Thursday, May 22, 2014

my truth

I've begun a new position as the spiritual coordinator (read: chaplain) at a pair of boys' and girls' residential treatment facilities and next Sunday I hope to initiate my first chapel service for them. I don't know if I'll be able to read the following message, but after several weeks of trainings, meetings, observations, and time spent with the kids, I've been moved to write this as the overriding message I want my ministry to reflect.

            Ten years ago I was teaching college English at prisons in Minnesota. I really like doing that. It was important work. During break one night an inmate came up and told me he wanted me to know what he’d done to be sentenced.

            Now, I don’t know if it’s as important a thing here as it is in prison, but you don’t ask someone what he or she has done in prison. It’s a private, personal secret in a very public place, People jealously guard it and sometimes it’s literally dangerous for other people to know how you broke the law.

            So when this guy said he wanted to tell me what he’d done I said, “I’d rather you didn’t.” He asked, “why not?” and I said, “right now I’m your teacher and you’re my student and I like you. But if I find out what you did I might not like you so much anymore.”

            But he took the chance and told me. And although it was something nasty, I still like him for who he was. It doesn’t always work out like that but sometimes, when you’re lucky, it does.

            I know why you’ve come to chapel, what it is you want. In addition to a break in your day, you want the answers. You want someone to tell you what they are, about god and the afterlife and heaven and hell. Most of all, you want someone to tell you it’s all worth it.

            I’m here to tell you the not-so-good news but it’s the truth. I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t think anyone knows. Some people come to what they think are the answers for everyone but at best they’re just the answers for them.

            That’s not to say you won’t find answers. For some of you, you might find answers in the Bible or the Koran or the Buddhist Sutras. And those are legitimate answers but they’ll be your answers and nobody else’s and you’ll only find them after you’ve looked a long time and really hard at them.

            You want to know what the secret is and that all the crap you’ve gone through, all the worst stuff you’ve done and had done to you, is worth it. That at the end of the day the good outweighs the bad and you are happy and satisfied and the world is smiles and rainbows. That might be the case. It’s not the case for me or most of the people I know. The world is sometimes a beautiful place and sometimes it’s hellish. Most of the time it’s a balance between the two. I hate to be the one to tell you it never really does get better or easier. Not in the way you want it to: you find the pill or the therapy or make the breakthrough that makes that possible. I used to look for those and it might work for a little while. But eventually you see through that and realize it wasn’t the real answer you wanted.

Life is hard. Maybe it’s meant to be. Maybe it’s better that it’s harder for some of us than for others. I can’t promise you it won’t get harder. You’ll make breakthroughs and you’ll backslide, sometimes worse than before. That’s how life is. Someone once said the only constant is change. A Greek philosopher named Heraclitus famously said you can’t step in the same river twice. The truth is that that’s the truth. You might feel crappy as all hell today and tonight feel like yours is the best life in the world. And tomorrow you might feel exactly the opposite. I can’t promise that won’t happen all your life.

            But I can promise you one thing. This is unchanging, no matter how much you search, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how many dead ends you end up following, no matter how many times you scream and fight and curse god and those around you. There will always be someone who will help you. Call it god, call it reality, call it staff, call it the divine in other people, but there will always be people who are willing to be with you. To explain things, to tell you what you might find ahead, to comfort you and remind you that, while the bad things you’ve gone through may or may not be worth it, you are worth it. This is my truth, my good news. No matter how you feel, no matter what anyone says or how the world treats you, you are worth it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

my superhero identity

Barring introduction by aliens or an industrial accident, the superhero whose special powers I could replicate is Mystery Men's The Shoveler. With the exception of one very big plot done with a Bobcat, all the gardens at the two homes we've owned have been created by me with my trusty yellow-handled spade bought in the mid-90s for $20. In our gardening ventures, my wife is the brains, I am the strong back.

Most recently, we've decided to make an above-ground garden, previously devoted to flowers, a vegetable garden. This required my not only weeding it but digging up the black plastic we had laid under the soil years ago (possibly a decade ago). It took a little over a week and a half; after I started and got half-way done, it rained for nearly a solid week, which made weeding easier but tugging the plastic loose harder.

It began as a load of soil mistakenly dumped in the backyard instead of on the garden we'd already dug, and to quote the sainted Arlo Guthrie, "instead of bringing that pile up we threw ours down." We had a number of railroad ties that propped it up and dozens of bricks to hold them in place until they were solid. It's served us well in the ensuing years, and St. Francis has watched over it peacefully. But with only a few exceptions, you can't eat flowers, and we're ready to make it more utilitarian.

Friday, May 2, 2014

what color was your robe?

I don't think I've told this story before. This was back in my Woodstock days when I was working at Sunflower, a health food store (yes, the one where I met Ed Sanders, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger). I was working a closing shift and took my lunch break in the office, where I settled into the manager's chair, put my feet up on the desk, and drifted off to sleep.

The dream was incredibly vibrant for what must have been only minutes but seemed as if it lasted for hours. I was back at the Buddhist monastery where I'd attended sesshin the year before, and kneeling before the abbott for my weekly interview. He asked me, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" And I, thinking I was very clever, held up my right hand and slapped its fingers against the palm.

The abbott remained quite composed, sitting calmly and regarding me. Then he brought out from its hiding place behind him the kyosaku that the head monk used to prod us if we slouched in meditation or smack us loudly if we fell asleep. He screamed "Wrong!" and brought it sharply and loudly on my head.

He composed himself again and repeated, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Probably thinking of the story of Huangbo, I leaned forward and slapped the abbott across the face.  He reamained as calm as before until, again as before, he screamed "Wrong!" and slammed the kyosaku against my melon.

This went on over and over. The abbott would ask the same question and I would answer in some way and he would shriek "Wrong!" and smack me on the head. Finally, I answered "I don't know," and at that moment (as I experienced it) my feet slid off the desk and I woke up.

I shook my head several times before going back out on the floor. At the register I told the dream to Nancy, who often worked closing shifts with me. She said, "But what color robe were you wearing?" But I hadn't looked down at myself once during the dream.

I'd like to say that my feet sliding to the floor and waking me was when I became enlightened but the truth is that I'd become enlightened the year before at sesshin. I dutifully reported it to the abbott during one of our interviews and he answered, "Oh, I'm so sorry."