Discover more from Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World
Sunday (on Monday) Stories: Are You Paying Attention?
As Lent begins, an historic snowstorm slams Southern California while I hit the road with my cousin: On detours, dingers, staying open, serendipity, Stanley Tucci, and listening to your life.
My cousin Nell arrived at LAX on the morning of Mardi Gras, a holiday neither of us grew up celebrating with our Irish-Italian families of origin in Connecticut. It was her first visit to the Golden State and I had five days to show her some of the glories of what has been my adopted home since 2009.
The catalyst for Nell’s cross-country jaunt to California was a baseball series in Bakersfield (nowhere near our home in Laguna Beach for those of you playing geography bingo at home) in which the eldest of her four children, Jack, shortstop for the Manhattan College Jaspers, was playing over the weekend.
Nell and I were born 16 months apart, the first children of our mothers, Mary and Helen respectively, who were themselves born 17 months apart. We were reared a few towns apart in southern Connecticut and spent a lot of time together as children — every holiday, birthdays, much of our summers, Saturdays at the roller skating rink, until high school interests took us in slightly different directions.
While we are cousins, Nell is also my oldest friend in the world. We’ve always been close, even while separated by an entire continent and only seeing each other every few years. Having five days, including many hours in a car, just the two of us, traveling up and down the lower third of California’s coast, felt like an embarrassment of riches.
Free advice: If you’re missing someone you love and have the chance to do a road trip with them, do it. The destination doesn’t matter. Just pack your travel coffee mugs, ample water, healthy snacks, and go.
We started Nell’s California sojourn in Laguna Beach, where we were preparing for the arrival of yet another storm system. We’ve had a lot of them since Christmastime — certainly the wettest and chilliest winter in the nearly 14 years we’ve lived here — and I’m not complaining. I love the moody weather and blustery seas that accompany SoCal doing its best impression of the West Coast of Ireland.
Rather than a sunset walk on the beach, on Nell’s first night in SoCal, we opted for mohair blankets around the fire in our cozy living room with bowls of the gumbo prepared by my life mate who has a penchant for New Orleans cuisine, and a viewing of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, for which we all will be rooting on Oscar Sunday.
The next day — Ash Wednesday — we were supposed to go on a two-hour whale-watching cruise — greys, humpbacks, orcas, and others are in abundance at the moment as they migrate along the Southern California coast, but every one of the day’s cruises were cancelled because of high winds. They were gale-force, in fact, and had begun blowing cushions and lanterns off our deck by the time Nell and I decided to head for an oceanside hike a few towns to the south.
We managed to clock seven miles on foot before heading by car inland to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano and the 5:30 p.m. Ash Wednesday mass at the adjacent Basilica, which long-time readers may recognize as the genesis of my original look-for-the-light Advent practice.
Now, Nell (who is named after our maternal Irish grandmother) and I both were raised Roman Catholic — well, I was until my parents left Catholicism when I was in sixth grade for the strange new world of evangelical Protestantism — but as we sat in the cavernous basilica, watching the pews fill to capacity as the faithful arrived to mark the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, we realized the last time we’d been to mass together was almost 14 years ago for her younger sister Jenifer’s wedding.
Sitting side by side in the pew, people watching, making comments sotto voce, and trying not to giggle audibly brought back formative memories from our shared childhood. Our mothers are both gone now — Nell’s mother, Mary, my beloved aunt who also was my godmother, left us 20 years ago this month and my mother followed her into the More almost four years ago — so there was no one to give us The Death Stare that ever kept us in line. Eventually we self-policed and settled into a reflective silence before the familiar words of the mass we’ve known practically since we first acquired language began.
“The Lord be with you,” said the priest, in his purple lenten vestments.
“And with your spirit,” we responded, hands lifted toward the altar, as deep spiritual muscle memory took hold.
Because of the last few plague years and for various other reasons, neither Nell nor I have been regular in-person church attendees of late. Wading back into communal religious life, particularly in a house of worship that was largely unfamiliar to us both, brought a solace I don’t think either of us fully realized we have been missing.
Then came the homily. I didn’t recognize the priest as he headed to the lectern. He wasn’t the monsignor who pastors the basilica, nor was he the priest who shepherds the Spanish-speaking part of the basilica’s flock. He was older, bespectacled, and, at first blush, a potentially imperious presence.
“Uh-oh,” I whispered to Nell, who, like many of us, has lived through her fair share of shall we say less-than-gifted clergymen and sermons that do more to make eyes roll or induce guilt than enliven one’s spirit.
This is where I will remind myself, and you, too, dear readers, of the wisdom imparted by one of the greatest mustachioed mystics of modern times, Ted Lasso, who cautions us to, “Be curious, not judgmental.”
Because what unfolded in the approximately five minutes that followed was one of the best homilies I’ve ever heard (and I’ve basically been going to church for a living for the last quarter century.)
“Lent calls us to pay attention,” began the Rev. Craig Butters, a retired priest from the Diocese of Orange who kindly shared with me the full text of his homily when I tracked him down late Sunday night.
“Inattention often leads to misdirection — and difficulties,” Father Butters continued.
“Pay attention to the presence of God in your lives. Pay attention to the stirrings of the Spirit. Pay attention to the occasions of grace that abound in your lives, the rustlings of divine love. Pay attention to Christ. Pay attention to the Love that loves us.
“Pay attention to the good, the beautiful, and the true. Pay attention to life’s enchantments. Pay attention to the wonders of life, sometimes found in life’s little absurdities.
“Pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts. Pay attention to your moods and feelings.
“Pay attention to your longings. Pay attention to what frightens you.
“Pay attention to what brings you joy. Pay attention to where you shed tears. Pay attention to where you feel overwhelmed.
“Pay attention to opportunities that call for love and sacrifice. Pay attention to your power to do good, to live virtuously.
“Pay attention to the inner voice, the inner leadings, beckoning you to authentic and abundant life.
“Pay attention to others. Pay attention to the persons in your lives. Pay attention to the persons who love you and whom you love. Pay attention to those near to you.
“Pay attention to the wise, who speak the truth. Pay attention to the virtuous, who live the truth. Pay attention to the poor and suffering. Pay attention to those who suffer injustice.
“Pay attention to the saints in your lives. There are many of them.
“Pay attention! Pay attention!
“I would like to ask you a closing question: Have you paid attention these past few minutes?”
That, my friends, is how you homily.
People laughed and clapped. I was in tears and I was not alone.
Are we paying attention? Was I?
It was a lesson I will not soon forget and for which I am inordinately grateful.
Economy of language is a lost art and (clearly) not my strong suit. Pope Francis recently cautioned against long-winded sermonizing, calling lengthy homilies potential “disasters” and urging his priests to keep theirs under 10 minutes.
“Pay attention to others … pay attention to those near you … pay attention to the saints in your lives, there are many of them. Pay attention!”
— the Rev. Craig Butters
Pay attention became a mantra for the road trip adventure Nell and I embarked on the next day before dawn as we set out for Big Sur, 400 miles to the north, hoping to beat the encroaching storm up the coast.
Bakersfield is — how can I put this kindly — not the most picturesque of California’s myriad destinations. I was determined that on her inaugural visit to the state with 840 miles of majestic coastline, my cousin would see as much of it as possible. So, instead of driving directly to Bakersfield, Nell and I headed for one of my happiest places, Big Sur, which would be, IMHO, more dependably awe-inspiring and only a two-hour drive to the ballpark at Cal State Bakersfield where Jack and the Jaspers were scheduled to play their first game on Friday evening.
Enter Winter Storm Wanda.
The powers that be don’t officially name winter storm systems, but this one was so unexpectedly weird and memorable, I think it deserves a moniker. Described by meteorologists and headline writers variously as “bizarre,” “epic,” and “one of the strongest ever” in Southern California, Wanda brought with her flash floods, mudslides, at least one small tornado, and the very rarest of things: A BLIZZARD WARNING in both Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
WHAT IN THE WORLD? Climate change, much?
What it meant for Big Sur was more landslides on top of the ones wrought by heavy storms in January, and new road closures along Highway 1, which blocked passage to my beloved New Camaldoli Hermitage from both the north and the south. Nell and I managed to drive close enough to make out barely the edge of the monastery property on the edge of the mountainous foothills where it has stood since 1958. Unfortunately, a glimpse was all we’d get and I wouldn’t be able to show my cousin the wildest, most dramatic, gasp-inducing parts of Big Sur.
It was all stunning and she was delighted to see any of it, Nell insisted.
But the cathedral of Redwoods and Nepenthe, I whinged.
“I’m up for whatever happens,” she said, reminding me that the best way to move through the world is in an open stance toward the universe.
Be present. The gift is now. And pay attention!
I quickly recalibrated, choosing to focus on the joy of watching someone I love very much experience a place I love very much for the first time. Even if we couldn’t reach “the best” parts, even if the weather was giving more Maine lobsterman than Don Draper in the lotus position dreaming up the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” jingle on a sunny cliff at Esalen.
It was cold and wet and Wanda’s winds were beginning to reach Big Sur’s southerly cliffs, so we left our hiking boots in the car and hunkered down at Ragged Point for the night. We shared a hotel room with two comfy beds, basic cable, and a view of the roiling ocean in the near distance. We had an early bird supper like the aspiring Golden Girls that we are, and dove into deep conversation about the realities of midlife, long marriages, parenting young adults, and the evolution of faith. We shared a lot of laughter, the silly and soul-lifting varieties, and both fell asleep early with a young Alec Baldwin at his most dashing trying to avert nuclear annihilation in The Hunt for Red October playing on the wall-mounted TV.
On Friday morning, the weather continued to be gnarly as Wicked Winter Wanda moved farther north, bringing so much snow with her that “The Five” (aka Interstate 5, the major north-south artery through most of California) was closed in one direction. Rather than lingering in southern Big Sur, where the Redwood forests were sadly out of reach, we headed east toward Bakersfield, driving through the bucolic rolling splendor of the Paso Robles wine country while listening to Stanley Tucci purr about all things culinary, Italian, and familial in his marvelous memoir, Taste (Nell’s first listen, my second — just as delicious the second time around.)
We stopped at DAOU vineyards for a proper wine tasting (Nell sipped, and as I was driving and can’t have alcohol for a year because of the snakebite, I rolled the beautiful elixirs around my mouth and spat into a charming silver spittoon) on an outdoor covered patio overlooking what is arguably the most beautiful setting in Paso Robles, even, or perhaps especially, in the rain and fog of a bizarre winter storm. Sated, we drove farther east, where vineyards soon gave way to oil derricks, Wanda kicked it up a notch, and I did my best not to hydroplane us into a ditch.
We arrived safely at our VRBO before nightfall and the heavy stuff started coming down in earnest. We Door-Dashed some excellent Pho and watched the first half of the first season of the wickedly funny Irish series, Bad Sisters on AppleTV. (We finished the series, which happily has been renewed for a second, before we went to bed Saturday night, and neither of us will be able to look at a plastic Virgin Mary dashboard statue the same way ever again.)
Jack’s games on Saturday were delayed long enough for Wanda to take a time-out and bright blue sky to break through the storm clouds for a doubleheader against the CSUB Roadrunners. Our “Jackie Boy” played well — he is such a joy to watch, fully present and confident on the field, patient and encouraging with his teammates. He fared even better on Sunday, hitting a dinger in the seventh inning as his mom and I were making our circuitous way back to LAX after The Five and the other most direct routes to Los Angeles from Bakersfield were closed because of snow. We had to retrace our route back to the coast to head south, adding about three hours and and a looming deadline to the journey.
But the drive was pretty. And the company sublime.
Way to go, Jackie Boy!
Delays and detours didn’t matter because Nell and I were in it together and the journey is often more fun (and ultimately more rewarding) than the destination. That said, I’m not sure how Nell made her flight with less than 45 minutes to check a bag, navigate security at one of the busiest airports on Earth, and run the gauntlet of the Delta terminal to her gate in time, but she did.
Miracles and angels and saints everywhere.
The five days and nearly a thousand miles we had together will be precious to me for the rest of my days. We had the blessing of time and we paid attention.
To each other, to strangers, to nature, to silence, to the food we ate, to the copious cups of coffee we consumed, to the aroma of eucalyptus or elephant seals, fields of lavender or rich, loamy earth that wafted past us on Wanda’s ample breezes.
We paid attention to the details, where some say God is. To the size of our grandfather’s hands or the jaunty cut of our grandmother’s tweed jodhpurs in photos taken close to a century ago that we were examining closely for the first time. To the scores of migrant workers bent over, picking beets and lettuce, cabbage and strawberries in the countless fields we drove past over hundreds of miles.
To the white cranes waiting out the storm in a fallow field, the hawk perched on a traffic camera over a 16-lane expressway, and the mourning doves in a tree outside our motel. To the small “MAGA” embroidered on the side of the baseball hat worn by a kindly fellow who greeted me with genuine warmth and affection when we were introduced, that I noticed only after he had hugged me hello — “I’m a hugger!” — and that made me reconsider my own biases.
Lent, for many of us who observe it, is often synonymous with giving up something. A bad habit. Sugar. Chocolate. Booze. Swearing. Gossip. Or depriving ourselves of something as a way of fasting, sacrificing, or somehow doing penance.
But there is another way to mark the lenten season: Adding something life-giving.
A few minutes of deliberate silence, a walk, a random act of kindness toward a stranger. Taking a breath before losing your cool. Taking a moment to consider the invisible battle the guy with the MAGA hat or the driver who just cut you off or the person taking way too long in the public toilet when you’ve been “holding it” for 200 miles might be fighting and about which you have no idea.
Or, simply, as Father Butters encouraged us on Ash Wednesday, by paying attention.
To whatever life brings. Strikes and dingers. Sunny days and freak storms. Detours, u-turns, missed exits, and express lanes.
When we pay attention, we may notice the sacred that surrounds us, everywhere and all the time, in this precious, numinous world we are privileged to share.
Listen to your life…
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
―Frederick Buechner,Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation
This week, let us do our very best to be as brave and as kind as possible.
Don’t forget, dearhearts, that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,