JIM | LOS ANGELES
Fumbling in the dark
Some people say, When God closes a door, somewhere else he opens a window.
I adore those people. I am related to them and also count them as my close friends. But when I’m the one who can’t find the door and someone says something like this, I want to lovingly throw them out that window and say, “I wonder what God will open now.”
For me, the better analogy seems to be, Just because the door or path doesn’t look like you expect it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I mean, for God’s sake, how much of the world have you actually seen anyway?
When I entered the Jesuits, I had already completed the first phase of a doctoral program in English at Harvard University. Getting into a program like that had always been my dream. It seemed pretty clear to me, long term I’d get my PhD and then teach at one of our universities, maybe eventually go into administration.
As ordination to the priesthood approached eleven years later (we Jesuits, we take our time), some of the details had changed -- it was the Old Testament rather than Chaucer that I was considering, and teaching adults at a divinity school rather than freshmen at a university. But the idea was still there.
And like a good son of Ignatius I imagined myself many times in that life, teaching, writing articles, being on a faculty and in a school community. But no matter how many times I tried on that life for myself, it never seemed to fit.
Even now, I have to fumble through half-truths to approach an answer to why. It was like that shirt that looks perfect for you when it’s on the manikin, but weirdly doesn’t when it’s on you. Somehow that track just felt wrong on me, almost too safe.
But if not that, then what? There was one thing that kept tugging at my sleeve like my five year old, I-just-have-this-one-thing-that-I-need-to-tell-you-right-now nephew. But it seemed just plain nuts.
In Which the Author Considers Going Just Plain Nuts
Before my theological studies for the priesthood I had spent three years working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation teaching English at our high school there.
People have lots of stereotypes about rez life, usually informed by media reports from journalists who spend a week and then think they “get it”. And if I’m being honest I’m sure I went in thinking that I, too, understood my students’ lives better than they did themselves. (If possible, the 44 year old me would kindly like to punch the 28 year old me in the face.)
But what I witnessed on the Pine Ridge were people fighting every day to escape those sorts of definitions and realities. My students came at me like tigers at times, but the lesson for me to learn was not how to tame them, but to see their courage, their fierce, often furious desire to pursue their dreams, and to feed that with everything I could.
One of the teachers in our school posted a quote from the poet Marianne Williamson on her bulletin board: “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.” I found myself unexpectedly wishing I could show people, even my students themselves, just what brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous children of God they were.
So I wrote a script. Don’t ask me why, I had never written one before. But I had a character in mind, a Lakota girl in her senior year, fighting to pursue her dreams amidst personal issues, and so off I went. And as I fumbled through it (if it’s not clear already, when it comes to my life, there’s a lot of fumbling), I started to help students shoot their own sketches about life on the rez.
During my theological studies I dipped another toe in the pool, taking summer classes in film production and studying films by masters like Kieslowski and Kubrick. But the desire never stopped seeming crazy. I would say to myself, what are you, fifteen? Grow up. Get a real job.
Still, I knew Jesuits who did work like this as their ‘real job’, and did quite well: Don Doll, an incredible photographer; Peter Steele, SJ, whose poems I read again and again; Manoling Francisco, SJ, a wonderful composer; and Bill Cain, SJ, who had created and produced American television series Nothing Sacred. (If you haven’t heard of Nothing Sacred, you can find a lot of it on Youtube. It’s as frank and soulful a look at parish life as you’re likely to see.)
After many years of wrestling with the question (or perhaps more aptly, with the answer), finally I sought permission to get an MFA in screenwriting and try to find work as a television screenwriter. I came to Los Angeles in the fall of 2010, and I’ve been working towards that goal ever since.
Jacob and the Angel(s)
Part of what I find attractive about Bamboo is it is a place for people like me, searchers and seekers and fumblers who find themselves out in the great unknown of it all, trying to do good and unsure of the road before them. As a screenwriter I can have all the desire in the world to produce a great story, even perhaps all the talent, and still end up with no one ever meeting the wonderful characters I’ve come to know on the page. Journeys have dead ends as well as triumphant flourishes. A leap of faith generally involves a little bit of a plunge. (Usually a lot more than a little.)
But to see other people doing the same, asking the big questions of themselves, taking risks, opening themselves to love and to fear and to pain all for something bigger – it’s a comfort, knowledge that I do not do this alone. It encourages me to be patient with the wrestling, to see beyond the immediate horizon and trust the path that rolls out before you. It may not be as crazy as it seems.
Or maybe it is, but God is inviting me to take it anyway.
Jim McDermott SJ
Jim McDermott is an American Jesuit priest from the suburbs of Chicago. So far as a Jesuit he has taught English on an Indian Reservation, been an associate pastor, driven a school bus, edited magazine manuscripts and attempted to convince people that he can write for TV. His picture can be found in the dictionary under the word "restless". Jim has also had the great fortune of spending time in Australia, finishing his Jesuit formation and making many friends. He is more than slightly obsessed with Australian politics (also Australian Rules Football - Go You Blues!).
He's grateful to be a part of Bamboo.