the big screen in "Away From Her," which should easily win her the Academy Award this year, and twice on DVD: in "Darling" which brought her an Oscar in 1965, and in a splended recent film, "The Secret Life of Words," where she had a bit part as a counselor for women tortured in the Bosnian war. Ah, Julie Christie! Who can forget her as the mystery girl in John Schlesinger's 1963 film, "Billy Liar," the one whom Tom Courtenay in the title role spied behind every corner? I harbored a secret crush on her for years because of that part. If that's not enough to inscribe her in my heart, Ms. Christie was Lara, the heroine of Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago." It's reported that she sacrificed her career in the 1970s for a liason with Warren Beatty (who wrote the part in "Reds" for her but, when Diane Keaton took the role, dedicated his film to her). But in the last few years she has shined in a few choice cameo appearances, in "Troy," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Finding Neverland."

And now "Away From Her," a film about Alzheimer's, but not in the way you might think. The focus in this film is on how her husband handles the loss of his wife's memory, and about the meaning of love when the past is overwritten. The husband in this film of an Alice Munro story is sensitively portrayed by Canadian actor Gordon Pinset. It was directed by Sarah Polley, an actress in her twenties (who starred in the above mentioned "Secret Life of Words") who told an interviewer she thinks of Christie as her surrogate mother (her own died when she was 11). The multi-talented Polley could easily become a successor to Christie (don't miss her performance in the amazing "Secret Life of Words" which is directed by another outstanding new talent, Isabel Coixet from Spain).

But it's Christie who haunts me. I have grow up, and old, with her. Born in India, the daughter of a tea planter and his artist wife, she is two years younger than me. In my youth, I lusted after her with Billy Liar. In my middle years she was the glamorous movie star, Lara waiting for her physician lover, always out of reach. And now that I am poised on the brink of senility, she comes along as the beautiful victim of Alzheimer's, still with that voice that could crack walnuts and soothe savage beasts, ministering to the needs of the man she thinks she loves. Ah, Julie! I hardly knew you!

And I've been remembering John Wayne, who would have been 100 years old today (now THAT would be a corpse to resurrect). I think my childhood began with "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." God, I loved that film. I used to think my father was a little like John Wayne (impossible to call him either "John" or "Wayne"), a commanding presence, a little overbearing, and a bit dim at times, all presence with a small dash of intellect. He provided a model of macho masculinity that nobody could match, or embody. I didn't care much for his Republican politics, or his friendship with that B-movie politician, Ronald Reagan. But he had courage. He smoked 100 cigarettes a day until he was diagnosed with cancer, and then he switched to little cigars. He wasn't afraid to play a old one-eyed fat man. In later life, he reportedly said: "I stopped getting the girl about 10 years ago. Which is just as well, because I'd forgotten what I wanted her for." One of his lines in "True Grit" was: "Come up and see a fat old man sometime!" John Wayne was the unimitatable brand. He's the patron saint for elderly men, like me, who still long to be heroes.

I should say a few words for the dead this Memorial Day weekend, but the movies are often more real to me than my memories. Earlier this month I eulogized my pal, Mikesell. And I am constantly remembering my parents, Homer and Peggy, and the legacy they left me (besides my charming physique and personality, it is the money they left that will enable me to become an expatriot in Southeast Asia). Peter remains a presence in my life, living as I do next to his former in-laws. My uncles and all but one aunt are gone now. A few friends are up there in years and will not be around much longer.

As for me, who knows how much longer I will last. Looking over my shoulder for the Grim Reaper has become a habit, and I regularly read the obituaries to see whom I've survived. With any luck, I should retain my marbles for another decade or so. After that, it's a crap shoot.

Don't forget those immortal words of Alice Cooper: "School's out for summer!"

Friday, May 25, 2007

Rats Flee Sinking Ship

News at Ten

The metaphor of rats deserting a sinking ship is very popular these days. Just check it out on Google to see how many times that image appears in columns, blogs, and even news stories. But despite that fact that everyone seems to be leaving the shipwreck that is George Bush (Rumsfeld and Tenet, many Republicans, the neocons, supporters of the beleagured Attorney General, anyone who once thought there were WMDs in Iraq, even Tony Blair), the President still has managed to arm-twist Congress this week into paying for his ongoing bloody war, even if it's only on the installment plan.

The metaphor was first used nearly 2000 years ago by Pliny the Elder who wrote in his Naturalis Historia that "when a building is about to fall down, all the rats desert it." And in "The Tempest," Shakespeare described the boat on which the duke and his infant daughter had been set adrift as so unseaworthy that "the very rats instinctively have quit it." The rats apparently know something that we don't.

For me, the metaphor is apt, as I am thinking of abandoning the ship of state, America, and becoming an expatriate. Today I would like to ponder the meaning of expatriation. Is it the same as exile? Or more like estrangement? Perhaps it could be similar to a pilgrimage, only longer. Does it have to be forever, or can it be temporary, like becoing a temporary monk in Thailand, the country that I hope will become my adopted home? I'd rather not be a rat. Am I leaving because I know something that you don't?

On August 5 I fly to Bangkok. And although I have a return ticket, I don't plan to use it any time soon. My journeys have taken me to Thailand three times in the last three years and I have traveled throughout the country, by bus, train, plane and boat. Although I've only been there during the dry season, I like the tropical weather, even the heat and the humidity. And I don't mind the pollution and traffic of Bangkok which I have found to be a city of excitement and adventure, not unlike other capitals of the new global society. The food is delicious, the culture strange and appealing, and the people are beautiful and friendly. What's more, even with the dollar continuing to drop in value, Thailand is affordable. I can live comfortably on my retirement income. There will be challenges, certainly, and you will hear about them all, as well as my responses, here in this space.

My first stab at becoming an expatriate was in the winter of 1962 when I dropped out of UC Berkeley and went to live with Uncle Ted, my father's gay twin brother, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. A friend of his made me a writing table and I sat outside in his walled patio under a jacaranda tree dripping purple blossoms writing poetry and short stories on my Smith Corona portable. They were pretty bad. We traveled round the south of Mexico by bus until he got sick and I headed home to become a newspaper reporter.

A year later, when my first wife and I were living in New York's Greenwich Village, we briefly considering emigrating to Australia. Kennedy had been killed, Johnson was in power, and Goldwater was on the horizon. Things did not look good. Australia was enticing emigrants with cash advances, and when we went to the consulate to get application forms, we met a couple of Australian guys who were traveling around the world. Wanting to hear their stories, we hosted a party for them in our garret apartment. One of the boys, after guzzling a beer, crushed the can against his forehead and threw it over his shoulder out the window. We heard it bounce off a car below. Peering out, we saw it was a police car. Luckily our building was secure and we ignored the ringing of the door buzzer down below until they went away. At parties in Australia, our new friends told us, the girls sat on one side of the room and the boys stood drinking on the other side, dropping their pants to moon them for fun. We decided that emigration to Australia was not in our cards.

A year later, however, we did move to London where we lived as expatriates for two years. The Vietnam war was in its early stages and I remember looking for books about this faroff country in the High Holborn library. I learned of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and America's involvement under Kennedy beginning with the sending of "advisors" to help the corrupt South Vietnam regime block democratic elections. By then the exodus of potential draftees and AWOL soldiers to Canada had already begun. I met American expatriates in London and in Belgium, and I learned that black soldiers and jazz musicians had stayed behind in Europe following the war after discovering a racial tolerance rarely known back home.

Expatriation in Europe was a learning experience for members of the "Lost Generation" in the 1920s between the wars: Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald. Even earlier, writers Henry James and T.S. Eliot had forsaken the states to practice their craft abroad. James Joyce left Ireland for Italy, Henry Miller traded Brooklyn for Paris, and James Baldwin turned his back on racism in America to live in France. Even the painter Gauguin had emigrated from Paris to Tahiti. Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement inspired radical Stokely Carmichael's move to South Africa. A number of willing and unwilling radicals, from John Reed to Emma Goldman and Lee Harvey Oswald, moved to the Soviet Union. And today there is a generation of backpackers from every western country who are permanently on the road. I've met them in many countries and they are a breed apart. These are only the cultural highpoints of an ongoing migration of people that began in the Stone Age and continues today. So what's wrong with jumping ship?

Our first son was born in London where we were for the most part quite happy despite the weather. But after two years in England we grew homesick for things American and eventually returned to California where I had three more children and a second wife, and spent four decades in the workplace and in Academia. Now the wives are gone, the children are independent and reasonably self-sufficient, and I am a retired gentleman of leisure. It's time to think again about the wisdom of going or staying.

One source reports that six million U.S. citizens live overseas. Many of them are Democrats and they vote (see the web sites, and Another source, Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America by Mark Ehrman, says that over 300,000 Americans emigrate each year, and more than a million go to foreign lands for lengthy stays. Over ten years ago, Roger Gallo self-published Escape from America, and now there is a web site, EscapeArtist, with articles and tips, and even a magazine. Another source is a web site set up by consultant John Schroeder which features his article, "The New Expatriate of the 21st Century" and a monthly newsletter. Gallo and Schroeder seem more concerned with paying fewer taxes than with protesting the global Empire established by the Bush imperial presidency. An article which appeared six months ago in the New York Times, "Tax Leads Americans Abroad to Renounce U.S.," reported that over 500 Americans had turned in their passports during 2006. But this is low compared to the 1970s when about 2,000 renounced their citizenship beause of Vietnam. Other countries base their taxation on residency, not citizenship, which leads to tax expatriation by wealthy U.S. citizens living abroad who dislike double taxation.

This, however, is not a problem for me. Last year my income from Social Security and a small pension from UC was under the minimum and I legally did not have to file. Unlike the tax evaders, I've always felt the benefits of citizenship entailed the responsibility of paying for it. In the 1980s, however, I was an income tax resister as my way of saying no to the funds budgeted for the military. But as a state employee, I was easily discovered and eventually had to pay my share for the military hardware that slaughters innocents around the globe in our name.

Here it would be appropriate to rant and rave about Bush and the holes he has poked in the ship of state. But some of that would only be justification for a decision I have already made. Yes, I have problems with the political and economic motivations of the current administration (and I didn't much care for Clinton either), I hate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are killing and maiming young men and women, and I am critical of our culture of selfish individualism and our wasteful use of an unfair share of the world's natural resources. But I'm sure it is probably possible to take these adversarial positions without moving away.

Expatriation, I believe, can be more of a going to than a leaving from. During the last few years, I have gone on a number of spiritual pilgrimages, to India, to Vietnam, and to visit cathedrals in England as well as religious sites in Italy. Abraham, the father of both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, was an exile from his homeland, a "wandering Aramean." There is a sense in which exile and expatration, a going away from old habits and petrified perspectives, are necessary if we want to keep growing. Old age might be the result of stasis, of giving up movement, when the job is over and the children are gone. If you stand still too long, moss will grow.

So I choose not to escape but to embark on a new adventure, one that will take me to strange lands where I will live among a people not my own. My plane leaves the same week that alumni from my high school in Pasadena will meet to celebrate our graduating class's 50th anniversary. I will not be there because I would rather look forward than backwards. I have other places to see and things to do in my alotted time left.

I do not want to be a rat scuttling off this ship we're on. I would rather be a shark or a whale or an albatross flying over the waves.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Losing Faith

It wasn't any one thing in particular. Just a long, slow, steady accumulation of doubts and discontent. Today I removed the phrase "Buddhist-Catholic" from this blog's profile and substituted "spirit-seeking" as a more accurate self-description for my spiritual path.

It felt honest to no longer pretend to be a Roman Catholic.

Thinking of myself as a "Buddhist" is not so troubling. I do "take refuge" (find some solace) in the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma, the three jewels of Buddhist teaching. Last night I sat with the Everyday Dharma sangha here in Santa Cruz for the first time in perhaps a year. After meditation, Carolyn Atkinson's teaching on being present, on accepting one's life as it is, was helpful.

In my life I am a doubter, a skeptic, a puncturer of inflated balloons. Six years ago when I was trying to recover from the breakup of a marriage, I turned to both the Buddhist sangha and the Catholic Church with the anguish of a drowning man seeking air. Both communities brought me new friends who encouraged me to join them on their spiritual path. For a time I was able to set aside doubts and questions about ritual and dogma in order to practice the discipline they offered which I hoped would lead me away from the heartbreak of divorce towards an encounter with Ultimate Reality.

It wasn't hard for me to balance allegiances to both religions. I felt they were complementary. Buddhism, I thought, was more of a psychology, a teaching about how the mind works, then it was the worship of the Buddha. The Christian path, however, made use of the familiar Biblical stories I had grown up with, and gave me a literary and mystical context for the search for God. Unlike many believers, I thought that becoming a Christian was the beginning of the search rather than the end of it.

All of my thinking life I have been looking for answers to ultimate questions. Even more, however, I have been seeking an experience, an encounter, with ultimate meaning. The end of the spiritual path, I believed, would be transcendence and transformation. And I was convinced that all of the world's spiritual paths, codified in the major religions, were headed in the same direction. It didn't make any difference whether you followed Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu or Jesus, we all ended up at the same place. This is illustrated in the example of fingers pointing at the moon; the fingers are the different religions and the moon is the goal of all. The prescription is to not look at the fingers but rather to seek out the moon.

Twenty-some years ago, fueled by the inspiring books of Thomas Merton and the example of Christians working for justice in Latin America, I became a Catholic. To do so, I had to set aside a number of questions about dogma such as the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Resurrection, etc., and focus on Catholic Christianity as a path to God (i.e. Ultimate Meaning) with its attendant disciplines: kneeling, crossing one's self, the Eucharist, et al. For me, joining the church and taking part in the liturgy was a practice, like meditation, or the five duties of Islam. It didn't require belief, for I disagreed with most theologians that propositional statements could ever contain spiritual truth. I wanted an encounter with the Divine, not another intellectual head trip.

This search was renewed with urgency six years ago when I found my life changed dramatically by the failure of my marriage. I prayed and took communion with the Catholics and I meditated with the Buddhists. In time, through the inspiration and teachings of Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, a number of Catholic friends connected meditation with contemplative prayer, and we formed a sangha to pray and study the thoughts of Bede Griffiths, an ecumenical pioneer in India, on the interconnections between Christianity and other religions. I stopped participating in the Buddhist sangha because my spiritual life was full to overflowing.

It's hard to know when you've thrown out the baby with the bathwater. For a long time I kept silent, outside of a sympathetic men's group, about my discontent with the Catholic Church and my doubts about accepted dogma. At mass, I recited the Apostles Creed, sung the Psalms and hymns, and, when participating as a lector, I proclaimed the sacred scripture to the assembly. For over a year I presided at communion services and delivered homilies which interpreted the Gospel message of the day. Following the teachings of the Church, I worked for peace and social justice causes, volunteered at the food pantry run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and served on the liturgy committee. But all the time I knew that my doubts about the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead separated me from the religious faith of my friends and fellow parishioners. Why, my closest friends asked me, are you a Catholic? The old answer I gave, about it being a spiritual discipline to be practiced rather than believed, no longer seemed sufficient.

And then there was the matter of the institutional Church, the Pope, the Vatican, the modern Inquisition. Those of you who have read this blog will realize what difficulties I have had with the aging white male celibates in Rome. Just this week I saw the revealing documentary "Deliver Us From Evil" about the priest who abused both young boys and girls in California and who was sheltered by the administration of now Cardinal Roger Mahoney; today, despite his crimes, he lives freely in Ireland, protected by the Church there. I've written about the persecution of liberation theologians like Jon Sobrino in El Salvador. The Christian Church throughout history has sided with the rich and powerful and denied the clear message of Jesus that favors the poor and the outcasts. Today conservative Christians are mourning the death of Jerry Falwell, a truly evil man I believe who helped to twist the Gospel into support for the perpetual empire of Rome.

For the most part I could ignore the institutional Church so long as I believed with Vatican II that the Church was in fact "the people of God" rather than the administrative artifact. And I have met many good people in the parish of Holy Cross where I have made my spiritual home for a half dozen years. True, there are those with an inhospitable attitude toward immigrants, who support the killing in Iraq and who believe the death penalty is the only solution for some crimes. A number of the faithful, I suspect, discount this world and live only for the next, an attitude that can contribute to disrespect and destruction of our environment.

The priest at our church, who started about the same time as I began attending mass regularly, is a good man who means well. He is not near retirement age like most priests these days, and he supports peace and justice issues, although a bit timidly, as if fearful of disturbing major donors who might be conservative. But he is a micromanager who seeks control above collaboration, and participants in valuable ministries have gotten bruised along the way; the pool of volunteers is drying up. One strength is his devotion to youth ministry. His homilies come alive when he is speaking to kids. Otherwise, they are uninspiring and often flippant in an attempt to be more entertaining than serious. Bring a book to read, joked one frustrated friend. I have resolved to no longer sit through one of them again.

When I was initiated into the Church twenty-some years ago, I told myself I was not joining a club. The ceremony of confirmation I took as a seal for my search for God. Like the prophets of old, the later mystics, and like Thomas Merton, I thought of myself as "God intoxicated." I thirsted for running waters. I sought the fire of the spirit, the holocaust of contemplative prayer. And what I got was membership in yet another organization. The parish is a community, and like all in-groups it wants to protect itself against outsiders who might contaminate it, if only by association. The priest's homilies continually reflected this self-identity: We are Catholics and this is how we must behave to become good Catholics. It is very subtle if you are on the inside. But if you want to identify with the wider community, with the whole world, it feels constructing.

And, finally, there is always the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. For me, it was reading John Shelby Spong's new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, while I was on a five-day retreat last week at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur where I have been an oblate for the last four years. I expected this book by the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, to be a lightweight critique of Christianity in same emperor-has-no-clothes spirit shared by Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar folks. But it was much more for me, probably because my tinder was ready for his fire.

Spong, in a series of books culminating with this one, argues that religious scripture is a metaphorical explanation of real encounters and experiences with the Divine. Christians make the profound mistake of literalizing those explanations, of treating the stories about Jesus as if they were history. Which they are not. The only things that Spong believes are true, for rational, analytical reasons, is that Jesus was a real person in history who came from Nazareth and who died a criminal's death in Jerusalem. All the rest is conjecture.

In Jesus, the first followers encountered a person who was fully human, someone who accepted and loved all, without discrimination or boundaries. To be fully human, Spong believes, is to be also divine. It was this experience, this encounter with Jesus, that transformed his followers who then struggled to explain what happened with stories that were recited in synagogues during the Jewish liturgical year. Fifty years later the writings of Paul were passed around and finally, much later, the stories were canonized in the four Gospels which are undoubtably more poetic and liturgical than historical.

Realizing this, I can no longer sing and chant and recite with the same confidence that these words I parrot will lead me to the Divine. I cannot belong to a religious club that necessarily and by definition excludes others. I cannot walk this path.

The questions still remain. How can we meet God or experience the Buddhist goal of emptiness? What can we know and say about this experience of enlightenment, of the Divine? And how can human beings, not just Jesus, be so good, accepting and loving that they will transmit this experience to others?

I've been to India and Thailand three times now and I've seen and experienced the popular piety of Buddhists and Hindus. It's not all that different from Christians with their in-group attitudes and veneration of saints that seems a bit superstious. Intellectual religiosity breathes a different air, the quiet hallways and studies of scholars and theologians. But I intuit that the Divine is not this, not that. My journey is not over, but I no longer want to cling to partial and even divisive identities. I want the Real Thing.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sex & Love

One of my readers (yes, I have one!) asked me: "Why do you have the word 'sex' in your blog?" In other words, why write about sex? It's a good question, and I thought I might ruminate a bit to see if I can come up with a satisfactory answer.

It is difficult to write about sex without also writing about love. Both involve the deep yearning for connection that we humans all seek from each other. For me, sex & love is the pivot around which all else turns. Organized religion flounders on the issue of sexuality, and in the popular phrase "the personal is political" we can see how sexual identity might be crucial to the exercise of politics today. While Jesus brought a message of love, the gay-bashing and abortion-condemning sects that claim to follow him preach hatred and division. The moral agenda of the today's political right is repressive, but religions and authoritarian governments have always tried to control human sexuality. The challenge, for those of us who lived through the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s in America as I did, is to integrate sexuality with spirituality and to promote liberation and love on all political fronts.

In this blog I have tried to write from the heart as well as the head, and that means I would like to offer a perspective on religion, sex & politics that is personal, and even confessional, as well as political. I can easily blabber about my spiritual path and the disgust I feel for the tyrannical, oppressive and anti-planet policies of successive American governments, but it is much harder to discuss one's sexual desires and difficulties in public. There is a tendency to resort to the third person and passive voice. So this is yet another challenge.

But still the question arises: Why do it? Why write about sex at all? Isn't sex, and love, a matter only between two people, something better kept secret? Some cultures today are as morally puritanical as America's was in the 1950s when I was growing up. Abortion is still illegal there, gender transgressions are punished, sodomy is a crime, and women are routinely raped and stoned. While I don't personally expect to change anything globally, I do believe it is important to speak truth to power and stand up for values that involve partnerships between the sexes rather than the dominance of one gender over another, the pattern of patriarchy.

That sounds a bit preachy. Not at all the tone I intended. I write about sex & love because for all of my long life I have sought both, together and sometimes separately. I was raised in the 1950s with all the macho junk they stuck into the heads of male children, and I have been trying for at least thirty years to reverse the brainwashing I received from my parents, schools and peers. Patriarchy is crippling for men as well as women. Ideals that promote male superiority and competitive behavior have damanged my relationships. While I have been married twice, fathered four children, and have enjoyed numerous extracurricular liasons, I am not at all proud of the way I have treated women in the past. Sex, both the opposite gender and the deed, remain a mystery to me. So I write about this to figure it out, to make amends, and hopefully to act differently in the future.

Why write about sex & love? In a way, it is the umbrella under which we huddle for protection from the storms of life. Since the ending of my last marriage, I have lived alone, traveled alone, and manfully resisted the demons of loneliness. Everywhere around me I see couples, sitting together, walking, holding hands, kissing. Humans have the unavoidable propensity to pair off. "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage." Yet many of us are single. Some live vicariously through our children or grandchildren, but most resign themselves to the solitary state. For men, pornography and cybersex become a tempting substitute for "real" sex and love.

I thought I would outgrow it. When we are young we cannot imagine older people having sex, and we are certain that love among seniors is more of a habit than a passion. But now that typical lifespans are passing three score years and ten, sex & love among the elderly is becoming a lifestyle choice. I look with envy upon the white haired couples in the movie theater and on the dance floor. But here's the rub: wrinkled skin and sagging breasts are not erotic to me. And I expect my parchment skin and expanding waistline are turnoffs to most women. Many of us remain captive to the sexual images that were drilled into us during the 1950s and the sexual revolution that followed, the Playboy ideal, the sex drives of Lady Chatterly and Henry Miller, the freedom of Germaine Greer and Erica Jong, the talents of Linda Lovelace. The times changed and we didn't.

I write about sex & love because the pleasure and pain of desire does not go away, so long as the heart beats and the blood boils. In an age of virtual sex and kinky technology, however, when uninhibited teens "hook up" and online ads for "fuck buddies" proliferate, I remember the moments in my life when the snuggling and cuddling could have gone on forever, when tomorrow without Her was no less than death, and when sex & love fit seamlessly together. Then, the giving and receiving of pleasure was a joy and not the topic of a how-to manual.

"All you need is love," the Beatles sang, and I want so much to believe them. But the loves in my life have not lasted. Desire is a fickle thing. Now we are in the midst of the backlash from the revolution of over thirty years ago and sexual confusion abounds. President Clinton, who was impeached for accepting a blow job from a White House intern, fired his Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders when she suggested that masturbation is natural and should be taught in schools. The Bush Court threatens to overturn Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose whether or not to have a child. The internet, some argue, is financed by porno web sites. Gays are denied the rights and benefits of marriage. Sexual violence abounds: in wars and conflicts rape is used for ethnic cleansing. Free love, open relationships and nudism have been curtailed not by community standards but by the HIV/AIDs crisis.

Why write about sex & love? Why NOT write about this mystery at the heart of what it means to be human. I explore this topic in my blog to understand who I am and how I fit in the universe at the macro and micro level. Of all the subjects my generation was told could not be discussed in polite company, this is the most interesting and the most important. And if I can just have another fifty years of life on this earth, I might finally get it right.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Eulogy for Mike

My old friend Mike died a month ago today. Born Richard Mikesell in 1938, in later life he preferred the more formal first name, but he was always Mike to me.

We met in the 11th grade at John Muir High School in Pasadena. I remember Mike then because he always wore a blue bomber jacket with a colorful dragon embroidered on the back. It was a present from his brother, a Korean War veteran, he explained, who brought it back for him from Japan.

Many of my memories of Mike are lost in the mists of time, but colors and shapes stand out. Mike the poet, Mike the game player, Mike the penultimate hippie, Mike the poser, Mike the roomate, and Mike the lover. While he may have been married once or twice, he never had children. And I have learned from the Virtual Memorial set up for him, that he had a close relationship with his brother's family. In the guestbook, his niece Lyn wrote:
You were such a constant in my life and a very important part of my growing up. I love you so much and miss you dearly. I miss our daily conversations, your humor, your wisdom and your strength. I miss the care, the love and the closeness we shared. I'm so grateful that I was there with you in the hospital during the last few weeks of your life. You waited for me to get there the last night, and I was there, holding your hand, telling you "it was okay" and to go ahead and just "let it go." It was time and at 3:42 am God called you home to be with Him.
Although I haven't seen Mike since our 45th high school reunion five years ago (here he is with Ernie in the chair and me on the right), we kept in touch from time to time by email. He always signed his posts "Pal." Three years ago he wrote that he had just returned from Las Vegas where "I placed in the top 25 amateur senior pool players in the world and my team was also in the top 25 .....there were 12,000 entries from all over the world." After I told Mike I was studying Spanish, he wrote: "Yo hablo in espanol, para que mucho tiempo en Colombia.....para cocaina.....Yo hablo bastante para negotio y otra cosas....como amor....." Of Oaxaca, where I was headed, he said: "it had the best grass at the time I traveled through hit and the road waved like a ribbon in a breeze before us and we had to pull over to get our bearings." When he went to Bangkok a few years ago I put him in touch with my friend Jerry who lives there. Jerry later wrote that Mike seemed more interested in playing pool in the bars than in meeting girls. Mike had his hands full of both during his 68 years.

I heard of Mike's death from his brother, responding to an email change of address notice I sent to him. Although I know from Lyn's words that he died in the hospital, I don't yet know know the cause. His name was on the committee planning our high school class's 50th reunion this year. Unlike many of our fellow students, Mike did not stick to one career but rather dabbled in many, licit and illicit. He told me a few years ago that "things are chugging right along here with some screenwriting, some 'life-coaching' and some real estate.......a lot of conjecture time." He sent me the synoposis of "Harbinger," a story about an autistic child who can see the future and is therefore considered a threat by the authorities. It was written under the pen name of Austin Hughes. As far as I know, the script was never sold.

Much of what Mike told me over the years was open to question. He said that he shared the Oscar for writing the screenplay for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Bo Goldman and Laurence Hauben, but that claim is not supported by any information I could find. Goldman is still writing, but Hauben, a friend of Mike's, died in 1985. Mike intimated that he supplied the drugs that fueled production of the script for the movie of Ken Kesey's book. Another scheme Mike told me about involved a "talent agency" which supplied models and beauty queens to the Sultan of Brunei's brother for lavish parties. This became a scandal in 1997 when one of the women claimed she had been lured to Brunei to be a sex slave. Mike said a documentary had been made in which he had been interviewed, but I never found a copy of it. When Rowan & Martin's "Laugh-In" was a hit TV show, Mike told me he dated one of its starlets, Goldie Hawn.

Mike loved women, beautiful and sexy women. The photo page of his Virtual Memorial is full of pictures of Mike with various women. He loved to brag about how gorgeous his girls were, and would call me to let me speak with his latest flame. Some of them lasted a long time and became friends. Mike claimed to have set up a web site where lovely unclad beauties posed for paying customers, but he never let me see it.

My warmest memories of Mike come from the several months we spent together as roomates in an old house on Regent Street in Berkeley with two other friends from Pasadena. All of us were students at UC, but I can't recall Mike's major. To help furnish our house, Mike drove up to an unpainted furniture store that displayed its wares on the sidewalk, put a dresser in the trunk and drove off without paying. Then he dressed in workman's clothes and pulled up to a Vic Tanney gym where he confidently took several chairs from the waiting room and added them to the haul. Because he had difficulty with his share of the rent, Mike regularly contributed to dinner by shoplifting steaks and cubes of butter from the nearby market. He had a girlfriend from Switzerland, named Bridgette as I recall, but also spent considerable time in the company of a male teaching assistant whom we all assumed was gay. I was the member of a campus political action group called SLATE and talked Mike into joining. Before I knew it, he was one of the leaders and ran, unsuccessfully for campus office. Mike always had charisma; he could charm the paint off walls. After I left the university, Mike was involved somehow in the Free Speech Movement and he later lived offcampus in a house with a man who starred briefly in a TV show. All grist for the mill.

It was the Sixties and drugs were a temptation for many. Mike was writing poetry and training to be a guru, and one night he came to my little house on South Marengo in Pasadena. First he got me stoned and then he began reciting poetry from memory. It all sounded like conversation to me; I couldn't tell the poetry from the prose. Later Mike lived in the guest house of a mansion in Topanga Canyon and practiced guruship. I tried to be his disciple but the dope was too powerful and I would fall asleep. Mike finally got caught smuggling drugs across the Mexican border in the second gas tank of a Jaguar and served time at the federal prison on Terminal Island next to Long Beach. Among his colleagues there was Charles Manson who, Mike said, was a lousy baseball player. I went down to visit him with his mother and spent an hour in the prison lunchroom with a view of the bay. My recollection is that Mike was upbeat, as he always was, even in that environment. I can't recall ever seeing him depressed.

There was another arrest for drugs later but I don't recall the details. Maybe it involved his lifelong friend Bobby "Boris" Pickett, songerwriter of "Monster Mash," who, amazingly, died the week after Mike from leukemia. Mike once told me that Pickett used some of the earnings from his hit song to buy hash in Afghanistan which he smuggled into the U.S. inside oriental carpets. When I was in the music business and experimenting with a variety of drugs, I lived in a house in Venice near the beach and Mike lived several blocks away in a highrise condo. I asked him to get me some heroin and he brought me a small packet of Mexican brown. It sat around my house for a mouth before I emptied it in the toilet. Later, Mike told me he made use of his experiences outside the law to help counsel offenders on probation.

It's no wonder that Mike became a championship pool player. He loved games. When I was 17 and recuperating in bed from a femur broken in a car crash, Mike came to my house with a chess set and said: "let's learn how to play." Not long after, he went into the Army, and when he got out he was a champion chess player. He took up pool with the same competitor's fervor, and soon was earning money as a pool hustler. He may have even studied under the legendary Minnesota Fats. I'm happy to see that he turned legit, but I don't doubt that he tried a hustle every now and then.

Thinking about Mike's death brings on thoughts about my own impending demise. Whether it happens now or ten years from now, it will take place, the end of me. Life is a terminal disease. Here at the monastery where I am currently on retreat, the comforts of Christian belief are close at hand. Over the mountain behind me, at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a different set of mythological tools are available. We humans cannot bear the uncertainty of death, the end of me. But I think we all have the task to undertake death without clinging to life and with dignity. Mike was a seeker all of his life and I have no doubt that he passed the test.

I'm sorry you're gone, Mike. You were a major presence in my life. I hope you wrote your autobiography and entrusted the pages to someone because I doubt that anyone I know has lived a more interesting and exciting life. You were a boon companion and a warm friend. I shall miss you.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Contemplating Bunnies in Big Sur

I had a few minutes before Vespers, and so I strolled along the lane leading into New Camaldoli Hermitage for another look at the Pacific Ocean. It stretches before you, a span of 180 degrees wide, two miles down the hill, an awesome sight that cannot be captured in a camera.

Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement in the periwinkle (or vinca, a non-native brought by early pioneers), a flash of brown and a white tail. The bunnies were out for their evening meal. If I stood very still they could not see me, and I watched the adults and children feasting on the plants on both sides of the road. Then the chapel bell tolled for prayer and I moved, startling them into escape mode. Seconds later they were gone.

I am here on this remote and beautiful coast for five days, my private retreat a gift from a group of pilgrims I guided through India earlier this year. They included Fr. Raneiro, the prior of this Camaldolese hermitage that has been here for fifty years. The order was founded over a thousand years ago in the mountains of Camdoli in Italy by St. Romuald, whose advice to his hermits was: "Sit in your cell as in Paradise; put the whole world behind you and forget it; like a skilled angler on the lookout for a catch, keep a careful eye on your thoughts."

My cell is built of cinderblocks, a six-sided hexagon which is slightly disorienting at first. Besides the sleeping area, central living room with gas heater, kitchen nook and bathroom, there is an additional room for celebrating mass, solo. I sit by the window reading in an overstuffed chair that reclines, while outside in the fenced garden I can hear the murmur of humming birds and bees hard at their Spring chores. It is very private and relatively quiet.

I came here to think about what I will do next in my life, but find myself torn between the vivid immdiacy of nature and the lure of the laptop screen. Yes, the monks are plugged into the internet and a wireless connection enables their access. There is no cell phone reception on this barren coast, but dish antennae pull in satellite signals from around the globe. Adult web sites, however, are forbidden within the cloister (how I found that out will remain a mystery).

Besides the bunnies, I've been captivated by the foxes here. I've seen them on previous visits. Once a trio of them frollicked on the patio of the retreat room where I was staying at the time. Probably it was the bread I left that earned me their attention. This fox was sunning itself in the road until I came upon him (or her) on a morning's walk. I stopped and stared; he stared back. Only when I moved to pass by did he leisurely retire into the brush. Besides the foxes, there is bird life: the doves that live among the orange trees, and the paired quail that feed along the path to my cell. I have been visited by several cats which Br. Isaac said were dumped off at the Hermitage this past Christmas as kittens. Jackie told me she once saw a mountain lion but Fish said all such sightings had to be verified by a monk or they were discounted, and this was a solo report. Coyotes have not been seen or heard for years, but tarantulas come out on the road every year before the first rain falls.

New Camaldoli is not a large community, and people come and go. I missed Br. Mark , a wonderful artist who had made bracelets out of sandlewood beads for everyone, and was told he had left after nearly ten years. Before coming here, Mark had lived in a Hindu ashram back east. Fr. Robert is on pilgrimage in Ireland with a group co-led by Amber. Isaac had shaved his head and no longer had the most hair of any monk. Fr. Bernard, afflicted with Parkinson's, seems a bit more frail than the last time I was here in the fall, but it is touching the way his brother monks tenderly care for him.

Visitors besides me include Louie Vitale, the tall and thin Franciscan priest in his 70s who has led protests at the Nevade nuclear test site and at the School of the Americas in Georgia. He is currently facing charges for felony tresspassing at a military base in Arizona where he demonstrated against the teaching of torture to the officers trained there. Louie is no stranger to prison because of his moral stance on social justice issues. We had a great conversation about listening to live jazz in the 1950s in Los Angeles when he was a sociology grad student and I was going to high school in Pasadena. Sitting across from me at lunch after mass on Sunday was Lynn whom I last saw on the trip to Guatemala for Habitat for Humanity two years ago. She now lives in Boston but returned to Guatemala again recently with Peter and Betty who have been leading Habitat trips for a dozen years. Also staying here is Ralph Ferreira from Durban, South Africa. His spiritual director was a student of Fish, the dynamic South African priest Michael Fish, who gave the homily on Sunday when he spoke of wine as a catalyst for love (shades of Rumi!). Ralph is visiting for two months to see if the community suits him, and we talked over a dinner of leftovers in the kitchen about music. He likes Donny Hathaway, a now obscure soul singer with whom I worked at Atlantic Records in the 1970s. Music is indeed the universal language.

The day begins here with Vigils at 5:30 in the morning. The weather has been perfect during my visit, May at its best, and the indigo blue of the pre-dawn sky is breathtaking, with the half moon accompanied by a sprinkling of stars. The monks in white robes sit in two rows facing each other, and behind them the retreatants take their positions, rubbing eyes still sandy with sleep. The chanted Psalms and the ancient Gregorian tones dig deep into the psyche, prying loose half-forgotten glimpses of eternity. After the half-hour service, some retire into the rotunda of the sanctuary to sit on benches or cushions for meditation and contemplative prayer before Lauds at 7. Daily mass is usually at 11:30 (11 on Sundays). Vespers comes at 6 in the evening, followed by a half-hour of stillness before the Blessed Sacrament. Bells mark the movements of the monks and outline the shape of each day which rarely changes.

I have been drawn to monasticism since my visit one wintery weekend to Saint Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts in 1984 at the suggestion of Br. David Steindl-Rast whom I had met at the Benedictine Grange in Connecticut. My friend Steve, who had introduced me to David, drove us up to his cousin's house near the monastery where we stayed while attending a weekend retreat with the late Fr. Theophane Boyd. The Abbey under Thomas Keating, with the help of the late Basil Pennington, had given birth to Centering Prayer, and Boyd was a leader in the ecumenical movement, arranging for exchanges of monks between Asia and the U.S. I was prepared for the beauty and spirituality of the place from reading the works of Thomas Merton, but I was overwhelmed by the way Catholicism quickly took over the direction of my spiritual journey. The following year, having returned to California, I joined an RCIA program in Santa Cruz to prepare for initiation in the Church. And I organized a retreat for west coast members like myself of the Schola Contemplationis, a network of "contemplatives in the world" organized by Beatrice Bruteau and Jim Somerville, to be held at what was then called the Immaculate Heart Hermitage in Big Sur. The prior at that time, Fr. Bruno Barnhart, gave us a conference and he has been a friend and advisor to me ever since.

Recently I saw the much acclaimed documentary "Into the Silence" which was filmed at a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. One of the strictest of orders, the monks there lead a life of silence in close touch with the natural world. The monks of New Camaldoli, while surrounded by nature (several times the hermitage has been threatened by brush fires), live a less restrictive life. Silence is respected by not required. Except for major feast days, the diet is vegetarian, but the deserts at lunch on Sundays are to die for: pies, cakes and several flavors of ice cream. Monday was a "recreation day" and lunch included both beer and wine. Several of the monks have extensive video collections, and the extra-curricular conversations in the kitchen are wide-ranging and full of humor.

As befitting hermits, most of the monks at New Camaldoli keep to their cells. There are 24 in four rows, each with a private garden. The Hermitage is getting a little worn at the edges after fifty years and a major reconstruction program is at the fund-raising stage. My cell is the guest cell and could use a little attention. The garden is overgrown, and the bathroom floor is sagging from a leaky toilet. But my accomodation is well stocked with most of the necessities of life, and what's not here can be obtained in the kitchen.

I suppose some retreatants pray non-stop, but that is not my style. I bought a pile of books and some DVDs, along with my laptop, and have kept busy. Morning showers, mid-day walks and afternoon naps are not unknown to me, but here they are more leisurely and, dare I say it, contemplative. I've finished two Travis McGee mystery novels by that cultural critic of the 60s and 70s, John D. MacDonald, a recent discovery, and I'm reading Bishop John Shelby Spong's challenging new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, which attempts to demolish the myths and explanations of Christianity to recapture the original experience of Jesus by his followers. It seems a bit heretical to be reading the rebel Episcopalian's radical theology in this most devout of spaces, but I'm sure some of the monks might agree with his conclusions. I've also brought with me Ken Kramer's new book, Redeeming Time: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and Sam Hamill's new translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, enough to keep me going for a half dozen retreats. In the evenings I've watched videos: the delightful "Iron Ladies," a Thai film about a transvestite championship volleyball team; the sad but enlightening documentary, "Iraq in Fragments," which focuses on people trying to survive among the chaos, and "Lady Vengeance," the final installment of South Korean director Park Chan-woo's revenge trilogy (while a bit violent, his work is surprisingly philosophical and critical of easy conclusions; the plots are startling and often comical. Seoul may become the new Hollywood). And I also bought with me a copy of Thai for Beginners and a Thai writing workbook along with some supplies to make flash cards for memorizing the Thai alphabet.

My retreat is still in progress, so the blinding light of illumination may come a little later. Right now, the world looks pretty good to me, just as it is, bunnies & foxes, web surfing at the monastery and watching South Korean slasher flicks. Participating in the rituals at the monastery is comforting, the regularity, the seriousness of piety. It is tempting to lapse into theistic bliss. But I continue to peel back the onion of spirituality. I think Bishop Spong is right, the Christian package is old and outdated. No one can believe the literal explanations any longer. We need to experience the mystery, not analyze it, and when it comes it may look not unlike a John D. MacDonald plot.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Pet Turtles Run Amok on Westside

This was front page news in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (not dead yet) yesterday. Don't you just love it?

No, we're not talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It's the pet goldfish story, updated. Apparently the little pet turtles get dumped in local streams and find their way into coastal parks where they breed like crazy and edge out the native species. "They compete for food with the native Western pond turtles and eat the eggs of red-legged and tree frogs," a park ranger told the paper. That doesn't surprise me, but I am a little appalled by the idea that children bored with their aquatic pets are pouring out their aquariums into Santa Cruz creeks. Officials were alerted to the problem when they discovered that raccoons were eating the little fellows; eight empty shells were found in one day. So maybe the balance of nature is taking over. Now if we could do something about the raccoons. I frequently see them sticking their heads out of the sewer at the end of my block.

This reminds of the urban legend of pet alligators in the sewers of New York City. Thomas Pynchon wrote about them in his crazy novel, V. And Radiohead has a song about them called "Fog." Then there are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, unholy offspring of cute little pets dowsed with toxic chemicals, who also also grew up in Manhattan's sewers. They were recently resurrected for a new series of animated films; they were the Clearly this modern age is not treating its wildlife well.

I spent the last two days in the Bay Area. First I met Helen at her hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco and we drove around the Inner Sunset district looking at housing, checking out the neighborhood as a possible place for her to live if she relocates from London any time soon. Helen, a friend from the 1960s, was my hostess over Christmas and in February on my way to and from Asia. After a good lunch at Park Chow on 9th, where it was cold enough on the roof for portable heaters, we drove over to Noe Valley where the atmosphere is nice but the houses probably more expensive. Helen has a three-storey Edwardian row house in Highgate that needs extensive rehabilitation, but she thinks its sale will give her enough to buy something in San Francisco, if she decides to live there instead of Oakland or even in Southern California where her two grown children live.

Leaving Helen to find where Subud meets in that part of the City, I headed over the Bay Bridge for Berkeley and a visit with Gerry, a good friend since we met in Latin class at Pasadena City College in the late 1950s. I was a little nervous about the traffic, because a few days before an oil tanker had caught fire in the McArthur maze of freeway overpasses in Oakland and one of them collapsed, snarling traffic throughout the Bay Area. But the route north on 80 to Berkeley was clear and it only took me 40 minutes from the City. Gerry lives in a three-story World War One-era apartment building behind Alta Bates Hospital. He used to live in the slightly more trendy Elmwood district until he got it into his head to move back to New England where he'd grown up. But a winter and summer, with its snow and bugs, helped cure him of this mistaken notion, and now he's comfortably resettled in this college town. We took long walks, in the afternoon and the following morning, despite the occasional drops of rain, and had a good evening meal at a Vietnamese restaurant near the campus, and breakfast at the Rockridge Cafe.

Gerry will be 70 in October and I will turn 68 in July, so our conversation frequently turned to the trials and tribulations of aging. No one warned us it would be like this, the heart and urinary problems, forgetfulness, the difficulties of bending over and picking up things or tying shoes, wrinkled and sagging skin, and missing teeth (this morning the good Dr. Dari put a crown on one of my few remaining molars). Like me, Gerry lives alone. Married several times, he never got around to producing any progeny, and so he has nightmares about the hell of drooling in a wheel chair in a nursing home, that saddest of demises. We agreed to each shoot the other if it came to that.

And so I wonder: What will I do for the rest of my life?

This is not a question that comes to mind for most people my age, comfortably esconced in the bosom of a family, with a wife, kids and grandkiddies to share joys and sorrows. Doesn't it say somewhere in the wedding vows, "till death do us part"? Page Smith, the noted U.S. historian and professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, retired to raise chickens in Bonny Doon north of here, and he and his wife managed to expire of old age within months of each other. Isn't that romantic? My ex said she wanted to "be there" for me when I died, while kicking me out of the house, but since we haven't been in close touch for years I doubt that will happen. My friend Peter died surrounded by his wife, friends, children, grandchildren, and dog, but that kind of farewell does not seem to be in the cards for me. I've always liked the example of elephants who leave the herd and wander off to a remote place when it comes time to go.

In America and the West we teach our children to be independent and self-sufficient. Getting them out of the nest and on their own is first priority. Most never come back. The parents make handy bankers, doling out loans, and later on become a cheap and reliable source for babysitting. When I moved across the country from my parents, they never called me, thinking I suppose that they didn't want to interfere in my life, while I tried to call them dutifully at least once a month to maintain the increasingly tenuous connection. When I was a teenager, my mother's father lived with us, and I found him to be a tedious old man who obviously disapproved of my adolescent habits. When he lost the use of his bowels and was moved into a rest home, I vowed never to grow old. A lot of good that did me.

And now I'm on the verge of elderly (when does it begin anyway, at 65, 70, 80?) and I can't make up my mind about what to do next. I seem to be happiest when I'm traveling, and so I think it would be a good idea to return to Southeast Asia where I could travel to my heart's content, to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, maybe even China or Australia. But this requires me to give up my home in Santa Cruz since I can't afford to live overseas and pay rent here as well. And what if it turns out I decide I don't want to spend the rest of my life in Asia, cared for by a rice farmer's daughter half my age? Can I return to California like Gerry did when he decided his move to New Hampshire was a mistake? Or like our other friend Jim, who moved with his wife to Vermont two years ago and has been terribly unhappy ever since. They return to California this month. Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again about just this dilemma. But was he right?

And while I ponder my fate, real problems are taking place in the world, like the war in Iraq, Bush's veto of the war funding bill, the opening this weekend of "Spider-Man 3," global warming, and turtles running amok on the Westside of Santa Cruz. Where are my priorities anyway?

Tomorrow I drive down to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur for five days of meditation, prayer and relaxation, a gift from the pilgrims I guided through India. Maybe I'll figure it all out there while starring out at the Pacific Ocean two miles down the hill.