Not too long ago I had an enormous personal disappointment that turned into a major epiphany. Before I tell you about the epiphany, I want to fill in a little bit of background.
I’ve written many times in recent years about my struggle to figure out what to do with my life. I’ve had dozens of jobs since leaving college after one year in 1993, and none has ever satisfied me. I’ve even done quite a few of my “dream jobs,” including working as a musician, a radio announcer, and a comedian. For a long time I was hard on myself about my indecisiveness, although more recently Josh Korda, my Buddhist mentor, has helped me stop pathologizing my life choices.
When I was a kid, my Aunt Linda introduced me to Father Edgar Holden, a Franciscan friar she worked with in a Catholic school. He used to call me “Jaybird.” And no, none of you are allowed to call me that. Anyway, there was something magical about Father Ed. I was a Catholic, and had of course seen many priests, even at that young age, so I don’t think it was just his superhero suit. He had an aura, for lack of a better word. He wasn’t pompous or anything like that. In fact he spent most of his time cracking jokes. But I could just tell that behind the humor was something else. I didn’t know what, but I liked it and wanted to be part of it. So I decided to be a priest. (And also, sometime soon after, a paleontologist.)
When I was a tween, my family and I jumped ship from the Catholic church and became Methodists. Not for theological reasons, but because we liked the pastors on that side of Main Street in our town better than the priests on the other side. When we switched, I met Rev. David Durham and Rev. John Holt, the pastor and associate pastor of the church. Both were inspiring men, in very different ways. David was the model of the learned theologian. He spoke several languages and read even more, and talked with a calm voice no matter what was happening. John was a nut. This is the image I always remember: John riding his bicycle down the center aisle of the church, a rubber chicken poking out over the basket. I looked at these two men and thought yup, I still want to be a minister. At one point during high school, I went with John to Colgate Rochester Divinity School to check out a seminary class.
At the age of 15, I realized I didn’t believe in god, largely because it was around this time that I made my first atheist friend and learned that was an option. And just like that, the idea of being a religious leader seemed dead. I’d never heard of Unitarians at this point.
During my second time in Japan, from 1996-98, I started to explore Buddhism. To cut a long story short, I’m now a Buddhist in addition to being an atheist. Buddhism opened up a new possible path, that of being an interfaith chaplain at a hospital or college or prison. I applied twice to Naropa University in Boulder, but couldn’t afford to go either time.
My life has had many twists and turns in the past, well, 41 years, but even more so in the past five. I got divorced, moved around a lot, became homeless at one point, and ended up living in the one town in the United States I said I’d never live in, having visited it many times while married to a former resident. (Side note: It’s going pretty well, actually.)
So here we are, in 2015. And back to my disappointment. Without going into the nature of it, I’ll just say that I chased something and didn’t catch it. The process of not catching it turned into a one-night reevaluation of the path I’m on. And the next morning, I realized what I need to do.
My friend and fellow union organizer Rev. Mike Roberts told me about 10 years ago that I was more prone to the religious impulse than anyone he’d ever met. John Holt, the guy with the chicken, told me a few years after that that I needed to “get paid to love people.” And ever since I was a little kid, I’ve known that a life in an intentional community is what I want. And thus, the epiphany:
I’m going to figure out how to be either a Buddhist chaplain or a Unitarian minister.
I have a few things to do first. I have some college loans in default, and I need to get them out of default so I can get more loans and finish my bachelor’s degree. (I was only in college as a full-time student for one year, but many years later I went back and nearly finished a degree at SUNY Empire State.) Then I need to enter either a Buddhist chaplaincy program or a Unitarian divinity school. I’m extremely poor, so I also need to figure out a way to add to my current income, both right now to survive, and during the years it will take me to finish school. I have two young kids in State College, so I hope to be able to stay here while doing all this.
Later this year I’m going to turn 42. (The answer!) All my life I’ve been saying “I’m only 25 … I’m only 30 … I’m only 35 …” Well, I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve felt called to do this work my entire life. If not now, when? Probably never. So: now!
I’m telling you all this for two reasons: first, because I tend to write about my life very publicly all the time; and second, because I’ll need my community’s help to stay on target and to accomplish these goals. I’m defining “community” very broadly.
It’s time. Time to do the thing I’ve known I wanted to do since I first looked up and saw Father Ed’s clerical collar. I want to help lead an intentional community of people who care about one another, who work for social justice, and who are guided by a strong ethical system. I’m a little daunted by the sheer amount of work in front of me, but I’m even more excited by what waits on the other side.