My mother was an atheist who identified historically and culturally as a Jew, the child of immigrants. My father’s faith lineage was an undefined and little-discussed mix of Protestantism, and the only piece of his spiritual heritage I’m certain of is that his father was a lifelong Spiritualist after an experience he had in World War I. My dad was what I’ve come to call a seeker, meditating and practicing Buddhism, and yoga on the back porch. He was a tenderhearted man who spent much of his life quietly making peace with the men he killed in WWII.
We celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah. I have vague memories of attending Unitarian services, but mostly as a boy I identified with my mom’s atheism. At the same time, I have early memories of being what I would now call an animist: I had conversations with the wind, made friends with the rain, created an elaborate apology ceremony when my father cleared a patch of thistles on our land. My first lessons in ethics that I remember were visiting my half-sister, and then my father, when they went to jail against the draft.
Growing up in a ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture Bay Area, the overarching world-view I experienced was relativistic: we each create our own reality, and it’s your business what you believe in. Those who challenge your beliefs just have another (equally valid) point of view that can stand as a companion to your belief, but cannot alter or eclipse it. As a result, medical, dietary and spiritual practices around me were varied and extraordinary. In response, I came to see all truths, beliefs, and lifestyles as being simply accessories. Looking back, I think I was spiritually disabled. The idea of “consensus reality” was outside of my conception, especially in regard to spirituality, but I also felt isolated and yearned to be a part of a bigger, real, process.
Around the age of eight, I had what I think of now as a watershed spiritual experience. I have no context or explanation for it, but it was formative. I was helping my mother carry groceries into the house, in the hallway with bags in my arms, and I thought in an eight-year-old-child’s way, I’m going to let myself completely conceive of death. I have never been able to get back to what I thought that day, but it scared me so deeply that I spent weeks afterwards having to distract myself, either reading endlessly or, more dramatically, saying No out loud every waking moment. Needless to say, my parents were concerned about me. But whatever I saw was so frightening that I couldn’t tell them what had happened. They sent me to a child psychologist, who I refused to speak to. I don’t know how I incorporated this event, but I feel it gave me a different relationship with death then, and for the rest of my life.
It could be said that it was what didn’t happen around my mother’s death was a major influence on my spiritual development. As an atheist, she felt rituals were superstitions, and so when she died our family had no funeral, no memorial. She was either cremated or donated her body. It was years before I realized how this absence formed me, created a deep yearning in me for presence.
After high school and some years in and out of college, I became involved in the antinuclear movement, doing civil disobedience and going to jail for acts of conscience, much as I had seen my dad and my sister do when I was a child. This was the first place I met people who were public in their faith. They were older, in their 40s to 80s, and were acting in the tradition of, and sometimes directly involved in, the Catholic Workers Movement. Levelheaded, good-spirited and funny, they spent hours a day in prayer and reading while my peers played out what often felt like ego-driven revolutionary posturing. Given my upbringing, this was my first experience of religious people, and it was counter to the stereotypes I held of them as conservative, closed minded and unkind. I was impressed by the congruency between their beliefs and their actions, and it made me want that too. At this time, in my early twenties, I began to tentatively pray and meditate myself, although I was confused about what or who I was praying to.
In my early thirties I had another “watershed of spirit.” I was by myself for a few days at a cabin that some friends owned in the backwoods of Trinity County. One morning, I was sitting out front, staring at an old oak that grew in his yard, and it came to me in a moment: if someone with an entirely different world view than mine—say, an 80 year-old North Chinese woman who had spent her entire life in her village—if she dropped from the sky and landed in the chair next to me, she would see the tree in front of her. To her it would have a different name, different associations, maybe it would be so unlike the trees where she came from she wouldn’t identify it as such, but if she walked over and put her hand on it, she would be stopped by its material, would feel its roughness. From this obvious fact, the whole world reorganized for me.
My old Chinese woman, of her own volition, would smell the dustiness and feel the sun on her skin. She could drink from my water bottle and be quenched. In regard to occurrence, we would be companions. Different experience, same components. As a response to my early relativistic upbringing, this changed the vantage from where I stood in existence: instead of being at the center of everything and working so hard to create it with my mind, I and everyone else moved around a core of reality, or truth, coming to our own decisions about it. I felt pretty sure that this truth was so big and complex it was beyond our collective, much less my individual, understanding, but I found great comfort in the strange anchor of a reality independent of me.
While in college I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and after graduation, while working on a boat in Alaska, I read The Habit of Being, a collection of her letters. Part of what I love about O’Connor’s stories is the mysterious motions of grace embedded in them. She was a devout Catholic and an admirer of the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Reading her letters I could see how these sometimes violent, mysterious stories were expressions of her faith, and how her intellect worked in conjunction with her Catholicism. I began to feel a pathway toward a spiritual life (which I had always felt, but was embarrassed by) that didn’t require me to abandon my critical faculties.
Back in San Francisco, a friend who had grown up attending Sherith Israel Synagogue took me to her temple. As Shabbat prayers began, she pointed out for me where we were in the siddur and I read along to myself in English and stood and sat down when everybody else did. I was amazed as I read—the words about justice and kindness to strangers were ethics I had learned in my home and thought of as things my family had given me, but I realized as the service proceeded that these values had been passed down for thousands of years through a spiritual lineage. All the work I had done in politics, the time I had spent in jail, were brought into a new light for me that evening.
The next morning I went with my friend to Torah study, and here again I was surprised. The story was the binding of Isaac. I imagined that the rabbi would read to us from the bible, and then she would give us a sermon and tell us what to think about the portion. While the rabbi did read it out loud, she then opened the conversation with a question: “What kind of a horrible god would do something this?” What followed was a roundtable discussion of the nature of G_D in Genesis. It was heated, back and forth, and reminded me of literature classes I had loved. A lot of anger and doubt was expressed at G_D’s actions. In the car, my friend explained that not only was the conversation about Torah at these studies between the people at the table, but they were between everyone who had ever discussed the meaning and nature of the text. It was a dinner table argument that went on for thousands of years.
Suddenly, and ever since, I was in love with being a Jew. I studied Jewish meditation and attended services with R. Alan Lew at Congregation Beth Sholom, and did spiritual direction work with R. Burt Jacobson, who exposed me to Mussar tradition, a Jewish tradition teaching tools for leading an ethical life. I began reading extensively, and in the years that followed attended weekly services, primarily at Jewish Renewal congregations such as Beit Tikkun and Chochmat Halev. This eventually led to me doing my adult bar mitzvah in 2008. My family and I have been active with the Petaluma temple, B’nai Israel, for the last eight years. This has been a place where our family has celebrated holidays, and participated in supportive Jewish community. It has given me a place to pray with others, and to deepen my appreciation for, and joy in, the Jewish traditions.
When I was 34, I was accepted into an MFA Creative Writing program in Spokane, Washington. Returning to San Francisco a few years later, Masters and a short story collection in hand, I hit a wall. Writing is a solitary practice, a form of prayer, ultimately between the writer and the Creative Force, and I love that about it, but I had also found great satisfaction being in an environment with comrades, friends and teachers who understood the struggle of the work. Now with school done, I worked to keep writing, but I was lonely, blocked, and became depressed. I slept, I ate and I went to my job. But in my personal life I was in an existential crisis that was a corollary to the one about the physical world I had experienced when I was younger: I found myself wanting to know one thing that was absolutely true, not just for me, but for creation. I couldn’t come up with anything. Until I did. Again, it came to me suddenly. What was the truth? It is better to be kind. It gave me an enormous sense of relief, I felt physically lighter. It wasn’t that I had to be kind—to people I knew, to strangers, rich or poor folks, myself. I was not compelled. I just somehow knew that it was better to do that, and I committed to try harder.
In my life I have felt a yearning to deemphasize myself as an individual and be a part of something bigger. My life with Rachel and our daughter has given me this for the last sixteen years. The spiritual path of the householder has brought me rigor and humility, joy and insight, every day. Faced with the reality of unfolding generations, I see how we really are just like the grass in the field, sprouting, growing, only to whither and die. And this is fine with me.
I believe that this is what, in 12-Step meetings, is called “being right-sized.” After Rachel and I got together and before our daughter was born, I spent three years immersed in the 12-step community, addressing habits I had developed in the months after finishing graduate school, but that, even as my outlook and circumstances changed, I found difficult to shake. This, along with often attending Shabbat services and coming to identify as a Jew among Jews, gave me my first experience of spiritual practice in a group context. I learned more about prayer, and about the joy of surrender to a community and a tradition. Judaism’s focus on a spiritual community rather than an individual, continues to be a positive challenge for me.
When our daughter was one, she was experiencing some physical difficulties, and a family friend put us in contact with a man who had spent a number of years in the South-American rainforests, first as an environmental activist, then training and apprenticing with indigenous healers. He helped our daughter, and he offered to help me. I have now sat with this shaman for twelve years. The practice and community around him offer an additional spiritual support network that has helped to deepen my efficacy, sense of purpose and overall “grit.”
Abraham Heschel famously said of his march in Selma with MLK and other activists, “I felt my feet were praying.” I feel that throughout my life I have often felt a spiritual quickening when I have been taking action: facing the death of loved ones, hitchhiking, working, civil disobedience. In the years since starting a family, taking action has become an even more important part of my spiritual practice, and this has manifested in being a parent and volunteer at a Waldorf school, keeping bees, and being a hospice volunteer.
In 2005, I began training as a volunteer at Hospice of Petaluma. There is a saying among people who do the work, “All hospice work is spiritual work,” and I find it to be true. Providing physical and emotional support to the dying and their families gave me the opportunity to sit with death and life, and to look at my own life and my priorities from that perspective. I found the quiet and the needs of that time to be a place where I could hear G_D’s voice better.
One of the training sessions was led by Hospice of Petaluma’s medical director, Dr. Scott Eberle, whose connection to the School of Lost Borders, inspired me. The School gives youth, hospice workers, and others wilderness rites-of-passage rituals. Eight years after meeting Dr. Eberle, I went to California’s Owen’s Valley to take part in my first vision fast. After four days of clarifying intentions with the other participants and the guides, I trekked to a solo campsite in the Inyo Mountains with four jugs of water and no food, and sat for four days staring at the Sierra Nevadas. From this solitary place and time, I returned with a clearer sense of where I was in life, the gifts I have to offer, and a direct experience of support by the Spirit. Over a year later, I continue to feel the ripples of this time on a daily basis, and have begun training as a vision fast guide. I intend to incorporate this stream of earth-based knowing into my work as a chaplain.
My path has been unorthodox, but I believe the crooked way to the Spirit is not uncommon. I hope that my experiences will allow me to be a more empathetic servant, and someone who individuals from nontraditional backgrounds can identify with, and use as a source of comfort.