Sunday, December 14, 2008


When I had decided I wanted to be a Unitarian minister -- which was a decision based mostly on my own minister -- whom I “saw” only partially but took to be sophisticated, wise, and disciplined which was what I wanted to be -- I had three choices of seminary. This was the late 1970’s before the UUA accepted the idea of educating ministers at Christian seminaries fortified with some correspondence and summer courses on things like UU history. The three choices were Harvard, which totally intimidated me but which might have actually been the best fit, Meadville/Lombard (attached to the University of Chicago) which many thought was so frozen and politically entangled as to be unsurvivable, and Starr King in Berkeley. My minister thought that’s where I should go. He made a pitch about the beautiful weather, the wonderful food, the easy life -- all qualities that HE enjoyed but that put me off. I was into self-sacrifice. I ended up in Chicago again. (My BS is from NU.)

Now, looking back, I see what my minister really ought to have made more plain to me, though he would probably have had to hit me over the head to get me to see it. I was uptight, socially inept, and totally defended. To me, Starr King was a place where the seminary students Slept Around and Took Drugs, which was exactly and incredibly what my minister thought would be good for me. To him it meant something along the lines of the lover who pulls out the hairpins and takes off the glasses of the librarian, revealing her to be a lovely sweet woman. But I WANTED to be a formidable librarian. Er, minister. There are plenty of other lovely sweet women and they never have any fun, really. They get used.

We “insiders” rather nastily called Starr King “Tuna U.”, punning on Star Kist. My minister was the head of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee that decided who finally was admitted to the club, and we were aware that he went many a go-round with the Starr King leaders to try to convince them that being a Free Spirit was not the same as being a qualified minister. So to me, a recommendation that I go to Tuna U. meant he thought I was a lightweight.

Two of the Portland intern ministers had come from Berzerkley. The first was a lovely sweet young man we all dearly loved but who turned out to be, well, a lightweight. Once coming home from a dinner party I passed the church at 3AM and saw his office light was on. On impulse I went in and found him practically in tears. He could NOT write a sermon. He didn’t have a backlog to draw on. It was Saturday night. Using English teacher skills, I tried to walk him through an outline and mostly succeeded. But eventually he gave up the ministry idea and went into personnel where he has been a big success.

Anyway, that friendship went so well that I assumed the next intern would be similar. He was not. I had talked my mother into letting him stay in her house for two weeks while she went to Mexico. He could protect it, I suggested. Instead, he took her bed apart so he could put the mattress on the floor, he broke her coffeepot and didn’t replace it, and he borrowed my van, disappearing for 48 hours. The church ladies’ club was upset because he went swimming daily and left his jock strap drying on their radiator. They didn’t think it was offensive because of its intimacy -- rather they argued it was unaesthetic. He was barely this side of whacko and my minister flunked him. So much for Tuna U.

But I’ve since speculated on what might have happened if I had indeed gone to Berkeley, possibly to Pacific which is the large reputable seminary to which Starr King is attached. Would I have entirely lost my boundaries, given up the ministry idea, and run wild with the artists, poets, and nature children of the coast? What if I had? Would I be so very different now? Might I not be in a much warmer place with a cheerful partner? Wouldn’t that be GOOD???

When I got to the familiar territory of Chicago, the student rep on the M/L admissions committee, a competitive woman who purported to be a feminist, confided to me during a group session that the admissions committee had judged me to be an hysteric, just this side of a psycho, and they would not have admitted me without the recommendation of my minister, which had been glowing. Of course, she sneered, you know we have to please HIM. That was the first of a whole series of slaps in the face. All the rumors about Meadville/Lombard were right. Luckily, so was the reputation of the U of Chicago Div School, which compensated for everything as far as I was concerned.

None of it really got to me until after I’d been in the ministry long enough to see my minister more realistically. He was, in the end, yearning for security, status, and prosperity in a way that I had been trying very hard to discard, partly because no single woman changing professions late in life is likely to have any of the three without making some pretty heavy duty compromises in order to become a creature of the denomination. He on the other hand WAS a creature of the institution. He would rather have been a brain surgeon but couldn’t handle the math, so the UU ministry was the next best thing. Anyway, I learned a lot from him. I read every book he did, including some impenetrable stuff by Ellul and the entire works of Ernie Gann which were great fun.

If I’d gone to Tuna U., I’d have made quite a different set of contacts and maybe returned to my old theatre skills and habits instead of getting the scholarly edge I really wanted and could only achieve in approximation. Not that I got them from Meadville, but I DID finally get access to the University of Chicago in a way that paid my tuition and let my GRE scores scrape through. I felt rather sly about it.

And now? What about all those irreversible choices and their consequences? No regrets. And that’s the truth.

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