On Learning How to See
Given at the Unitarian Universalist
Community of the Mountains,
April 28, 2013
The subject today is learning how to see, and I’ll offer you a few examples of how I’ve learned to see. A year ago, before she went on sabbatical, Rev. Meghan put out a call for sermon proposals. She put me on the schedule for this Sunday, with this sermon title, before she went on sabbatical. So I’ve had nearly a year to work on it. The early drafts were like my previous sermons: intellectual efforts, with perhaps two dozen references. You can read them on the church’s website. Over the months, as I did more research and found more examples, the drafts became more intellectual, with more references.
Then Rev. Meghan returned from sabbatical, and everything changed. Three and two weeks ago, she told us about her experience during deep meditation of what she called Big Love. I believe her, both because who she is, and also because her experience is consistent with the experiences of others that I’ve read about. She said, “After spending some time in the presence of the Oneness of all creation, and feeling first-hand the unfathomable, unconditional love that permeates existence, I see things a little differently.”1 I surmise that the phrase, “a little differently,” must be a vast understatement. Empowered by her, I rewrote this whole sermon. There aren’t any references anymore, because it’s all personal experiences.
1. Rev. Meghan Cefalu, “Becoming Love’s People,” delivered April 14, 2013, at UUCM, page 1.
I would like to begin with a simple example, seemingly trivial, in and of itself. But nothing is ever “in and of itself,” now is it?
The time was the spring of 1985, if memory serves. The place was Amarillo, Texas, and the occasion was the Amarillo Chess Club’s annual chess tournament. The previous year I had played in that annual tournament and had not done well, with emphasis on the word not. Between then and 1985 I had studied the game. Prior to that tournament, I had spent years as an average tournament player, either just below the first-round cut—which meant I played one of the top-ranked players in the tournament. Those games were always short. The second case was just above the cut—which meant that during the first round I played one of the lowest-ranked players in the tournament. Those games were often short, as well. At the 1985 Amarillo tournament the second case happened, so for the second round, I was near the bottom of the second quartile, playing someone in the first quartile. In the middle game, in an incredibly complicated position, suddenly, with no forewarning, I saw the board with greater clarity than I had only a moment before. I saw lines of attack and defense that I had not seen just a moment before. For the first and only time in my career of tournament chess,
I moved both rooks with the queen between them to the half-open king file. But the position was still closed. After ten minutes of study I saw the winning move: a classical bishop sacrifice: Bishop captures king pawn. Black replied bishop pawn captures bishop. With scarcely a second’s thought I moved rook captures pawn. After castling, black had moved his king rook to his king-one square, so he played rook captures rook. I replied queen captures rook, with check—and the black player resigned. In order to avoid checkmate in just a few moves, he would have had to sacrifice much material, and at that level of play resignation is the honorable thing to do in a lost position.
Suddenly, I was playing well above average chess. That experience was very addictive, and I spent many years chasing it. Eventually, I came to see what I was doing and realized that elusive experiences cannot be captured. They are like shafts of sunlight between thunderclouds. A person can remember them, learn from them, and then move on.
Moving on to a more substantive issue, Saturday, October 7, 1973, was a very bad day for me, although it started out okay. I was taking a night course and needed the computers at work to do my homework, so I walked the mile to my office. My wife, Sally, took our fouryear-old daughter, Tracy, to Santa Fe for a day of shopping. So far, so good. I finished the homework by late afternoon and walked home. No Sally. I took our dog for a walk. Back home, there was still no Sally. We were going to a movie that night, so I took a bath. As I dried off, the front doorbell rang. I put on a robe and walked to the front door. Two policemen were outside. When two policemen come to your door, it is a bad sign. I put on some clothes, we chatted a few minutes, and they took me to the hospital. They must have called ahead, because our family pediatrician met me in the hallway outside the emergency room, and took me by the arm to her office. She had me describe the clothes Sally and Tracy wore. And then she said those terrible words, “There can be no doubt.”
The next two weeks or so are a haze. I had a good friend, Bob Seamon (who passed on a few years ago), who took me by the hand, so to speak. He said, Jerry you need to do this. So I did this—whatever it was. Then he said, Jerry you need to do that, so I did that. I recall a few snatches of a double funeral at the United Church in Los Alamos. Then there was a double funeral in Caldwell, Idaho, Sally’s hometown, about thirty miles west of Boise, but I have no memory of how I got there. Then there was a double graveside service at a cemetery south of Caldwell.
I recall one incident vividly. Right after the graveside service, Sally’s mother got into the back seat of the limousine on the left, behind the driver, and said, “That has got to be the most barbaric custom.” I could only agree.
I have no memory of how I got back home. At work, I was blessed to be doing a computer programming project that was in the chug and grind phase. All the creative work had been done back in September, and through the fall it was just plug along. I got it working shortly after Thanksgiving, and it let the users do in one night what had previously taken two nights, or sometimes even three.
Then came the Christmas vacation, and I drove to visit my mom and dad with my dog in the back seat. My hometown was Portland, and Caldwell was right on the way, so of course I stayed a couple of nights with my in-laws. While I was there, Sally’s mother had the need to tell me some things about Sally that only she knew.
Then, with my parents for a week, my mother had the need to tell me some things about Sally that only she knew.
Christmas 1973 was the year of the gasoline shortages in major cities throughout the land. I recall waiting in line for half an hour at a station in Portland. But in Hood River, Oregon, there were no lines, and there was plenty of gasoline. I remember thinking at the time, that that was very strange. I had no problem getting gasoline anywhere else, either. I also remember taking Interstate 80 all the way east to Cheyenne, because of the snow storm that had blanketed the west. Then I drove south on Interstate 25 around the south end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Santa Fe. In Santa Fe, I can recall driving in the ruts of previous cars, with snow scraping the undercarriage of my car.
Back home, January 1974, Sally’s best friend came over one Saturday afternoon and we talked. She told me some things about Sally that only she knew. I wondered at the time why everyone felt the need to dump on me. When I was about twenty, my grandfather observed that it doesn’t matter how old a person is, they aren’t really grown up until they’ve come to terms with the fact that some questions don’t have answers. My amendment to that observation is that many of those questions that don’t have answers begin with the word
And so, of course, to that witches brew of unwanted information, I added a few things that only I knew, and all that information bubbled and gurgled around inside my head. A week or so later, by some unhappy coincidence, I went through the family photographs, deciding which ones to keep and which ones were redundant. I came to the one of the scene of the accident that I had clipped out of the local newspaper.
And, primed by that witches brew of information, I saw it: The car was completely on the wrong side of a double-yellow line, and there were no skid marks on the pavement. It’s called vehicular suicide. Actually, in that case, it was murder-suicide.
That was more than I could take. I knew nothing of therapy, or dealing constructively with feelings, so I took up serious drinking. I quickly discovered that three ounces of Jack Daniels would make all those feelings go away. The booze had the additional benefit of making me a “good old boy” at work. I mellowed out and was easy to get along with. At one point, my doctor even enabled my drinking, saying I could have one drink after dinner as long as I didn’t need it. He neglected to say what “one drink” meant, and I didn’t ask.
I’ll skip lightly over the next twelve years. They include a failed marriage that didn’t last five years. Marrying that particular woman at that particular time was the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. I also did not see that my drinking was slowly progressing. Three ounces had become five or more by August 1985. And that didn’t include an evening of drinking every Friday. Humans don’t do well with “gradually,” and I simply didn’t see it.
August 1985 was pivotal. I had a serious girl friend, and we had really hit it off. She had taken me to see her parents, and they pronounced me satisfactory. And why not? Mellowed out, I was easy to get along with. I had taken her to see my parents, and they were delighted.
In late August 1985, she announced without notice that she was going to a place called Cottonwood, south of Albuquerque, for treatment of alcoholism. On the way out the door, she gave me a little book, I’ll Quit Tomorrow. I read it, but I couldn’t identify, especially with the stories of alcoholics. I vividly recall, on August 31st, 1985, reading the last story, closing the book, picking up my one drink, and guzzling it. Thank you very much, but I did not have a problem with alcohol. It’s called denial, and I had it.
The next day the magazine The American Heritage of Invention and Technology arrived in the mail. One of the stories was the history of the bridge over the St. Lawrence River at Toronto. It collapsed while being built, killing 58 workers and injuring more than a hundred others. The article also told a little of the lifestyle of the engineer that designed it. That was circa 1912, twenty-three years before Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, and alcohol wasn’t mentioned. But reading between the lines, and having just finished I’ll Quit Tomorrow, I suddenly saw myself in that engineer. Terrified that I might someday make the same kind of mistake, I picked up my one drink and poured it down the drain. I have not had a drink of an alcoholic beverage since.
My first full day of sobriety was September 2, 1985. It occurred to me that I had better re-read I’ll Quit Tomorrow, only this time I’d better pay attention. A month and a half later I voluntarily joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Through the guidance of the twelve-step program, I came to see that the sequence of events in late August had to have happened exactly as they happened in order to get my attention. It’s called a synchronicity, which means a meaningful coincidence, and it was beyond doubt a very meaningful, life-changing experience. But I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.
You might ask, what happened to that relationship? No longer being mellowed out by alcohol, one of my character defects reared its ugly head, and she gave the ring back.
Eventually, I dealt with my alcohol problem with the help of AA. In addition, through a lot of personal growth, I learned how to deal with issues and people at work without being mellowed out by alcohol. That was difficult.
One incident stands out in my memory. The time was March 1986. At work, I had been tasked to write a user’s manual for one of the computer programs I‘d worked on. Like everyone else, I was using one of the big main-frame computers as a word processor. Midafternoon, in the midst of a sentence—in the middle of a word—the computer crashed. That was a frequent occurrence, and I had developed an algorithm to handle the problem. I leaned back in my chair and watched the second hand of a wall clock go around once. The computer was still down. The next step of the algorithm was to go get a cup of coffee and deliberately stay away from the terminal for five minutes. The computer was still down. Next, I went to the library to have a look at the new books, and stay away from the terminal for fifteen minutes. It was still down. Next, I called the operator and asked what was happening. He replied that the computers had all had a hard crash, would be down for the rest of the day, and furthermore I would have to re-do everything I had done that day.
I was enraged. That word doesn’t really describe it. Actually, I believe that in that moment I was clinically insane—unable to function in polite society. Under similar circumstances I had broken many things, including a few relationships. But I had been going to AA meetings for about five months, and I saw that I could make a different choice. I took a walk, and my monkey mind was going full speed. A block from the office, I was alone, and a voice came into my head, “Is there anything else in your office you can do?” The monkey mind instantly switched gears, so to speak, and rattled off a dozen things that were demanding attention. Then the voice said, “Why don’t you go back to your office and do one of them.” It caught me between steps, and I almost fell down.
So I returned to my office. I finished one of them, and I ended up having a good day. And now, when my life gets hectic with too many things on my plate, I remember to focus on one of them. The principle is: One thing at a time.
Now this I insist: That voice could not have come from my brain, because at the time, I was insane—crazy. I further insist that that voice represents a power greater than I am, because it did for me what I could not do for myself—it restored me to sanity.
I’ve heard that voice two more times. The second was at the Pizza Hut in Los Alamos, and it was just two words: “Go home.” So I got a box for the pizza, paid the check, and went home. I arrived just in time to answer a phone call from a distraught acquaintance, who was contemplating suicide. We talked for three quarters of an hour, and I persuaded her to postpone her action until the next morning, banking on a night’s sleep and perhaps breakfast making her perspective different. I don’t know if it was my words that made the difference, but she was still alive when Jan and I moved to Grass Valley fifteen years ago.
The third time was here in Grass Valley, and its simple driving instruction enabled me to avoid a car accident on Highway 49. Repeating myself for emphasis, that voice did for me what I could not do for myself.
I am not unique. Over the years, by simply listening without judgment and doing my best to accept and validate the speaker, I’ve collected half a dozen such stories.
A man back in Los Alamos had an experience almost identical to mine. A technician, he ran experiments. One day after lunch his group leader called a meeting and announced new safety regulations that would make everyone’s job much more difficult. He said the room erupted in a cacophony of shouting. But having been in a twelve-step program for awhile, he saw that he could make another choice. He went back to his office and shut the door, where he was alone. Like mine, his monkey mind was going full speed. Eventually, a voice in his head asked, “How are you right now?” For some reason, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs came to mind: food, clothing, and shelter. His monkey mind switched gears just as mine had, and he recalled he had had a good lunch. It wasn’t gourmet food by any means, but it was good, healthy food. And he had put on clean clothes that morning after his shower. They weren’t swanky by any account, but they were adequate for the task. And third, he was sitting in a comfortable chair in an office that had central air conditioning and a roof that didn’t leak.
Then he stopped. His monkey mind chatter turned off, and he said there was silence in both heaven and earth for about half a minute. Then he said, “Oh.”
Both his experience and mine of March 1986 are called a moment of clarity, or as AA puts it, a blinding flash of the obvious. The principle is: Live in the present. How are you
… right now? Or, maybe, change the emphasis: “How are YOU … right now?”
And like me, he insisted that that voice could not have come from his brain.
There remained for me one overriding issue: Sally’s suicide. A friend told me about a weekend workshop called Beginning Again. I didn’t really want to, but I went anyway. The participants were recent divorcees and widows who were united in wanting to put closure on the past so they could … begin again. There were sessions on Friday evening, Saturday morning, afternoon, and evening, and Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening. Each session started with a lecture, followed by a living example, where someone told their story. Then we had writing assignments for an hour or so. Each session concluded with a small group meeting. My small group was five people who were all very motivated to do whatever it took to get it done. There were two “councilors,” who had been through it before, and three
“students,” so to speak. The student/teacher ratio was thus three-to-two. The weekend can only be described as intense.
Fast forward to Sunday evening: My writing assignment, being a widower (which was the issue I was there to resolve), was to write a letter to my deceased wife. We had been instructed by lecture and example to let it all out. I wandered around the facility, looking for a place to be alone, but all the usual places were taken. I ended up in the cafeteria/meeting room, a bit larger than this sanctuary, sat down at one of the tables and began to write in a composition book. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I have no idea how long it took. I wrote until I was done.
Only later did I realize that the counselors saw what I was doing, blocked the doorway with their bodies, and made people wait until I finished. It was obvious when I was done, because I snapped the pencil in two and dissolved in tears.
There was one remaining activity. The letter had to be read aloud, someplace meaningful. Sally, Tracy, and I had a special place we called the picnic rock. Actually a huge boulder, it was flat on top, from where a person could see clear across the Rio Grande Valley to Santa Fe, thirty miles or so to the east. I went there and sat on the picnic rock, under a ponderosa pine tree. The air was still. Not a pine needle moved in all the trees around me. As I began to read aloud, spirits came and read over my shoulder. I could not see them with my eyes, but they were just as tangible as this building. A gentle breeze rustled the pine needles of only the tree I sat under. As impossible as it sounds, meteorologically, the pine trees in a circle, twenty feet away, were motionless. The letter was of understanding and forgiveness. By virtue of a huge amount of work, I had come to see and understand why Sally did what she did and also my part in the whole affair.
I finished the letter. Once again, there was silence, and everything became absolutely
And then I was free.
Before the Source I believe in, call it Big Love if you like, and before all of you as witnesses, I declare, by my life and my love of it: The Spirit World is real.
Amen. Namaste. Shalom. And blessed be.
————— 3381 words – 25 minutes —————