Today, some of you are celebrating Easter. Happy Easter. And to those of you celebrating Passover, Happy Passover. And to the rest of you, Happy Sunday. I was raised Catholic, have aspired to (cultural) Jewishness for as long as I can remember, try to meditate every day while contemplating Buddhism. But mostly, like a lot of us, I don’t lay a hard and fast claim to any particular anything. Like Iris Dement sings, I prefer to let the mystery be. Still, I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Shannon Sedwick, co-founder of Esther’s Follies, inviting me to give a sermon today. I used to work for Esther’s, waaaay back in the early ‘90s, and later I managed the Velveeta Room, Esther’s comedy club. Every Easter the Esther’s folks get together for a non-traditional celebration. What an honor to be asked to stand up before my old friends and share some thoughts. Thanks, Shannon. Herewith, Spike’s Sunday Sermon: Zen and the Art of Funny Blessings.
On the flight home from a Tel Aviv vacation a couple of years ago, I found myself sitting beside a rabbi. On international flights I try to save any real conversation for the last hour to avoid triggering some gusher from telling me his life story for thirteen hours.
“Shalom,” I said tentatively.
“Shalom aleichem” he answerd, equally tentatively.
Good start. We exchanged a few words here and there— his curiosity piqued by my special order vegetarian meal, mine by his Kosher selection. Mostly we slept, me contorting my torso into the empty seat between us, waking at one point with a start, worried my head had touched his leg, fearing this might be a sin in his world. About an hour before we reached Atlanta, he woke up, extracted a mini-shofar from his carry-on bag, and without warning, stood in the aisle and blew it loudly and continuously. No one made a move to tackle and arrest him or even to quiet him. In fact his honking was met with a smattering of applause.
A few minutes before landing, I had a faint memory of a Hebrew expression I’d once heard. As we were in the conversation safety zone, I decided to engage him, eager to demonstrate I, clearly a shiksa, knew a thing or two about The Tribe.
“There’s a saying about everything being a blessing, isn’t there?” I asked.
“Gam zu lebracha,” he replied in a thick accent. “It means, This too is for a blessing.”
Shortly after, we parted ways but the phrase stayed with me, a fork in philosophy’s road. I wanted both to argue with the sentiment and work it like a Rubik’s Cube, to turn it around and see if I could really apply the notion to some trickier challenges I’ve faced in my life. To my surprise, the older I get, the easier, and more enjoyable this task becomes. Which is not to say it’s always easy, but I give it my best shot.
For example, I grew up poor. This was no fun at the time and filled me, often, with want and envy when I considered what other kids had, and what I did not. But growing up poor laid a groundwork for me, forced me to learn about resourcefulness and making do, so that decades later, out on my own, trying to make it as an artist, living on the edge wasn’t suddenly new and scary territory. It was familiar and manageable. Knowing how to live on the edge afforded me a certain freedom. And it came with a side benefit, too—a deep, deep appreciation for Ramen noodles that I might not have otherwise acquired.
I could give a long list of unexpected blessings in my life, blessings-in-hindsight is more accurate, since most didn’t seem so swell at the time they occurred. I could keep you here all day and then some with this list. But then you’d become bored, and irritated, and maybe have a hard time figuring out the blessing of listening to someone spend 85 hours listing blessings.
So I’m just going to name a few, most of which happened only very recently. That’s no coincidence, it’s not like these blessings just popped up to help me come up with something to say here today. It’s that there really are blessings every day, everywhere.
A week ago Friday, for example, I was driving back from a wedding rehearsal in the Hill Country. I had four weddings scheduled for the next day, all back-to-back, with no wiggle room for delays. Friday, just as I got into town, I heard a thud-thud-thud-thud coming from my car. That seemed odd. I have a brand new car, what could be wrong?
I pulled over, got out and had a look. A flat tire. My first instinct was to give in to dismay or at least to feel annoyed. But then I thought to myself, “Let’s just knock this out.” In other words, I fast moved from thinking of Despair to thinking of The Spare—tire that is.
Funnily enough, just prior to discovering the flat, I’d spoken by phone to my partner, who asked me to meet him at a carnival on Highway 71 on the way home. I called to tell him I would be late. He said he’d come help, and asked where I was. I looked up to find a landmark and, what do you know, I was RIGHT NEXT TO THE CARNIVAL. Okay, so it wasn’t the same carnival we’d planned on, but still.
While I waited for Warren, I decided to do some prep work. I located the 365- page owner’s manual on my phone’s tiny web browser, noting that the manual did not have hyperlinks to take me to the Flat Tire chapter. So I thumbed down 187 pages to the part that told me where to find the well-hidden jack, which of course was beneath about fifteen tons of crap piled on the backseat floor. I failed to scroll down another hundred pages to learn that the spare tire was hidden in a different secret location, and so of course I transferred the fifteen tons of clothes, books, papers, swimsuits and flippers, towels, blankets, dog kibble, ketchup packets, costumes, bills, shoes and sundry other flotsam and jetsam directly on top of that as-yet-undiscovered compartment.
As I toiled, I got to thinking about my first car, a 1964 Plymouth Valiant, which, as I recall, had a flat tire just about every day. At the time— back in 1982—daily flat tires did not amuse me. But now, I realized, the experience was paying off. I felt no panic at breaking down, just inconvenience. A flat tire, I thought? I can fix that. Well, once I find the damn spare tire I can fix that. And then this good thought gave way to another—I was actually lucky, LUCKY, that I got this flat tire on Friday night, instead of Saturday, because that would’ve meant I’d be late for weddings. So this flat tire, it turns out, was a blessing.
Warren arrived and even though my inner feminist was itching to push him aside and show off my skills, I “let” him take over to change the tire. Here we encountered a problem—one of the lug nuts was all smooth, not removable with the little jack that came with the car. “Anti-theft device,” Warren explained. Because, yes, you know there’s a big demand on the black market for tires stolen from Nissan Cubes.
I searched the car high and low for a special tool to help us, moving Fifteen Ton Crap Mountain back and forth, pulling and pushing and tapping and tugging on various spots in the floor, as if searching for the secret staircase in a creepy mansion, hidden behind a dusty bookshelf. No luck. So I whipped out my smart phone again, posted a note on Facebook asking for ideas, and then tried to reach the dealer. Miraculously, there was still someone answering phones at the dealership. Between the call and the post, I learned where that stupid little tool was hidden—in the glovebox. So there, more blessings: Facebook, which at times can be wildly annoying, was now incredibly helpful. And, too, I was reminded how much I love old terminology, like glovebox.
Tire changed, we went off to the carnival, where I reminisced about the summers of my youth, spent in Wildwood, NJ, Land of the Carnie. I felt some non-ironic affection watching the rickety rides spin around, remembering days down the shore, making out with carnies. This too, was a blessing then: Look, Ma, I didn’t marry a carnie!
Then on Sunday, as I was heading into my fifth wedding of the weekend, I felt a bad tickle in my throat. By Monday, I was in pretty serious pain. Coincidentally, on Tuesday I had my annual checkup scheduled. And while my ob/gyn is better versed at the opposite end of me, he agreed to take a look at my throat. “Tonsillitis,” he said, and sent me to my GP.
By this point, my head was on fire, the world smeared with Vaseline. I was feeling furious that I’m one of the Americans who doesn’t qualify for insurance. I was enraged that the little bit of money I’d saved up recently would now have to be poured into medical expenses. Mostly though, I see now, I was scared and I was hurting.
In between doc appointments, I went to have blood drawn for some tests. Sitting in the chair, I flashed back to 1997, when it was discovered that I had a massive tumor inside of me, a tumor that was, it turned out, malignant. Back then, I had to have blood drawn constantly, and the phlebotomist seemed to miss often enough, and my arms looked like a junky’s, and I was scared all the time. But I still remember my doctor meeting with my son, who was six at the time, and looking at him and saying, “Your mom is going to be okay.”
That was one of the greatest kindnesses anyone ever did for me. To this day, sitting in a chair to have my blood drawn makes me very weepy at the thought of it. To my surprise and relief, the phlebotomist this time, a student from ACC, hit the vein on the first try. I thanked her a thousand times and I went back in time, in my mind, and thanked that other doctor, too, for being so gentle with my son.
At my next appointment, the nurse practitioner looked at my throat and recoiled. “Wow,” she said. “Wow.” You know it’s not good when they say Wow, and it’s worse when you get a double wow. Then, proof I didn’t need that what I had was really bad, she said, “Mind if I bring in one of our med students? She could really learn from this!”
I acquiesced, offering up my wildly swollen neck to be felt by yet another person. Then the NP said, “These antibiotics will probably help. If not, we’ll send you to an ENT and he can use a big needle to drain you. It’s so green and full of pus!” Then, after she got that cartoon image stuck in my mind of an Eiffel Tower sized needle, she said, “But don’t think about that.”
Don’t think about it. That’s like the dentist telling you not to run your tongue over the hole of recently extracted tooth.
I spent the next several days flat on my back, in a haze of fever and agony, waiting for the meds to kick in. You might think that a week of eating only Vicodin and ice cream sounds decadent. I assure you, that’s not always the case.
And yet this, too, a blessing. Because the longer I lay in bed, fading in and out of sleep, the longer life went on without me. Unanswered emails did not result in the collapse of the universe. Cancelled meetings did not serve as catalyst for world devastation. Pretty much everything hummed on without me, like I didn’t matter.
Rather than letting my feelings be hurt that the world demonstrated an ability to carry on without my assistance, I found a freedom sort of like the freedom growing up poor had given me. It was good to know that I could disappear. There was value in being reminded that downtime can be arranged, and that next time, maybe instead of waiting for a raging case of tonsillitis, I can just arrange a couple of weeks of doing nothing just for the hell of it.
By Thursday afternoon, I started to feel slightly less worse. I stopped being angry about no insurance, and started feeling grateful that I was able to get medical attention so quickly. I went out into my garden to spread a little mulch, dig my hands into the rich moistness of the stuff, and to inhale the deep, dirty scent of it. Easter time always makes me think of the garden, of new Spring life, and especially of my mother’s love of this time of the year, and how she says, “To new beginnings.”
Sometimes I think that sounds like it’s from the department of redundancy department—aren’t ALL beginnings new? And for some reason, this leads my mind to think of that famous definition of insanity—how when we do the same thing over and over again expecting different results, this is proof that we are crazy. If we try, try again, are we just demonstrating that we’re nuts?
Maybe not. I want to counter that definition of insanity here today, and leave you with a closing thought. For nearly twenty years now, I have walked miles just about every day with rare exception. For a dozen or so years, I took the same walk around Town Lake. Now, I walk around my neighborhood further north. Some people think this must be boring, to go the exact same route over and over again, a circle seemingly to nowhere. I couldn’t disagree more.
Because each day, though technically it is the same walk, everything changes. I see new details from day to day. I see new people. One day I observe a bunch of construction workers having lunch. The next I see two little brothers, one crying, the other kneeling down to console him. Once I saw a woman in a Mercedes pull over and get out of her car so she could gingerly lift the freshly dead corpse of a squirrel over to the side of the road so it would not be further violated.
And, of course, I see the weather and I see the seasons. Yes, of course there is repetition in this—the bare branches in winter, the predictable burst of green each spring. But predictable does not mean boring just as surely as repetition does not guarantee insanity. And with every start of the cycle, with every bud that bursts forth, and every rhythm that repeats, my heart swells. Because all of it—every bit of green, every drop of rain, every flat tire, every sore throat that reminds us of how good it feels not to have a sore throat—well these, too, are blessings. Gam zu lebracha,