Monday, February 6, 2012

Gods & Pokemon

This is the tale of two road trips...

Road Trip #1: Gotta Catch 'Em All*
Jack's been collecting Pokemon cards and toys since he was about five years old. I shutter to think how much money has been handed over for the sake of finding the elusive "rare" card. But there are worse hobbies, after all Pokemon, which originated in Japan, does possess a nod to Buddhist philosophy. Pikachu, Piplup, Chimchar and the rest of the cute, cuddly critters evolve into bigger, better, more powerful creatures as their trainers help them become more adept in using their unique powers. These "rebirths"also carry with them a sense of acceptance of impermanence—if you care to draw that correlation. Pokemon, no matter how adorable, inevitably change.
   In December, Jack begged me to take him to a Pokemon tournament. He found one listed online in Ozark, Alabama scheduled for late January. Ozark is a small town about three hours southeast of Birmingham. Did I really want to spend six hours driving Jack to and from this tournament?  Jack showed me the list of other upcoming tournaments and the Ozark event was the closest geographically. 
   "Can we go, Mom?" Jack asked. "Please, please, please?"
    He widened his eyes in a plaintive fashion reminiscent of those forlorn cartoon puppies and pressed his hands together, pulling out all his cute-kid tricks to win my favor.
   "We'll see," I said. "Ozark is three hours from here. That's a long way to drive to play Pokemon. I'll have to talk to your Dad about it."
   The website listing said the tournament was being held at the public library in Ozark and provided a contact email for the event organizer, Chris. Since we'd never participated in a tournament before, I didn't know the rules and wasn't sure if a kid could just arrive on the scene and play or if he had to have some type of ranking as a Pokemon master. Several emails later, I was assured the competition was just for fun and that if my son knew the basic rules, he'd have a good time. All good, but the question remained: Did I really to embark on a six hour round trip to watch Jack and a bunch of kids play a card game? The answer: Yes.
   We considered taking one of Jack's friends with us, but I decided I didn't want to be responsible for driving someone else's child all that way to an unfamiliar place for an event that could be a total bust. On Saturday Jack loaded his collection of Pokemon cards into a backpack. As we headed south on I65, I warned him to not carry too many expectations.
  "I have no idea what this is going to be like," I said. "But no matter what, we're gonna have fun. It's an adventure!"
   Jack seemed to agree, but I feared that he had a grandiose idea of what a Pokemon Tournament might  would entail. Ozark, Alabama is south of Montgomery, off state highway 231. Population, 15,000. I knew it was possible that we could drive three hours to discover a half a dozen high school drops outs, sitting around a table in the basement of a library located in a dilapidated municipal building. Well, no matter, I thought, Jack and I would have fun together regardless. Despite the outcome, I felt certain this would be an outing that we'd talk about for decades to come. 

Road Trip # 2: God Will Catch 'Em All
The following weekend, I set off by myself on another three-hour road-trip into equally unknown, but adventure-promising territory. 
   Over New Year's weekend, I picked up Rabbi Rami Shapiro's book The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice, and when I put it down, I went straight to my computer, googled Rabbi Rami and found, among many other resources attributed to this spiritual raconteur, information about a interfaith conference in Nashville, TN, which he was hosting called the Big I, Conference on Inclusive-Theology-Spirituality-Conciousness. Without hesitation, I decided to attend. Like Jack with his Pokemon cards, I'd been collecting my beliefs for a while. I was finally ready to step up to the table as a Buddhist Catholic. 
  I emailed Rami (his preferred handle) with a few questions and received a prompt and reassuring email in reply. I didn't need to be a seasoned player. The weekend of talks and discussions was open to anyone interested in spirituality, and promised to be educational—even fun. Although none of the names on the list of presenters—save Rami's—were familiar, it included what seemed to be an impressive roster of spiritual thought-leaders representing the major spiritual and religious traditions. Over the two-day conference there would be twenty 18-minute presentations about diverse topics on spirituality,  interfaith ministry, meditation, Scripture, theology, the arts and education. That all sounded good, but the question remained: Did I really want to make a six hour round trip to hear a bunch of people talk about their religious beliefs and spirituality? The answer: Yes.
   I loaded my favorite books on Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness practice and set off for Nashville. As I headed north of I65, I warned myself not to carry too many expectations. I had no idea what to expect, accept that it was going to be an adventure. I decided to go alone because I didn't want to be responsible for driving someone all that way to an unfamiliar place for an event that could be a total bust. For all I knew, I might drive three hours to discover a dimly-lit conference room with twenty so-called spiritual visionaries sitting around a table, holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Despite the outcome, I felt certain; however, that this would be an outing I wouldn't forget.
- - - - 
Returning from Ozark, Jack proudly examined his 80 new pre-release EX-Series Pokemon cards, including a rare hologram card that he claimed was worth $60. The community center where the tournament was held was a dimly lit, tired annex also used for Zumba classes and AA meetings. Jack was nervous at first, but won two out of three matches. What pleased me even more was that Jack quickly befriended some of the other players in his age group. (And yes there were more than a dozen twenty-somethings—from the ultra-nerdy to tattoo-grunge—playing in the "senior" player division.) 
   The tournament was well-run and Chris, the organizer, kept order and civility in the room. There were many other ways I might have spent a Saturday with Jack, but I was glad we traveled this quirky, off-the-beaten path. Heading north to Birmingham, we relived all the excitement of each match, marveling at how the tournament was much better than either of us thought it might be. Although Jack was enamored with his new cache of exclusive cards, and bragging rights for his win record, for me, the tournament was not as significant as the journey there and back again.  
- - - - 
Returning from Nashville, I reached into my purse for my sunglasses and pulled out a dozen business cards collected from attendees and speakers at the weekend Big I event. The Scarritt Bennett Centerwhere the conference was held, was beautiful and reminded me of the campus where I attended college. And although one of the speakers did lead us in a round of Kumbaya, the brightly lit theatre-style room where we met was filled with inspiring community leaders from around the world who contributed his or her Truth to the spiritual melting pot. (There were many brilliant minds in the room.) By lunchtime, I had befriended a Rabbi from Colorado, the director of the Muslim Women's Institute from New York, two women from Huntsville and a woman from Nashville. Like me, these three women were there just to listen and learn.
  The conference was well-run and the organizer (Rami) kept order and civility in the room (which was a remarkable feat given the differing spiritual traditions.)  By following my instincts and staying open to the possibilities, the weekend far exceeded my expectations as a significant stop on my journey. 

I am grateful I traveled both of these paths.

* For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past 25 years, "Gotta Catch 'em All" is the Pokemon tag line."

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