It was a special treat recently to attend several sessions of the 20th annual meeting of the North American Interfaith Network, happily held this year on the campus of my MFA alma mater, the University of San Francisco. Ever alert for a good story – especially a publishable one – I e-mailed my friend and Beliefnet.com editor to see if they’d be interested in a report. (I wrote a piece for Beliefnet’s start-up issue, and am proud to have contributed that and a few other articles for what I think is the best site around for issues of spirituality and ethics.) She replied, with kindness but candor, should anything surprising or newsworthy come up that would be a possibility, but such is seldom the case at these conferences. And I guess she’s right. What warms the heart does not necessarily make the news.
Still, it was hard not to feel a little wistful, as I sat in workshops and gatherings, about the fact that an extraordinary coming-together of so many wildly divergent faith communities, many of which are behind the splitting-apart of the world, is not newsworthy by today’s measure.
In my ice-breaking group, for example, were a woman rabbi, a former Catholic priest whose partner is a Wiccan, an avowed atheist, and an ordained United Methodist minister who works full-time with an interfaith organization (in Wichita, KS!, America’s oldest interfaith group, founded 1885 if you please.) And assorted others, including a Japanese Christian who had married a Korean politician but is now living in the U.S. because, as you might guess, that didn’t sit well with Korean politics. Stories were everywhere. In subsequent gatherings I encountered Muslims, Buddhists, Native Americans, Brahma Kumaris and others, all with wonderfully rich traditions and a yearning for peace.
There were questions – How can humanitarian needs be addressed without compromising political/religious neutrality? Is every declared faith a legitimate faith? – for which no answers were found. But there were exciting tales of answers that had been found and of possibilities for finding more. Tiny steps toward a better world were confirmed.
So OK, one group Om does not a treaty make. And the multi-lingual singing of “Love In Any Language” won’t make ancient animosities between speakers of all those languages disappear.
But has anyone come up with a better idea? That would make news.
I’ve been lucky to do some coast-to-coast trips in recent weeks, enjoying life on both sides of the country over that time – which included the July 4th weekend. It prompted these profound reflections on east v west that may be worth recording:
Patriotism – Flag-waving still survives, though it’s certainly not just Old Glory any more (almost as many rainbow flags abound in Atlanta neighborhoods as in San Francisco, and tony suburbs are awash in flags of flowers and turtles and mantras the specific meaning of which eludes me.) Over the Fourth I was in the N. GA mountains at Lake Rabun (check out the after-race photos, p 4, #67, 69 & 70 for testimony as to the concluding event of my recent, extended birthday celebration.) There were flags on boathouses, there was bunting on fences, and it felt altogether warm and fuzzy. Perhaps the display of Old Glory hasn’t totally been co-opted by the far right; patriotism was such a happy thing before it became a dirty word. Small-town parades proliferate everywhere too, and with flags and kids and wagons and decorated bikes galore, they are among the warmest and fuzziest still.
Oceans – Of course the ocean on the west coast is on the wrong side of the street, but it’s a mighty ocean indeed. Oceans and coasts are metaphors waiting to happen. The breathtaking vistas, the rugged cliffs and rocks and crags of the Pacific shores are a source of wonder; the serene expanses of beach and tidal grasses along the Atlantic (especially south of the Massachussetts and upwards cliffs and rocks and crags) offer an emotional counterpoint worth treasuring. Plus, sunsets and sunrises over oceans and lakes alike make one wonder why anybody ever gets mad at anybody.
Colors – Especially if you’ve just come from the San Francisco Bay area or the deserts of nearby elsewhere, the east is startlingly green. San Francisco and environs abound with California gold, but I still call it brown and the greenness of summer on the east coast is a marvel to behold once you’ve wandered afar from it.
Cellphones and traffic – They’re everywhere. At least California has followed NY with hands-free driving laws, but being a pedestrian is chancy at best in the urban U.S.. Plus this: giving way with a smile to some impatient driver who is hell-bent on getting there first, wherever in the world you’re both headed, is a fascinating experiment anywhere. Once in San Francisco I had a lane-changing SUV driver throw up both hands and laugh (which could’ve gotten us killed, but still…) Once in Washington D.C. a little old lady (I’m one too) figured I was being smart and flipped me the bird. Her life may have been short on views of sunset with the fog rolling in.
Stuff matters not. Friends matter. I had that old truism abundantly reinforced in the past several weeks… when I’ve been blogging only in my head. That’s my excuse for this stale blogspace, and hopefully it merits putting down in black, white and cyberspace. I made the leap into a new – gasp – quarter century on June 8, with the help of something over 100 friends in the Bay area and warm wishes from absentee friends elsewhere, something worth celebrating indeed. All were invited not to bring Stuff, but to bring, if they chose, contributions in amounts of 75 cents, $7.50, or multiples that seemed interesting to my three favorite causes. We raised a bunch of dollars; the hostess had a ball. Shortly thereafter I hopped a $99-one-way flight from San Francisco to Baltimore, because who can refuse a $99 cross country flight, even if it’s not going exactly where you want to go? I had not bothered to fill in the blanks until almost the moment of departure, but it worked out this way: An old college friend arranged for her housekeeper to fetch me from B.W.I. to her home in McLean, VA; then delivered me the next day to the Corcoran museum where another friend is curator of American Paintings. That afternoon a childhood friend fetched me from the Corcoran, sated with beautiful art, and took me to her home in Alexandria. Two days (and more art, see Ann McDowell at the Torpedo Factory Art Center) later she and I drove 90 miles south to our hometown of Ashland, VA for a reunion of the famous Ashland High classes of ’47, ’48, and ’49. (We are a sturdy bunch of Depression-era-raised farm kids and small-townies.) Another childhood friend that night nursed me through the cold and laryngitis all this had produced. The next day my second-grade boyfriend fetched me from Ashland to the Richmond airport, where the Alamo people kindly offered a car for return to B.W.I. without charging an arm and a leg. Two days later, nourished by visits to more old friends, a fetched myself back to B.W.I., onto Southwest’s pleasant airplane and home. Exhausted, but exhilarated, because friends just do that, and thank heavens for them all.
My mother, who died at 70 in 1967, made a brief reappearance here in San Francisco last week. It was during a visit I made to the bedside of Lik Kiu Ding, age 90-something (born in the jungles of Borneo he never knew exactly when.) I had not seen him in years, until learning he’s now at a nearby assisted living facility. Lik Kiu was like a son to my father, who helped him finish his education in the U.S. (at Randolph-Macon College in my hometown of Ashland, VA.) After his medical training Lik Kiu and his Chinese wife Lillian, also a physician, lived, worked and raised their family in Hong Kong, returning to the States before Lillian’s death of cancer in the ‘90s. (Her remarkable story is part of my book, Dying Unafraid.) Beaming from under his tightly-tucked blankets, Lik Kiu took my hand as I bent near, reached out one long finger to touch my cheek, pointing first to my eyes, then my mouth, then making small circles around my face. His daughter Mary, standing nearby, said, “You look like your mother, don’t you?” It’s true, I’m a double for my mother before her own health began to fail. For those few moments, trying not to cry over his still-handsome face, I evaporated. It was my mother who was holding his hand.