Dear Pope Francis,
I’m always amazed — and dismayed — at how quickly I fall out of being present to what Richard Rohr would call the “really real” or the “naked now.” This is especially hard to bear as it takes so much work to get to such a state in the first place. Just as I’ve finally fought past my ego and am in the moment with an open mind, heart, and body, the whole house of cards falls apart. In an instant I’ve closed down again am focused on my own small, petty self. Thankfully, however, these moments are sometimes accompanied by gentle prods from the Divine to open back up again, focus on the moment, and glimpse a truth about myself. The trick is catching these moments of grace, which are always undeserved, before they pass.
Here’s just one recent example. In December, I spent a weekend attending lectures by Richard Rohr on spirituality and the two halves of life. The talks were based on his most recent book, Falling Upwards. The whole weekend was amazing; I learned so much about myself. I felt truly cracked open and expanded. I not only learned from Richard Rohr that weekend, but also from my Sophia classmates. We really bonded over those few days and I felt a closeness with many of them that I hadn’t before.
So it was in this cracked-open, naked state in which I prepared to leave Sophia on Sunday for the journey home. I should note here that I’m not a good traveler. I stress out. A lot. I worry. A lot. For me, each step in the travel process is just a catastrophe waiting to happen. What if my ride is late? What if my first plane is late and I miss my connection? What if there are weather delays? What if I get crammed into a middle or window seat and have to go to the bathroom? Try as I might, most of my trips are a constant stream of worry from beginning to end. And, it’s really just my ego freaking out because it has no control over the process. From the moment I step out of my door until I return home, things are out of my hands. And my neurotic, control-freak ego has a conniption. (Not being in control, by the way, is how Richard Rohr defines suffering.)
But that post-Rohr Sunday I was in a completely different space as I stood waiting for the shared ride van to pick me up and take me to the airport. I wasn’t worried. At all. I’d pushed my ego aside and was prepared to accept the trip home as it came. And, after all, what could possibly happen? I was in this spiritually enlightened space, and that should protect me, like bubble wrap, right?
You know where this is going, don’t you?
My ride was supposed to arrive at 3:15 p.m. Which ticked by and my watch soon read 3:20, then 3:25. Did I mention I was also flying out of a different airport on this trip and it was further away so it would require more travel time? When it was 3:30 I started to edge into panic mode and called the rideshare company. I was told they’d scheduled my pick-up for 3:15 a.m. that day, not p.m.
Right then I dropped like a stone out of the naked now and became one big ball of hopping mad ego.
What did they mean the car came at 3:15 a.m.? Why hadn’t anyone called me when I’d missed it? What were they going to do about it? I had a plane to catch!
The dispatcher put me on hold for a moment, then came back and said they were sending a new van out. It would arrive in 20-25 minutes. I demanded that it not be a shared ride, as I had a schedule to keep and I would now be very behind. The dispatcher promised I would be the only one on that ride.
I ended the call with another stream of complaints. There may have been unkind words about his mother. And her mother.
Having 20-25 minutes to kill when you’re really angry is never a good thing. It gives you time to stew and for the anger to simmer, then bubble, and then boil over. I was well on my way to Mt. Vesuvius mode when suddenly and quietly a line from Richard Rohr’s lectures crept into my head: “Who do you think you are?” He’d actually used it himself in the context of getting upset over travel plans gone wrong.
It stopped me cold. Indeed, who did I think I was? What right did I even have, my little self, to be taking a plane that day, to travel for my Sophia courses, to be able to indulge my spiritual questioning? It was a grace to have this opportunity, why did I insist on getting upset when the least little thing went wrong?
I started to feel awful for how I’d treated the rideshare dispatcher. Yes, it was a mistake and yes it could cause me problems, but nobody was going to die because I didn’t get to the airport on a timeline that fit with my schedule. My smallness and pettiness were illuminated in that moment. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
One good thing about beating yourself up is that time flies while you do it, and soon my van was pulling up. Even though I had just been shown the dark side of myself, I actually started to get angry again. My ego was not done with the situation; it was going to make this driver pay for the wrongs of the company.
Then, something amazing happened. As he drove by me to get to a place where he could turn around, the driver rolled down his window and called out “Hey man, be right there!” I still don’t know whether it was the tone of his voice, or the simple fact that he wanted me to know he cared enough to keep me in the loop, but my anger started to melt. I felt it slide away, and it was nearly gone by the time he pulled up, put my suitcase in the back, and helped me into my seat.
And we were off. Immediately, the driver reached for an iPod he had wired into the van’s sound system, shuffled through a few playlists, and then selected a song. Motown. Very loud Motown. I’m all for a peppy tune, but this was a bit too much. Just as I was about to say something, though, the driver asked me what I did for a living.
“I work in PR,” I said.
“Ah, you mean like you do TV interviews?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m behind-the-scenes. Setting that kind of thing up. I have a face for radio.”
He laughed, then asked “So you must have to be good with people?”
I found myself feeling very glad he hadn’t witnessed either my call with the dispatcher or the internal raging monologue that followed it.
“Yes, I guess so,” I said, neutrally.
“That’s great,” he said. “I love people too. It’s why I love this job. I’m not even supposed to be working today, but I came out of a meeting and they needed someone, so I said yes. I love this job that much. I get to talk to interesting people, and I get to play my music.”
Before I could say something to the topic of that music, that loud, loud music, he went on.
“I’m in a band, you know. Jazz. Big Band. I record everything we do. Want to hear something?”
Great, I thought. Now I’m going to have to listen to bad loud music. And jazz. I really, really don’t like jazz. If I say yes, will he ask my opinion? What if it’s horrible? And I don’t know anything about jazz! What if he asks me to comment on some technical riff the second sax player does?
“Sure,” I said. “That would be nice.”
He grabbed for the iPod again, rummaged through his playlists, and the music began.
“This is from a concert we did last year,” he said. “Sold out show.”
And I don’t know why, but I was instantly captivated by that music. As I said, I’m no jazz aficionado, but something about the song transported me into another state. My brain and soul got quiet again. The loudness didn’t bother me; in fact, I was glad of it so I could be completely surrounded by the music. The driver didn’t ask my opinion, he didn’t ask for any kind of commentary on my part. He just let me listen as we made our way to the airport. The world took on an unreal quality, and reality kind of dropped away. It was just me, the driver, that van and his music. We floated and time stopped.
He played through several more songs, and talked a bit about his band.
“I really do record everything,” he said. “Even when we mess up. Want to hear that?”
“Sure,” I said.
“This bit is from a practice in the garage where we rehearse. It’s hilarious, man. The drummer completely loses the beat and we give him such a hard time.”
And I listened. And the drummer did, indeed, completely lose the beat. It was obvious even to me. And then I heard the low rumbling sounds of men talking trash to each other, giving each other a hard time. Chiding voices filled with masculine affection. The voices of men at home with themselves and each other.
“Yeah,” said the driver. “It’s just the best when we get together. Some of these gigs we get pretty good money. We do one each year for an oil company and I’ll maybe get $500 that night. But, you know, I don’t do it for the money. Not anymore. I do it because I love playing and being with the boys.”
And here, I thought, was someone truly living in the naked now. In love with life, with people, and with what he was doing at every moment. Someone who was willing to share both his talent and his screw-ups. OK, they were technically the drummer’s screw-ups, but what kind of person is proud of when the group they belong to fails in some way — and then shows it off? Someone who had a lot to teach me, obviously.
We entered the airport roadways as the last sounds of the band members laughing faded from the van’s speakers. A feeling of peace and tremendous gratitude flooded through me. This, I thought, was grace at work. I certainly hadn’t deserved such a transformative experience. Really, what I deserved was a long, miserable van ride with an insolent driver who made me late for my plane. What I got, however, was a musical magic carpet ride.
When we pulled up to the curb outside the departures area I realized I didn’t want that ride to end. At all. I didn’t even want to move, out of fear I’d break the spell. But, the driver got out and went to fetch my suitcase so I had to get on with things. I realized then that I hadn’t looked at my watch the whole drive. I had no idea what time it was. So I quickly glanced down.
Imagine my amazement when I realized we’d arrived five minutes sooner than I would have had my original ride shown up on time.