Spirits in the Material World

Ano Nuevo Collage • Mark Brown

“Sometimes, just when you give up, your prayers are suddenly answered.”

We had been hiking all day, out in the sand dunes between Franklin Point and Ano Nuevo Point, an area that few people ever went to, and one which to this day I still consider my own personal coastal wilderness. I was introduced to this wild and windy Pacific gem by Joe Glaser in 1970. At the time he called it Pinky’s Beach, named for a now long defunct restaurant. Since then it has become Gazos Creek State Beach, and an eco-resort has been built across highway 1 from Franklin Point.

I was hiking on that day with four friends with whom I shared a former Russian Orthodox nunnery, Saint Seraphim’s Sanctuary, where we all lived in 1974. Ken, with whom I was hiking, was in charge of the monthly rent payments to Jane Stallings, our “Saintly” landlady. As it was the end of the month, Ken had collected everyone’s rent payments, mostly in cash, and had put them into his wallet, which was in his pants pocket when we set out on our adventure in the early morning.

Gazos Creek and Ano Nuevo • Mark brown

We meandered down the dazzling coast through the dunes, which later in the early summer would be covered with wild strawberries and flourescently colored ice plant flowers that looked like landlocked sea anemones. We had seen a disoriented staggering deer with a fawn which we had followed through the dunes. We had seen 20 foot long, 3 ton elephant seals bellowing and fighting on the beach over harem dominance. We had explored tide pools and had seen gulls, pelicans and cormorants soaring overhead all day.  At the end of a long and wonderful day we sat down on a high dune and watched the sundown colors amplify and then drain from the sky, opening the curtains of the night sky to a dazzling Milky Way starlight display.

Gazos Creek sunset • Photo by Mark Brown

We slowly wandered back down the beach toward our car, and after a several mile hike, we were tired and glad when we got back to the parking lot. As we got back into the car, Steve’s small dog Lucy made one last lunge at a something out in the gathering darkness. At that point Ken suddenly realized that his wallet, with $ 600 of everyone’s rent money, was no longer in his back pants pocket. He knew that he had had it when we set out on our adventure, but it was clear that it had fallen out of his pocket somewhere in our meanderings earlier in the day. He decided that he would have to go search for it. As it was quite dark by then, he asked us if any of us had a flashlight. The answer was a resounding “No.” There was a camper RV parked next to our car in the parking lot. Ken knocked on the door of the camper and asked the elderly owner if he had a flashlight that Ken could borrow. He said that he had a flashlight, but, no, that Ken could not borrow it, but that he would accompany Ken in his search for the lost wallet. 

Ken and his flash light man wandered for over an hour, out in the darkened dunes. Ken finally decided that his search was in vain, after his light benefactor insisted on giving up the search and getting back to his RV and wife. Ken acknowledged that the wallet was lost forever and was weighing his options and next move, when he felt a lump under his right foot. He bent down and discovered that he had just stepped on his wallet.

He made his way back to the parking lot, his helper’s RV, rent control and peace of mind.

Sometimes, just when you give up, your prayers are suddenly answered.

On our way home, Steve asked Ken to pull over on highway 84 so that he could pee by the roadside. He got back in the car and we headed for home and 10 minutes later, Steve remembered that his dog Lucy was not with him any more, as he had let her out to pee at the same time he needed to, and that had forgotten to put her back in the car after nature’s call was completed.

We turned around and drove back to the same pull out spot and Lucy was there, patiently waiting for his forgetful master, and he didn’t even need a flashlight to find her.

A few months later, Ken and several of these same adventurers were at the same favorite beach (I was not along on that trip), and after another long day on the coast they got back in their cars and returned to the Saintly Sanctuary after sunset.  Astonishingly, no one had noticed that Ken had failed to join them on the return trip home and had been left behind, stranded on the coast.

Miraculously, Ken managed to make it back home on his own, using nothing more than his thumb, his long hair, goatee, wizard hat, colorful poncho and a thousand mile blue eyed stare which were useful assets in eliciting help from complete strangers in the nineteen seven-tees.

“I talked to God last night.”

I was sitting down to dinner during my senior year of high school in my parent’s house on the Stanford campus, where my father was a religious studies professor. We often had learned and interesting people over for dinner as my parents loved to host people that the humanities program had invited to come to the university to give lectures to the students and community. My mother was always able to find room at our table for one or several of the scholars or political thinkers that my father brought home at the end of the day. 

Elie Weisel, the noted novelist, holocaust scholar and writer; William Sloane Coffin, theologian and scholar and dean of religious studies at Yale; and Eugene McCarthy, who had run for president on an anti-war platform against LBJ during the Vietnam war era, had all been recent guests at our table among many others. Professors, students and radical political activists were frequent guests.

I had never before met Herbert Nanney, who was the organist for Stanford’s massive and magnificent Romanesque memorial church, when he came to dinner one night in 1969. As we passed the casserole and peas and bread around the table, Herbert nonchalantly mentioned that he had talked to God the previous night after he played the organ in the church. My father was a profoundly rational person, and had never described his relation to the almighty to me, though I often wished that he would, to give me some idea of how and why he chosen God as a profession, or how God had chosen him. 

Nanny-Fisk Organ • Stanford Memorial Church

There was an awkward silence after Mr. Nanny said that he had just talked to God. I wanted to ask Herbert what God had said to him, but I did not have the courage of my still forming teenage convictions to ask such a pointed and personal question to someone who I had just met moments before. My mother got up and brought out another dish from the kitchen to break the conversational impasse, and God’s messages to humanity were left in the ethers for another evening and another time.

Decades later, I was invited to hear an organ concert in a musical concert hall in a magnificent private home on a 500 acre estate in Los Trancos Woods, high in the hills above the Stanford campus. The hall had been built by Jacques Littlefield to house an organ, named “Opus 91” which was created for him by the Fisk Organ company. It was the largest organ that they had ever created for a private residence. Mr. Littlefield had been a major donator to the fund that had repaired the Stanford organ in the 1990’s, the same organ that Herbert Nanney had played for many years in the church where God had spoken to him.

I had known Littlefield’s wife Liz in middle school, and later at Stanford in France, but had lost track of her by the time she married one of the richest men in America.

The organ concert I went to was the final one to be performed there, as Littlefield had died recently. He was a fan of military tanks, amphibious war machines and scud missiles, and had amassed a huge collection of them which he housed in many buildings on his sprawling property, which was the world’s foremost private museum of armored fighting vehicles. The collection was sold for ten million dollars at auction after his passing. His ashes were transported in an armored military tank to his final resting place on the ranch where he was interred.

Jacques Littlefield’s Organ • Opus 91

The organist, Robert Huw Morgan, who performed the final concert on Opus 91, was the organist for the Stanford church, and was the direct musical descendant of Herbert Nanney, who had retired in 1985, and for whom the present Stanford organ is now named. The penultimate concert was in a specially constructed building with an ornate organ and wrap around balconies where the final guests were seated. Littlefield used to sit in the balcony, alone, while Morgan played musical selections which Jacques had requested.

When the property was sold, the organ was relocated to Indiana University in Bloomington Indiana in 2013 by the Fisk Organ company, where the organ remains to this day.

My father was a professor of Systematic Theology, a branch of study that formulates an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the doctrines of the Christian faith. Writing in his autobiographical memoir 40 years later he stated that he felt closest to God when he was playing the piano or the cello, so in later years perhaps both of he and Herbert Nanny would agree that they sometimes were in dialogue with God. 

I have a photo of my father shaking hands with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican Council in Rome, where my father was an official Protestant Observer for several months. – Clearly the pope was a man who spoke to God on a daily basis.

Pope Paul VI

I have a photo of my father sitting with Fidel Castro in Havana, taking notes as Castro was pontificating on the legacy of his Marxist revolution in Cuba. Castro was clearly a man who had told God to go to Hell. 

My father (far left, in more ways than one) takes notes with Castro in Havana

Herbert Nanny was one of the most beloved professors on campus and said that he had played the organ for 5,000 weddings at Stanford over his career, so he clearly had heard a lot of vows spoken to God in those happy ceremonies at the beginning of marriages.

Perhaps God speaks more loudly and clearly to those who need to hear him the most.

Christ was a megalomaniac, wasn’t he mommy?

Christ in the desert

I was 11 years old and had just moved across the USA to California. My new next door neighbor who I had just recently met, was named Robbie and he had a strong English accent, having just lived in England with his family for the previous two years. His father was an eminent psychologist who had just been hired by Stanford University and his mother was a concert level musician and flautist. I was driving in their faux wood paneled station wagon in Palo Alto, having just done some grocery shopping with my new neighbors when Robert, out of the thin blue air,  randomly declared that Jesus was a megalomaniac, a word  and concept I had never heard before. It was the first of many religious ideas that were to come my way over the upcoming decades in the state that would soon be know as  “Lotus-Land.”

My mother had told me a story from her childhood in China of seeing a monk who had renounced the world,  stopped eating and had somehow become naturally mummified, after which his fellow monks had covered his body with shimmering gold leaf and then put him on display as a religious icon in a cave.

Years later my brother, Peter my cousin Anne and myself were driving through the Carmel Valley in 1968 and suddenly decided that we should go visit the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The monastery was 20 miles away from where we were and was accessible only by a badly rutted one lane dirt road over high desert mountain ranges.

When we got to the monastery, hours later, we got out and peered into a large dark hall where people were sitting on the floor cross legged chanting, while a monk in long black robes was holding a huge steaming bowl of rice above his head as someone periodically hit a large reverberating brass gong. We wandered away, leaving them to their chanting and rice worship, and went to look at the hot spring baths in low buildings next to a nearby creek.

A few minutes later the man who had been holding the bowl of rice came to talk to us. We asked him if we could use the baths and he told us that we could not. At that moment a dusty young man with a back pack emerged from the desert chaparral next to the creek and asked the man, who it became clear was the abbot of Tassajara, if he could stay and meditate (sit Zazen) with the students. The abbot asked him where he had hiked in from. The young man said that he had set out from Big Sur two days ago, a distance of 20 miles or more over steep desert mountains. The abbot then told him to walk back to where had set out from two days ago on the coast and to then turn around and walk back to Tassajara, at which point the abbot would talk to him.

Moments later as we were leaving Tassajara, a pick up truck filled two with two burly sweaty men with rifles pulled into the monastery parking area. The bed of their truck was filled with several agitated howling hounds. The men said that they were hunting wild boars and wanted to know if they could park their truck and release their hounds and set out on a hunt. The abbot told them in no uncertain terms that they could not. 

Three years later I took a Zen meditation class from Roshi Kobun Chino, a Zen monk from Kyoto Japan, who had been a sensi at the the Tassajara Zen Center. When someone in the class asked what it felt like to sit Zazen, he simply said “Go to ocean – Get huge feeling!”

Kobun Chino

When I told my mother that I was taking his Zen meditation class she said “Good Lord! To the greater glory of what?”

“Would you bow down to a piano?”

I asked Yvonne, a tall black girl in my elementary school in Harlem, why she didn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the rest of us in the classroom every morning. At the time, in the 1950’s, the first thing we did every morning as the school day began, was to rise up in unison from our tiny desks, stand up ramrod straight, put our right hands over our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America. Every class room had a small American flag dangling on a shiny black pole at a 45 degree angle at the front and center of each class room.

Yvonne was the only person in our class of 35 who did not stand and deliver this daily quasi religious prayer of allegiance to patriotic ideals that none of us really understood. When I asked her why she did not join us, she told me that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and that her only pledge of allegiance was to Jesus, and not to a cloth flag, and that pledging allegiance to a flag was like bowing down to a piano.

My 5th grade class • PS 125 • 1962

At the time I had been taking piano lessons for several years and had just given my first recital at Julliard, where my teacher was a student, so I had no real issues with bowing down to a piano, as I was just discovering the wonder and expressive powers of music, though her explanation made me think about what a flag could or couldn’t do for me or anyone else. A piano seemed much more powerful, emotive and expressive than a small American flag, and to my 10 year old mind, worthy of much more respect.

Piano duet

“Oh my God! The cat just fell out the window!”

I was 19 years old in 1970 and my future wife shared a large room in Berkeley’s Ridge Project, three high stories above the ground, with two women named Ellen and Marsha. I visited her there for many weekends from Stanford, where I was a student. Ellen’s boyfriend was Neal Cassady’s son John. I had read Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road,” in high school and had internalized the romance of “On The Road,” having hitchhiked half way across the United States the previous summer after reading Korouc’s American road oddessy.  John’s father Neal, was the main character in “On the Road” and had become an anti hero for my generation.  At the time John seemed to be just another sweet mellow hippie freak, with waist long platinum blonde hair. I had finished Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool Aid Test” a year earlier when I was in Mexico, and knew the Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Merry Prankster, La Honda connections, though at the time they did not mean much to me.

Neal Cassady

After we patted Marsha’s cat, she slowly wandered out of the window onto an exterior ledge and suddenly fell 3 stories to the ground. We ran to the street below and found the stricken cat, mewling & spasmodically trembling. We rushed the cat to a nearby veterinarian who pieced him back together, letting us know at the end of the night that the fall had taken eight of the cat’s nine lives. Neal Casssady had died in 1968 at the age of  41 on the railroad tracks in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, having used up all of his lives at an early age.

Fiona • Photo by Mark Brown

“Did you marry well?”

“No, I divorced well!”

I was at my 40th high school reunion talking to Randi, who I had not seen in decades. She told me that she now had a large ranch in Arizona and raised Arabian horses and never needed to work again. I asked her if she had maried well and she laughed and told me that no, she had divorced well.

Blue Horse • Franz Marc