The Celestial Cigar Box
This week let’s take a sorely needed break from politics, the only endeavor in which “stupidity is not a handicap’” (Napoleon Bonaparte). In its stead, let’s spend a bit of time wrestling with experiences which defy empirical explanation and comprehension - that which Hamlet put best when he told his peer and friend “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet: 1.5. 167-68.) The genesis for this essay is a chat I had the other day with a friend over a cuppa tea. First, my friend shared with me an experience she had had with her diseased sister . . . on the anniversary of her passing. This in turn brought to mind a long forgotten - and deeply inexplicable - experience I had had nearly 45 years ago. (I shall share this experience below.) As we chatted and chattered on, an idea began to blossom: that this might make a great topic for a book. By the time I got home, I had decided that I would start writing, emailing and otherwise communicating with people I know or have interviewed from various walks of life - politics, academia, the film/television industry and medicine, to name but a few - and ask them if they would be interested in sharing their “More things under heaven and earth” experiences with me. By the time I unlocked the door and was greeted by my wife Annie and our dog Fred (Astaire Stone), I even knew what the title would be: The Celestial Cigar Box. This rather bizarre title will become more understandable once you’ve read the following tale . . . a tale which not only defied empirical explanation, but forever changed my life.
BTW: If, in reading my tale you find yourself remembering something that happened to you and wish to share, please email me. Perhaps you may find yourself appearing in my (hopefully) next book.
And away we go . . .
It was early Fall 1976. I had taken a year’s leave of absence from rabbinic school and found a great job working in the Governor’s Office in California. Governor Jerry Brown, then age 38 and still sporting a full head of hair, was nearing the midway point of his first 4-year term and dating singer Linda Ronstadt, I had a position in the governor’s Office of Planning and Research, whose main responsibility was creating the boss’s visionary plans for the future of the planet . . . everything from colonizing outer space to suing big business in the ‘name’ of endangered Redwood trees. I was assigned to write and edit a book entitled As Their Land Is, which those of us around the water cooler subtitled The Theology of Ecology. It was a great job in which I got to put my passion for writing to use in the name of environmental ethics . . . something which few - if any - were doing in government back in the latter seventies. My immediate boss, by the way, was the multi-talented Bill Press who, at age 79 is still writing great books, hosting a daily progressive radio talk show, and blogging for the Huffington Post .
I was happy as could be . . . but beginning to wonder whether or not I would ever complete the final three years of my rabbinic education . . . which would require my leaving California and moving to Cincinnati, Ohio. Then two things happened almost simultaneously:
First, the Office of the Governor offered me a new contract at a higher salary and that which every political staff person craves: an office with a window.
Second, I was contacted by the Office of the Dean at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, wanting to know what date they could expect me back at school, and whether I would be willing to take a biweekly student pulpit in a place called McGehee, Arkansas, approximately 100 miles southeast of Little Rock.
Talk about a dilemma! Which way to turn? In my indecision, I paid a visit to a very wise friend and laid out the situation. “How,” I asked at the end of my tale of woe, “How can I ever know which is the right decision?” Thinking while stroking his beard, my friend finally said: “There is a correct answer, but damned if I know what it is. However, keep your eyes and ears open . . . and a sign will come that will open your eyes, clear your mind and make the decision obvious . . .”
I left and went back to Sacramento, wondering what in the world he was talking about.
About a week later, I left my office and headed back to the house I was renting about a mile from the State Capitol. Parking my car in the driveway, I climbed the four steps to the front porch and reached above the front door lintel, where I kept my house key. Standing on my tiptoes, I grasped the key. Suddenly, the phone in the living room began ringing; I just knew that it was the Office of the Dean calling from Cincinnati wanting to know what I had decided. At just that moment, the key dropped out of my hand . . . and disappeared. I mean disappeared. It could not have landed on the wooden porch, for I heard no sound of clanging metal on wood. It could not have blown by a sudden gust of wind onto the flower bed below, because it was a breathless day. It could not have landed in a cuff of my trousers, for the pants were without cuffs.
And all the while, the phone kept ringing.
There was only one thing to do: somehow enter through the window to the right of the porch, which led to my bedroom. If only the window were unlocked. Jumping off the porch, I went to the front window and pushed on the bottom of the window sash. Eureka! It was unlocked. Shinnying up the tiny opening I managed to get my shoulders through and then start wiggling the window open. It quickly dawned on me that if a police car came cruising by (and the local police station was less than a block away) it would look like a break-in . . . a tuchus sticking out of a window wriggling its way into a house.
And the phone kept ringing . . . it sounded louder and louder.
Landing with a resounding PLOP on the carpet-less wooden floor, I uttered a silent prayer of thanks that no police cruiser had passed the house while I was doing my breaking-and-entering act. Rolling over onto my feet, I made it to the phone in less than 2 seconds, hoping and praying that it would not stop ringing before I could pick it up. Eureka again! I picked it up and heard a voice on the other end: “Is this Kurt Stone?”
“Yes, indeed it is,” I said with great anticipation. “And I presume that this is the Office of Dean in Cincinnati?”
“Yes, it is . . . how did you know?”
“Just a lucky guess,” I said. And then, without pausing for a breath, I continued “On what date will classes be beginning? When do they want me to start doing services in McGehee?” Mind you, all this was said as if it had been scripted. I had made my decision without a moment’s hesitation.
But how did I know which way to go? Was the lost key “the sign” my wise friend had foretold? And while I was at it, what in the world had happened to the key? I went out and spend 15-20 minutes looking for it . . . before realizing that I would never find it. It was irretrievably lost.
The next day I went to visit my friend and told him all that had occurred . . . the dropped key, the ringing telephone, the open window and my knowing precisely what to do. All the while, he was smiling a peculiarly seraphic smile . . .
“But what happened to the key?” I finally asked.
“Oh, you’ll get that back someday . . . it’s being stored for you in your celestial cigar box.”
“My celestial what?” I asked, having no idea what I was hearing.
“Your celestial cigar box,” he said, his eyes shining with delight. “You see, everyone goes through these sorts of things . . . these inexplicable experiences which contain answers and insights. Most people have no idea of what they are seeing, feeling or experiencing. They are too closed off. The sign, the answer is right in front of them, but they are painfully ignorant of what is before them . . . It just makes no sense.”
“But you - you were open to a mystery . . . to something which defied logic. And it contained an answer you needed. Someday, after you’ve gone through this life, you will, hopefully, reach the world to come, and there, you will be handed your cigar box . . . and in that box will be the key that unlocked a far, far more important door than the one for the front door to the house on State Street.”
And you know something? He was more profoundly correct than even he knew. For in early Fall, 1977, I arrived in McGehee, Arkansas to meet my new congregants. One of them, knowing that I had just come from working with Governor Brown (who was, among other things, a graduate of Yale Law), told me I just had to meet a young couple who were coming to town . . . and that they were both graduates of Yale, and that he was running for state Attorney General. Turns out they were named Clinton . . .and he won his election , , , and a few more after that. (That’s a picture of us above . . . 40 years after we first met)
Although I am certainly in no hurry to see what’s in my celestial cigar box, It’s so incredibly heartening to know that Shakespeare was correct: that indeed, “There are more things . . . in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
If you are of a mind - and get a chance - please let me know if you have ever experienced a “celestial cigar box” moment. You just might make it into my next book.
556 days to go until the next election.
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone