Friday, July 25, 2008

Spirit of Curtis, with grilled salmon

Before my day job deadline hit, with its requirement to tangle with river-city power politics, I was reporting on The New Monastic Workshop, working my way backwards, starting from the end, to accomodate the ass-backwards way blogs read.

It so happens the pause in the action came precisely at The Prayer Breakfast. It's almost as if I were hesitating to report on that. It would be so unlikely for a man to shy away from communicating publicly about spirituality!

The Prayer Breakfast's presence on our agenda owes something to my experience working in majority-black environments. It's not that black folks invented the prayer breakfast, but they most certainly have made it mandatory for public gatherings that spill over onto Sunday morning.

Elder K. Curtis Lyle was our scheduled prayer leader on Sunday morning. Curtis defines cool, for me. He grew up in Watts (L.A.) and saw all of the black consciousness movements of the fifties and sixties mushroom around him. So he knows a lot of dead men. I once asked him how he survived those dangerous days. He said, "Because those brothers kept running, and got shot in the back. I slowed down, and looked around."

He is still looking around. He looked around The Prayer Breakfast, held in Brother John Eiler's dining room, long before he offered any kind of prayer. John had prepared grilled salmon with a fruit salad. That was a kind of prayer.

And Curtis himself never really offered a prayer, proper. He did speak at length of a trip he took with his parents to Memphis in the late fifties, which opened up themes of the spirit.

His parents are from the South, and they raised Curtis with discipline in a South Central Los Angeles that was before the riots, and utterly unrecognizable from the urban squalor of today. The Southern Baptist preacher he encountered during that road trip to Memphis was a revelation to him. "The cadence of the preacher and his method, everything I use in my poetry up until today, I got from that one church service," Curtis said.

The spirit, of course, works in many ways. Curtis suggested he got just as much spiritual juice from the mother of a childhood friend in his neighborhood in L.A. "She drank whiskey, drove a bus, and listened to Billie Holiday," Curtis said.

Curtis' parents did not drive busses or drink whiskey. When his mother heard Curtis listening to Billie Holiday, after that first, critical exposure to her voice, she pulled her husband aside. Curtis remembers it as the one time his parents spoke about him behind closed doors. His father came out of that executive session to inform Curtis that he wouldn't be listening to any more Billie Holiday in the house.

It was too late, of course. His spirit had been set on fire - by God and the devil, by the sermon and the blues, by the Southern preacher and Billie Holiday.


A piece of Monastic bookkeeping: No one thought to do so at the time, but I would like to read Billie Holiday into The New Monastc Canon, or Cannon.

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