Friday, October 03, 2014

Timely Magic

I finished How Can I Help?, which I found very worth reading. I also finished Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, discovered in my mother’s enormous library on my most recent visit. I loved it. Waugh’s prose is witty, perspicacious and at times mesmerizingly poetic. He is wonderful with dialogue. In a recent New Yorker movie review, Anthony Lane referred to this book and I was excited to now understand the reference.

I particularly liked the part where Rex Mottram is trying to become a Catholic so he can marry Julia: “‘You’d think they’d be all over themselves to have me in,’ Rex complained. ‘I can be a lot of help to them one way and another; instead they’re like the chaps who issue cards for a casino.’”


In mid-September, I attended the first monthly chaplaincy class, in Redwood City. I drove there in a City CarShare car, though taking Caltrain is also an option. Fourteen students and three faculty members spent the day sitting in a circle together, doing various exercises, learning more about the components of the program: attending class, reading, doing writing assignments, doing volunteer work, checking in with a buddy every couple of weeks, meeting with a small group monthly, meeting with a faculty member every other month, going on occasional field trips. My small group will be the four people in the class who are in or near San Francisco, and my buddy is one of those four.

We did an exercise about noticing what makes us different from each other, and another about noticing how we are all the same. At the end of the day, we did a ritual. Since a chaplain might be asked to perform a ritual from time to time, it’s useful to know some. The one we did was for the students to write, on one side of a note card, one word to express our deepest aspiration relating to chaplaincy, and, on the other side, a word to express an obstacle we might face.

While we all chanted a simple Buddhist chant (“May all beings be happy” in Pali), we each went up to the front and traded our card for the gift of a small Buddha figure. Our teachers promised, with twinkles in their eyes, to perform magic that would strengthen our aspirations and erase our difficulties, which was good, because the very next day, I felt under the sway of my difficulty, which is fickleness.

I received an email before the class began listing four books for the course, and I obtained them all and read one and one-fifth of them before attending the first class and learning that we’re requested not to read ahead. At that class, I learned there are actually 19 books. They used to make copies, but decided that was a form of stealing from the authors, so now students can buy the books, perhaps in electronic form, or find them used, or maybe find them in a library.

I don’t read books in electronic form and I also don’t buy used books, because I can’t shake the image of someone sneezing into the book or wiping a booger on it. Furthermore, while some of these books are ones I would want to have and read, such as We’re All Doing Time, by Bo Lozoff, others are not.

We are not going to learn about the world’s religions in this class, though a chaplain should be familiar with the basic tenets of various religions. Chaplaincy is a form of ministry and, even if the chaplain herself is an atheist, in a hospital or prison she may very well be called upon to provide care to someone who is a devout adherent of one religion or another. One of the books is A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana Eck.

I started to think I had made a major mistake: I’m going to have to spend a small fortune on books I wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and the program is going to take up a lot of vacation days. I tried on the idea of dropping out of the class and found it somewhat refreshing.

But then I realized that probably it will be a matter of acquiring a couple of books a month, which is not so burdensome, and I remembered that the purpose of this class is not to learn about religion, but to experience giving care and to learn from those experiences how to grow in kindness and presence while being supported by our own practice of Buddhism. Probably I will find those books that sound the least appealing very worthwhile when I’m actually reading them, so I decided to forge ahead.

I spent the day cooking, and in the evening, did the weekly chore of taking compost down to the large bin, and found a suspicious object tacked above it: a Hot Shot, to kill bugs. It turns out this is a thing that releases a “deep penetrating vapor” and is meant to be used in an enclosed area that is occupied for less than four hours a day, like a garage, Dumpster, or crawl space. It’s not supposed to be used near windows, so having it releasing deep, penetrating, cancer-causing vapor under my kitchen window was highly unwelcome.

I’ve decided not to say anything about the use of dryer sheets in a dryer that also vents right under my kitchen windows—I just run over and close the windows when it’s happening—nor about the scented candle in the lobby. Even unlit, it stinks, and I know it’s also full of nasty chemicals. But I could not have the Hot Shot exuding carcinogens under my window, so I sent the building manager a pleasant note saying it appears this thing is meant for enclosed spaces and that it isn’t supposed to be used near windows—might I search for a less toxic bug-discouraging product at Rainbow?

We get along excellently these days, so I was hoping she would write back and say, “Sure!” and then I’d ask if she’d be so kind as to dispose of the Hot Shot and hopefully she’d say, “Will do!”, but I decided that if there was any friction, I’d send her the PDF related to the product and ask her to take a look at it, and then I’d ask if we could chat in person.

However, she wrote back and said, “Totally!” to my question about my finding a less toxic product, and she explained that the Hot Shot had been her roommate’s idea. I asked if we could dispose of it and offered to do it myself, but she said she would do it—that she didn’t want me to have to touch it. I said that was very gentlewomanly of her and also that I really appreciate how good our relationship is these days—how everything is so friendly and easy in recent years. “Much nicer!”, she agreed.

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