I’ve been playing around with the word “Idol.” It keeps coming up as I-doll, something I create and to which I attribute certain qualities. Before I know it, this I-created doll has power over me.
I have had many idols in my life — teachers, writers, painters, lovers, and public figures. I invested them all with qualities far beyond my own attainment. I eventually found, to my grief, that they couldn’t live up to the standards I had projected upon them.
Then I met Reirin Yamada Roshi, a Zen Master who could easily have become my idol. He would, however, not allow this to happen. His teaching put me firmly back into myself. The first time I sat on a cushion in his big barn-like zendo, I cried uncontrollably. I think I sensed that I was at least at Home, not in someone else, but in myself. I felt safe.
He laughed a lot. He was at peace no matter what the interruptions. The temple was near a firehouse and many times during the evening meditations, the fire truck would blast screaming out of the fire station and howl away down the street. Never a flicker passed over the face of Yamada Roshi (I peeked). He seemed enveloped in light and laughter. He judged no one. Once I admitted that I had gone to sleep during a meditation. He grinned and said, “What’s wrong with sleeping?” He told brief parables after the meditation and green tea: “If you have a cup in one hand and a pencil in the other, you have to put one thing down to pick up something else.” I shook my head as I drove home after this meditation, asking myself why I had driven twenty miles to hear something so mundane. Two weeks later, that simple statement finally sank in.
He was the first person from whom I learned non-attachment. His was like the love of the sun for a flower garden. We could bathe in his love but not grasp it. When he left for Japan, I cried at the airport, embarrassed because no one else did. Later, in an interview with a Tokyo newspaper, he lovingly described our little group and mentioned that “Mrs. Ann cried” when he left. I felt this was his way of honoring my grief.
The one man who could have been my idol lovingly and laughingly refused the honor and moved on, leaving me to search out in myself the qualities I so much admired in him. It has been twenty-five years since he left, but he is as vivid to me today as the Taos mountain beneath which I write. Come to think of it, the mountain and Yamada Roshi have much in common; they inspire me to come from my own center, and not from some I-doll I create outside myself.
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
Growing up in the deep South as a Protestant, I inherited a suspicion of anything Roman Catholic. Even as a young man studying theology, I was wary of Catholics and their beliefs.
I was in my first year of seminary when, low on funds, I answered a help wanted ad, and was hired by Mrs. Verdi, a sprightly woman of ninety, to spring-clean her house — one room at a time, with antiseptic care.
Mrs. Verdi soon let me know that she was not only Catholic but belonged to the true-blue strain: she was Italian Catholic, and had doubts that anyone who was not Italian could genuinely claim the faith. Nonetheless, she tried to convert me. She asked me to drive her to confession and tried to persuade me to join her in the sacrament. “Confession is good for your soul. It won’t hurt you even if you are not yet Catholic.” I demurred. When I asked her what she gained from the ritual, she said, “Confession purifies my heart so that I can eat God on Sunday.” It sounded like cannibalism.
At the head of the stairs in a spacious hallway, Mrs. Verdi had a table laden with candles and statuary of her faith. There must have been a half-dozen pieces, ranging in height from six inches to more than a foot. They were placed around the perimeter of the table, in the center of which lay a Bible. On the wall above presided a sad, sad figure of Christ on the cross, peering down on the display. When the candles were lit, the statuary formed dancing shadows, which seemed to be climbing the wall, trying to reach the crucifix.
One day during a break for refreshments — Mrs. Verdi took special delight in feeding me — we were standing on the landing near her sacred table. I summoned the courage to ask, “Mrs. Verdi, why do you worship those statues?” She jerked her head toward me. “Do you think I am a fool?” she snapped. “I would never worship a piece of plaster of Paris! That would be idolatry. They are reminders. That’s all they are, reminders!” Then she lit two candles, one for me and one for my mother. “Whoever brought you into the world,” she said, “needs my prayers!” With that, she turned away.
Mrs. Verdi was one of my spiritual teachers. I had granted to those molded plaster forms a power that Mrs. Verdi would never have given them. Taught to believe that idolatry was simply the worship of “graven images,” I needed to understand that idolatry actually meant confusing the symbolic with the real. Since what is real is not directly available to us, we use symbols as windows. They allow us glimpses of the real, unless we turn the windows into idols.
Tom W. Boyd
On a muggy summer night in 1969, I went to see the D.A. Pennebaker film, Don’t Look Back. The movie is a cinéma vérité documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 England tour and it was, for me, a revelation.
Dylan already possessed powerful idol qualifications. He was solo. He didn’t hide in a band, but faced a world of phoniness and injustice with only a guitar and harmonica. He was poetic to the point of being obtuse. He was cynical, world-weary, sardonically humorous. He was small. I mean, physically, he was a little guy. To a little guy like myself, this made a difference.
Don’t Look Back also shows plainly that Bob had a mean streak — vicious, sarcastic, sneering — not just with The Establishment, but with reporters and hangers-on as well. The best anyone got out of Bob Dylan, from bellhops to promoters, was smirking condescension. Before Don’t Look Back, I admired Bob Dylan. This movie transformed admiration to full-fledged idol worship.
I had spent my early teenage years groveling for acceptance. I wanted to be disturbing and threatening like Bob; a vicious little guy whose vision and expression could break your heart or drive you into a rage. He defied you to like him. In the jingle jangle morning I had to go following him.
I set about the task with a vengeance. I got a Bob Dylan haircut and a Bob Dylan jacket. I got a Bob Dylan girlfriend, from the North Country of course, and I wrote Bob Dylan poetry. My North Country girl and I learned his lyrics by heart and used them as a kind of conversational shorthand.
It was probably the greatest time of my life but it had to change. The North Country girl moved to Paris. Bob Dylan became a Christian. In my twenties, I had to let go.
Idol worship is addictive, though, and I found myself bouncing from vicious little guy to vicious little guy — looking for Mr. Badbar. I tried Billy Martin for a while, but he was too self-destructive. I became infatuated with an early Sixties, rat-pack vision of Frank Sinatra that might have held up if only I could have avoided his Chrysler commercials. I spent a long weekend thinking about Danny DeVito but that was the act of a desperate man.
It’s the Nineties now. I’m running out of possibilities, and, at thirty-seven, the rewards of idol worship have gotten thinner. I saw Don’t Look Back recently on public television. They offered a cassette of the film for an $80 pledge. I found myself wanting it all back, thinking maybe the $80 could buy it back, buy him back, maybe even buy back the North Country girl. I suppose you can buy nostalgia but heroes are not for sale. They ride in out of nowhere and sweep you away. You have to be young for that, before the weight of years makes you too substantial for sweeping.
I loved the Holy Blessed Virgin Mary when I was a little girl. I also secretly resented Her. I was a good girl. I went to Mass every day but Saturday and to Confession twice a month. The only sin I knowingly committed was the lie I told there, the sins I made up so that Father wouldn’t accuse me of false pride. I wore a scapular around my neck, said my prayers five times a day, had a personal relationship with my Guardian Angel. I slept with a plastic, fluorescent rosary under my pillow.
I thought She would appear to me someday like She did to those kids in Mexico. She would tell me a secret, like when the world would end, or ask me to build a church in my back woodlot. People would come from all over the world.
One afternoon in Mass, Her marble statue nodded its head at me, but that wasn’t very satisfying.
She finally showed up one night in my bedroom, standing next to the wall in back of my record player. I talked to Her until I fell asleep, and the next night She was back again. On the third night I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I called my mother. “Come look. The Holy Blessed Virgin Mary is in my bedroom.”
My mother looked around. Then she adjusted the Venetian blinds in her efficient, maternal way. “No, see there. It was just the streetlight shining in. It’s gone now.”
It’s been that way with my idols ever since.
The large, tablet-shaped stone my ranch hand had found was covered with strange etchings. On closer inspection, I could see it was a rock carving of a man with a drawn bow. It had the classic deeply-carved X, which is indicative of many primitive petroglyphs; the head, hands, and feet; even an arrow if I looked close enough!
Although no rock art had been found in this region of Kansas, I knew there once must have been some on the limestone ledge above the spring. Probably an old homesteader had gathered the stone, with many others which had fallen from the ledge, and added it to the foundation of his house nearby.
The stone warrior was installed in our sun room on top of a small Tibetan rug, where it became a shrine of sorts. We put some corn, a crystal, and feathers on top of it. At its base we often burned incense. We showed the stone to friends who came to visit, and shared the story of its discovery. How lucky, they would say, to have such a personal kind of idol.
A few years later, I made the acquaintance of an amateur archeologist. Familiar with regional artifacts and Indian camps, he wanted to take a look at our find. I set it proudly on the floor in front of him and he carefully examined it. Sincerely apologetic, he told us the lines were made by the disk of a tractor working the field. He pointed out other “eye holes” in the rock that I had overlooked, and the “bow and arrow” — well, there were other lines that were equally evident. The scratches where I surmised the craftsman had sharpened his etching tool were just skid marks from a farmer’s disk. We went out to the old foundation and sure enough, there were other rocks with similar lines, though none suggested any kind of human design.
The stone warrior stayed in place for a while until he was replaced by a fern and moved behind the ladder to the loft. We’re attached to him in a different way now and when we tell the story it always brings a good laugh. We never really were much for idolatry, and yet I often regret bringing in the archeologist. I’d always believed that truth was somehow greater than fact, and the truth was there was a man with a bow on the rock; never mind how it was created.
There are many things that I believe about God. I believe God is good, just, and merciful and that all the evil and suffering in the world arises from mankind’s free, human, and selfish will. I believe God is tripartite in nature: there is a male, paternal aspect of God; a female, maternal aspect; and, resulting from the union of these, a third, manifest aspect which we understand as love. I believe God has the power to cause miracles — that is, events that seemingly contradict natural law.
All my beliefs add up to a conception of God. But I have a problem, because if there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that God must be quite different from any conception I could ever have of God. All my ideas, the fruits of my finite mind, are themselves finite, while God is infinite. I can no more comprehend God than a thimble can contain the ocean. The reality of God must be vast beyond knowing. So what is this pitiful idea that I have of God if not a graven image, an idol, a false god; precisely the sort of loathsome thing that God, in the Bible, forbids us to worship? This is why Meister Eckhart says, “We ought not to have or let ourselves be satisfied with the God we have thought of, for when the thought slips the mind, that God slips with it. What we want is rather the reality of God, exalted far above any human thought or creature.”
Diamond Bar, California
Last night I saw McCoy Tyner at a club called Condon’s on 15th Street. I hadn’t seen him since 1971, but I hear him on records often.
I was surprised how much he looked like a championship boxer. I sat at the bar and paid $3 for a grapefruit juice, which was badly fermented.
He played “Someone To Watch Over Me” solo, and would slip into this second language, a kind of shorthand, which went very fast. He was playing for someone sixteen times as intelligent as I, and I left regretting I wasn’t that person.
He’s been at little places like this for thirty years, where everyone can see his face. He is a pianist, and can sound like forty men singing.
I don’t want to be him — it’s too much responsibility. But I want to learn his alphabet, to translate it for all of you.
The Lexington Avenue Express
New York, New York
The group leader was about to begin a guided visualization. She encouraged us to follow the first thing that came to mind. “Picture your idol,” she began. Immediately I saw a picture of Jock McConklin. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous,” and pushed it away. In its place came a rapid succession of images: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Joe DiMaggio, my meditation teacher — all of them acceptable, I thought, but none of them really moving me. And then there was Jock McConklin again, crowding the other pictures out of my mind.
Why did I think of Jock McConklin? He hadn’t entered my mind in thirty years. He was a rough little kid — strong, wild, and usually up to no good — who lived in the poor part of town. All through elementary school he and his band of followers made life difficult, terrorizing the girls and picking fights with the rest of us boys (we always got beat up). In junior high, Jock was the first to smoke cigarettes. He carried condoms in his pocket. He had a shotgun. He never seemed to have to go home for supper; he didn’t seem to have to go home at all. I remember the loud, eerie, wild call, like a coyote, of Jock out in the woods, summoning his gang. In high school he got Jaquiline, a cheerleader, pregnant. They dropped out of school and Jock went to work for a man who mowed lawns. The last time I saw him was one summer when I came home from college; he was pushing a lawn mower, with a pack of cigarettes tucked into the short sleeve of his white T-shirt, his muscular arms even stronger, his face unreadable.
Jock McConklin — my idol? Absurd. Why did the image of this bully come so forcefully into my mind? As we sat in a circle, sharing our experiences, I thought again of Jaquiline, in her blue and white cheerleader outfit. As if it were yesterday, I saw clearly her jet black curls, the creamy flesh of her thighs, and her tight black panties as she did cartwheels at half time.
Oh, Jock! The mere thought of a night with Jaquiline is still dizzying. And to be a fearless leader, to scream with such abandon, to have muscular arms like you, and to roam the earth so freely. Of course you are my idol.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
Eric the Red in the comic strip “L’homme du Nord” was my idol while I was growing up in Brussels. What a hero: he always saved maidens in distress, discovered new worlds, and was a fierce fighter and a great sailor. As a young adult I idolized J. Pierpont Morgan. He represented wealth, power, and above all, imagination brought to bear on all circumstances.
I graduated from college as an engineer, and worked my way up to assistant project manager, while getting an M.B.A. at night school. Finally at twenty-nine I had to get on the fast track: I left engineering and got into the commodity world; my idols were unleashed. I spent five years in a small firm learning the business, then left to start my own company. I had a rage to succeed. In a matter of ten years I built my company into the largest U.S. coffee importer, with offices in Holland, Kenya, France, Indonesia, and Japan. Those whom I had previously idolized no longer seemed larger than life.
When I became convinced I was invincible, thunder and lightning struck: a heart attack, followed by legal disputes. I was humbled, and sold my company at the apogee of its success. But, within me, a flowering occurred. I discovered my inner self and began a search for ways to serve others. Now my rage to succeed and my laser focus no longer work — the harder I try, the less clear things are. I understand enlightenment cannot be forced; the idol within will only manifest itself when I am present in every moment.
Claude M. Saks
Montclair, New Jersey