Confessions of a Cayce Doctor
“Make us masters of ourselves that we might become servants of others.”
§ During the last summer I spent in Arizona, I was invited to another wedding. A good friend was to be married early on a Friday morning in mid-July at Canyon Lake east of Mesa. The occasion promised to develop into a bit of an ordeal because of the time and scheduling involved. I really wanted to pass up going, but my sense of obligation got me out of bed around 4:30 am. I was on the road by 6:00 and arrived at the rendezvous point on time. The converging group carpooled and headed east to the lake arriving before 7:00. So far, so good.
While the bridal party collected themselves and moved on to the wedding site, the rest of us wandered around the parking lot or gathered into groups to talk. I eventually fell into conversation with an athlete who was intent upon talking about running and marathons. The company was fairly congenial, but the conversation dragged the longer we waited for our cue to move along. There was quite a bit of shuffling back and forth by members of the bridal party which made us curious about the delay. The wedding was supposed to commence at 7:30 and the moment passed by.
The news filtered around that the minister hadn’t appeared, giving us something new to discuss. We couldn’t help wondering how long we would have to wait until he arrived. There wasn’t a phone within miles to try to contact him. So, all we could do was wait.
After the best man stumbled by us for the third time with a glum look on his face, I stood up and dug into my wallet. Without really thinking what I was doing, I pulled out an embossed card and showed it to my friend of the last hour. The tiny pad of paper duly certified that I was a minister of the Church of Truth and Freedom (some name like that). Sam Meranto had recently paid a membership fee to the California-based “Church” to procure a tax umbrella for his Think Faith Center. Thus, I became an instant minister “with all the responsibilities and duties associated therewith.”
Responding to the moment, I showed the card to my acquaintance, saying, “Oh, it’s not big deal. I’m a minister. See? I could do the ceremony – if I had to.”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I began to regret them. I wondered what had possessed me to reveal my “ministerial credential.” My certificate was very new – it had been in my wallet for a mere few days. And, I had never stood in a pulpit, given a sermon, or done anything remotely pastoral. What made me think I could perform a wedding?
After another interlude, the best man wandered by again with a deeper frown and beads of sweat forming on his brow. He confirmed that no sign of the minister had reached the party. At that moment, the unknown athlete piped up, “Say, this guy is a minister. He can do the ceremony.” I couldn’t and didn’t deny his statement.
Within minutes my friend, Annette, and her fiancé, Jed, put out a call for me to come to the makeshift sanctuary. They asked beseechingly, “Could you do the ceremony for us?”
Without missing a beat, I said, “Why, yes. If you really want me to.”
We talked for a few moments about the original plans for the wedding and the words which they had expected the minister to say. Their suggestions were few. The ceremony was intended to be quite brief, the sun was rising higher in the sky, and the bride was pregnant. So, I took myself apart for few moments, attempted a short meditation, and collected my thoughts.
Soon, the whole entourage, numbering a couple dozen, gathered on an incline which looked down upon the still and shining Canyon Lake. The group spread out and seated themselves among the boulders which littered the hillside. The bridal party and I placed ourselves between the audience and the lake.
We were a tiny group standing in the midst of a grand outdoor amphitheater seeking and sensing the blessing of Nature and God. The couple wore fresh white cottons touched up with brightly-colored, embroidered designs. Annette topped off her costume with a great straw hat to keep out the sun’s rays. While Jed braced her gently through the short ceremony, two wide-eyed attendants filled out the retinue.
The wedding rite commenced seemingly with the whole show in my hands. Fortunately, brevity was a requirement for my services. I made a few remarks about the union of a man and a woman. I quoted Gibran’s suggestion that neither person should live in the shadow of the other, but rather be allowed to grow toward his/her own high potential. I asked all those gathered in that place to make themselves readily available not just on the wedding day and anniversaries and celebrations, but also in times of conflict and struggle to share and aid the new couple.
While the words flowed rather easily from my mouth, the muscles of my legs reacted to the moment. As soon as I put my weight on one leg, the other got excited. It seemed to bounce as if keeping time to some silent music. As hard as I tried to control the motion, the leg just wouldn’t stay put. I don’t think anyone noticed. If they did, they kept it a secret.
The event concluded with Annette and Jed exchanging rings and short vows. I pronounced the couple married. The groom kissed his bride and the assembly rushed forward to congratulate the newlyweds.
In the following moments, I received handshakes and thank-yous from most of the audience. Out of the mouths of several greeters came the words, “Oh, that was such a lovely ceremony. Your words were so touching. Where is your church?”
I had no simple answer for the questioners. So, I simply said, “Thank you for saying so, I don’t have a church. But, I was happy to fill in when the regular minister couldn’t make it here.”
I later heard that the “real” minister had gotten his dates mixed up. He thought the wedding was to be held on the next day, Saturday. You might wonder about the legality of my officiation. No need to worry. Annette and Jed had been legally married by a Justice of the Peace some days previously. The Canyon Lake wedding was staged in large part for the benefit of relatives visiting from the East.
The minister erred. But maybe his mistake was a gift to me symbolizing a coming opportunity and start in a fresh direction, however long it would take to develop. It was surely no “accident” that the “real” minister missed his appointment and I was there to fill in. §
I arrived home on March 12. The previous day, the high school basketball team had won the state championship while my mother had passed the 71st anniversary of her birthday. The former was celebrated jubilantly, the latter was barely noticed. I showed up with a small token by which to remember her. Mom had always been the one who gave gifts and celebrated for others. At the same time, she talked like she didn’t care to have a “fuss” made over her own occasions. No doubt, that was just a stance developed over time as the result of disappointments at Christmases, anniversaries, and birthdays. And surely, Mom would loved to have been treated to a gay fiesta staged especially for her.
Celebration or no celebration, Mom was happy to have me home again. But while she usually bawled on the comings and goings of her three sons, she was rather subdued at my return. Her attitude was quite understandable considering that she was laid up in bed with the side-effects of treatment for her spreading breast cancer. Although she handled her aches and pains like a trooper, the disease process (actually, dying process) through which she was passing almost overwhelmed her in the first weeks after my homecoming.
Characteristically, I first had received word about Mother’s illness after the fact. Dad called Kathy and me some two days after Mom’s mastectomy. “We didn’t want to alarm you,” he said. K. and I made a visit home some weeks later and saw Mom slowly recuperating, resuming her chores, and doing a course of oral chemotherapy. Several months later, more tumorous spread was detected in her pelvis and groin which resulted in the prescription of a six-week long series of radiotherapy. Every weekday during that period, Dad drove her the 150-mile round trip to the regional medical center for her special treatments.
But midway through the Xray series, Dad started having some vague aching sensations in his arms sometimes accompanied by nausea. I spoke to him once by phone during that time and asked among other things, “Have you been worrying about Mom?” He answered unconvincingly in the negative.
Dad did take himself to his physician to be examined and tested, yet no clear signs of heart disease were found. But some hours later in the middle of the night, my father awoke with the same discomfort in his arms along with violent vomiting. Mother got the neighbor to take him to the local hospital where he remained for over two weeks. Most of that time was spent in a sedated state in the Intensive Care Unit. Dad’s heart attack did not show up on the EKG tracings until two or three days into his hospitalization. Apparently, my father was a very sick man for most of his stay.
Mother continued her trips for Xray treatments with the aid of friends and neighbors. Toward the end of her therapeutic travail and Dad’s cardiac ordeal, Mom made an important visit to her husband’s bedside. She wrote me about her “conversation” with my father:
“I stood next to his bed and tried to get his attention. He was far away like he can often be and tight-lipped as usual. I said, ‘We’ve all been worried about you. The doctors weren’t sure that you’d make it through either.’
“All your father could say was, ‘I’m going to be okay. You needn’t worry anymore.’
“Then, I told him, ‘I hope you’re right, Dad. You can’t kick the bucket on me now. You have to stay and take care of me.’”
That’s exactly what Dad was doing when I arrived home. Mom was pretty much invalided by then. She was confined to bed except for difficult excursions to the bathroom. That forced Dad to do the cooking, cleaning, and laundering chores. When I appeared, he continued the clothes-washing duties, but happily turned over the others to me. He picked them back up at times when I was away. Yet, there were numerous times when I came home late in the afternoon to find the raw materials of a meal laid out on the kitchen counter waiting patiently for my appearance. Dad was neither housekeeper nor cook, but he made the effort when required.
Mother was stuck in bed because her “legs wouldn’t work.” The most recent series of Xray treatments to her pelvis had not only squelched the tumorous spread, but it had also interfered with her ability to walk. That was bad enough. But, the most humiliating effects of the radiation occurred at times when Mom rushed to the bathroom with her walker only to arrive with “shit running down my legs.” Those incidents pained her so and injured her pride more deeply than any of the operations or procedures she underwent during the whole course of her disease. Despite her disability, Mom insisted on cleaning up “my own messes” except on rare occasions when she was just too weak.
There was another aspect of Mother’s illness which was very distressing to her. That was her inability to be doing. Mother had always been a doer. She would only sit still when her chores were done, the house was clean, and everything was in order. Even then, Mom would often happily create a job to keep her hands and mind busy.
Mother was not much for reading. When I was a kid, she read her True Confessions and Redbook. In later years, she spent some time with romance novels handed on by a granddaughter. But, most of her leisure time was passed in a rocker next to Dad and pointed in the direction of continuous TV transmission. Between snatches of Wheel of Fortune and other shows, she would pick up a crossword puzzle for a while or do some cross-stitching. Her active nature caused her to yearn for “something to do.”
Thus, her months in bed became a real imprisonment for her. It also became an occasion for the two of us to talk over the years since I left home, my failed marriage, and my questionable future. She wanted to know the whole story. I was candid with Mom. Still, there wasn’t much to tell. Mom was very curious about my time with Kathy, my divorce, and particularly about my state of happiness. “Are you happy?” I can still almost hear that remark which was repeated over the years.
Kathy - photo and snippet of letter @ 20 years ago
My answer then and on other occasions was, “Mom, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m happy or not. I didn’t come here to be happy. I came here to do some work. Someday, I’ll discover it.”
Unexpectedly in one of our conversations, Mother (then married for over 40 years) made a startling statement, “You know, I’m not the marrying kind. I might well have become a nurse. If I had been a bit smarter, I would have. I had the chance, you know. My boss at the old pharmacy would have paid my way through school. But, I didn’t believe I could do the book work. Instead, I stayed with simple jobs. Then, I married. I married your father. And I had you three boys. And, I wouldn’t give you up for the world. Still, I’m not the marrying kind.”
I suppose I should have found the right leading question to let Mom open up some more, but I let the chance go by. I knew parts of her story, but not the passion and promise behind it. I’m sure it was there – at one time – for Abe and Allie.
Both my mother and father grew up in the Depression days in South Dakota. Dad’s family owned a farm and managed until hard times when they moved into the “City of Mitchell.” Mother’s bunch shuttled around the eastern part of the state and were “as poor as church mice.” Pa (my maternal grandfather) was a gambler and a drinker. His luck ran only in short spurts and his wife, five boys, and four girls suffered from his abuses whether times were good or bad.
“The Dirty Thirties” were painful memories for my mother. She used to tell of riding miles to school in snowstorms on an ancient horse. “The old mare was blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other.”
School should have been a relief for Allie once she got there, but her clothes were secondhand, her stomach ached for some tasty food, and her aptitudes never met the demands of the teacher’s lessons. Even at the age of seventy, Mom still hurt from the humiliation of carrying “fatback sandwiches” wrapped in newspaper for her lunch. She told with real emotion how as a child she had eyed the foods which her classmates brought to school. A fresh, juicy orange was an uncommon delight which she dearly coveted. On occasion, a friend would share a treat with her. Such a simple, but great joys for a poor child.
Even when Mom reached high school, the stigma of being a “Colvin girl” must have rankled her. Mother used to laugh uneasily about the time she claimed to have been almost expelled for copying a friend’s book report. I had the good fortune to meet that best friend some time after Mother’s death. I reminded her of the old story. We both smiled remembering those very distant days.
After high school graduation, Allie took on such jobs as waiting tables, short-order cooking, clerking at a pharmacy, and working as a soda jerk. Rather than push herself into further education which she feared, Allie moved from job to job while staying reasonably close to her mother and sisters. Eventually, the family bought a small-town cafe and Mom worked there for a time. Before long she moved thirty miles west to Mitchell and waitressed at the Widman Cafe. The Widman had a solid reputation and boasted of its top-rate food and fine clientele.
During that time, Allie caught the eye of some local promoter who entered her in a beauty contest. Fate intervened between Mother and any further opportunity which first prize might have brought. Allie tripped and fell while climbing to the stage during one part of the program. She came in second garnering $20 as well as the continuing wonder of “what might have been.”
Looking at old photos, most anyone would have to admit that Allie was a real beauty regardless of what the contest judges decided. She had dark hair, a flawless complexion, expressive lips, and a Hollywood smile. As far as looks go, Mom would have fit in well on a late 30s silver screen drama.
Fate also brought my father next door at the Widman Hotel. He was a bellhop, a bit of a gambler, and a good-looker himself. Old photos show Abe with captivating eyes and darkish skin which gave him the mysterious Latin look in old photos. That certainly didn’t fit with his true Scottish origins. But then, aura is certainly deeper than simple ancestry.
Albert spent his early years on a farm, but moved to town when the property was sold because of his father’s ill-health. The sale of the farm kept the family of seven in near comfort through “Hard Times.” After high school, Abe tried a variety of jobs including picking fruit out west and a stint in the military. After completing his Army tour, he returned to Mitchell and eventually the Widman.
Few words of Abe and Allie’s romance ever came to their children’s ears. All I know is that they met at the Hotel/Cafe, married in Omaha, and motored to California just before the Second War. My father took a job at Douglas Aircraft and soon there was a third member of the family, my older brother. Within a few months of Norman’s birth, Abe was drafted. Though he was a family man and clocked in at thirty years old, Dad accepted Uncle Sam’s special greetings. He quickly bundled his family back to the Great Plains and reentered the United States Army at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Abe eventually went across the ocean with thousands on a troop carrier and was stationed for a short time in Great Britain. In the fall of 1944 some weeks after D-Day, the whole of his division crossed the English Channel. Abe fought in the Battle of the Bulge suffering the rigors and traumas of facing the Nazi machine in one of its last great war efforts. He froze his feet badly near Bastogne. Hospitalization saved his limbs, but added a bout of yellow jaundice to the soldier’s woes. Eventually, he was returned to the states via the hospital at Fort Carson, Colorado.
I know very little about what the War years were like for either of my parents. Since Dad never talked much about anything, it didn’t seem unusual to miss out on war stories when I was growing up. Mother was always the talker as well as the worrier in the family, but she never said much about those two years spent alone with her infant son. I can only assume the months were long and lonely.
When Dad returned to Mitchell, he got a job in radio repair for a time, but was soon hired into the United States Post Office. He continued on there from year to year until retirement. The folks bought a small house on the northwest edge of town for $3500 which was the family home for over 40 years. It still sits there, although a public school was built to the west of our homestead in a pasture where my brothers, the neighbor kids, and I used to play.
The family expanded to five when I came along in ‘48 and brother Tom in ‘49. Mom must have been pretty weary in the closing months of that decade. She miscarried once between my older brother and myself. Hints have come to me over the years from a number of directions suggesting that Mother was expecting a girl when I arrived. For one thing, Mom used to put her arms around me when I helped her with domestic work and comment on how she appreciated her “darlin’ daughter.” I never paid any attention to the phrase at the time. But, it has come to mind a number of times in recent years.
There needn’t have been an end to the things that Mom and I discussed as she lay in bed. But, it seems we missed a goodly share of that opportunity. I didn’t have all that much to say about my failed marriage and Mother dared not discuss her disease and dying. She made it quite clear that she didn’t want to get into her “aches and pains.” Yet, I’m quite sure that Mom brooded about them as she passed those long hours in a double bed crammed into a stuffy, undersized room.
We didn’t explore her subtle hints and secret worries either. I remember on two occasions Mother wondering aloud if her cancer had come upon her because of something bad she had done in her life. Her conclusions seemed to be that, “Everyone has skeletons in the closet.” I kick myself every time I think about those words and my not finding a way to let her talk about those “skeletons.”
There was another side to my homecoming story. As I returned home, I thought that I would not only be an emotional support to my parents during difficult days, but I would also be able to help my mother prepare to die. I was a doctor, after all. I knew that Mother’s days were limited and that she feared the coming passage. I felt that I might counsel her through the inevitable.
I was quite wrong on that account. I tried on a couple occasions to be her therapist. Once, she even asked me some questions about her cancer and I couldn’t help but put an holistic spin on my response. Mom didn’t like it and spit back at me, “Oh, that’s a bunch of crap. That’s just some of your Cayce nonsense!”
I must say that her few words hurt for a time. I thought, “What am I doing here?” I wondered and worried about that for a few days. I eventually came up with the answer. It became clear to me that, “Mother has her own doctor. She’s satisfied with him and doesn’t want another. She doesn’t want any changes in her treatment. She just wants to feel better. I can’t be her doctor. I can’t be her counselor, either. I can only be her son.”
Interestingly, older brother Norman was peddling Herbalife as a sideline at the time. He tried to interest Mother in giving it a try in her difficult time. She would hardly take an aspirin without consulting her physician and wouldn’t even do that with the Herbalife.
For the next two years, I concentrated on being my mother’s son. I cooked and cleaned like Dad. I sat at her bedside, oiled and rubbed her feet. I listened to her concerns and tried to answer her motherly questions. I shared her crossword puzzles and watched television with her. It was certainly not an idyllic time, but it was quite real.
Reality came to roost in various ways. Within weeks of my homecoming, Mother’s continuing invalidism caused her hometown physician to recommend a visit to the medical center oncologist. He hospitalized her “for tests.” Those surveys and exams brought no new treatments, conclusions, or recommendations – just a bill and Mother’s return to bed.
Less than a fortnight later, in the heat of mid-summer, Mom took a dramatic turn for the worse. She became feverish, somewhat incoherent, and wouldn’t eat such food as Dad and I prepared. We became alarmed and Dad put in a call to the cancer specialist. He recommended putting Mom into an ambulance for the 75-mile trip to the medical center and another hospitalization. Dad, brother Tom, and I conferred on the situation and looked at our options. We were clear that we didn’t want Mother to go through an uncomfortable time in a distant hospital. And, if Mom was nearing death’s door, we decided that she should take her leave from us at home.
The cancer doctor accepted our wishes. He prescribed an oral antibiotic and “lots of fluids” over the phone. Mother was as cooperative as she could be. Family and friends added their prayers while Dad and Tom and I kept close watch on Mother. Within 48 hours, the crisis was passed. It took a bit longer for Mother to reorient herself and return to action. But, she did. In a week or ten days, Mother was surprisingly back on her feet. At first, she moved around with her walker. Later, she discarded it entirely. Soon, she managed to make her way down to the basement and to the laundry corner. She had really missed doing her chores and especially the laundering. Such a simple thing as washing clothes “makes my day.”
Some weeks after the turning point, I stopped to consider that passage and ask, “Mom, do you know what happened then? How were you able to get out of bed after being there so many weeks?”
She simply said, “I just got tired of being there. It was time to be moving again.” As an afterthought, she added, “Besides, I have to stay around and help you get back on your feet again. I want to see what you do next.”
Mother’s ordeals weren’t over by a long shot. But, maybe the worst of them were. She was never hospitalized again, though she underwent numerous sessions of intravenous chemotherapy over the next 18 months or so. Mom did help me get back on my feet in a number of ways and did see me temporarily planted in a new work and place.
It was hard for my mother to go through the long process of debilitation and dying. However, her illness gave the family various opportunities to come together, support each other, and experience home again beyond holiday gatherings. Living with my parents, I closely viewed and experienced much of mother’s travails. I also got to participate in the life of my younger brother who moved back to the hometown at almost the same time I did.
Tom was “Mama’s baby.” He and his wife and three year-old son had recently purchased a house on the other side of town with Dad’s financial help. I suppose there was a poetic rhythm as well as an outer value to our both returning home at the same time. Born little over a year apart, we had slept in the same bedroom for years, played and fought and grew up together. Though we were and still are as different as night and day, our closeness from birth and growing-up days must symbolize some inner connection which persists over time and space. Older brother Norman was graduated and out of the house long before we made it to high school which fact has always made for greater distance at least between Norm and me.
Furthermore, there are many more similarities between my brothers than either one and myself. I continue to be “the odd man out.” Both Tom and Norm are sales/public relations types. They are extroverted and can talk for hours on end. I am more-or-less introverted, although some people imagine me to be an extrovert. I can only chat for just so long. But, a philosophical or spiritual tete-à-tete is a bit different. I am repelled at sales work although I must admit that, as brother Tom suggests, “We are all selling something.” Not everyone agrees with my younger sibling though. He once tried to convince the family minister that pastors are in the sales business: “Selling God.” Our Methodist minister didn’t quite buy it!
Over the years, Tom, who once could have passed for Dustin Hoffman, had worked as a carpenter and tried his hand at teaching. He was too slow and fastidious to make money in construction work and didn’t have the patience to fit into the school grind. So, he ended up in sales for times. When I returned home, little brother was finishing up a stint as a vacuum cleaner salesman.
He took me on his rounds a couple times to neighboring communities. The trips were a real education for me. The life of a door-knocking salesman is no treat. But, Tom has the “gift of gab,” as they say. Door-knocking was no problem for him. It was getting up and getting out in the morning which often stymied him. Once he started on the road and made his first calls, he quickly got tuned up for a day of selling.
I followed him into prospective buyers’ homes as he conversed and bantered with “the lady of the house.” Thomas usually gave away a can of soup as a door-opener. He invariably made favorable comments on the decorations and furnishings before he asked if he “might vacuum one of your carpets.” Having gotten that far, he was rarely refused. Before the demo, Tom politely asked, “May I borrow a penny’s worth of electricity for my demonstration?”
Brother did a quick, yet thorough once-over of the good lady’s rug, “pulled up the nap,” and then displayed a large mass of dirt and fuzz that “your current vacuum missed.” Tom detailed the “extra features” on the Filter Queen and finally came across with the suggested price of the latest model. It was frighteningly high to me – and may have been to the lady of the house as well. But before she could open her mouth, Mr. Sales was offering a huge discount for trading in her old machine on the new one. But, Tom didn’t just trade for vacs. Power tools, guns and rifles, antiques, and coins were fair trade for a certain amount of the new vacuum’s price. It seemed that brother Tom would do anything short of taking a loss to make a sale.
Giving up the vacuum sales business, Tom moved back into part-time construction work for a period and played house-husband while his wife, Janet, returned to teaching. When he proposed that his McNary Enterprises resume construction work, I decided to go along for the ride and experience. My options at the time were few and I was willing to work and learn.
Actually, we never worked very hard at the business. Regardless of the job, whether it was roofing, painting, remodeling, or concrete work, we rarely started the day before nine in the morning. There was always a long lunch break and more than a few times Tom drove us in his Chevy pickup slowly around Lake Mitchell over the noon hour – just to keep things “neat and cool.” We even took a dip a couple times to get “real cool.” Between 3 and 4, we would take another break and cruise over and retrieve Ian from the day care center. Then, there was often time to spin by the local Zesto for a “cool ice cream cone.” Another hour on the job was the maximum we could ever put in with a three year-old in tow.
Despite the lazy pace, we did get some work done. We laid concrete sidewalks for a half-dozen citizens and did a variety of other odd remodel jobs. By late summer, our efforts turned toward home reconstruction – Tom’s home reconstruction to be precise. The first order of business was re-shingling his entire roof – one helluva job. From atop the two-story structure, we pried, picked, and shoveled off two layers of shingles. We followed that hot, filthy job by applying a new layer of pressed board to the roof and set to the task of laying new shingles. Midway through the latter step, I took myself off to Arizona for two weeks. When I returned, I was redrafted to help finish the job.
As in any occupation, there were opportunities to learn during my stint with McNary Enterprises. It was easy to learn to let my brother run the show, but he often needed some nudging in different directions. He set the work hours. But while we worked, I tried to keep things moving at a reasonable pace. If there were errands to run, Tom did them. I kept to the job, like a good scout. I took breaks when I needed them.
We managed to share various jobs to make the work run almost smoothly. That meant that I usually took the tasks which Tom left over. During our labors, we talked and bantered back and forth over the hours. But, most of the conversation was spurred by little brother. He often made curious queries about my past, present, and future. Having spent nearly the whole of his life in the Plains States, he just wanted to know what was going on in the rest of the world. Tom also wanted me to hear everyone of his ideas about how to start, modify, or complete every little part of the job. Most of all, brother looked for me to make observations on how the work was progressing. Every twenty minutes or so wouldn’t have been too often for me to make some positive remark about our efforts.
I failed on that end of my undeclared duties. All too frequently the minutes flew by and Tom would remind me by saying, “Well, what do you think? How’s it looking? How are we doing? Do you think we’re doing okay here?”
I usually tried to make some fitting remark. I couldn’t always. It wasn’t in me. How many ways can a person say that the shingles look neat and even or the sidewalk framework is straight and the concrete will lay nicely? Sometimes, I would come back with some pithy retort, a funny line, or a clear irrelevancy. Lots of the time, Tom didn’t even notice my words but only that I had responded.
Brother’s work was organized and competent. His shortcomings were lack of speed and confidence. I couldn’t make up for either. Those were things he had to – maybe he still has to – learn for himself.
My greater “learnings” at the time had to do with the cycles of life. Construction, destruction, reconstruction. I thought a lot about life and death – my mother’s and my own. I considered the cycles in the natural worlds as well as those in the world of building and construction. I won’t soon forget the hours I spent scraping paint off the exterior walls and window sills of my brother’s house. The tedium of the task forced me to ponder on my “liberating” work. As I chipped the aged paint from the wooden surfaces, those fragments of matter and energy – those quanta of life – were returned to the earth and its reservoir of life. Their existence, which had been locked into the structure of the seventy year-old house, was freed for a new expression within the surrounding air and soil. In whatever way that works.
My thoughts were rather lofty and far removed from most other paint chippers. But, I was passing through a stage in which something larger than myself was undoubtedly chipping away at me – trying to liberate me into a new existence. Yet, that process takes months and years. My real construction days were only just beginning.
Working with my brother and moving about town with him helped me to re-experience home. Actually, the hometown had changed little in the seventeen years since I left high school. In fact, Mitchell (population 13,000) was much the same as it had been since the post-war boom days. For nigh on to a hundred years, it had been touted as the “Home of the World’s Only Corn Palace.”
The Palace, an auditorium freshly decorated on the outside with pictures made of corn and other grains, was the cultural center of the city. It was home to the annual Corn Palace Festival, the shine of which was rapidly fading with the proliferation of other entertainments developed in the area and with the expansion of the media over the years. So too, the annual harvest – bringing in the sheaves of corn – was accomplished quite impersonally by large machines which possessed no awareness of the gifts of the earth. No doubt, that was and is the state of many modern consumers and lots of latter day farmers.
The Palace itself attracted large numbers of tourists who tramped across the Sunshine State searching for something unique and stimulating. The Corn Palace had once offered its citizens and visitors some real character and life. But much of its vital flavor was dying on the stalk. The building had gradually lost its original aura with each remodel. The feel of the Old West, the sense of the frontier days, the pride of rural America had been slipping away for a long, long time.
Yet, the Palace remained the site of conventions, performances, and tournaments throughout the year. In recent times, it had been rocking as the Mitchell High School Kernels had torn up their basketball competition and become state champions. The Black-and-Gold (changed from Purple-and-White when I was a student) would repeat their feat several times over the coming years to the joy and pride of the city residents. The cycle of the 1980s contented itself with athletic competitions, diverse entertainments, and materialistic pursuits in Mitchell and rural South Dakota, as it did throughout much of America.
On the other hand, stable prosperity was not the watchword for the Plains States in the 80s as commodity prices fluctuated and farmers struggled to maintain their lands and livelihoods. Many gave up and “moved to the city.” While more successful agribusinesses snatched up their lands, many former farmers found work in Mitchell, Sioux Falls, or Minneapolis. Though smaller rural towns literally dried up, Mitchell got by.
The “city” spread out even though the population never seemed to grow. Instead of large families cramped in small residences, there were 3.2 family members living in the same old houses and in various new ones built on the edges of town. Older couples were made more comfortable in new or remodeled homes. Retirement complexes became havens for seniors.
Mitchell supported the rural communities and itself with two hospitals, a university and vocational school, a few factories, and the usual lot of banks and businesses, restaurants and motels. Being situated on Interstate 90 had saved Mitchell from the fate of other towns of its ilk which were slowly withering away. Stability is an illusory thing, especially in farm country. But, the Corn Palace City seems to be a reasonably safe and secure place to live in our time.
I think of my childhood and adolescence as having been draggy, boring, and rather empty. Although I was a bright student and there were opportunities typical of the times at hand, I kept pretty much to myself and didn’t join in much of anything. I went to school, did my lessons, and parked in front of the family television for the greater part of my 18 years. One of my main regrets is that there was neither musical nor artistic expression in our household. But even if there had been, I may well have shunned them.
In high school, I tried just a few extracurricular activities, but was always shy and uneasy in groups. I recognize now that “shyness” was one of my copouts and defenses. It may also have been simply a testimony of my introverted, retiring nature which sensed little meaning in the comings and goings of Middle America. In some ways, I grew up before my time. I was ready to learn and work and take responsibility even before I could discern the call.
Still, I did miss some opportunities of discovery and expression in my younger years. I’ve since had to experience parts of my growing up in later times. What I passed up in my youth, I recovered in my 20s, 30s, and 40s. Youthful activities need not be limited to the teen years.
The arts are my chief example of missed opportunities. My attitudes toward the arts in general and music in particular were set – or reinforced – in the early grades. When, in elementary school, my class performed and sang for PTA programs, Principal Harry Taplett would single me out and ask me to read his lips: “Just mouth the words.” Ah!! That was a real spur to self-expression.
Having been so cued a few times, I balked at chances to develop any part of my artistic nature. I “knew” that I was no artist. I could barely draw stick figures. I had a monotone voice and a tin ear. Thus, why should I try to enter into the arts. I leaned on academics and did well.
I might have changed things in the eighth grade. Mrs. Fortune, the speech teacher, required all of her students to participate in glee club. I shuddered when I heard the pronouncement. Yet, I resolved not to go near Mr. Fluegel or his choir room. Mrs. Fortune repeated her directive to resistant boys to “Join in or else!” I held out and Mrs. Fortune gave up.
Over the intervening years, I came to the conclusion that my aversion or fear of things musical must have had their beginnings in a previous era. William David gave me some hints in one of his readings when he spoke of my earlier lifetime as a Jewish entertainer. Isaac who traveled and performed surely before many audiences which were less than receptive. His Jewishness was even more of a hindrance and left him for lifetimes wanting to distance himself from painful notes.
I may well have missed a real opportunity to change my life by joining the glee club. It wasn’t until I returned from Vietnam that I began to rediscover the arts, but mostly music. With a reel-to-reel tape recorder, I began to copy classical records borrowed from the library. Then was resurrected my hidden – ages long – love for great music.
While in Mitchell, I drove, walked, and jogged the streets of the Corn Palace City. I covered pretty much the whole town in some of my morning outings, ran the Main Street Mile, and even survived a ten-mile road race around Lake Mitchell in the hottest part of July. The old hometown had really shrunk. I could literally run circles around Mitchell!!
Hometown Mitchell had symbolized the nostalgic past, conservative ideas, materialistic values and limited thinking - much of it my own. When I returned home in 1984, Mitchell and my past were still there. They hadn’t really changed. But, I had. So, I could take a fresh look around myself – and within myself. Like T.S. Eliot, I went off on a journey to return home to see it truly for the first time.
Rediscovery of my hometown was a sign of the subtler things in which I was becoming involved. Outwardly, I spent the bulk of my time between my parents’ house, the library, and the church. Our house on North Wisconsin became not just a place to eat and rest and watch TV, but a focal point for family healing particularly in the latter days of my mother’s life. Mother mellowed of her critical, frustrated words and Father loosened his tongue and heart a bit. Before Mom died, there was a recognizable stream of love flowing between my parents for the first time in years. The healing reached out and touched hospice workers, my aunts, my brothers, and myself. Illness paradoxically has the effect of bringing about spontaneous healing interactions. How awesome!
The city library was “my office” for a time as I tried to write “my book” on the chakras. Sadly, the old Carnegie Library of my childhood had been converted to the Oscar Howe Art Center, which was itself a wonderful place to visit. But a bibliophile’s favored atmosphere of hardwood floors, leather-bound books with yellowing pages, and towering bookshelves was gone forever. The replacement was a carpeted, plasticized, concrete block building. Efficient and practical, but so bland. The old spinster librarians were replaced by mostly young spinster librarians. The old ones must have died off – or gotten married!?
The book I wanted to write was exceedingly difficult to put on paper. My problem at the time is now quite understandable. I simply didn’t “have it together” to author an original volume. I could easily have written a synopsis of holistic methods and philosophies from out of my diverse studies. But, it took more life and experience to produce a manuscript of meaningful material.
My time at the public library was not wasted, however. I formulated ideas and outlines and preliminary chapters upon which my future writing and teaching were built. It took five long years from my first ponderings and scribblings there until I completed book number one – still unpublished.
The Methodist Church became my retreat and cloister. I walked the few blocks most every day to the church that I had known only superficially as a child. It was the same one which my brothers and I had avoided attending as often as possible. We tried our best to sleep late and lay low on Sunday mornings. It worked on occasion. Sunday school was tolerable, but worship service was invariably a bore. The long-tenured pastor, who served the church during most of my growing-up years, was notorious – and still may be – for his interminable prayers. I swear they often ran as long as his sermons. There was simply no end to people, places, and things for which Reverend Knight felt called upon to pray.
The main church building was unchanged from my youth. The massive sanctuary was built of rough-cut purple granite and liberally furnished with strategically-placed stained windows. The sun streaming through them put Jesus and Moses, Peter and Paul, and the Ancient of Days Himself in glorious relief. Carpeted and trimmed in flaming red and gold, and provided with fine hardwood pews, the Old Church retained much evidence of its original beauty and craftmanship. The congregation was then also fortunate in have a minister who dared to touch into the future while leaning on the traditions of the past.
As I discovered the riches of the material church, I delved into the core of Christianity itself through the Bible. Although I had read the New Testament and most of the Old along the way, it was the right time to do it again. Each day as I settled into a red-cushioned pew in the silent sanctuary, I read and studied pages of the New Testament before I started my meditation. I sat in the peace and quiet and reverence generated by millions of parishioners and thousands of services. I slipped into my meditative posture and spoke to myself the words, borrowed on Cayce’s recommendation, which I had repeated so many times before: “Be still and know.”
Through my Bible reading and Cayce studies, meditations and day-to-day life, I became progressively and powerfully convinced that I was not alone. My “conversion experience” in college days had riveted me with the knowledge that “God is in me.” Years later returning home, I built upon that foundation and ploddingly made steps toward further revelations of the divinity which lies within me and all of us. Yes, there is a whole world within (the Buddha). The kingdom is in the midst of us (the Christ). God is with us and in us – Emmanuel.
Through daily sittings in the sanctuary, participation in worship, and contact with the senior pastor, the First United Methodist Church came to life for me. My view of the aging church structure built to sustain a dying, shallow dogma changed decidedly. I began to discern some of the gems hidden within Bible stories and parables. The church rituals and symbols appeared as representations of universal truths. The fellowship of God and man was reflected to me in small, but immediate ways, through actions of church leaders. I came to the conclusion that God could actually be found in, of all places, a church.
Kent Millard was responsible for a number of my revelations about the church and Christianity. Reverend Millard was a keen, energetic church leader. He was also compassionate and open-minded. Raised in the footsteps of John Wesley, Millard walked a fine line to maintain church traditions and at the same time bring in stimulating ideas to his congregation.
Kent was born and reared in western South Dakota. After a glowing high school and college career, he went off to Boston for seminary training and quickly completed his divinity degree. Millard stayed on to work toward an advanced degree which would have allowed him to teach seminarians. He came close to his goal, but was almost stymied by requirements to pass exams in three languages. A tutor got him through German. He passed Hebrew by the dint of agonizingly tedious memorization of Old Testament material. And while waiting for his Greek exam on the appointed day, Millard admitted that he sat in the library next to the test room and relaxed by reading the 12th chapter of Ephesians. When the exam was called, Kent was assigned to translate from the Greek the 12th chapter of the Book of Ephesians.
Having scraped by the hardest part of his doctoral program, Millard had only to write a dissertation to fulfill his graduation requirements. But, his heart finally turned him back to the pulpit and to South Dakota. Kent made the itinerant rounds through the state as most Methodist ministers do, staying a few years in a small church before being moved on to a larger one. No doubt, he was a success – and a blessing, as they say – to all the congregations he served.
He arrived in Mitchell to become the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church when in his early forties. Each Sunday, Millard stood a solid six feet tall and wearing a white ecclesiastical robe with red trim. Balding and bespectacled, he reflected light upon us from his forehead and glasses. Light also shined through his smile, his words and his heart. Before each sermon, Reverend Kent started his message with a prayer borrowed from John Wesley: “Lord, make us masters of ourselves that we may become servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire.”
Kent had a fiery and firm, yet gentle, spirit which expressed through his presence, his sermons, and his life. I was so impressed by him standing in front of the sanctuary each Sunday morning without props, papers, and pulpit to protect him from the the people in the pews. He merely stood there using his hands and mouth, head and heart. He could well have simply philosophized, but he didn’t. He could have become theatrical and used the nave as a stage, but he didn’t. Millard just translated stories from the Bible and his own life into messages which his people could understand and accept.
I once asked the Pastor how long it took to prepare, what seemed to me, his nearly flawless homilies. I expected the pastor to give me a figure of somewhere between ten and fifteen hours. But he answered curiously and candidly, “It takes my whole life.” How refreshing!
Reverend Millard put his whole life not only into his sermons, but also into his administrative and committee work, his visitations, and the groups he led. He drew me into many of his activities: church camp prep work, nursing home visitations, Sunday school teaching, divorce support group membership, weekly college chapel meditations.
Kent seemed to have boundless energy. I sometimes wondered how he found enough time for his wife and two teenagers. Mrs. Millard probably thought he didn’t. But, I suspect that he did right by his family. He certainly did right by me.
Whenever I dropped by his office, he made time for me. We did lunch or tea or just sat somewhere quiet in the church to “share the journey.” Millard and I once drove to Humboldt, SD, on a Saturday morning to run in the Larry Pressler 10K Road Race. We came in close to last, but enjoyed our jaunt around the Senator’s hometown and covered a few more miles of the journey together.
Millard invited me to Rotary meetings, got me involved in quarterly healing services he initiated, and even let me assist in the baptism of my nephew. Pastor Kent really helped me to become a useful part of my home church and of my hometown.
Another extraordinary human being and one of a similar quality to Millard Kent came into my life shortly after my homecoming. I was introduced to Judith Barr by an instructor at the local college. Judith, in turn, introduced me to facets of the wider church, to symbols of the House of God, and to the gifts of music and love. Judith had heard from Duane that, “There is another just like you out here now. Talks like you. Believes like you.”
When Judith and her friend, Connie, passed through Mitchell, Duane set up a meeting for us at the local Country Kitchen. Judith and I were instant friends and monopolized the conversation. We easily talked the same language. When Duane had to go off to teach an evening class, the rest of us drove over to the college music department where Judith played some of her original compositions on a grand piano. Judith’s songs were simple in structure, but penetrating and almost enrapturing at times. They had a searching, mystical, devotional quality which put Connie and me in “Instant Zen.”
After playing several tunes, Judith and I joined together to do some laying-on-of-hands for Connie who was going through loads of life changes. She was nearing a divorce, trying to finish seminary training, living across the state from her family, and dealing with a recent diagnosis of uterine cancer. Connie was scheduled for a hysterectomy, but was unsure of how to proceed considering her qualms about orthodox medicine. She believed deeply in prayer, visualization, and the power of the mind in healing. Interestingly, Connie went ahead with the surgery and later told that the post-op pathology reports “revealed no evidence of malignancy.”
After the impromptu recital and healing session, Connie drove back to school alone. To my surprise, Judith asked me if I’d like to drive with her to North Dakota and “meet some interesting people. We can talk along the way.” I had no pressing commitments, so I said, “Sure.”
Judith as Choir Director in present time
Bright and blond, Judith was a country girl with a zest for life. She was totally genuine, warm-hearted, and radiant. Continually “basking in gratitude” at the wonders of God’s good world. And, sometimes, her optimism and enthusiasm were a little more than one person – I – could handle. But, the charisma and character she exuded stood her in good stead in any group. Whenever Barr talked or sang one of her many original pieces, people sat attentively and soaked in the healing qualities of her offering.
We drove to my parents’ house and Judith sat at my mother’s bedside while I got a bag of clothes together for the trip. Judith and Mom became fast friends and remained so until Mother’s death. Apparently in the matter of a few minutes, Mom told quite a number of stories from my growing-up years and gave away my childhood secrets.
We made the excursion to North Dakota stopping to visit only one “interesting” person along the way before we arrived at Judith’s destination. Along the way, we acknowledged the “tender” feelings between us. Our interests in teaching, healing, and spirituality were wholly compatible. Judith had been offering a workshop in the area called “Treasure House” as an metaphor for the human experience. The program was somewhat comparable to the chakra classes Susan and I had done back in Arizona. Judith shared some of her dreams and imaginings of “Treasure House” with me on that short trip. Before she dropped me off at the bus depot for the return leg, it became clear that we would be seeing more of each other.
Judith and I talked on the phone several times over the coming days while I became more and more anxious about the relationship I had left behind in Arizona/California. I rationalized that I was then 1500 miles and months or years – maybe lifetimes – away from Susan. I had no place to be for the foreseeable future except with my parents. There was a possibility that Judith and I might collaborate on some teaching in the Plains States – on the road between South Dakota and Montana where she lived. Susan no longer wanted any role in teaching. She was by then attached to working in needle arts.
With a load of conflicting emotions, I called Susan to tell her what was happening. I stuttered out my thoughts and feelings as well as the story of recent events. With her keen insights and sensitivities to energies, Susan already knew what was coming. She said, “The last time you stood in the driveway to the adobe, I knew you wouldn’t be coming back. We are separated by many miles and lots of things will come between us. We must each follow our own lives where we are. But wherever we are and whatever we do, you will always have the dearest place in my heart.”
Her words cut right through me. She seemed so unselfish. The tension and tenor of the moment caused me to break out in great sobs. I cried for long minutes. The telephone line was bereft of conversation. There were only my sobs and sighs and Susan’s patient ear.
Within a few weeks, I was on the road to meet Judith in the Black Hills where she was scheduled to lead a teachers’ workshop. En route, I ran into a late spring snowstorm. I should have known better than to start with the weather warnings that were posted. The Blizzard of ’84 itself might also have been a warning to me about my new relationship. But even at this advanced date, I have problems seeing storms in my times with Judith Barr. Any storm, such as it might have been, was almost entirely within me making it hard to view.
My trip west was smooth sailing until I passed the Badlands, first rain, then heavy wet snow began to attack my vehicle. My car’s windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the thick slush. I managed to turn off at the tiny town of Wasta and entered into an unusual slice of American life. Wasta was one of the many villages with one-block main streets spread across much of the Plains States. They all have at least one bar without which the town would surely “dry up.” Wasta had its own: Wade’s Tavern.
Wade’s saloon looked more like a diner and passed for one on some occasions. With the rough weather, Wade’s clientele was at a minimum that night. The only other customers – a young couple and a single old codger – passed out the door not long after I started to settle. I spent a few dollars and listened to Wade, a middle-aged man with an alcoholic attitude, a frustrated face, and a three-day hangover. Despite his disturbed condition, Wade saw clear enough to invite me to sleep on his sofa that night after he closed the shop up early. I could hardly have refused. I had few options.
Wade walked me up the street to his home where his youngish wife quickly made the couch into a bed for me. I slept reasonably well and enjoyed Mrs. Wade’s generous pancake breakfast. I also got to know teenage Wade, Jr. a bit before I joined thirty or so stranded travelers who were corraled that afternoon at the town hall. The congregation talked and played cards and ate the spontaneous fixings of the townspeople.
Late in the day, Wade, Jr. came by to tell me that his dad didn’t like me and was telling stories about me to the few customers who slogged their way to the tavern. Wade, Jr. added, “He’s got a gun. But, don’t let it worry you none. You’re safe here.”
I couldn’t quite gather what I might have to worry about, but that got me to worrying just the same. As night approached, I was told that I would be staying with a different family, “Just for safety’s sake.”
I spent my second and last night in Wasta in the much less cozy, but decidedly saner accommodations shared by a woman and her three children. The lady gave me the lowdown that saloonkeeper Wade always fretted about his wife and younger men. When he fretted too much, he sometimes got violent. I had unknowingly walked into the lion’s den, but was fortunately extricated before any harm was done.
The next day, the weather lifted and the snowplows opened the passage to Rapid City where I stayed for two more long days. The time passed ever so slowly because I spent it with a maiden aunt until Judith could reschedule her trip. Now, maiden aunts might take up a whole book of their own. I suppose that most human beings have one, at most. I was blessed with two. One on Mom’s side and one more on Dad’s side. Lifelong maidenhood or bachelorhood may work for some rare people, nuns and priests among them. But, it sure seems to create real eccentrics in the secular world. My now deceased Aunt Margaret certainly fit that description. Aunt Mag was forever the talk of the clan because of her own non-stop talk. Everyone used to say, “When I’m around Mag, I can’t get in a word in edgewise.” Few truer words have ever been spoken.
Margaret, bless her heart, was another slice of life. She grew up among the trio of sisters who were the last children in my mother’s family. Mom was the baby. Margaret was about three years older with Senie in the middle. There are no extant photos of Aunt Margaret when she was an adolescent because she was “The Fat One.” In her late twenties, Margaret left the family and her obese past. She would evermore be a loner, “a hank of hair and bones,” and an opinionated windbag. Margaret made her new life running a newsstand at the Sheraton Hotel in Rapid City.
Cousins and relatives of all varieties, our family among them, stopped to visit Aunt Margaret when they passed through the Black Hills. Margaret always had stories to tell whether we were kids or grownups. Unfortunately, the stories changed little over the years, although Margaret’s job, body, and whole life shrank with the advance of time. Her life and anecdotes, which seemed so novel when were kids, became “old hat.” Eventually, we recognized that many of the tales she told had been merely been borrowed from the “oil man” and the “movie producer” and the “real estate tycoon.”
Margaret always claimed that she was “happy” with her life. Actually, her situation suggested that she was at least “satisfied” as she spent the last forty years in same downtown third floor apartment located a half-block from the “old hotel.” Margaret still dropped in at the hotel coffee shop for a “bite to eat” on occasion and exchanged visits with her few remaining friends. Most of of the latter caused her one kind of consternation or another and prompted her to isolate herself all the more.
Mostly, the scrawny, aging woman sat at her dining room window and stared down on Sixth Street to peek at “what was happening.” In latter years, she struggled with her false teeth. Margaret was more irascible with them in, which must have suggested that she wasn’t comfortable with them. Edentulous, her face sagged and she was embarrassed. But, old Aunt Margaret was easier to be with.
Margaret generally had a cup of coffee nearby and always – always – a cigarette smoldering or waiting to be lit. Another thing which never seemed to change was Margaret’s predilection for heat. She invariably had the steam heat going in her apartment regardless of the season. Even at summer family reunions with the sun blazing overhead, Aunt Margaret was dressed in a long-sleeved outfit. Margaret just seemed to stick out in the crowd as she sat jawing at somebody with a Camel in one hand and a coffee cup in the other, no cover on her head, but the rest of her body protected and insulated by winterish clothing.
Between the sauna-like heat, the rolling clouds of smoke, and Margaret’s unending monologues, it was near torture to sit with her for even a short afternoon visit. That early May weekend I spent with her seemed like a year. Margaret recounted her old friendships and “adventures” at the hotel, offered gossip and complaints about a generous portion of the clan – “in-laws, outlaws, and just plain criminals,” raked me over the coals for divorcing Kathy and giving up medicine. At other moments, she wanted to broach her interest in the power of the mind and her conviction that, “I’ve got a keen mind and could do a lot with it if I had the chance.”
Should I have prodded her about using her retirement time to put her mind into action, Margaret would have come up with a dozen excuses like she had many times before: “I’m too old,” “What’s the use?,” “It wouldn’t make any difference,” “I’m really kind of slow.” Aunt Margaret was not unlike lots of people, young and old alike, who sense that they have real potential, but find it easier to live the old life which they really dislike.
Margaret’s verbosity and opinions belied her true feelings of inferiority. The latter stuck out in a variety of ways. Margaret had a card prominently pasted on the mirror which hung above her bathroom sink. The sign lingered there for years projecting Aunt Margaret’s long-held and deep-seated sense of herself. The captioned picture declared, “You have an extra-ordinary kind of face, the stupid kind.”
Margaret was ever unconsciously comparing herself with her sisters. One was smarter in books and figures, another had a man of integrity for a husband and a wonderful family, the third was one of the best cooks in the state.
Auntie M. would never have admitted that she should have married. Yet, she was fixated on the topics of marriage and divorce. They constantly arose in her monologues. Sometimes, I got the impression that the only reason she never married was because she feared the possibility of divorce. If there was such a thing as a sin to Margaret, it was undoubtedly divorce.
Her contempt for divorce eventually took a turn when her favorite middle-aged nephew was divorced by his wife of 30 years. “He’s better off without her. I never liked the bitch, anyway. But, that’s okay. She didn’t like me either.” Margaret’s feelings were mixed, but her words were biting and angry.
Interestingly, Margaret, the unmarried and untouched woman, had a very high opinion of men and an opposite one of her own sex. She perennially thought women were just out to get their financial needs met and didn’t know how to treat a man. I rarely dared to mention a woman in my life else Margaret would chew her up and spit her out in short order. Bottom line for Aunt Margaret, as far as women went, was, “They’re all out looking for a meal ticket.”
On one of the last visits I made to Auntie M., she was in a somewhat mellower mood especially toward her then deceased sister, my mother. Margaret had traveled to Mitchell in the latter days of Mother’s life thinking that she could help with Mom’s care. While she was present during those days, the hospice workers, sister Senie, and other family members were more ready and able to aid Mother.
Nonetheless, Margaret made her effort and the family expressed its appreciation to her. Margaret reminisced about her sister’s final days, “Allie was so easy to be with and so accepting of my help. She never made a peep or said an angry word. I really felt honored to sit with your poor old Mom.”
In a moment, my eighty year-old aunt picked up the thread of her thinking and added, “I just wish that when I get older and go downhill, I can be as good-natured as your mother was before she died. But you know when I get there, I think I’ll be a real bitch.” And that she was in her dying days, according to her caregivers.
I was so relieved when Judith arrived in Rapid City and I could vacate Margaret’s hothouse. Judith spent a few moments with Aunt M., listening to her stories and playing show tunes on her Wurlitzer organ. Margaret acted thrilled by the visit and impressed with Judith, but repeated her old refrain when I next saw her, “Ah, she’s just another dame looking for a meal ticket. You just be careful.”
My limited experience with maiden aunts leads me to imagine that, though the trials and pains of marriage may be severe, the option of maidenhood or bachelorhood may be rather unhealthy. Staying single may not be the only way to a static, stunted life. But, it can be quick means to become a clanging, self-centered, frightened and frustrated bitch – male or female.
Judith and I headed for Montana where I spent a few days with her and her daughters. We had much to share – ideas, insights, and imaginings. I participated in an Effectiveness Training Workshop For Women which she led. Afterward, we critiqued the program and wondered how we might produce our own independent seminars.
Before long, we had our own brochure and plans for a revamped “Treasure House.” Judith had the program name, tested exercises, and lots of intuitive and musical talents to put into the pot. I had a psycho-physiological picture of the “the house not built with hands.” We soon began to schedule workshops chiefly through Judith’s connections, and to teach and learn through them.
As teachers and leaders, Judith and I had wonderful opportunities to learn. We also had a host of struggles along the way. I well knew by then that anyone who takes on the actual role of leader becomes the fulcrum for the movement of energies in the group. That makes him or her susceptible to the influence of a large number of influences. Physical symptoms that may arise – butterflies, gastric upsets, the jitters, nerves, tensions – are not necessarily just the effects of simple anxiety. They may also be the manifestation of group energies impinging upon the body of the leader. Those psychic stresses are often quite difficult to handle.
I remember Judith speaking on numerous occasions of the turmoil and pain which she had to go through most times she did an involved workshop. I can’t say that I ever experienced those energies to the degree that Judith did, but I was often quite aware that they were active in and around us. Actually, J.S. was extraordinarily sensitive – psychic, you might say. She commonly tuned into me across the miles. She was always in touch with her two daughters wherever they were. Judith was a highly strung Pisces and susceptible to influences of a wide range. At one time, she toyed with the idea of channeling work. Initially, I was titillated by the possibility. But, when Barr began to seriously consider playing medium, I decided to discourage her. Judith may have become a good channel, but she would have paid dearly for the experiment. Such psychic explorations befit either the foolhardy or the masterful.
Oftentimes, the hardest part of doing a teaching occurred ahead of the event. It was as if the organizing forces behind the occasion were in some sort of energetic flux, percolating and surging in the ozone. When the seminar convened, the excited energies found outlet and we could work with them more directly.
The participants in any convocation bring not only their bodies to it but also their hopes and expectations, biases and passions. No one comes with a clear slate. Significant energetic potentials exist and allow forces to flow before, during, and after such meetings. While many leaders are capable of handling such energies, others are not up to the task. It depends upon their levels of spiritual development, their susceptibility to glamor, their desire for power, etc.
An illustrative incident comes to mind. It occurred at Evergreen Hills in eastern Montana. J.S. and I had done one small program there and headed back for a repeat engagement. Driving along a gravel road amidst the stark beauty of the West, we were unaware that the second workshop would be out of the ordinary. Judith and I arrived at the retreat ahead of the people coming from the city and were greeted by Clara Mae Porter who had recently leased the property.
Clara was a no-nonsense, assertive, hard-working country woman from Oregon. Dark-haired, bespectacled, roundish, and in her forties, she had definite ideas of the way Evergreen needed to be run. We had noticed that on our previous visit. But, Clara Mae had been more than deferential to us. She knew that she had things to learn and earn through us.
Within minutes of our arrival, we began to unload the car as the strangest of storms blew up. The clear sky quickly clouded, the temperature dropped, and a great wind howled and raced through the trees which surrounded Evergreen. The climatic changes were so rapid and unexpected. They gave Janet and me the eerie feeling that, “Something’s going on here.”
Barr and I dropped our bags, watched and listened. It was quite a show. Interestingly, the performance moved through very quickly. Without leaving a drop of rain, the clouds passed over and the winds died down. Judith looked at me and I at her speaking without words, “What are we in for today?”
We found out in short order as a number of the Evergreen staff buttonholed us. They were either quitting their jobs, leaving the center, or simply boycotting the workshop. Judith and I instantly recognized that the storm we had just experienced had not totally passed by with the last winds. A serious confrontation was still brewing.
We soon met with Clara. Actually, she came looking for us to spill out her woes. Clara felt burdened by all her helpers and neighbors. To her, there was a conspiracy afoot. Porter kept pointing her finger and claiming innocence. Judith and I had to do a heap of talking and cajoling. We finally put the onus on Clara in her capacity as the leader of Evergreen, as the center of all the issues brought up by a variety of people, and as the one who had to open up channels of communication.
The whole process was like pulling teeth, but we did get Clara to talk to her two key helpers. Later in the midst of the workshop, we worked indirectly with some of the most prominent issues at Evergreen. Clara relented and mellowed a bit. Yet, I’m sure Evergreen’s problems were hardly resolved in that one short weekend.
Interestingly, one of the drawing points of Evergreen was its supposed location on a “power vortex.” A small hut filled with crystals had been erected at its “center.” Visitors had mixed responses to their contacts with the crystal station and Evergreen itself. Neither the house nor the property affected me in any noticeable way. Yet, either the energies of the area or those of the people who congregated there kept things in a constant state of flux. Clara’s Evergreen closed within a few months to be followed by a new business, proprietor and program. Power, regardless of its source, is not something to be coveted. Only when one has no personal need of power can it be safely laid into his/her altruistic hands.
During the time Judith and I worked together, I began my “career“ in public speaking in earnest. I garnered a number of lessons that later stood me in good stead. Prior to that time, I had experienced only minor anxieties in my work with small groups. But when I had to stand up in front of a large audience, I became quite distressed. As when I addressed the Clinic Symposium in Phoenix. Although most of my “nerves” developed before the event, I never failed to deliver my presentation. When I spoke, my saliva usually dried up (water was no cure), my body vibrated and my hands shook, and my voice often quavered. Regardless of my level of preparation and comfort with my subject, I was almost “a nervous wreck” until my piece was completed.
Fortunately, there came a turning point in my evolution as a speaker. Judith and I were scheduled to do a weekend program on “Treasures of the Risen Christ” at my home church in Mitchell around the Easter season. The kickoff was at a college chapel service. Because Judith rolled into town just a few hours before the meetings began, I planned and organized most of the programs. That was no problem for J. as she was generally free and flowing in her public performances and platform speaking. Barr could pick up the strand of most any thought and speak on it with apparent comfort and clarity. On occasions, she expanded that capability by threading words and phrases offered by her audiences into “A Song for the Moment,” thus meriting the title of Songweaver.
I had no such talent for singing or weaving. It was hard enough for me to spew forth memorized or scripted words to a waiting assembly. At that particular chapel service, we ran on a skimpy outline. Judith sang and offered commentary in her normal flowing manner. I stuttered and sputtered because of my general stage anxiety, but mostly out of my lack of solid preparation for that preliminary event. Somehow, I had imagined that the “spirit” might flow through me in that instant – as it seemed to with Barr – and stir me to inspired eloquence. But, I learned from that incident that being ready from as many angles as possible was mandatory in my speaking efforts.
My sense is now that few people can truly speak “in the moment” before a crowd and say just what that group really needs to hear. Speakers, who claim to be “led by the Spirit,” often just babble old platitudes which have rolled off their tongues so many times before. Or, they simply string stories together which they know most people will like.
True spontaneity in speaking or in life requires someone who is deeply centered within Self and is thus capable of real rapport with his/her fellows. Such a state is certainly achievable. Yet, it is hard enough to attain in a one-on-one situation. It is not all that common between speaker and audience. When it does happen, it becomes a truly magical moment.
After my chapel experience, I resolved to be fully prepared in all my future speaking endeavors. With minor exceptions, I have fulfilled that resolution. I readied myself to speak and share at the further meetings in the comings days. Yet, my sense of anxiety peaked as Judith and I watched people pour into the church sanctuary for a Saturday evening program we were to lead. I was beside myself for a moment asking, “Why must it be this way? Why must I feel so daunted even when I have really prepared?”
In that instant, I decided that it didn’t have to be so hard. I slipped away from the oncoming crowd, quieted myself, and made one of my few prayers: “Oh, God! Grant me the grace to do this work, to speak understandable words, and to stand before your people with assurance.”
I returned to the assembly where the presentation flowed smoothly and was received warmly. Although tension has been my constant speaking partner, a distinct shift occurred within me from that time. Ever after, I have had little fear of speaking in public. My heart no longer races away and the spittle rarely dries in my mouth. Along with my outer preparations and desire to serve, I now have the aid of an inner pacifying and strengthening force when I stand before an audience.
Both Judith and I had a lot to learn about money in regard to our experiences as servant-teachers. Neither of us expected to make a comfortable living by leading workshops and teaching health and practical spirituality. But, we did anticipate meeting our expenses and fulfilling our obligations through our efforts. We were quite often disappointed. Rarely did income from programs meet our expectations or budgets. At the same time, however, our financial needs were always met through one channel or another.
My experiences of the years A.M. (After Medicine) proved a number of things to me. One was that a regular paycheck is not a requisite to effective living in the modern world. At this writing, I haven’t had the benefit of a voucher from a “permanent” job for over many, many years. I haven’t had many luxuries in that time either. I earned less in the seven years after I “retired” from medical practice than I did in my single last year as an Army General Medical Officer. Yet in the latter period, I have traveled, shared, and learned in so many ways. If my life is at all representative, it suggests that a man or woman can accomplish and give much even with a very small income. It may also be another support for the truth of one of my favorite proverbs: “Man does not live by bread alone.”
Sadly, there was another lesson for me which came early on, overshadowed the whole of my time with Judith, and was not resolved until many months after Judith and I parted ways. It was one that dogged us almost continually for years.
Some time after my first harrowing journey to meet Judith in the Black Hills, I made the another trek straight through to Montana. I was eager to spend time with Ms. Barr and work with her in our developing projects. The trip was uneventful as I crossed the wide stretches of western South Dakota. But shortly after I crossed into Wyoming, my mind spontaneously focused on Susan Oliver hundreds of miles away in northern California. I was preoccupied with her and distracted from my driving and my destination. It was as if Susan was silently and invisibly occupying the passenger seat. My pointed awareness of Susan continued uninterruptedly for many miles. She just wouldn’t leave my thoughts.
After more than an hour of being so preoccupied, I decided to do something about my “feelings.” I made a rest stop and a collect telephone call to Susan. I told her what I had been experiencing. Susan told me that she had been reminiscing about our times in Phoenix and wondering why things had turned out as they did, “I’ve been having a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad day.” I tried to commiserate with her. After exchanging words of support and good wishes, I returned pensively to the road.
It took me years – seven to be exact – before I could get Susan out of my mind. My perceptions and idolizations of her deeply affected every relationship I had with a woman for years to come. I did try on several occasions to do something about the situation, but timing, distance, and involvements (both Susan’s and my own) always seemed to interfere with a resolution of our relationship.
I continued on to Montana and tried to set aside my “experience with Susan.” Judith and I had a happy reunion and began planning our time together. But late the evening of my arrival, I brought up the incident on the road. I tried to talk it away. Yet some minutes into the story, a wave of sadness overwhelmed me and I began to cry. I must have sobbed for more than an hour while Judith gently held me.
Eventually, the marathon session of weeping passed. If the crocodile tears had been the sole effect of the event on the highway, I might have moved on. But, I remained afflicted for years by the belated recognition of my loss. And somewhere in my mind, I fabricated the dream of reuniting with Susan somehow and someday. From that day and for years to come, I was never fully present with any woman because I kept Susan upon an unrealistic, unreachable pedestal. What a tangled web I did weave. I take some heart that both Judith and Susan wove their own knotty fabrics. When will we learn to fashion our lives in conscious clarity?
Fortunately in the midst of our challenges and struggles, Judith and I were able to stir up more than emotions. We did touch deeper facets of our lives and of our students. Among our major aims and greater successes was that of stimulating the creative talents of the group participants. Judith’s piercing voice, inspiring songs, and generous heart affected many in profound ways. Barr was the heart and I the head of the groups which we led. My job was to put inner things into perspective, explain complexities into simplicity, and prod students to use their own intellects to discriminate among the possibilities which surrounded them.
Between the two of us, we were able to add another thread of hope and aspiration, creativity and inspiration to the strands of many lives. We were most pleased when someone from a group came forward to tell us of a freeing discovery, an imaginative insight, a hint of purpose, or an intention to change. People were spurred to recover old talents, make fundamental decisions, choose new paths. As in getting back into choral work, imaging fresh expressions of art, outlining books, making plans to reopen communications with estranged family and friends, and preparing for new life adventures.
Despite the ups and downs of our “Treasure House” work, our teaching was a decided success. Yet, while we were pleased with the outcomes of our weekend workshops, Barr and I recognized that our undertaking could only accomplish so much. An isolated workshop was, in some ways, not unlike the episodic care which physicians give to their needy patients. It was often little more than “a shot in the arm,” giving a momentary boost, a glimmer of hope, and a ray of light to numbers of souls struggling through the hinterlands of their spiritual journeys.
As much as I enjoyed the periodic programs, I became convinced that effective learning requires repeated interactions, some rhythm and regularity, progressive exposure, and time to grow with them. Learning has to be practiced and sustained or it is lost. I resolved to find ways to do my future teaching over time so as to order the process and allow progress to take place.
The summer of 1984 was busy with weekend trips to Montana, Minnesota, and the Black Hills. And the end of the summer saw a flash of activity as Susan invited members of the old chakra group to share in a three-day teaching by the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles. I determined to attend and take care of other business at the same time. I wanted to communicate directly with Susan about all that had happened over the previous six months. Unrealistically, I had hopes that there might be some way for Susan and me to get back together. As great as my love and admiration was for Judith, it didn’t hold a candle to the blinding torch I held for Susan Oliver.
I departed my parents home a day before my 36th birthday imagining that my short “exile” from city and professional life was almost over. I sensed that something was “going to happen” on my trip. But, I left with jumbled feelings. Mother, though she had “gotten out of bed,” was still fragile and her malignant disease was still wearing her down day by day. Mom got up and made a cake for me that mid-September day. After supper, the three of us sat around the kitchen table. I cleared the dishes while Dad placed the cake and lit the candles. Then, Mom and Dad sweetly droned, “Happy Birthday to You.” I was deeply touched by the moment. Its memory grows more precious with the years.
I drove to Phoenix and visited at the Owen Marcus office and the ARE Clinic. I also met with a doctor of naturopathy who had grand ideas of developing an integrative university for the healing arts on Yavapai Indian land as well as an holistic health center in Phoenix. She needed a medical physician to help organize the operation and wondered if I would be interested.
The highlight of the Arizona visit was a weekend trip into the Grand Canyon with Karen and her friend. We motored very early one morning from Phoenix to the South Rim of the Canyon and descended as into the bowels of the Earth when the sun began to burn away the chill of darkness. I marched ahead of the two lovers carrying my makeshift pack. I weaved my way between other trekkers and an occasional mule train. I happily explored God’s creation and investigated the elements: earth, water, fire, and air.
While the Havasupai reserve where we camped had been tainted by human hands and feet, much of the Canyon floor was still as Nature had created it. I walked the Canyon. I bathed in the picturesque, blue-green pool of water at the bottom of the reserve’s waterfall. I soaked in the rejuvenating sunshine each morning. And, each evening as I settled into my sleeping space on a rock ledge, I inhaled the refreshing winds and spirits which joined me with the stars above. The hidden planetary forces became almost apparent to me in those varied moments during the weekend.
A few days later, Donna, Karen, Sandra, Sally and I flew to Los Angeles to meet with Susan Oliver. We found our former guru dressed in the costume of a Tibetan nun. She had taken vows and committed to the Buddhist practices in a few short months. S.O.S. had her own teacher-lama. She had taken refuge in the way of the Buddha, attended Sangha meetings, and performed daily prostrations and meditations. Susan tried to quickly explain the Buddhist path and her involvement in it before we set off for our first session with the Dalai Lama. We joined some 1500 other Westerners and a few score Tibetans in a large auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard for the Initiation of Empowerment of Avalokiteshvara.
The Dalai Lama (Ocean of Wisdom), acting in his capacity as the incarnation of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara, entered the hall to teach and initiate the waiting throng. When the moment arrived, a middle-aged man dressed in wine-colored robes wound his way across the stage. I was immediately struck that, “His Holiness must have a stiff neck or ankylosing spondylitis.” Through the entirety of his entrance walk, the Dalai Lama leaned forward at the hips with his head and eyes pointed at the floor except when he momentarily nodded in acknowledgement of his aides or the audience. All the time, his hands were clasped in a prayerful manner.
Only after he found his seat atop a garlanded platform and turned toward the audience did he stand erect. Thence did I realize that His Holiness had so entered in a prolonged bow to express his oneness with all of us. From the start we could observe that the Compassionate Lama was also a humble servant. The “incarnated Buddha” came not to take anything, but rather to teach and share with all as a brother.
Most of his hours of teaching were given in Tibetan and then translated into English. The concepts were quite abstruse and undoubtedly passed over most of the participants’ heads. Despite the Dalai Lama’s warm presence and welcome tenor, the audience struggled to maintain their interest and attendance. Our Phoenix group dropped out here and there. Donna came back for the final session. I stuck it out through the entire program at Susan’s side.
The closing session ended on several high notes. First, the Dalai Lama gave a short talk in English and then answered written questions from the audience. His Holiness tried to explain how he was in the process of making the ancient teachings more available to the Western mind and lifestyle. He said, “You should take much time to choose a teacher and many years to study the teachings. You should prepare diligently before taking any initiation. You should say the hundred-syllable mantra many times each day. In the past, these preparations were always necessary and required without exception. However, times and circumstances have changed. I, therefore, must teach you in a few days and you must accept me and my teaching in this short span. You use the mantra as often as your life permits. The more, the better. Read and study and meditate on the teachings whenever your life permits. Every good thing which you do adds to the weight of goodness in the world. All creatures are aided thereby.”
Listening to his words, I was taken by the honesty and simplicity of the man who had for many hours expounded dry concepts of Tibetan mysticism. After the involved lectures and intricate ideas, the Dalai Lama revealed more of his human side. As I listened, I thought to myself, “What you say makes good sense for this time and place. But also, you must know that most, if not all, of us have heard your words and studied the teachings, even sat at your feet in previous ages. We are just picking up where we left off in distant places and past centuries. We have incarnated together once again. Hopefully, we will use this opportunity of reunion and renewal, teaching and initiation to enhance our abilities to serve.”
During the question and answer session, Tenzin Gyatso became open and real to us. He was asked about very practical considerations of fitting spiritual disciplines into daily lives, of holding up to fast-paced times, of living in the midst of the manifold distractions of the modern world. The Dalai Lama’s recommendations were neither pie-in-the-sky platitudes nor common clichés, but thoughtful, down-to-earth suggestions for dealing with present-day complexities. I remember one particular response to a question posed about the ethics of working in an arms production plant. His Holiness answered in this vein: “We all must work to feed our dependents and pay our bills. If you work in such a plant to fulfill your needs, then do so prayerfully and honestly. When you have prepared yourself, you will find another way to earn your living.”
A ritual of prayers and chants in the midst of wafting incense fumes, waving peacock feathers, and clanging Tibetan bells bound us all together once again under the Empowerment of the Avalokiteshvara. Each initiate took the Bodhisattva vow (To consecrate one’s life and effort toward the betterment of all sentient creatures) while holding a talisman. At that critical moment, Susan removed a simple Tibetan ring fashioned of three copper strands from her hand and placed it on my own. We shared that sacred instant together and that one-dollar ring has ever since been my reminder of our deep connection and common vow.
I left the meeting with mixed thoughts and feelings. My respect and admiration for the Dalai Lama has grown steadily from that time. His designation as winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1989 was entirely fitting to his person and his mission. He is a courageous and compassionate, holy and humble being. On the other hand, I was disappointed with the bulk of his teachings. They were not merely abstruse, but also confusing and confused. He might well have done better by offering his students the bulk of his teachings in simple, usable concepts spoken in English.
Yet, as Susan might say, “It’s all perfect.” He gave what he had to give. We received what we could accept.
It was all somehow perfect with Susan and me, too. After a quick flight back to Phoenix, I loaded up the possessions which Susan had left behind in storage and made the two-day trip to northern California and then unloaded her goods.
Susan and I led our last chakra workshop together, as well received as the others. During the visit, I tried to get Susan’s attention. I wanted to pick up some of the pieces of the past and to review the ground which we had both covered over the previous months. But, Susan wasn’t interested. She was concerned with her new work and life. S.O.S. was not wanting to invest in any relationship, still feeling hurt by all the changes which she had encountered recently, including those which I had precipitated.
I returned to the Plains having experienced some potent energies: a walk into the Grand Canyon, an initiation by the Dalai Lama, a reunion with Susan Oliver, a workshop shared. Many of the succeeding days were lived half-heartedly – maybe split-heartedly. My heart was partly with Susan and partly with Judith. I was also invested in my family and yet focused on finding a work, a profession, an outlet for my talents.
Judith was, in the midst of all my meanderings and confusions, invariably accepting and forgiving – probably too much so. She truly had a heart of gold and seemed never to think an unkind thought nor say an angry word. Judith also had an open hand and was always sharing her teaching/performing experiences with me in one way or another. I joined her at a Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship meeting in Minnesota one week. Judith directed the choir, led group singing, and taught a daily workshop. She unselfishly asked me to co-lead some of the workshop sessions. Barr also induced me to join in the choir. I felt quite out of place and inadequate to the task. Still, it was good for me. I wonder if my joyful noise detracted from the beauty of the choir and its pieces. We sang before an audience of several hundred at the healing service on the last evening. The music at the conference was breathtaking. The final service was poignant and powerful.
On another occasion during the week, Judith, three mutual friends, and I composed a vocal group which assisted in a “Cosmic Mass.” The experience was not quite cosmic, but it was a high point of the conference. It seems that numbers of people in New Age circles aren’t just satisfied with national or planetary efforts. They must go cosmic!!
I made one more foray to the Arizona desert in late October. I was invited to attend a fundraiser for the envisioned Indian holistic health center. That somewhat “cosmic” idea turned out to be almost comic. The fundraiser was poorly organized and barely attended.
I was intended to be the director of the medical staff. It had a familiar ring! Initially, my main function was to help in procuring insurance reimbursement for patients who visited the group’s healthcare facility. Besides an income, I was to be provided with OJT in homeopathic prescribing. The latter appealed to me, but once again it looked like I was going to be “the insurance doctor.” But, appointments were not kept, communications unmade, and I quickly gave up on the big plan.
Not long after my return home, I received a call from Judith inviting me to join her on a trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Judith was going to attend meetings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and she wanted to share the event with me. En route to Tennessee, we made a stop at a new age community in Oklahoma called Sparrow Hawk Village. The institution had been founded by the charismatic Reverend Carol Parrish Harra. We were allowed to participate in village activities and assisted in a worship service. We also tried to feel out the possibilities of making some working connection with the community. We were well received by the rank and file while Judith especially touched a number of the group via her singing and her usual warm, loving presence.
But, it seemed clear from the outset that the noted leader of Sparrow Hawk was not interested in sharing any of the teaching chores or limelight with one so attractive as Judith. It would have been quite stressful for her. Before we left for Nashville, we each had a short interview with Reverend Harra. I don’t recall what she told Judith, but whatever it was put Barr into a morose, agitated state when we departed. I left a bit upset myself. To me, Harra said, “I can see that you two have a genuine affection for each other. But, don’t let that affection interfere with your finding your own way. You shouldn’t have to tag along behind a woman to discover your own niche.”
I had to admit that she was right and I told her so. But, I added, “You are known for your intuitive skills. You might consider utilizing them to help you recognize real talents when you see them. Your community will not survive long if you are the only one allowed to express creativity, power, and leadership.”
Judith and I struggled with our feelings about Sparrow Hawk and Harra on our last lap to Nashville. I suppose we were both caught in our own thwarted desires. Judith was most anxious for a solid commitment to intimacy. I was itching for something substantial to appear in the way of work or career. I couldn’t help replaying Harra’s words in my mind on the road and during the Academy proceedings.
I did need to find my own way. But, why was I going to spending a week among devotees of Methodism and alongside Judith Barr? What was the experience all about, anyway? I hadn’t the vaguest idea.
The Academy was a recent innovation of the United Methodist Church. I perceived it as an holistic inroad into modern religion. Approximately 50 clergy and lay leaders had been selected to attend week-long quarterly meetings over a period of two years at Methodist Headquarters. A curriculum had been developed to provide stimulating information in modern theology. More importantly, top-notch lecturers were chosen, an intensive schedule designed, covenant groups developed, and interim studies suggested to support the ongoing “spiritual formation” of the participants. The program was impressive in its inception and implementation, but most attractive was the caliber of the people who were recruited as students who really became the program. Kent Millard and Judith Barr circulated freely in the group and seemed to be real leaders among the students. They eventually helped to initiate a regional Academy for the Dakotas.
Two noted theologians gave the lectures during the week I sat next to Judith in a classroom on the campus of Vanderbilt University. One was Morton Kelsey, a big name professor at Notre Dame and an author of several books on popular psycho-religious topics. Many of his ideas were relatively new to the students and they seemed to readily accept his theses. I was less than impressed, particularly when he drew a illustrative diagram on the blackboard. His drawing represented human consciousness inside a box and God everywhere outside it. At a break, I dared to ask him, “Isn’t everything which is outside the box also within it?”
The aging Catholic apostle quickly and dogmatically dismissed my assertion, “God is far beyond human comprehension. We can only hope that Divinity will recognize us through our spiritual disciplines and living. God is other than. And, we are at His mercy.”
The other lecturer, Robert Tuttle, was a younger man – bright and energetic, fiery and dynamic in his presentations. His area of interest was mysticism and his reputation had been developed through a volume he wrote on the life of John Wesley. Recently a professor at Oral Roberts University seminary, our speaker had felt stifled and moved on to another school of theology in the Midwest. Both Judith and I were immediately drawn to the intense teacher and spent several moments in conversation with him. At one point, he revealed to us, “I’m at one of those periods in my life when I either write a book or make a move.”
Judith seemed to see through his pattern and said, “Maybe it is a time to be with yourself. You might consider resurrecting your mystical journey.”
Kent Millard approached Judith and me one evening after worship service. With a sheepish look on his face, the Reverend said he had something to share with us. “You two have been in my thoughts all week. This evening after communion, you came to my mind again. And before I could say a prayer, words rang through my consciousness, ‘These two are God’s servants. They are needed at the seminary.’” Millard seemed lit up with the revelation. But at the same time, he didn’t want to come across as “giving a revelation from God.”
We responded to Millard’s offering in quite different ways. J.S. strenuously resisted the idea. Although she was much more attached to the church than I, lots of negative feelings from her years growing up in a strict religious tradition surfaced. Most difficult were the painful memories which she carried with her from a traumatic marriage to a Methodist minister. Judith was definitely in no hurry to take up the call to be a seminarian. Still, there was no question of her being a real servant.
I reacted rather simply with, “Well, why not?” By the time Millard shared his enlightenment, I was becoming almost comfortable as a “Christian” for the first time in my life. Out of my eclectic studies in religion and spirituality via the Cayce material and A Course in Miracles, Unity and Religious Science, Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship, Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, I had culled a number of essentials which helped to make Christianity come to life. With my Bible study, meditations, and churchgoing, I had begun to understand some of the symbols of the great Western religion. I could see that behind the icons of the church there was real substance. That was quite comforting in comparison to the images of medicine which disguise a relative vacuum of meaning.
I imagined that the significance beyond the symbols of the church might hold my attention for some length of time. Besides, the hallmarks of the Christian church have always been preaching, teaching, and healing. Those covered a large portion of my interests. And, “Why not?” The seminary and the ministry sounded as good as any option which had arisen in a long time.
I ran with the idea. I spent the last few hours of the Nashville stay reviewing catalogs at the Vanderbilt University library, gathering information from the Headquarters of the United Methodist Church, and discussing the seminary idea with Judith.
On returning home, I set to work on my new mission to enter the seminary and study for the ministry. My initial inclination was to pursue clerical credentials so as to be able to one day teach seminarians. I imagined that the combination of medical and ministerial training would open doors for me to teach the elements of healing within the church system – something that I would never even fantasize doing within the medical arena. The church seemed to be the obvious place to discuss and promote healing. Didn’t the western healing tradition begin and thrive in the Christian church for centuries?
My intentions were temporarily disturbed by the suggestion that for me to teach in seminary would require another advanced degree. A Master of Divinity would just get my foot in the ecclesiastical door. If I wanted to speak and be heard among the clergy, I was told, “Another doctorate would be most appropriate.”
I gulped at the thought of sitting in a classroom for a half-dozen more years after all those I had already endured. But, I concluded, “If that’s what it takes. So be it.”
I quickly determined to attend the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. PSR is a liberal seminary which might support my interests and endeavors. A number of other factors drew my attention to PSR. Practitioners of the Eastern traditions, especially Tibetan Buddhism, lived in large numbers in the Bay Area. Berkeley was a “hotbed” of learning. And, I still held a hope of renewing some sort of relationship with my “Tibetan mate,” Susan. The application procedure was straightforward and I was soon accepted for entrance into training for September of 1985.
A further requirement for a prospective Methodist minister was to become a certified “Candidate.” With the aid of Rev. Millard, I raced through the Methodist Candidacy program, gained approval from the local church, and got okayed by the regional oversight board for ministers-in-training. While the latter group looked a bit askance at my aspirations, they were quite willing to “pass me on” and see what developed.
Having settled with a plan for the future, there was little need or opportunity to be so much on the move as I had been for some months. Judith and I drifted apart. Neither of us made the shuttle across the plains for some time.
I ached for something to do – something active and expressive. I continued to spend regular hours at the City Library “working on my book.” While I managed to get words on paper in an organized fashion, the gel that might have held a volume together never solidified. Nonetheless, my writing efforts were not wasted. They prepared me for later steps on the ladder of writing and teaching.
Eventually, my silent call was heard. Through a friend, I made contact with a group in Sioux Falls that was interested in studying New Age topics. I was invited to meet with them and give an introductory session on the chakras. My efforts were well-received by a group of fifteen curious adults.
After the initial meeting, I outlined a weekly program of study which they accepted. Each Saturday evening for three winter months I drove the seventy miles to Sioux Falls to shares ideas, exercises, and discussion. Chakras, consciousness, and energies were the focal points of the program. Over a few weeks, the group shrank to ten regulars who were more than satisfied with their gleanings though not entirely sure what they were picking up.
The host for most of the program was a frail businessman named James Hurley. Jim, who had battled a rare disorder of the thyroid gland for years, seemed to express the sentiments of many of the group. Early on when I asked if the members felt they were getting anything out of the program, Jim responded ahead of the rest, “I have to be honest. I really don’t understand much of what you say or what we do here. But, I know I’m getting something out of this program. I wouldn’t miss these meetings for the world.”
The weekly sessions were clearly successful. But the program almost aborted before it began. Strange things happened which appeared to threaten the class in addition to the well-being of an array of persons who seemed to be quite separate from my little teaching effort. While many people became enmeshed in the altogether bizarre episode, I was the focal point of much of the comings and goings. I should have been better prepared for them. But, I wasn’t.
After my return from Tennessee and in the midst of my efforts to gain a place at the seminary, I became fixated on an idea which I uncovered in the writings of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. For some time, I had been enamored by Jung’s work and believed him to be a profound teacher. Jung grabbed my attention with his statement that, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
I took those words as a challenge to face the darkness within me. In a sense, I said wordlessly, “I am ready to deal with my darkness. Let’s bring the darkness to light.”
I must say that I had no idea what my wish might bring to me. I thought, at most, that I would have to face some unseemly emotions I had stuffed over the years or some dark memory from a bygone incarnation. I had no hint that my desire would embroil me and a large number of people in issues of possession, evil, and exorcism.
The episode came alive on my first trip to Sioux Falls to discuss the projected chakra class with its organizers. I drove over nonchalantly on a pleasant evening and parked my car in front of a Tudor-style house. Carol, the woman of the house, and her friend Nan were supposed to be awaiting my arrival. I expected to see them and Carol’s husband waiting for me at the door. Not so. I tried the doorbell, but it didn’t work. I knocked, but got no answer. I was quite sure of the address and appointment. The lights were on and the door unlocked, so I let myself in the house to find the living room arranged as if for company. I sat down with my papers and scanned the room rather anxiously.
Soon, there was some activity on the stairs. Nan and Carol appeared. They apologized for not meeting me at the door saying that they had been “putting the little ones to bed.” Carol’s husband joined us shortly and we entered into a discussion about the program and ourselves. All three seemed to be satisfied with what I shared about the prospective class.
Nan eventually shifted the conversation, but not without some obvious trepidation. She slowly tried to explain what had been going on with them over the previous days. Carol had been initially receptive to the program and signed on to host the meeting in her spacious house. But some hours after Nan and Carol’s first discussion on the subject, Carol was overcome by dark, foreboding feelings which she believed emanated from the physician-teacher who was scheduled to visit at her home that weekend.
Nan and Carol prided themselves on being “psychically connected.” When Carol related her spontaneous augury to her intimate friend, the two sat together combining their extrasensory talents to consider the ill-omen from the West. Their efforts brought forth images of a large, hulking, and heavily-bearded man who was framed in darkness. The two women were convinced that the mystery person was playing with evil and was a danger to himself and others. Connecting the dark figure with me, Nan and Carol were understandably apprehensive when I approached the doorstep that evening. It was not just young children who kept them from quickly answering the door.
However when they had seen, met, and conversed with me, many of their anxieties were allayed. They shared their fears and concerns based on their “psychic investigation.” After completing their story, Nan and Carol leaned toward me and breathlessly asked, “Do you know anyone who might fit that description?”
With only a moment’s hesitation, I answered, “Only one person I know might suit it.” They eagerly asked for details. I took a few more moments to gather my thoughts which were far less than clear regarding Duane Waterman. Duane was the college professor who had introduced me to Judith Barr. For that gift, I was more than grateful. But, the giver himself had no benevolent effect upon me. Actually, he rubbed me in quite the opposite way.
Waterman was trained as a minister, but gave up his first vocation for reasons he kept quite to himself. The one-time reverend found a college post teaching philosophy while staying pretty much behind the scenes at his small university. He was, it seemed to me, a mass of contradictions and paradoxes. Duane was, on the one hand, open to Judith’s spiritual proddings. On the other, he seemed to be absorbed in the world of the senses. His lustful ways appeared always to speak more loudly than his mild protestations of a devotion to God and a determination to pick up the spiritual path again, someday.
Duane was a sensualist, if there ever was one. If not for a strong will and conscience which kept some his most secret desires in check, Waterman would have drawn numbers of women and/or men into his sybaritic net. I gathered that he had pulled at Judith for a short time only to regretfully let her go. Somehow, his marriage survived. Fortunate for him, he had one.
His wife was the salt of the earth. A homely, but bright woman with great strength of character and endurance, she was apparently compliant to Duane’s voracious sexual appetite. Marlene was Waterman’s saving grace. She seemed to absorb a great deal of his karma while saving him from falling many times over.
At the moment I sat with Nan and Carol, I knew only bits and pieces of Duane’s story. But, I had picked up on several hints which exuded from his hidden side. I had had no thought that he was “evil” or involved in evil. Yet, I could easily imagine him, as Judith once did, “Bound by chains and locks.”
I tried to share my sense of Duane Waterman with the two women. They seemed to recoil even at the paltry descriptions which I was able to give them of the man and his life. Before I left that night, Nan and Carol said prayers to surround and protect me with light. Carol handed me a crucifix as an added safeguard. I really had no idea what to do with it and I didn’t care to ask.
My attention was riveted on Waterman as I drove home. I felt no danger for my personal self, but I couldn’t disregard the turmoil and fears engendered in the women I had just left. I determined to consult Reverend Millard as soon as possible to enlist his aid. Looking back, I think the whole episode panicked me more than a bit. I had managed medical and psychological emergencies in the past with some aplomb. I could have done so again had I the white jacket and the call to respond. But, a psychic emergency as that one appeared to be was outside my repertory and it put a hook right through my skin.
I laid out the story to Kent as it had happened. Millard was strangely receptive to my presentation of the whole incident. He made no objection to my linkage of Duane Waterman to the dark figure. Pastor Kent merely suggested that I meet with a woman named Beverly who was a tenant in Duane and Marlene’s house. He thought such a contact might help put the whole situation in some perspective.
Before long it seemed, a large number of people were involved in the tangled web which stretched from South Dakota to Montana. I consulted with Judith who knew a great deal about Duane, more than she would ever tell. Judith volunteered to make a trip “anytime” to help out.
Eventually, a series of meetings occurred which brought another aspect of the intrigue to light – or at least some light. First, Beverly and I met. Then, Duane and I faced off with Beverly looking on. As might have been expected, the confrontation was a less than comfortable one. Duane didn’t seem to be greatly affected by the intimations of darkness which supposedly surrounded him. For a time, we discussed the episode which I had experienced with Nan and Carol. But, the conversation soon turned toward Judith and me. Duane was very protective of her. He maintained a regular communication and was strongly sustained by his ties with her.
Duane was angry about the way I had treated Judith. “Why don’t you back out of her life. Just leave her alone. She’s really much too good for you.”
Although Duane had introduced me to Judith, he didn’t like me in her life. And, I always felt he had his eye on me. I could never say that it was “the evil eye,” but I certainly found no comfort under his scrutiny.
The meeting left lots of issues hanging in the air. I thought things might remain that way until I received an unexpected phone call from Waterman. He asked me to come to his office at the college. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
I showed up at the appointed time and sat down in Duane’s unattended nook. While I waited, I scanned the walls trying to gather more hints into the life of my apparent nemesis. There was no evidence of darkness or evil in any of his digs. His things were piled about rather haphazardly which possibly hinted at some confusion in his existence. At the same time, his wallhangings and mementos suggested a wide range of experiences and interests. The “spiritual” influences in his life seemed to come much more from tangible Mother Earth than from the netherworld Holy Father. Obviously, Duane was no simple fellow.
Waterman arrived and greeted me rather more warmly than I might have expected. We sat for a moment before he started to speak about our anticipated visitor. Duane told me about the young man whom he had been informally counseling for some months. The student was a quite unstable fellow, having been confined to the state mental hospital not long past. Big John Paddock was in his sophomore year of college trying to make the grade, find his way, and maintain his sanity all at the same time. He was apparently doing better in some directions than others.
Big John’s problems became increasingly more involved as he grew older and as Waterman described them to me. At that, I think Duane only revealed the major points of John’s story. Most of which were fairly common knowledge around campus. John came from a home broken by a vile, disturbed father. He had been the brunt of much of the man’s abuse, physical and sexual. John faced a whole gamut of bodily and emotional problems growing up. Somewhere in the teen years, he developed an unnamed intestinal disease and suffered the ignominy of having to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.
Pain became a central focus of John’s existence – how to relieve it, avoid it, or get rid of it. Whomever John approached for help, be they ministers or teachers, physicians or psychologists, seemed to fail him. The vague but tenacious pains of which Paddock complained never left him for long. In his late teens, John experienced a full-blown psychotic break, hallucinations, paranoia – the whole works. Hospitalized and medicated, he made a slow recovery.
On discharge, John made two resolves: to return to college and to seek a new center of solace for his life. Ironically, he chose a church-supported university in which to pursue his education as well as seek a pact with the forces of darkness.
Just as Duane began to explain Paddock’s secret connections, the mystery man knocked at the door. Duane rose to invite Paddock in. As they met at the doorway, I was struck by the similarities between the two. Both were stout, muscular, and bearded. At the same time, there were quite obvious differences. While both were husky men, Big John was nearly a half-foot taller and probably weighed 75 pounds more than Duane. Waterman was sandy-haired and ruddy-faced. His beard reddish and neatly clipped. The hair on John’s head and face was jet black and rather unkempt. His visage was sallow, as if he had been deprived of the goodness of the sun for a time. Finally while Duane evidenced a range of moods and attitudes, John seemed caught in a dull, monochrome world. Duane was a colorful, if complicated man. He sensed, experienced, and expressed bits of the whole. John was obviously stuck at the far end of the spectrum. I wondered if he would turn back upon his way or pass over the edge irretrievably.
We all sat down and Big John took up the thread of his story. “It seems that I have lived the whole of my life in pain. I decided some time before I came back to college that I had had enough. I’ve received promises from friends and doctors and ministers. None of their good intentions amount to a row of beans. Mostly, people have thrown the name of Jesus at me. But, he has always failed me, just like everyone else. He flat failed me.”
“There is only one who has not let me down. I can’t tell you his name, but I have a friend who protects me and aids me. He takes away my pain. I will be forever grateful to him. He knows I am. He came to me when I was at the end. Without him, I would be dead now. I only have him. But, that’s quite enough.”
Big John talked a long and hard line about his pact and allegiance to the unnamed one who supposedly sustained him. It was easy to recognize the hurt and bitterness which had burdened his psyche for so long. Yet, he was not totally convincing as to his commitment to the invisible benefactor. His words were clear and his statements adamant, but his intentions were obviously confused.
Why had he consulted Duane and revealed so many of his secrets to him? Why was it common knowledge that Big John had “Someone“ hiding in the closet of his dorm room? Why did he join in a three-way discussion with a total stranger? Why did he even allow us to broach the word “exorcism” to him?
Big John carried hate and malice toward those who hurt him. He was contemptuous of medicine and religion. He had no use for Jesus. All the same, he was reaching out and listening. He obviously considered every word we said though from behind the wall of a clouded mind. Neither Duane nor I could break through the barrier he had set up. John was unwilling to betray his dark ally.
Our conversation went on for more than an hour. We followed a number of threads which always came back to the nameless and mysterious savior who supposedly held the reins to John’s life. Paddock revealed parts of the story which were behind his making contact with the black forces. He also told us that exorcism had been attempted on two occasions. Both were quite unsuccessful. The latter one was initiated by an Episcopal priest. “It was a disaster. I knew it would be, but the priest wouldn’t listen. I almost killed him. He had no idea of the power which he was playing with. I won’t allow that to ever happen again. I don’t want to hurt anyone. Really! I just want to live without pain and be left alone. So, maybe it is best that you leave me alone.”
Big John took his leave. I sat with Duane for a few moments and pondered the nature of evil and darkness. I decided then and there that it was mostly a thing of consciousness – inner, subjective, and perceptual. There was little evidence of any harm arising out of John’s pact with the Nameless One – the Dark One – the Devil – whatever it was. Paddock seemed mainly to be caught in a cell of his own mind and his own making. Whatever forces he had attracted to himself – however real – were reflections of portions of his own inner nature. No different than your mental processes or my own. I wondered then how much of that whole entangling episode was manifested just to remind me of the unnumbered phantoms of confusion, darkness, and deception which were/are present in my own consciousness? How wise was it to call them to the surface of my awareness?
Nan and Carol anxiously awaited the results of my investigations. When I made a telephone report to them, they immediately volunteered to drive over for a conference. Some days later, Nan and Carol, Beverly and Duane, Kent, Judith, and I convened in a church meeting room for a long session.
Extraordinarily little of the seemingly significant event remains in my memory. Two or three things do stand out. First, seven people living in three different cities spread over 750 miles were drawn together ostensibly to come to the aid of a young man “possessed by a demon.” Second, within the group there were obvious animosities – some with known causes, others quite unexplainable. My conflict with Duane could be understood to a degree. But, the instant lightning which passed between Duane and Nan was hard to figure. One explanation was that Nan had prejudiced herself against Duane based on her “previous extrasensory investigations.” Another was that there was some sort of “psychic friction” between the two. Was it another lifetime leaking into the present one?
There was no cure for their clash and not much for mine with Duane. I couldn’t help but mention to the group my belief that the seven of us must have been together before at some point in history. I suggested that we were reliving some old problem or at least old patterns which were unresolved in the past. We didn’t make much headway on the modern occasion of its replay.
We concluded that we would offer our help to Big John if he consented to an exorcism. None of us had ever come close to being involved in such an activity. Still, we were willing to assist in the ritual despite the shared knowledge that John had “almost killed the priest” on the last attempt.
The meeting dissolved with Duane agreeing to present our offer to John. Paddock refused any such intervention and our strange group interactions were brought to a halt. Despite the scare of the moment and our real concern for Mr. Paddock, we quickly lost contact with him and his story. Big John Paddock apparently caused no major problems in the dormitory or on the campus during the remainder of the school year. At least, his activities were not broadcast too widely. But to no one’s distress, John didn’t return to the university for his junior year. Not even Duane heard from him thereafter.
Nan and Carol returned to Sioux Falls. Carol soon dropped out of the chakra class causing it to move to new quarters. From time to time, Nan queried me about news of Waterman and Paddock. There was very little to report on Big John after his refusal of exorcism. But, Nan really seemed more concerned about Duane all along.
After the final session of the chakra program, I saw Nan once for lunch when I was passing through her city. She was hurting and going through a divorce. I apparently came over as being unsympathetic which is not surprising. Sympathy has never been my best suit. Nan left in a huff. She did call me later to apologize. Considering all the turmoil that had come into my life through Nan – albeit of my own asking – I decided to let our communication fade away.
Although I had hoped to create some viable relationship with Duane Waterman, it seemed that there would always be objects and memories of discomfort between us surrounding Judith, Big John, and “The Dark One.” Even if they had disappeared, I think we would still have experienced conflict. We were quite different people with different perceptions, ideas, and aspirations. Judith and Nan and Big John brought us together for some moments. I’m sure I never got close to understanding the meaning of our contacts. But, I must say that I did learn at least one major lesson from my interactions with Waterman. I dare not court a communication with The Darkness again. It was just too confusing and harrowing, disarming and unhealthy to dredge up the muck that lay within and around me. Life is hard enough as it is without deliberately adding to its burdens.
I’ve since become more selective in my readings though I still respect the writings and philosophy of C.G. Jung. Actually, I have great admiration for the man and his works. I have chosen another quote from his prodigious offerings which suits me much better. It seems a much safer attitude from which to drive my life. The saying goes like this: “We don’t solve our problems, we outgrow them.”
When spring arrived and much of the darkness of the winter had lifted, I began to look forward to moving to California and entering the seminary. I was not totally imbued with the ministerial calling, but the admission and candidacy process had gone off without a hitch. I began to make what turned out to be rather unrealistic plans for my time at the seminary.
In the meantime, unexpected callers came knocking at the door one morning. Two besuited, middle-aged men asking for me flashed their Health and Human Services badges when I said, “I am he.” Having a vague notion what they wished to discuss, I suggested that we remove ourselves to the Country Kitchen. Over coffee and tea, the agents told me that they had flown that very morning from Phoenix just to see me. I couldn’t say that I felt honored. Actually, I thought that Uncle Sam was wasting hundreds of dollars for the two of them to interview me for a few minutes. We could just as well have had a pleasant phone conversation and skipped the refreshments.
The HHS agents, reminded me of my short business relationship with Mr. Steve Stringer. Stringer was an acupuncturist who had employed me for a few weeks in 1983 to get insurance coverage for some of his patients. Before, during, and after my stint with him, I picked up indications that his operations bordered on the edge of legality. It took me far too long to act on those hunches and hints. Toward the end of our connection, I got angry when one of the small paychecks he wrote to me bounced. Even more disturbing was his boast that, “I don’t pay income tax. The government just rips people off. They won’t do it to me anymore. And, they can’t touch me either.” I soon quit my association with him. But, not until I had entangled my name with his.
Before I left Phoenix, I received a brief visit at the Think Faith Center from a police detective. The officer was investigating Stringer who was already in jail. I told him what little I knew about Steve and his operation. When the HHS agents showed up, I thought they just wanted more information about Stringer. But, Stringer was only part of their concern. They were also interested in me and wanted to know about my signatures on Medicare claims and my insurance work with non-medical practitioners. I told them the truth. “I have nothing to hide. I am no longer a physician and don’t intend to practice again. Actually, I’ll be going off to ministerial training this summer.”
I suppose my whole attitude toward being a physician and practicing medicine was demonstrated in how willingly I put my name and M.D. to insurance forms. Money wasn’t the issue, although playing insurance doctor put some income into my pocket for a few months. The real issue seemed to be helping patients to choose the most appropriate therapies and utilize the services of various practitioners. I signed insurance forms just like I had thousands of charts and exams, prescriptions and requisitions over the years.
Looking back, I see that I took the professional title and my own name for granted. I let other people use them and me. Yet, I really had no major regrets then or now. I have been embarrassed along the way when I have tried to explain what happened to solidly close the door to my medical career. But then, my attitudes and actions opened up a new life for me. So, I couldn’t be too upset.
That event occurred in the spring of 1985 when I was planning my move to Berkeley and toward a new career. Some weeks after the HHS, I received a letter from the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners directing me to appear before a hearing on a stipulation against my medical license. The stipulation suggested that I had made “false statements” on medical documents. My license was subject to revocation. I made plans to attend the meeting.
I set off for the Golden State and new horizons in June of 1985 with $1500 in travelers’ checks. My dear old mother, still buzzing from a jolt of chemotherapy received the previous day, and I drove to her bank where she made a withdrawal from her “Kitty.” She put the money in my hand “to get you started out there.”
I looked forward to the new adventure at the seminary in California. But, I had some reservations. Leaving my dying mother was the biggest one. I knew she wouldn’t be around much longer. Yet, I had a new direction to follow. At least, I thought I had one. I remember talking to a friend at the Methodist church some few days before I left. Quite unexpectedly, the words rolled out of my mouth, “I’m getting ready to go to the cemetery.” I passed over my Freudian slip rather too quickly.
I was sad to leave home. Mom cried as she always did on partings. Dad was a bit more emotional than usual. My brother said, “We’ll miss you.” He meant it.
I stopped in Montana to see Judith. I tried to convince her that she should be going to seminary as well. “Remember what Millard said.” No doubt, I was trying to convince myself. Neither one of us has made it to the seminary, yet.
I drove on to Phoenix and parked at Karen’s place until the Medical Board convened. I wore a suit and looked halfway professional the day of the hearing. I was nervous, but not terribly so. I quickly and briefly answered the questions posed to me. When I was asked about my plans for medicine, I replied, “I have none. I do not intend to practice again. I’m on my way to start training for the ministry.”
I signed papers that day agreeing to their stipulation. I voluntarily surrendered my license rather than try to hold on to something which I was not going to use again. In a matter of a few minutes, I took my final – or almost final – step away from medicine.
Thence, I drove on to Berkeley. My arrival was expected by the Registrar at the Pacific School of Religion. He was prepared to help me get started in the Bay Area, but “Summer really is not the best time to make a beginning here. Lots of our programs are shut down. The dorms are closed. But, we’ll try to help.”
The Registrar was quite right. He had encouraged me months before by phone to apply for financial aid, but I wasn’t about to apply for monetary help. I knew I could find a job and make my own start. I had done it before. So, I came to the Great Northern California Metroplex with big intentions but small material resources. I quickly realized that my mother’s gift would soon disappear. I needed to get something going very quickly. And, equally soon recognized that my imaginings were in vain.
I seemed to find roadblocks at every turn. Doors opened nowhere. There was no fit for me. Before long, three major reasons for my failure impressed themselves upon me. First, I had come without a clear plan of how to make my educational objectives work. Second, I didn’t fit in the big city of Berkeley, in congested California. I never had. Even when I was a young soldier living across the Bay, I isolated myself on the Presidio and lived a small-town existence in the midst of the megalopolis. Finally, I would not feel right being in California when my mother was dying in South Dakota.
My thoughts were jumbled and confused. My head ached and my heart was heavy especially when I pondered my “Poor Old Mom.” I thought out loud, “How could I have come here? How can I be here when Mom is home with but a few months to live? What will I do when her time comes in the midst of school? How can I be in two places at one time?”
For once in my life, I got angry with God. I shouted and cried and carried on for some time, bewailing my predicament and wondering at my way out. First, it was, “How could You put me into such a situation?” Before long, it was, “Why am I here? Why did I put myself in this bind? What am I to learn and do now?”
Even as I spat on the ground and kicked the dirt under my feet, my decision was already made. I knew that I had to abort my mission to attend seminary. It just wasn’t going to happen. My planning had been superficial. My desire for formal ministerial training was insufficient. I needed to be with my family back in South Dakota. The “call” to return home was much louder than the one to study for the ministry.
I felt more like a failure in that moment than ever in my life. Yet, it was clear to me that I had to return. So, twice in the period of a little more than a year, I turned toward home. My life was still in pieces. I had lost my career direction for a second time. For all my pondering and worrying about a new work, I had little to show. But, I still had my family. They were more than happy to welcome me back from my brief western foray. Brother Tom commiserated with me over the telephone, “It’s okay. The city’s not the place for you. Besides, we need you here. Something will work out for you. Come on home.” With a load of heavy and mixed feelings, but a real sense of relief, I traveled the long western highway once again – going home.
Still, I had been given the gift to presiding over that wedding when in Phoenix. Along with other apparent hints, I thought the seminary and ministry were for me. When Kent Millard suggested that the seminary was the place for me, the meaning seemed to become quite clear. But, then my trip to the California seminary became just that – a trip from which I soon returned empty-handed and at loose ends again.
Within a few days of my return home, I made an appointment to see Pastor Millard. After his usual prayer, I went over my story with him. I told him of the outer problems and conflicts inside me which prompted my turning back. I felt that I had made the right decision. But, I was down-hearted about still not having a way to share and express myself. Kent listened intently but had no quick answers to my quandary.
Before our session was over, I removed a photo of the Arizona wedding from an envelope to show my friend. I said, “I still wonder what this means. Why did that experience happen to me? I do so wish that I could find a way to be of service to people. You don’t know of any church that might need some help, do you?”
Millard thought for just a moment before he replied, “As a matter of fact, there are two small churches north of here that will be needing a pastor soon. A retired minister, Grace Nelson, has been filling in for some time and I don’t think they have any solid prospects to fill a permanent position. Reverend Nelson will soon be on her way to the Philippines to do some missionary work. You might give Grace a call.”
I made the call and Grace referred me to the moderator of the Search Committee. I soon met with the group of eight people who represented the Congregational (UCC) Churches of Letcher and Loomis, South Dakota. They were a warm and cordial bunch. From the first handshakes and smiles, I felt like I knew those people – some of them, anyway. I told the group the salient parts of my story and answered their questions as best I could. My basic statement to them was that, “My mother’s ill and I have decided to stay close to the family for the time being. I used to be a doctor. Though I have given up that profession, I am still committed to service. I’ll do right by you if you decide to have me fill your pulpit.”
It was obvious that they were eager to fill their preaching need, even if it was on a temporary basis by a layman while they continued to search for a long-term, ordained minister. Before the meeting was over, we had agreed on a small wage and my staying in the vacant parsonage. The job started in less than two weeks during which time I sat in on Grace’s last sermons and was introduced to the two congregations. I had no apprehensions on following in the old woman’s footsteps. She was a bit of a Bible thumper and it was obvious that she had rubbed a few people the wrong way. Nor was I concerned about coming up with material for sermons. There were plenty of ideas rattling around inside of my brain. I was sure that I could relate to the parishioners without any trouble. I had always been a good listener and enjoyed people.
Yet, there were some technicalities to pass through. I had to obtain provisional approval through the South Dakota Conference of the United Churches of Christ. I made a trip to Sioux Falls and visited with the Conference Director, Reverend Bill Bratten. Bill was a pudgy, sixtyish man with rosy cheeks and a twinkle in his eye. Although he was a little gruff and reserved with me at the outset of our meeting, Bratten perked up and opened up during the course of our conversation. We shared lots of stories and ideas.
The interview concluded with a pact to work together for the betterment of the two congregations. Bratten did make me promise to work only in an interim capacity. I would neither solicit nor accept a permanent position with the churches under any circumstances. I had no intentions or aspirations for doing so. Bratten also required me to meet with one of his councils a few weeks hence to get official permission to perform the sacraments during my term. I attended that session and, although the committee zealously guarded the privilege of performing quarterly communion services and occasional baptisms, I was given a temporary go-ahead.
I began my move thirty miles up the road to Letcher on an eerie day. The sun was shining brightly, yet there was a large bank of gray clouds stubbornly lodged in the northwest direction toward which I was traveling. I wondered if that was some sort of a sign.
I opened up the parsonage and emptied my few belongings in appropriate rooms. The house was a two-story affair. The main floor had been recently remodeled with dark paneling and a decent looking brown shag rug. Fortunately, windows let light in from every direction. There were large archways between the kitchen, dining area, and living room. In the latter was a fine wood-burning stove which I gladly put to use in the winter.
Up the stairs which began at the front entryway were two large bedrooms, an office, and a bath. No shower. I did baths reluctantly for the duration. I rearranged the office and took temporary residence in the west bedroom. Before long, I shifted to the east to be greeted each morning by the rising sun.
After the first hauls of goods, the house still looked rather empty. I was content, but Mother thought otherwise when she managed a trip to my new “digs.” Despite her flagging state, Mom rode up with me one day, surveyed the house, and even climbed the stairs to the second floor. She quickly decided, “You definitely need a couch. I’ll get you one.”
Good as her word, Mom bought me one and my brother trucked it up one day. Tom also brought Henry along and left him in my keeping. Henry, sometimes Henny or just Hank for short, was a thirteen year-old, mostly black, short-haired and short-legged dog. Henry was a terrier with a few other unnamed strains added in for color and confusion. He was a bright animal with a warm disposition. But, my brother paid relatively little attention to him as the years progressed. I suppose that and “city living” contributed to Henry’s predicament.
Hank became my charge because of his most recent behavior. Despite his advancing age, the dog could be a feisty character at times. Hank had never been neutered and still found canine bitches attractive. In previous weeks, he had penetrated forbidden territory and been cited by the dogcatcher. Hank was either going to the pound or my brother would pay a fifty dollar fine. Tom told the authorities that the offender was moving out of town.
Although my brother owes me one for bailing him out of that one, I got lots out of the bargain. I have always loved dogs. Witnessing my common stops to pet and visit with dogs on the street, a friend once remarked, “You must have been a dog in a past lifetime.”
Henry quickly settled down and became my sidekick and walking buddy through the year in Letcher. We tramped the whole town many times. That wasn’t hard at all. The town was quite tiny, covering only a dozen or so square blocks and holding a mere 200 citizens. We followed the railroad tracks which ran north and south (more or less), circumambulated the “lake,” and scouted the tractor salvage yard. We picked on much the same paths whatever the weather – rain or shine, snow or wind. I suppose we must have been some sight to the locals passing by or staring out their windows: A grown man and his dog.
Henry rode shotgun on many of my short trips to Mitchell and visits to parishioners. But mostly, he was confined to the parsonage while I was away. I let him roam a bit when I was at the home base. Hank always followed me when I walked to the Post Office on Main Street. But if I was inside for more than a few moments, he would get distracted and run off. Minutes later, I would walk back down the street from another errand to find Henry Boy parked on his haunches in front of the P.O. waiting for me to exit.
Henry was popular with the kids and the grownups, for that matter. He was my good friend and a bit of a mascot around the town. On one occasion when the church was short of custodial helpers to fill the schedule, I assigned “Pastor and Henry” for one particular week.
Aside from church and civic duties, visits to my family, and walking adventures, our lives were pretty quiet. I had few visitors. I was the one who made visits. I had no television. I didn’t miss it, nor did Henry. But when the Bible school kids noticed, “You don’t have a TV?!,” one was dropped off within a few days for our use. Sheepishly, I returned it to the generous youngster and tried to explain “The Lifestyle of the Pastor and His Dog.”
Vacation Bible Schoolers - 1986
I read and studied, worked on sermons and listened to the radio and records. Henry and I holed up for days when the snow packed down thick and deep during the heavy winter. In the midst of that time, I hatched an idea for a sermon, “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks.” I imagined bringing Henry to the front of the church during a Children’s Message and demonstrating tricks which Henry had been learning in his declining years.
Although I did teach Hank some new tricks, I never wrote the sermon. Either it didn’t fit the scheme of things or I just wasn’t up to putting our work to a performance test. I’m sure Henry wouldn’t have minded failing before the crowd, but I might have. Besides, Henry really liked to explore the church when it was empty. No telling what he would have done when it was full on an active Sunday morning.
Regardless, I can assure you that old dogs can be taught new tricks, or tricks period. But, it is by no means an easy task. And, Hank was a tough case. He had no knowledge of humanly taught tricks. My brother just liked having a critter around his house. Tricks were superfluous to his idea of “A Man’s Best Friend.”
Henry had no earlier training, no pedigree, and no real interest. Outside, he liked to run – or waddle – play, sniff, pee on trees, and chase other animals. Hank was an All-American outdoor male dog. Inside, he was content to eat and rest.
So, I had my work cut out for me when I determined to teach my canine pal. It soon became clear that regularity and frequency were more important than the length of time spent in our training efforts. Over a matter or six to eight weeks, Henry learned to shake, lay, roll-over, crawl, and stand on command. He never learned to heel. I would much rather that he had learned to “heal.” We would really have made a team in that case.
Early in our training sessions, I wondered, “How long is this going to take?” Not that I didn’t have the time. I always do. Henry didn’t carry a watch, anyway. But with that question in my mind, I once studied Henry as he peered out the dining room window at a recent snowfall. I was struck by my friend’s bodily characteristics. As I stared over his shoulder, I noticed that his head seemed small in comparison to his torso. When I imagined him without a snout, I realized that I was the master of a “Dog of Little Brain.”
I came to the conclusion that our efforts were proceeding so slowly because of Henry’s obvious handicap: a small brain and intellect. For a moment, I zoomed out to a different perspective. I imagined that, while I was smirking at my “little brother’s” tiny brain, an unseen Being – my own Master possibly – might well be looking over my own shoulder. Silently remarking, “How long will it take to train you – you of limited brain and smallish mind?” How long will it take? I suppose, as long as it takes. I’ve got plenty of time, you know. I hope He does, too.
I didn’t spend all my time with Henry or at the parsonage. I visited homes of parishioners, made hospital calls, went to Ladies Aid meetings, played cards with the Senior Citizens and Bingo with the Legion, joined in all church functions and watched the high school basketball games. All of which occurred close to Letcher except for hospital visits. I generally made the rounds and became known as I got to know church members, citizens and the towns.
As for Loomis, it was harder to get acquainted. There was so little left of the town to explore. It was a moribund village which recalled once having a post office, a school, a bar, and a few other businesses. By the time I passed through, even the bar was gone. Only the church and a grain elevator remained. I don’t believe the elevator was being used at the time. Thirty or so people lived in the few blocks which composed Loomis.
Letcher contained several times as many souls, but was still a tiny town. Yet, it had a life and a character of which Loomis could only reminisce. The character of Letcher showed in a number of ways – through the shopkeepers and businesspeople (few though they were), the folks who walked the streets, the farmers who passed through town, the neighbors whom I met and visited on my rounds. I suppose every town – of whatever size, even Loomis – has its slices of life and curiosities. Living and working in Letcher allowed me to peek in on a variety of human beings in their daily movements.
For a time, there were two Hanks in my life. Hank, my new dog, and Hank Tapken, the first man I met after I moved in. Hank was a wizened old fellow – tending towards 80 years old – who rode the fuel oil truck whenever it came up from Mitchell. He aided the driver in his chores. Tapken had held the driver’s job for years and couldn’t quite give it up when he retired. So, he still helped out just to keep his hand in.
Tapken was a tall, gregarious gent who talked with what came across as a brogue. He loved to tell stories and josh with anyone who would sit still for it. I didn’t always catch the punch lines, but smiled and nodded when he had his chuckle. Tapken came by at least once a week to check on the parsonage and me. He had done the same for the previous pastors. He felt obligated to continue his good works. Besides, he seemed to miss the last full-time minister quite a bit and talked about him frequently. I couldn’t fill the gap, yet we did become friends. As time wore on, I took to visiting him more than he did me. Before my tour of duty was up, I attended his 50th wedding anniversary – the sort of event which seems much more common in a country town of 200 than in a city of thousands.
Because he was always out and around, Hank knew most of the local gossip ahead of the rest of the town. He filled me in on the main street drunk, Dewey Long. I never met him, though I visited his father in a nursing home on occasion. By the time I moved to town, Dewey had swilled up all the profits he had made at his bar and closed the door. The rumor was that he still holed up behind the boarded up windows guzzling the remains of his inventory. I was almost curious enough to make a visit to Dewey but never quite got up the courage.
Hank always giggled when Dolly McGee passed us on the street. I did get to talk with Dolly a few times, although our conversations were uniformly confusing. Nonetheless, it was worth the discomfort to get to know the range of folks who populated my stomping ground. Dolly was a frumpy, fortyish woman who had married the well-off, lonely, and aging McGee. She presented him with a son to carry on the family name and McGee stood by her through the erratic behaviors and breakdowns which dotted her years.
Dolly was quite psychotic at times. Lucid at others, I was told. She disappeared for days to be returned home as suddenly as she left. On occasion, Dolly took it in her head to give away her husband’s clothes and personal belongings to total strangers. Once, she decided the boy was watching far too much television. So, Mrs. McGee picked up a hammer and smashed in the picture tube.
Though she had been hospitalized on a number of occasions, Dolly generally kept a slight grasp on sanity. I often saw her out walking with her dog on the gravel streets between her home and the Catholic church. McGee often dropped into the open church building, passed a few moments, and exited with an armful of the priest’s religious tracts and bulletins. Dolly handed them out to whomever she met on the way home and stored the rest for “The Latter Days.” She was my benefactor one day, giving me Catholic catechisms and verbal warnings about the impending apocalypse. The priest was beside himself whenever Dolly McGee’s name came up, having no influence on her. But, Dolly was beyond control. “I only answer to God,” she once told me.
Father Philip Lorenzo was a frail and pale, black-frocked Catholic priest from the old school. I suppose that made sense as he was getting up there and had been out “in the field” on his own for decades. The whole town made deferential bows to him and helped celebrate each of his passing years. He marked his 81st birthday during my short tenure.
Despite his advancing years and a couple recent surgeries, Lorenzo stayed on with his two parishes. Although it had been suggested that Lorenzo retire after his health problems arose, the ancient one was resistant. He had come out from the East before World War II and served his congregations for longer than all but a few could remember. There was really no forcing him out because the diocese had no priest to replace him in the rural churches which he served. The seminaries just were not making them like they used to.
As the Catholic and Congregational churches stood across the street from each other and the priest’s rectory made a triangle of the buildings, I saw Father from time to time without even trying. I made efforts to engage him in conversation, but he seemed less than interested. I got the distinct impression that Lorenzo was just following his old footsteps and completing his rote methods of pastoral work.
That thought came home to me when I attended the funeral of one of his flock, Sara Stoner. Sara had led a hard life, been laid low with emphysema, and passed her latter days at home hooked up to an oxygen machine. Somehow, I had started to visit Sara and her home became one of my weekly stops.
When I heard that she had been hospitalized, I made a call to see her. Sara told me that, “The tests don’t look too good. The doctor’s coming by this evening to tell me what’s up. I hope he doesn’t try to put me in the nursing home. I couldn’t take that.”
Sara died in the middle of the night just a few hours after her physician had told her that plans would be made to find her “a bed in a nursing home.” It was clear to me that Sara had decided against the move.
Other things became clear when I sat in the Catholic pews for Sara’s memorial service. A reasonable number of townspeople, friends, and relatives entered the church to sit through one of the most depressing rites I’ve ever witnessed. Father Lorenzo raced through the liturgy which he must have performed hundreds if not thousands of times in his 50+ years as a parish priest. His speed was not so much chronological as it was attitudinal. Lorenzo gave the distinct impression that he was just going through the motions. The skinny padre made only one direct reference to Sara during the whole mass and that occurred when he read the obituary which had been published in the newspaper. For all that I could tell, Sara’s funeral service would have fit any and every member of Father Lorenzo’s flock: “One mass fits all.” Lorenzo made no remembrance of Sara, mentioned nothing of her family, gave no hint of her life or talents, and offered no personal condolences to anyone.
Father L.’s method and manner were reflected in his church. Opposed to many Catholic edifices which seem to give off a sense of peace and warmth, Lorenzo’s was not only stale and aging but also cold, dull, and flat. The life which once energized and animated the place had long since vacated or maybe it reappeared on occasions which I missed. As priest Lorenzo stagnated, declined, and began to die in Letcher, S.D., so did the Catholic church which he “fathered.”
Even as it is hard for people to let go and die, so it is with churches, towns, and other institutions. I was to recognize the signs and symptoms of “the slow death” in many ways during my rural pastorate. I saw it in the face of Steve Stach, the local grocer. Steve was a solid Catholic who tried to hold up the faltering church even as he held the town’s only food market together.
Stach was really a fine, warm, genuine human being – a man liked by all. Slim, with thinning hair, wire-rim glasses, and a faint smile, Steve was also a talker and, since I was a listener, he spoke into my ear many times. He told me about how his two brothers and he went across to fight in the Pacific in WWII, how he returned to start a family and open a business, and how he had to keep the shop open until he made 65 – at least. His family – all were away from home except a disabled adult child – his church, and his store composed Steve’s life. In his younger years, Stach played a mean saxophone in area groups, but there was “no time or energy” for it in his later years. Above all, Stach’s Grocery was foremost in Steve’s waking thoughts.
Steve was always “minding the store” even when he wasn’t behind the counter. The grocery was open 6 1/2 days a week and he was in attendance except for the short Sunday opening. His wife spelled him occasionally, but Stach was pretty much on duty from 7 to 6 Monday through Saturday. He stocked shelves and cleaned, sliced meats, did incessant paperwork, kept up the bills and taxes, worried about the leaky roof and the potential for a fire. But much of the time, weary Steve just sat at the checkout counter surveying his homely, eclectic inventory, the dusty shelves, the ancient white-enameled coolers. He probably fantasized refurnishing the place, tiling the concrete floor, painting the walls, and even putting in new windows. But, traffic became more meager by the year as greater numbers of the citizenry drove past his place on the way to their shopping trips in Mitchell. Most of the farm folks stopped at the Super Value on one of their almost regular visits to the “city.”
There were few values or bargains at Stach’s Market except when he decided to unload trinkets which hadn’t moved in years. Prices were more than a mite higher than those at the Super Value. The old folks who were stuck in town had little choice. Steve delivered for them and made their days. The extra charges were worth it to them. I gave Steve my modest business, but mostly listened to his stories and waited to hear his decision to close.
I didn’t hear it from him, though. Some months after I left town, Steve encountered health problems – maybe those that he had worried about and tried to save against. Due to his illness, he just couldn’t physically deal with “business as usual.” No one wanted to buy his operation by that time at any price. It was too late to track down anyone who had shown interest in the place over the years. Stach just sold out his inventory, auctioned off the hardware, and turned out the lights. Steve, I hope your retirement was not filled with doctor visits alone. Maybe you took the time to dust off your sax and blow a few favorite tunes.
My favorite acquaintance on Main Street, who turned into a friend, was Doug Putnam. Doug Putnam was a different character, all to himself. One of a kind, and a real slice of l ife. He almost deserves a whole book. But, a few pages will suffice – a few now and a few later. Interestingly, Doug was the son of the previous bank manager who had died of a heart attack some years back.
Putnam was always active and productive. At an early age, he had discovered his niche and pushed forward ever since to widen his “spot in the road,” build a business, and support his family. Doug was a self-made man and an uncanny entrepreneur. His training began during high school years when he worked for Letcher’s largest business, ABC Tractor Salvage Yard. The Yard, which spread out over a large stretch of town, attracted customers from far and wide. Obtaining salvaged tractor parts meant large savings for lots of farmers in the area and adjoining states.
Doug learned the tricks of the salvage trade while earning a modest wage. After he graduated and married, Putnam started his own truck salvage operation out of a funky, old garage on a corner of Main Street. The garage once fronted for a filling station and still “sported” a rusty, red antique gas pump. It hadn’t worked in years. But, the pump was about the classiest part of his operation.
Somehow, I fell in with Doug and spent spare times in my latter ministerial days at the garage, at his salvage yard which was removed a few miles into the country, and on the road heading for auctions in search of a “deal.” Doug’s garage, despite its leaky roof, stale tobacco smells, and junky, unkempt appearance, was one of the local hangouts. I, the local pastor, hung out with the rest, but only as long as I could stand the smoke and the coarse jokes. I couldn’t help but try to tidy the place up when I sat around for more than a few moments. Actually, my efforts were far from successful. The task was close to monumental. I suppose it was only accomplished in a round-about way when Doug moved his home and operation to a new site on the highway a year or so later.
Through my times at Putnam’s Garage, I got acquainted with some of the non-churchgoing types which I might ordinarily have missed. Doug also took me to lunch at the town bar when I helped him out. So, I met a few more of the town characters there. Mostly, I got to know Doug and Leo McDougall. Leo was a semi-retired fellow who had joined Putnam as a helper months back. Leo had been pensioned out of a job as a prison jailer in Washington about the same time that his wife decided to divorce him. He moved back to his home to live with his 90 year-old mother and pass some quiet days at The Garage.
Leo contented himself to fix flat tires, do some minor repair jobs, and take phone messages. He didn’t work very hard. But then, I don’t think he ever got much monetary reward from the shop. Actually, I got the impression that Leo was Doug’s silent partner and was investing with more of his capital than his labor.
Leo liked to talk but only on topics other than himself. Doug was the opposite. He would palaver on most anything. Putnam was only in his mid-20s, had barely completed high school, and rarely sat still long enough to read the paper or watch TV news. But, Doug was bright and wise beyond his years. He certainly knew mechanics and salvage work – how to buy and sell truck parts. Putnam had real business sense, though he was usually in too big of a hurry to make his efforts fit into an orderly pattern. Still, his deals most always brought results.
I gathered most from Doug’s life story and personal philosophy when we hopped into his trusty salvaged pickup for a long drive to an auction. Tall, dark, and good-looking even in the ratty, greasy coveralls that he always wore, “Put” sat behind the wheel as we cruised around the Great Plains. Doug could talk politics, banking, and farming. He did avoid family and marital topics. It was obvious that he loved his wife and three children, but his days and nights were always filled with trucks and transmissions, greasy motors and dirty PTOs.
Doug usually talked business and money. His monologues invariably came down to a few of the platitudes which supported his designs to become a successful businessman. Putnam’s motto was, “No Guts, No Glory.” His law read, “Some’s Good, More’s Better.” And, Doug repeatedly reminded me, “You’ve got to get your hands dirty to make a dollar in any business.” He meant the latter in a broad sense. Doug knew that I didn’t mind working, getting my hands dirty, or involving myself in peoples’ lives.
I most definitely dirtied my hands when I worked alongside Doug. I “pulled“ my first transmission under Duck’s supervision. I got into the muck and the mud, the grease and the grime. I almost liked the work, though my pastoral duties wouldn’t allow me to help out too often. Actually by the time I left Letcher and said goodbye to Doug Putnam, I had really gotten into salvage work.
For a while, I toyed with the idea of a sermon entitled “Salvage and Salvation.” But, I never put that one to paper or to the test of a congregation. I imagined preaching about how God and Nature never waste anything. Man has been profligate and wanton for so long and is only now beginning to learn the meaning of conserving energy and returning things to their source in a manner which supports the cycles of life. I will repeat that we are beginning, because human waste is impossible to calculate and eventually may be one of our greatest enemies.
City folk have much to learn from our country kin who live so close to the seasons, the earth, and the elements. While a large part of my time was spent in Letcher, I made many contacts on the farms where the cycles of life and nature were so obvious. I learned about crops and cows, plantings and harvest, silage and feed. Silage was a fascinating discovery for me. I saw agriculture in action and came to appreciate the farmers and ranchers who literally sustain the American people. The hard-working men and women – the family farmers – who “feed the nation and the world” deserve our respect and admiration.
Almost all of the people I visited in the countryside were church members. They welcomed me into their homes. They shared of their hospitality and larders as best they could. Actually, I gathered that I would have been invited more regularly in town and on the farm had the people known “how to cook for a vegetarian.” It was more than a little strange for me a “card-carrying vegetarian” to be living and working in cattle country. Yet, all I ever needed was a plate of vegetables. I loved it when I was gifted with the simplest of garden fare.
My life in Letcher-Loomis was many-faceted as I interacted with townspeople and farmers, church members and regular citizens alike. But, the largest part of my time and energies centered around “my” churches and the congregations who frequented them. For some time before I became an “acting” minister, I had become fascinated with church buildings – especially those with history and character. Whenever I encountered a curious church, chapel, or cathedral on my travels – driving or walking, I tried to stop in for a few moments of quiet regardless of the hour. That was if the door opened for me. Over the years, however, I’ve noticed that more and more churches are locked up during “non-business hours” making it harder for a person like me to find a meditative nest along the way. So much is locked up and secured in the present era. “Security” even rolls over to churches in the countryside.
But, then greatest temples of all are always available for meditation. I refer to the temples “not made by hands” called planet Earth and the ones in which each of us lives, the human body. Quote
In that day, the Letcher Congregational church was never locked up. Henry and I visited it frequently and especially on Saturday nights to be sure things were in order for morning services. Occasionally, I sat down at the Baldwin electronic organ and tried to plunk out a tune. More often, I parked myself at the upright piano where I practiced with my Adult Beginner Piano Manual.
I studied my way up to Jingle Bells during my Letcher stay. I once used my piano endeavors as the centerpiece for a children’s message. Preceding a sermon entitled “Practice Makes Perfect,” I attempted a few bars of Jingle Bells. My performance anxiety was fairly high that day and understandably so because it was my very first public recital. The youngsters who swarmed around me definitely decided that I needed “lots more practice.” And, they were right. I continue to practice 30 years later.
The Letcher church was a typical white wooden structure witﬁh a steep shingled roof. Wood-paneled on the inside, the sanctuary was rather drab except for the colorful banners scattered along the side walls, the altar vestments, the cross and candelabra. Flags stood on either side of the altar and behind the two lecterns one of which supported a huge Bible. The blond pews seated about 120 people. Sometimes, they squeezed in and, other times, there was room to spare. I remember the Letcher church most for those times when worshipers of all ages filled the pews.
In Loomis, the church building itself seemed somehow more important than the congregation. Else the door would have been bolted shut years past. It had been a fine church with a thriving congregation in times gone by. The old folks reminisced about how the church used to be packed every Sunday while dozens of children were Sunday-schooled in basement classes. Times changes. Church school and young people in the pews were history.
But, the building remained. While the basement flooded each spring, the roof leaked in the winter, and the exterior paint peeled day to day, the edifice still gave off a sense of solidity and strength. Even if it hadn’t, the few devoted members weren’t about to let the church die.
On the outside, the Loomis church looked pretty much like the one in Letcher – except its obvious need for a paint job. On the inside, the difference was considerable. The sanctuary, once wall-papered in white, gave off a yellow tint similar to old newspapers. There were but few decorations – plaques and pictures sparsely scattered about. Banners were quite absent. Banners in church must have come into vogue after the boom days in Loomis. The building did have lots of large windows which transmitted refreshing early morning light on cold, crisp winter Sundays. A lone piano stood to the east of the altar and a single lectern on the opposite side faced out upon dark, aged oak pews. On any given Sunday, a handful of elderly folks and a few younger ones spread out on the pews awaiting a worship experience.
The whole setting was rather stark, particularly as the building was set away from the rest of the “town.” Yet, there were a couple of quite memorable things about the structure which endeared it to me. I noticed them from the beginning and made them part of every worship service I conducted. They became increasingly important symbols in my life from that time onward.
Every Sunday morning at exactly nine o’clock, I removed myself from the sanctuary to a tiny corner of the foyer and took hold of the rope which hung from the belfry above. I pulled slowly and gently and let the sonorous bell clang for at least a dozen times. I should liked to have pulled it hard and long on occasion just to revel in its penetrating vibration. But knowing that would have disturbed my little congregation, I relinquished the rope and quietly returned to the sanctuary. I marched to the altar which was flanked by two golden candelabra. Each held seven fine, cream-colored tapers. I lighted them methodically, but a bit nervously, being quite conscious of the dozen or so pairs of eyes which peered from the pews at the overaged acolyte.
Another pair belonged to Maniece Watkins, the pianist, who sat a few feet away from me and took in my every motion, if not my every word. Maniece was a bright-eyed, white-haired widow who had handled musical accompaniment for years and years at the church. Maniece lived just a couple blocks from the church and kept as close an eye on the building during the week as she did on me during Sunday service. While she had hawkeyed vision – or seemed to, Mrs. Watkins was turning deafer by the day. That made it hard for her to follow my lead from time to time. Occasional breaks in the action occurred, but no one really seemed to mind.
Maniece’s progressive deafness didn’t seem to affect her piano playing much. She knew the hymnal backward and forward. Her renditions were always more than passable and never surpassed by the throaty singing which arose from the paltry congregation and minister.
Actually, Maniece was a bit of a gem. She did manage to catch the gist if not the whole content of my sermons. Mrs. Watkins gave out most of the few comments I ever received on my preaching efforts which made me wonder how many people really “heard” my messages.
After the candles were lit and Maniece had proffered the prelude, I stood up to the lectern to give the invocation and welcome. I peered out over the few worshipers. The several couples and few singles all sat in their long-established personal spots on the hard benches. I had to suppose that at one time the empty spaces had been filled by others who had long since died or moved away. Those who remained apparently kept to their favorite places without regard to the fact that there was no one else in their pew or the next. I imagine that they thought to themselves, “We can always visit with the neighbors after the service.”
The parishioners were spread around the pews except that the first few rows were never populated. Sadly for me, all the front pew people had disappeared never again to return. The Loomis church was not really abnormal in that respect. I have visited numerous churches which have perennially vacant front pews. At the same time, I couldn’t help but imagine that many preachers would much prefer to have some of those front seats occupied. I sure would have.
I made small hints and feeble attempts to get the people to move forward, half-knowing that all my endeavors would be in vain. I fantasized schemes that might somehow accomplish the goal. I considered performing most of my preaching duties while standing in the middle of the aisle within what I thought would be a more reasonable proximity to the parishioners. But, I gave that idea up when I realized that Maniece’s hearing problem would be twice magnified. Besides, she was my most regular and attentive “listener.”
Each service was interspersed with readings, hymns, and prayers and culminated with my sermon, the offertory, and a benediction. As the congregation droned out Blest Be the Tie That Binds, I snuffed out the fourteen candles and marched back down the aisle. Then, I stood in the foyer or on the front step to shake hands and visit for a few minutes. I had to hustle off for my second service in Letcher.
By the time I arrived, the parking lot was filling. Church school completed and children retrieved, parents joined neighbors and relatives to load the pews. There were just a few moments for me to shake hands with members arriving at the front door and to speak with the mornings’ greeters.
The ten-thirty worship was much the same as the first, at least by order and structure. I took my place opposite the organist – a shared responsibility at the Letcher church – who was already working through her prelude. When I appeared at my seat, a youngster was cued to ring the church bell and two others proceeded to light the altar candles.
Shortly, I stood before an eager group of all ages – infants to octogenarians – to repeat my earlier performance. The second was usually an improvement on the first, but only slightly so. At Letcher, we always took time to stand and “greet your neighbor,” to enjoy some special music, and to share in a children’s message.
Although I found the latter to be one of my tougher tasks, it was often the highlight of the service. All the young children came forward and gathered round for a churchy “Show and Tell” which I tied in one way or another to the sermon I preached. I used common implements and items: corn and candles, bread and books, jam and jelly, cards and photos. I tried to be as visual in my presentations to the children as possible. I often did the same in my main message, but it’s not easy to do a twenty-minute adult “Show and Tell” every week. It’s hard enough for any pastor to come up with a weekly message which is novel, creative, and meaningful. Pulpit ministers have my sympathy in their ongoing efforts to fulfill that regular duty.
After performing worship services for some weeks, I became convinced that the “Children’s Sermons” were vital. I got more comments on them than I ever did on “The Message.” For five minutes or so, all eyes and attention were glued on the small group on the steps of the chancel. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and neighbors were really tuned in. I decided that in that moment the children received some powerful and positive attention. Their elders experienced love and pride and expectation. At the same time, they couldn’t help but take in some of the simple parables I attempted to relate to the youngsters. The main sermon was gravy for the congregation. It was my “meat and potatoes.”
I spent many hours each week formulating, writing, and practicing my message. And, it was “my” message. It was quite clearly for me, although there were occasions when people obviously got something out of my efforts. Usually they would remark about a story that jogged their memory or even caused them to think outside their usual range.
Actually, the whole experience of preaching and praying (I never became comfortable with the latter), cajoling and leading those parishes was a grand gift and opportunity for me. Each week for the greater part of a year, I got paid to research and write sermons about my insights into the Bible and spirituality, to speak my thoughts and play with symbols before a hundred or so listeners, and to share many warm moments in that community. How often do people get paid to do such expressive and expansive things?
The best way I can explain my church work is to recapitulate and continue telling the story of my “Tibetan experience.” The tale contains coincidences, paradoxes, and ironies. While living in Phoenix, I had contemplated traveling to Tibet on a junket in hopes of reconnecting with some ancient fragments of my existence. But, I eventually decided that my real need was for a transformation in consciousness. Tibet and Transformation became synonymous to me increasingly after Susan Oliver became a Buddhist in the Tibetan vein and I took Initiation with the Dalai Lama.
Even while I was pounding nails with my brother I was following trans-Himalyan threads in other ways. During breaks on McNary Enterprises construction sites, I began wading through a monumental book called A Treatise on Cosmic Fire. The tome, one of many dictated by Djwhal Khul to Alice Bailey, was almost a transforming experience itself. Cosmic Fire was by no means the first Bailey book I had read, but it re-ignited my interest in the Ageless Wisdom as outlined by the Tibetan Teacher.
From those moments when I sat in the Chevy truck or leaned against a shady tree and explored pages of that profound book, I determined to not only seek a deeper understanding of the “Fire” but also to become a student of the Tibetan. I took my own “refuge” in the written teachings of the Tibetan. The teaching, healing, and initiating work which he did through the Bailey books speaks for itself. His dictations to Helena Blavatsky, stimulation of the New Group of World Servers, and inspiration of the Arcane School speak volumes more.
In 1974, I started my medical training while discovering the works of the modern prophet Edgar Cayce. In 1985, while taking my ministerial OJT, I entered the Arcane School training program to learn indirectly from the Tibetan, D.K. Both were synchronistic experiences, to be sure. I enlisted in a program of conscious spiritual development which focuses on a life of esoteric meditation, service, and study. Paradoxically, I resumed my Tibetan experience on the flatlands of Dakota amidst Christian farm folk. The Fire within me began to stir and move and have effect.
I quickly began to touch people through home and farm visits, hospital stops, church gatherings, and special services. Sometimes, I even got their attention through my sermons. Early on, I happened into a pattern – I thought a good one – in preparing and delivering my messages.
I developed a progressive schedule of topics sufficient for several weeks’ sermons. I spent three or four weeks on Light, Fire, Love, Truth, Freedom, and the like. Generally, one Sunday’s sermon followed from the last and flowed into the next. When possible, I tried to put the essence of the service into the “Show and Tell” shared with the youngsters. I typed each talk out and practiced and practiced my delivery. Henry was the only one privileged to hear my rehearsals which commonly occurred as we took our daily walks.
I started my pastorate with thoughts and symbols of harvest. I quickly moved on to images of Light coinciding with the Winter solstice, Christmas, the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, and all the other world celebrations observed at the beginning of the season when the Sun starts its slow return to the North.
From talks on Light, it was a natural to shift to homilies centered on Fire and Flame. I couldn’t help but lean on ideas which I had derived from Cosmic Fire, although I never even imagined mentioning the name of the Tibetan. I relied on stories which were readily accessible from the Bible, the media, local experience or my own.
During one of my “Fire Sermons,” I ventured to tell about my Fiery moment in Vietnam “burning off the sump.” I shared other incidents with fire – similarly innocent in their inception – in my life. But, none were so dramatic or funny. My parishioners got a few chuckles out of the story after which I told them that I had given up starting fires with matches and fuel. I turned a new calling at which to work, just like Kent Millard and John Wesley: “Setting hearts on fire.”
As I taught myself how to preach and communicate from the pulpit, I came to realize that stories and symbols were indispensable. Ideas and ideals, principles and philosophies are just too nebulous for most people in the pews to latch onto and contain readily. They need something that at least seems concrete. No doubt, Jesus and Gautama and other religious leaders over the ages told endless tales and parables for that reason.
Over the months, I gathered more and more stories to pass on to the congregations. I even had enough extra ones to prepare two full sermons which were given entirely in story form. Those particular messages were meant to lighten the peoples’ hearts and share some of the “laughter which makes for good medicine.” The first of those two messages I based on the opening lines of the book of Genesis and entitled “Lighten Up.”
In the beginning God is supposed to have said, ‘Let there be light.’ But, the Deity may just as well have proclaimed, ‘Let it be light.’ In the midst of learning and working, struggle and change, it is indeed important for all of us to find place for laughter and mirth, joy and celebration. Such an attitude can be truly lifesaving. A sense of perspective and proportion allows light to move in our midst and heal in many ways.
The “Light” and “Fire” sermons were followed by a number on Love in which I attempted to expand the Biblical pronouncement that, “God is Love.” Christ (The Christ Consciousness) is also Love and the essential nature of every human being is likewise Love since we are all ‘Christed’ at our very core, as declared by Saint Paul: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Our futures are abundant with promise despite the darkness of any past or the depression in any moment. Transformation and healing can and do come out of the most wretched and painful times just as a fresh sprout arises from the blackest soils. I couldn’t help but remind the people, “God leads us through deep water not to drown us but to cleanse us.”
Springtime spurred me to speak of the new life which comes forth after pain, struggle, and even death. The symbols of spring, the earth bursting open, and the Christ eternally arising from the tomb of matter gave me much upon which to speak. I even took a turn at the topic “Born Again,” suggesting seven different ways that a person can be reborn. It was one of my favorite sermons and gave me the opportunity to broach the word reincarnation for an instant.
CONFESSION§ After Easter, I embarked on a series of sermons on Truth. In the midst of them, I received my annual re-licensure form from the Texas Medical Board. Although I had given up the idea of ever involving myself in medicine again, I had not given up my original license. That year when I perused the form, one particular question stood out. It asked, “Has a stipulation ever been placed against your license in any state?”
The truth was clear and simple. “Yes. A stipulation had been set upon my Arizona license after which I voluntarily relinquished it.” The consequences of my truthfully answering the Texas Board’s query were not so clear. But, I imagined they would be neither simple nor pleasant.
Nonetheless, I was about to preach on the ancient words of Jesus: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” While Jesus was no doubt speaking in larger and more universal terms, his pronouncement penetrated my own situation. I believed his words. But, I cared not to give up my remaining license, my only official link with my former profession, and my tenuous tie to a once-secure lifestyle.
Ultimately, my choice was clear. I filled out the form truthfully and returned it in the mail. Within a few days, a round of correspondence developed with the Texas Medical Board ending in a request for me to meet with it in an upcoming session. Again, there was but one choice. I bypassed the meeting and relinquished my original and then lone license. I was then “freed” of my connections to the medical profession, but hardly of my apprehensions for the future. That took weeks, months, and years. Yet, I can testify that the TRUTH bears expression. Living it has brought untold numbers of expansive, liberating experiences and opportunities. It has surely set me free to explore a broader and wider Path than I could have ever imagined in the medical profession as an orthodox or unorthodox, standard or holistic, traditional or alternative practitioner. §
My talks on truth and freedom culminated in a wonderful service on 5 July which celebrated various aspects of independence. Looking back over my near year with two small church families, I realize that the time was truly freeing and liberating for me. Would that it had some similar effects upon my parishioners.
I came to the job as an interim minister to a conservative community of believers. Yet, the people in the pews were not all or always thinkers. I relished hearing a parishioner making the rare admission, “You made me think.” But more often than not, the congregation gave me little or no direct feedback on my sermons. If they smiled and shook my hand heartily on leaving the church, I had to imagine that I was doing something right.
On the other hand, I almost never got a negative comment on a message. I must not however forget that early on in my church leading experience, Harvey Fouberg took me aside one day. As head of the Church Council, he said something like, “Robert everybody is very pleased with your work and attitude, your preaching and visitations. But, one concern that has arisen. That being the length of the Moments of Silence. Could you minimize them? The people don’t know what to do with themselves.” Silence seems to be relatively unknown and unwelcome in the modern age. Even in a church. Nonetheless, I complied.
On one memorable occasion, I tried to address the idea of “The Second Coming.” “Christ experienced a rough time on His last appearance in the outer physical world. His coming was prophesied for centuries, expectations were high for generations, and John the Baptist proclaimed his imminent arrival on scene. But, the whole of Palestine was not ready for the Messiah. Jesus the Christ was spurned and denied, betrayed and crucified. After his resurrection, the disciples even had trouble recognizing their Master. So, how are we, twenty centuries later, to spot the Teacher of Light and Love when he returns?
“Will the Great One return bearded, robed, and sandaled as a carpenter, teacher, and fisher of men? Will the Christ be in any way recognizable to us unless we have prepared ourselves – in body, mind, heart, and soul? Doesn’t it take one to know one?”
I suggested to my congregations that we might well miss the reappearance of the Christ if we merely expect a repeat performance of 2000 years ago. I went on to say that the Messiah may well return as a political leader, a scientist, or a businessperson rather than as a religious authority. He may be an Oriental, be born a Jew, or have dark eyes and black skin. The Christ might arise in a remote African village or in the midst of a metropolis of 10,000,000. The Messiah may choose a guise even more removed from the last, such as that of a woman or an elderly person. There is even the possibility that the Christ may not come in the form of a single person, but rather as the spirit of a group, a community, a nation, or the whole planet.
I distinctly remember receiving only two comments on that particular message. The first was from a farmer who thanked me for tackling the subject in “an unusual but interesting way.” The second came from a blue-haired widow who buttonholed me in the fellowship hall. I had had but few words with the occasional member of the audience and had no idea what she might say to me. Mrs. Gray, named like unto her appearance, was short and to the point as she said, “I have to take issue with your sermon, young man. It seems pretty simple to me. Jesus always was and always will be the SON of God. No two ways about it. He was a MAN 2000 years ago and so HE will always be regardless of when he shows up again.”
On other occasions – few as they were, I had an apparently more profound effect on people in the pews. Interestingly, those times generally occurred when I was preaching away from the home parish or when an attentive visitor to the church honed in on my message.
A couple years hence, I spoke at a Unitarian Fellowship in Billings MT, and received mixed reviews. My topic was “Preparing for the 21st Century.” I was aware that the Unitarians in Montana wouldn’t be open to anything which even approximated a “Christian” sermon. So, I tried to challenge the group in generic terms of Light and Love, Health and Consciousness. The people to whom I spoke were cordial, but their questions and comments after the talk evidenced a high degree of skepticism.
I did, however, recognize in the audience a couple of faces whose eyes almost literally lit up at some of my suggestions about human responsibility, spiritual awakening, and planetary opportunities. One woman spoke up at the Q & A session indicating that she had sensed in her own life some of the things of which I spoke. She was curious as to whether the other listeners had similar awarenesses or experiences. There was little response to her query. But from it, I gathered that at least one person in the audience had tuned in to my presentation.
Some few days later, I received a short letter from that same young woman. The letter tickled my fancy and I have kept the note tucked away in a file ever since. Her unedited missive read: “I want to thank you for visiting the Unitarian Church that Sunday and sharing your philosophy of life and mind. I can’t say any of us agreed with everything but we had some discussions about it all anyway. Unfortunately nothing was ever resolved as far as whether you are indeed a genious (sic) or a lunatic. But I’m sure your life will proceed on a steady course regardless – which I find amusing. It must be quite fun to go somewhere, stir the waters and then leave again! Take care and chuckle a little because you left ‘em thinking anyway.”
Later on when I filled in for a few weeks at a Disciples of Christ Church in Joliet, another woman paid notice and apparently “got” some of what I was trying to share. If not others, I held Mary Bauman’s attention throughout the services. Since Mary joined a friend to “share music” most Sundays, she eventually found opportunity to direct some earnest questions toward me. Mrs. Bauman, who interestingly was a former Unitarian, had become intrigued by the concepts of spiritual light and love which I sought to share. At the same time, Mary was in general put off by the chauvinistic church and its masculine hierarchy. Furthermore, like many, many Christians, Mary couldn’t literally accept the fundamentalist tenet that Jesus and only Jesus saves.
I certainly couldn’t even try to answer all of Mrs. Bauman’s ponderous questions. But, I did offer some suggestions on how to read the Bible and extract the wheat instead of the chaff. I scanned through the New Testament with her and pointed out numerous symbols which she could interpret to mean Light. I also encouraged her to look beyond the personality of Jesus to the Christ Principle, the Universal Force which Jesus exemplified: “Christ in Jesus, Christ in you, Christ in me.”
Finally, I talked to her about her Soul and her native ability to become what she truly Is. It didn’t take much to get Mary started. I saw her only rarely thereafter. But when I did, she always gave evidence that things were stirring within her. First, she quit smoking, short-lived though her effort may have been. Second, Mary joined with her musical friend to write and perform her own “Christian” songs which were replete with references to light and love. Third, Mrs. Bauman increased her involvement in her church after I departed the scene. She even delivered sermons when the congregation was between pastors for a time.
On our last meeting, Mary told me quite matter-of-factly that she was making plans to attend the seminary at Vanderbilt University. Mrs. Bauman needed to help her daughter through her senior year in high school and “figure our what to do with my husband.” But, she was more than determined to make her mark in ministry. Surely, Mary Bauman would then have ample opportunities to let her own light shine. Years later, I sat in a pew in a rural Montana church to hear and see Reverend Bauman preach.
It is clear to me that the sharing of impressions of light in dark places has always been needed. It also seems that Letcher was one of those places. The gray, ominous clouds which hung over the town on the day I moved into the parsonage symbolized to me the traumas which the community had endured over the years. I also met literal signs of Letcher’s pains and sorrows even before I turned off the main north-south highway to my future home. In a ditch to the west of the road on a slight curve were placed eight crosses to designate the spot where a tragic auto accident had occurred several years past. Four of those crosses represented Letcher high-schoolers, three of whom were members of the Congregational Church. A rock bell tower at the front of the church also commemorated the lives of those youngsters.
There were more signposts on other nearby roads which displayed gruesome – to me – crosses reminding passersby of a vehicular death here and there over the years. In the foyer of the high school auditorium were photos and displays to remember those teenagers lost to life on the roads and highways and others felled by pernicious disease. At the American Legion Hall, more memorabilia pointed to the local sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines who had given their lives in America’s wars.
All in all, there was a distinctly morbid feel to the town in which I lived, preached, and ministered for several months. Young people had died before their times while old people and old churches and old buildings lingered in states of waking death. The towns of Letcher and Loomis seemed mere survivors. Yet in the midst of the sorrow, pain and loss, there was reason for hope. The cycles of birth, death, and rebirth are always with us. I came to believe that while Loomis and its church were on their last laps, Letcher and its modest Protestant contingent were about to enter a new era. And, I was privileged to be in residence at a turning point in the life of the town and its people. (Not long after my departure, the School Districts of Letcher and Artesian combined forces and now share classes and buildings in the two towns.)
Despite my short stint, I experienced and viewed the whole life cycle – births and baptisms, weddings and celebrations, deaths and funerals. The Jamison family fit into those cycles in the midst of my mere year in the small town. I made friends with Sylva and Harland even before I officially took on the job as pastor. Grace Nelson took me in hand one day before she departed for the Philippines and introduced me to a number of shut-in singles and couples. Grace wanted to make sure that some of her “favorites” got regular attention. Harland and Sylva became my favorites, too. Certainly, a week never passed by that I didn’t spend an hour or so in their home.
Harland and Sylva had spent their whole lives in South Dakota. They were born on the farm, nurtured on the farm, and would have died on the farm except that their grown children decided that “Daddy and Momma” had to move into town when Harland passed retirement age. Their eldest son, who was a building contractor, put up an attractive but modest house in which they could enjoy their “leisure years.” And hat they did. For, they were no travelers. Harland prided himself in the fact that he had never been outside the tri-county area. “There’s no place like home.”
Sylva was content to be by the side of her man and receive her children and grandchildren at frequent intervals. When I joined the Jamison’s for my weekly visit, Sylva insisted on giving Harland and me refreshments while we played a few hands of cribbage. Mr. Jamison sat in his special rocker with a blanket draped over his legs, squinting hard to see his cards and trying desperately to put his pegs in the right holes. Thin, frail, and pale, Harland rarely got out the front door of his home any more. But, he loved company, was a great taleteller, and always made me feel at home sitting at his side. Jamison invariably closed meetings, saying, “You come back now, you hear.”
Harland reminisced and recalled old towns, old jobs, and old people – muleskinners and road construction workers, farm inspectors and railroad agents. He dredged up stories about the railroad crossings which were once thriving communities with churches and stores and life. It was clearly painful for him to focus on the present. His sight was failing, his muscles responded poorly to command, his bones ached. There was little for him to revel in except the past which ever came before his inner eye. In dreams and reverie, in the faces of wife, children, and friends, he found countless opportunities to return to yesterday.
Harland Jamison never made it to a church service during my stint in the pulpit. I wondered if he had ever been much of a churchgoer, but didn’t ask. His wife and family members showed up frequently, however. Sylva was always effusive in her praise of my preaching efforts and appreciative of my visits. Mrs. J. sometimes carried on more like a proud mother than my own. She always passed on her laudatory observations to Harland after each service she attended.
At the Jamisons’ wedding anniversary
I was fortunate to “officiate” in three special services for the Jamison family during my short tenure. All were truly memorable occasions. The first was a celebration of the Jamison’s 60th wedding anniversary at their home. My part in the observance was that of a bass voice in a men’s quartet. We sang several harmonious old tunes for the couple and the crowd. The selections were chosen by Sylva’s sister who practiced and directed us. The renditions were ragged in parts. But the songs’ effect, performed as they were amidst the celebrants who overflowed the Jamison home, was almost magical. Harland and Sylva were thrilled by the remembrance and tickled by our efforts.
A few months later, I was called upon to perform the wedding of their youngest son, Harley. Harley was a likable, but fiery man who lived several towns distant from his parents. He was always solicitous over “Daddy and Momma.” Past forty and a confirmed bachelor, Harley surprised everyone when he “finally found a woman to settle down with.” His intended came across as an equally potent person when we sat down to discuss the plans for their nuptials.
As the time of the wedding neared, Harland’s health deteriorated and he was hospitalized. I visited the ward several times to find his cadaverous, bespectacled face peering out of a white-sheeted bed: white on white. We exchanged greetings, but Harland was barely holding on. I was sure he didn’t have long, though he was eventually discharged to a nursing home for close care. Mr. Jamison made a short-lived comeback and was in his rocker again when the day of the wedding arrived. He was much too weak to attend, but received commentary from many, including me, after the ceremony.
The wedding was scheduled for a busy Sunday in late spring. I had my two regular morning services to do plus an extra one at a country nursing home. By the time I finished my preaching duties and walked out the door of Sunshine Acres, the dark and thunderous sky was pouring buckets of rain. Thus, I arrived some minutes late for the celebration at the home of another Jamison. The storm was still active, an auto accident involving members of the wedding party had just occurred at the front drive, and everyone was asking, “How will we ever get this wedding accomplished?” We waited and waited for the skies to clear which only occurred after the ceremony was history. In lieu of holding the rite on the tailored Jamison lawn, we removed to a long garage on the property. Bicycles, tools, and equipment were rapidly stashed in corners while dozens of folding chairs were set out in tight rows. I performed the wedding to the drum of raindrops on the tin roof and occasional clashes of thunder roaring in the distance. The party seemed not to mind the inconveniences and the irregularity of the whole thing. My ad libs during the ceremony occasioned by extraneous noise and commotion brought peals of laughter compatible with the meteorological activities outside.
When the knot was finally tied, the garage was cleared for a rock-and-roll dance. The newlyweds were in fine humor despite the turbulent way their marital life began. They had no concern for the morrow on that day, but I wondered if the stormy beginning was a hint of things to come.
Another wind blew over the Jamison family within weeks of the wedding. Harland took another turn, was rushed to the hospital, and died before I had a chance to say goodbye. But in our latter visits, it was clear to me that Harland was ready to move on.
The church was filled on the sultry morning of the memorial service. The people crowded in to remember an old neighbor, a good friend, a respected farmer, and “a man of integrity.” Tears were few. There was more of a sense of tension and change than of grievous loss. The four Jamison “children” flanked their mother through the funeral. It was clear that she would be well-attended in her lone latter days.
We went en masse to the cemetery to put Harland’s remains into the earth. In my few words at the gravesite, I reminded the mourners that “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” Harland had departed his aged and insufficient frame returning to the liberty of a body of spirit and a realm of light. We really had no cogent reason to fear for him. It was we who would continue on in the place of relative darkness.
My experiences with the Jamison family seemed to cover the cycle from marriage to maturity, old age, and death. At each end were significant occasions in which I as pastor participated. Weddings are happy, gay, and frivolous. But their relationship to reality is somewhat suspect. I found the occasion of death and the funeral rite to be much more real. At weddings, family and friends too often get caught in the dreamy illusion which anticipates “Happily Ever After.” Mourners seem more nearly to reside in the moment, to sense the loss, the pains, the sorrows of earthly existence. At the same time, they have clear opportunities to look beyond or within their suffering and find the substance of themselves and their beloved.
The cycle of another life passed before my eyes in my few pastoral months. It happened this way. Doug Putnam became the proud parent of his third child in the late fall of my tenure. Doug was no churchgoer to be sure, but he felt obligated to fulfill traditional expectations. Little Brendan was several weeks old when Doug approached me about baptizing his son. I set aside a place in an upcoming service to perform the simple ceremony.
The moment of the baptism seemed not unlike any other. And the rite passed by without my taking clear note of all the symbols which became part of Brendan’s singular baptism. It wasn’t until weeks later that I recognized much of the significance of what transpired at the church altar that day.
Prior to that time, I had performed two or three baptisms. The process was quick and easy. It required only the reading of the ritual passages, the calling for the responses of family and congregation, the anointing of the child with water, and the presentation to the church family. As in my other pastoral efforts, I added some extra touches with that baptismal service. I purchased a yellow rose and placed it in a tall, clear vase on the altar. The rose was intended to represent the fresh, new blossom which was then entering our lives. I thought it nothing strange when I used the same rose in a eulogy to my mother on the following day.
During Brendan’s baptism, I emphasized the unique nature of each new soul sent to touch us and to lighten our ways. The words seemed much more potent and appropriate than similar ones I had spoken on other occasions.
There was another startling difference which set Master Putnam’s baptism apart from the others. In preparation for his anointing, I removed the lid of the baptismal font and carefully leaned it on the rim of the container. Taking the child into my arms, I turned toward the font to watch the cover roll off the edge and land with a dull thud. The deacon retrieved the cover and I completed the baptism a little red-faced, but only thinking that I had been unwise in my handling of the bulky, cross-covered lid.
The small differences in the baptism were probably little noticed by anyone but myself. And, I paid no real heed to them until summer when I was working with Putnam. By that time, he and I had become “working” friends. Doug dropped his older kids off for Sunday school, but rarely sat himself down in a pew. I helped him on occasional salvage jobs earning a few extra dollars, getting out of town, and gathering further morsels of the young entrepreneur’s philosophies.
Putnam spoke very little of his family unless I asked direct questions. So, I was somewhat surprised when Doug told me of Brendan’s illnesses one day when we were on the road. The youngster had had some significant medical problems in the first few months of his life and not too long past he had been treated for a “bone infection.” That very day, Doug’s wife Linda was taking Brendan to a nearby physician because he had been listless and feverish. Only when Doug called late that evening to tell me that Brendan had been admitted to a small rural hospital and was about to be helicoptered to the Regional Medical Center did I become concerned with the flow of things. Doug wanted me to drive with him to the hospital where we would meet Linda.
Putnam picked me up after midnight. For a time, we drove through the darkness in an uncomfortable silence. Eventually, Doug opened up enough to express his fears for Brendan’s life. Actually, he seemed somehow already resigned to the loss of his son. “It’ll really be tough on Linda. She’s so fond of him.”
I tried to be supportive and reassuring to Doug. But even as I made my weak-sister efforts, I couldn’t help reliving Brendan’s baptism and remembering the signs which passed before my eyes that day: the yellow rose which Brendan shared with my deceased mother, the simple words which spoke of God’s sharing a new soul with us – for a time, and the now deafening crash of the font cover.
I dared not to share my own sense of foreboding until we arrived at the hospital and were led in to see the infant in a small emergency room packed with beeping life support devices. Although the child was hooked up to a respirator and an abundance of tubes and leads, he was already moribund. His tiny body was splotched with purple, a clear sign that toxins were attacking his vital organs. Drops of urine, the color of strong coffee, flowed into a plastic bag at the bedrail.
Most telling to both Doug and me was our sense that only a body lay before us. The body was attended by nurses, technicians, and doctors. But, it was clear – to us – that Brendan, the soul, had stepped out. “He’s gone,” Doug simply said. I agreed, but only silently. We tried to comfort Linda when she appeared. She knew, too.
Doug and Linda asked for no counsel nor certainly any advice on the medical situation. They were merely pleased to have a strong presence at their sides. Those moments which I spent in the hospital setting with the Putnam’s epitomized for me the difference in the roles of physicians and ministers. They also reminded me of a question I was once asked, “Which do you prefer – entering a hospital room as a physician or as a minister?”
My answer came quickly and easily. “As a minister. The pressure is off.”
The pressure was definitely on the medical staff who cared for the eight-month old child. While they undoubtedly knew that the odds were overwhelmingly against them, the physicians would not give up without a fight. They were FIGHTING for the life of the child – or at least so they thought. If they had known that only the body remained alive .... If they had understood that so-called disease is so often the only avenue by which children and adults can make their exit from physical life .... If they not merely believed in but truly realized the validity of soul and spirit .... The work of those physicians and so many others could be simplified. The pressure could be turned from the medical teams and back to the divine Source on which it truly belongs and ever exists.
The medics continued their efforts for more than 36 hours. The Putnam’s stood by patiently and acceptingly. Medical ministrations were discontinued only when brain waves were shown to be absent on two successive tracings. Doug called me from the hospital when the life supports were removed. He asked if I would perform the funeral. I readily agreed. The Putnam’s sudden loss brought the community out again to help the family and share in the memorial service.
Doug, Linda, and their two toddlers seemed to take their tragedy in stride. They sat in the front pew of the church near to the miniature casket as I reminded the whole congregation of God’s mysterious gift to the Putnam family, neighbors, and friends. I wish I could have shared my deepest insights into the all-too-short life of Brendan Putnam. I had to content myself with merely speaking of a short-lived blossom which beautified the community for a moment.
A few days after the funeral, I received the following letter from Doug’s wife. Linda spoke about things of which I no had prior direct awareness. She confirmed some of my intuitions in her brief and touching note: “Thank-you so much for all you have done for us. For being with us at the hospital and for having such a nice service for our little Bud. I don’t think you knew I often called Brendan little bud for his nickname. I always knew Brendan was somehow very special. He had the patience of a saint, he never cried. When he was hungry he would suck on his fists. When he was tired he would rub his eyes. I often told Carrie and Betty at work that he was almost too good to be true. But I have no doubt in my mind that Brendan was meant to be an angel from the very beginning. When I think back when Brendan was born I hummed ‘Amazing Grace’ to get through the contractions and it was so easy. Right now it’s still almost like a dream. I hope this content feeling never leaves me. I always prayed and was never quite sure anyone was listening. But now I know God is real and he is here. Thank-you for being with Doug and helping him in so many ways.”
The cycles in lives of my parishioners were reflected in my own. Many of the events and celebrations which captured the attention of the church people emulated my own. Late in February, an infant girl was born into Tom and Janet’s family. It was a happy occasion, yet subdued because Mother was then slipping away from us. She had held up stolidly for the five years since her mastectomy. But, Mom’s body could only endure so much debilitating disease and traumatic treatment. Once in her latter days, Mother retold a dream which fascinated her. It centered on, of all things, WORMS. In her dream, Mom saw worms oozing out of her skin. The image did not worry her. She was just so curious that, “Worms were coming out of my body.”
The dream came along with lots of other hints that Mother’s time with us was running out. Her chemotherapy treatments were being spread out at the same time that her diet was being adjusted because diabetes had been detected. A restricted menu then strangely complemented her limited appetite and surely contributed to Mom’s further weight loss. Mother’s strength seemed to ebb away with her weight. Mom had always been a “tough old bird.” I think her “thick hide” had gotten her through that first crisis in the summer of 1984. “They old grey mare ain’t what she used to be,” ran through my mind several times in those days.
In the midst of all the physical changes there were subtler shifts. Mom seemed mellower, at ease and easier to be around. At times, I recognized “a twinkle in her eye” and “a lightness in her bearing.”
I couldn’t help but recognize that Mother was being readied to pass into the next dimension even if she was not consciously prepared. When she held her new granddaughter in her spindly arms, the contrast was so striking, so stirring, so saddening. As the soul of my niece had just entered a fresh body, Mother was about to vacate her own ravaged one.
Even with all the undeniable signs, Mom was not fully accepting of her fate. All she knew was her family, her home, and her chores. Fear of the unknown and a lack of belief in the hereafter kept her holding on. As she continued to move toward the final physical transition, Mother became anxious. “I think I need to see a doctor. You should take me to the hospital so they can help me,” she would say.
We tried to reassure Mother that she was in the best place for her care. Still she insisted and, after another family conference, we decided to get her physician to come to the house. While the decision seemed to be a good one – we didn’t want Mother’s last days spent in a cold hospital room – the result was less than heartening.
Mother’s regular doctor was on vacation at the time, so we contacted the surgeon who had performed her original operation. Dr. Howard Burger was obliging and came to the house within hours of our request. While he was affable and accommodating, it seemed like he was little practiced with house calls.
Dr. Burger entered Mother’s small room where she had been stuck again for some days. Mom perked up a bit at the appearance of “her doctor.” She had liked Dr. Burger. He was only a few years younger than she and they had worked well together as doctor and patient over the years. Burger tried to chat a little with Mother at first, but soon came to the point. Standing at the foot of Mother’s bed and never venturing close enough to even touch Mom’s hand, Dr. B. asked what he could do for her.
Mother weakly responded, “Oh! I want to get better. I think I need to go to the hospital. Can you give me some treatment?”
With but the slightest sensitivity, Burger responded, “Mrs. McNary, there is nothing more that can be done for you. There is no hope. You are better off here than in the hospital.”
In that moment, Burger took away Mother’s last breath. The doctor had answered our request and done our bidding. He might have said more or different words. But, I really should have liked him to say his words differently, to have sat at Mom’s side for just a moment, to have held her hand and offered her some sense of comfort. To take the time to “be” with his patient and our mother.
Dad and I escorted Dr. Burger to the front door and thanked him for coming. My heart ached when I sensed Mother’s hopeless feelings. Fortunately by the time of Dr. Burger’s visit, her strength was so depleted that she really could not hang on much longer. Her consciousness was clouded and numbed and she seemed to pass back and forth from our world into the next. As Mother began to let go, we enlisted the aid of the local hospice to help in her care. Her two sisters also came to be at her side.
Mother rallied for a moment here and there. But, when her 73rd birthday arrived, the family had to gather at the bedside to sing a gentle “Happy Birthday” and thank Mom for all her many gifts to us. Holding hands, we concluded the “party” with the Lord’s Prayer. Then, we each gave Mom a kiss as we left her bedroom cocoon. Mother’s eyes opened only intermittently to reveal tears of sadness and of love for her family.
Mom slept away most of the following days, taking in little food and only rising to use the bedside commode. She seemed to experience little pain and talked only on occasion to make some small request. At one point, she had a choking spell and spat up little blood. That night the whole family gathered round and shared a vigil. I sat alone in her room quietly for some hours while others napped or slept nearby.
While I might have been prayerful or tearful, I was rather matter-of-fact about my task for which I still feel a bit guilty. I read the local newspaper or just let my mind wander. Other times, I just sat staring at my mother’s emaciated body. I pondered over her illness, the loss of her breast, her testing, irradiation, and medication. Mom had lost most of her hair, half of her body weight, and the ability to care for herself. In the latter days, she had reverted to an infantile state, oblivious of the world and caring for little but sleep.
How fascinating it is to consider the cycles of life turning back on themselves. I learned much in watching mother during that night and over her last two years. Hopefully in the future, we will all be better prepared than Mother for the great change called death when it comes to us.
Morning arrived and Mother was still with us, but barely. I drove to the parsonage in Letcher and took a long nap. By the time I had finished some chores and started my church paper work, Dad called to say, “Mama’s passed away.”
I drove back home and arrived just as the morticians were taking Mother’s body away. Her room felt strange, empty not just of body but also of spirit.
I sat with Dad and my aunts listening to the story of Mother’s last moments. It was simple, yet stirring. Pastor Millard had been out and about that afternoon fulfilling pastoral duties when he thought, “I haven’t seen Helen in some days. I must visit her.”
Kent stopped at the house and entered Mother’s room in the presence of Dad, my aunts, and the hospice workers. Mom opened her eyes and attempted a “Hello” to the pastor. Millard asked if he might offer a prayer to which Mother nodded her assent. Then, the group joined around the bed to repeat the Shepherd Psalm. As they spoke, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me,” Mother breathed her last.
Mom surely remained with us and battled cancer for so long out of love of family and home. I am quite sure that she also stayed on out of fear of death and the unknown. Mom had freely admitted, “I don’t understand religion or God. I go to church, but it doesn’t mean much to me. Sometimes, I wish it did.”
Relief and sorrow filled my heart that day – Good Friday – as I prepared a service for the two congregations. I was both exultant and heavy-laden when I stood before the church people to talk about “The Miracle of Life.” So many miracles we witness and experience each day in our modern age of marvels without even considering them as such. But, isn’t life itself the greatest miracle of all? I was honored to share a few words about my Mother that evening. I added several more when I preached on “Life is Worth Living” that Easter Sunday with my family in the pews.
Mother’s funeral was held on Monday with Kent Millard conducting. When he asked me to give a eulogy for “Dear Old Mom,” I was pleased to accept. But, I was emotional with the time and anxious standing in front of so many relatives who knew me mostly from my boyhood days. Just before the memorial service, I approached the open coffin which held Mother’s embalmed remains. I stared for a time with a gulp in my throat and tears in my eyes as mourners passed by on their way into the church sanctuary. Eventually, I turned away but not before touching the body. It was truly stone cold. Certainly, Mother was absent from the body. There was nothing in the casket except lifeless elements and compounds contained by a shell which had some outward resemblance to my parent.
When the time came for me to speak, I took the yellow rose in hand and walked to the pulpit. With anxiety and exhilaration, I started: “I bought this rose to place upon the altar of the church where I preached yesterday. It was intended to represent the birth of a new soul into the world, a soul whom I had the honor to baptize. I decided that it might also symbolize my mother’s soul being born into the next world.
“When the florist handed the rose to me, I was at first irritated because the outer petals were not crisp and flawless. But now, I see that the rose was perfect in its own way. Those outer petals are like Mother’s aged and worn body. They cover fresh, new ones similar to the vibrant spiritual body in which Mother now lives and moves unfettered by her diseased shell. The promise of new life is even now being fulfilled. Mother’s spirit is freed of her body. No doubt, it is with us right now taking part somehow in our remembrance of her.
“There is more which the rose can tell us of Mother and her life. The shaft of the rose has a good many thorns. Like the rest of us, Mother had her share. I like to think that in her aging, through her disease, and just through the passage of life, Mother enters the next world with a few less thorns. Thorns or not, Mother added to our lives color and beauty, character and fragrance. Life would have been so different, so empty without our loving mother. And, isn’t the rose the great symbol of love? My Mom so loved her three boys and we have been so lucky for it.
“Lastly, the yellow of this rose speaks to me of courage. Mother was strong, enduring, and courageous. She lived with cancer for five years. She didn’t complain or act the part of a helpless victim. Mom toughed it out. Mother was an example of strength and courage, loyalty and faithfulness.
“We will miss you, Mother, even though you are still with us in the things you taught us, in the love you gave us. I shall always remember your pithy sayings, your words of encouragement, your proud, smiling face, and your enduring love. I know that you are not to be merely deposited in the ground with your body, but you are for a time liberated in spirit. You are free as the light. Still, you will be back with us again one day. But for now, we honor your life with loving smiles like unto the ones you so generously beamed upon our own.”
With those last words, I stepped down from the pulpit and laid the lone yellow rose atop the casket. Graveside rites were followed by a luncheon in the church basement. Though the mood was hardly cheery amongst the assembly, it was sincere and real. Funerals, like Mother’s, are some of the few occasions and excuses for extended families to come together in the present day. Too bad we can’t find other ones.
Coincidentally (though I don’t believe in simple coincidences), three men who grew up across the street from the McNary brothers approached me at the luncheon. The Mortweet “boys” were in town to attend to details surrounding their own mother’s death. They asked me to “say a few words at mother’s funeral.”
The whole thing was quite astonishing to me. Clara Mortweet and my mother were neighbors for close to 40 years. They both had three sons. They died on the same day at the age of 73 from metastatic breast cancer.
Mom and Clara had been only casual neighbors. And, I had known Mrs. Mortweet only enough to say hello until I returned home in 1984. By that time, Clara was widowed, retired from school teaching, and alone. I heard that she was student of metaphysics and would like some company, so I popped in to visit. I discovered a shy and reclusive, but thoughtful woman who was trying to make sense out of the world and her own life. Although her search seemed rather haphazard to me, I couldn’t help but respect and support her efforts through my visits.
Clara had been a Christian Scientist for many years, but her ideas began to change with illnesses and deaths in her family. She consulted doctors sparingly and investigated Unity when the local Christian Science Church disbanded. During the time I knew her, Clara seemed most taken by the writings of Bhagwan Rajneesh. I had not studied his work, but I listened attentively to Clara’s interpretations of his teachings.
Along the way, Clara mentioned some of her joint pains for which she had been “doctoring.” Besides utilizing orthodox medicine, Mrs. Mortweet regularly listened to visualization tapes and said healing affirmations. I had no idea as to the extent of Clara’s health problems until I was on an excursion to the Black Hills in early March. I somehow got word that she was in the Regional Medical Center there. So, I made a trip to the hospital and found Clara in a much changed physical state.
Though she beamed with pleasure when I entered her room, I had a tough time viewing the pale, drawn, and the forces of death. After a warm conversation and an affectionate good-bye, I left Clara. I was quite sure she had only a short time to live. Two weeks later, she died within moments of my mother’s passing on Good Friday. I wasn’t surprised when I was told that Clara had been “doctoring” for metastatic breast cancer for some months. But somehow, the possibility hadn’t crossed my mind until the Mortweet boys told me “the rest of the story.”
The revelation prompted me to think not only about the similarities in the lives of two women - two mothers – but also about the different routes they took to arrive via cancer at death’s door. Mother went through standard and only standard medical treatment for five years suffering little pain, but many invasions of her body, sore indignities, and the slow erosion of her weight, strength, and appearance. She died at home with family in close attendance. Mother Mortweet struggled pretty much alone for months before she consulted a doctor. Then, I gathered, “It was too late.” The disease pretty much ran its “natural” course with Clara dying in a hospital bed.
Why the differences in dying from the “same disease?” How many lessons do we have to learn from debilitating, sapping disease? And, how many people have to learn through employment as doctors, nurses, and therapists? Are there any alternatives? How long before we learn to die of natural causes without the questionable “aid” of often destructive medical treatments?
When, in Mother’s eulogy, I said that she was still around, I didn’t consider all the implications of that remark. During the time I was preparing my Mother’s Day sermon two months later, I had a dream about Mom. I saw her alone at night in an office building. She was rummaging through files and records. Somehow, I knew that she was trying to help my brother out of a scrape into which he had gotten himself. I included the narrative of the short dream during the Mother’s Day services and suggested that it supported the adage that, “A mother’s work is never done.”
Mother was liberated from her body on Good Friday, but her work was hardly accomplished. Nor was mine. Even with my many expansive experiences of medicine and ministry, I was yet to discover my real work. And, I had to be liberated from the church and South Dakota to continue my search for it.
Death and rebirth, life and change were the major topics of my sermons in the following days. They were also the points of focus in my own consciousness which led up to the climax of my preaching stint with the rural churches. My last weekend in the pulpit coincided with the celebration of Independence Day and of the 20th year Reunion for my high school graduating Class of ’66.
I have frequently remembered the Reunion as “bittersweet.” I suppose that oxymoron might well have fit the whole finale weekend. Judith Barr came to visit for a few days, to share in the Reunion festivities, and to sing in the last worship services at Letcher and Loomis. On Friday and Saturday evening, we joined in the Sock Hop and Banquet. Judith looked over my shoulder most of the time, as I talked with classmates of old. Some I didn’t even recognize while most seemed to be just the same persons in older bodies. Time changes many things, but personalities are masks which often withstand the years and the ages. My heart did skip a beat when I met my high school sweetheart – and her husband. It was more than curious that women both past and present had the same first name, and later on, very similar last names.
Following a fairly late night, Sunday morning services arrived quickly. I rang the church bell and lit the altar candles at the Loomis church for the last time. A group of a dozen or so members spread out amongst the pews as usual to hear my last message. Mrs. Watkins’s fingers beat out my favorite hymns while my friends of the past year tried to “tune in” my last words to them. The service closed with a communion of wafers, juice, and appreciation. Judith Barr led us in the singing of “Love is a Circle,” one of her compositions, as we joined hands in our own reunion.
After a group photo snapped at the church door, the two of us drove off a few minutes behind schedule to our appointment at the Letcher church. We arrived to find another musical friend leading the congregation in a hymn sing to pass the interlude. The sanctuary was filled, my family was represented, and the people seemed “up” for the moment. In the midst of the service routines, I spoke on Truth and Freedom, Independence and Union. The weekend was certainly wrapped in them. But, so too are all lives, especially American ones.
“Believe it or not, the great Idea of Independence is tied up in Christ. The Founders of the United States were inspired men who recognized the destiny of America to ‘light the way’ for its international kin. The Christ (Consciousness) declares ‘I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Out of Truth which manifested in the great American declaration two hundred years ago arose Freedom: ‘You shall know the Truth and the Truth will make you free.’ But, Freedom and Independence are not a simple pair. They rather make a trio with Responsibility. The three are like the drummer and fife players of the famous Revolutionary painting who march from the rigors of battle to the harder task of making ideals live in the workaday world.
“When we can stand on our own feet as individuals or as nations, we must eventually serve and aid all of our fellows. Young people and adolescent countries grow out of their selfish ways to give without holding back. By thinking, speaking, and acting responsibly, a true Union under God is created. One day, we must learn to freely share our own portion of Light with everyone and everything. Then, do we fulfill the great command to: ‘Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – and our neighbors as ourselves.’”
That day and weekend are reminders to me of the Wholeness on which I preached during my short pastoral calling in rural South Dakota. They also recall the goal of Wholeness on which I must practice the rest of my life. Through the thoughts, love, and deeds which I integrate with the Whole, I can make a valuable contribution to many of the unions which must form the New World. So can you.