An old friend came by the other night. Actor turned therapist. He works with children in Ventura County. He has this penetrating look. The look of an active listener. He’s the type that makes me aware of how little I listen. He makes me aware of the fact that I merely wait my turn so I can jump into the conversation with some clever retort. PJ doesn’t do this. He waits, deferring to what’s on my mind. His eyes never leave my gaze for a moment unless of course he’s laughing which is deep and heartfelt. Pure Joie de Vivre.
After I finished going on and on about my situation we spoke about the kids, work and faith (a bit). PJ has a trained voice and he’s a reader at the parish. He adds a vitality to the scriptures; he makes them come alive. There’s a heft to him. A gravitas. I’m envious of his nature in a way, envious of his ease. I remember when his daughter would meander up to the podium and he’d give her a hug while still reading away. This was highly unconventional and could have rocked the parishioners, but he never lost his connection with the text, or his audience.
“I was an atheist for a while but that one quote from Shakespeare always got me,” PJ said.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“Hamlet led you to faith?”
He laughed and everything rocked with it. His belly. His shoulders.
“I kept thinking that the likes of you and me are the highest consciousness?” He laughed again. “Really?”
I used to stare at the icons in church as a kid. Madonna and Child. Jesus on the cross with a Roman soldier looming, arms folded, mallet in his hand. John and Mary at his foot in despair. Three dimensional narratives. The statues suggested something, though, some mystery despite the confusing message. The strident message from Paul about faith as opposed to the cool hand of Jesus who reassured despite your lack of. I also fought with my brothers in the pew. My dad would give us “the look”, occasionally grabbing our arms and squeezing. His hands like vice grips. Mom sang in the choir just out of eye shot of all the nonsense.
As I got older the message dimmed and I cast aside the icons that offered something. Breaking the rules is what it’s all about as Bruce said, “momma always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but momma that’s where the fun is!” The seven deadly sins became, in their own way, the eyes of the sun. An invitation. Something to be tested out. Horary for lust, greed, and sloth!
College, job and marriage came soon enough. I was conditioned for such things so when the kids came along my religion seemed to have a rightful place. Call it the passing on of tradition? Call it monkey see monkey do? I had been trained to go, and therefore I trained my children to go, like I had trained them to do many things, like the need to floss for instance.
I asked PJ if he wanted some food. It was getting dark. I was hungry. In order to take the crizotonib I have to eat otherwise it upsets my stomach, so I prepared some chicken and dropped peeled potatoes into a pot of water. There was an abundance of kindling. I started a fire.
“I wanted to be part of the second wave,” PJ said. The dry sticks ignited and popped, “I know when I was sick so many came in the beginning.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, “but I have a question…do you still go to mass?”
“Only when it’s my time to read,” he said.
“I don’t anymore,” I said, “not after all the priest scandal.”
“I miss seeing you,” PJ said.
In my thirties my drinking had reached a point of no return. Alcoholism is an idea, like love, or God, that can’t be defined, or that the explanation is unsatisfying, or incomplete. Both straight forward and counter intuitive at the same time. For example, Alcoholism involves drinking but has little to do with alcohol. God is everywhere but is more verb than noun. They’re both something to be understood with the “heart-mind”, rather than the mind (I suppose) and in my case there was a small window to investigate such a notion (that I might be an alcoholic- that there might be a God), a little portal, a small crack in the door. One thing led me to the other (not sure which). The point is I stopped. The “idea” of God filled the void. I changed, and my conception of God has changed again and again.
That was a long time ago.
Now cancer has led me back, again, to God. It has been “the second wave.” The most prominent feeling after my diagnosis was fear, but that has been replaced by gratitude. It’s like a fire has been lit inside me, a fire that won’t go out. Every encouraging message, every letter, every dinner, or present, or good wish, stokes the fire, but still it goes deeper than that. The fire has been lit by someone, some God, and all I have to do is remember it, and put my hands over it when I’m cold. Warm myself.