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Letter to the Promised Land

James O'Brien

A friend from Jerusalem sent me a one-sentence e-mail the other day: "What do you do to prepare for the end of the world?" She wasn't kidding. Here's my answer.

1. Peel head off pillow. Drink coffee. Let firewall drop, the one you've built over the past few years for survival and sanity, and allow news of day to penetrate while getting kids off to school. Worry about their/your/everybody's future. Turn to sports page. Wake up and smell the pennant race.

2. Drive around lake with daughter, who loves Macy Gray song that starts, "Funk, funk, funky for you." Roll down window so she can sing her version to rollerbladers and joggers, though, thanks to four-year-old tongue, "funks" sound like something else. Try hard to stop her, but laugh even harder, which is good, with the world ending and all.

3. Crank up Solomon Burke's "Always Keep a Diamond in Your Mind." And Hank Williams's "Wait for the Light to Shine." And Terence Trent D'Arby's "I Have Faith in These Desolate Times."

4. Think about faith. Not how faith healers or faith-based religions might have you think, but the word itself. Like the Greek pistis, which means "belief, trust, faith," and the Hebrew enuma, which means "amen," or "faith." Think about dictionary definition: "Belief and trust in and loyalty to God" and "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Dig it.

5. Read everything you can get your hands on about living in the moment, paying attention, staying present. Practice it. Be it. Live it. So that when end of world comes, you'll be really alert and won't miss a thing.

6. Drive over to House of Mercy, the rockin' little Baptist church in Lowertown St. Paul, where you've seen the likes of Charlie Louvin and Ralph Stanley, if not Jesus. Tell preacher, Russell Rathbun, that you've been thinking about faith lately and that you've got a hunch that it might be important, in these desolate times and all.

Listen as he says, "People aren't thinking about this. People aren't talking about faith. We're not at a time when people are being called to faith, or where people are really looking for this true deeper faith. People aren't doing that. It's almost like faith isn't relevant in marketing-based culture. It's so needed, but that's not what's going on, at all. People just can't see that far into the future, because everything is sold to us, and people get very cynical when everything is sold to you. So everything has this equal level of value, which is... disposable. You know, when you sell people God the same way you sell them Surge Cola, they will respond to God with the same seriousness they respond to Surge Cola with."

7. Hang out on dock with fishing-addicted son. Put worms on hook. Wipe worm guts on jeans. Put hot dog on hook. Catch sunfish. Catch perch. Get hook caught in hands, leg, jeans. Sit for hours. Be calm. Present. Happy. Bored. Nuts. Witness son catch big bass that lives under dock and that has been his Moby Dick for past four days. Tell end-of-worlders they can take you now.

8. Chat up a couple of ex-preacher pals, who tell you same thing, almost verbatim: "There have always been desolate times. Don't believe the hype."

9. Make list of great teachers you've had, not only in classrooms, but barrooms and bedrooms; cynical ones who taught you how to be skeptical, but also ones who taught you how to love, hurt, forgive, grow, get bigger and more inclusive and realize that there's no ceiling to human connection, or any of the other stuff that takes your breath away and mind off end of world.

10. Heed advice of late, great Warren Zevon: "Enjoy every sandwich."

11. Go to trendy sweaty yoga place where instead of finding perfect balance you sometimes find yourself wanting to strangle loudmouthed aerobics-instructors-as-gurus. Let it be. Find inner peace. After class, hike down to Le Cirque Rouge de Gus in the old New French Café spot, where beautiful women sing torch songs of love and lust and life, and burlesque dancers who could be hatched from an unholy marriage between Ballet of the Dolls and St. Sabrina's Parlor in Purgatory writhe the night away. Find inner peace.

12. Refuse to minimize fact that Black Eyed Peas' song, "Where is the Love?" (Lennon-Gaye-Marley-Timberlake, 2003), a worried song sung by worried men and women about/to a worried world, has been most popular song on Top 40 radio for past month.

13. See presidential address. See stars-and-striped post-game recaps. Hear Leonard Cohen: "Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows that the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That's how it goes, everybody knows/Everybody knows that the boat is leaking/Everybody knows that the captain lied/Everybody got this broken feeling/Like their father or their dog just died."

14. Hear preacher Rathbun: "All the people that I hang out with and all the people in my congregation, it's people who have had that big crisis of faith or are in the midst of having a crisis of faith, or trying to believe again. But I never really have had a crisis of faith. I just can't help believing, you know? I've had times where it matters less to me, certainly. Absolutely. But I operate in the world with this assumption that there is a loving creator, something beyond me. I sort of trust the unfolding and have faith that things will come about the way they're going to come about. You know, good things will come about. Beautiful things will come about. And it's not my job to be in control of the way things happen."

15. Drive nephew, on his 18th birthday, to his girlfriend's house. Talk about existentialism class he wants to teach at his high school, and about Nietzsche, who said, "God is dead" as well as, "There is one thing one has to have: Either a soul that is cheerful by nature, or a soul made cheerful by work, love, art, and knowledge."

16. Go see George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic at Fine Line. Fixate for first half of set on grown African-American man wearing only diaper on stage. Feel the funk. With a little help from old and new friends, turn otherwise staid balcony into mini-lovesexy dance party. As clock nears midnight and as P-Funk trips through version of "Flashlight" that haunts of a simpler '70s and hopes for a better '00s, raise glass and tell everybody in earshot, "Happy September 11th."

17. On September 11, 2003, walk through same neighborhood you walked through two years ago on this day, in utter silence. Note sound of planes overhead, cars and buses clipping along, kids and dogs howling. Talk with new neighbors about their days-old baby, who has been visited by a steady stream of family and neighbors all week. Hold baby. Decide that news of Trinity Ryan's fuzzy black hair and look of indestructible wonder in parents' eyes is as newsworthy as anything coming out of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Washington, Jerusalem.

18. Write it down. Read it back. Try to believe it.

19. Hear preacher Rathbun: "You just want to say to people, 'Believe. Believe in something.'"

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