Death in Paradise

Yesterday I saw a dead man.

Frothing at the mouth, his body turning slightly blue, he was slowly floated in on a stretcher at the beach as the medics removed his snorkel and flippers and placed him reverently in an ambulance. No one offered CPR or mouth-to-mouth as the gathering crowd stood silently, feeling his fate. “Man drowns while snorkeling in storm,” the papers may say today. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, because I saw his body already; newscasts and newspapers are for people who weren’t there. 

For some dare-devil reason, a tattooed islander had chosen to go out to the reef on the day hurricane Iselle passed over. Her winds whipped the waters, frothing and exposing the sharp coral formations, throwing debri on the sand, as ragged clouds quickly skirted by overhead. Someone from the shore must have seen the body floating in the lagoon and called for help, but the dare was over. Nature, one; human, zero. 

Just a few days before, I swam the quarter-mile out to that same reef. As I stroked my way, I looked below at the coral, an occasional blue or red fish, an isolated new coral growth, pink and flushed in its excitement. At high tide, the water barely covers these ancient burial grounds, where well-travelled ships have failed to find the way in, and sailors, fishermen, and giddy tourists have tasted salt water and suddenly forgotten how to breathe. As the waves crash further out, you can almost hear the souls of ancient Hawaii warning young and old, but I still wanted to go. Perhaps the possibility of death draws me, as it drew the frothing man. The reef offers a kind of baptism, an initiation at the edge of the world, the experience of another reality, where life depends on you ability to breathe, as if you were being born for the first time, out of the waters.

In a week or two, after the hurricanes have gone, I will choose a blue and placid morning and swim out again to the reef, remembering the frothing man and the fleeting fight for life that keeps all of us breathing.

The Aerosmith Theory of Atonement

You’d never know it,  looking at my butterfly collection and garage full of in-line skates, but I used to study theology. A central idea in that soup of ideas is “the atonement,” the belief that the death of Jesus saved the human race from something. For 2,000 years theologians have disagreed how the death of one man could possibly save a whole race–which it clearly hasn’t done–and there are at least five good theories. But I am against them all. True atonement is a creative act of grace, requires no payment in kind, and no one needs to die.

This story tells you why.

A few weeks ago I interviewed applicants for a new position, as my personal assistant. I use these occasions to pry into people’s lives. I ask, “What was the best moment in your work life so far?” and “What has been the worst moment ?” These are horribly intrusive, but I enjoy watching people grasp for the inexpressible.

“When I was a teenager,” said Ameerah, “something happened that changed me forever. It caused friction between my mother and me that has never gone away.  The pleasure I thought I would get from this act vanished immediately. I was so ashamed after that I couldn’t tell anyone.”

That’s enough to thwart any nosy employer, but not me. So, what did you do? I asked.

“I stole an Aerosmith CD from a store. Toys in the Attic. And I got caught.” Now here was a tender conscience.

The next weekend, I was comped some Aerosmith tickets and went to the United Center in Chicago to hear the legendary band. The huge auditorium has endless corridors and back rooms, and soon I found myself in some restricted area. Three or four burly guys demanded that I return to the fan seats. I’m trying to find water, I said, I have a kidney condition.

That did it.  Two guys urge me to follow them and the next thing I am in a room draped with silk sheets and stocked with ice buckets and make-up. I was in someone’s green room and a guard was thrusting a bottle of water in my had. No one was going to get a kidney stone attack on his watch. Tom Hamilton walks in and sits down in one of the lush chairs. He says hi and just assumes I have every right to be backstage with America’s greatest rock bassist. I was trippin’.

I have a story, I stutter between gulps. I tell him about Ameerah.

“Well, we can’t have that,” he retorts. Tom reaches for a pen and pad, and starts writing, lefty style. He tears off the sheet and hands it to me. “I’m sorry but I have to start getting ready.  We go on soon.” That’s my clue to leave. I stuff the paper in my back pocket and hurry out to find my seat.

The concert was awesome.

I have never been an autograph hunter. What would I tell people–that I had a piece of paper signed by Mr Sweet Emotion? So what!

But here is my new theory of atonement….

Tom’s letter to Ameerah

A New Ulysses

Burdens are the foundations of ease and bitter things the forerunners of pleasure.   Rumi

Some people find themselves in a tight and secure worldview in childhood, and spend their later lives fleeing it; others survive a chaotic early life and search as adults for lasting sources of stability and meaning.

In my case, the chaos hit when I was in my thirties. I found myself divorced and uncertain by choice, grappling with court dates and debt as I turned away from the life I had known as a minister, husband and father. On my journey into adulthood, I had chosen a doctrinaire and disciplinary college which reinforced my sense of “rightness” and by my late twenties was convinced that higher education would further qualify me as a teacher of right thinking and right doing. The life of a Bible teacher or archaeologist, an expert on the lives of people and cultures dead and gone looked attractive.

I knew nothing about what really matters in life; my soul was invisible to me.  I plunged into depression, the dark night in which outer knowledge fades and inner truths are revealed. Unable to deal with my mentally-ill wife, I found myself in therapy and began to discover my own feelings and needs. My dreams educated me in the river of symbols that flowed day and night within. My unloving actions mirrored the darkness within, while deep yearnings for a life that brought happiness to myself and others drew me on, like a ancient ship in the Aegean fog. Would I journey like Ulysses and find safe harbor, or end up thrown on the rocks?

One night on the way home from work, I was attacked by criminals swinging pipes. I lay in the gutter and waited for the ambulance to come.  I arose a new man, with eight broken bones, no longer believing that I was someone special or protected by God. For years I had dreamed of being attacked at night; at last it had happened. When I walked down Michigan Avenue a few weeks later, my arm in a sling and my leg in a cast, the well-dressed mostly ignored me, hurrying to the next appointment. The homeless on the same street looked me in the eyes, slowed down and said, “I’m sorry. What happened?”  I never saw myself that way, until I saw that others saw me that way. I knew compassion for the first time, and its name was I Am Like You.

That was twenty years ago. My dreams now lead me toward a new land. What was given up now returns with added blessings. I will become a father and husband again and fulfill my destiny. Like the ancient Greek who left his home and slowly journeyed back to what was always waiting for him, I am on way back where Telemachus and Penelope wait for me. I will slaughter her suitors; I will embrace my son; my old servant will recognize me– by my  scars.

(499 words)

How St Thomas Aquinas Cured My Headaches

I took a bottle of water and Science magazine to the beach yesterday and discovered that, finally, there is a prophylactic vaginal gel for HIV  which has already cut HIV infections among South African women by 39%.  In another story, ingesting a “magic mint” called salvia divinorum, researcher Matthew Johnson suggested, was “like opening a portal to another dimension.” In his study, people reported meeting “the same hallucinated beings from session to session.” China, meanwhile,  is anticipating a huge problem with its elderly population, as 80% of them are deeply in debt, live in shabby housing, and cannot afford medical care. Maybe they should take some of that mint and meet some new friends. There have been stranger ways of curing seemingly insolvable human conditions.

A woman in jeans and a blue hat lay a short distance from me, turning from side to side as she napped through all these fascinating scientific discoveries. She finally sat up. I decided it was time for a walk, and ambled down to the lake edge. I would not go in, I mused: the water would be warmer in maybe July, maybe  August. On my return, I found the woman had rolled up her left jean pant leg, taken a Sharpie pen and was writing on the exposed skin, starting at the ankle, line by line. She peered now and then into a small note book, from which she was taking words–or maybe just inspiration, I couldn’t tell which–and slowly wrote until she reached her knee. Then she started on the right leg and, when finished, stared at the expanse of the lake.

“What are you writing”” I ventured, hoping for a smile that might indicate it was okay to be curious about someone writing poetry or something on one’s body in ninety degree heat.

“On this leg I write the Seven Deadly SIns that I learned from the Great Saint Thomas Aquinas,” she answered, deliberately pulling the pant legs back down. “And on the other one I write the Plan for Happiness that Buddha taught. I think it has ten parts.”

As if no one had ever asked her before, she added, “it helps me with my migraines. I write and they go away. I sometimes drink a bottle of wine, but this works better. Saint Thomas said that if you commit one sin, you should do them all, so that’s what I am doing.”

“How does that work, you know, for your headaches?” I asked. I remembered St Dennis was the patron saint of headaches, although some women pray to St Theresa of Avila, as she had visions out of her head.

“When I write about one, like lust or anger, I think of the others, as if I’m doing them. After, I found the teachings of Buddha so I added those. And my migraines usually go away.” She gently packed her pen, diary and took off her hat, releasing thick blond hair.  “I have an appointment at seven,” she said.

An unscientific American, for sure.

(500 words)

(Includes accounts from Science, December 17, 2010.)

The Plan (2)

One Tuesday morning, on the outskirts of La Paz, my mother began to throw up. Maybe it was a stomach flu, dad said. You get these things in a new country.  The doctor at the American clinic wasn’t so sure. He’d seen it before: young couple gets married and a few weeks later–bingo!

They said they happy about it. I mean about me, but what they talked about was how this might affect The Plan. They both a kind of excited disappointment: excited for the birth yet feeling they had let down the college, the anthropologists and everyone who believed in The Plan. Conceiving could be interpreted as a lack of faith.

When I was born, the native people fussed. By then my parents had decided they could still be part of  The Plan. My father would do all the traveling. transcribing and translating. The village women came with my mother to an outlying clinic, carrying food, babies and small gifts. They sang for hours, dipping and dancing to ensure a safe delivery.  This would never have happened back in Pittsburgh. That’s where she was from. The whole idea that the village would stop everything to support her was overwhelming. It made you feel that no one in America ever really cared.

Anyway, that’s how I born. I had a valve problem with my heart and dad  had to fly us back to the USA right away. I guess I’m lucky to be alive. My parents had lived in Bolivia for almost a year.  They day we left, the men carried our books and clothes all the way to the bus that would take us to the capital. Even villagers not carrying anything came along. Every couple of hours, we would have to pass through another village, the men would talk and point, and gifts would be exchanged. Dad said that back in college he could not even get his room mate to help turn his mattress over.

They walked with us two and a half days, and then loaded us with whatever food was not eaten; they planned to walk all the way back without eating. My parents were the first white people who had ever spent more than an hour with them. I was the first white baby they had ever seen and I was a marvel but not a miracle to them. My dad promised that if all was well with the baby, they would come back soon. They believed it like they believed that rain came from the sky.

Just before the bus arrived, the village elders gathered everyone to hear a message. There was an ancient story, they said, that one day a white baby would be born to them, and it would also disappear. This way they would know that the end of the world was soon coming, and they should forgive all debts. bury old grudges, and give up fighting.

Several miles down the road, headed toward La Paz, my parents watched a dozen large trucks carrying bull dozers heading into the forests. They waived through dusty windows at the children along the roadside, and never returned. (541)

The Plan

I’m sorting out my things. Boxes of books, old CDs, folders and Christmas cards from distant friends I’ve forgotten. I found this story written on yellow paper from….I don’t remember when… it’s pretty bad writing, but maybe it can be saved. Let me know what you think.

My parents had me by accident. They were missionaries in Bolivia, fresh out of college and waiting for the day when the sky would split open and Jesus would return. For weeks after my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, she felt waves of fear and anxiety. Not because she wasn’t happy, but because it was not in The Plan.

Mum and dad met in College.  They often talked about whether The End might come before they graduated. It could be at any time; the signs were all posted. My father said it was like a countdown for a space flight. “You wait and wait, with everything ready and then someone says Countdown! Then 10, 9,8, right down to blast0ff!”

So here was my mother, with a child on the way, in the jungle, so far from everything. The Plan was to take the message about the coming new world to every tribe on the planet. Some anthropologists had prepared a database of ethnic groups and put it up on a wall at the College.  Colored maps showed the location of some 637 groups that were still in the dark about The End. Fervent speakers said they knew what it would take; they had heard the mission declared a hundred times: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, every kindred, tongue and people…and then will come The End.” All of which meant: the new world was not coming until the anthropologists had identified every language group in the world, and their locations. and message-filled literature was delivered to them in person.

My parents met at the South American section of the wall map. It’s like a huge upside-down pear, and Bolivia was at eye level for my mum. My dad was trying to pronounce the names, they looked at each other and both said, “Cochabamba” at exactly the same moment, and that was that. Four months later, they were married.

So that’s how it all started. Except I was not in The Plan.