Sunday, December 27, 2015

Act of Contrition

I called my auntie back in New York just before dawn as I walked down Kalakaua Avenue one morning last week to tell her the news.

“Marie,” I said to her phone, “I just went to confession for the first time in more than 40 years. And…”

I paused for a second, searching for the right words.

“Well, let’s put it this way,” I continued. “It was a good idea.”

I still can’t believe I went to back into the confessional during my trip to Honolulu after a decades-long defection from this sacrament.

Most people go to confession after vacation to atone for the sins they racked up while they were on the road. But I was doing all sorts of different things on this outing and it felt like the right time for a spiritual cleansing.

I had attended mass at St. Augustine-by-the-sea after meeting and eating with the wonderful members of the Tongan choirg and I thought that going to confession would be the next logical step.

This was not an easy decision, as confession was one of the scarier aspects of my Catholic school experience.

I have this dreadful memory of kneeling in a pitch black booth and flubbing the Act of Contrition, which is kind of like a singer forgetting the words to the National Anthem at the World Series…only much, much worse.

“How often do you say it?” the peeved priest asked me from his side of the screen.

“Not very often,” I squeaked.

Now I could almost swear that this was Bishop Boardman, the big muckety-muck of our parish at the time, but was it possible that the headman would be hearing confessions? It’s been so long that I’m not sure anymore.

But whoever this guy was, he made me recite the prayer word for word before giving me penance and allowing me to escape with my life. After I graduated from the eighth grade, I don’t think I ever went to confession again.

Things are different now. I’m an adult, more or less, and I really wanted to do this. Confession is the sacrament of reconciliation, not condemnation, and I was in dire need of the former.

I got up early one morning a few hours before I was scheduled to go for a hike and bike tour and crossed the street to St. Augustine’s.

I was so nervous I almost turned away from the front door. How could I possibly to recount all the sins I had committed since the Nixon Administration? I only had 11 days in Hawaii.

Thy Will Be Done

But I waited in a pew until it was my turn, walked into the booth and got down on my knees. The confessional at St. Augustine’s is well lit, with a proper door, instead of those heavy curtains that I had to wrestle with in the third grade. And I began.

“Bless me father for I have sinned…”

I decided at that moment to keep the list down to one solitary sin: anger. That’s the source of most of my trouble, so why not give it the spotlight?

I told the priest I had so much hostility and rage in my heart and that I wanted to change.

It was strange hearing the priest’s voice coming at me. But what had made me so nervous in grammar school worked so well for me now. I felt more comfortable not having to look someone in the eye. It was liberating.

As the priest spoke, I leaned in so I could hear him better and then I put my hand over the metal screen so I could actually feel his words vibrating up my arm.

“It’s a good sign that you’ve come here,” he told me. “Don’t be discouraged if the change doesn’t happened quickly.”

The priest asked me to say the Act of Contrition and I froze. It was like going back in time to the day I choked in front of the pastor.

“I don’t know it,” I stammered.

“Just ask for forgiveness,” he told me.

And I did, striking my breast repeatedly. The priest absolved me of my sins and as penance gave me just a single Our Father to recite.

That was a shock. I would’ve thought I’d have to hack off one of my limbs to get back in good with the church.

But I see now that there was a method to the priest’s merciful madness because the Our Father, as brief as it is, contains one of the toughest commands in all Christendom.

…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Yep. I have to forgive all the boneheads, mutts, losers, and dirtbags who have annoyed the living shit out of me for all these years. Well played, padre.

Returning from vacation was a tough adjustment and I have recited the Our Father many times since my plane touched down at JFK.

But I feel like I’m on the right path and I’d like to go to confession a little more frequently than I have been doing.

I think that would be a good idea.

Friday, December 25, 2015

O Holy Night

My Christmas miracle came a little early this year and it happened a long way from home.

I experienced the magic of the season last week while wandering around Waikiki on the second night of my Hawaiian vacation.

As I was walking down a street near my hotel, I could hear people singing and, since there are a lot of bars in the area, I incorrectly assumed that it was a bunch of drunks trying to show the world how much fun they were having.

But I quickly determined that these singers were very talented. I listened closer and I recognized the melody of the song they were performing, but I couldn’t make out the lyrics.

I was tempted to keep walking and just forget about it, something I do far too often.

But I wanted to know who these people were and what they were singing.

And since I was on vacation, I wanted to step out of myself a little bit and do something different.

I followed the voices to the backyard of a small housing complex and stood in an alleyway listening until I realized that these people were singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in what I assumed was the Hawaiian language.

It turned out that this was the Tongan Choir from nearby St. Augustine-by-the-sea.

I stood in that alley just listening until a young man saw me and invited me to go inside the courtyard.

Once inside another man offered me a chair so I could sit and listen to these beautiful voices perform a classic in a way that was entirely new to me.

The Weary World Rejoices

And even though I was alone and nearly 5,000 miles from home, I felt so peaceful and welcome in this strange location. It was almost as if these people were expecting me.

At the end of the rehearsal the singers all prayed in Hawaiian and I joined in at the end when they blessed themselves.

Then the singers began handing out box chicken dinners and insisted that I eat with them. By this time I was pretty much in shock at what was going on.

I'm sure a good number of these people work for the tourist industry in some capacity, as maids, perhaps, or as security guards, which means they make a lot less money than I do. But they still wanted to share their food with me.

I have no idea why these lovely, talented people were being so kind to me, a total stranger, but it's something I’ll never forget.

And it’s hard not to think about a certain couple that had no place to go when they arrived in Bethlehem one holy night so many years ago.

I attended Sunday mass twice at St. Augustine’s during my vacation and I had the pleasure of listening to the choir perform during the services. And I made sure to buy a copy of their CD before I left Hawaii.

I have since returned to Brooklyn to enjoy Christmas with my dear auntie and sister. It feels wonderful to be home, but I will always be grateful to the singers of St. Augustine-by-the-sea.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Shaka to the System

I’ve gone nearly 24 hours without giving anyone the shaka, the Hawaiian hand signal that means everything from “hang loose” to “have a nice day.”

This is probably for the best, since a gesture that involves wagging the extended thumb and pinky would probably be considered an insult in Brooklyn and result in yours truly being pummeled into a coma.

No matter. I had an absolutely fantastic time in Honolulu and I am thoroughly bummed that my 11-day trip has come to an end.

This vacation was a great idea and I can’t believe how I hemmed and hawed before I finally decided to go.

I saw such beautiful scenery, like the Kualoa Ranch, where Jurassic Park and other films were shot. I had breakfast on the beach, watched the Honolulu Marathon, and did a wild downhill bike ride.

I went to Pearl Harbor and boarded the USS Missouri, where Japan surrendered in 1945.

I huffed and puffed up to Diamond Head, where I enjoyed the fantastic view while trying to restart my heart.
I also met so many wonderful people during this vacation.

Traveling solo can be a bit depressing at times, but it seems like I was running into such nice folks every time I turned a corner.

There were the lovely people at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Church, located right next door to my hotel in Waikiki. One member of the congregation was a woman from Sunset Park in Brooklyn who had moved to Hawaii three years ago.

“I wanted to get away from the drama,” she told me. “Now I have new drama, but that’s okay.”

There’s no escape from drama, of course, but I admired this woman for having the courage to pick up and move to the other side of the world.

I met a wonderful Australian family who took me on a killer bike ride down the North Shore, where we battle repeated tropical rainstorms while I struggled to keep up with them.

There was this very kind Malaysian couple I met at the Polynesian Cultural Institute who hung around with me for the entire day.
And even today at the Honolulu Airport, I met a mother and son who were flying back to LA after a week in Hawaii.

She came from Sheepshead Bay but stayed in California after graduating from college several years ago. We just had a brief conversation, but it helped make the awful trip just a little less tedious.

One day last week I took a walk around Kualoa Regional Park and I was amazed at how steadily the wind kept blowing.

It was warm though, unlike the bone-chillers back east, and it had almost a curative effect as I allowed the strong breeze to blow away my worries and fears. It was a very peaceful moment.

On the way out to the airport I saw an honest-to-God rainbow forming over Honolulu. I pointed it out to the other passengers in the van, but they were all too busy looking at their smart phones. Okay, so I guess it’s my own private rainbow.

So now I'm back here in the Northeast, where the rain is cold and the wind is even colder. It's a bit depressing naturally, but I can’t wait to see my beautiful family on Christmas Day.

Whatever comes after that, well, we’ll just have to see which way the wind blows. And as long as I can still find the rainbows, I’ll be just fine.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Honolulu Baby

The future is a dark cloud, Christmas is kicking down the front door, and I’ve got a million things to do around the house.

So naturally I’m taking off for Honolulu this morning.

Yes, I decided that I needed a little more adventure in my life so I booked this trip a few months ago.

Now that the day has finally arrived all I can do is think of my dear mother’s words whenever I did something totally ridiculous.

“Oh, Robert,” she’d say. “Whatever possessed you!”

Indeed. What the hell did possess me? I don’t know, but whatever the crazy spirit was it seems to have hit the road and left me here with a chorus of jangled nerves.

I always freak before taking long trips. It’s kind of my thing. And I’ve made the Hawaii trip before, traveling to the Big Island with my family to celebrate Christmas several years ago.

But now I’m on my own and juggling so many worries I could land a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show.

No matter. I’m on my way and I know my mother would’ve been very proud to see me overcome my fear and travel to some place new. Maybe her spirit has possessed me.

I’ll be hard to reach for a while, so everybody behave, eat your vegetables and let’s see if we can regroup before the year runs out.


Sunday, December 06, 2015

Shelter in Place

One minute they were alive, and the next minute they were all dead.

Yes, we had still another mass shooting in America.

For some stupid reason I thought we might have gotten a break after the Paris slaughter, but it seems like the madness is escalating, gathering momentum like a boulder tumbling down a mountain.

So now we have even more names to add to the list of victims--husbands, wives, sons, and daughters--who were taken away far too soon. We have more smiling photos of people of all races and creeds who have been savagely gunned down.

I want to know all their stories, I want to reach out to all their families and feel what they’re going through, but there have been so many victims my mind is ready to explode.

I scroll through the photos and my heart breaks again and again.

Terms like “soft target,” “active shooter” and “shelter in place” have worked their way into our language and no one seems to have a problem with that.

Various news programs and police departments around the country have created videos detailing what to do if you’re caught in a mass shooting. It’s like a fire drill or the old atomic bomb attack scenarios from the Cold War. And I watch them because I’m afraid not to.

The killers this time were a husband-and-wife terrorist team who murdered 14 of the husband’s coworkers at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif.

Bang, Bang, Shoot, Shoot

News reports say the husband became “radicalized” by his wife, as if he caught the jihad bug like it was a case of the measles. I have trouble accepting this idea that you can be hypnotized into committing mass murder.

We’re exposed to all kinds of toxic beliefs every day of the week; if you choose to act upon on them, well, that’s your choice, isn’t it? And I wonder why the husband couldn’t “de-radicalize” his wife—convince her that shooting innocent people to death isn’t a nice thing to do.

I’m trying not to go on another useless rant about gun violence in America, but it’s hard to keep your temper when you see just how easily—and legally—these two psychopaths obtained their brutal weapons.

Incredibly—and I do mean incredibly-- Senate Republicans, including four of the assholes running for president, actually voted against barring suspected terrorists, felons and the mentally ill from getting guns.

Radical Islamic leaders have been urging American sympathizers for years to exploit the nation’s lax gun laws for domestic terror attacks. Looks like the homegrown jihadists have finally clued in.

And, insanely, all of the GOP candidates are ramping up the tough guy talk, demanding war, while studiously ignoring the need for gun control in this country.

Where the hell do we invade? The husband in the California shooting was from Illinois. Are we going to bunker buster the Midwest? No, this is just stupid talk for a woefully ignorant population.

I worry about going out to the movies, parades or any other event where there will be large crowds of people. When will my number come up, when will the next jihadist or gun-toting loner burst into the restaurant, theater or office and start shooting?

So is this really the new normal? Will we before forever caught between extremists and the hack political whores who keep arming them?

I’m so sick and tired of looking at all those dead people.