September 2021
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Finding God in Berkeley

A memoir on injustice

We hear a good deal about spirituality these days. The writings from gurus of the spirit like Simone Weil and Thomas Merton teach us to be compassionate, aware, and peaceful as we seek God. However, I got my spiritual lesson by way of raising a teenaged daughter — in Berkeley. 

Stained glass panel from the National Cathedral, Washington DC.

Back then I dreamed of leaving teaching and going to Berkeley to study in the school of religion, where I’d learn from the teachings of spiritual masters. Imagine my surprise when, one September morning, a loud voice interrupted my mystical musings —

“I hate your motherfucking car.”

My daughter Maggie stood in my bedroom doorway glaring at me. She looked formidable in her nightshirt and mammoth high-top sneakers. “What are you talking about?” I asked, surprised by her outburst so early in the day. “My car? You’re going to school. It’ll be okay. ”I finished making my bed, knowing Maggie wasn’t finished. 

“That car sucks. I wish I lived with Daddy,” she declared, her dark hair an uncombed mass around her face. “He’s got a good car. I hate living here.” She turned and stomped away.

We weren’t talking about cars. My13-year-old daughter had voiced — in her characteristic language — our misgivings about starting the school year, middle school for her and a new semester of teaching at San Diego High School for me. 

I bent over to put on my teaching shoes —black leather flats that seemed like the boots of a mountain hiker. Could I face another year of high-school students, theatre productions, the irritable man in the supply room? I wanted to leave teaching and go to graduate school and seek a spiritual center, perhaps even find God.

I headed for the kitchen, where I made tea. Daisy, my golden spaniel, gazed up at me, wishing for a walk. She looked sad, reflecting my disquiet. “Cheer up, old girl,” I said, speaking to both of us. Maggie’s fury emanated from her bedroom. Was she shoving furniture?

Teaching shoes, the dog’s face, and my spiritual longings — telling signs. Within months I walked away from high-school teaching, took my daughter and my dog, and went to the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

When I arrived, I found a place with pleasant surroundings and a rich variety of people: gay activists committed to social justice, Asian students talking of “buffalo theology,” a professor interested in religious humor, and one who taught ethics. 

My daughter adapted to Berkeley in an instant and moved about the city like a shadow. She wouldn’t attend school and turned to smoking God-knows-what and hanging out at La Val’s Pizza. She was arrested, found driving a stolen pickup, and had drug paraphernalia in her bedroom.

I was never left to myself, it seemed, never could get far from the dark streets where I’d search for my daughter. If I’d had a hair shirt, I’d have worn it.

Then this: “We have to go on Friday, ”Maggie said. “You see, it’s this great thing. We’re going to dress up and everything.”

“What are you talking about?” I muttered and looked outside the apartment window at a gray cat. “You have to explain. Costumes?” A breeze lifted the cat’s thick fur as it walked across the top of a wall.

“We have this movie we go to. It’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We go every weekend at midnight. ”As she explained, she looked like an Aztec princess, I thought.

“You want to go to a midnight movie? Wearing a Halloween costume?”

“No! We go at nine to get ready! We sit in the front and we wear the clothes they wear in the movie, and we go over it until we know it.”

“Until you know what?”

“Until we know every word of Rocky Horror! We talk it with them.”

“I see,” I said. “Do you want dinner?”

“I want you to come with us.”

“Go with you? I’ve got this paper to do, and I can’t possibly stay awake that long. Wouldn’t your friends think it funny to have your mother there?”

“I want you to see me in my Rocky clothes. You’d really like it.”

Outside, the gray cat must have continued pacing.

At the movie theater I found the group of young teens fully costumed. My daughter looked like a Native American version of a French housemaid. When the movie started the teens stood up and recited lines with the actors. They sang along to songs like “Hot Patootie.” I was over whelmed by the passion in my daughter.

When I got home I took off my shoes and glasses, undressed and tried to sleep, but I was visited by a rerun of scenes from the movie and the frolicking players. The vision of my daughter as housemaid took me into a housecleaning of my own. The woman who lived behind my saintly eyeglasses had studied a gray cat more intently than she’d looked at her daughter. 

I realize now that spirituality doesn’t come from books about God or from hours of meditation. I’m convinced that compassion, awareness and peace come with intense worrying, until our defenses drop away like old boots and we stand in bare feet.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.