Gorilla!

Part Two – starting here? Read Part One first!

Mark snapped me back to my job: keeping campers safe.

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“I’m calling the police.” I said, a spontaneous reaction that pleased me. Maybe I really did know what to do. Maybe I knew more than the security guard. More than the adults. With renewed confidence and a sense of duty, I marched back to the office.

As I reached for the phone, I thought, what do I say? Campers were crowding in.

The dispatcher had questions: “A gorilla? A real animal? Is it loose?”

“Well, probably a person in a gorilla suit. Riding a bicycle.”

“Is anyone injured?”

“No. I don’t think so. He’s scaring people. Throwing bananas.”

“Throwing bananas.”

“Right.”

“Can you see the gorilla now?”

I turned the question to the campers, “Can you see the gorilla?” They clustered at the windows, tucking their heads into the ruffles. Mumbling, no…it’s dark…there a glare, let’s turn this light off…

“No, um…we can’t see the gorilla.”

By the time I hung up, the gorilla had disappeared. Campers headed back to their families. Alone, I locked myself in. I worried. I wondered where Mark had gone. I paced. After a while, I nodded off. It was almost midnight when the police arrived. Flashing blue and red lights lit up the office. Out on the porch, the campground seemed normal, quiet and peaceful except for the flashing lights.Officers Arrive

“We got a call about a gorilla?”

I tried to tell them everything. Pointed out the bananas on the ground.

They nodded. Took notes in tiny spiral notebooks.

“Where is the security guard now?” one of the officers asked.

“I don’t know, he’s usually in the booth, but…”

They checked the booth. Mark wasn’t there. The officers split up to walk around the campground. Moments after they vanished into the shadows, Mark was beside me.

“I never saw it again,” he said, squinting. He adjusted his cap.

“Maybe the police will find something,” I said.

The police talked to a few campers but found nothing.

“Well, if the gorilla comes back, let us know.”

We watched the officers get into their car and drive away.

“Fucking nuts,” Mark said.

I watched his bow-legged walk as he went back to the booth.

That night I had nightmares about the Planet-of-the-Apes-eyes behind the mask. About Bigfoot lurking in the campground. My mind whirled. Was the gorilla real? What if something happens during the night?

The next afternoon I asked Darlene, the morning shift gal, if she heard anything.

“About what? A what?”

“Right, I know. Crazy. But last night there was a gorilla here.”

No one had said anything. I was disappointed. I had expected a buzz in the campground. I imagined basking in praise. Being recognized for outthinking security guards and adults. I wanted to be held up as a model employee.

“It really happened!” I said. Darlene was busy getting her car keys from her purse.

“It was scary!” I said as she maneuvered around me toward the door.

Darlene left; I was alone in the office. The ruffled curtains made me feel sad. The gold wall phone seemed to accuse me. Call the police for any stupid little thing. I wondered if the gorilla had really happened. Maybe it was a dream. Then Mark came in.

“Last night was fucking hilarious!” he said. “Can you believe that shit?”

I blinked. Laughing, Mark slapped the counter. He turned away shaking his head and leaned back on his elbows.

“That dude was one realistic looking gorilla,” he said.

I exhaled. It had happened. To Mark and me. I waited for Mark to tell me what an amazing job I did handling the situation. He didn’t. He wasn’t quite as sexy to me after that.

Later that evening the owner, my big-boss, eavesdropped on a phone call. Other employees had warned me that he did this, to ensure an employee was on-point.Wall Phone

“The village seems expensive. Is it worth it?” a caller said.

Whenever a caller asked me this question, I answered truthfully. They had to know that Amish buggy rides across the covered bridge cost ten bucks per adult and were not included in the entrance fee. I owed it to them.

This may have been what my mom meant when she called me “too honest.”

“Well, are you planning to camp here, in the campground?” I asked the caller.

“Yes.”

“Then it is totally worth it because the entrance fee is part of the campground registration fee-.”

“WHAT?” The big boss’s voice barked through the line. Startled, I dropped the phone. As I grappled with the curly cord that attached the handset to the receiver on the wall, I could hear him bellowing.

“ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT THE VILLAGE ISN’T WORTH THE PRICE?”

“Hello?” I heard the caller trying to understand what was happening.

I considered hanging up as I slid the handset against my ear.

“Hello?” the caller said again. Then she hung up.

In the static silence I heard the owner’s heavy breathing.

“ARE YOU THERE?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you just tell that woman that the village WASN’T WORTH IT?”

“I told her that camping here was—“

“Don’t EVER SAY THAT AGAIN!”

The line went dead. I placed the handset into the silver cradle on the wall. No one told the big-boss about the gorilla! He had no idea that I had single-handedly saved hundreds of campers. I grabbed the phone’s handset, ready to dial the big-boss and tell him. But then, I hung up.

I’m so stupid, I thought. Weakness in my knees, I sank to the stool behind the front desk. I knew that I would be fired, if not tonight, soon. For a flicker I thought I could walk out right now and never come back. But I didn’t. Instead I applied for a new job.

I was surprised to get an immediate offer, just a few miles away in Paradise, PA—a brand new steamboat-shaped hotel surrounded by a moat in the middle of a cornfield. I worked both jobs for a few weeks, then one day, I was fired. By the big boss’s mother, who ran the country-crafty candle-perfumed gift shop. Her exact words were: “We don’t need you anymore.”

I didn’t need them anymore either. What I had needed from my evenings in the office I got, not from Mark or the big boss or the demanding campers, I have the gorilla to thank. He taught me that I could do something.

One evening, just a few months after starting my new job, some concerned guests approached the front desk. They told us that a man in full military fatigues and boots walked into the Steamboat’s swimming pool. The two adult front desk clerks twitched and wrung their hands. They all looked at me. I stepped out from behind the front desk and made my way to bow of the boat.

“I’m so sorry sir, but you’ll need to get out of the pool. I’d hate to have to call the police.”

He complied and dripped on the carpet as he walked back to his room.

Relieved guests thanked me. “Of course,” I told them, brushing it off. However, walking back the lobby, I stood straighter, adjusting my bow-tie and red polyester tuxedo jacket. I felt like a superhero. I remembered the gorilla, and my heart softened.

Who was that gorilla? I wondered.

gorilla 2

Gorilla!

Part One

mill-bridge-campground-705My senior year of high school I worked at a Pennsylvania campground, adjacent to a “colonial village” with a restored eighteenth-century grist mill, a working water-wheel, and everything from a do-it-yourself butter churning shop to Amish buggy rides. I manned the office, and by closing time I was the only person around. One night, just as I was beginning the close-out checklist, a gorilla was reported in the campground.

“He’s on a bicycle,” the frazzled camper said, bursting into the office. “He won’t talk to anyone! He just grunts!”

I blinked.

“The guy in the trailer next ours got hit with a banana!”

I knew how to check-in campers, take payments and sell mosquito spray. The problems I could solve included posting information for late arrivals and fixing clogged toilets.

“You have to do something,” he said.

The phrase buzzed between my ears. A feeling of shame heated my face. I imagined what I could do. Stay in the office and lock the door.

A second camper entered slamming the office door. “He is throwing bananas at us!” she said.

“See?” Camper #1 said.

Camper #2: “We were at our picnic table and heard a bicycle,” she said.

Camper #1 folded his arms.

“Once he was in the light we realized it was a gorilla. He terrified the children!”

I nodded. Both campers looked at me. Expecting something.

Camper #2: “Well, I just asked him who he was and what he was doing and he started grunting and howling.”

Just then three more campers arrived.

“Someone has to talk to this guy!” one of the new campers said, slamming his flat palm against the desk. “He’s out there scaring folks.”

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Adam, 1990

These were adults staring at me, commanding me to action. They were angry at the gorilla, but it felt personal. A hollow feeling in my stomach. I felt hot; I touched my forehead and noticed my hand was shaking. I was kid, but I knew I had to do something.

Then, I thought of Mark, the night security guard.

Mark. I was in love with him.  The way his Levi’s hung, his green John Deere hat, his small, tight farm-boy body. He was my age, and he was the first security-type man who didn’t intimidate me. My heart fluttered when he leaned one hip against the front desk to chat. I pretended to know about football and even lied, saying “oh yeah” when he asked me if I liked Metallica. Every night at closing time he was asleep in the booth.

Feeling a sudden sense of knowing-what-to-do, I said, “I’ll get the guard.”

Outside, the campground looked unchanged. Dark and quiet, lightening bugs glowed near the creek. I could see a few campfires burning and smell hotdogs. While the campers stayed on the porch grumbling, I started toward the guard shack at the campground entrance.

I didn’t get far.

I was illuminated by the headlights of an RV turning into the driveway. It was a huge one. The kind with multiple slide-outs, solar panels and satellite dishes. It crept toward the guard booth, then stopped.

RV tires quiet, I heard the sound. The bicycle, I thought, freezing in place. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Out of the darkness, a gorilla on a bike passed under a dim light post. Then it went back into shadow.

The RV driver turned on a giant spotlight. I lifted my hand to my forehead. Blinking, I heard the sound of a skidding bike tire. Looking into the pool of light, I saw the gorilla’s long shadow.

The bike was on the ground, in the road. The gorilla was knuckle-walking toward the RV. He raised one arm toward the windshield, waggling a banana.

“There he is!” a camper yelled.

Do something! I reacted, running toward the gorilla and grabbing the bike. I looked up as the gorilla reeled back and launched the banana directly into the RV’s windshield. The driver pulled the air horn. I cringed. We never heard the splat.

Mark burst from the guard station with his hands over his ears.

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

The gorilla started screaming—grunts and screeches—waving long arms—it ran toward me. Toward the bicycle I was holding.

I gasped for a breath, then said, “I need to know who you are.” Did my voice crack?

The gorilla took hold of the bicycle, shaking me. My heart was pounding.

“I’m serious,” I said, gripping the cold metal of the bike frame, knowing campers were watching me from the office. “You’re scaring people.”

The gorilla looked up at me, scouring my face with fast moving eyeballs. I held my breath—the mask was so realistic. Was it a mask? The gorilla leaned in and howled in my face. I let go of the bicycle, but not my resolve.

I squeezed my eyes shut and yelled back at him: “WHO ARE YOU? ARE YOU A CAMPER HERE?”

I opened my eyes to see him swing up onto the pedals and ride off into the darkness.

Mark was beside me now, hands still over his ears even though the air horn had stopped. I could see his dirty fingernails on either side of his John Deere hat.

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

The RV turned off the spotlight and a thick darkness fell. Campers were clicking on flashlights. I was blinking to adjust my eyes, I felt dizzy.

“Mark,” I said, “there’s a gorilla—” but before I could explain, a bicycle flew from the shadows, the gorilla skidded to a stop and faced Mark and me.

The gorilla and I made eye contact. Its eyes didn’t look human. Not enough iris. Maybe it really is a gorilla, I thought. It held out a banana. I watched as my arm reached out to accept it. Peace offering?

I noticed Mark backing away and knew I was on my own. The campers were watching. I took charge. “Look dude,” I said to the gorilla, “you gotta take the mask off. People are freaked out.”

The gorilla was still, breathing, holding my eyes. The banana in my hand, I felt curious. What is this gorilla’s story? I felt a sudden a softness.

“Talk to me,” I changed my tone. “You don’t want to be scaring people, right?” gorilla

He grunted, lifting his chin to me. For a moment I thought I had earned his respect; that he knew I wanted to protect him. Just as my heart was opening, he howled, stomped and waved his arms in my face. I closed my eyes. When I looked, he was riding away into the darkness.

I lost him. A sensation, like I might cry.

“What. The. Fuck?” was all Mark could say.

Find out what happens in Part Two!

Trachselwald Castle

Part Three – click here to visit previous sections Part Two or Part One

On the bus ride into the Emmental region of Switzerland, everything seemed familiar. The hillsides of forest separated by fields and meadows, the cows and neat front yards. The Emmental looks like where I grew up in Pennsylvania. Even my Kentucky-raised husband thought so.

“It’s weird.” Jim said.

The Swiss end-of-summer air smelled of mowed grass and manure.

“Just like home,” I said to Jim.

When we got off the bus, Ruth was there to meet us.

“Have you eaten?” she asked, after hugging us both.

We hadn’t.

“So, I’ll make you spaghetti.”

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Our window at Ruth’s house

A friend who had done a similar Amish/Mennonite pilgrimage, connected us to Ruth. We had the entire top floor of her home. It looked Mennonite: do-it-yourself wood paneling, practical shower surround, simple, functional furniture. Cedar closets with padded wooden hangers. Even the view from the window–I felt like I was home.

After the spaghetti, Ruth laughed as she told us about a past guest’s mishap with her whipped-cream maker. “You must be gentle,” she said, handing the canister to Jim.

Jim aimed at his fruit bowl, but cream shot all over him, the table, Ruth and me. We laughed. Ruth laughed the hardest.

Then Ruth told us about Anabaptist history in Switzerland.

We learned that the Anabaptists here are known as taufers. There were men called tauferjagers, Anabaptist hunters, who tracked them down. They hid in the Emmental’s rural hills in caves, tunnels and secret rooms—the taufernests.

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Adam and Ruth in the kitchen.

“I’m not Mennonite,” She said. “But growing up around here, you know about the taufer. For two hundred years they hid here.”

She told us that Anabaptism split families—some converted but not all. Parents or siblings would alert their Anabaptist family members so they could hide as the tauferjager approached. Many of those families still live in the area, in the same farmhouses with the tunnels and secret rooms.

In the New World, everyone with names like mine has Anabaptist heritage; Schmuckers all come from one Amish immigrant, Christian. I never had a reason to think about the Schmuckers in Switzerland who had stayed with the Reformed church. How had they treated their radical Anabaptist family members? What had they felt watching their Anabaptist siblings or children be tortured and killed? I felt schooled by Ruth, a non-Anabaptist who knew my people’s history from a different angle.

“We didn’t learn about it in school,” Ruth said.

In 2007 the government made an official apology. Now there are interpretive signs along hiking trails, plaques on churches, even a taufer history treasure hunt designed for children to explore Bern.

“Now we sleep,” she said, with a little clap of her hands. “Tomorrow, breakfast at 8:30 and at 9:30 we leave for Trachselwald.”

In our room I stood by the open window I smelled freshly mowed hay. I thought of my Poppop and Christian Schmucker. I wondered, what do you do before a visit to a place like Trachselwald? What do you think about or pray about or meditate on? I thought of castles, towers and dragons. The sound of cow bells outside was peaceful, comforting. I thought of Thict Nhat Hanh and the Five Touchings of the Earth meditation. This was an unfamiliar place, but I felt so at home.

Thank you, I whispered into the night.

Thank you, Christian Schmucker. Thank you, Poppop. May we experience the transformation of these wounds.

Ruth took us to Trachselwald Castle on a beautiful, sunny day. We were greeted by cows and the gentle clanging of their bells. Ruth vanished into the shadows. Walking fast to catch her, we started up a dark, covered stairway, vines closing in around us.

I was nervous. And excited.

I snapped photos of Ruth as she wiggled a skeleton key into the lock. Then she pushed the massive wooden door, and we were in, standing in the same arched portal, on the same stones, looking up at the same tower that Christian Schmucker had seen while in chains. The Martyrs Mirror had already been published. Had he been he afraid? Proud? Resigned?

“The modern jail was in that section,” Ruth said, waving her arm toward a red half-timbered section of the structure. “This was the seat of the regional government until 2009.”

“Did you say two thousand nine?” I asked.

Ruth nodded as she marched toward a different area of building.

By 2009, the castle was at least a thousand years old.

We reached the foot of the tower and looked up.

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“When this was the prison, there was no ground-level entrance to the tower,” Ruth said. “A ladder was used.”

Her words stopped time.  I was transported to a dream.

She pointed up to a high window. “That was the only way in and out.”

I was frozen in place. A dragon spreading its wings through my chest and looking out at the tower through my eyes. We all looked up together.

Thank you.

I felt buoyant. I felt joyful.

Ruth unlocked a small portal that we ducked through and started up the stairs.

I know my mouth is shaped like my mother’s—like my Poppop’s.  Was it passed all the way down from Christian Schmucker? What is time to our DNA? I wondered as we climbed.

What had been ancient—things like castles and towers and martyrs—felt present.

We climbed and on each floor of the tower there were different kinds of cells. On the highest there were chains embedded in the rock walls, and a small wooden platform with chains and stocks for holding legs. I touched the chains, I sat on the edge of the platform.

It felt right to be there.

My grandfather, Christian Schmucker, had lived in hiding as an Amish preacher all over Switzerland. He worshipped in caves in the forests. He had been a prisoner and a penniless refugee. He had opened forests on William Penn’s land to create a new home. He died a rich man in an Amish community free to live and practice their faith. All of this in one lifetime.

Any feeling of distance was melting away.

Christian Schmucker lived the truth of his times with courage.

In my times, I needed to live my own truth. I faced a terrifying dragon with the same courage.

At Trachselwald castle, I wondered about our dragons and our journeys toward healing. How different was my truth from my Poppop’s and Christian Schmucker’s truths? Were we connecting across time? Looking at the chains, I recited what I could remember of the Buddhist meditation. Wisdom. Suffering. Strength. Gratitude.

Then, Christian Schmucker whispered to my heart his own respect and gratitude.

For me.

For the healing I had done. I felt as though my ancestors were touching the earth in my honor. Thanking me for my courage.

I was humbled. Grateful. Stunned.

My ancestor’s message at Trachselwald Castle was simply: Welcome. You are the continuation, the transformation of our suffering. We are glad you came.

Photo album posts next!

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Trachselwald Castle

Part Two – click here to start with Part One

I knew the stories of persecution. Not only were they passed from grandma to grandchild, but the most important Mennonite text, second only to the Bible, is The Martyrs Mirror, published in 1660. Stories about preachers who had their tongues screwed to the tops of their mouths to keep them from preaching. Stories that include hot branding irons, stocks and the rack. For a twentieth century child flipping through The Martyrs Mirror, this history was titillating.

And ancient.

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Image from the Martyr’s Mirror

At my Mennonite high school Anabaptist History was a required course. Anabaptists—adult baptizers—grew out of the Reformation. While the Reformers ended some practices of Catholic Church, the Anabaptists wanted to return to the ways of Jesus. For them, the personal decision to live as a Christian was a serious commitment. Not a birthright. And not a mechanism for the state. So, the Anabaptists stopped baptizing their babies and started baptizing each other.

Once, my entire high school watched a movie about the martyrs, a bloody true story set in Switzerland. It was meant to humble and inspire us. But we left laughing, and watched classmates zombie-walk, moaning, “Burn them. Burn them all.”

At my computer, Jim and I zoomed in on the satellite image of Trachselwald castle. A cluster of red-tile roofs. Then I saw the tower, evident by a long dark shadow that cows in the adjacent meadow seemed to be avoiding.

img-4620Christian Schmucker’s booklet started with a short history of the Amish, who broke away from the group that would become the Mennonites. The schism happened because the Amish felt that sinners must be excommunicated.

Staring at the image of Trachselwald castle, I thought of my Poppop. He had been shunned. I was told there was a funeral, and church leaders forbade the family from having any contact.

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Poppop, Maurice Smoker

His sin? He enlisted in the navy to fight in World War II.

Mom told me stories. He used to barricade himself in his bedroom with a shotgun and cry. He said, “No one loves me, no one loves me,” sobbing, for hours, while Mom sat on the other side of the door telling him that they did love him, and please, not to shoot himself.

The tower’s shadow made my heart heavy. It made me think about torture, and shunning—the core of the Amish origin story. I remembered standing near my grandparent’s refrigerator, peering into the dark living room. My Poppop, sitting, silent, by the window with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He stared out at tree branches. Birds. The garden. Cows in the meadow. The ragged edge of the creek. But what did he see?

I could have been excommunicated too.

My sin? Being queer.

As a kid, being cast out felt like a real threat. Queer kids don’t have to come from religious families to face the terror of being disowned.

Christian Schmucker was a prisoner in the tower for four days in April 1745. Was he tortured? Chained? Threatened with death? I don’t know. The booklet says that after he was released, he took his family and hid in the Jura Mountains until they could get passports for a voyage to Pennsylvania.

I wondered if Christian Schmucker suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

After coming out, a therapist suggested that I had PTSD.

Did Poppop have PTSD too? When I was in high school, my Poppop told me about a dream. “I was driving up Gap Hill trying to get home,” he said, “and the car kept getting slower and slower. Other cars were passing me, honking. Folks were shaking their fists at me, but I had the petal to the metal!”

I laughed.

“Little Volkswagens passed me. An Amish buggy passed me, and they shook their fists too! It was terrible,” he said, chuckling.

I laughed with him, but I could hear the pain in his dream. He was alone, trying to get home and everyone was angry at him, no one offered to help.

I wondered, did Poppop find peace in this life? Had Christian Schmucker found peace in this life?

There is a famous story of a reformation-era Anabaptist who escaped from prison and ran across a frozen lake to avoid his captors. He made it safely to land, but the prison guard fell through the ice. The Anabaptist went back to help. He saved the guard. The guard took him back to prison and soon after the anabaptist was put to death.

Like that anabaptist, Christian Schmucker was willing to stand against the government and the state church, facing prison, torture and death. My Poppop went against his community to fight tyranny. They all had a fearless trust and followed their hearts.

I tapped their courage when I came out as queer.

I wondered, what would happen at Trachselwald castle? Would old wounds open? Would the love expand? Both? Something else?

Just before leaving for Switzerland, I turned the page in the Thict Nhat Hanh book I was reading and found his meditation called The Five Touchings of the Earth. Thict Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. The first of the five touchings is a meditation on blood-family ancestors.

Reading it, I was tingling again. One line stood out to me: I am the continuation of my ancestors and it is their suffering that I am transforming. 

The next morning Jim and I flew to Europe.

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Stained glass window at the Reformed Chruch in Langnau im Emmental Switzerland

Somewhere over the Atlantic, I dreamed I was standing in a medieval castle courtyard looking up at the tower. There was one window at the very top. A woman beside me said, “That’s the only way in or out.” I turned to look at her, but before my eyes could take her in, a shadow passed over. I looked back toward the window and saw a winged dragon sitting on the ledge. My knees buckled. I wanted to run—wanted to scream—but I was frozen in place. The dragon twisted its neck to look down—at me. Its eyes seeing into my soul.

In Part Three, Ruth takes us to the Castle

Trachselwald Castle

Part One

Christian Schmucker, my great (x7) grandfather was an Amish refugee. For two hundred years the Swiss Amish had suffered beheadings, drownings, and being burned at the stake for practicing their faith. Christian fled Switzerland in 1740.

That was all I knew about Christian Schmucker. Until late one hot Tucson night, he made an appearance in my kitchen.

I was slouched over my laptop looking at maps of Switzerland. My husband Jim and I were planning a trip. I had family genealogy books, ancestor charts and an unwieldy spreadsheet of Swiss family names and locations. I was starting to feel confused. My back was tired, and my eyes hurt. I’m going to bed, I thought. But then I felt a tingling, a new alertness and I remembered a book on Christian Schmucker. Where was that?

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I found it at the back of the highest shelf. A tiny booklet in my hand, I shivered. It felt cold, urging me to open it. The cover was a faded photo of a snowy alpine ridge and a Swiss barn. Turning the page, I was face to face with a familiar looking man. He had a long beard and was wearing a black hat. I took a breath and examined him. His eyes, the shape of his mouth. It was a drawing, but it felt energetic, almost alive. Turning page after page, I read the whole story standing in the middle of the kitchen.

I learned that Christian Schmucker was jailed at Trachselwald Castle and possibly tortured for being an Amish preacher.

Google showed me Trachselwald; a castle on a hill overlooking a village. It was near where we were staying. With Ruth, who hosts pilgrims like me. She gives tours of farms, hiding places, caves where the Amish/Mennonites worshiped in secret. Google said the castle was 24-minutes from Ruth’s house.

Searching images of the castle, I found pictures of the tower—iron chains and wrist clamps hanging from stone walls, thick wooden doors with massive medieval locks—and, just as I was clicking onward to more grisly possibilities, an email arrived.

From Ruth. An itinerary.

I clicked it open and read fast. The castle was one of the stops.

I felt cold again, and my heart was pounding. I flipped back through Christian Schmucker’s story to make sure I had the name right. I did.

“Jim, come look at this,” I said. I heard Jim’s office chair squeaking.

“I never heard of this castle before tonight—this tower where my grandfather was a prisoner—”

Jim was behind me now, looking at the screen over my shoulder.

“I didn’t know he’d been in prison—” I zoomed in and out, pointing to the castle, the tower.

“Wow,” Jim said. “What did he do?”

“Nothing,” I was showing Jim pictures of the wrist clamps and stocks now, “he was just Amish.”

“Geez.”

“And look, it’s close to Ruth’s house. She’s taking us there!”

“Cool!” he said.

“I never knew any of this until—like—20 minutes ago.”

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A draft moved around and between us, I rubbed my upper arms. Jim checked the thermostat on his way back to his office. Picking up Christian Schmucker’s story, I felt myself tingling again. Hot, then cold. I flipped to the image, the eyes and the mouth. He looked like my grandfather, my Poppop. Poppop was Christian’s great-great-great-great-great grandson.

As the refrigerator kicked on, the room felt crowded. Ancestors in books, charts and spreadsheets, united through Christian Schmucker’s story, became more real. I was energized. Something big was happening. Or maybe something big was going to happen—at Trachselwald.

Amish history, buddhist meditations and dragons – in Part Two!

River Phoenix

Hollywood

Part Two – in case you missed it: Part One

Someone bullhorned “Quiet on the set!” I held my breath. From inside a building came Pamela Anderson accompanying Andre the Giant, with a child on his shoulders. The child was happy and pointing, excited about something—the kettle corn, the cotton candy, the bikinis?

This was the moment I had dreamed of—TV stars filming a scene. That child on the giant’s shoulders: I had believed that, someday, I would be that child.

CUT!

The entrance was filmed seven times. I watched this boy feign happiness over and over. Each time, I felt older. And sad; I never got to be that child. I will never be on the shoulders of a giant.

“My hair smells like fucking kettle corn,” Pamela Anderson said.

The lady in the Ohio State sweatshirt walked off.

I knew then—not only would I never be the fourth Charlie’s Angel—the dream of being discovered, of stepping across the line into a fantasy was fantasy. I looked away.

“Let’s go find dinner,” Leslie said, slinging an arm around my shoulder.

As we left, she added, “TV is total bullshit, huh? Baywatch is so fake!”

Leslie side-hugged me as a cloud of grief shadowed my sunny Hollywood dream.

How many hours had I spent reading Tiger Beat, writing those letters? Dear Scott Baio, Happy Days is the highlight of my week…I felt ridiculous. Duped. I thought of the stars in the photos, these were the mentors that were going to teach me how to be me, but the smiling and the confidence were fake. Back on the Baywatch set, when the cameras stopped rolling and everyone turned into themselves, they grumbled, ran for coats, lit cigarettes, and used the “F” word in front of children.

I was afraid and felt alone; a dream was dying. Who would show me how to be me? I didn’t know how to tell Leslie

Adam and Leslie 1993
Adam and Leslie 1993

Dinner was in Beverly Hills. I slouched in my seat, aware that I was not sparkling. It didn’t matter.

The waiter asked us what we were drinking. Leslie ordered a beer. All eyes turned to me.

“Iced tea, please.”

The waiter left. Leslie leaned across the table. “This isn’t Pennsylvania, you know.”

I stared at her.

“You’re 21! Get a drink!”

I had never ordered a drink before. How did she know that?

“What did you get?” I asked, feeling my heart rate go up. She showed me on the menu.

But when our drinks arrived, Leslie took charge.

Cousin Leslie
Cousin Leslie

“This is my cousin,” she said to waiter, “he’s from the back woods of Pennsylvania where they go to church but don’t drink. He’s been 21 since November!”

“Well!” The waiter said, turning to me, “Thank God you’ve escaped!”

I felt my face get hot; I glanced down at the menu.

“Bring him one of these,” Leslie said, indicating her beer.

“Absolutely!” the waiter said, then left.

“He’s so cute,” Leslie said. “Too bad he’s gay.”

He’s gay?

Time stood still for a moment. In that eternity, anything could have happened. I could have said, I’m gay too. She could have said, I knew that, and I’m so proud of you for telling me. Instead, I waited for the focus to shift.

“Is that Harrison Ford?” Leslie said.

It wasn’t. But I said, “Don’t look, but Susan Lucci from All My Children just sat behind you.” The wife from Married with Children had brushed passed us.

I stopped slouching. Not for the stars, but for the waiter. I checked him out as he delivered our food.

He is cute, I thought. And felt myself blush again. For just a flash I thought I could say it out loud.

I didn’t.

Leslie’s attention was on her plate.

Pushing my food around, I thought about how she had escaped. How she never seemed to doubt herself.

By the end of the meal, I was more at ease. Was it the beer? Feeling grown up?

“Dessert?” the waiter asked.

We ordered coffee.

“Sugar or cream?” the waiter asked.

“Two creams.” I said. I made eye contact. I held up two fingers—peace sign, victory, “TWO.” Back on campus, I had to demand two of the tiny plastic cups of cream from the coffee vendors. I had never ordered coffee in a fancy restaurant.

“Okay,” the waiter raised his eyebrows, “Two creams.”

The waiter returned with our coffee and two small, white ceramic pitchers of cream. Leslie burst out laughing. The wife from Married With Children looked our way. Susan Lucci cut her eyes at us.

The waiter set both pitchers on the table. He and Leslie laughed, pantomimed me ordering the two creams.

I was horrified.

“Hey,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder, “this is Beverly Hills, when someone asks for two creams, I bring two creams.”

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I felt something. His hand on my shoulder. A warmth. Did he see me? Did Leslie?

I looked up at him and he flipped his River Phoenix hair from his eyes and smiled.

The warmth remained even after he reached for a pitcher; he poured cream into my coffee with an elegant swish.

What was this feeling—freedom?

River Phoenix
River Phoenix

Hollywood

Jan-1983-Stamos.pngPart One

I was 21, and about to take my first trip west of Pittsburgh. Before I left for the summer, I packed up my college bedroom, including my autograph collection. I had a wall full of black and white photos of actors—stars. I would reread the signatures: XXOO, Penny Marshall; To Adam, With Love, Suzanne Summers, and feel our connection.

It began in the 3rd grade, when I found fan mail addresses in Tiger Beat magazine. I wrote letters to stars. Opening each manila envelope, heart pounding, I examined the head shot, read the autograph, then flipped it to see if the pen left a ridge. A ridge or personal inscription meant Penny Marshall or Suzanne Summer had held the picture and signed it themselves.

They thought of me.

Someday I will be one of them. Part of the inner circle of TV fame; they will teach me how to be confidant. Seeing potential that no one at home noticed, the stars will show me how be me. I needed them.

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My collection grew and by the time I was a junior in college, it took up the entire wall.

“Wow, dude,” a new friend might say, “did you actually meet all of those people?”

“Yes!” I would say, glowing. I was so faithful to their shows that it didn’t feel like lying.

“Geez, you must really be in love with that guy,” the friend might say, noticing that I had magazine cut-outs of River Phoenix all over my room.

I’d feel the heat of shame rise up my chest and neck, but I’d put my hand through my hair and say, “I’m trying for his look.”

Some people knew I was gay. They knew before I did.

It was 1993, The Golden Girls had been canceled, but I had their autographs. Each signed, with love, using real pens.  As my plane touched down at LAX, I searched for the iconic curving, spaceship-like building in every TV takeoff and landing sequence. I didn’t find it.

Adam and Leslie 1993
Adam and Leslie 1993

I found my cousin, Leslie, the only family member who had escaped Pennsylvania, waiting at the gate. A decade my senior, Leslie’s smiling face leaning over my crib is one of my earliest memories. In the 80’s she stunned us all by adopting a Cyndi Lauper look. Then she took her brightly colored hair and ran way to the Jersey shore. Aunts and uncles shook their heads; she was a rule-breaker everyone expected would come crawling home. But she was confidant; she moved herself to California, and in the smiling photos she sent home, I had the sense that she was giving us all the finger.

Leslie included smiley snapshots with the letters she sent just to me. The letters said, come visit! I felt special to be invited, Leslie thought of me.

I wondered, could this could be my connection to the stars?

And now, here I was. Palm lined boulevards! For a week!

Here, my dream of being discovered could come true. In California, someone would glimpse the inner sparkle that no one in Pennsylvania noticed.

Would I sparkle today? I asked my reflection in Leslie’s bathroom mirror. I put on my sunglasses—thank God I checked! Cheap. I tossed them into the trash.

It was cloudy outside anyway.

“I don’t think we’ll need umbrellas,” Leslie said, zipping up her jacket and turning to me. “Let’s go to Hollywood!” Her smile glittered.

“Who do you think we’ll see?” I asked. I was nervous.

“Joan Rivers!” she said.

“River Phoenix!” I said.

“To the Rivers!” she said, swinging open the front door.

I noted that Leslie sparkled more than me.

Leslie parked along Sunset Boulevard, in front of Hollywood High School.

“Is that a real high school or a movie set?” I asked as Leslie backed into the parking spot.

“It’s real.”

It’s real. Old and rundown, it did not look like the school on 90210.

We walked over weedy, cracked sidewalks past convenience stores and apartment complexes. The people on the street were dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, like us. Shop windows were filled with electronic gadgets and flashing lights. There was even a thrift shop.

There are palms, I told myself, at least. The Walk of Fame, I scanned faces: no one famous. The Hollywood letters on the mountain were so small—I couldn’t believe how small they were.

“When a star goes to work,” I asked Leslie, “Where do they go?”

“Depends. They go to studios mostly, I guess.”

I thought of the addresses in Tiger Beat: Universal City, Culver City, Burbank.

Studios. Of course. It hadn’t occurred to me that the studios weren’t lined up along Hollywood Boulevard next door to the Chinese theater. I wondered where the studios were. Far away? I didn’t ask.

“Beaches next!” Leslie said.

Santa Monica. Walking the promenade, I tried to look past the stores I knew from malls at home. Instead, I breathed in hibiscus flowers and birds-of-paradise, I focused on the palms. Tourists shouldering through the crowds were wrapped in scarves and wearing wool hats. The wind off the ocean was cold.

I hugged myself. Cold. I’m cold in Los Angeles.

A small crowd was lined up along a white line spray-painted on the pier.

Leslie and I wriggled our way to the edge. On one side of the arc, the commoners. On the other side, huge TV cameras loomed over us, cameramen perched on them.

My heart started to pound. Who will we see? Am I ready?

Gigantic lights created the impression that bright sunshine bathed the kettle corn and carnival booths. Cameras were rolling, capturing women with mounds of blonde hair in string bikinis and stilettos. They were milling about, eating cotton candy and heading for kettle corn. Someone yelled cut and the women ran—ranin stilettoson the planks of the pier—to grab trench coats.

Leslie turned to a lady in an Ohio State hoodie and asked, “What are they filming?”

Baywatch,” she said, craning her neck to see.

“Baywatch!” Leslie said, clapping her hands.

Leslie didn’t watch Baywatch. She didn’t even have a TV. But, she knew this was what I wanted; the reason I came to California.

Filming Baywatch - 1993
I took this photo on the Santa Monica pier – Filming Baywatch – 1993

I felt confused. A line painted on the pier: I looked one way and saw the world I wanted to escape from. I looked the other way and saw a fantasy. I watched the stiletto women; when they got close I could see their goose bumps.

Someone bullhorned “Quiet on the set!”

Part Two – Find out who I meet! And how my life was changed…

Unforgivable

Every morning at my Pennsylvania Mennonite high school, four hundred Mennonite students, teachers and staff, funneled into an auditorium where we had chapel. We sat in long maple pews with our first period classmates; I angled to sit next to the artsy kids. The girls who advised teachers on yearbook covers. The boys who stretched the Mennonite dress code to look like the lead singer from The Cure. The ones who drove clean, sensible cars with bumper stickers like I heart Tanzania (missionary kids) or Say NO to drugs (social activists). They were the Bible Quiz Team champions and church youth group presidents. They exuded confidence, even entered their paintings and drawings in the art show—for parents to see.

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Classmates. I kind of stick out.

But when I slid into the pew, I’d be sitting beside a pothead in a jeans jacket, or a girl who never spoke, or a farm boy drawing the volunteer fire company logo on lined notebook paper. Outcasts. And worse, reminders that the seats on either side of me were not hot commodities.

I day-dreamed of escaping to Hollywood through most of those morning churchy times.

But there is a chapel that stands out in my memory. It was my junior year. A senior stood up. He was a quiet guy, blonde, kind of nerdy; he played the violin in the orchestra. He stood up in front of everyone and asked whether masturbation was a sin.

I don’t remember the answer.

I remember feeling shock. His question was unbelievable.

Of course it was a sin. But, more importantly, it was a forbidden topic. Like girls who disappeared from school. What ever happened to so-and-so? Someone might ask, and people would look away. It was simple: she got pregnant and was expelled. But no one would say that.

The word—masturbation—I had never heard it said aloud before. After I masturbated, I would pray for forgiveness. The way forgiveness worked: you asked, then you promised God you’d never do it again. The problem was that I masturbated over and over again. And the bigger problem was Daisy Duke did not interest me, it was Bo and Luke filling my fantasies. The most forbidden topic of all.

God could not forgive me.

In that chapel, after the blonde boy asked his question, some kids snickered, and others squirmed. They were embarrassed and uncomfortable, but not terrified, like me.

I’m sure he was afraid too. He knew, like I knew, that we were unforgivable.

But he had hope enough to expose his heart.

I did not have that courage.

I don’t remember the lead up to the Q and A, but I remember feeling a nervous recognition when the blonde kid stood. Even before the question. I was sitting in the balcony and could see across the auditorium where he was standing, arm raised, waiting to be acknowledged.

He was someone that I noticed. In the halls, I would see him and look away.

We had something in common. Something that was hidden.

I tried to mimic the artsy kids instead of being myself, to conceal myself. Art and friendship both require things I could not do: show my heart and be courageous.

But the blonde boy had the courage to look at himself and expose his heart.

We were both wrestling with God. Maybe he was gay too, or maybe his sin weighed on him; made him think that God could not love him.

Is masturbation a sin? I can’t remember the answer because that was not the important thing. The important thing was to see an example of courage demonstrated by someone struggling, like me, to believe that God loved him.  The important thing was to cling to that memory until I was able to look at myself with courage too.

 

Surrounding With Awareness to Provide Comfort and Compassion For All

In this week’s Chopra Centered Lifestyle Newsletter, I found an article titled Holding Space: The Art of Being Present with Others by Adam Brady, who says, “Holding space is a conscious act of being present, open, allowing, and protective of what another needs in each moment.” Holding space for another person is about embracing someone non-physically with intention, attention, and energy.

It is Reiki.2 - 1

The article says that Holding Space is “the principle of surrounding the environment with your awareness in way that provides comfort and compassion for all.”

I love doing Reiki–I’ve found no better vehicle for pouring love on someone then this beautiful, energizing and deeply connecting process. It is a meditative state for both my client and myself. Meditation is hard because of wandering minds and proliferating thoughts, but, for me, when I am doing Reiki on another living being, I find myself able to concentrate and focus in service to that other being.

Adam Brady highlights seven qualities of consciously relating to others:

Safety, which is trust built from “confidentiality, transparency, and impeccability in all you say and do.” During Reiki I experience waves of humility and gratitude that clients trust me to engage with them so deeply.

Suspending self-importance, or “understanding that it’s not about you.” This “requires radical humility,” and the ability to escape your ego. Reiki has taught me this gift. My Reiki teacher was clear and strong in her instruction that Reiki sessions are not for the practitioner but for the person receiving Reiki.

Attention: Adam Brady says it best, “resisting the urge to speak…coupled with your full awareness, can be a profoundly powerful experience for those in your presence. Your attention, focused and all-inclusive of whatever is happening in the moment, opens the door for others to see the reflection of their own soul in you—the Self talking to itself.”

Practice acceptance: It’s hard toaccept this moment as it is. Accept others as they are, without any desire to change them, or wanting them to be something different.” Couple that with Non-Judgement: “Good and bad are merely a matter of perspective and in this moment, your perspective isn’t the one that’s important.” One of my clients experienced physical pain during a Reiki session, which was new to me. I responded to the pain as if it were unwelcome–my desire was for her comfort–but in her evaluation she advised me not to be afraid of anything clients experience and not to frame any experience as positive or negative. Incredible learning for me.

Adam Brady says of Compassion: “”How can I help you? I don’t want you to hurt. What can I do to help support your highest good?” Even if not spoken aloud, these intentions to relieve the suffering of others are the essence of compassion.” My typical mantra during a Reiki session is, [client’s name], you are beautiful. You are perfect. You are loved. I also use the Dalai Lama’s definition of love as part of the meditation: I wish for your suffering to decrease. I wish for your happiness. When but during Reiki can you be assured that someone will be pouring out these blessings upon you?

Finally, Witnessing, “like in quantum physics, the observer is what triggers the collapse of the wave of potential into a particle, the non-local into the localized phenomenon. But this doesn’t involve any action on the observer’s part.” During Reiki both the client and practitioner experience vibrations, sensations of warmth or coolness, dreams and visions, words and thoughts that create a tapestry of meaning and are, simply, to be observed. Sometimes amazing things have happened–synergistic similarities in our experiences, or profoundly different ones. Sometimes clients have had emotional or spiritual breakthroughs or relief of pain. Regardless of what we share with each other afterward, what we observed was more meaningful, and beyond our words.

That is the profound gift of Reiki. Though silence, energy movement and exchange, meditation and mindfulness, we connect, observe that connection and are changed. By Holding Space, the Reiki practitioner can bring about transformation and healing–a quantum moment.

Read the full article by Adam Brady here.