Monday, September 1, 2008

The One Month Mark

A lot of people like to say that they are "spiritual, but not religious." It's usually meant to express the mistrust of organized religion while still allowing for the understanding that there is something larger than any one of us that lives in all of us. Generally, I think this is a pretty healthy attitude. It takes a person's spiritual life out of the hands of institutions and places it firmly within each individual's grasp. And I think that's healthy. Spirituality should be about a personal journey. Between you and God.

But, especially as a minister, I'm a bit of an anomaly. I like to say that I'm religious and not spiritual. I'm more of the "We make our own destiny" school of thinking. I believe in the importance of ritual and community as a way to remind us of what's important and keep us on the right path, and I don't have a whole lot of belief in the magic side of things. My current brand of faith has more to do with the faith that I can go out into the world and try to make a difference and then let go of it. The faith that we have the power to change the world if we try. The faith that it will mean something and it will have an impact, even if I never live to see it. That said, I always try to leave the door cracked for that "experience of other" that seems to be the difference between philosophy and religion. It's the thing that seems to breath life into ideology.

I like to have my tarot cards read every once in a while. I don't really think that they connect me to some other world or that they hold any mystical power. I think that people can see what they need to in the cards. Kind of like a spiritual Rorschach test. And for many years now, whenever I find a playing card face-down on the sidewalk, I pick it up, flip it over, and look up the divinatory meaning when I get home. At worst it's a silly little thing to pass the time - like a fortune cookie fortune. At best it's a reminder of something that I might need to think about at the moment. I get red Jacks much more often that should be probable.

About a week ago, I was out with some new friends and I found a card on the ground. It was a Jack of Hearts. I told one of my housemates that I seem to get them a lot. When I looked up the meaning online and it said that someone who cares about me was thinking of me. "That's nice," I thought. Staying in contact with family and friends since my trip started, I also knew that it was true. I found another card a few nights ago. All by itself, face-down. When I picked it up and flipped it over it was another Jack of Hearts. Those are pretty long odds, and it sent a little shiver down my spine. The next day, and the day after that, I found cards on the ground face-down, and I just kept walking. It seemed a little too spooky to pick them up. And come to think of it, it was a pretty decent analogy for the spiritual journey. Sometimes you learn things that you might not feel ready to know. If you're doing it right, it's a little scary.

Today marks exactly one month that I've been in Vietnam and all that time I've been looking for a good Cuban cigar. I envisioned women walking around with huge bundles of Cohiba Robustos balanced on their heads and selling for a buck piece. But they turned out to be a lot harder to find than I expected. I got some information about a part of town that should have some, but I went there and asked around and they didn't. I got the address of the only licensed distributor of Habanos in the country, and found that it was only an office or some kind of storage facility with guards that didn't speak English, didn't know anything about any cigars, and weren't about to let me wander around the building. I went looking for a hotel that supposedly had a nice bar and a good selection of cigars, only to find it wasn't where it was supposed to be on my map, and the entrance was boarded up and they were in the middle of remodeling. (You can't see the plywood in the picture, but trust me, it was a dead end.) And, I got a cold so and gave up the search for a while. No point in a good cigar if you can't really taste it.

So today, I finally found the first good Cubans I've seen here. They turned out to be at a really pricey hotel that I've walked past a few times. But they had a selection of exactly 2 different cigars, the humidor wasn't properly kept, and they wanted almost $40 US per smoke. I'm not a heavy cigar smoker by any means, but I've had quite a few of the best over the years from all over the world and not one came anywhere near being worth $40. I moved on, and after dinner tonight I decided to canvass every luxury hotel I could find and get a decent cigar or give up for good. I walked quite a few miles today (cigars are only bad for you if you forget to factor in all the walking) and finally, I found a really nice hotel bar just south of downtown with a good selection of reasonably priced cigars. I selected a Montecristo #3, got it cut, took a couple of boxes of matches from the bar, and went out to take my new cigar for a nice long walk.

Tomorrow is Vietnam's National Day. Sept. 2nd is their version of Independence Day. There were six kids in my class today that usually has about 25, and if the day didn't seem different than usual, the night sure did. On my walk back with my cigar, I found this..
Why are all of the audience members for the hoola-hoop girls on scooters? Because the stage is set up on a traffic island in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town. The entertainment is something nice for people to stop and watch and honk at as they rush home to make last minute Independence Day preparations. There were cars and bikes all over the streets and the sidewalks with vendors and pedestrians climbing over and around them any way they could. The streets were Bedlam. I stopped to enjoy the show and I had a woman that sold me some really overpriced postcards once before tug on my arm and give me another pitch. Her kid wanted to try my cigar. Another guy wanted to sell me some "marijuana" (people have tried to sell me "pot", or "weed", or "smoke" before, but this was my first "marijuana" salesman). I didn't buy anything but as an English teacher I appreciated that he used the proper terminology, and I talked and joked with the postcard lady, and I encouraged her son not to smoke, and for the first time I was comfortable in all of this mayhem.

I saw a car go by that was flying an American flag and I saluted. I bought Vietnamese flag t-shirts for everyone in the house on the way home to celebrate the second of September tomorrow. The red Vietnamese flag t-shirt with the gold star is the obligatory souvenir around here. I've been thinking that it would feel weird for me to wear that shirt, but I decided to do it anyway. After all, I saw a local just yesterday with an American flag on his shirt. I talked the t-shirt lady down to just over $2 apiece for 4 shirts partly, I think, because I was able to negotiate the sale in Vietnamese. I strolled toward home, and I felt at-home for the first time in this city.

Along the way I found a playing card, all by itself, face down. I was in such a good mood that I picked it up and turned it over. It was the Jack of Diamonds. "Jack of Diamonds" is an old Tex Ritter song that my Dad used to sing every once in a while when I was a kid and we were riding around in his truck. I was in my twenties before I knew that he didn't make it up himself. In my mind it's always been Dad's song. I felt like the first two cards were telling me something, and that the last one was telling me that I got it.

I still don't necessarily believe in cards as a way of communicating with the beyond or anything like that. But sometimes along the way, when you keep your eyes open, you find just what you need to find, just when you need to find it.


creativeinferno said...


A lot of information in your recent posts. I have a question about your distrust of magic/metaphysical aspects of religion and spirtiualism...the three jacks...three witches on the heath...all the things that went away with new Renaissance ideas are still with us as part of our history as human beings/rational/irrational animals.
Our endless journey toward humanity and humane ideas.
Finding one's father is possible by tracking his path..this is God, and god and Dad...I think you've stumbled on the right track and on your future.



Seth said...

I think I'm suspicious of the metaphysical because of the way that it was misused around me while I was growing up. Everything fell under the dominion of supernatural powers, and those in authority claimed a closer position to that power and didn't have to be responsible for any reason in their actions. Life was full of paradoxes that didn't make any sense, but if you couldn't make sense of them it was your fault. I felt like I was growing up on a flat Earth in many ways, and it was because of a lack of rational thought. I know you know what I'm talking about.

On the other hand, rationally speaking, we know that we don't understand all of the laws that govern our universe. There is mystery and a healthy faith needs to have room for that mystery.

I see faith in the unknown as being a little like a wick on an oil lamp. Reason is the little dial on the side that controls the length of the wick and the amount of oil being burned. If you have a container full of oil, and you light it all at once, you get a lot of chaotic, destructive power. But, if it's tempered with reason, faith can light your path.

So I just think there needs to be a balance. Cold, logical, reasoning can explain a lot things, but doesn't give any of them meaning, and the mystical and supernatural can give life meaning and enrich it in many ways, but when it isn't balanced with reason it can be misused and bring out the worst, rather than the best in people. So I think skepticism is just as important to the process of developing faith as it is to scientific experiment. People too often look for "proof" in mystical experience, or they think that they understand something just because they can explain it in scientific terms. But I think both are examples of being out of balance, or using the wrong tool for the job. I think mysticism and logic should be used together, but not mixed. Make sense?