Jul 21, 2007

Performing My Book

My memoir, Angry Conversations With God will be published by Warner/Hachette's Center Street Imprint. Like in March 2009. Why so far away? Well, I have to finish it for one thing.

Meanwhile I'm writing and testing out the material on a variety of audiences, from the holy to the hollywood. Last week I read a chapter at the Zephyr Theater on Melrose in Hollywood.

I read along with my friends Ann Randolph, whose solo show "Squeezebox" was produced by Mel Brooks; and Andrea Askowitz, whose memoir, My Miserable Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy will be published next year.

I never know how people are going to react to me "using 'Jesus' as a noun," as my friend Anna described it. But the show was a great success. I loaded the video onto my website. If you want to watch, CLICK HERE. Or paste this link into your browser:


Jul 8, 2007

What Else Could I Have Been, an Astronomer?

My parents never got involved in my schooling. But when I graduated valedictorian from high school, Dad tried to make up for lost time and threw in some oblique references to my future.

Dad: There are a lot of great jobs in engineering.
Susan: I hate engineering.
Dad: Well you got an A in physics.
Susan: (sarcastic) Dad, I got an A in everything. I have a 4.0 GPA.
Dad: (critical) Why do you want to go into comedy?
Susan: I like writing, I like Saturday Night Live.
Dad: Well I like Laurel and Hardy, but you don’t see me throwing pianos out the window for a living.

Well no, he didn’t really say that. He just sighed derisively, and that ended our conversation about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Why didn’t he just speak plainly: “Here’s the deal with the arts. It’s really tough.” Even if he had, I doubt I would have listened. At 45 I still have not been able to resign to a life of comfort, working as a legal secretary or teaching high school English.

However, I have thought about what I would have done. The only other thing that gripped me was astronomy. Yeah, physics. The thing I rolled my eyes at when my father suggested it.

Growing up, we had a small telescope that only got up to 60 power. But with it we could point it at the moon and see the craters and valleys. We aimed it at Saturn and saw the rings. And Jupiter showed a few of its larger moons. To me, the planets in the night sky, the constellation of stars, the way early man tried to interpret them, these were wondrous things.

I remember my father explaining light years to me, and how the stars we were seeing might already be extinct.
Dad: Light travels at a certain speed, see? The light you're looking at took that many millions of years for the light to leave the star there, and get to your eye here, now.
Susie: Oh! Like how God is on the other side of the universe, and he traveled all this way to come to us in Jesus?
Dad: Yeah, whatever.
My father wasn’t into theology.

One of the greatest mutinies against atheism is the nightly view of the sky. The order and beauty and grandeur of it all make us ants in comparison.

Larry took me to the Griffith Observatory for my birthday. I went back two weeks ago with my mother and niece. See the show in the planetarium and you'll know what it means to feel infinitely worthless and small. And yet all the more loved by the infinite creator.

But I could never be an astronomer. I hate math.

In June of 2001, Time Magazine’s cover article was “How The Universe Will End.” I tried to read it but got tripped up, trying to understand how astronomers and astrophysicists calculated the size of the universe, in what direction it is expanding and at what rate. How fast it used to expand. How could they know that if they only have been able to calculate this stuff over the past 60 to 100 years? And what about dark matter and quarks and string theory?

My friend Art said he was reading about string theory. Scientists don’t really know what it is. Further discoveries have come along to contradict string theory. And that’s when the astronomers and physicists admit they’re just trying to figure it out.

I heard physicist John Polkinghorne speak at a seminar in New York, and later heard him on Speaking OF Faith. He helped formulate the ideas about Quarks. He’s also an Anglican theologian and was knighted by the queen. In other words, smart guy who’s found room for both God and evolution and science. I’ve also listened to Francis Collins who helped map the human genome. Another man of faith, and science.

Yeah, if I’d been smart enough to do complex math, and hadn’t been interested in the arts, maybe I would have gone that way. But maybe they’re interconnected: astronomy, arts and theology.

A few weeks ago I came across the US Geological Survey and its Earth Now satellite imagery. You can watch the images from a satellite unfold like a ticker tape. Last night I watched the satellite crawl from the Northwest Territories all the way past the fires along highway 395. It was mesmerizing. Okay, so I’m easily amused.

NASA’s got some amazing pictures on its website. Here’s an image of what they call the North Atlantic Bloom.

Reminiscent of the distinctive swirls in a Van Gogh painting, millions of microscopic plants color the waters of the North Atlantic with strokes of blue, turquoise, green, and brown. Fed by nutrients that have built up during the winter and early summer, the cool waters of the North Atlantic come alive every year with a vivid display of color.

Or the image of the River Thames as it empties into the north sea.

Maybe there is a link between science and art. Polkinghorne said that when physicists figure out a proof, when they’ve finally got the right answer, they say it’s a “beautiful” equation. That the rightness, the order of it is a thing of beauty. Cosmos and cosmetics come from the same root word. Order. There is beauty in order. And for me it’s just another sign of the wonder and weight of God.

I keep telling Larry that one weekend I want to drive way out to the desert on a new moon. Look up at the sky with no light pollution. Just to see the stars.

The Perseus meteor shower is coming in mid-August. Maybe that’ll be our weekend getaway. And I'll bring a copy of the 8th Psalm, that brings together science and art and theology.

O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!
Your glory is higher than the heavens.
You have taught children and infants to tell of your strength
Silencing your enemies and all who oppose you.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
And crowned them with glory and honor.

Jul 4, 2007

Listening to the still, small voice

I’ve lived most of my life close to the tempering breezes of the ocean. Even in New York I was less than a mile from the East River and Long Island Sound. But now Larry and I live in a Eagle Rock, a hilly inland neighborhood wedged in the hills between Glendale and Pasadena. We may not have ocean breeze, but every night we get to look out at the twinkling lights: east toward Occidental College; south toward Dodger Stadium and north where a ribbon of freeway spools from Glendale to Pasadena. Lights in the hills. It's gorgeous.

But it’s not just lights we get to see. We’ve got wildlife! Two nights ago Larry and I saw both a raccoon and a skunk outside the window. We know we’ve got skunks. We smell them every night. Not long ago Honey came prancing into the house with a baby opossum in her mouth.

There are sounds of wild life as well. Right now I am cringing at the sounds of pop-pop-pop, and boom, of what I am praying are illegal fireworks. There was a fatal shooting up in Eagle Rock a few weeks ago: high school graduation party gone wrong.

Not that we need fireworks popping. LA had just three inches of rain in the past year. Everything is dead and dry and waiting for a stray firecracker to ignite it. We are going to enjoy the fourth of July from our back deck. Our neighbor says we can see three different fireworks shows from our vantage point. I am praying we don’t see a hillside go up in flames.

The bougainvillea outside our front door had become weighed down with dead blooms. A couple weeks ago I batted them out with a broom to let light in on the branches. After two weeks i can see that many of the branches are dead. So this afternoon I pruned the bougainvillea. Hopefully the branches will have a chance to get light and water and survive. It made me think of the biblical parable about how a gardener prunes his vines so that they will be more fruitful.

Man I got a lot of dead wood in my own life to prune. And maybe that’s what this post is about.

My brother-in-law and nephew just returned from a 3 ½ week missions trip to Mozambique. They helped at an orphanage, visited surrounding villages with food, medicine, and the love of Jesus. They built a house for a widow out of bamboo, rocks and cement. The widow got the luxury of a door. Most people live without doors. So there’s no security or safety. “To look at the way you and I live, they’d think we were royalty,” Phil marveled. On his trip he thought a lot about the parable of the ten talents. What am I doing with my talents? What will I have to show for my life at its end? Or even now, half way through?

Larry and I talked about this tonight: the old “what are we doing with the time we’ve been given?” I don’t think there is a formula. It would be easy to sponsor a child or donate to an organization and leave it at that. But God never reduces himself to a formula. He calls us to give money one day, time the other day, neither the following, or both the next. He tells me to speak up, and then to be quiet. He’s unpredictable, which makes it very frustrating for us who want to make God a convenience.

The other day I was walking into Trader Joe’s. There was a man with a donation box standing at a good distance from the front door. I skirted inside and went about buying my sugar free chocolate, wheat free muffins and aspartame free diet ginger ale. I spent a good amount on budget gourmet items. Items that, if I hadn’t bought, I would not starve.

On the way out I skirted away from the man but he smiled and said hello. Before I had a chance to think I found myself walking over toward him. He smiled so friendly and kind. I asked him how he was doing and what his organization was, so he told me his story. His name was Henry, and the group was a transitional living place for homeless. Five months ago Henry had been on the street. He was in a long line at Union Rescue mission hoping for a bed. A man walked by and handed him a flyer advertising a transitional home in the desert that helps people get back on track.

"The guy said his van was leaving in 30 minutes. I thought, I'm not going to get a bed here, so I got on the van." And that's how Henry found himself at a transitional housing place in Lancaster. He said now he’s spending money on clothes and toothpaste, "instead of crazy stuff you spend on the street. I'm learning how to care for myself. I'm learning everything over.

"I got my driver's license renewed, they helped me establish credit. They even got me a cell phone and trusted me to pay the bill. I thought it was too late for me. But I got another chance, man. I want to be a trucker. I got good credit and no marks on my driving record. I can drive trucks."

"You seen me five months ago you wouldn't recognize me." Henry smiled brightly, showing the gaps where teeth had fallen out. That was the only thing about him to suggest what his life had been, up until that night he got on the van.

"I've had a lot of regrets," I said. "Regrets over things I didn't think I'd have a chance to make right. But look at what you've accomplished in only five months. You give me hope, Henry."

Henry smiled. He smiled big. I gave him some money and asked for one of his flyers.

When I got home I saw the flyer said, “please support our volunteers by supplying jobs in the following areas: automotive, landscaping, general labor.”

I wondered if Henry would like to make some money doing some brush clearance at our place.
Today I was at another trader Joe’s. Another man was standing outside. He had the same box and same flyer. I thought, “I should go ask that guy if he knows Henry,” and have this guy tell Henry hello. I also thought about asking him if Henry would want to do some gardening for me. But maybe it would be beneath him.

I envisioned myself calling to ask if Henry wanted to come over for Fourth of July. But then I thought he’d probably want to hang out with his friends at the homeless shelter. And how would he feel with all my friends who had homes? What would they feel like if they had to talk to him? Would it be weird?

But I didn’t. Instead, I went inside the shop, and when I left, I forgot about the guy with the box like Henry’s. It was easier. What if that guy expected me to give money also? I’d just donated five dollars for prostate cancer in line at Vons.

I hate when the checker just asks you point blank at the register.

Would you like to donate money to prostate cancer research?

You have to look her in the eye and say it.
No. No I would not like to give money to prostate cancer.
And it sounds like you're saying No forever. Like Now is the only moment you have to say yes. Now is the only moment you're alive.

I hate that. So I have to give. And I give five dollars. Geeze, what am I doing? And then the checker fails to redeem my dollar-off coupon. So I remind her. And she fails to double it like they advertised on the door. Now Vons has six of my bucks. Money I could have given to ... my sugar free chocolate fund.

I came home later and googled the transitional living place in Lancaster. I couldn’t find anything. Maybe they’re too poor to have a website. I thought I could call the number and ask for Henry. Or I could call and talk to the owner, see if they’re a 501(C)3 organization. that way I could give and claim it on my taxes. But I don’t. I don't call.

I also ignored the impulse to buy my husband a greeting card that says "thank you.” Because I already did that a few days ago.

And I realize I’ve tried to work the formula. Do one good thing so I can then feel good about me. When that's not what God lets us get away with. He wants us to pay attention, listen, and obey. Obey the still small voice not just to talk to Henry, but maybe hire him to do some brush cleaning, or come over for barbecue, no matter how weird it is for my friends. But I was not paying attention.

I remember these lines from “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some.