My Mystic Father

Dad at 48

[My dad at the age of 48.]

My father Richard Johnson’s funeral is today, and one of my family members will read this story I shared in my book:

I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.

My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.

Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.

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Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom

Rain

RainI woke early in the morning, anxious about yet another radon test at our old house, as the rain was coming down and the wind was all stirred up. We’ve had two failed radon tests, before and after upgrades to our mitigation system.  The other day, the mitigation folks were checking on why the radon levels had doubled after their upgrades, but everything  seemed fine, and their instant test meter was showing no problems.  They suggested that perhaps it was an anomaly, and we should retest.

I had read online that radon tends to be at its worst in the winter and/or when it is raining. So I wondered whether that had affected the tests.  According to the mitigation folks, it shouldn’t matter that much.  But both of the tests happened during stormy weather, the last one including a rare winter thunderstorm, with an inch of rain and high wind levels. Now, here we are again, testing, with the rain pouring down, and the sale of our house to these buyers resting on the outcome. Why was it raining once again?

But then my heart took me to a deeper place this morning. I realized that deep in my subconscious I was still attached to that old myth–that when good things happened it was a sign of blessing or favor from the great Mysteries, the Spirits, the Divine benevolence. And its counter:  I believed that when bad things happened it was a sign of abandonment or disfavor.  So I was troubled with the Rain and Wind, the Thunder–Why are you not helping us? I thought. I was wondering if the Rain and Wind were angry with us.

But then, they brought me to a deeper reality.  That myth of blessing or abandonment is the quintessential American myth.  But it is not really true.  Otherwise, what does that mean for the people who have faced many troubles–so much bigger troubles than radon or house sale troubles–are they abandoned or in disfavor with the spirit?  What of every child who has lost a parent, or parent who has lost a child? What of the people who lost lands and cultures to the genocide of the early explorers and settlers? What of the people who were torn from their own countries in chains? What of those who are torn from their homes today, in the wake of war and terrorism? It is not the Spirit who has abandoned them, but perhaps their fellow human beings.

The Spirit remains present with us through everything.  Whether we face happy outcomes or troubles.  Love enfolds us in its widest embrace.  That is the truest reality.  Whether we pass or fail the radon test, the Rain and Wind and Thunder are still our guardians. I have to let my small heart open wide, to move beyond the idea of prayer as an attachment to things going my way, or the easy way, into prayer as an entryway into perceiving that all-embracing Love.

And in the light of that Love, don’t we want the best for the people who are hoping to buy our house?  Don’t we want them to be safe and have the best possible outcome for their home search, even as we hope it for ourselves? If there is a radon problem in the house, don’t we want it to be solved for them? And radon, or a house sale, are so small in the great scheme of things. There are so many bigger challenges that are facing our world today.  Challenges of water and air for all people. Challenges of climate change and war and xenophobia and oppression.

This journey is rooted in an intention–to live in a more beneficial relationship with the earth and all beings. Each step of the way can be imbued with that intention, and can bring us closer to that vision. Along the way, reality will be reality, and if that phrase, “all will be well,” means anything real, it is not dependent on test outcomes or house sales. Now it might be time to take a walk in the rain.

 

 

Paint

Painted shelves

Photo and Paint by Margy Dowzer–her caption: “paint drying, painter tired”

Margy took this photo–can you see her in the window?  She painted the inside of the shelves.  Even with zero VOC paint, I have trouble with the fumes, but she does a little better, so she’s been tackling the insides of closets and cupboards as we try to finish getting the house ready for our move in one week. The day after this photo, she was utterly exhausted and had to crash for the day.  But we each are doing what we can to move this process forward.  I love our partnership!

Helpers for Finding Our Way Home

Cardinal

Margy Dowzer Photo

There are beings all around us who want to be called upon, who want to help us in this work of returning to wholeness, this work of finding our way home. I have shared stories of a few of the beings who have helped me. The bright red cardinal singing its beautiful song. The four directions beech tree. The waters of lakes and streams. The ground, the very ground we walk upon, that holds me when all around me everything is falling apart.

Now that I know about the mycelial network, the ground feels more alive to me. But it was always true that something happened when I sat down upon the ground. If I sleep on the ground for a longer period of days, there is a glow that surrounds my body. I remember this from my time at the Women’s Peace Camp, where I was living in a tent for four months. I felt alive in some new way that I began to miss when I went back inside an apartment in Chicago. I forget it easily, but I feel more alive when I am outside.

Jesus has been such a helping presence too. First in my childhood and youth, when he was the one who loved me and who called me to the path of love. But even later, when I was leaving Christianity to follow the path of the Goddess, Jesus was a guide and a friend. If we can experience the divine within every being around us, the theological questions about Jesus seem less of a quandary. People have been asking, over the centuries, Was Jesus a man or a God? I would answer, Aren’t all of us both human and divine?

When Winifred Gallagher wrote about her quest for a spiritual home, she described the essential spiritual practice of the Christian tradition as the practice of love for everyone. She commented that it seemed a lot easier to meditate for an hour every day, than to have to practice love for everyone—it was not an easy alternative. It has been a deep tragedy that Christianity has been used to foster hate and oppression. Jesus stays in my life as the teacher of love, the human example of what divine love looks like.

I want you to know that we are not alone. In this time of great challenges and transitions, there are a host of beings who love life and want to help us find another way to live. As we reach out to them, they are reaching out to us. I understand that every person will have their own ways of connecting to earth, to each other, to Mystery. The mycelial network might not be the thing that helps you to experience the connection between all beings. You might not resonate with Jesus or with trees. But I encourage you to find out what it is that does help you. In these times we need critical thinking and activism and also mysticism.

Just as we can now sit in front of a plastic and metal panel and communicate with people across the world, so there are technologies to communicate across species and across dimensions. The threads of life weave us together in ways we have barely begun to imagine. But I know this: we belong here together and we need each other now more than ever. Poet Barbara Deming wrote:

Our own pulse beats in every stranger’s throat,
and also there within the flowered ground beneath our feet.
Teach us to listen:
We can hear it in water, in wood, and even in stone.
We are earth of this earth, and we are bone of its bone.
This is the prayer I sing.

Green Back Yard DSC05265

Choosing the Honorable and the Just

…To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
Wendell Berry

Rev. Bill Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International, wrote eloquently about the power of human resistance to evil. I want to share his words:

In every situation of incomprehensible terror there are always a few people who have cast their lot with the Honorable and the Just… Such people need not be well-educated or sophisticated or even successful in their witness; they simply need to be those who, in the face of sorrow, choose honor and blessing and life. And when they do, they redeem if not humanity, then at least their generation. …For if even only one person in a generation or a country or a culture chooses honor and blessing and life—even only one—then it means that anyone could have made that choice; it means that the Radiant had not completely died in those days; it means that Glory has not been silenced.

We are challenged to respond to the horrible situations of our time with a courageous endeavor—to remember that we are connected. There might be occasions when remembering this connection demands great heroism. The sufferings of the world are so big, and we feel so small. It is frightening to contemplate. But most of the time we are responding to smaller divisions; we must practice finding relationship in the everyday world of conflict and difference—the neighbor whose dog barks too much, the family member whose religious beliefs are contrary to our own, the person whose culture we do not understand, the child who is asserting her own independence.

The promise is that whenever we stand up for human dignity and connection, we bring the power of Grace into the world, we bring the power of God into the world. Whenever we choose mutual respect instead of violence, we strengthen the possibility of Goodness. Whenever we reach out to one who is suffering, we keep alive the Radiant for one more day.

Sunset Winslow DSC02433

Bill Schulz quote from his sermon, “Too Swift to Stop, Too Sweet to Lose”
Wendell Berry quote from “To My Granddaughters,” in A Timbered Choir