“Formidable, prickly, larger than life” — it fascinates me to hear others describe my late father, Jim Hickey (1927-2017), who served as Napa County Planning Director for 20 years and defended its Ag Preserve for 40.
The editor of this paper called him a man of strong intellect and opinions, who “was not afraid to tell you what he thought. He knew his stuff and had little patience for those who don’t.”
I understand why people say such things. But comments like these still surprise me, because I experienced my father primarily as a source of unshakable love, and as a mystic.
You’d probably never have guessed that by looking at him; there was nothing “woo-woo” about the way he spoke or carried himself. He was tall and dignified, gracious and warm but emotionally reserved. The journals he left behind, however, reveal a vast inner life.
He rarely wrote directly about what he did or felt, but he copied bits of wisdom gleaned from voracious reading over many years. And these evocative snippets make it clear that he thought and felt deeply about spiritual matters.
He quoted many scriptures, sages, and poets from the world’s great religions, as well as people like Groucho Marx, Vince Lombardi, and Yogi Berra.
He was particularly influenced by Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu thought. One of his journals deals entirely with meditation, which he practiced regularly.
Another contains multiple commentaries on experiences of spiritual awakening. In 1985, as he got out of bed one morning, he had a momentary flash of what Buddhists call enlightenment: “I have become one with all that is,” he wrote afterward. “With startling clarity, I see that all that is necessary for peace, happiness, and contentment in my life I already possess.”
Although the insight was fleeting, its impact never faded.
Dad brought home his first meditation cushion when I was a teen — which horrified me. I had rebelled against my broad-minded, intellectually curious parents by joining a fundamentalist Christian church, and I was sure he was headed straight to hell. He was patient with my exhortations. And when the church finally expelled me for asking too many irritating questions about the Bible, my dad provided other resources for my ongoing spiritual search.
He lent me a translation of the “Dao De Jing,” a 2,500-year-old philosophical text from China. I copied its 81 poems by hand into a notebook that I still have, decades later. It offered a totally different view of the world than I had ever considered before.
I got interested in Buddhism during college, and eventually was ordained as a priest of Soto Zen, which pleased both parents. They named our cats after Hindu and Egyptian deities, left me a library of books by spiritual teachers, and studied esoteric Buddhism in Japan, where they also traveled a famous pilgrimage route.
A small shrine that my father kept in his bedroom included a statue of Guanyin, a Buddhist figure who personifies compassion, and one of Maitreya Buddha, who embodies love. It also held figurines of Daoist sages, Navajo turtles, and several images of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. The latter reminded him of a lyric sung by the rock band America: “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.”
Two of my father’s journals express thoughts about the politics of professional planning; two deal with aging; and one is an extended meditation on death, for which he carefully prepared over many years. When it finally arrived, in the wee hours one morning last December, he simply exhaled quietly one last time and surrendered his body peacefully. I heard him slip away while I was meditating nearby. In several places, my father had quoted these lines from Rabindranath Tagore: “Death is not extinguishing the light. It is only putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”
Just as my father spent decades collecting, reflecting upon, and digesting the wisdom of mystics, it will take me a long time to understand and digest all that he bequeathed to me. He lives on as a teaching about how to live a committed, loving, thoughtful, beneficial life. He is a gift that keeps on giving to us all.
I’ve been reflecting on all of this as part of a retreat undertaken at the Catholic university where I presently work. The nun who is serving as my spiritual director for the retreat observed, “One never knows what lies beneath the surface of a person. Trusting the mystery of what lies unseen in the depths of each person is a gift that we can give to everyone we meet.”