Marching & Mysticism

Venice Beach, 1994

A stormy January day at sunset. The ferocious weather and the marbled purple sky, a perfect reflection for my own personal turmoil.

On Christmas night a week or so before, a man I’d only known a few months had asked me to marry him. Marry him! A memorable night for obvious reasons, there was also a hilarious part of the story (funny now) about getting locked out of my apartment after going outside for the big moment. In retrospect, it does seem incredibly symbolic — the time had really come to lock out the fear that had had me in its grip for too long.

You see, I saw myself as damaged goods. Possibly unlovable. That day on the beach I was torn apart by two equally strong impulses — one to run as fast as I could, and the other, to trust a person with my heart for a lifetime. These warring sides drove me out of the safety of my car and right to the edge of the earth where massive waves were pounding the shore.

There wasn’t another person on the sand. Tears squirted out of me like I was a cartoon character. I tasted my own salty sadness. Confusion swirled round and round, until I became so truly terrified over being that out of control of my own emotions that I wished I could have crawled out of my own skin, or traded skins with a seal who wanted to be a person for a while.

But then a spray of ocean mist came over me, mingling with my own tears. And that’s when it hit me. Suddenly I understood all at once that I was not separate from the world, I was of the world. My tears and the ocean were from the same source. The universe, Mother Earth, God… whatever name for the divine you want to use, was speaking to me.

I knew I hadn’t been hit by lightning (unless I was dead and didn’t know it), but a surge rushed through my veins all the same, as if someone had hit me with the lifesaving paddles. The trust problem I was having was not with the man I was in love with. The problem, was that at some point I’d stopped trusting myself. What changed in me right then and there on that squally beach was me finally insisting that I trust me. Since there has never been any satisfying combination of words that could ever adequately describe this experience, I did as Joan Didion tells us to do in times of crisis… go to the literature.

The literature in this case was the work of Abraham Maslow, who coined the term ‘peak experience’ after it became clear that his original term, ‘mystical experience’ would not be accepted in psychological literature. Some people also know it as Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime or Freud’s oceanic feelings.


Check out the instruments that James played on the song

She would walk to where the land and sea/met each other in a dance of violence/She found a treasure of untold beauty/tossed it back and swore herself to silence…                                                                                                                     One for Every Moment — Crosby, Pevar & Raymond

Downtown Los Angeles, 2017

Another January, twenty-two years after that day on the beach. I found myself marching in the Women’s March in Los Angeles, my daughter heavily on my mind. Were her rights and the rights of every woman really being threatened? How could it be that this many people felt under seige on so many fronts?

The last thing I expected was to feel anything like I did that day at the beach all those years ago. While I didn’t know at the time that my group was marching with 750,000 of our fellow Angelenos, it didn’t change the fact that I felt awed and humbled and overwhelmed by all the people who had come together. I felt unity on an unimaginable scale, at a time when we’re always being reminded of how divided we are. The mystical experience is one of communion, a momentary dissolution with the self and its boundaries in order to become one with our surroundings. This is what leads to moments of transcendence.

But I also felt the fear again, so what was going on??

quote-one-can-choose-to-go-back-toward-safety-or-forward-toward-growth-growth-must-be-chosen-abraham-maslow-37-34-21 maslow-s-hierarchy

You’ll see that at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is self-actualization. The self being referred to here however, is not the egoistic self, but the self we recognize when we are immersed in awe and the recognition that we are part of something much bigger and powerful than we are. The call from this ‘self’ is to fulfill the deepest possibilities in our being.

Mytical experiences are glimpses of the divine. Those moments that grab and take hold of you, like when your breath is sucked out of you as you stare wild-eyed at Half Dome or drop into a wave for the first time. Some people describe them as feelings of limitless horizons. And yet, there is something inherently overwhelming about witnessing the vast power in our own being. Many people speak of being simultaneously more powerful and more helpless than ever before while having a mystical experience.

I had to go back to the literature. It was there that I discovered a another aspect of Maslow’s theory, referred to as The Jonah Complex. For a bible refresher, Jonah was called by God to share a prophecy and instead of fufilling this destiny, Jonah resisted and sailed away in another direction. This caused a great storm and flood and landed old Jonah in the belly of the whale. And there he stayed for 3 days until he was given another chance to deliver on what he was called to do.

The Jonah Complex is our desire to escape the fear of responsibility that accompanies self-actualization. We are terrified of our own potential because of the interpersonal and social consequences that can happen with that kind of change. It could mean a complete obliteration of life as we know it so that a new and more powerful and impactful way of living could emerge. Sometimes we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. -Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

When Maslow set out in this study, even he believed that mystical experiences happened to one saint every century. What seemed to blow his mind the most was learning that not only was that not true, but the fact that all of his subjects used the same kind of language to describe their experiences — from an 18-year-old athlete to Mother Theresa.

Some people do not remember having mystical experiences. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t forever changed by them, because science shows that they are. A 2016 Johns Hopkins study found that stronger mystical experiences tend to “reframe life priorities, with pleasure-seeking dropping, and other aspects increasing family, connection, higher principles.” [i]

Self-actualizing people are,without a single exception,involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves.      – Abraham Maslow

As Gandhi said, “Politics should be sacred.” And by sacred, I don’t mean necessarily religious, but that which originates from the deepest part of ourselves. The march manifested universal belonging. Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of the Imagination Institute at University of Pennsylvania said, “Peak experiences shake us out of our ordinary concerns and point our attention toward something higher, perhaps greater visions of ourselves and others. Peak experiences come along with a realization of purpose or higher meaning for one’s life.”


Sometimes a higher meaning for one’s life isn’t exactly what we thought it would be. But a hero or heroine is made by the strength of the villain or villains they have been called to defeat. With great power or knowledge comes great responsibility. I know I’ve said those words from time to time, but I couldn’t come up with who said it without a search. Turns out no one knows! (It’s not Spiderman, as some would like to believe.) The strongest evidence traces it back to a translation from a moment during The French Revolution. And here we are on the precipice of our own revolution.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, puts it brilliantly when he says, “The mystic is not a kind of human being, but every human being is a special kind of mystic.” So please. Do not fear your own formidable power. Let us not languish in the belly of the whale when there is so much at stake.






One Thought


Hug A Teacher


Some days I feel incredibly foolish.

I know I probably shouldn’t, it’s just that I’ve spent my entire life believing with all my heart that my storied Generation X was ushering in the end of racial prejudice. I used to believe this in the way some people believe in the gospel and others believe that a zombie apocalypse is imminent and they just can’t be convinced otherwise. I knew even in my seven-year-old heart that racism isn’t a natural state. I refuse to accept that hating anyone because they are not like you is our highest destiny.

On a postcard kind of a day on the shores of Lake Michigan when I was a kid, my young swingin’ single mom brought me along to meet a new beau — a professional Puerto Rican soccer player named Fernando. (Cue Chicago’s Saturday In The Park for the full effect.) As he came running toward us, heading the ball with mechanical precision, and dribbling ever-tightening concentric circles around us — I yanked mom’s arm and whispered that I couldn’t wait for my grandparents to meet him.

My teeny heart shattered when she told me that no one else in our family would ever meet this adorable human who had pogo sticks for legs. Nope, they would never meet him because they were… prejudiced. I asked what in the world that was, with my face screwed up real good. Mom said she’d explain later. But she really didn’t have to. I began to put it together right then and there that it had something to do with some people thinking that they were better than the next human, just doing their damndest to navigate the mystery that is life. The older I got, I felt that this distortion in one’s thinking could only be blamed on a facocta (Yiddish slang for ‘fucked up.’ Also super fun to say!) idea about themselves — that the need to feel superior over others is wrought from a crazy-sad inferiority complex. And while that should be a comforting thought, it’s not anymore, when the world’s been turned upside down. But believe this: The tyrant fears the poet. Rise up, poets!

A couple of years later Mom & me moved to San Diego. She was only halfway through law school and couldn’t afford anything fancy. We ended up in an apartment that had a magnificent view of the San Diego skyline, but was in a rundown neighborhood of tall palms shading crumbling craftsman bungalows and half-way houses. Mom being the open-minded young parent she was, enrolled me in a magnet school in an even rougher neighborhood than ours.

For the 5th and 6th grades, I was the lone blonde girl on a practically empty school bus en route to Fred Baker Elementary, where I would become only the fifth white student. Baker was a science magnet, named for the San Diego physician and civic activist, Fred Baker, who was also an amateur malacologist*. Instead of bussing lower socioeconomic students into affluent areas, Fred Baker Elementary flipped the script by stocking the school with brilliant teachers, (most of them with Ph.D.s) in order to attract students to a predominantly black neighborhood plagued with gangs and crime, in exchange for an extraordinary education. I was in!

My 6th grade teacher was Mrs. Smart. I tell you, I never wanted to let that woman out of my arms and she has never left my heart. In Mrs. Smart’s class, we began the day like any other public school classroom, with the pledge of allegiance. But what followed was something Mrs. Smart wrote called the B-7 Creed that the students recited together:

I have the right to be myself in this room. This means that no one will treat me unfairly because I am black, brown, or white, fat or thin, tall or short, boy or girl. I have a right to hear and be heard in this room. I will be free to express my feelings and opinions without being interrupted or punished. I am somebody. I am 10 feet tall. I am loved.



This was 1980, dear readers! You have no idea how long those words rung out in my mind. To listen to Mrs. Smart, who shared so many of her personal experiences with us and empowered and inspired us all everyday, why shouldn’t I think that racism was in the rear view mirror? It seemed like an ugly thing from Mrs. Smart’s day that we saw as part of the horrible past. I thought of humanity and progress as things that could only move in one direction. Forward!

The Baker community cheered on my attempts at singing Michael Jackson at the talent show and on less celebratory days, we mourned together with a black band tied around one arm when one of our classmates’ siblings was lost to gang violence. Dr. Hassan El-Amin was my endlessly patient music teacher who deeply understood my need to vacillate between flute and trombone. I finally landed on trombone, because we were allowed to check instruments out over the weekend and the trombone made the bus ride a little less lonely. Dr. Callaghan was my Spanish teacher who invited our entire class for a sleepover at her 1-bedroom beach cottage so that some of the students could see the ocean for the first time. Mr. Shaheed was always laughing as he told us riddles and fables. Mr. Rashada was quieter, but consistently had a nugget of wisdom to impart — like when I’d walk home with my best friend Queenie on a Friday for a sleepover and he’d tell us a better way to walk around the part of the park where an open drug market was operating.


How could my mom let this happen? I don’t know, but I thank God that she did.

In sports and entertainment, it sure seemed like color was beginning to fade away. As an undergrad in D.C., I was told to avoid the SE and SW quadrants, neighborhoods responsible for earning Washington the unwelcome distinction of being the nation’s murder capital. But it was at American University (ooooh, the symbolism!) a professor told us how the CIA was responsible for planting crack cocaine in South Central LA in the early 80s and had drug dealers on the payroll to fund the fight against the Sandinistas.

I graduated and packed up to move to Los Angeles just as the riots broke out. My co-workers at the Post-Production house where I interned offered me a job and couldn’t understand why I was running off to a city on fire. But I couldn’t be stopped. I was heading to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and no one was going to stop me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the CIA’s involvement and tried to share this information with anyone who would listen. No one was listening. So I told the story in a screenplay about an interracial love story leading up to the riots. Even with that kind of fallout from the Rodney King verdict, I still believed that things were getting better.

November 8, 2016. My friend Daphne, an elementary public school teacher returns to her classroom after the election and described the feeling as suddenly seeing herself as a first responder. Wow. How %*&#ing profound. When the entire world seems to be sending one message with their votes (or lack of vote), teachers are in a unique position to teach first, by their own example. So while they are mandated to remain politically neutral, it doesn’t matter because kids have the most well-calibrated bullshit meters of anyone and they know how to judge someone by their personal actions and not the blah-blah-blah that comes out of their mouths. What teachers do can affect the next generation more than any one scary clown.

Essentially, we are called upon to act as teachers — therefore, we all have the opportunity to be first responders, too. Let us respond with humanity and kindness to our fellow beating heart humans. A post-racial world? Why should that be the goal? Race is not going away. Race is diversity and beauty. Race is cultural history and identity. Race should be celebrated and shared, and we can’t do that in a ‘post-racial world.’ Reveling in race and its rainbow of colors and ideas is marvelous, don’t you think?


(*Malacology, the study of mollusks. Not to be confused with Conchology, the study of mollusk shells. Talk about specialized!)