You have asked, so now I deliver. Here is my graduate school essay. I know there are probably commas that shouldn't be there and run on sentences and maybe even a dangling participle or two (whatever that is). Sorry for not taking more of you up on that offer to edit - but I got tired. But it is done and as we said at Iowa - done is good.
I am fortunate to have had a very eclectic upbringing. I was raised in a Baptist family and attended Catholic school for nine years. I was the only non-Catholic in my graduating class and I graduated with the highest grade in religion. I spent weekends with my family visiting my Episcopalian paternal grandmother in Brooklyn. She lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant on the border of Crown Heights - the headquarters for the Lubavitcher Hasidim. My weekends were spent watching the throngs of black-clad men walking to and from shul. Friday afternoons were particularly interesting because I got to watch the women bustle to and from the shops making preparations for Shabbos. My closest cousin is a Buddhist and taught me to chant when I was three years old. And when I was ten, another cousin returned from eleven years in Haiti. She taught me to have reverence for my ancestors and to seek their counsel in times of crisis. I went to boarding school for high school and studied Dante's Inferno (still one of my favorite books) and read the Bible for the first time as a work of literature and not as a road map for life. This time in Massachusetts allowed me to ask tough questions of myself, my beliefs and my God.
My undergraduate degree was in Religious Studies and Theatre. I chose theatre because I love to create sacred space where people can enter, be transformed and leave. My obsession with the liminal led me to theatre when I could not decide which path to take after college. I considered the seminary after high school but I needed to do my own investigation of truth. I needed to find out what I believed and how I wanted to live my life.
That journey sent me down many roads, through Christianity and Catholicism – the home of my primary eduation. The Baptist Church where I chose to be baptized at the age of seven and where I remained faithfully until college. Then through Wicca where I understood the presence of God in everything. My desire to understand the religions of my ancestors led me to study Ifa and Santeria. My long abiding love and respect for Jewish tradition and ritual led me to explore Judaism. The desire to have my children in a spiritual community led me to Unitarianism.
All the time one thing has remained constant: there is but one Creator in my ontology. I have found my own path to Grace, what I call the Prime Mover, the Architect or God. I am in a place of peace with my understanding of Grace in the world. I acknowledge the divinity of Jesus while acknowledging the divinity in all of Grace's creations. I listen to Bob Marley with spiritual awakening and light the candles of Chanukah while bringing in our Christmas tree and Yule log. Some might say that this makes me a dabbler, not a true walker on a spiritual path. I diasagree. I have forged my own path in the wilderness of loss and confusion. I am comfortable taking what works for me from different traditions and creating a spiritual life for my family. I do not believe that to belong to a tradition you have to abandon your values and your personal truth. The things I believe are fundamental to me, and cannot exist in the same space as a dogma that insists that I act differently. I have sought an academic program that presupposes the existence of God but does not insist that I share it's specific beliefs to achieve a Master's Degree.
I have a MFA in directing from the University of Iowa. And even though that degree is in a different field I feel that theatre and religion are intimately connected. I have always been drawn to works that explore questions of belief and help make sense of our world. My thesis in graduate school was a collaborative piece titled “God's Mother.” In the workshop phase, this piece was a riff on Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac or The Binding of Isaac. I wanted to explore Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith versus his Knight of Infinite Resignation from Fear and Trembling. The workshops explored what if Abraham hadn't heard the voice of God and didn't recognize the ram? What if he killed his son? What would Sarah say?
My idea, then and still, was to explore the line between ecstatic vision and mental anguish – suffering. The question – What would Sarah say?, led me to explore her story as the mother of Isaac. The play became about Sarah, Hagar and Mary and their relationships with each other, historically and with their “famous” sons. What is it like to give birth to the founder of a religion? That is what the play asked. The play had a life outside of academia receiving performances in New York and Chicago.
My undergraduate thesis, which earned me magna cum laude upon graduation, was another play entitled “In Search of Eve” and it detailed the hypothetical conversation Eve had with herself before and after she ate “the apple.” All things being equal, and with all information and consequences at her disposal would Eve make the same choice? My work as a director has always been to do what the great Anne Bogart suggested which is “to put the questions onstage.” And my questions have always been of a theological nature.
The major theological dilemma I face is the one I have sought to answer through my own personal investigation of truth: the question of suffering and the treatment of death. I have suffered before I realized that suffering was a choice. I do not completely agree with Buddhism, in the most simple sense, that all suffering comes from attachment to the world and we will eliminate our suffering when we eliminate all attachment. I love my children, my husband, my family. And my attachment to them gives my life meaning. I do not suffer because of them I achieve joy and peace (and let's face it – anger and frustration) because of them. If I choose not to accept their death as inevitable I will suffer. If I choose to wallow in the negative, I will also suffer.
Last year I was diagnosed with a very rare cancer. There were very few doctors familiar with the treatment or able to give me any kind of prognosis. I sought out the best doctors and did my own personal research to learn everything I could about this cancer and I made preparations in the event of my death. I learned something through that work. It was not depressing for me to think about my death. It was not hard to plan my funeral or my burial arrangements. What was hard was thinking about the future of my three children and husband without me. What floored me, each and every time, was their lives without me and the fact that they would be sad if I died. That proms, weddings and births would occur and I would be missed. I clearly understood how I could suffer in that moment; if I attached myself to their pain; if I stayed in that moment.
I chose to walk out of that moment and acknowledged that pain is a part of life. They would experience it and there was not a lot I could do to keep them from all of it. They needed it to grow. That released me from the suffering. I did not lose my attachment to them - I lost my attachment to something I could not predict or stop or change. What I could control was my ability to prepare them, to let them know I loved them and would continue to love them and that I would fight to get well.
My longing to make sense of the world has led me down many paths academically and professionally. I am a theatre director, a professor, a holistic health counselor, a mother, a wife and an artist. I love all these jobs and have not felt that any of them have wasted my time. They have all laid stones on my path.
I love to teach. I get joy and insight from it. I learn so much from my students and I get excited every time they figure out a problem or are able to do something they never thought possible – like standing before a room of people and giving a speech.
Being a holistic health counselor speaks directly to my desire to take care of people by helping them take care of themselves. Michael Pollan is a hero of mine and my focus on the ethics of food creation, consumption and access will always be at the top of my agenda. I find this lack of access to healthy, clean and safe food to be a moral issue. I believe that the study of religion, food and theatre are not mutually exclusive. All of them contribute to the quality of a person's life. And helping people have a great quality of life is as important to me as helping them have a good death.
Vocationally I feel that I am called to the chaplaincy. I plan to receive interfaith ordination and to work as a hospice chaplain. It feels as though all of my work and paths have led me to help ease the transition for people who are dying and to comfort the people left behind. Academically, I plan to pursue a PhD in Religious Studies, with a focus in Ethics. I want to continue to teach at the college level. And I plan to continue my work with creating access to healthy food for people living in poverty and urban areas especially women and children.
Today, I stand on the other side of cancer. But the lessons of that particular battle are not lost on me. And if it gave me anything it was clarity about my future. And if it took anything away it was the fear of going after it.
Photo: Linda Cronin