Part I—the message
First…I am not a “believer” in the sense that word is often used.
It’s not that my parents didn’t try—well, my father didn’t, because he was rather skeptical himself. But my devout Baptist mother hauled me into to my godfather’s church dressed to the nines with white gloves and black patent leather shoes buffed to a mirror shine every single Sunday of my elementary school years.
But it didn’t “take.”
Her anthropomorphic male God seemed a scarier and somewhat less generous version of the Santa Claus who “sees you when you’re sleeping…knows when you’re awake…knows when you’ve been bad or good.” But Santa gave us presents. This other Guy just kept telling me that everything that felt good was bad, and was ‘way too eager to cart my sassy little butt off to Hell at any minute.
I was also a bit perturbed to see what His earthly children did to each other between visits to His “House” on Sundays. I knew all those people. I heard what they said about each other over the back fence. I’d seen them drunk and disorderly on many a Friday or Saturday night, and sometimes even at the big soul food gatherings we had right after church on Sunday, too.
As Sondheim’s song so beautifully explains, “Children will listen.” And what I heard outside of church didn’t sound anything like the behavior prescribed in those sermons. I was down for the gospel songs—they used to jam on it at a lot of the other churches I finally started going to with friends, looking for a God I might like better than my mother’s. People got up on the good foot at those churches, and I’d go home wringing sweat wet from just watching people “get happy,” as they used to call it.
Their God seemed like a pretty fun Guy. But my mother said the people who attended those churches were all going to Hell for dancing like that and forbade me to be seen in them. Drat.
So…I quit going to church, period, when I got old and bold enough to stand my ground. And she quit going, too. Her life took some sharp turns, and I think she felt betrayed. She never said it, but over the years she became increasingly bitter and sad.
Her little heathen eventually moved West to live among Native people whose “Creator” was a very different sort of deity. IT…was us. Each of us. It was a kind of energy which allowed all creatures great and small to do divine work themselves. Every day.
The bumper sticker motto “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi” seemed to work in real life up there. There were almost no jobs, so many families still relied upon the communal redistribution of material goods built into the tribal ceremonies.
Life there is a constant give and take between friends, family and neighbors—everyone has an important role to play and no role is less important than another. Those who refuse to play their parts put not only their own lives but the lives of thousands of others in peril—the ceremonies help keep everyone involved, arriving in a precise cycle throughout the year.
There were few luxuries when I first arrived, and that hasn’t changed a great deal, either. Though many have dishes now, back then those who had television could only watch two or three TV channels. Ditto for radio, though now they have their very own little radio station.
Phone service of all kinds remains somewhat “iffy.” There is no fast food, no Starbucks--none of the things we consider essential to the pursuit of happiness.
And yet…they’re some of the happiest people on earth.
There is, I began to realize, a fascinating “call and response” going on between these happy people and their Great Whatever. It works almost exactly like the sermons in the “fun” churches where the pastors would speak or sing a line and the choir and congregation would respond with joyful gusto. Only on Hopi, the people speak and sing the lines and their Great Whatever responds with joyful gusto—and amazing generosity.
I also began to believe that this Great Whatever could survive the scrutiny of scientists. In fact, science actually proved its existence, as Einstein, who had visited the rez once, often said—to a child in this case: Einstein on prayer.
It makes sense if you really think about it. Atoms and molecules and cells and almost all the little bitty building blocks of life follow prescribed patterns or ”rules” that keep everything going just so. And they do it automatically, without any intervention from us.
So we don’t walk around all day going, “Beat, heart! Beat, heart! Beat, heart!” Our hearts just beat. We know they will continue beating ‘til they just don’t one day. We do not have to think about this. We do not have to think about a lot of things that happen all day and night long.
This…is a kind of faith in action. And nobody has to be taught to have thatkinda faith.
Other kinds of faith…well…on to the next installment:
Part II—the “miracle”
There is a joke about a man drowning in the ocean—why doesn’t matter, just…read on.
A rescue helicopter comes along and drops a rope, but the man refuses, assuring the pilot that God is going to save him. And then a boat comes, and the man sends these rescuers away as well, still insisting that God is coming any minute to save him. Finally, a dolphin swims along and starts trying to push the man to shore, but the man shoos the dolphin away as well, still absolutely certain that God is on His or Her way.
In the end, he gets so exhausted that he finally can’t keep his head above water and he drowns. And at the Pearly Gates, he gives God holy heck.
“I believed in you and you let me drown!” he hisses.
And God, with a puzzled frown, replies, “But…I sent you a helicopter and a boat and a dolphin!”
You’ve guessed it. In that little scenario I’m the guy who drowned--metaphorically.
Here’s the backstory:
In the film Mythic Journeys about which I waxed poetic a few weeks ago, the spiritual teachers all urged each of us to think about and find the recurring themes in our life stories. The recurring “theme” of my life story is “fear of not having/being enough.”
I am the child of parents who grew up in the pre-Civil Rights Era South and were hit with a Depression not too long after they fled that South looking for better lives. The fear of “lack” was the motivation for almost everything they did, and they knew it.
Some of you may also remember the loaded pantry shelves that parents of that generation almost always had. My father would buy whole “flats” of Campbell’s soups and an impressive assortment of canned beans, stews, chilis, corned beef hash, Vienna Sausages and the dreaded potted meat that we almost never actually ate. I think there was also powdered milk and Lipton tea and probably sugar and flour and lard—as a kid those things didn’t interest me as much as the dozens and dozens of cans lined up just so.
I was allowed to have the soups when I was sick. Which is probably why when I faced the worst illness of my life two years ago, I craved Campbell’s chicken noodle and chicken with rice soup almost exclusively during the first few months. In fact, they proved to be the only things I could actually keep down for several weeks.
But those cans taken from the shelves for sickness’ sake were always replaced almost immediately. The shelves had to be completely full so that whenever we opened the pantry door we could see “survival in a can” waiting there for whatever disaster, natural or manmade, that we might face.
And yet, when it came to me, my parents were almost obsessively but characteristically extravagant. Many black parents of their era were exactly the same. They knew what it was like to have nothing. They were used to being told they were nothing.
And so they had decided that their children would have everything, no matter how many floors they had to mop or other menial jobs they had to take to supplement their incomes.
My parents rose above the menial jobs to very secure and, in my father’s case, remarkably secure and comparatively lucrative positions. And if I simply stared at something long enough in a store or a catalog or…wherever, my father would buy it—usually a few days later, so that he could surprise me with it.
I learned to say that I was just looking, so that I would not have to feign excitement a few days later when he brought home something I’d been staring at mostly trying to figure out why anyone would want it.
This overindulgence is probably why for most of my adult life I deliberatelytempted the fate they had feared. I planned nothing. I spent freely--frivolously, to be honest.
And having moved away from Daddy, I bought myself almost anything I stared at. During my Sun Times days I showed our fashion editor a dress I’d seen in a magazine that I thought I just might want to be married in someday. She found it at a very expensive and exclusive New York boutique…and I bought it by phone.
I have no idea what happened to that dress I paid so much for. And I never wore it, by the way. The point, of course, had been being able to buy it, whether I wore it or not.
Side note: I picked a lover the almost the same way once, too. He stole my breath when I saw him on TV while I was still in college, and I vowed that I would meet and perhaps “have” that man someday.
Years later, when I became a features reporter, I opened a press kit to find that amazing face staring up at me from a publicity photo. I volunteered to interview the cast. Ebert said “Sure!” And I got my wish—we hit it off immediately, the breath-taking actor and I.
I know what happened to him. It wasn’t pretty. Another narrow escape…
To this day, I blithely dance as close to disaster as I dare. And though I am always rescued, my parental “guidance” kicks in just enough each time to scare me sideways and keep me in a persistent state of anxiety, sure that this will be the day that disaster dances up and throws its arms around me in an inescapable embrace.
Fast forward to this summer, post-retirement and many moons past my most reckless days. I have the kind of pension that few if any of our children will have. And my income will double next March when I’m finally old enough to collect Social Security as well.
But because my monthly income is somewhat below what I earned as an assistant principal –or will be ‘til next year--I decided to continue teaching online for the University of Phoenix and other universities from time to time, to bridge the gap.
That second income allowed me to be my usual financially irresponsible self. If I spent a little too much of that pension, the UOP check would pick up the slack. In fact, fate seemed to be conspiring to send me little gifts above and beyond that UOP money.
For instance, a friend in Chicago typed my mother’s name into a form on a Web site that allowed you to search on a name and find out whether there was forgotten money left in an account somewhere. My mother, deceased by then, had “forgotten” $3000—or rather had forgotten that she’d bought a CD that was now worth that tidy sum.
Did I recognize this as proof that the Great Whatever would continue toconstantly and sometimes spectacularly rescue me time and time again? Oh,please. I spent the money as if begging for the cosmic “potch in the tuchus” that I was sure would come.
So okay, what’s this miracle you’ve been waiting for? Watch this:
A few months ago, the University of Phoenix sent out a letter to all part timers, explaining that they were going to be replacing most of us with full time staff. We were also invited to apply. At present, there have been over 3000 applications for only 315 positions.
I was not among those applicants. I’m retired and have no desire to teach full time. And I am also at that age when finding any type of work, part time or otherwise, is very difficult.
So there was suddenly a big hole in my safety net and I had no way of mending it in time to save myself from six months of what I was sure would be penury and pain—the unabridged versions of those tapes in full effect. Mind you, there are people who would give anything to have what I have. But the tapes scream, “May Day! May Day! May Day!” as if I were the Titanic going under.
And so as I called up each of my online accounts and did the math, I melodramatically muttered “God help me…” Not as a prayer, just as a verbal manifestation of the fear I felt.
I ignored the little popup window letting me know that there was a new email in my Outlook inbox, as I sat there “stewing in my own juice” as my mother used to call it when I found myself in a bad situation that I myself had caused and should have seen coming.
And then, as a temporary distraction from despair, I decided to check that email. And when I did…my jaw dropped.
I had been offered two sections of one of the classes I thought I would never teach again. And the sum I would receive would cover all of those bills I’d been worried about, with some left over.
And…of course…I immediately began to worry whether it will be enough or whether this would be the last course I’ll ever teach. Which is when theimportant part of this little miracle occurred.
I said--out loud--“Jesus, what do you need, a burning bush?!”
That imagery harkening back, I realized later, to the fire and brimstone sermons of my youth that had apparently left more of an impression than I thought.
But the important thing is not the “love in the nick of time” I received from the Great Whatever—thank you Bonnie Raitt for that wonderful turn of phrase and Great Whatever for one of the most impressive reminders, ever. It’s the fact that as soon as I uttered those words…the fear completely left me.
And has not returned.
So that dolphin from the joke swam right into my inbox that day. And I saw the Great Whatever in that little smile that dolphins perpetually wear, smiled right back, and gratefully and serenely let it push me back to terra firma.
The scientific rule behind this cosmic “call and response” may never be found. But I have finally seen it often enough to absolutely believe and trust it.
And by the way…that class? It started today.