Wednesday, April 26, 2017

AN ITALIAN JOURNEY: Book Review


The Delight of Being Ordinary: A Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama
A Novel, by Roland Merullo


A few pages into The Delight of Being Ordinary I collapsed in a fit of nearly uncontrollable giggles. They were triggered in part by the situation with which Roland Merullo opens his novel (this is fiction, remember): Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama secretly escape from the holy confines of the Vatican through an ancient underground tunnel leading to the Castel Sant’Angelo; and in part by the slyly spot-on portrayal of the two religious leaders. In particular—and I think this was what set me off—Merullo perfectly captures the idiosyncratic English speech patterns of the Dalai Lama, reflecting the Buddhist leader’s peculiar innocence, his wonder, and simplicity. And His Holiness’s giggles, too.

Things were mostly a bit less hilarious from there on, but there were some great absurdist moments along the way—many of them having to do with the measures required to maintain the anonymity of two of the most famous faces in the world. The escapade is organized and guided, at the Pope’s insistence, by his cousin and chief aide, Paolo, who calls on the expertise of his never-quite-ex wife, Rosa, an exuberant Neapolitan who has made a fortune from a hair-styling and make-up service for Italy’s celebrities.

Disguised as a foreign tourist (the Pope), a rock star (the Dalai Lama) and a dark-skinned immigrant from the Middle East (Paolo), the four set out on their tour of the beautifully evoked Italian landscape and its hillside villages and cities. Throughout, the famous tourists manage to elude discovery—despite the ostentatious Maserati that Rosa has managed to borrow from one of her wealthy clients. Only at journey’s end do we discover that the two holy men were inspired by an inner call more mysterious and profound than the simple whim to indulge in “the delight of being ordinary.” But… no spoiler, I!

It all sounds improbable, right? Yet Merullo manages to pull it off, dancing nimbly through a succession of unlikely situations, from the Pope insisting on inviting a gaudy roadside prostitute for breakfast to a night at a costume extravaganza set in the palatial home of an aging movie star. Worthy of Fellini at his most freakish, the scene rapidly disintegrates into a full-blown orgy.  Behind this high comedy, though, lurks a more serious purpose—or, actually, a handful of them: a satirical critique of contemporary culture and its materialistic values; a study of the complexity of
marital relationships; the constantly shifting ground between reality and illusion, between the sometimes dreary practical necessities of the daily grind and the lures of mystery, magic, and the imagination; and, most particularly, the place and nature of spiritual values in the contemporary world.

Throughout, the ghostly, ghastly figure of Benito Mussolini haunts the tale, in painful national and personal memory. He appears in Paolo’s family history as well as in the disquieting, recurrent dreams of the (fictional) Pope and, eventually in the actual village where the dictator was finally hunted down and executed. He represents the spirit of greed, excess, and inhumanity that continues to pollute our world today, in contrast with the spirit of profound humanity personified by the two spiritual leaders. The infamous fascist leader represents, too, the iron fist of control, whose inner grip the narrator, Paolo, comes to acknowledge as the debilitating factor in his life as he evolves into the unsuspected protagonist of his own tale. In what turns out to have been Paolo’s journey of self-discovery, the two spiritual leaders are not the guided, as he thought all along, but in fact the guides. To his surprise, Paolo finds in himself the cause of his own suffering—and in the end, the glimmerings, at least, of liberation.


Merullo’s book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one that constantly surprises us, not only with its lively narrative twists and turns, but also with its moments of true wisdom and compassionate insight into the human condition along the way.

Monday, April 17, 2017

MESSAGES

Here's what happened.

It was dinner time. My daughter, Sarah, was reading a bedtime story to our grandson, Luka, five years old, in the spare bedroom. We had agreed that she would say goodnight and that I would then go in to read him one last story.

Well, I went in to his bedroom and Sarah finished reading her story and tried to say goodnight, but Luka threw a fit. He clung and clung to his mommy, screaming and yelling that he didn't want her to leave. Finally, she took off the silver bracelet she was wearing and put it on his arm. She told him she loved hm, and he could keep the bracelet all night long.

Luka was still screaming bloody murder when she left, closing the door quietly behind her. I managed to calm him down a little by showing him a new book, Freaky Tales, and asking him to choose one of the stories, which he did, finally, reluctantly, and soon got lost in the story he had chosen. It was the story of a mouse who wanted to be famous.

By the time I reached the end of the story, Luka seemed quite calm and ready to go to sleep. I gave him a kiss and told him that I loved him, tucked him in, and left him with his head down on the pillow.

All seemed well, until we were about to start on dinner. Then, a desperate, near-hysterical scream from the bedroom: "Mommy! Mommy!"

I went back, all ready to scold him gently and remind him that we had made a deal: one more story from grandpa, and then off to sleep.

But that wasn't it at all. He just wanted to give mommy's bracelet back. He allowed me to take it from him to give to her, and went happily off to sleep.

This morning, I told him how proud I was of him. I told him how our actions send messages. His Mom's message, in giving him the bracelet, was this: I love you and I'll be here with you, no matter what. His message to his mom: thanks, Mom, I know you love me, and I'll be okay. I can take care of myself.

Powerful messages, both, in two simple gestures. Luka had announced his trust and independence. Sometimes a teacher comes along in a very small, five-year-old package.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

AN EASTER/PASSOVER WEEK LETTER TO MY CONGRESSMAN

(from The Rohrabacher Letters)

12 April 2017

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher,
101 Main Street #380
Huntington Beach, CA 92648

Dear Congressman,

Re: Metta

One thing I have not mentioned to you in previous correspondence: I have a daily meditation practice. I call myself an “aspiring Buddhist” because I am not quite there yet, with religion. The son of an Anglican vicar, I was brought up in that tradition, but have not embraced it since childhood. In Buddhism, I have found a practice that seems to me more humane than any other religion, and a wisdom that applies broadly to a life well-lived.

I say this, in the first place, in order to let you know that compassion and goodwill for all living beings are a part not only of my belief system but also of the practice of my life. It is the seeming absence of these qualities that most offends me in the policies put forward by Republicans today—whether in health care, social services and education, in immigration, or tax policies that increasingly favor the rich; or in foreign policies that seek to cut funds for the poor, the hungry, the sick and the victims of violence world-wide. You may call me a “bleeding heart liberal,” I suppose, for that is what I am. My heart bleeds for all those who are suffering in this world, and there are far too many of them.

I say it, secondly, to let you know about the practice of “metta,” in which those who meditate, like myself, send out wishes of goodwill and compassion to family and friends and, in ever-widening circles, to all living beings. I am particularly careful to include those whom I dislike and those, like yourself, with whom I disagree. There is too much hatred, too much easy dismissal of the other in this world. It’s my belief that it would be a much better place if we could all share in the joy and blessings of being alive. Despite all our disagreements, then, you personally are included every day—as is the president* I try hard not to despise—in my daily morning practice.

It is Easter time for Christians, Passover for Jews. A good time to send you this message of goodwill and hope. May we all find true compassion in our hearts.

Respectfully,


Monday, April 10, 2017

PLEASE JOIN ME

I hope you'll check in on my new blog, The Rohrabacher Letters, from time to time. It has become an important priority in my life, to add my voice to those resisting the hegemony of the extreme right wing in America today. Their policies seem to me to be antithetical to the most basic and humane of ethical standards. That they are now in a position--and willing!--to ram through legislation that further favors our richest and most privileged citizens threatens any remaining semblance of social justice in our country. To remain silent is to condone. I choose to speak out--and hope that you will join me. Today's entry is about that wall that is supposed to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country from the south. Please click on over, and feel free to add your comment!

Friday, April 7, 2017

JOHN LENNON

Last night I watched a TV special I had recorded, I guess it was a timely rerun of the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs John Lennon. It's a 2-hour film and I watched only the first half, saving the second half for another evening--enough to remind me, at least, of what a visionary that man was. The first half of the movie traced his increasing radicalization, from bouncy Beatle to full-fledged political activist. He was an inspiration to those many of us who opposed the Vietnam war back then; but more than that, his songs survive to remind us of his enduring message: give peace a chance. And, in today's slogan, "Love > Hate."

Simultaneously, I happen to be reading a book co-authored by an old friend, Nick Duffell, who has appeared in The Buddha Diaries on a couple of occasions in the past. A "boarding school survivor" myself, I have long been impressed with his work with those who, like me, bore the emotional and psychological wounds of a too-early separation from our parents; and by his related work in books and documentaries. In The Buddha Diaries, I reviewed both The Making of Them, a TV documentary, and his important book Wounded Leaders, a study of the widespread, harmful effects of boarding school survival in the British political establishment.

Duffell now turns ambitious attention, with co-author John Bunzl, to the global political, social and economic issues currently plaguing our planet. I have not yet finished reading The Simpol Solution, but am already profoundly impressed with the depth and breadth of its vision. The problem, as the authors see it, is what they call Destructive Global Competition. We are stuck, they argue persuasively, in reflex, old-thinking processes based in the outmoded model of competition--between individuals, certainly, but also between nations. National governments and corporations alike are so thoroughly entangled in the competitive mode that they are unable to see their way clear to solve the most urgent and vital issue of our time: the survival of our species and the planet we are so mindlessly abusing.

I'm sure I will be writing more about this book as I read further. I'm anxious to find out what the "simpol" solution might be, but can already predict that it will have to do with collaboration rather than competition. With brings me back to the visionary John Lennon. Because John, I believe, foresaw instinctively what these authors will be arguing. His expression of that vision seemed to many simple-minded at the time. But his insistence on "peace" and "love" spoke of a deeper, almost inexpressible desire for global human co-operation: "Imagine," he sang, "all the people..." Remember, too, the plaintive, simple plea of Rodney King, that innocent famously beaten by the Los Angeles police? "Can't we all just get along?"

There were those among us, decades ago, who felt the division and dissociation in their bones. If we are to survive this critical moment in the history of our species, we need to find a way past the "destructive global competition" that serves us, currently, so ill. I'm hoping Duffell and Bunzl will show us all a way to fulfill the vision of John Lennon and the entreaty of Rodney King. I'll be reading on today...