My 'Spiritually Incorrect' Journey Back to God
I was shivering under a paper robe in a doctor�s office in Hollywood, where I�d gone because of "a funny feeling my heart�s beating too fast." Except for more frequent but long-familiar hangovers, I had never had any physical problems. I was hoping that this was no problem either, merely the inflamed imagination of a 48-year-old writer trying to land his next television gig. "There�s nothing wrong with your heart....now," the doctor said. "But you have a resting pulse of 120, about twice what I�d consider healthy." He took off his glasses and asked, "Are you in the entertainment business?"
I had come to L.A. two and a half years before to create and serve on the staff of a prime-time television series on NBC, James at 15. I quit the series in a squabble with the censors (they wouldn�t allow any reference to birth control when our teenage hero makes love for the first time), and the show wasn�t renewed for a second season. I was no longer hot. I found myself caught up in the demeaning "tap dancing" of Hollywood, trying desperately to sell my wares. Joan Didion, who had known me since our early days in New York in the �50s, said, "Wakefield, I�ll bet you�re a lousy meeting." She was right. In Hollywood terms, that was as degrading as being judged a lousy lay. I felt like a West Coast update of Willy Loman.
I hit the bottle all the harder as I hit bottom that spring of 1980. The doctor prescribed beta-blockers to lower my pulse rate, but somehow I knew that pills weren�t the answer. The morning after I went to the doctor, I woke up screaming, then walked into the next room and screamed again. I was living what felt like a waking nightmare. I pulled an old Bible that I hadn�t opened in years from my bookshelf and turned to the Twenty-third Psalm. There was comfort and hope in the familiar lines, " . . . He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. . . ." I took a shower and booked the next flight to Boston.
My old GP prescribed a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet and exercise, but I drew the line at cutting down on my drinking, telling the doctors I couldn�t stop now as my whole life seemed to be falling apart: My seven-year relationship with a woman I had hoped to be with the rest of my life ended, I left the work I�d been doing, I was broke for the first time, I attended my father�s funeral in May and my mother�s six months later.
Only a few years before, I had boasted of bypassing the midlife crisis, making fun of the very concept in a book review on the subject. I had arrogantly assumed I was immune: Wasn�t I a hotshot novelist summoned to Hollywood to write my own prime-time series? That person no longer existed. Instead of sipping champagne at Le Dome with agents and actors, I was riding an exercise bike in a furnished sublet in Boston and watching All My Children on a black-and-white portable TV to see other people�s problems instead of my own.
My doctor suggested I try going for a month without a drink. I had never gone longer than a week without drinking in more than 20 years (and then I was climbing the walls), yet everything else he had asked me to do had worked. I braced myself and vowed to try the impossible. In that time of my longest dry spell in decades, a previously unthinkable desire popped up unexpectedly.
As a child in Indianapolis I had been deeply moved by a Baptist Bible school I attended with a friend from my grade school. I had felt a deep connection with Jesus and a tangible if innocent faith, leading me to decide on my own to be baptized by full immersion when I was 11 years old. But by the end of high school, my all-out adolescent angst and rebellion was turning me from faith to cynicism, a switch that was solidified when I went to college at Columbia University, graduating as a full-fledged intellectual atheist.
Pete Hamill, Nat Hentoff, Norman Podhoretz, and other writers who came of age in the �50s have testified to being told then, as I was, that if you wanted to be a serious writer, you had to be a serious drinker. I was one of the young New York literary journalists and novelists who wrote for The Nation or the National Review, Esquire or Commentary, The Village Voice or The New York Times Magazine. Our gods were Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who glamorized booze and declared (F. Scott�s phrase) "all gods dead, all wars fought." He was wrong on both counts.
When I had grabbed the Bible that nightmare morning in Hollywood, it was the first time I�d turned to my forgotten faith since my drinking years began. After I got to Boston, I sat on a bench by the pond in the Public Garden and recited again the Twenty-third Psalm in thanks for surviving and getting home. But that was as far as it went. It wasn�t until that December, when my head was clear of alcohol, that an impulse arose to take the next step. I was sitting in a neighborhood bar on Beacon Hill (though I wasn�t drinking I still went to bars out of habit and to hang out with friends). A housepainter named Tony remarked that he was going to Mass on Christmas Eve, just a week away. As if a light bulb had come on in my head I thought, I want to do that too.
I didn�t even know what church to go to "any Protestant church would do" and I resorted to searching The Boston Globe religion page. King�s Chapel was not only close, but its Christmas Eve program seemed nonthreatening: "candlelight service with carols." Little did I know that the minister would add some readings between carols, one of them from Helena, an Evelyn Waugh novel about the mother of Constantine, which spoke of "latecomers" to the manger, and I guiltily thought I�d been fingered, that the message was addressed to me.
I screwed up my courage to return for Easter and began to go to church on what I thought of as "regular Sundays." When I walked through the Boston Common on Sunday mornings that first year, I pulled my coat collar up, head down, hoping none of my intellectual-literary friends would spot me. I was drawn not only to Sunday services, but to classes taught by our remarkable low-key, high-awareness minister, Rev. Carl Scovel, who seemed to give sermons and lessons designed especially for my needs and questions, and to pass on just the right book at the right time...like Reaching Out, by Catholic theologian Rev. Henri J. M. Nouwen, and A Palpable God, by prize-winning novelist and eloquent Christian writer Reynolds Price. (The hotshot novelist-turned-TV-writer would have been appalled.)
I never felt I was "born again," which suggests some booming voice coming to you out of the blue, or lightning striking your forehead. I was relieved when Scovel told me the word for "conversion" in Greek means "turning around," which seemed to fit my own experience. I learned that each turn, no matter how small, changes the course of your path, until you look around one day and realize that you are going in a completely different direction.
After four years of doing my daily exercycle, taking some yoga classes, and going to church, I still hadn�t solved all of life�s problems. Though I�d reduced my drinking to one or two glasses of wine a few nights a week, I still had to fight to keep it under control. I was also concerned about a new destructive pattern of instability, which manifested itself in the firing of three literary agents in a year. Neither prayers nor therapy seemed to help.
A couple I�d known for years told me that est training, created by transformation guru Werner Erhard, had changed their lives and saved their marriage, while another friend warned that it would brainwash me. I worried that it would somehow challenge or undercut my newfound religious belief, so I spoke with a Roman Catholic monk who had tried the program, and he reassured me. "Whatever genuine spirituality you bring to this," he said, "will be deepened by it." I took the plunge and came out lightened, if not enlightened. The experience did deepen my own faith and sent me back to the church with renewed commitment. I settled down with a literary agent, and most amazing of all, the compulsion to drink was gone.
I don�t consider myself a minister or guru of any kind, nor do I aspire to be. My "ministry," if it can be called that, consists of leading workshops in spiritual autobiography at churches, synagogues, and adult education centers throughout the country, as well as in Mexico and Northern Ireland. Perhaps my most personally rewarding work is at Sing Sing prison, where Rev. Bill Webber, whom I met back in the mid-�50s while writing my first book, on Spanish Harlem, runs an educational program through the New York Theological Seminary. He has invited me to give my workshop whenever I come to New York. Sing Sing is where you hear the hard truth, of lives that have somehow been twisted and funneled into this trap. I respect these men who study within these bleak walls for an M.A. degree and learn skills that qualify them for ministry or social work or chaplaincy, and I feel a rapport with them. I have avoided those programs where men beat drums and weep about their fathers, but at Sing Sing I thought, "At last I�ve found my own men�s group."
Sometimes my past work "like the book on Spanish Harlem" links up with my present spiritual concerns, yet often it seems to outsiders and sometimes even to friends that I have two conflicting personas, a dichotomy brought forcefully to my attention by a young woman in the audience at St. Bartholomew�s Episcopal Church in New York after I gave a talk on my book Creating From the Spirit. "Do you now renounce your earlier work?" she asked, referring to my novels like Starting Over and Going All the Way, both of which were made into feature films. The latter and more controversial one is a coming-of-age story about two young men returning home to Indiana after serving in the Korean War. They are in rebellion against home, religion, the middle-class world they grew up in, and they use sexually provocative language and express politically incorrect ideas about women that were the norm of that bygone era.
"No," I told my questioner, "I embrace my earlier work." I believe a work is religious not necessarily because it is "about religion" but because it digs down and tells the truth as the author sees it, even if it hurts. I am proud of my novels because they aspire to that standard. I was once told by a bookseller that he thought the author of the novels and the spiritual books were two different writers with the same name. I assured him it was the same guy. I try in my spiritual memoirs to record my dark nights of the soul as well as the light of faith and the blessings of the spirit.
My darkest night of the soul occurred eight years after going back to church and believing I was finally, truly on the spiritual path, what the Navajos call "the gleaming way." I had written my first book on this new way of life, Returning: A Spiritual Journey, and started giving workshops in spiritual autobiography so others could tell their own stories. I didn�t drink anymore, I helped plan and lead our church�s retreats, and I felt in tune with God, the universe, my own spirit. After two broken marriages, I felt I was ready for a true marriage in the church. Best of all, I met again a woman whom I knew from high school, an accomplished woman who left home after college as I did to pursue a career in the arts and was now a widow, after raising two children. This seemed like the answer to everything, the act that would tie the loose threads of my life together...home, faith, love. My parents would have loved her and been happy and proud of me. Yes!
We made a quick decision to marry and five months later, despite growing anxiety and questions, we pressed on and said the vows. But as we walked from the Parish House that is so sacred to me, I knew as soon as I closed the door that there was no way on God�s earth the marriage would work. It felt like a dark cloud had descended and I was lost, in pain, in terror, and my new wife saw and knew it too. We struggled from May to November before acknowledging defeat, the smashing of our dream and, almost, of my faith.
I did not stop believing in God but in my ability to know or reach Him. Before the marriage I prayed for guidance, sought the advice of ministers and spiritual directors, and convinced myself that my doubts were just negative impulses. In fact, my doubts were the only true message I was getting. My prayers seemed meaningless, the old reassuring words a travesty. I had made vows and broken them. Words mocked me now. I felt I could hardly breathe. Death seemed near and tempting.
I turned to the yoga I�d done off and on for the past five or so years in hopes of restoring my faith through silence, letting my body be the prayer. I felt I was in a deep pit, and all I could do was take up the postures of this ancient discipline. Slowly, after a year or so, I began to reconnect, the words coming back as the darkness receded, and I was able to return to church without feeling only pain and futility. I learned to trust my body "my gut feelings" more than my mind. I thanked God for giving me this way back.
"The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is everyone that is born of the spirit." I thought of those words from the Gospel of John when I found myself six years ago coming to live in the last place I ever thought I�d be...Miami Beach. It started with a phone call out of the blue from a woman who said she had been to her dentist that morning and read an article from a magazine in his waiting room about my workshops in spiritual autobiography: Could I lead one at her church in Florida?
That simple request led to an invitation to do a reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables, and then to a guest lectureship in the graduate writing program of Florida International University, which two years later was formalized into the position I now hold as writer-in-residence. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if that woman had gone to another dentist.
I have not joined a church here, nor do I think I will ever find one that I become as deeply involved in and blessed by as King�s Chapel, which I always will think of as "my church." Though I still church-hop, my main spiritual connection comes through my workshops, where I believe I�m letting myself be used as an instrument of spirit and delivering an experience of value. It�s a deeply satisfying and enlivening feeling.
When friends who have no interest in such matters ask me why I write about religion and spirituality, I quote Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute, who says "the great game, the game of games, the story of stories is the unfoldment of the Divine." Some of my old literary friends are not only mystified but also uncomfortable with this preoccupation. One of my few friends from that world who�s interested in, and sometimes writes about, spiritual subjects told me that a mutual friend in the literary ranks said he couldn�t read something she had written in that realm, explaining, �It�s not my cup of gumbo.� That�s become our password for our old comrades who scorn or are simply left cold by these subjects that fascinate us: It�s not their cup of gumbo. Other friends in the New York literary world are closet believers, seekers who do not want others to know of their interest in God or spirit, for fear it would lower their standing and make them suspect in the world they work in.
Sometimes I get put down from the opposite direction, by holier-than-thou religionists who feel I am too frivolous and worldly to be counted among the elect. I have come to realize that for such ideologues I am "spiritually incorrect." A woman at a yoga retreat was shocked to hear that I lived in Miami Beach and warned that I had better watch out or I�d soon be driving a convertible. "I already do," I said, "and it�s red." She nearly choked on her tofu. My gold bracelet and the gold chain I wear around my neck constitute further violations of spiritual correctness. I again crossed the line two years ago when I got a face-lift.
Elective surgery to look better may be taboo, but surely even the most spiritually correct person could not complain when I had a triple bypass last year to keep my heart going. It was after that surgery, by the way, that I got my red convertible.
I still pray and still believe in a God who wants us to enjoy life. I believe in the Jesus of John 21, who appears to the disciples on the shores of Galilee after the crucifixion, and hearing that they had caught no fish all night tells them to cast their nets on the other side. They come up filled, and Jesus tells them to bring the fish ashore, where he has prepared a fire of coals to cook them. "Come and dine," he says to the disciples. I think he means to the feast of life; I think he means all of us.
Dan Wakefield�s most recent book is How Do We Know When It�s God? (Little, Brown; 1999).
Reprinted from the AARP web site.
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