Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Karma Macchiato

Written in December 2007

A Karma Macchiato
All sorts of weird things have happened to me this year. I had a cancer scare, a stalker, a mean guy dumped me and broke my heart, I got an ulcer and lost 15 pounds, then I lost my job and sprained my ankle. Oh, and I sprained my wrist too.

All of these terrible things have prompted my friends to ask me, one by one, that age-old question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

First of all I thank them for putting me in the "good people" category. I often wonder if I'm a good person, after all those poisonous and uncharitable thoughts I have towards other drivers while I'm in traffic and towards my loud, idiotic neighbor Todd, so it's good to know people still regard me as a good person - at least to my face.

There have been a lot of great books written on the subject of why bad things happen to good people. Those books tackle the issue far more eloquently than I ever could, but I do have some humble, unqualified opinions of my own.

Here's the first important fact, and it IS a fact: Bad things happen to everybody. They occur with the same statistical frequency to all types of people, good and bad, across the board. I think it's very funny that some people believe if they clean up their lives, start being good, start going to church, that bad things will stop happening to them. They think a virtuous life is a magic talisman that protects them against adversity. If this was true, then Jesus, the Dalai Llama, Martin Luther King and Ghandi would have had it made. Clearly, their virtuous lives did not make them immune to adverse events. It instead made things very dangerous for them.

The main issue that people struggle to understand is - how can good people die young, or lose people they love in violent, incomprehensible ways? This is true because of another hard, cold fact: Death is a part of life. It is unavoidable. We all die at different times and in different ways. People who are left behind are distraught, destroyed, pissed off, blaming God, but we all die. It is inevitable, and it's been part of the deal since the beginning of time. Death is not the problem. Our non-acceptance of it is the problem. 

As far as the ways in which people die - it is man, and not God, who created a violent culture in which wars and crime are still acceptable. God gave us all free will, and He is horrified that we choose to use our free will to violate his first Commandment - Thou shalt not kill. He is also horrified that people still die in natural disasters because greedy, corrupt governments won't spend the money for warning systems and protection of their citizens. 

God sighs and rolls His eyes a lot. He can't believe what idiots we all are, and yet somehow He still loves us. 

So - bad things happen to all people. They are simply a part of life, and it's our responsibility to learn how to navigate around the negative things that happen to us and learn from them.

When something bad happens to a good person, though, there is a bonus. Good people tend to have good friends, or even in the absence of good friends (if life has deprived them of such) they have good karma. I'm a Christian, but I believe very much in the Hindu concept of karma. Whatever energy you put out into the world, comes back to you. If you don't get a reward for the positive things you have done in this life, you will receive that award in the afterlife or in your next life. If you don't get punished for the bad things you've done in this life, you will be punished for it in the hereafter. (I'm also a Christian who believes in reincarnation.)

When bad things happen to bad people, they don't get the benefit of cashing in on good karma. They don't have kind, loving friends who rush in to help them and offer their love and support. If they are not spiritual, they have no force beyond themselves to to talk to about what they are going through. They have no one to confide in. Bad people are very much alone, and that is their karmic punishment. My ex-husband used to talk all the time about his loneliness. He dwelled on it constantly, and did not realize that he created it himself. He was a person who was cold, distant and secretive, so of course he was lonely. He lived in a walled prison of his own making. I was the only person he ever allowed inside, and even then he kept me at a safe distance. When he struggled with things in his life, I was the only person he could talk to and when I left him, he was again utterly alone.

When bad things happen to bad people, they suffer alone. Their punishment for being bad is loneliness, which is quite possibly the worst feeling on earth.

I have never, ever felt lonely a day in my life. This is my reward not for being perfectly good - lord knows I will never be as good as I wish I could be - it's simply a karmic reward for trying to be good - for letting people in, and striving to have deep, positive and authentic relationships. When bad things happen to me, I never suffer by myself. I have wonderful friends and a very loving family who surround me and help me through my troubles. Because I am a spiritual person, I have a higher power that I can always turn to, pour out my heart to and cry to when I am in despair, and it gives me tremendous strength when things aren't going well. I've gotten three freelance jobs and several odd jobs since I've been unemployed. All have been through friends. Sweet, nurturing Jason even gave me a brace for my sprained ankle, and he cooked dinner for me the night I was laid off, gave me a hug and said "Don't worry. It's going to be OK."

Most importantly, I have a spiritual community that functions as it's supposed to - as a support system. Even though I've been maintaining my finances pretty well I have been very worried about money - constantly scribbling totals on paper and adding things up on the calculator. Last night Carol, my beloved friend and the rector of my church, called me up and said "Are you going to be at church tomorrow for the Christmas Eve services?" I thought wow, now that's a lot of guilt if I was planning on not going...but I said yes, I'd be there. She said "Good. I have something I want to give you."

"What is it? I really hope you didn't get me a present. I can't shop so..."

"No, no. It's not a present. It's not from me. It's from a parishioner who wants to remain anonymous. Claudette, it's a check for $1,000."

I didn't know what to say. I was stunned.

"Who...who would do such a thing...?"

"When you told me you lost your job, I sent your resume around to everyone in the parish. Somebody responded by sending you a check. You better get over here and get it tomorrow. I know you need it. And hey - why the heck were you limping today in church?"

I told her the long, crazy story of my sprained ankle and she laughed with me. Then she said "I'll see you tomorrow night. Limp on back to the vestry and I'll give you that check. Merry Christmas."

Maybe it's from a friend in my weekly group, or someone I've counseled as a member of the prayer team. Maybe it's from one of the people I took communion to in the hospital or in a nursing home, or someone who was at one of the events where I mediated. It could be one of the elderly people I sang for at the monthly luncheon, or it could be a complete stranger who just felt like it was the right thing to do. 

And that is the reason bad things happen to good people - so other good people can help them. That way the cycle of good karma can always continue.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Mollie’s Roommates

Written Monday, October 15, 2007 

One of the many reasons I love doing volunteer work at my church is because it's the only area of my life that, 100% of the time, turns out to be more fun than I expect it to be. 

You know how it is. The majority of activities in life are underwhelming. You get all psyched for a party and then you get dressed up and go, and after about fifteen minutes you think "OK. I'm so bored I want to chop my own head off." or - as you're headed home from your friend's show in Pasadena at 1AM on a work night you think "Well, that's twenty dollars and three hours of my life I'll never get back..." Maybe it's just me, but most things don't live up to my expectations. Maybe I'm a bitch.

But really - my church activities never, ever fail to give me back much more than I could ever imagine. I was reminded of this yesterday when I went to visit Mollie Cooper. Mollie is a tiny English lady in her mid-eighties. She has been in a nursing home for many months undergoing tests and trying out new doctors as she awaits diagnosis for a mysterious paralysis of her right leg. I first met Mollie when I was assigned to take communion to her as part of our parish outreach, and I've been dropping in to visit her on a regular basis ever since. Mollie is perfectly healthy and her mind is as clear as a bell, so it is particularly frustrating for her to be confined to her bed and a wheelchair when she wants so much to return to her home and to her life. 

Usually when I visit Mollie she has not been sleeping very well. She's in a room that holds three patients and unfortunately her roommates, who are in various states of elder mental deterioration, keep her up all night moaning, screaming or rambling incoherently at the top of their lungs. Mollie is quiet and gentle and would never complain, but the inability to sleep has been horribly distressing to her. When I visit her we always try gamely to chit-chat and have our communion amid the din of those two poor lost souls who are never quiet.

Yesterday, though, I walked in and said "Hey - what's this? You got two new roommates?" She introduced me to them: Lillian, recovering from hip surgery, and Suzanne - a middle-aged Chinese lady suffering from the effects of diabetes. They were just as lovely and sweet as Mollie herself. We talked awhile and then I said, "Well, I guess Mollie and I need to get started on communion. Will you excuse us?" and Lillian said "Oh - I want communion too!" Suzanne rolled over in her wheelchair "Me too! I want to participate!" 

Usually I don't like to seem evangelical - I'd never ask anyone to join in or try to "recruit" them in any way, but these ladies were jumping right on the bandwagon. They took the little programs for the hospital service from me and looked them over quite seriously, then they got very still and ready to pray.

I have to admit that the mini-church service I performed, which usually takes about 5 minutes, stretched to 10 minutes because I was showing off and wanted to give these ladies a good impression. I took my time with the prayers and the scripture readings and tried to give a particularly profound, sonorous ring to the words so everybody would get some sort of mystical feeling from it.

When it came time in the service for communion I gave them each a wafer while saying "the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven" and then gave them all a sip from the miniature silver chalice saying "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." Each lady crossed herself, then closed her eyes as she received the host and wine. No matter where I perform the service or participate in it, I always am struck by people's faces as they receive communion. They are so calm. It seems that they are connected to the constant flow of a sacrament that is happening in thousands of places throughout the world at that very moment, and which has continued in an unbroken current since Jesus first performed it over two thousand years ago.

What a delight to share this intimate moment with two strangers - Lillian and Suzanne. How wonderful that they recognized its importance and wanted to participate with me and Mollie. After we finished up the service and did our closing prayers, my usual overflow of "thank you's" and "you did such a good job!"s from Mollie were multiplied by three as Lillian and Suzanne expressed their appreciation. I returned all their thanks and told them they also did a good job, and I told them I'd be praying for their quick recovery. 

And so I got my usual happiness from seeing Mollie - times three. I can't think of anything else that gives such a great return.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Scared of Skunks

Written in Sept. 2007

This past Monday night at 8:05 PM, I was standing at my boss' desk thinking "C'mon, c'mon, hurry it up. I gotta get out of here.." as he pondered the items on some invoices. He was taking his time, trying to make sure I hadn't left out any charges to our clients, and I was antsy. 

Finally after an eternity he handed me the sheaf of papers and I asked, crossing my fingers, "Can I possibly do these corrections tomorrow morning?" 

"Yeah, yeah. Go on." he grumbled reluctantly in his low growl.

I was late. I dashed to my desk and grabbed purse, keys, jacket while yelling "'Bye everybody!" and hoping they heard. I had exactly 10 minutes to get to a house in Silver Lake I had never been to, in the dark, in the traffic of Sunset Blvd.

Silver Lake is a neighborhood near downtown LA that others find charming, but I find annoying. I think it's because my ex husband the Sociopath lived there when we were dating. It's a very hip neighborhood because it was extremely fashionable in the '20's, fell into disrepair by the '50's, and was revitalized by artists looking for cheap rent in the '60's. The Little Rascals and Melrose Place were both filmed in Silver Lake. But - I find it annoying. The streets are steep and narrow and there aren't enough street lights or understandable signage. I always get lost and end up in the ghetto.

So here I was, driving maniacally into the dark and tortuous streets of Silver Lake. I had been told that the place I was looking for was a little green house behind a duplex and that parking was "tricky." Tricky in Silver Lake is an understatement. Try impossible. Once I ascended past the hipster shops and restaurants at sea level, up into the inky blackness of the residential area, I had to park about a quarter-mile and several 40-degree-angled streets past the destination on my googled map.

I had not yet had dinner. I was in a very bad mood.

I parked and thought "God almighty my car is dirty. I should be ashamed of myself." as I gathered up my things, making sure I'd brought all the necessary elements, and started towards the house. I also reflected on the fact that I, perhaps one of the most fear-based people who ever lived, have started to regularly go into the strangest of situations because of the assignments I have been given. Even five years ago, I would have never thought I'd have the courage to venture into the unknown so frequently.

The streets of this new neighborhood were surprisingly pleasant. There were people out walking their small, friendly dogs and greeting each other by name as they passed. The houses were beautiful - quaint and well-restored - and the air was thick with the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine. I walked past one house and thought I saw a black and white cat scurrying away at the top of the steep stairs, but I realized it was a skunk. I couldn't believe it. I've never in my life seen a skunk in person. I've seen them in zoos, but never just hanging out in a neighborhood in the middle of a city. 

I silently thanked God I hadn't come along about 2 minutes earlier. I would have gotten sprayed, and would have gotten to know that skunk far better than I ever wanted to.

Here was the house. Number 1410 1/2. Do they do that in other cities? Is Los Angeles the only place where addresses are split so infinitesimally into halves and quarters? What's up with that? I used to have a friend who lived at 1623 1/4 Harper Street. How can anyone live in 1/4?

I took a deep breath and did what I always do before I meet new people - I swallowed my mind-numbing, earth shattering shyness. With each step up the long, steep stairs leading to the house I said to myself "I am not a shy person. I'm outgoing and socially adept. I will take deep breaths and go to my Happy Place."

It was very dark. My instructions said to go around the left of the duplex, then around back. It just got darker and darker. and the concrete steps got more and more treacherous. Someone in the duplex had left their back door open and all the lights on. I leaned in the door and shouted "Hello!" in case there might be someone who could give me directions. Nobody came. This must be a pretty safe neighborhood, I thought, if people can leave their doors open and their homes unattended. Or maybe - the person was in the bathroom. I moved on.

Finally, behind a thicket of trees on the left, I was able to make out the little green house in the darkness. It reminded me of the place at summer camp where Hayley Mills goes in the Parent Trap with her twin sister, and they accidentally become friends. 

I took another deep Happy Place breath and knocked. A male voice said "Come in." and I stepped into the tiny living room. I extended my hand to a man who was sitting on a day bed, unable to rise because of his twisted, paralyzed legs. 

"Hi Wayne. I'm Claudette. It's so great to finally meet you." I smiled.

"Thank you for coming." He said. "I - I want to apologize for the conditions..." 

I stopped him. "Oh, no worries at all." I said, waving my hand around the cluttered, dirty space that was only about as big as a walk-in closet, but that served as both his living room and bedroom. "I know how it is to be sick and not be able to get up to do housework. I've had Fibromyalgia for 8 years. I've had my days too."

"Well thank you so much." He said, looking humbly at the floor.

"And besides, this place is really cute. It looks like the Parent Trap camp house!" 

Wayne laughed "Doesn't it!? I call it Camp Silver Lake. I've got squirrels and birds and skunks up here, and I do a lot of painting so I love the light."

He told me he was a writer, too, and was working on a new play. I noticed two bowls on the floor and said "Omigosh. Do you have cats? I am a cat fanatic."

He said "If you open the front door, you'll meet them. There are three."

And sure enough, when I opened the door two marmalade tom cats and a little ladylike black cat came slinking in. He introduced me to them and I showed him all the pictures stored in my phone of my two babies, Sonny and Malousse. We swapped cat stories for a few minutes and then he asked me about Fibromyalgia, so I asked him about his condition too. He said he was born with a heart and spine illness because his mother had smoked when she was pregnant with him, back in the sixties when everybody's mom smoked. 

He'd endured an open heart surgery and had a pacemaker installed by the time he was 14 years old. Most of his life he had managed very well, maintaining an active social life and a job at the Mark Taper forum, but about a year ago he developed complications from his spinal condition which had paralyzed his legs and rendered him a prisoner in his own home. He and I talked about the despair of illness, and the depression that comes when you feel trapped in a body that no longer works. We talked about how when you reach that dark place, you start thinking about ending it all because you can see no hope. You can't even remember what hope looks like, or feels like. Both of us agreed that everyone who suffers reaches that place, and that the only thing you can do is hold on and ask God to give you strength. 

When we reached a good pause in the conversation I said, "Well, are we ready?" 

Wayne nodded and said "Oh yes - please."

I took out the items I've brought with me so many times, on so many occasions, to different and strange places around this city - a prayer service and a small kit, and we started the occupation I had come to share with Wayne: Communion. 

"Let us pray" - it always begins, and then I read the collect and the gospel of the day and we recite the Prayers of the People together. Wayne is an old hand at it. He barely had to look at the page. I included prayers for Wayne's healing, comfort and strength, and then we recited the Nicene Creed and shared the host and the wine. In the ending collect, I read the words that always resonate so deeply within me when I am with someone who has requested that communion be brought to their home because they are too sick to attend church: "We give thanks for Wayne, and for the communion we share as a symbol of our common life together."

That common life is what keeps me going to church. In my parish's common life I have found the true meaning of the phrase "We are all one body." When one of us is sick, a bunch of us go out to help them. When one of us is in despair and cannot go on, a bunch of us lend them our strength. When one of us is homeless or hungry, we feed them. 

I will never forget the Sunday after 9/11. My parents were in town, and I took them to church because I was serving as a chalice bearer for the 9AM service. The pews were packed. The events of September 11th had shattered the reality of people who never even considered being spiritual and had caused them to seek comfort and answers in organized religion. The service that day was somber. Faces were ashen, pinched and stunned. Carol delivered a sermon in which she tried to sort out the pieces of a broken world. When the time came to exchange the Peace, she uttered the words with special gravity: "The Peace of the Lord be always with you." 

We didn't just shake hands that day and say "Peace be with you" like we usually do. We hugged each other and said "Peace." The hugs were firm and strong - like hugs after a funeral. They were meant to say "Hold onto me for strength as long as you want. I am here for you." 

Whenever I take communion to someone in our parish, I am reminded of that day. I try to convey with all my words and actions that no matter what that person is facing, we are there for them. I take as long as I possibly can to chat with them and do what there seems to be a deficiency of in this world - listen. I always learn something amazing from them, and I am always enriched and strengthened by their stories. I can't heal Wayne or solve all his problems, but I can remind him that he's part of our common life, and I can listen. 

Wayne has some good news. He's got a new personal trainer who is giving him hope that his legs will not remain paralyzed. They are doing strengthening exercises and he's started getting out of the house more often. He even bought a season pass to Disneyland. Apparently it's not only the happiest place on earth - it's also the most handicapped accessible place on earth too. See? You learn something new every day. Through his healthcare assistance he has also managed to hire someone to clean his house, and members of the parish have pitched in to bring him groceries and take him to doctor appointments. 

Wayne's body has failed him, so we, his church, are lending him ours. That's what it really means to be a church - the Body of Christ. Being a church isn't about being all holy and judgmental and rigid. It isn't about condemning everybody for being sinful and deciding who is going to hell. That isn't our job. Only God has the authority to decide who's right and who's wrong. Our job is simply to do what Jesus told us to do in the only commandment he ever uttered while he was on earth: "Love one another as I have loved you."

My duties as a Lay Eucharistic Minister take me into some unfamiliar places and bring up a tremendous amount of my anxieties and fears, but each time I go out I get stronger and my fears are lessened. I go to see sick people who are in much more fear than I can ever imagine, and I offer them comfort as, without even realizing it, they offer it back to me. Their experiences give me perspective on my own life, and show me that no matter how bad things might get, there is always hope and there is always help. We lean on each other. That's what loving one another is really all about.

So on Monday I went to Silver Lake, met Wayne and saw a skunk. Not a bad start to the week.

(Update: Wayne Denbow passed away in 2009 after a life that lasted longer than anyone ever expected.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Are you ready?

Written Wednesday, September 05, 2007 

When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, they used to preach a lot about the Rapture. The church I attended with my mom and my grandma, Pleasant Valley South, was a very sweet, nurturing, wonderful place where I had many positive spiritual experiences, but that Rapture stuff - I gotta tell ya - it scared the shit out of me.

According to the Bible, the Rapture is that day, somewhere in the future, where God decides to take the righteous people up to heaven and he leaves the wicked people on earth to be judged and sent to purgatory and various levels of hell. You can imagine how this scenario might play out in the mind of a child sitting on a pew chewing Juicy Fruit gum from grandma's purse and listening to Preacher Mathis, with his Navy Tattoos running up and down his arms, expounding on how one of these days - nobody knows when - some of y'all are gonna git left.

Like I didn't already have ENOUGH to worry about. Jees. My dad was a psycho, my sister wanted to murder me and now this. Any day now, all the nice people in my life would get sucked up into heaven and I might get left behind to fend for myself or worse - spend eternity with my dad. I was pretty sure that I was righteous and not wicked, but I didn't have any real confirmation of that. There were probably all kinds of loopholes I wasn't aware of that would result in my perpetual exclusion from heaven. I mean - sometimes I lied about stuff and said cuss words. Did that count?

My usual reaction to uncertainty is to become paranoid. Even at such a young age, my anxiety kicked in at full throttle. Every morning I would wake up and check around. Yep - Autumn's still here, snoring and drooling...the cats are Barbies are here...I think I hear Mom rattling around in the Rapture. I'm good.

But the problem was - people in my family worked and went to school. I frequently encountered an empty house. Most of the time I knew where everybody was, but one day when I was about five years old I walked into the kitchen and my mom, who had the day off from work, was not there. My eyes darted around. I had seen a movie about the Rapture at church that Wednesday night, and the music from the kitchen scene began to play in my head. The character in that scene knew for certain he'd been left behind when he found something burning on the stove and realized his wife was gone. I checked the stove and sure enough, there was a pot - on a flame - with BOILING WATER!!!! I HAD BEEN LEFT BEHIND!!!! I WAS WICKED!!!!!

I collapsed in the floor in a heap, sobbing. How could this happen? How would I feed myself? Was there any chance I could get a meeting with God and ask him to reconsider? All was lost. The hellish blackness of a doomed eternity yawned before me.

And then, my mother walked into the kitchen. 

She frowned at me. "What in the HELL is wrong with you?"

"Oh mom!" I hugged her legs. "I thought the Rapture came and I got left behind."

"Well, there ain't no Rapture happenin' today, crazy."

Yes, crazy. My craziness began very, very early in life and sadly - it continues. This morning I came in to work and the front doors were closed. I let myself in with my key, calling for the receptionist. "Eileen? Eileen?" 

Nobody answered.

"EILEEN!?!?!?!?! IS ANYBODY HERE?!?!??!?!" 


I was ten minutes late, and still nobody was here. I tried to talk myself out of climbing up the Crazy Tree...

"OK. Now, I know good and well it's not the Rapture because if it was, I'd go straight to heaven because I'm an Episcopalian...but where is everybody? Is everyone stuck in traffic? Twenty people are stuck in traffic? Where is the production department? It's dark in here....where's the light switch? Is it Saturday? Must...maintain...semblance of sanity....must not freak out....WHERE IS EVERYBODY?!??!!? WHERE ARE THEY?!?!?!?! WHY AM I HERE ALONE?!?!?!?!? AM I A WICKED EPISCOPALIAN?!??!?!?"

As I was melting down in the lobby, William the Intern stepped off the elevator. 

"Hey, what's up?" He breezed by me.

"Nobody's here." I said, with tremendous gravity.

He shrugged, "Huh. I guess they're draggin' in late." 

How wonderful it must be for him to have no theological implications in his daily life. He walked over to his cubicle as if his soul was not even remotely doomed to hell.

Before I had the chance to get really nuts, people started showing up. 

"Why were you late? What HAPPENED?!?!?" I demanded.

"Oh, you know - traffic..."

The stakes are very high for me, people. I'd appreciate some cooperation. Don't pull any crazy crap on me any more like this stupid "Everybody be late to work" business. It can really throw me off. 

Now I'm going to be exhausted all day from being so freaked out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Thoughts on love and loneliness in preparation for Valentine's Day

Written on Wednesday, February 07, 2007 

Carol Anderson, the rector at my church, was one of the first women to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the late 1970's. She is an imposing figure - an intellectual giant who is regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on theology. Carol is a dear friend of mine and while I love and admire her, I have to admit I am still a teeny bit intimidated by her. While she's preaching she can be very warm and spiritual, but her one-on-one conversational style is brusque and direct, and you immediately sense that you'd better say what you mean quickly and get the heck out of her face because she's very busy saving the world. Woe be unto ye who try to push Carol around. You'll get a razor-sharp rebuttal straight from her genius-level I.Q. and you'll walk away with a red, smarting ego. 

Carol knows all this about herself, and she even says that her first boss, the head priest at a small parish in New York City, told her she should be a preacher and not a pastoral care specialist because of her harsh interpersonal style. He said, "I don't know how to put this nicely but - you interrupt people. You don't listen. You dismiss people before they're finished talking. You are completely unsuited to dispense pastoral care. Please switch to preaching." Apparently that was excellent advice because now, twenty years later, Carol's sermons pack in thousands everywhere she speaks and she has a staff of priests with gentle demeanors who do the pastoral counseling for her while she's cracking the whip and setting up homeless kitchens and disaster relief programs.

Just recently, though, I got a glimpse behind Carol's granite exterior when she told a story from her early career. She had just started working at a church in Manhattan, she said, when she received a phone call from a staff member at her former parish. "Do you remember Tony?" the caller asked. Yes, of course she remembered Tony. He and his wife had entertained Carol many times in their home for dinner. They attended church regularly and Tony was a struggling but sober alcoholic. "Well, I hate to be the one to break the news," the caller continued, "but Tony committed suicide yesterday. He jumped from a 15-story window." Carol was deeply shaken. Tony was a friend. He was very sweet man who, when she looked down at him sitting in the pew as she preached on Sundays, had gazed up at her like a baby bird yearning to receive her wisdom. She felt like she had failed him. The most heartbreaking thing of all was Tony's suicide note. It said only: "I'm sorry. I just couldn't make the connections."

That's what life is all about, isn't it? Connections. So many people never find those connections. They can be married for decades, raise children, have friends, live rich and full lives on the exterior and yet still be profoundly lonely because they feel they've never been truly understood by another human being. Some people, myself included, feel they are just too odd or sensitive to be understood. Others feel empty and isolated and they never realize it's because they put up walls and push away the people who reach out to them. 

When Carol heard Tony's words she decided to dedicate her career to helping people reach across the vast, lonely spaces of life and make the connections. She said "I realized I was never going to save anybody's life by teaching some stupid class in church liturgy." Her studies and her sermons became geared towards more personal, psychological issues and her charitable programs focused on bringing people together, teaching them to reciprocate great kindness, and healing their hearts and lives at a deep level.

These days Carol leads a parish where people feel nurtured, comforted and sheltered from a broken world. Where her pastoral skills lacked, her preaching and leadership skills have accomplished far more than she ever imagined. 

It was many years before Carol could tell the story of Tony's suicide without breaking down into sobs. She still chokes up when she tells of it now. At one point, though, she felt strong enough to preach a sermon about him. After the sermon a man walked up to her and said, "I know you're not going to believe this, but I am Tony's son and - I can't make the connections either."

He'd never been to this church where Carol preached about his father before in his life, but he was suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and decided on a whim to stop in to church and see if he might find some wisdom. Carol and he were stunned at the coincidence. After they stared at each other in shock for a few moments, Carol said "I'd like to help you. Will you let me?" and she did. 

Of all the complicated laws, commandments and directives listed in the Bible, only one is a commandment directly from God and not garbled by the minds and hands of man - Jesus looked humanity squarely in the eye and said "A new commandment I give you: Love one another as I have loved you." 

He wasn't talking about romantic love. Our culture would have us think that's the only kind of love there is. He was talking about the kind of love we often miss - the love of all the regular people in our lives. It's those little connections - to your children, your parents, your coworkers and friends, or to the homeless person who's accepting your help, that are the fabric of heaven.

Carol was one of the priests profiled in this 2004 article in TIME magazine on women clergy. Her profile is on page 3 of it:,9171,1101040628-655431,00.html

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Remembering Will

Written Saturday, January 20, 2007 

I went to Will Mecom's memorial service today. It was beautiful and sedate and elegant, with candles and communion and dignified behavior, and about ten minutes into it I thought, "What the hell IS this?" I looked around in horror at all my dry-eyed, quiet fellow mourners and wondered if I was actually dreaming that I was at some ghastly Stepford gathering and then I realized why it all felt so peculiar to me: I've never been to a funeral outside the south. "Ohhhhh .. I thought. This is how non-insane cultures do death. Interesting.."

I grew up in Georgia, but my "people" (for all you Yankees that means "extended family") are from Sand Mountain, Alabama. Down south, we don't have funerals - we have throwdowns. There's none of this stale "keep the remains out of sight" business like there was today at Will's urn-less affair. No sirree - you don't cheat your kin out of a good show by getting cremated. You get dressed up, painted up and laid up in a fancy coffin and displayed at the funeral home (or if you can't afford that, in your living room next to the egg salad and the Crimson Tide game on TV), and people swirl around you with great wailing and gnashing of teeth for three solid days. Your church provides two sturdy wooden signs to post out on the interstate near your home, in both directions, that say in a very Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-style giant, shakily hand-painted font: DEATH.

Women take center stage at southern funerary shindigs. They pass out, they kiss the corpse and get chest pains and they throw themselves into the coffins of men who were not even their husbands. It's all great fun. A 300-pound maw-maw always has to be carted out of there like James Brown at the end of a concert. People sweat, false teeth are spontaneously ejected in the throes of emotional turmoil, and sometimes fights erupt and are carried on a wave of hysteria out onto the front lawn. If you're lucky you might even get to see a little gunplay. 

My friend Jeff Reed drowned when I was in high school and my best friend Michael and I went to his service at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Jeff's church was located in a storefront that used to be, I believe, a tire store and it had no air conditioning. This was unfortunate because Jeff had passed away in the middle of the Georgia summer, it was 110 degrees with a humidity factor of 4000 percent and everybody was all dressed up in hats and ties and support hose. I think that funeral still holds the world's record for the most unconscious morbidly obese women at the end of it. They were piled up on the sidewalk outside like cordwood. The best feature of that funeral, though, was a massive super-serious man with a floor-shaking baritone voice who would occasionally cruise the pews, singing, with a box of pink Kleenex in his giant outstretched hand. It was like being serenaded by Barry White in the midst of your grief and turmoil. Women would take a tissue and he'd lock eyes with them and sing, "Come Home, Come Hooooommmmme.." and they'd shriek and drop to the floor. God, that was awesome. I want that guy at MY funeral.

So today was very stale and odd. I was all ready with a purse full of Kleenex to squawl my brains out, get hold of myself and then boo-hoo all over again in subsequent lurching waves for the remainder of the day. I was prepared to "take to my bed," exhausted and drained, for 72 hours afterwards like I've done for all the funerals I've attended. Now I have all this excess energy and I'm not entirely sure what to do with myself.

Come to think of it, here was one memorable moment the memorial service today. The priest who baptized Will repeated an email joke that Will had sent him a few years ago. Like many of us, Will was damaged tremendously by growing up in the Bible Belt among nutcase fundamentalists (who in my opinion have done more to destroy Christianity than the Roman Empire ever could have, but don't get me started.) and he always joked that he was a "recovering Evangelical." All us, his recovering Evangelical and recovering Catholic friends, had a good chuckle with him over this one:

Growing up in the Baptist church I learned two things:

1. That God loves you, and you're going to Hell.

2. That sex is the filthiest, most disgusting thing you could ever do, so you
should save it for someone you love.

Good bye dear sweet William, and thanks for the laughs. : )