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.