Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Two interesting experiences this weekend (February 7-8, 2004) related to pilgrimage. I helped Kate schlep stuff to the basement of Cottage Quilts. She had a stack of brightly colored fabrics purchased in Panajchel and Solola, near the shores of Lake Atitlan. She had books on Guatemalan fabrics, ancient Mayan sites, the politics of Central America, and Rigoberto Minchu. There were slides, many of kids with cleft lips, burns, hernias, webbed fingers, polydactly.
She spoke to a group of women, a full room, who came to listen, to provide some help.
Though I know it’s not fashionable, I often find women a different, alien life-form. Kate spoke to this group of conservative women; she told them, in a calm voice, how United Fruit Company and the CIA conspired to oust the Guatemalan government, and put Rios Montt in power. She explained the ravages this meant for the Highland Maya, among whom she works, and from among whom came Rigoberto Minchu, the diminutive champion of Guatemala’s indigenous population.
She spoke words and political ideas that, if I had said them, even in the same calm voice, would have produced argument, defensive bluster, denials. These women said nothing. They neither challenged nor dismissed Kate. It amazed me.
It may have been, probably was, that they came to hear about the kids, the ones who needed the blankets and quilts, and that their focus lay with the children, not with political analysis. Even so. I felt a tug of pride for Kate and a yearning to see the world the way they saw it, inhabited not by political realities, but by people in need, children whose cold bodies needed warm quilts, which they could make.
And yet. I cannot. I see a real politik where US governments over many decades have kept repressive military regimes in power, regimes who fear the indigenous people because they are not of Spanish descent, because they have their own culture, their own dress and language. Instead of compassion for the victims, which I do feel, the dominant motif in my response is anger.
As a result, I do not wish to make quilts, or round up medical supplies, or repair cleft palates, worthy as each of these acts is. I wish to unmake webs of power, to disentangle my arrogant country from the political life of Central America. I want to create a political climate where the children with cleft palates leave the highlands for a time to learn medicine, to run the country, or where they are the ones investing in land and creating institutions.
The word radical comes from the Latin word for root, radix, radicals, in other words, want to go to the root of the problem, fix that and let political life determine the rest. There is historically, an arrogance about radical politics that makes it often miss the kid with the cleft palate whose parents, as Kate recounted at the quilt shop, were told, “Leave him outside. Let him die.”
Which is better, to fix the cleft palate, encourage the parents, and, in effect, through those efforts create a life that might have gone out, or, to ignore the child, head down to the America’s Resource Center, organize like-minded folk and go after US Central American policy?
A false choice, you might say. Do both.
Almost impossible. For some pretty obvious reasons. Why are you in the country posing as medical workers when your real mission is political? Or, conversely, why are you engaged politically when you’re real mission is medical? The two contaminate each other.
I suppose you could argue, perhaps I would, that Kate, because she has the gift of healing, needs to focus on her gift—healing. Her spouse, whose gifts tend more toward the political, the advocate needs to focus there.
Still, it’s not where my heart is: Central America, nor is Central America where many US citizen’s hearts are.
I mentioned, in my e-mail with Week 2, walking the ancient road flying pilgrimages like silken banners. The struggle I’m getting at here is the road not taken. My political pilgrimage has led me down different paths, yet I see Kate’s passion, a true pilgrimage, a melding of her intellectual, tactile, and emotional gifts, and it’s hard not to follow, but I’m on my own journey and it’s different.
This feels a little vague. Maybe it will get clearer in revision.
The second experience involves writing my sermon on the quest for the historical Jesus.
I’ve told the story about my junior year class in the New Testament, where I flipped the blue book on Professor Andrae’s desk with my one word answer to his final exam essay, “Write all you know about the historical Jesus.”
I wrote, “Nothing.” And got the only A.
Now, 36 years later—whoa, 36 years—I’m in front of a group, most of whom emphatically do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and I found myself torn, somewhat like the conflict with Kate, only this time I’m on the conservative side.
A preacher’s job often involves speaking against the grain of the congregations pre-set beliefs. This is true in liberal religion as much as it is in Protestant pulpits. It is strikingly similar, I realized as I wrote this, to the editor’s job in a small town newspaper. Hmmm.
In fact, I realize my stance toward sharing with knowledge has a certain combativeness built-in, a combative approach I learned at my father’s knee. It has the smell of printer’s ink and hot lead.
As I’ve often said, writing is a meditation, it’s also self-analysis.
So, maybe a more honest way to say what I just said is, I often find my preaching involves speaking against the grain. Hmmm, again.
Anyhow. I know the historical Jesus is difficult to find, even today, 36 long years later, and I’m ready to pound away on that, but I find it uncomfortable because it plays so neatly into the presuppositions of the UU approach to religion.
The more interesting question is why consider Jesus at all? This question is not an idle one, I mean, I see it profoundly emergent in the puzzling Da Vinci Code phenomenon. Why puzzling?
The Da Vinci Code, though a fun read (I did think he finked out on the grail at the end.), utilizes so-called data a junior (first-year) seminary student could dismantle.
Without getting too deeply into that, I’ll attach the sermon along with this and if you’re interested in my argument you can find it there, I want to take note of the level of interest in Jesus and his life and times. What else explains the many weeks on top of the bestseller list? I mean, it’s an ok book, but not really all that special—except it presents certain data about Jesus and Mary Magdalene as if it were fact.
People have flocked to churches to find out the truth. Or, maybe, to find out why the truth has been kept from them all these years. Whatever. The interest taps into a real level of curiousity, among the reading classes, about Jesus. And most of these folks, I’m willing to bet, are not regular church-goers.
Some of you have talked about work as a pilgrimage. I just saw the “Big Kahuna,” with Danny Devito and Kevin Spacey. This is a men’s pilgrimage movie. “Big Kahuna” was a hit awhile back...whoa, way back: 1999. It takes a while for art movies to get this far north.
I looked at Rotten Tomatoes http://www.rottentomatoes.com and found it compared to “Death of a Salesman” and “Glen-Gerry Glen Ross.” Unlike those two it’s an indie and shot very much like a stage play.
It portrays three men, two middle-aged and one just starting out in industrial lubricants. They’re in marketing and at a conference where landing an account seems to have make or break consequences for their company. The head of the company is Dick Fuller, aka The Big Kahuna. We never meet him, though we do see the back of his head several times.
Though there are many fine moments in the film, the dialogue carries the whole show, which is shot almost entirely in a standard-issue hospitality suite in downtown Wichita, Kansas.
I found the key scene one late at night between Kevin Spacey and Danny Devito.
“Do you ever think about God, Larry,” Danny Devito asks.
“Well,” Spacey hesitates, starts, looks away, “...I’m human.”
As the conversation has gotten into deep waters, these two long time friends decide for once not to shy away. Danny Devito’s character has shown signs of depression and suicidal fantasies.
“Do you love me, Larry?” he asks.
“Do I love you? Well, that depends on what you mean by love.” Larry says. “I mean, I’ve been married three times and I don’t think I loved any of’em.”
“Yeah. Well...” Danny Devito looks at Larry with compassion.
“Yeah. I gotta go to bed.” Larry gets up and leaves.
Later, at the culmination of a great confrontation between Danny Devito and the younger man, the phone rings, Devito speaks into it, looks at the younger man, then speaks into the phone, “Yeah. I love you, too.”
It bears re-watching.
I’m finishing this about 11:15 pm, a blues station on the computer radio. A woman belts out, “I just don’t give a damn...” I do give a damn. I love you guys, and, as Frank Broderick might say, I like you. Good night.
I have my purba set out near the keyboard. I want it to help me remember: cut through the fabric of confusion.
Joseph’s had another bad night of love, then lifted up again by an angel of mercy...hard for the old man to watch in one sense, beautiful in another. Beautiful in its affirmation of life, passion, hope; hard because this stuff’s just not easy.
I don’t know whether anybody reads this, but I am so happy to have my hands on the keyboard again.
Tonight I’m listening to the Rajun’ Cajun from LaFourche, Louisiana. It’s all american radio, reminds me of home with the strong southern flavor, american flags on the website. “Tell me why she has to go...” A question Joseph’s asking, one I’ve asked many times.
Feeling dry right now. Check you later.
Stefan’s e-mail late last night...a message from the road and from the ancient path. Intersections. In Rome each intersection had its genius and those responsible for its worship, perhaps we neglect the genius of the road, all of us, from that perennial devil, habit. Be here now.
Stefan’s brush with the winged realm is ours as well. Jesus said, “Ye know the day, nor the hour.” How many of us have had a moment when, with just a slight tip of the cosmic balance, we could have slipped over, changed realms?
As I suggested in Week 2, the web of relationships among us is God; not is like God, or seems Godlike, but actually is God; and, in that sense, our journey together is a pilgrimage, and we travel together, even though apart. What happens to each of us happens to the other.
Tomorrow I turn 57. Another Valentine’s day, another year gone by, the spiral grows taller. I seem to have come back round on the spiral to that magical moment during college when I realized learning for its own sake was pleasurable, not a duty occasioned by the life of a student, but a joy natural to my Self.
This spot on my spiral path, a labyrinth which cannot be retraced, also connects with my conscious political awakening and my taking the visual and performing arts as life companions. Later, out of these, comes again the spiritual quest, never absent, but not now dominant.
This spiral image squares, or rather circles, nicely with the retelling of our story. As we grow older, and old, we can look down the turning staircase we have climbed and see each step, each turn. As we loon upon things we have seen before from a new perspective, a new height on the spiral, we can reframe their place in our lives.
We can sit down on a three-legged stool, wrap a woolen cape about our shoulders, poke the fire, and make the embers fly. “When I was a boy...”