Friday, December 3, 2010

The Great Mandala: Unexpurgated Scene from "It's A Wonderful Life"

“Remember No man is a failure who has friends.”
-       Clarence, It’s a Wonderful Life

(A while back I began the mental and emotional exercise of  drafting  a Christmas themed posting for the blog ; Christmas , angels, friends , special gifts , and suddenly found myself getting diverted into writing about another one of those “earthly angels” who have influenced me and even saved me. What follows is an accident and  is about a surprising gift I received ..the gift of friendship and  the gift  of love ….if the truth be known…this is just the tip of the iceberg of memories and gratitude.)

Did you ever think about why certain people were placed in your path at specific moment in your life? Sometimes I fantasize that certain folks were really angels sent back to complete some great task in order to earn their wings. Sometimes I wonder if that person I met along the road was really the Buddha who needed to put on another face for me to pay attention to a great lesson he would teach me . Sometimes I think that God  just thought it beneficial for me to intersect with this other creation so this the both of us might become complete . Often these accidental interveners   are characters from which great myths are born. Sometimes these questions and reflections really frighten me, as I believe I have experienced all of the above and more. I guess the heavens believed I need some extra help.

In one particular case I did find an Obi Wan Kenobi, who like to be called Kirk, but who’s real name was John. He used to wander up and down the rivers of life Sherpa-ing pilgrims or wayward adventurers who were too proud to seek assistance to find their way to the open sea. .  His unassuming demeanor was part old salt, part working class hero and part absent-minded A.W.O.L. professor from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton.

One can only imagine what happens when we are not prepared for a particular voyage. Whether it is a river raft or well crafted sailing vessel, being adrift can be stressful especially when your partner  abandons ship because she lost confidence or trust in your seamanship. On one of the occasions, yes there may have been more than one, when I was adrift and floundering a friend threw me a lifeline and said I should meet this river master/sailor - teacher – counselor, who seemingly  was a twin to Kris Kristofferson.  I wondered if I would learn some new songs. Little did I know I would learn a lot more than anticipated and the songs I would learn would be my own?

The first encounter with this old salt guru in disguise was purely transactional. He became navigator for one defined leg of my odyssey.  His methodology was obscure as we conversed about how the universe was in a constant state of change . He said he would assist me to chart a course to be present to the universe, to change, to just being. He noted that I remained disoriented during our setting out together as he whispered “the secret was to let go!”  In order to do this I discovered that I had to trust…myself, the universe and yes…God.

Our mentor/mentee relationship slowly transformed to become companions striving, seeking , finding and not yielding on our way to find out..

My familiarity with the classics helped me realize that a characteristic of most gurus, mythological and real , is that they have some retreat place hidden off away from the busy-ness and distractions of the world. Kirks’ was a house on a lake in the woods. For all I knew there might have been a steady stream of pilgrims who visited him at this holy ground but his welcoming made me feel as though I was the only one who was ever invited into his sanctuary in the woods. Books of all kinds and subjects adorned his table and floors. His yoga mediation pillow faced the window overlooking the lake with his professional astronomer’s telescope just a short grasp away in case he needed to get a closer witness of a meteor blessing the heavens at night.

My visits were almost a religious ritual.  Upon entering his inner sanctum he began with a short silent tea ceremony that transitioned to quietly soaking in the solace and solitude of the waves on the lake reflecting the gold and red rays of a sun bidding farewell beyond the mountain. Words eventually flowed like the streams that fed to and emanated from the lake. We spoke of poetry, nature, relationships, sailing, spirituality and more poetry. Teacher was student and vice versa.  He shared how he was at times awestruck with contemplations of contemporaries like Joseph Campbell, Frederick Franck, Robert Bly, and David Whyte and how he humbly admired his old friend and classmate, Robert Kennedy SJ. , who had become a true Zen master priest .

Our time together was part Zen sesshin and part story telling. He loved it when I brought my girls to visit. His smile sprouted from deep within and easily blossomed to become a contagion to all those in his presence.

In gratitude I invited him to accompany me him to a gathering of the great poets at The Dodge Poetry Festival. It was the first time I witnessed tears fill his eyes while intently soaked in the verses and images of the likes of Billy Collins and Mark Doty. But it was when Kunitz peeled back the layers for the pilgrims gathered on theat mountain when Kirk touched my arm and whispered,  “listen.” I wasn’t sure if he meant to Kunitz or the wind swaying the leaves. It doesn’t matter.

Though a lapsed Catholic his personal office was decorated with paintings of French cathedrals. He had studied in Paris and rationalized that the pictures helped him recall a special time of his life. I said “You can take the boy out of the church but you can’t take the church out of the boy.” He nodded  “not bad, a good one.” That phrase would echo the retort of another Buddha I have met , Fr. Tom , Hmmm? During the course of Kirk’s own early voyage he retreated with this own Yoda, Robert Kennedy SJ, for perspective. Kirk reported that he told his master that he had trouble with prayer and faith. His master said,  “Well at least you tried.”

Since the Jesuits schooled him he seemed to be sincerely respectful and genuinely interested in my own spiritual exercises with my newly found priestly companions.  I think he was relieved that there were others who could take on the task of trying to teach me. He would often reflect on the similarities of the great spiritual masters. I shouldn’t have been surprised at his adroitness in the quick quoting of Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila and Lao Tzu, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh and a litany of other saints. Every so often he would also quote a line from some long lost poem or repeat a phrase of a French philosopher, in French of course,  that would illustrate his point. Though an avid meditator he would query me about my own prayer and my experiences of centering prayer, which was much like his Zen meditation. I gave him a book of Jesuit prayers, Hearts on Fire. He was delighted but smartly critiqued the gift “these are poems!”

As if it were a common quality of great teachers and companions he, like my friend Herb, would give me books to read. Usually they would be collections of poetry or Haiku. These would be well used and devoured texts ,dog eared , pages slightly falling from the binding and marked with his own notes . I wondered  , “maybe the notes were intended for me?”

I can see and hear him now in his Stickley leathered Mission armchair musing about how Tibetan monks would create great works of art out of millions of colored grains of sand. These intricate works of art, he explained,  are called  Mandalas and once the wonderfully colored piece of art was complete the monks would sweep away the grains of sand and the artwork was gone. He would softly conclude,  “You do know things change and besides the real art is in the doing.” Sometimes I believe he really was a Buddha in disguise  always focused on the present. He was a real artist…an artist of life.

At a more vulnerable time he retrieved a collection of handwritten pages that were being typed by one of his daughters. These were his own memoirs. It was interesting to realize that he too was intrigued by the “accidental” encounters in his life and where these seemed to lead him. He smiled when I suggested that the title of his tome be “The Accidental Therapist.” We discussed how he really never had a “career plan” he said he just let go and followed his heart.

He never stopped speaking about his wife and his children. Even when his wife passed he continued to speak of her as if she were still present. I think she was. A mantle was passed right after one of our tea ceremonies at the lake retreat. He  requested that I spend sometime with one of his sons. His confidence in my ability to counsel and chart a course for his son about career matters was humbling. It was also around the same time when my own business life began to rapidly unravel.  I sought him out at the sanctuary and requested his consolation. All he gave me was one word “courage.” Of course it was the right prescription.

But as all things change eventually his time had come to leave this world. I am still angry as I was filled with busyness trying to do whatever I could to get out of a hole I had dug and not staying connected with him. Ignoring or denying his failing health it was the longest period of silence we had experienced since we first met twenty some odd years earlier. But he had not forgotten as he had left my phone number with his children so I could be told  he was gone. His son left a voice mail message with the news of his passing. I cried and read a David Whyte poem as if it would help me reconnect with him one more time.

News of Death

- - - - - - - - - -
Last night they came with news of death
not knowing what I would say.
I wanted to say,
"The green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat."
I wanted to say,
"The apple blossom flakes like ash
covering the orchard wall."
I wanted to say,
"the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead."
They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.
For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, "He is no longer here"
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

At the wake I met one of his daughters who said that her dad spoke about me often.
My eyes filled. She wanted me to know that just before he would close his earthly eyes forever he said to her “teach me to pray ” I said to her…”his life was a prayer.”  His own Mandala complete , he was swept away.

Accidental Therapist

The pilgrim became
that dancer
the troubador sang about
one with uncoordinated sorts ,
Kind of A poet, word worker
A singer of  self crafted music
A pray-er of spark sown meditation.
That certificate  sought
Was just waiting
for the official waxed seal
Created years ago
yearning within.
Confused seekening a  mentor,
accidental therapist
Poetic sherpa
He exited the cathedral
But the cathedral had not left him.
Sailor, consoler , guide, meditator
Introducer to the great spirits
Wandering the hardwoods
Earning his degree diplomate.
Introducing the pilgrim
To word and spirit master
From east and west
Together at the gathering
They peeled back the layers
Proclaimed by the laureate.
They sailed unchartered waters
Selected  mantras
Consumed the silence
Of the great tea ceremony
As student
Introduced the teacher
His children and the power
Of powers.
But the like whyte’s river
Pouring out into the sea
The mentor departed
Before the pigrim  would say
A prayer of gratitude.




  1. Superb post. I have and I have not taken that same journey, had that master... serendipity, synchronicity, Fate and chance...

  2. Thanks! I think the world gets smaller with each breath and connection.