Oct 17, 2009

The Truth About Cats And Dogs

The night before I left to go on tour I stayed up late packing. Larry had gone to sleep and put Wally in his kennel. I was organizing my desk when Honey, my cat, jumped up and curled next to me. She placed her paw on my wrist, as she often does. She likes the late night best, when the dog is asleep and caged. It’s like the old days, before he was around to torment her. I forget that she used to be cuddly and sweet all the time. But she can’t be anymore; he has to watch for that canine on her back at all times.

One morning she woke up, sat in front of his kennel and hissed at him till her spit was dry. “I hate you. Why don’t you just go off and DIE!” Then Larry let Wally out of the kennel. Honey escaped to a chair. She should count her blessings: Wally is a corgi; he’s got short stubby legs. He will never be able to jump where she can jump. Except that she’s getting arthritis. I hope they make friends before she can no longer jump.

I left for the tour in early September, when it was still hot. Honey spent most of the summer outside. There’s a cool spot between the hydrangea and the house; she lies there in the thicket, away from the sun and the prying eye of the dog. We don’t like her to go out at night. We have a high fence, but one never knows how wily the coyotes are. She frequently slips out when Wally goes out to pee, so Larry or I have had to go find her. We know where she is. I’ll stand out there in the dark, calling for her a while. She doesn’t come right away. She wants to know for sure that Wally isn’t behind me. She also wants to know that I’m not just there to get her inside. She wants to know she’s wanted. She wants you to hold and comfort her. Eventually I see her dark gray shadow moving toward me, slow and dainty. And I will pick her up and hold her. The night before we left on tour, I found myself crying, “Don’t leave me. Not yet.”

Old cats can die when a puppy shows up. It happened to my sister’s cat when my parents got a pair of fox terrier puppies. Lucy was 14 when they arrived. She took great umbrage and died a few months later.

My sister and her husband got a pair of cats before they had children. A couple of years ago when the last one died, Nancy called to talk about her: how Uffie would sit on Phil’s shoulder and try to bat the food off his fork. Or how she was the only one else awake when Nancy got up. So many dawns with the coffee and the bible and the cat. So many memories a pet is there for.

I was living at home when my parents got those fox terriers. It was a rough, dark time in my life, and those dogs meant the world. Especially the boy, Patrick. He stayed close to me. I moved out six months later, but Patrick never forgot who I was to him, even if I forgot who he was to me.

Eventually Dad died and mom moved in with my sister. I was visiting them in Colorado when we had to put Patrick down. I held Patrick in my lap as the vet gave him the sedative. Maybe it was the altitude that got to me; or maybe I finally remembered all he had meant to me. A week later I was home in California, having a morning meditation/prayer time. I got an image of my father playing catch with Patrick, like in a field. But it was heaven. A few hours later my brother James emailed me about one thing or another. Oh, and he’d had a of vision of my father playing catch with Patrick. In a field. In heaven. The same day.

A couple summers ago, Nancy and Phill got another cat. Well, they got three. They were to stay in the barn and chase mice. But how can you keep cats in a barn when you have children who want them for friends? One of the cats liked to wander. She wouldn’t come in during the summer. One day Elsa didn’t come home at all. They called and called for her. Jonathan went out to the road and called all day and into the next. Late on the second day, Jonathan’s tears turned to shouting. Elsa came home.

But the following summer, Jerry and Elsa died of rat poisoning. It hit Jonathan and Emily the hardest. They’re both NF: Intuitive Feeling on the Myers Briggs test. Jonathan loves baseball and cowboys, but he feels things deeply as well. And Emily is a preteen girl. Her friends are her greatest prize. And she lost her first best friend. They buried Jerry and Elsa under their favorite tree. They read from Romans 8, how all of creation is waiting expectantly to be liberated from decay. It’s right there. All of creation liberated from death. Here I am sappily hoping that means that redemption will be true for cats and dogs.

C.S. Lewis believed that, in the same way God breathed his spirit into Man and gave him the capacity for eternity, so we could breathe the capacity for eternity into those we love, even our animal friends. Pets in the afterlife. When N.T. Wright says that God is going to restore this heaven and this earth, then I hope those creatures will be here. It’s up to me to love those creatures into eternity.

The tour bus stopped in Wichita. The following morning, my manager and I walked to an Episcopal church nearby.

It was the Feast of St. Francis; and pets were invited receive a blessing. The pews were loaded with animals: old labs, nervous poodles, dachshunds, a couple of cats and a caged canary. People brought them forward: A thick lady with her basset hound; a single mom with kids and dachshunds. A little girl held out her stuffed animal for a prayer. The rector gently blessed every one of them.

I could see how much these critters meant to the person who brought them, and how gently the rector treated them. I believe that God sees that too. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a kingdom I want to belong to; where everyone gets a shot at heaven, even the least of the least of these. I want to believe in a kingdom where God’s gentle, patient love can breathe eternity into a lizard. The same way he spoke and I existed.

Oct 10, 2009

Million Miles Tour: Canada to Denver

Larry and I drove up to Portland the weekend before the tour was to start. We stayed with his sister’s family, then left our dog with them while we started the tour.  There would be a few people on the van: tour manager Brent Gibbs; World Vision sponsor Melody Wilson, who’d be running a sponsorship table at each event. Don's and my manager, Jim Chaffee, came for the first week. Plus Larry and I. We got off to a smooth start. Well, except the 520 books I ordered from my publisher weren’t there, so it was questionable when I’d have them to sell. And then half way to the Canadian border, Jim realized he’d left his passport back in Nashville. We ditched in Seattle while he waited for it to arrive, and he’d have to fly in to Vancouver the next day. Oh yeah, the wi-fi didn’t work in the van. (Insert Louis CK’s rant here).


We were excited. Crossing a border into another country. Canada feels deceptively familiar. We speak English and wear Nikes and drink Starbucks. But Canadians are different. Their collective personality is more laid back; maybe even passive. Maybe it’s because Canada was an English commonwealth so long that they got used to the Crown making decisions for them. Or because it’s so cold and so sparse they have more fundamental things to worry about than living some big dream the way Americans think they can. Or maybe it’s us Americans who are odd, thinking we can do anything, that real estate will always go up and all the answers are Yes and Amen. Maybe we’re the odd ducks. But that’s another story.

We had a great debut in Vancouver. The church was terrific and the crowd was over-the-top enthusiastic. So was the team from the bookstore that came to sell our books. One of their staff, Becky, chatted up my book and sold 20 copies before the event started. We started off on a high. The next night the crowd was quiet. I wondered if I sucked. But there’s the collective personality thing again: maybe they weren’t in the mood to be loud, maybe they wanted to think. Who says that you have to be loud to get it. And maybe I did suck. It was only my second performance, and I had tone and beats to work through. I met some great people afterward, including a tweet buddy I’d only recently got to know in 140 characters or less. Maybe the tour wasn’t just going to be about the show.


We did four shows in the Pacific Northwest: Gig Harbor, Spokane, Portland, and Seattle.  Still my books hadn't arrived. My manager called and foudn out the shipping company had lost them. Lost 520 books. They Fedexed 120 to our next location, but those arrived a day late, to a church we'd already come and gone. it would be a while before we got the books straightened out.

In my show I talk about my time at a Pentecostal church. I say that the pastor looked like Big Bird, and spoke in alliterative sermons. The Seattle church got a laugh out of it. Afteward the pastor came up to me. “Hi,” he smiled. “I’m Big Bird’s brother.” The color drained from my face. “You described him well," he winked. I was so glad I said good thing about Big Bird. Like the fact he had authority, and I'd sorely needed his leadership at that time in my life. Big Bird’s Brother asked if I might come back and do my show for his whole church. I was delighted. I also made a note to research what kind of church we were at before I walked in and blabbed.

We then made our way down to California. I got to see my old friend Bonnie, whom I’d met at one of the churches described in my book. I’d call Bonnie a post-Christian. She left church for many of the reasons I avoided it. She saw too much politics and prejudice; she has a heart for the underdog, and she wanted to build a life where she could really live out, well what I think, a kind of life that reflected Jesus’ life, including being on the outside of the religious elite. Bonnie became a foster parent to one of her students who’d been kicked out of her home. Bonnie nurtured and encouraged her, and her foster daughter just finished her MFA in public policy. Her foster daughter is out there, carrying on similar work: helping the outcast. I think Bonnie’s life reflects Jesus in ways mine never has.

We drove down to LA for three shows. My friend Gary bent over backward to help us host a show at his Hollywood church that meets in a theater. It was great to do a show in a space I could invite secular friends, where they wouldn’t feel too formal, the way some non-church people feel when they walk into a narthex. I was excited about that show. But it was tough show for me. Hollywood people have high standards. They’ve probably seen one too many showcase events. My friend, Tony, later wondered if there were too many actors in the room, and when I talked about my promising acting career dying, it made them squirm. I thought, no. I sucked. Or well, maybe they weren't expecting me to go ut there and do kabuki. Yeah, maybe I sucked.

I walked out into the side hall after the intermission was over, and a young woman flagged me down. She’d driven from Redlands, a few hours away, to hear me speak. She’d just gone through her own career heartbreak and was trying to find out just why God had let her dreams evaporate. We sat and talked for a while. I hope I encouraged her as much as she encouraged me. SO you know, maybe I can suck, but still help one person. Maybe I have to let it go once it’s done, and think about doing better the next time.

Land of the Sea, Home of the Beige

We drove down to our show in Irvine, and I brought my suspicions. The church was next to UC Irvine, a school I called, “the Beige Circle of Hell.” All the houses are beige in Irvine; everyone seems rich and beautiful and blonde. In fact I recognized part of the church buildings. I’d been there once in the late 1980s. The pastor had porcelain veneers and frosted hair. He talked about how Jesus could “add something to your life.” You know, like a mutual fund or a second mortgage. I felt gross at the time and never went back. I found out that night it wasn’t the same church. Another church came in some time ago and bought the land. They rebuilt it. They added a fountain and a bookstore and café. It looked like the J Paul Getty museum. My defenses went up: another night of beautiful beige people. But then I met them.

The pastor was ecstatic to have us there. They were hungry to bring new and challenging events to their church, they supported whatever we wanted to do. The audience loved the show. Loved It. I ran into a lot of old friends: friends from past churches, from high school; I even saw a woman who’d been my father’s secretary when I was in junior high. The best part was my high school drama teacher came. Barbara encouraged me at a time in my when no one really got who I was. She said to Larry afterward, “I know it’s a shame Susan’s acting career didn’t turn out they way she’d hoped. But what she’d doing now is much more important, she’s changing lives.” I bet Irvine ends up being my best show of the tour. And to think, I'd judged it as beige.

We flew to Phoenix and I saw four more childhood friends; two who knew the Lutheran bully, two more who knew me from high school. The upside of going on tour is: you get to reconnect with lots of old friends, meet twitter and facebook friends you only know online. The downside is, you don’t have enough time.


We had a few days off. That was good, because I threw up on the plane. It took me a day to feel better. I borrowed the rental car and drove down to see my mom at the rest home where she now lives. She has advanced dementia, so I’m never sure if she’ll remember me, or if it will be the last time I will see her alive. I stooped down to say hello. Her eyes clouded over, trying to remember who I was. I said my name and her eyes cleared. She smiled. We sat for a while in the sunroom and I showed her photos of Larry and Wally. I had a few photos of her, one when she and my father were in their twenties. Her face lit up. She talked about my brother’s wedding and about my sister who lives just a few miles away. She said she went to my brother’s wedding in Switzerland. She didn’t, but she has a picture of them on her bedside table. Maybe in her mind she was there.

When it was time to leave, she teared up and said I was beautiful. I corrected her; she was the beautiful one. She really is the most beautiful person I know. When you progressive dementia as Mom has, the little strokes rob you of your superego "editor" that keeps your id in check.  Mom is all id by now. And all those years she was faithful to God through dark times and light … all those mornings she prayed and all those hymns she sang off key, shaped her id into the sweetest, happiest person I know.  I dread the day I have a stroke and my unbridled id runs the show. I will be the ugliest gargoyle in the nursing home.

I had friends coming to our Denver show. In fact I had too many friends coming – one group I’d said I’d have dinner with – but forgot about making the Group dinner sponsored by a local nonprofit. I was going to overbook myself again on the tour. It’s not a good thing. The show itself was great, a packed house and an excited audience.  I saw my friend JP whom I'd lost touch with for 12 years.  Denver we finally met up with our tour bus. It’s like those buses rock bands travel in, two lounge areas and a shower and kitchenette, and bunks for us to sleep in. Wi-fi and cable TV. Insane. But it was easier and cheaper than renting planes, trains and automobiles.

We drove out at night into the prairie.  It was going to be a long stretch of prairie for many weeks.

Oct 6, 2009

Why I Love Glee

I was never in show choir in high school: the drama and vocal music departments had a rift, and so I never got to do a musical.

I heard Glee's creator Ryan Murphy on "Fresh Air" in April. He said there's something amazingly tender and vulnerable about high school kids just singing their hearts out, and cited the success of American Idol as proof. The proof for me was watching this in the pilot. A show choir on steroids singing Amy Winehouse's "Rehab."

Larry and I don't watch TV. We don't have cable, we take forever to watch our netflix. But I've been tuning into Glee every week now. Here's why.