Robert greeted me at his front door in typically understated fashion, a hint of a smile, a nod, and an awkward hug. “Come in. Come in.” His movements are measured in the manner similar to someone with a neck injury. He cautiously turns and leads me inside. The one room apartment is unspectacular, but its location is more than impressive-on the ground level of a luxury home perched atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The exclusive neighborhood, clearly not zoned for any use other than single family residences, suggests to me the home’s owner must be an admirer. Robert clears his throat quietly. I recall he does this often and wonder if it may be a tic of some sort. “Lunch will be ready in just a moment. Sit down. Please.” He gestures toward two chairs, separated by a small table where Robert and I have had many conversations. These face the open doors to a small but pristine yard that demonstrates how very close the home is to the edge of the bluff. Before sitting, I glance at the yard and survey the small apartment. His futon is folded and pushed to one side of the studio. And there is something new. An ornate antique red and black harpsichord sits in the center of the room.
“Robert, this is beautiful.”
“Yes”, he answers. “I couldn’t help myself.” Then, looking up with a smile, he confesses, “I have three more in storage.”
I laugh quietly as I think for a man of great accomplishments and modest lifestyle, collecting harpsichords seems suitably unconventional.
I sit and watch Robert methodically prepare the very same lunch we have every time I visit. He tears leaves from a head of Bibb lettuce and tosses them into a small stainless bowl.
“Will you take these out to the table, please?” He nods at the collection of items on the counter: a sleeve full of rice cakes, a jar of Trader Joes’ almond butter, and a sticky ceramic pot of honey. I carry these to the table outside and return to collect the Braggs Liquid Aminos and lemon juice while Robert follows with the bowl of Bibb lettuce leaves. He limps slightly as he makes his way to the table. He wears a prosthetic leg. Once it broke while on his annual visit to Pondicherry, India and he fell flat on his face. He laughed explaining the beggars lining a busy crossing thought nothing of his fall or his prosthetic leg. They simply made room for him to sit with them which he did for hours, his leg in his lap. This is why he loves India; he tells me. They make no effort to hide the dark sides of life.
Robert cuts the image of an engineer type from the late ‘50’s. He’s in his seventies, I guess; wears a buzz cut and is always clean-shaven. His short-sleeved button-downed shirts are always buttoned at the top and worn tucked into pants hitched too high. All he’s missing is the pocket protector. It’s ironic that so many new age people follow this nerdy introvert. But he is a best-selling author, a Jungian analyst and former student of Carl Jung that lectures all over the world.
We sit down to eat, and he signals I should help myself. The weather is, of course, perfect; the sounds of breaking waves and plaintiff seagulls is soothing. It always takes a while, but I gradually acclimate to our sparsely worded conversations.
We lunch on a slightly elevated deck that offers stunning views up and down the coast. Beyond the slender strip of sandy beach below, everything is blue ocean and blue sky. Just offshore, a long line of surfers straddle their boards, rising and falling with the swells as they assess each one’s promise for a good ride. Plumeria trees covered with white blossoms accent the deck and occasionally I catch a whiff of their sweet fragrance
After we have begun to eat, he asks, “How are you?”
A rush of disconnected thoughts floods my brain. I have way too much in my head for a palatable-sized response. An imagined one-sided rant is unleashed. You want to know how I am? Well, I’ll tell ya how I am. I am twenty-seven years old, the new Rector of a Church in in a bohemian beach town. This is my first solo assignment after having spent three tumultuous years with a parish 80 miles north of here. The man I worked for…the Rector was a very charismatic, high energy, hard-charging, rip-roaring extrovert who people called Father Bob. The congregation adored him, and he fed on their adoration. The more he got, the more he gave and the more gave, the more he needed. In this sense, it was tough to find room to breathe. Still, while immersed in it, (and I was expected to immerse myself in it), I must confess, it was very seductive. I learned how to measure my success as a developing priest: a fast-growing church, a fat budget, lots of young people, butts in pews, lots of events, a great deal of socializing, and many, many meetings. The three years under Father Bob nearly killed me but after I understood how it all worked, I found I could meet the criteria for success that I had internalized. I also learned there is a kind of insatiability and greed baked into this inane model for ministry. Insatiable, because the better something got, the better it needed to be. Greed was a byproduct of insatiability. To get to better than what is, one has got to keep asking for more and more from the very same group you are there to serve. And to get more, you need to give more so as a senior priest in a large neighboring church said to me. “I feel as if I have laid myself out for all to pick clean my bones.” And another: “I’m tired of asking people to do things they don’t want to do.”
I understood this but began to think the path to success in the Church was no different than any other demanding profession. Cash flow was typically problematic but there were quaint traditions that were intended to address such disparities that existed between the parson and his flock. You lived in a comfortable house, in a nice neighborhood, maybe have a membership at the club, never pick up the tab at some of the nicest restaurants, perhaps someone makes their vacation home available to you, and maybe hang out with the big donors who share with you all their secrets. You almost begin to feel like you’re one of them, but you would do well to remember, you’re not. Seductive, yes. But also disorienting. Ironically, an almost Faustian pact.
Now I was in my own parish. It wasn’t at all like the past three years. You see, in my haste to exit, I recklessly vetted prospective parishes and landed in a place where I felt like a round peg in a square hole. The rules of the game I had learned didn’t apply here. All the seductive trappings didn’t exist in this parish. The frenzied model I learned wasn’t going to work in this tiny little Church. So, now… now, I was feeling a little bit crazy, a little bit trapped, and a little bit lost. This is what I have come to discuss with Robert.
I spread almond butter and honey on a couple of rice cakes and notice Robert seems indifferent about whether I’m going to share what’s on my mind. I know he’s not disinterested although he is indifferent about whether I choose to answer.
Even as I ruminate, I hear myself offering an inept and rambling description of my situation. I explain that my decision to accept this new assignment may have been impulsive and even reckless. I’m trying to say I’m not happy without sounding like a whiney child and what the hell can he do about it anyway?
“Robert, it’s just that the difference between the past three years at St. Paul’s and where I am now is so… deflating. Honestly, I’m kind of bored. The place feels like it’s dying!” I couldn’t believe what I was saying, and immediately regretted saying it. My words were unkind and worse than that, whiney. I was badmouthing my own parish and sounded like a snob entitled to something better. I sat still for a moment thinking all I’d done was vomited.
When I finish, he is quiet. My face feels flushed; I’m embarrassed by what I’ve said, and secretly hope he will dispense quick advice and send me on my way.
Instead, he politely clears his throat several times and nods repeatedly. I can’t tell if he is signaling understanding or has a tremor. Then, he stands picks up the stainless bowl. “Shall we have tea?”
We sit in the two chairs inside and Robert pours tea. He clears his throat once more. “About your new parish?”
I nod and lean in. “Right!”
“One step forward, two steps back.” He wears an understanding, almost sympathetic smile.
I smiled back. “Yeah.” I mean what else is there to say?
“I take one step forward and two steps back…” he says again. He waits a moment, then continues. “But I make progress because I was headed in the wrong direction to begin with.” His smile widened just a bit. “You should have that put on a T-shirt.”
That was it. That was what he had to say. Nothing more. I have thought about this a lot over many years; about the choices I’ve made…the directions I’ve taken. Once I have chosen a direction, it becomes my direction, and as my own, it is the right direction. Not in a moral sense but more in an evolutionary sense. I shape my directions, and my directions shape me. I can’t suddenly shed the directions I’ve taken as I might an article of clothing. Who I am and the choices I make is an alchemical process. I am the product of the directions I have taken. My aspirations have never come equipped with a GPS system. I zig and zag, maybe go in circles for a time. But ultimately, I choose a direction and I have come to believe that a direction chosen will never be wasted unless I have grown so arrogant, I ignore what it offers. One step forward and two back? Two steps forward and one back? I think what Robert wanted me to know was that a life’s direction is never right or wrong…. It’s just a direction and what else is there to do but to go live it. So, that’s what I did and now, the three short years I spent in that peculiar parish live not in my mind as a memory but in the fabric of my DNA having defined at the most essential level who I have become.