Before Twitter, Instagram and Facebook existed, faith-healing evangelists used to announce their comings and goings in the local newspapers. And now, thanks to the digital archivists who preserved those records, I’m able to retrace my father’s footsteps along the Sawdust Trail.
Evangelist Billy Graham recalls in his new book the pivotal point in his young ministry when, during a 1949 Los Angeles crusade, a two-word directive from publisher William Randolph Hearst to “puff Graham” made him an instant celebrity nationwide.
The sudden front-page coverage showered on Graham by Hearst newspapers in mid-October (after three weeks of little notice) was quickly matched by other newspapers and newsmagazines–literally a media circus descending on his rallies under a big tent.
My father never achieved Graham’s status, of course, but his promo pieces were printed alongside the greats. It’s like scrolling through a social media feed, but more meaningful, somehow.
For who will testify, who will accurately describe our lives if we do not do it ourselves?
–Faye Moskowitz, And the Bridge is Love
My friend Emjae created this mock book cover for me a few years back, as a loving gesture and gentle prod. “Keep writing,” she told me. “You have a story to tell, a song to sing.” I tucked one copy into an antique church bulletin display box, and slipped another into the clear front pocket of my writing notebook. I’ve spilled many tears drafts onto the page, emptied and replenished several notebooks since. Lucky me, I’m represented now by two, top-notch agents at D4EO Literary Agency, and CAN I GET A WITNESS? is under consideration by several editors. I’m so looking forward to that magical day, when the contents of my writing notebook become a published book, graced with a reinterpreted cover image!
Day 6 of Susannah Conway’s #AugustBreak2015 photography challenge. In case you haven’t yet guessed, the word of the day is notebook. In this overlaid image, my father’s revival tent serves as backdrop. I’m standing in the foreground, facing my future.
Egyptian Star Flower, under the magic spell of a bubble wand
Memories float across our consciousness like bubbles, and then vanish into thin air. If we could capture those nostalgic moments in pixels, same as we do with the written word…imagine the possibilities!
Day 2 of Susannah Conway’s #August Break2015 photography challenge. Today’s prompt: air. Wheeee, bubble wands are the epitome of summertime fun! I chased bubbles through my flowerbeds, pressing the shutter release now and again. When this one landed in front of a flower cluster–pure magic! I just pointed my camera and clicked. Quick tip: If you add a few drops of glycerine to the soapy mixture, the bubbles tend to last a little longer. You can purchase both at your local drug store.
I learned phonics from my mother, on a cross-country trip from California to Baltimore. I devoured the messages on billboards, and then graduated to books like this one.
CAN YOU TELL ME? (Copyright 1950, Zondervan Publishing)
I have vivid memories of those magical moments, can easily recall the shivers that ran up my spine when block letters first translated themselves into sounds and syllables, and then sentences that leaped off the pages.
I developed an insatiable appetite for books, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Perspectives shift. New discoveries challenge old beliefs, and textbooks are rewritten. But at the tender age of three-going-on-four, I believed everything I read.
When I enrolled kindergarten that fall, my world expanded by the number of books I was able to check out from the library at any one time. Two, same as the animals on Noah’s Ark. But when the bookmobile rumbled down our street one day, the entire universe was delivered to my doorstep.
The librarian pulled books from shelves I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. We flipped through the pages together and talked about their contents. Teacher to student, friend to friend. Thanks to her gentle guidance, I learned to ask the deeper questions and challenge the pat answers.
And that, my friends, is what eventually led me to write my own story, Can I Get a Witness?
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. –Dalai Lama
Three friends and I were among the 18,000 people who flocked to the Honda Center in Anaheim last Sunday, in celebration of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. We paid big bucks for center-front seats, a worthy trade-off for the privilege of seeing firsthand the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who embodies Tibetan Buddhist values and the art of happiness. Creative souls that we are, we thought it serendipitous that program featured a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama about “awakening compassion” and “the transformative power of creativity and art.”
Artists put the finishing touches on a giant mural, in the final hours before curtain call.
You know me: I’m a spoonful-of-sugar kind of writer. But I’m gonna give this to you straight. Global Compassion Summit, Day One was more glitz than substance, accessorized as it was with frothy celebrities, a fluffy hashtag, and Styrofoam cake. As a local resident (in any capacity, really), I was well and truly embarrassed. #WithCompassion
In an emotional opening, Venerable Lama Tenzen Dhonden attempted to set the stage. “The Dalai Lama does not want any physical gifts. For him, this birthday is just like any other day, but if we can help to create a more compassionate, kind planet, that would be the most beautiful gift of all.”
I’m guessing the event coordinators handpicked the performers, measured each act against a set of objective criteria. No doubt, they asked the finalists to be mindful of the Dalai Lama’s very specific birthday wish. They probably choreographed everything beforehand, too, as organizers are wont to do. But you know what they say about “the best laid plans…”
Some presenters wove their personal remarks into the overarching theme, if only tangentially. “Meditation alone will not change the world,” Jody Williams told us. “We have to have action.” After the applause faded, she added, “The Dalai Lama is my favorite action figure.”
Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, sings a few stanzas of “Happy Birthday” to “the most rocking, compassionate simple Buddhist monk I know.”
Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi spoke directly to the Dalai Lama. “”Whenever I get tired or I lose hope, I remember you. For 60 years, you have been fighting for the rights of the people of Tibet without becoming tired and without losing hope.” I teared up, right here.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks in Farsi, in honor of her compassionate mother.
The oceans are signaling their distress, this team of bespeckled scientists warned. We must respond with a shared sense of urgency, or face together the dire consequences of our inaction. Believe you me, I would’ve signed any petition they put in front of me, would’ve appreciated a very specific list of action items. Even the most compassionate among us are prone to inertia…
Desmond Tutu’s grandson made a brief appearance, as did a couple of philanthropists. At several points in the lengthy ceremony, the lights dimmed and pre-recorded birthday wishes flashed across the Honda Center’s Jumbotrons. It was a parade of luminaries whose names I didn’t recall and whose faces I didn’t recognize. Putting aside for a minute the Archbishop’s charming songfest, the repetitiveness became a source of irritation for an increasingly restless crowd. “I didn’t come here to gawk at celebrities,” someone said. “I came to hear the Dalai Lama.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, singing to the Dalai Lama.
By and large, the panelists seemed unprepared for the discussion du jour, so they talked instead about the subject they knew best. That is to say: themselves.
Comedian George Lopez made a self-effacing joke about language barriers. When it fell flat, he turned it into a political jab.
Recognize the guy on the left? Hint: Harem pants, gold lamé, and‘80s hip-hop. It’s Hammer Time, and MC’s upgraded himself to designer shades and a suit! In a bit of revisionist history, MC described the lyrics of U Can’t Touch This is “an exultation” to God. Note the panelists’ reactions. They were mirrored by the audience.
Julia Ormond (patterned skirt, blue shawl) started out well: “An important part of acting involves hearing other people’s stories and then evoking their emotions in your performances,” she said. But she stayed too long in the spotlight, prompting someone in the darkened balcony to shout, “Let His Holiness speak!”
Through it all, the Dalai Lama remained calm and observant. At times, he seemed amused by the outsized personalities that flanked him.
“The source of contentment and happiness lies within our selves.”
When the children’s choirs marched in, we saw his tender side. During the Agape Choir’s performance, for instance, a caucasian child was holding the only mic. Standing behind that soloist: a diverse group of smiling, swaying, clapping children who seemed just as eager for attention. The Dalai Lama’s smile was inclusive, and his embrace encompassed all.
Randy Jackson bellowed, “Whasssupppp, Los Angeles?”
Duuuude, you’re in Anaheim. But yeah, whasssup. Or whatever.
When Josh Radnor and Wilmer Valderrama took the stage, Ann Curry introduced them in the context of their TV series, now cancelled. “Your Holiness,” the moderator said, “You probably saw that popular TV show…”
Hit shows or not, I’m pretty sure he hadn’t.
Notables and not, the panelists sat together on the lengthy white sofa, chatting among themselves and occasionally addressing the Dalai Lama in their remarks. Ticket-holders gathered their belongings and headed toward the exits. More’s the pity, because when the Dalai Lama eventually fielded Ann Curry’s question about being compassionate in the face of criticism, his answer was golden.
His Holiness recalled for us–with twinkling eyes and make-believe horns—the time he’d been called a “demon” by a high-ranking Chinese Communist. Our critics can be our best teachers, he said. But if there is no truth to what they say…he waved a dismissive hand. His comments were so self-effacing, his laughter so infectious that we found ourselves chuckling about the accusation, maybe also rearranging our thoughts about the absurdity of it all.
He was just as mirthful about the gigantic birthday cake that was eventually wheeled onstage. Carved from fondant-covered Styrofoam, the 8-foot confection was painted a high-gloss silver, and then festooned with saffron and maroon flowers that matched his monastic robes. From a hidden compartment in the back, someone pulled a smaller, edible cake: lemon-vanilla chiffon with strawberry filling. The Dalai Lama ate a pretty big forkful, and then let loose his trademark belly laugh. “You should visualize yourself taking a taste,” he teased.
At last, Ann Curry presented to the Dalai Lama his ultimate birthday gift: an aerobatic performer, female, gyrating above a spiritually symbolic lotus. I wasn’t the only one who cringed, by a long shot. No telling what the Dalai Lama was thinking, because his chair was positioned at stage right, and his face was cloaked in shadows.
The pink lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, associated with the Great Buddha himself.
When the symbolic metamorphosis was complete, Ann Curry accompanied the Dalai Lama again to center stage. Again, the belly laugh, as His Holiness took notice of the artists’ flamboyant costumes.
I later realized that, in these singular moments, the octogenarian monk was exemplifying some of the values we hold dear, as storytellers and visionaries. Beauty that comes of authenticity. Lightness of being. Diversity. Objectivity. Transcendence.
The Dalai Lama also said many lovely things about peace, education, happiness, and spiritual connectedness–variations on previous talks that you can easily find elsewhere. Now that I think about it, they weren’t all that different than his remarks at UCI, back in 2011 (my write-up). But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I came away with two important observations. Gifts of insight, if you will. 1) While compassion fuels creativity, ego is its arch-nemesis. 2) When we explore our compassionate, creative sides, we find the secret compartments in which the tastiest cakes are hidden. While I’m at it, maybe I should also add a third. 3) It’s difficult to write a fair but critical piece about something so subjective, and to (paraphrasing storyteller Ron Carlson here) “stay in the room with the story” for as long as it takes to discover the deeper truths.
In researching my memoir, I oftentimes revved up my roadster and slipped into the role of my alter ego, Nancy Drew. I’ve gathered clues from the National Archives; I’ve explored the sites of former tent revivals and churches, long since demolished; and I’ve unearthed numerous artifacts, along the Sawdust Trail.
And so it is, that on this Throwback Thursday (#TBT), I’m recalling that other blogging meme, Thankful Thursday. I unearthed this classified ad in the Portland, Oregonian archives. Like so many other treasures I’ve collected, it could’ve been lost to time and decay, were it not for for the myriad librarians, genealogists and archivists who’ve devoted their time and energies to the preservation of our individual and shared histories.
Endangered Species Carousel, at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing, but what you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself. –Alan Alda
Giraffes are graceful animals, but don’t let their gentle demeanor fool you. Living as they do on the African savanna, they have no choice but to stick their necks out. How else to avoid potential predators, or to locate the next watering hole? No better way to reach the highest tree branches, where the tastiest morsels grow.
If a carousel animal can suggest a truth universal, maybe it’s this: The golden ring is available to those of us who are willing to stretch beyond our comfort zones, and to set our sights on the unknown. Danger lurks, but that’s a given, even for those who seek refuge in a merry-go-round existence.
If there’s a time when a person’s neck is most exposed, it’s when they’re writing memoir. It’s hard, sometimes, to trust the process. But oh, the treasures that make themselves known to us, when we prove ourselves willing to stretch beyond any preset notions or boundaries, and to bravely explore each memory for its underlying essence!
For two solid years, I've babied this rose, from bare root plant to blossom. Thorns emerged, and it was prone to bugs and disease. A puny bud emerged at one point, but the stem was too fragile to support its weight. I almost yanked it from the flowerbed, right then and there. But at the last minute, I granted it a stay of execution.
If it doesn't thrive this season, I told myself, I'll replace it with something else. And wouldn't you just know it: The bush burst forth with three gorgeous flowers, earlier this week!
I've heard this in a religious context, and maybe you've encountered it elsewhere. But it occurred to me just this morning that writing memoir is not unlike the blossoming of this beautiful rose. With each chapter I write (revise or write again), the bud begins to flower. New petals reveal themselves–tiny hints of understanding; of honesty, unfurled–until one day the Truth spills forth, releasing with it the sweet, sweet fragrance of Freedom. The shadow on the right side–I try not to see that as a flaw. It represents the Unknowable, which is part of memoir, too
My hydrangeas are coming into bloom–neither blue nor pink, but a paler shade of each, and the leaves are getting crispy at the edges. That's what comes of being planted in hard-packed soil, of seeking shade but being subjected, instead, to harsh sunlight.
There's a lesson in this for me. Barbara Kingsolver says it well: "“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.”
I don’t watch daytime serials, but my mother did. When the world was crumbling at her feet, she found refuge in a Gothic mansion inhabited by werewolves, ghosts, zombies, witches, warlocks, and man-made monsters.
During the first year it aired, each episode of Dark Shadows began with a short narration by the main character, Victoria Winters. But the words didn’t carry the same significance for me back then. In fact, I used to plug my ears. Scary shows like that gave me the heebie-jeebies! But now…well, watch the first 35 seconds or so of this first episode. I got shivers up my spine, for an entirely different reason.
You don’t have to slip into a parallel universe to discover life’s ironies. And you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate its metaphors. But braiding them into a story that’s at once intimate and transcendent…that’s the challenge I’m working on this week. And you?