Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Humbug Dharma

It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust! -- The Ghost of Christmas Present.

It may have been the oddest search for man's soul undertaken by a Jewish man in a Northwest mill town. But I was new to the realm of the spirit and was fanning through the arcana of world faiths that year in search for the puzzle piece that settled my doubt. In our Victorian seaport the mill filled the mornings with the sour aroma of soggy paper. I had little work, so spent my days reading spiritual poetry--Rumi, Kabir, Al-Muntafil, Li-Po--and walked along North Beach where the straits fanned out between Whidbey Island and the cloudy crown of the Mt. Baker volcano.

Rumi advised that when parading through the dizzying aisles of the spiritual supermarket it was important to come home with something. So I crossed the peninsula in search of a meal that would fill me, spending hours sweating in lodges of S'klallam elders, bashing drums at the men's wisdom councils in Seattle, sitting the nervous wreck through an Episcopalian Christmas mass as the priest advised that "we were unfit to eat the scraps that fell from His table", squirming in my seat in synagogues where I remembered the pre-gnostic chants but had no sense of what they meant to me. A year passed and I had yet to find my way.

Christmas was coming again and, pudgy with a heavy beard, it appeared I'd renew my role as local Santa, visiting public places and private homes where I'd issue my hearty chuckle as kids sat in my lap. But the holiday loomed as yet another occasion where I'd feel exiled anew from my Christian friends in town. Instead of feeling alienated, a friend advised, why don't you dive in headlong and see if you can have fun with it? So I auditioned for the town players' production of The Christmas Carol and won the part.

It was the perfect role for an over-the-top guy like me. The Ghost of Christmas Present wore his striking velvet robe and garland, spoke with an overwrought West-End accent, and boomed out grim speeches about doom and destiny and karma. I could relate. Plus, he had two spindly children hidden under the robe that, at the perfect opportunity, I'd sweep open to reveal the shuddering denizens of spiritual failure. How sweet was that?

I had taught theater at the university, but all notions of theory had apparently been lost on me the moment the lights caught my eye. Aside from several stand-still roles, I had never really acted. But as we neared opening night, I had waxed fully into the role, skyrocketing beyond the mark at times that made the director wince. But it was all in good fun--community theater, for chrissakes! And the message, that gluttony and pride goeth before the fall, meshed with my recent readings in eastern poetry. That I was embellishing myself more as a symbol of the very deadly sins rather than a herald of their dangers escaped me the moment the curtain rose.

All my friends and well-wishers packed the front rows on opening night as I paced nervously outside the dressing room, running my lines. I looked fantastic in those robes! The words would flow as nectar from my trembling lips. As Scrooge and I took our places behind the curtain, he tapped me on my shoulder and smiled. It will all be fine, he said.

We were to enter center stage in the dark, I would announce my opening lines, and the spotlight would find The Ghost of Christmas Present, dashing glittering dust over the front rows of audience as we proceeded down left. But the spotlight never came on after my opening, and Scrooge grabbed my elbow and steered me across the boards in the dark. I sprinkled glitter that no one could see and spoke in a frightened monotone, sounding more like a weak recording of the play on an old phonograph record than the boisterous ghost I had been for weeks.

We had traversed the stage fully when I completed my speech and the lights came on behind us, brightening on Tiny Tim's crutch where it lay in the fireplace.

"It may be," I said, "that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child." And instantly I was transported to the pew in the Episcopalian church where I was unfit to eat the scraps from God's table. I felt confidence draining from me like so much foul air and finally, went up on my lines, committing the unutterable sin of silence. Scrooge picked up and improvised like a pro as I stumbled along until, at last, I could open my robes to reveal the girl of "Want" and the boy of "Ignorance" clinging to my legs. It was over.

Afterward, Scrooge joked backstage. It was all good fun. He was a true saint in humbug's clothing. And my friends said I had been fabulous. I was sure they were snowing me. The stage was not for me, nor was Christmas. Let those better equipped to handle it revel in the hour!

It would take another decade before I found my calling in Buddhism and the truth that my friends had loved me, had indeed witnessed a stellar performance--just not the one I had planned for them. To believe that I am powerful enough to control the unfurling of days and nights is to create my own misery. That ignorance and want are my demons. That nothing needs to happen. That between the indelible past and unwritten future there is infinite grace where I am fully fit for all the crumbs--and for the banquet, too--so long as I take loving kindness down from the shelf, tote it home, and wear the world as a loose garment.


Char said...

when I attented the Baptist church I always felt unworthy. I suppose it was good that I was dismissed after being found guilty of drinking and being unrepentent about it. I've lurched my way to a spiritual peace. glad you found a way too.

tangobaby said...

The day that you are giving a reading of your work at the Herbst Theatre, I will be in the front row. Eating up every word.

I was raised with a very loving feeling for A Christmas Carol and have an antique copy on my night table. Now I'll weave your story in with my own history of it and make it even better.

I can see the glitter in the dark, even.

smith kaich jones said...

This little re-telling of the tale had me hooked. All the world's a stage and all the churches, too. All. I was reminded - I know not why exactly - of the time a friend attended a revival to placate his much beloved aunt; he'd been raised Pentecostal & quickly seeing the light - or not, as the case may be - he got out ASAP. But, as I said, there was this aunt . . . and so, he went. And was made to stand with all the other young people against the outer walls of the auditorium, their bodies forming an elongated horseshoe around the pews of other churchgoers. The visiting evangelist started on one side of the room, 1st person in this forced line, and cried over him, worked over him, begged God to forgive this poor soul of his sins (of which the evangelist knew none) until that first person was crying, hysterical, begging also for forgiveness. Onto the next person, etc., etc. My friend was the last person in line on the other side of the room. Looked about, realized this preacher wasn't going to stop at just a few poor souls; that he, himself, would eventually be reached. Seeing a door to his right, he just slipped out the back, Jack. And never went back. He brought home from that particular aisle of the spiritual supermarket a story we still laugh at 30 years later. It was worth every moment.


A Cuban In London said...

I'll take you last paragraph with me and put it in the pocket of my overcoat for the rest of the day. I will be caressing it as I walk home with Nitin Sawhney in my ears.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.