THIS I BELIEVE: Letting Go

In this Aug 16, 2008 talk I was asked to participate in a THIS I BELIEVE session at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium. I was one of, I believe, six speakers who were tasked with illuminating . . . well, what we believe. 

I was pretty pleased with how this turned out, even though my delivery includes a lot of pursing of lips. What was that all about? Nervousness?

“What if the wheel [of religion] itself is unnecessary? I believe in daily giving myself and others permission to abandon religion.”

watch the entire video

religionsunstone

After the (Second) Fall: A Personal Journey Toward Ethnic Mormonism

agonizing writer

This essay was originally a talk given at The Sunday Gathering, August 21, 1994 at
the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. It was later printed in Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring, 1998.

WHEN MY FIRST MARRIAGE ENDED IN DIVORCE in 1991, what I describe as my current spiritual life seemed to begin. It is the first of three seminal moments in the past three years that I have chosen to detail here. Before that, however, I need to give some autobiographical information. MORE

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue: Part 17

Part 17:

Kurt Cobain Getting Saved

Back in Liverpool, The Quarrymen have changed their name to Johnny and the Moondogs but are without a drummer and John Lennon is reduced to abandoning his guitar and standing between Paul McCartney and George Harrison, one hand on each of his buddy’s shoulder, as a vocal trio. Actually, the biography states, they looked kind of cool because Harrison was a leftie while McCartney was right-handed and the group looked like a winged animal on stage singing Buddy Holly songs, and it landed them in the finals of “Nationwide Search for a Star Competition” in Manchester. These were tough times for the group that would become The Beatles, missing out on the final heat of the competition they’d qualified for because they didn’t have the money to spend the night and had to scramble for the last bus back to Liverpool. But these are not the innocent boys we think of now, all wide-eyed and bonny-haired. In fact they left the hall that night having probably stolen another musician’s guitar in some kind of frustrated effort at revenge.

This is the part where I get insanely judgmental of Joe’s heroes. I get fusty about character and living the reasonable and mature life in a world that is shot through with fuck-ups like—most of Joe’s friends as well as the absent man in Joe’s life whose name here shall remain obscured. It’s the same Mormon self-righteousness, I suppose, that makes me sniff at Kurt Cobain smashing his guitar on stage after a set. This even though the man-boy has declared quite definitively somewhere outside Cleveland that Cobain did so out of honest frustration because he couldn’t even get a custom-made guitar to deliver the sound he demanded. An artiste of the most ego-blinding kind. Whatever.

In truth I’m insanely judgmental of Joe’s heroes because I am not one of them. This I am sure of. Instead, I find pictures of the absent man and him in full Halloween make up implanted in the medicine cabinet of his bathroom. A small 3×3” photo, dog-eared with the finger pulling and pawing of disquieting longing. It seems the absent man is the one who spoke wisely of life’s lessons, calmly holding forth on everything from work to love, from government (especially its unfair taxes) to cops–a.k.a. “pigs.” He is the one who ushers forth whenever his out-of-town and elderly mother starts asking her son uncomfortable questions like, “How is Joe? When will I see him? Did you give him my birthday presents?” He is the one who ushers forth to offer his abandoned son some pathetic little toy (a pocket knife, re-gifted I’m sure) or a bag of clementines (also re-gifted in their little netted sack).

Or Joe’s hero is sarcastic John Lennon, the mugging, Liverpudlian thug obsessed with shoplifting and mimicking cripples. And I stew, like a Christianist in the culture wars, about the corrosive impact of pop culture on our youth. But Joe does not demonstrate any of Lennon’s flaws, with the possible exception that he has a fierce, yet often undisciplined intellect, and a thing with growing his hair out. This is what I remember about Joe’s character. He is taking Muoy Thai boxing as a 12-year-old and there’s a kid at the gym, Denver, who at six-years-old has already boarded the flight to juvenile hall it would seem. So damaged is Denver, that even the muscled, tattoo-ed owner of the place, Craig, has banished him to the lobby where he must wait for his returning mom. Something about the kid kicking a kid in the face unprovoked, and then, with a laugh, succeeding at kicking Craig in the balls as the kid was being hauled off.

Joe is there too, with me as we wait for his buddy who is finishing his workout, and Denver is playing with a toy that looks like it actually could be an honest-to-god die-cast Matchbox car. Denver keeps rolling the damn thing off the bistro table like it’s a missile, ripping it out of Joe’s hand when Joe tries to pick it up to return it to him across the table top. The kid appears to be on amphetamines.

My point is that at twelve, Joe is kind. He even seems to feel compassion for a boy six years his junior who is destined to trod a path that Joe knows all too well. And Joe is moved by him. I can see it in the way he manages Denver with patient ease. It’s as if he’s saying through a kind of innate generosity that he finds that he has it in him to be kind to this troubled boy, and so he is. He is kind because he can be kind. He finds that he has a reserve, and without further ado he dispenses with that reserve to the object that needs something the most in that moment.

Despite having witnessed this, as well as Joe’s admittedly steeper learning curve with learning to care for our pets, I regularly panic that he will not turn out somehow. That he will become a guitar-smashing lunatic or worse. But really I’m afraid that when he thinks of the man that he wants to become, it will not be me. Pathetic, I know. But it’s true.

And that is why I am mean to him. Even here, in Kearney Nebraska, after we go for our obligatory swim in our skivs—Nana in her leotard—and we all shiver back to the room to toast the new year two hours early because of what looks like on the Weather Channel, another system moving in, and the movie of the hour keeps getting interrupted with a loud beeeeeep and the ticker tape warning of sub-zero, freezing rain. Yes, I am mean to him. Dismissive, touchy. “Get your boots off the bed. I don’t care if it’s a motel. Put your shit away…now, dammit. You said you hung that up. Why do you lie?”

Nana glowers at me. And she fights back too when she feels the internal storm in her own husband gathering like that over the Wyoming high plain northwest of here and her gangly chick with the mop of hair might be in its path. If the brew continues we will have words, serious ones that only make me feel more resentful of this boy who entered our life, not entirely invited, and now won’t get his goddamn boots off the bed. Resentful because even this marital scenario is his fault: it’s let’s you and them fight, he seems to saying in his silence, in his unflappable way lying on the bed there. And earlier I had even let him have half a glass of champagne, the little shit.

The road before us, through what looks like another ice storm, or at minimum the kind of freezing weather that, because it is far from home, is all the more threatening, stretches in my mind through unpardonable, high-elevation country. It’s a country I am well aware of, being a Westerner. Only in the west can one meet with not only mechanized, Detroit-crunching (in this case Tokyo-crunching?) death on the freeway but with the specter of no one there to witness it except the drifts over Elk Mountain and the implacable big sky above you.

This isn’t even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where father and young son bond with a fierceness borne of terror, despair and the post-apocalyptic cold. A bond as bleak as it is tender. This is my own interior and fabled “Scotland Road” driving through the heart of the White Star Line’s most infamous vessel—the Titanic. Melodramatic, you say? Perhaps. But part of the zeitgeist here is that one’s private agony with a lost boy who somehow doesn’t cotton to you entirely is an objective correlative at the macro-level, the whole goddamn world collapsing just as it is collapsing in my head here in Nebraska. Just as it is collapsing in my heart.

I am kicked out of the hotel room. By Cheryl. Or perhaps I kick myself out. There are fifty places I could go tonight in Kearney to get wasted on New Years Eve, the last night of the last year of the first decade of the new millennium. Instead, I wander in the halls in my shirtsleeves the heaters at the two ends of the hall madly grinding away, keeping at bay the very death of us. I am bound to not only the hall but to the two people on the other side of the door marked 223.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 9)

PART 9: 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

We’re taking our Cleveland detour for Joe.  But I also realize that being the third day now that I’m wearing the same cardigan, admittedly over one of the new T-shirts Cheryl has bought me and Joe, that I am indeed in need of respite.  The sky is clear today.  A good day to see Cleveland.  We shoot up north on I-77 and into the city where we inexplicably drive right to the  building designed by I.M. Pei on the south shore of Lake Erie.  There it is, all winged and white, the giant drum on its pedestal where the actual “hall” is.  We park at the adjacent Science Museum and walk across the winter-browned grass and up the stairs.  To the north a giant tanker lies anchored in the lake, the breakers for the harbor in the distance, the horizon of what looks like a sea extending forever away and north.  The wind.  There is wind and sun and the blanched exterior of the mecca of music we have pilgrimaged to, and I am revived.  Our world actually stops existing on the linear line west that will take us to familiar waters—salty ones to be precise—and suddenly the world is 360 degrees again, peripheral and vertical, scrubbed clean of truck plazas and the thrumming of asphalt.  This might have actually been a good idea.  Thank God for credit cards.    
                Despite Pei’s claim that it was energy—youthful energy to be more precise—he was trying to capture in glass and metal, the building inside feels institutional.  The organizers of the hall and museum got what they wanted, I suppose:  the cachet of a high-brow architect whose oeuvre includes the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington to elevate a traditionally “low-brow” art form.  “I didn’t know a thing about rock and roll,” he is reported as saying when the famous, Chinese-American architect was first commissioned in the early 90s.  Born in China in 1917, Bing Crosby was Pei’s America—not Elvis Presley.  Still, the structure is striking, even heart-stopping when the light hits it just right and the angled glass and jutting wings suspended above the ground reassemble what seems like an infinite number of shifting lines. 
            And…institutional or not, this feels like the nonprofit home I have found myself in since leaving the airline in 2005.  Memberships.  Subscriptions.  The infamous, self-congratulating donor wall.  You can almost hear the squabbling of the volunteer board, the luncheons of development officers relieving the wealthy of their money.  Everything has the patina of being “mission-driven,” but like everything else, it’s a varnish over the only portal accessible to Americans these days whether into family, religion or politics:  corporate money.  “You can buy anything in this world for money,” says the minion of Satan in the Mormon liturgy of my youth.  Got that right. But even my own people have forgotten that, Utah being the scam capitol of the world.          
But…
However…
Even so…There are always these—the qualifiers.  
By the time the three of us have paid our 22 bucks a head (“Your visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum helps fund our efforts to educate the world on the social significance of rock and roll.”…have our picture taken in front of a digitized night view of “Rock Hall” as it’s affectionately known, we have fully surrendered.  Down the escalators we are greeted with ZZ Top’s red 1933 Ford Coupe “The Eliminator,” and all is right with the world.  The music video of “Gimee all your Lovin’” with its nineteen-year-old garage mechanic getting a ride (literally) in the Ford with the stylized “ZZ” racing stripes and, more importantly, three older incredibly naughty women drivers in three-inch heels and stockings, well…  It’s a reminder before you even enter the Rock Hall that rock and roll is a euphemism—popularized by the genre’s first disc jockey and concert producer Alan Freed–for fucking.      
Joe and I stand there agape while Cheryl reads through the map of the 150,000-square foot place and tries to plan our visit (she will eventually give up and take to treading water in the flotsam and jetsam of the genre with the rest of us).  The next three hours in the museum will demonstrate how even music based on the rhythmic beats of carnal knowledge can get if not calcified then definitely gentrified, just like boxing and blue jeans before, respectively, T.S. Eliot and Calvin Klein.  Or so I think.
            This is about Joe, I think.  We’re here for my grandson because it’s one of very few things that we can safely talk about, share and even celebrate.  His love of music.  I remember when he was six and seven it was Mozart for him.  I’m the non-profit dude who in high school won the Shakespeare prize from my drama teacher, the late Mr. Ray Jones, for being able to recite from memory nearly 90 minutes of the stuff.  So music supposedly of my generation—including the 70s burp of disco–was peripheral, mere background noise to the deposition scene in Richard II.  But here is our Joe.  Immersed in music he prefaces with the adjective “classic.”  Never mind that he was introduced to all of American culture through “The Simpsons” which he has memorized and recited as much as I ever did the Bard.  This is what he’s gravitated to with his replica John Lennon glasses, his 150+ vinyl records sitting on the floor of my home office, a thousand facts about guitars, death in small plane crashes and record labels.  And finally, I can sit back and watch him in his temple of delights, hungry to return to any small relic of the thing that gives his life meaning.  It’s more than worth the $22 per head, if you ask me.
            What I didn’t expect was that Rock Hall was my temple too.  Between Cheryl, who was born in 1950, and Joe who was born in 1993, there’s my generation.  Too young to have smoked weed at Woodstock, but too old to be considered the real “lost generation” of Gen X, my people got Donna Summer and the Bee Gees for our trouble, Watergate and the first raid on Grenada, where, perhaps the country got the notion that war could be antiseptic—like playing a video game.  And yet we were there, wading through the stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis and sort of waiting for the next big identifying American era which never came.  Our meaning was how many times one could change his or her major in college, what we could buy, and how early we divorced.  If you were gay it was whether you had dodged HIV and how you told your coming-out-of-the-closet story.  All of this is in Cleveland, heavily curated, yes, but there nonetheless.  It is the story of youth getting their first taste of power too fast and too early, of how “we” became an economic and social force to be reckoned with. And, like the generations we were reacting to, it was how we ended up fucking it up just as bad as our forebears. 
In case, dear reader, you haven’t figured it out by now, the glass is always half empty for Dave.  (At least at the end of 2010.)  Or, in the words of Woody Allen, it’s actually a glass half full, but it’s poison.  So why, then, as I stood watching the looped video of Elvis Presley in one of those blessed PBS-styled, drill-down tapings in a close-up studio with a live audience did I start to come unhinged?  The man-boy is gone, cut loose to ramble through the displays with abandon, as is Cheryl, and I’m left standing, transfixed by the magnetism of the King, his talent for conjoining the electric with the baleful, all suffused with an unaccountable trans-gendered sex appeal?  It was late in my father’s life before I realized that, born in 1929, he too was a huge fan of Presley. This surprised me since Dad is uber-religious, intractable, even, in his Mormonism.  In the end, I think my father, a handsome man in his own right, saw himself in the star’s smoky good looks. Even so, it felt strange buying my father the complete collection one year for his birthday.  What would all of his disciples back at the ward think?
But it isn’t just Presley.  It’s the whole slew of them.  Telling the story through the early days when Rock was the devil’s music, through all its co-option of gospel, the blues—country western.  It’s Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and scandalous-sounding Little Richard.  And it was the Beatles.  When I turn the corner, I am in the shrine of the Fab Four.  Fevered Joe is already there.   He beckons to me, even pulls my arm at one point. “Poppa, it’s his glasses!  John Lennon’s glasses!”  Under glass themselves, the spectacles are thin, fragile-looking really with no nose pads.  The man-boy has a replica of this pair, known, apparently, as the Windsor style that came into vogue in the late 19th Century and remained popular through World War I.   Joe’s, however, are sunglasses, and he looks fey in them, the green lenses round as the moon on his long face, instead of slightly oval as the ones here.  These, however, are the real things, and he is entranced. 
Word is that Lennon, horribly near-sighted, wouldn’t wear his government-issued black rims when he was a school boy.  Rather, he would sit at the back of the class at Quarry Bank School and resolutely flunk his classes largely because what was happening up front, including on the black board, was all a blur. 
We will be here for a while in this side chapel of the Rock Hall Cathedral.  There is clothing, sketchbooks of both Lennon’s early and later caricatures and other drawings.  There is a studio piano at which he is said to have composed while away from the city on Long Island, and the wax from a melted candle is still pooled here and there, hardened now of course, on the black veneer.  To me it seems careless and prima donnish of him—this abuse of the implements, to reference Lily Tomlin’s ringy-dingy operator from Laugh-In.  Maybe it’s just that what Cheryl and I call a piano—her mother’s spinet, schlepped across the country not once but thrice, and pretty much ruined because of it—has been inadequate for years, and I am envious.  Or maybe the bile in me is surfacing—again!—as I am reminded that today along with a pre-nuptial it is the American dream to be able to live like a rock star, the eternal child.  (“He’s a rock star!”)
            For Joe, none of this registers.  Or at least I don’t think it does.  In a place such as this, he’s in a pinball machine, bouncing off relics ranging from a faded yellow report card (pathetic marks) to the man’s British passport.  There are scribblings galore of lyrics that would become world famous and corroborate the cliché that Lennon was the spokesman of a generation.  While Joe approaches a series of guitars pinned to the wall like icons in the form of a triptych, I am drawn to a faded copy of the special Beatles issue of the National Record News.  “Anthony Corbett, a noted English psychologist,” it reads, “praised the Beatles as having provided a ‘desperately needed release for the inhibitions which exist in all of us.’” 
            What was new and thrilling is now this:  thrilling because it’s old, it’s passed, it’s under climate-controlled whatever.  But this retrospective of the last half century or more through the lens of a single musical genre is how we pass it all down the line.  How Joe will make sense of the world—or not.  It gives him the talking points in a vast conversation that both elevates and erases itself.  My impulse here is sincere.  I want to believe that, unlike me, in the conversational flow he will be able to hear himself.  And maybe, just maybe he can make a contribution to the world that is currently both our terror and our hope.
In another room, Cheryl is looking at a costume worn by Patti LaBelle, the mannequin with a finned headdress that, frankly, reminds me of the architecture of Rock Hall, but black.  “Joe is really enjoying this,” I tell her. 
“And you?” 
“It’s…it’s surprising me.”
“In what way?”  I have to think about this for a second.  Suddenly I’m looking at the crowds milling about, cameras dangling.  Every size and shape imaginable of my fellow Americans shod in Nike and blue jeans, spandex and down.  A small child has caught my eye as she hangs from a chrome barrier, a little pig-tailed thing not aware that, as with me, she is looking away from the displays and at something else.  Me.  Something live.
“I find it moving,” I say, and something catches in my throat.  This is the first time we have had two minutes to reflect on anything, it seems, other than getting the hell out of New England and out west where we belong.
“I’m not surprised,” she says sensing my emotion. She slips her warm hand under my arm and I’m suddenly self-conscious of what is apparently my visible reaction.  Cheryl never seems to suffer from envy.  Patti LaBelle’s glamour and wealth—she doesn’t covet it.  She has the uncanny ability of seeing past our projections on the people we deem celebrities.  She sees something else in all of it.
            “Nostalgia?” I ask.
“Maybe some of that,” she says.  “But I think there’s something more going on here.”  She looks around in thought.  Playing to its strengths, Rock Hall has recordings of music playing everywhere and where we are standing now we can hear the keening of someone that I can’t name, and yet it’s so familiar it almost makes me swoon.  The only thing missing is the smell of a rancid night club or the tang of a mosh pit.

There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday, let your children play
If ya give this man a ride, sweet family will die
Killer on the road, yeah


            “In the Fifties, this was all very new.  Very threatening to some.  My Dad hated Elvis Presley.”  I picture my own father.  The man who admired Presley in the only way you could admire him—infatuation—but had to hide it.  Unlike my late father-in-law Frank who seemed to have no problem telling at least himself the truth. “You know Gary put himself through school playing in bands,” she continues, referring to her Ex…Josiah’s blood grandfather.  “He was actually really good.  Probably still is.” What she’s not saying is that she also sang for many years—at weddings, parties—but that she kept to the ballads and the folk songs, Joan Baez stuff.  The Standards, even.  I know she was good until, as she says it, she ruined her voice to smoking.   
The song continues.  I look around for Joe, thinking we ought to head out.  Or maybe upstairs for some lunch, a cup of coffee and a quick peek, if there is such a think as “quick” here, up stairs at the actual hall of fame.
Girl ya gotta love your man, girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand, make him understand
The world on you depends, our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah
There is music and then there is “the only thing that makes sense,” to quote Lennon when as a young man he was craving the American stuff—Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis–and trying to get the ubiquitous Skiffle bands of Liverpool to go Rock.  The only thing more nuanced, perhaps, more potent is breathing in a scent.  And it means something even when you don’t know what it “means.”  

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan
Riders on the storm

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm
Riders on the storm, riders on the storm

Maybe Bruce Springsteen said it best.  On Level Five he’s featured in an exhibit emblazoned with this quote from him:  “People deserve the truth.  They deserve honesty.  The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.”
We may not be faced with the world right now, per se.  Not the whole world as Bruce Springsteen seems to be implying.  But we are faced with part of it.  The rest of Ohio, all of Illinois and Indiana and, getting to Iowa.  So we leave the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, angling south and west toward I-80 where we will pick up our trail.  Once we pass Chicago and bi-sect the northern fifth of the Hoosier State, I will feel as though we’re really making progress.  Something about crossing the Mississippi and getting lost in the corn fields of Iowa that makes one feel the barometric pressure falling, from East to West.  And yet Rock Hall has an aftertaste.  And it is strangely lingering in us across Illinois, as we skirt south of what is supposed to be Chicago through traffic that has an unmistakably urban aura.  Something in the air that’s aggressive but somehow aimless at the same time. 

This I Believe

In 1992 I moved from the religion of my childhood, to the religion of my ancestors. But I would come to believe that jumping spokes was only a lateral move. All spokes are required to hold the wheel of religion intact with God at the center. But what if the wheel itself is unnecessary? What if the wheel has become destructive?
I believe in daily giving myself and others permission to abandon religion. Giving up religion opens a space for me and I believe for society where enlightenment and meaning unencumbered by dogma and division can potentially emerge. For example, even though I have rejected the idea of a priesthood, I believe that my recurring, spontaneous blessings to my off-to-school grandson in which I use the word “Melchizedek,” have become a unique expression of meaning and intimacy for both Josiah and me.

I admit that giving up a religious system has robbed me of the instant sense of belonging to a community. But when I was religious, belonging seemed to rely more on elevating a system to a higher place than it did on facilitating spiritual growth. At church, I never really got to decide who or what I was going to commune with let alone serve.

Despite having abandoned religion, I believe that its icons are an important cultural vein from which I mine the history, the sensibilities, the imagination and the literature which I value. In short, religion’s effects often play a vital part in the language of my emerging soul.

The residuals of my religion are mysterious and they are powerful because they are utterly contingent upon my experience and my interpretation. Although it is time for me to abandon the cathedrals, the synagogues, the mosques and the temples, I believe that once I do I can then re-enter them as I enter my past, with appreciation, yes, but also with enough of a distance to be empowered rather than imprisoned by them. Most importantly, I believe one doesn’t have to be religious to be a Mormon.

I try to leave the church’s dusty, poisonous imperatives behind like Father Lehi left behind Jerusalem, imperiled by stasis . I put the potu above my nose, the kippah on my head, the holy garment on my body as a reminder of what I am rejecting, of what has been re-interpreted. And I aspire to gift the same time and money as I did before, but with greater commitment. I commit to my community, to the good of the collective and to my God. Every time I am inspired to action I am reminded of, in the parlance of my past, that “faith without works is dead.” Faith is better, I believe, without religion.
Still, I find the old stories worthy of re-telling, the old hymns worthy of being sung because they hint at who I am and, again, give language to my emerging soul.

I believe in giving you and me permission to abandon religion even as we claim our Mormonism.

[This talk was delivered at the 2008 Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, UT.  Copyright, David G. Pace, 2010 ]