14 January 2009

Dinner Party

So, what do I tell people I "do" now?

He should lift up the self by the Self
and not sink into the selfish;
for the self is the only friend
of the Self, and its only foe.

Bhagavad Gita, 6.6

I hate dinner parties but I keep forgetting that. I may have always hated them but, since I’ve started going to houses of worship in earnest, doing nothing else but that, they’ve really begun to fill me with dread. But I didn’t know we were going to one when Marisa said, “Come on over for dinner. Ken and I haven’t seen you in ages. Sunday night at seven?”

Ken and Marisa were safe. They knew what I was doing and weren’t too freaked out. “Sure! We’ll be there.”

But on Friday, when I called Marisa to say, “The lemons in our back yard were great so I made a lemon chiffon pie and I’m bringing it.” Marisa said, “Oh, I guess we’re going to have a lot of dessert then. My friend Lissa is going to cooking school and she’s bringing a dessert, too.”

Strangers. I was going to have to talk to strangers. At some point they were going to politely ask, “So what do you do?” That question was kind of fun to answer when I worked for Ed Bradley at 60 Minutes. Now? "I'm going through the conversion training for the seven major religious traditions?" That's a conversation starter.

I made it all the way until dessert without the subject coming up but then Marisa, who thought she was being a good host, said, “So, Marley, tell us what’s going on with your work.”

I’ve gotten the explanation down to a few sentences and I can usually turn the conversation around to get people to talk about their beliefs and family traditions, about their experience with faith, but I wasn’t lucky that night. These were kind, thoughtful, curious people who went right for the jugular: “What’s happening to you? How is it changing you? What are you feeling about it so far?”

I could feel my eyes blink as I looked into Lissa’s sweet earnest face – she really wanted to know something of my insides. I could feel my eyes blink…and blink again. It was an overture of friendship, of intimacy…and I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

My feelings? What am I feeling? Heck if I know. Maybe spending so long as a journalist has made me incapable of accurately seeing myself. Maybe there’s such a thing as being too open-minded. I’ve presented myself, arms flung wide, over and over and over again hoping to feel the irrational tug of faith. I’m even oddly fascinated by my obedience to this uncontrollable drive to do all of this and feel like my own lab rat sometimes but how can I say that? It sounds almost disassociated.

“But you must have found yourself changing in some way, haven’t you?

I wanted to scream: I have no idea what I’m feeling, what’s happening to me, so I cannot tell you what I don’t know myself. And I am okay with that until I am asked over and over and over again to report in: ‘Marley, how is this affecting you? How is this changing you?’ I don’t know. But I’m going to find out if I can, but back off and give me time.

I need to do this, to see if taking these actions will change me, change my perceptions. But is it change I’m after? Or do I really want knowledge? But if it’s only knowledge I’m,after, wouldn’t I have just kept reading books?

No, knowledge alone isn’t it. Perhaps the desire to find out about all of them, all of the faiths, is a workaholic’s way to avoid coming to know anything deeply, a sophisticated dodge, like Swami Sarvadevananda said you dig ten feet here,then ten feet there, you never get any water. I don’t know. Maybe. But when I went looking for someone else’s description of what it felt like to practice each faith, hoping to start this journey farther down the road, I couldn’t find it in any form I could understand, in any form that started from the very beginning for those of us with nothing. How can I go deep if I don’t have any idea where water is likely to be …for me?

What has changed is I can’t give glib answers any more. I can’t pretend to know something I don’t. I can’t talk about feelings and change I haven’t identified and feared I’d never identify. I can’t chat, can’t entertain, and I certainly can’t trot out my innards over dessert. All I can do is hope that, by writing all of this down as I go along, all the facts, the actions, the confusions, the moments of connection, maybe one day I’ll be able to come to understand for myself what changed, what was changing, what I was feeling and be able to do more than shrug and stammer, “So, how did you grow up?” in the effort to make it safely through one more dinner party.

05 January 2009


A retired minister who's hard at work setting up the next Parliament of the World's Religions (3-9 December, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia) mentioned that he thinks Beliefnet is one of the more respected interfaith sites so I spent a little time wandering around on it. I found one fun thing not to be missed: the Belief-O-Matic. Here's how they describe it:

Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-MaticTM knows. Answer 20 questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more, and Belief-O-Matic™ will tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing.

Warning: Belief-O-Matic™ assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.

Have fun!

03 January 2009

With grace

Christmas eve dinner, grace was said.

Kevin came home from a business trip and, although we hadn't had a chance to talk about it, he simply reached for my mother's hand and said, "Matt, would you say grace?"

Matt was thrown. He hadn't expected it. "Ah, okay. Sure."

My mom and dad put down their forks and, without any significant looks at each other, just took the hand of the person next to them... and we had grace.