For some years now, a small chorus of people has nagged John Calvi to write a book. Finally, over the past year, he has heeded these calls.
As will be explained further in the following excerpts, Calvi is a Quaker healer. And though he might quail at the term, I would also call him a practical Quaker theologian.
He’s a practical theologian because, for more than twenty years, he has been both practicing, and learning from the practice. On the one hand, he heals the sick (or at least eases their pain), comforts the dying, and helps bring rest to the stressed and exhausted (i.e., practically everyone else). He began developing this gift as a ministry as the worldwide AIDS plague struck, then followed it through the homegrown plagues of war and torture.
On another hand, Calvi is a theologian because he has had considerable dealings with angels, plus visitations from Jesus, Mary and, lest he become overly sectarian, Buddha. And then on a third hand (a bow to the trinitarians?) he thinks and writes about it all – which of course is the dead-giveaway sign of being a theologian. In fact, he’s been thinking and writing about all this for years.
Calvi came to Friends at sixteen, after being raised Catholic in a New England working class Italian-American family. Religion was important to him, but as he says, “at sixteen I could see as a gay person that the church would not be a good spiritual home. And I knew spiritual life was always going to be important to me.”
n 1968 an acquaintance asked him for a ride to the Friends Meeting on the campus of Wesleyan University in Connecticut; John walked in and “I loved it immediately.” In his early days there he often walked beyond the circle of folding chairs to lie down on the carpet. “It was as though I was soaking in a bath of peaceful silence,” he recalls, “being washed of all the noise in my life and taking in the calm and quiet. I don’t know what the Quakers thought. But it was a university meeting, so I think they were accustomed to odd young people coming and going.” (It was also the Sixties; campus Friends were probably relieved that his behavior was not rather more singular.)
From that beginning, as is sketched in the following pages, a remarkable career has taken shape. Luckily for us, John hasn’t been thinking or writing about it like an academic theologian, academia being a fate from which he has been mercifully preserved. But unluckily for us until now, he’s been keeping most of this writing pretty much to himself, except for the odd speech-cum-article, and some eloquent recirculating emails. This sparse output was despite the steady growth in both number and volume of the nagging chorus, urging him to “Write the [bleeping] book.”
As a dogged, chronically hoarse member of the ensemble, I had about given up hope of ever seeing it. To us it seemed he had an endless supply of excuses– no time, notes too disorganized, the world was falling apart around him, etc. In especially candid moments he would admit to a deeper reason, something I was familiar with and already suspected: not that wussily-named ailment, Writer’s Block; nothing so petty & paltry as that. More like a full-fledged Writer’s Panic. A condition that for a long while looked to be as firmly set as last week’s concrete. It seemed most likely the book would be a posthumous production, if it ever happened at all.
But then, in the very nick of time the naggers gained a crucial ally, one that, while quieter than any of us, unlike us could not be denied.
I refer to – what else? – the calendar. One gloomy Vermont morning just over a year ago, John woke up and discovered that he had recently turned – ah, but I’m sworn (& affirmed ) never to speak that dreadful double digit aloud where he might hear or see it. (Though one can say that if you pick a figure between 59 and 61, you’ll not be far off.) How this doleful number had managed to slip through all the defensive perimeter John had so carefully erected around his youth, none could explain.
But there it undeniably was: the specter of “Now – Or Maybe Never” loomed like a large impassive harvest moon just above his bucolic horizon, so he had no option but to dry his tears, get off the dime, and face the music. Or rather, the paper– that is, papers. Piles of them, letters and journals and emails and notes and god knows what else, “organized” in his own phrase with all the flair of a flash flood.
This pulpy chaos was beyond mere panic; taming and refining it into a coherent mass between covers would require divine intervention. And soon enough that’s what arrived, in the person of an experienced and skillful editor, Shelly Angel of Dallas, Texas. (As reported earlier John has had frequent dealings with winged beings; this one still happened to still be in corporeal form.)
By John’s own account, Shelly Angel had been an elder for him before. And this time, she showered him with just the kinds of tender, nurturant eldering care he needed most; that is to say, she kicked his butt, swatted away excuses, bent the proverbial nose to the grindstone, glued the proverbial feet to the floor, and kept up the treatment for a year. (But the talk of waterboarding, we are told, is greatly exaggerated.) In sum, a true, unvarnished labor of love; thee and me should be so lucky, bruises and all.
The outcome is not only the book at hand, samples of which we are fortunate enough to bring you below. There is also, our sources hint, material enough for a second; perhaps a third. And the next book, I much suspect, will be even more vivid than this one. For what is here, in The Dance Between Hope and Fear, is true enough. But it is not the whole truth about John Calvi. Not even all the dancing. For that, and more, stay tuned.
Excerpts from, The Dance Between Hope & Fear, by John Calvi. True Quaker Press, 238 pages. Paper.
A young man is introduced to me. He’s been very teary through my talk. He is newly sober and now tested positive for HIV. He needs lots of encouragement to keep paying attention to his life and stay out of the numbness of using drink on the pain and depression. It distracts me a great deal that he is extremely attractive. But I speak to him as the sainted teacher healer he seeks.
The prison wall is the biggest thing in this little New York town near the Canadian border. We are checked for contraband and led through several gates to the chief guard.
“Have you ever taught in a prison before?”
I lie and say, “Of course.”
From the audience of 100 men, a tall handsome man raises his hand and asks if there is any suspicion that the AIDS epidemic is planned. “Do any rich white folks have it?”
In a voice a bit black and very faggy I say, “Well, you know, Rock Hudson didn’t live downtown.”
They all laugh very loud.
Laying hands on an old friend who lies very still and weary, her breath small and her color slightly gray. She is tired from a long life fully lived and later battles with illness that have not been won. I hold her feet, slide hands under her hips, and slowly rock with hands under one scapula and one thigh. As she slides into sleep and a cute little snore, I am wondering when is it OK to go? When has life been enough, long enough, that it’s OK to leave it and die?
Do I wonder this because she’s getting ready? I’m not sure. Do I wonder this because I have a birthday next week that brings me within three years of 60? Maybe. Do I wonder this because I feel the weariness in her that I’ve felt in so many who eventually nod and say yes, time to go, it’s been enough.
I know that pain and suffering can bring one to longing for an end. But I wonder if for most it’s not more subtle than this— could it be that one can just no longer see how beautiful that day is, or how wonderful it is that spring has come again, or feel revived by the look of love in another’s eyes? Mostly I sense the people leave when it’s just too-much to be here any longer. But I am wondering about that too-much and maybe that’s just what I’m seeing on the outside.
What is it like on the inside to feel that shift that it’s time to go? Is it beyond decision that we know as mere mammals? Is it a spiritual shift? Is it like delivering a child whose schedule is different from the mother’s?
When this old friend finally packs it in I imagine the most subtle changes taking place, some floating above herself and marveling at the sensation of being free of that old wreck of a body and maybe the wonder of seeing the grief that will come to surround her former self. And all the love she feels, maybe. And what is the scheduling like after this? Surely there must be some kind of welcome or instruction or explanation to that other side. I’ve heard from several corners of older others coming to help one cross over.
But after a few hugs and kisses of old dears, is there a slide show of choices? The offer to have a shower and a nap after such an arduous crossing? A foot bath perhaps? Is there reassignment straight away? Some catching up about what that last 80 years meant down there in all that human confusion? Is time gone as an idea? Is essence kept and body gone as an identity? And what are the choices to send word back that all is well and hell is only what they are doing to one another back there in reality?
By and by as her sleep deepens, I remove my hands and quietly scoot out the door to let her sleep. I want to make her stay home and rest more, and that is my own selfishness for wanting to keep her here longer. Her daughter says yes she’s doing too much.
Stay with us a while longer old friend. See how beautiful the day is? See how bright the spring flowers? How lush the summer will be and how sweet the corn. And so many of us love you so much. Stay. And that is only one small part of timing the time to go.
Living Through Grace, Living on Gifts
When I was 30 years old I resigned from my job as a pre-school teacher. Salary, retirement, paid vacations, savings account, health insurance, sick leave—all hung up like an old worn coat. I stepped out, out into what appeared to be thin air. I needed something more than the usual. What I had thought would be a move to a more interesting way of making a living became a practice of faith and hope.
Imagine that you had a particular passion that made you different in the way you considered parts of life. Not so unusual really. Now picture using that passion to focus and hone your abilities in a way that insists on improving yourself, your surroundings, and the lives you come in contact with. Still not so out of the ordinary. Bring in an element now of being paid not by the people who you serve necessarily, but by the people who see and understand that your work is important. And instead of being paid per task, you are paid as people are moved. This is the thin air part. Not because there is nothing there, but because the culture teaches there is not enough.
It hasn’t been easy to make all the mistakes I have made. It’s taken a special kind of whatever the opposite of attention and concentration is. At times I excel in this. It’s not everyone who can trip over a flat space. There’s a certain skill to it. And it’s very underappreciated. Think of what a public service it is to relieve others of their fear of doing something embarrassing because center stage has been stolen by the guy with the toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe while he discusses the importance of making a good first impression.
I have always been very reluctant to receive messages, because I know that it’s going to mean more work. When I first began to receive what I understood to be clear messages, I had a great deal of reluctance to hear them.
I thought, “Well now, I’m just a nice working-class Italian-American kid, and I really would prefer not to do anything too New Age-y or too old-fashioned.” But, you know, if the voices get loud, they get loud . . . .
But messages also come in ways that are not funny and even in ways that scare us. Let me tell you about one of those times for me, a time that it was very, very hard to listen. . . . Marshall and I had just moved to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles, and we were very happy together. After we had moved in, he said to me, “My armpits feel achy.” He was thinking that maybe it was from the moving and so much lifting. Marshall didn’t know anyone at that time with AIDS, but I knew that one of the first signs of AIDS is often a swelling of the lymph nodes. And I very calmly turned to him and said, “Oh, how long have they been bothering you?”
“Oh, about a week.”
“Well, let’s go see a doctor. It’s important. Let’s go see a doctor.”
Before we got to a doctor, I sat down in prayer. No, it wasn’t really prayer. I sat down in fury.
I said, “How dare you. How dare you. Don’t you dare threaten me like this. I go through all of these fires. I hand over my life to do this work, and you send me this love, this person who I love more than anyone else in the world. I thought we had a deal. Don’t you remember that day I looked up in the sky, and I said, ‘You’ve given me all these gifts, but you haven’t sent me a lover. I think I can deal with that, but you should send more money.’ I thought we had an understanding and now you’re doing this? If this man is hurt, I quit the company. I’ll get a new boss. I’m out of here.”
I was furious. Furious. And always the message came back, “Feel this. Feel this deeply.”
So we went to the doctor and took the HIV antibody test. In that week it took for the results to come back, I came around to a place of saying, “All right, all right, I’m sorry I threatened you, but now I will tell you the truth. If you hurt this man, if this man suffers and you take him from me, my heart will be broken and I will not be able to do this work anymore. I cannot go out on this limb and see the suffering that I see and have people’s pain pass through me because I will be so full of my own.”
And the message kept coming back, “Feel this deeply.”
We both tested negative for the virus, and all that was needed was a little medication for a bacterial infection. And the next week I was invited to begin my work with COMADRES of El Salvador, to work on refugees who have been tortured. And I said, “Oh. Feel this deeply. Feel what it’s like to have the person you love most in the world threatened and maybe taken away, and your own life endangered. Feel this deeply, because now I give you the opportunity to go and work with people who live with this every day, who have memory of the things that people fear most in the world, that they and the people they love most in the world will be hurt beyond all that can be imagined.”
Healing & Angels
In my experience, the next part of healing is inviting angels. I have a sense that each of us has some friends in high places, and I don’t go to work without them, I really don’t. All of us have friends all around us all the time. . . .
Sometimes I imagine my angels are like my great uncles and aunts, sitting around a card table up on a cloud. And one of them says, “I know! Let’s get him ready to do this thing over here.” But another one says, “Oh, no! He’s not ready for that! Look at him. Look what happens to him when he doesn’t find parking in front of the laundromat. He’s not ready for that big thing over there.”
If you’re going to invite your angels, you need a certain level of softness. When I began doing my work, I really didn’t have very much belief in angels. Then one day I was working with a healer, a wonderful woman by the name of Jean Schweitzer, who could look into your body as easily as if she were looking into a milk bottle. And she told me, “Well, now, you have some very big angels with you, and you can always ask for help.”
One day I was not ready to do the work that came to me: three people, one right after another, who were in big trouble. But it was very much like the parable of fishes and loaves. The energy I needed to do what was being asked of me came to me, so that I could make a beautiful gift to them. Afterward I sat down in meditation and prayer and said, “Now see here, what is going on? I don’t really believe in angels, but I could sort of feel you there, so I wish you would show up and talk to me, because I’m going down this road in a way that I don’t understand.”
The angels wouldn’t show up until I cried—until I felt the depth and the deep quiet that one needs to hear angels. Some angels came right through, and they said, “Now see here, we’re going to get a lot of work done.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
“All you have to do is stay soft. In your tenderness, you can receive these gifts, and you can give them to others, and you must invite us.”
Eccentricity for Quakers
Another piece is eccentricity. Quakers are a little bit famous for being eccentric. It is part of our English heritage. In my Italian family, we had some eccentrics. . . . I want you to pay close attention to your eccentricities, especially in difficult situations. If you are going to be the one carrying water to a large fire, there are going to be some peculiar little things that are going to help you. They are going to be very individual and they are going to be unique. And, by God, I want you to claim them and I want you to keep them.
I have worked with many, many women who have had sexual assaults, and I have gone into prisons to teach massage to rapists. But I make it a very firm rule never to get more than five miles away from the nearest French fry. If I can have this, you can send me wherever you need me to go. Be very aware of your eccentricities and what it is that is peculiar to you that you need to do your work, and don’t be ashamed of it.
Hope &The Dance
Hope has a very specific role in healing. For every person who is looking to get well, there is a dance between hope and fear. The dance looks something like this. We are doing regular life. A monster appears and we are hurt. Fear grabs hold of the steering wheel of our life and lays down all kinds of rules setting into place a contraction, a compression of our former life. Our ways of thinking become smaller, our bodies become constrained, and our emotions are less free.
After a time, hope comes out and says, “Now fear, I understand why you are doing all this. I saw the monster too and I know there were damages. But you have made life so small in here that I am bored to tears. This is not living. Can we draw the drapes? Get some fresh air? Can we call a friend? Go for a walk? See a movie? Have some ice cream? I need a little something in here. Could we just come out from under the futon and stop screaming for five minutes?”
That’s the job of hope, to lobby in the legislature of the heart for space to make choice.
COMADRES – 1988
In May 1988 I went to downtown Washington, D.C. to a church basement and began doing work with women who had been tortured in the prisons of El Salvador. They are founders of the committee COMADRES, mothers and wives of the disappeared during the American sponsored civil war in El Salvador.
This is when I would like my life to be a movie so I could look at all the scenes slowly. So much goes on. I make my way through the 95 degree heat and humidity that is Washington, D.C. in summer. I empty a fistful of nickels and dimes into the Metro ticket machine to get a $1.70 round trip, my overhead for today’s work.
This day I will work with Maria. Her husband was killed trying to organize a union for workers in rural El Salvador. Maria was imprisoned and tortured while carrying her 5th child.
On arrival I am saying prayers to my angels, assessing my personal energy, and asking for their help. It sounds a bit pathetic. “I am feeling awful today—mind, body, spirit, the works. I am asking, please, that some gift be made to Maria through me. I need your grace to be of any use.”
Maria and I have no common language other than hope and reverence. We use some sign language at the start of each session to share what parts of her body hurt. Clasping my hands together and putting them to the side of my head I ask her how her sleep has been. She makes a frown and says, “Poquito,” little. I put my hands at the small of my back and raise my eyebrows as if to say, “And how is this part of you?” We do the same for other parts as our work continues over time. One week she has bad headaches, another week no sleep. Another week she has fallen and bruised a knee and shoulder badly. One week she is frantic with the news that she has not been granted amnesty.
Just as in the AIDS epidemic, one must always love without attachment to control of the larger picture. Dying, deportation, losing the one you’ve been helping can feel as though your work doesn’t count. But that is not so. If your work is good when you are doing it, then its total remains. This is loving for the sake of loving, tough and tender at once and always remembering that no love is ever wasted. During that session I saw Jesus come to us in bright electric colors and guide the work. We were both stunned by this. His compassion was as exquisite as light itself.
Maria’s little boy, Oscar, was in utero when much of the torture happened. Now he refuses to be out of her arms when men are present. It has meant at times that I am doing massage and energy work on Maria while she holds him. He is soon asleep in her arms as she dozes too.
There are times when she is more scared than others, and I feel myself being drained of all energy, especially if I am not well rested. There are days when we are both centered, and the silence and stillness becomes thick and glowing and we both leave in a state of grace.
One day, I notice several things at once. She is tense as her deportation hearing approaches. Recent news of the death squads back home is terrifying and leaves her sleepless. The army has stolen supplies sent to earthquake victims and arrested COMADRES staff. I feel too tired to fend off her despair. I feel her sadness seep down into me and flatten my reserves. She will need work on the left side of her head where tension has collected. I will have to reach very deep for my own calm to do her any good. I will need to sleep after this. I will have to choose between clients and deskwork this week. I ask for her angels and mine to surround us and make her a gift of peace.
After some opening work to join intimate energies, I begin at her feet. It seems at times that the deeper the hurt, the more stillness is required to contact it. By all appearances, I am sitting on the floor, holding one foot at a time almost without motion. But the transaction I feel taking place (and not by any decision on my part) is drawing the energy and attention of her body down to her feet and opening the bottom of her feet like a trap door, releasing what feels like overcrowding.
She is sitting with her eyes closed. When I ask her to lie down on the sofa, I begin to wave and weave my arms in circles to clear the area over her, a method I often use, but this motion is too coarse for how she feels today. She is more fragile, and I [smooth] the air rather than scoop it. I can feel my own tenderness rise and her sadness release in bits. Her sadness seeps out, and I wonder if she will weep.
She lies still, her face placid, and then turns to the side just a bit. I work on her shoulders and back. My hands are on her hips and legs and follow down to her feet again. There is a clear sense of completion and a deep grace in us both by the hour’s end. Even the room feels clearer.
As she rises, she looks as though she’s had a good sleep. After a while she says something in Spanish, which I understand by intuition and from many other receivers. “I wasn’t in my body. I was floating.” The color is back in her face. Her posture is better. She is calmer and has more energy. She looks younger. We hold each other’s hands and say goodbye.
There are no words for this intimacy, to feel the sadness that seeps out from the limbs and into my hands passing through my soul and out; for the moment I feel the sadness, terror, or pain grow and pass. No words for the look on her face as peace sneaks in like night. No words for the moment when I wonder what to do next, where to touch, what happened here two years ago. Will a touch there scare her? Will it hurt? Will it release a flood of sadness that will overwhelm us both? Will I lose my center and become exhausted? Will I lose track of my gift, my goodness? And usually a deep breath comes, a narrow passage broadens, and tension melts, all and each of these several times in an hour’s work.
I feel more confident in this work as the months and years go on. The stories of torture have frightened me. I don’t repeat the stories because it feels like flirting with insanity or tempting evil. I have been afraid of the transfer I have experienced with other traumas. It is common for me to feel the pain of others as I work. There is a moment when the essence of a feeling rises in them and moves into me, and then out. Suddenly, we are both cleaner and they carry less around. It is not gone so much as less immediate, having less bite.
It took me years to accept this transaction, to surrender to the experience and allow it to stretch me. I have put a great deal of effort into surrendering and making no effort to control or guide the process. I am fairly at home with it now, though it leaves me fairly tender and certainly not in a state to be in a downtown metropolitan area soon afterward, which is where I am doing this refugee work.
Later in the day I will feel a deep tiredness. I recall the beginning of work with AIDS. There was always the mix of excitement, gratitude, and lots of exhaustion until I learned what my gifts were, how to my govern my giving and become more disciplined about my rest.
After this work, I walk the two blocks to the Metro station past several homeless men in rags sitting on the sidewalk. I get teary. It’s hard to wake up a cranky grouch, feeling only my own orneriness. And then enter into grace on behalf of someone surviving the most horrendous traumas. It feels as though the sadness and hardness of my life is only a cloak that I draw over me. And this work, this handing myself over to divine work, takes these extraneous details away and I am again firmly on the earth, but walking with a lightness and a brighter vision of what’s going on, what’s available, what’s possible.
It’s sad to lose this awareness and broad perspective of life, to be in awe of its miracle, like losing one’s sobriety. It’s too great a contrast to move from the numbness of the modern urban rush to feeling deeply what is sacred and what has been defiled. It’s too strong a reminder of what I know but lose track of too easily. How luscious the balance and stillness of grace is and how easily my own illusions and the noise of the world distract me.
The combination of emotional fatigue and loss of judgment has made history in the worst ways. Some of the most dreadful politics to be witnessed are in our non-profit crisis organizations where good, hard working people have mistaken each other as the enemy. I have seen some grand tragic opera take place and devour wonderful people doing great work because the feelings of despair became a “good guys vs. bad guys” mind set. The real enemy in burnout is not people but rather weariness, defensiveness, and the refusal to learn.
Personal love is a finite renewable resource. It must be refreshed carefully each day for sufficient renewal to give more away. Each of us only has so much to give away each day. That measure of love can grow and the muscle for it can become strong. But it will always require the balance of receiving to be restored to do more. Divine love is infinite and any number of things might happen that seem impossible when divine love is involved. But most of us roll up our sleeves each day using our personal love to do our work, so great care must be taken for that love to be kept bright and burning.
I’ve become more deliberate and careful about naming sources of this experience. I rarely use the word God any longer as it has such terrible manipulation, violent history, and ungodly limitations placed upon it. When God is mentioned to justify war and such, you know faith and reason has been left behind. I might say the Divine or leave the space open without naming. I think the tone one works in and the capacity to leave ego and certainty behind are more important than attaching the experience of healing to a singular named source. If your experience is specific, hooray and many blessings on all you do! But when it’s used in some way that does not honor all, then specific naming no longer anchors a work to goodness.
In working with Christians, I’ve experienced the presence of Jesus and Mary. When working with Buddhists, I’ve experienced the presence of the Buddha. I am experiencing their faith, the frame where they understand spiritual life happens. I’m not going to separate myself from that for some sense of certainty wherein only particular frames are allowed. Faith, goodness, and compassion do not come under one brand name. . . .
So, what is it and where does it come from? Language will always disappoint in spiritual matters, disappoint and be insufficient. I think of it as Light. My sense is that it comes from the sky and the earth and realms we don’t have names for, that it is and has always been a stream we can choose to step into and be part of. But mostly the noise of modern life makes us unable to hear the call to know or respond to this intimacy
A Rainy Evening – September 2012
A rainy evening here in southeast Vermont. Just cold enough to make a fire in the wood stove, the first of the season. The fall colors are coming slowly—the yellows seem drab, maybe because we’ve had too little rain the last couple of months. Maybe in a few weeks when the reds come in there will be more bright delicious colors.
While Marshall is in the kitchen making roast pork, I stroll down to the cow pasture and give the steer corncobs and husks from last night.
The pigs and sheep are envious. The neighbor gives me tomatoes and on the way back up the little hill, I dig my toes into the mud to encourage the rain runoff to go off the dirt road. I’m just back from seeing a friend who might have cancer and M is just off the phone recruiting English teachers for Saudi Arabia. He tells me that in the wee hours this morning he found an ancestor via computer already established as an American in 1745.
Tomorrow we will celebrate Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok, with Korean friends. Marshall will cook up a storm. I am preparing for some last trips of teaching to eight groups in three states and a week-long visit from my book editor who will ask me to decide this and that and to write tons. All the self-discipline of a flash flood delays my preparations. I’ve been too busy to mourn the leaving of summer. Oddly, I’ve bought six books in the last year. All sit on my nightstand awaiting me. I try not to feel bullied. These are things I want to know but must push to get through.
I’ve been wondering about the phrase walk away. Sometimes it means to get clear of. Sometimes it means to abandon. Sometimes it means freedom. Sometimes it’s learning a new discipline. I can’t safely walk away from the fire I’ve just built. It needs tending. Marshall can’t walk away from the roast for very long or it might burn. My friend cannot walk away from her cancer, if she has it. The steer refuses to walk away from the corn husks. I walked away from my family at 18. I walked away from “being straight” with that first boyfriend in the backseat of a Mustang at 18. Maybe that was the real first fire. Whole worlds open when we walk away, maybe.
Now it’s much later. Marshall sleeps. The dishwasher churns. I hear either a bat or a bird or a mouse making some space between the ceiling and the roof above my head here on the balcony. Hoping this finds us all well and comfortable. Hoping we have some time to wonder and rest before we begin again. . . .