Midway through seventh grade the Army relocated us yet again. From then until I finished my freshman year of high school we spent our days smack dab in the middle of nowhere in a pale blue, aging, two-floor duplex on the crest of a wooded, grassy hill in sprawling Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
If you look at a map and draw a line, slightly curved to follow the course of the various US and state routes involved, starting at St. Louis, then some one-hundred-thirty miles to the southwest you arrive at Fort Leonard Wood. Draw a similar line from there for a shade over two hundred miles northwest to Kansas City, and you have just sketched yourself an arm with the military base at the elbow.
If you ever lived there, however, the more appropriate analogy would involve a little more work. Continue your art by drawing yet another mildly arced line from Fort Leonard Wood until you reach Jefferson City, the capital, exactly eighty miles due north. Add another line from Fort Leonard Wood two hundred twenty miles southwest to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and finally one more from Fort Leonard Wood two hundred sixty five miles southeast to Memphis, Tennessee, and you can stop. Now set down your pencil and appreciate your little stick figure with his hands raised, as if dancing and exalting the Almighty, with Fort Leonard Wood serving as the skinny little worshiper’s armpits.
Yes, it was a solid two armpits. I lived there nearly three years.
But all was not lost! During that time I found myself attached to Catholicism. I particularly enjoyed attending five o’clock Saturday afternoon Mass at the tiny chapel right in the heart of the massive outpost with my parents and little sister. Part of that might have had to do with my family’s ritual of pizza and sports or movie viewing back at the house after each service, but that made me no less devoted.
As befits a military installation, we had an ever-rotating cast of characters wear the green chaplain’s vestments during our time there and each one had his own bit of pizazz. Which is completely necessary because if you’ve seen one Catholic Mass you’ve seen them all. The same exact formula, every single week, no variation except for which gospels will be read and which hymns will be sung. A former altar boy (who I am convinced is a closet atheist), my dad used to say that when you sing you pray twice.
I’ve never seen him sing.
I’ve been to church in a lot of different places, in several different countries, and the only thing that changes is the language, which is revolutionary for anyone born after 1955 since it was all Latin, all the time prior to Vatican II. I was, for example, fortunate enough to attend Mass in a small French village last year, in a nine hundred year-old church, and despite my complete and utter ineptitude with the French language, I was able to follow along precisely and participate in the whole dang thing because of the familiar formula.
You need a priest with some life, with some attitude. A good homily can snap you out of that bottom of the hour nap and let you know you’ve reached the home stretch, just a quick twenty minutes and you can make your way back to the sausage and pepperoni pizza waiting for you in your cozy living room.
But in Missouri, church never felt like an endurance test and I thank the chaplains for that. My favorite was Father Ramon, a little Filipino guy who my mom affectionately referred to as an imp.
Imp is another word for demon or evil spirit. When that’s the dude who’s leading the congregation, how can you go wrong?
Now, I couldn’t tell you the contents of any of his sermons, or any special interpretations of the New Testament that I found particularly compelling, but he did say one thing every single week that has never left my head. Week after week, every time he led Mass, he always concluded the evening with the same wish to all of us.
Have a serendipity day.
Whether he willfully sacrificed grammar for charm, or whether a lifetime relying primarily on the sweet taste of his native Tagalog left him incapable of stretching out the adjective serendipitous, the message was the same. This man, bound by the rules of one of the most stringent Orders the world has ever known, confined to the weekly ritual that allowed only minimal deviation and personality, came up with his own ritual within the ritual to bid us all, very fondly, to go forth and live life by making desirable, accidental discoveries.
Welcome an element of chaos. Make room for random.
My adherence to the Catholic Church waned over the next half-dozen years. My faith dissolved in the wake of headline after headline of sexual abuse scandals, as well as attending college in a lefty city on the left coast. For the last half of my life, although I have not replaced that organized religion with any other, I’ve resisted identifying as an atheist. That is in large part because I really don’t like that word. It’s so absolute. But if I won’t go that far, does that make me agnostic? Why does it have to make me anything? My belief is that you should be free to believe whatever you want to believe.
If someone asks me what I believe, in the context of whether I believe in God I often respond that I believe in Gravity. Before the individual takes offense or waves off what I am sure is perceived as a non-answer, I affirm that I am not being flippant. Rather, in the words of Stephen Hawking, because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.
Think through that statement and you get chills. It’s almost incomprehensible. Gravity. It keeps us here on Earth. It keeps the moon in orbit, keeps our wonderful planet circling the sun, it maintains the solar system, and is responsible for everything from infants struggling to master their first steps to supermassive black holes.
It gave birth to our universe. It’s where we all originate. Gravity created us.
Let there be light?
Well, then, for something a little more tangible, more visible and appreciable on a day-to-day basis, I believe in the sun. The sun rules our planetary neighborhood, sitting on its throne, right in the center of its relatively vast, yet cosmically puny, kingdom of rocks and giant balls of gas and dust out here in the sleepy suburbs of the Milky Way. From our perspective, the sun’s influence is so immense that Voyager I, the fastest creation in the history of mankind, traveling at nearly 39,000 miles per hour, has been on the move since 1978 but it wasn’t until nearly thirty-five years later that the tiny spacecraft left the heliosphere, escaping the dominant grip of our brilliant star and entering interstellar space.
Our early ancestors, those civilizations that predate Judaism and Christianity and Islam all recognized the sun’s unbelievable power, understanding that our sun gave life to everything in sight. Winter solstice rituals were created to pray for the lengthening of days, to celebrate when it became evident that tomorrow would not be as dark as today.
Our sun, our star, our light.
Let there be light, and be thankful for it.
The other day I went to Piestewa Peak to engage in one of my favorite activities, a heat hike. After a week-long period of idea after idea pouring out of my head, my brain suddenly felt frozen and I wasn’t able to muster any new creative thoughts. The temperature hadn’t quite hit one hundred degrees as I made my way up the mountain under the crystal clear blue sky, but it didn’t take long for my thinking to thaw out, and I started to feel like myself again.
As I made my way higher and higher up the path, which is quite steep and rated ‘Extremely Difficult’ by the Phoenix Parks Department, I looked way out to the south, beyond the downtown core to the South Mountain range, and then way out west, beyond the endless suburbs, scanning the horizon carefully. Phoenix summers are known for the layer of brown haze that can settle for weeks at a time between our ferocious monsoons, but I was trying to see if there was something more to the distant skies than that grimy film.
It took me back to my days living in El Paso, Texas, which is where I first tasted the sugary sweet air brought on by the cleansing desert rains. I was twelve and only lived in that remote corner of westernmost Texas for five months. But I was lucky to arrive in early August and bear witness to astonishing storms that produced lightning far in the distance, those dramatic individual bolts that can only come from the hand of a fierce Olympic god.
And the smell! My god, the smell! The rain would mate with the creosote bushes and produce a scent like powdered sugar. It would lie heavy in the air, manna from heaven, thick in my nostrils, and delicious on my tongue. I became hopelessly addicted to the desert. I discovered then that I had the desert native’s love of rain, a love born from the rarity of the event and the magical environment it produced, for often as soon as the weather clears up, the heat returns, and within minutes you would doubt that even a single drop of water had ever once suffered the humbling fall to earth.
It’s different elsewhere. I learned this from living in places like Seattle. The rain there is near constant, and cold, and boring. A weak drizzle that cloaks you in chilly misery. The lack of scarcity removes any element of mystique. The lower temperature guarantees that its traces will not disappear before your very eyes. It lacks the excitement and the drama, the intensity of the storms in the desert.
Every summer we in the desert pray for rain. Some because it cleans the sidewalks and temporarily removes the polluted grime hanging over the valley. Others simply because it is a welcome respite from the sun’s relentless, punishing gaze.
I pray for it because I am bewitched.
Alas, no rain fell that day and it’s unclear when it will return to us. But when it does, I will think back to my first brief residence in the desert and be thankful that I discovered something that struck such a chord within me. If I had never moved to El Paso as a newly-minted twelve year-old boy, I may never have discovered the desert’s allure, and I may never have discovered my adoptive home.
As for that twelve-year-old kid in El Paso? Like I said, I lived there for five months. In January of 1993, my parents, sister, and I got into our driftwood gray Plymouth Voyager and moved yet again, nearly eleven-hundred miles to the northeast, to a small, remote outpost called Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Have a serendipity day!