Friday, April 4, 2014

A Few Random Notes on Prayer and Love


Most of these blog posts have been about design or art, so it’s time for one that’s more about faith.

In Los Angeles recently, we had a few folks over at our funky rented cottage for a BBQ (sans BBQ, but that’s the challenge of renting through VRBO), and an old friend of Paul’s drove up from Newport Beach. She has platinum blonde hair in an asymmetrical cut, high-heel platforms, beautifully painted toenails, and spray-on jeans. You might think LA actress or costume designer, but no, she’s an Episcopal priest! Another friend is writing a memoir about her rather bizarre upbringing in the shadow of Hollywood. The same day, I read my friend David’s blog post about facing his loathing of sports as a kid (often humiliating for gay boys) as he begins to coach his daughter’s little league. All of that got me thinking about parenting and parenting traditions that were intended, rejected, and then modified. And about faith.

You can always find a lot about your parents’ parenting that didn’t work, but as I was trying to go to sleep in a strange house in Los Angeles, I started thinking about a tradition that didn’t seem to work for most of my life, but ended up becoming useful many decades later, in a much altered form. Our family ate dinner together almost every night, and we said grace before eating. The prayer went like this: “God is good. God is great. We thank him for our food and family. Amen.” My sister thinks she picked it up at a Sunday school she attended briefly.

Often, we rushed through grace because we were hungry. We probably made fun of it. I know we interjected our own variations as we began to question God’s existence. Remembering this ritual caused me to think about how our parents tried to give us an awareness of faith, but without imposing any specific dogma. My mother grew up Lutheran, which was common for Norwegian immigrants and their offspring. Right out of Lake Wobegon (via the plains of Canada). My father grew up Methodist, but according to the family lore that he denied, they were originally Jewish on one side with a failed detour into Mormonism. My parents were not regular churchgoers. Indeed, they were married in my maternal grandparents’ home in Hubbard, Oregon. Nor were any of us kids baptized.

When we were fairly young, we began attending different churches all over the East Bay. A friend of my father’s was instrumental in starting a church in Lafayette where we had to drink communion. We had no idea what that was about. The hymnals were always confusing to me, but I liked the music even though I couldn’t carry a tune. I think we attended mostly Protestant denominations. The most memorable church service was one I attended with my mother and her friend Mary Lee Saxton at Glide Memorial in 1972. It was literally days after Angela Davis had been released from prison on bail. Reverend Cecil Williams introduced her, and the crowd went wild. My mother took off her shoes and stood on her pew to see Davis and clap for her. Now, baby, that was church.

Courtesy nndb.com

When I was a kid, many of my closest friends were Jewish and I started going to Jewish Youth Group meetings. Some of the houses where we met were quite grand, and the meetings were fun, but finally one of the mothers called my mother to ask her to join Hadassah, and that was their way of saying that I didn’t really belong.

I always more interested in the buildings than any liturgy. Eventually we seemed to settle on the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, a block up the hill from our house. A handsome concrete structure designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons with a central atrium built on land donated by Bernard Maybeck. The church, with its sweeping view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, was home to community theater and lots of benefits for Cesar Chavez’s farm workers and folks trying to stop the war in Vietnam. But we didn’t really go to church much. In fact, once, the minister called because he saw our name and address on the rolls but realized he had never even met us. I went to services as a young teenager because of the political sensibility. There were guests like Malvina Reynolds and Ron Dellums. Later on, that’s where my brother got married and where we held my mother’s memorial.

Sketch of First Unitarian Church

In the 1990s, I was drawn to the aesthetic of the Buddhists and tried two temples in Berkeley. I sat for a while at the Berkeley Zen Center, which is linked to the San Francisco Zen Center and the Soto Zen tradition that Suzuki Roshi brought to San Francisco and the west in 1959 when he was the age I am now. I went to BZC off and on for a while but never felt connected to the community of people. Occasionally, I visit Green Gulch and sit there on a Sunday. Because of the relatively large size of the gathering, I don’t look for community. I try hard to empty the mind, but it is still largely an aesthetic experience. For several years, I went to Tassajara each summer with my pal (from preschool!) Mara and her husband Chris. It was especially comforting in the summer of 1999 just after my mother passed away. Later I brought Paul, but he passed out in the hot mineral water, and we haven’t been back.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Green Gulch Zen Center

When I met Paul, he worked as the musician for the Sunday afternoon service at St. Mary the Virgin, a beautiful small Episcopal church out on Union Street. It was a strange group of folks, most of them quite wealthy, but truly charitable. Paul worked with two priests. The second one was quite open about being gay and a recovering alcoholic and gave a homily about the Bible being a lie. Now I liked her! But she wasn’t a big fan of Paul’s ideas about music.

St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church sanctuary
Courtesy Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects

Several years ago, I had a dream about praying. And I realized praying was like pure art, something that begins only with you. It need not be about a religious figure telling you what to say or think. It is an empty space you fill up or leave empty. This was the lesson of Buddhism that I seemed to have missed when I was sitting. Find the empty place and try to stay there. Over time, my most common prayer was just saying, “Thank you.” And the place I find myself saying it is in the shower. The first thank you is for hot water, something most of us in middle class America take for granted. (One day in a hotel in lower Manhattan, there was no hot water, and instead of letting it go, I was grouchy all day. So even if you remember to be thankful, it doesn’t mean you don’t expect the comfort!) Each morning I also try to be thankful for having found a partnership that is caring, a home that is comfortable (if not quite large enough for the art and books we continue to acquire), friends, food, and not having to scrape to get by. Thankful for finding work that is meaningful and allows me to interact with design as well as with interesting people.

I often forget to get through all that appreciation before it’s time to get out of the shower. So I start my prayer routine, if that’s what you call it, when I am doing my daily swim. But there, instead of being thankful for the miracle of abundant warm water, I try to empty my head out and just breathe in and out and move. The usual chatter fills my head, and I try again, remembering not to chastise myself for being so loud. Later, when I ride BART into the city, I try and remember to close my eyes and empty my head out again. I feel that the combination of these various ways of praying helps me be kinder and more open. Which brings me to a kind of answer to a prayer that I didn’t know I had.

Our pool

Almost two years ago, my friends David Kerr and Jay Stowsky brought two young children, brother and sister, into their lives. They were in foster care at the time, and David and Jay became their foster parents as part of an adoption process. Last September, they formally adopted them.

Kerr Stowsky adoption


I have been Uncle Kenny to two birth nieces and dozens of children of my friends over the years. (I just found out that two of my friend’s kids thought we were actually blood related!) Sometimes, I performed well, and other times, I was forgetful. But with these two young children, I feel more focused, more present, more open. Their needs are different because their early lives were so unstable and unsettling. I think because of “my practice,” my trying to slow down and be thankful, I am more open not only to giving love but also to hearing someone ask for love without precise language. The other day, we arrived for a quick visit at David and Jay’s, and young Jaden (we call him little Jay) was waiting on the patio because from that vantage point he could see us come up the steps to the back door or hear us open the front gate and walk up the path to the front door. He had us covered. His older sister Shayla (Jaden calls her ShayShay) was waiting inside with her book. When I first met her, she didn’t know how to read, and now she reads me entire books far beyond her grade level. When we were at the Exploratorium last weekend, Jaden focused intently on just a few of the gizmos, but Shayla was drawn to many of the bright new shiny objects. She has learned how to wait patiently for her turn, even though she worries that whatever she wants will be gone by the time she gets to the front of the line. After our science playtime, we were walking to get ice cream, and she complained bitterly about her feet hurting and that it isn’t fair that Jaden gets carried all the time. Shayla is too big (not to mention too old!) to get carried, but what she really needed was someone to hear her complaint and stay next to her. In a few minutes, we got our soft serve ice cream cones and watched the bay. There is still something so comforting about sitting outside on a beautiful day with a good ice cream cone. It washes away the sore feet and injustices of being a big sister.

Jay with the kids at Point Lobos

Watching the kids find their sea legs in a new home and with a new family has been the most powerful emotional experience of the last few years. I can’t close Guantanamo or stop the NSA or any of the many political issues I post articles about every week. But I can hold a trusting little hand during a walk and throw a laughing child up into the air and let them fall into the pool, and they know I will catch them before they go too far under. I really think my home-cooked form of prayer has helped give me the stillness and gratitude to be present with these wondrous kids. I am more open to love, which travels two ways all the time. That is an answered prayer.

The Kerr Stowskys at Disneyland

1 comment:

David Kerr said...

A good family friend recently said about my parents, "Whatever they believed about God they did a lot of believing in other people." We're deeply grateful to have you believing in our kids Uncle Kenny!