My name is Thomas Atwood, and I live in Palo Alto, California with my wife, Debbie Mytels. In retirement, I co-founded a volunteer lay ministry called Fools Mission, where middle class citizens walk through life with those who have little or no access to the privileges of society: the undocumented; the unhoused; the disabled; the materially “poor.” Our accompaniment practice included encounters with bureaucratic systems, advocacy, education, celebration, resistance, and art. The archetype of the fool is a symbol of the freedom to speak truth to power; and the power of art to shift attitudes and culture.
My childhood and adolescent struggles grew out of my special place on the spectrum of neurodiversity; verbally abusive parents; and the internalized Critic that our culture spawns so naturally. At the age of 17, I was the youngest lead singer in the international barbershop quartet contest in St. Louis. In the mid-70s, I became the first person in my family to earn a college degree (music education and voice) — working my way through college by selling cookware, driving cab, performing magic shows at school assemblies, directing barbershop choruses, and singing in church choirs and musical theatre.
After failing spectacularly in my first year as a general music teacher, I ingested six peyote buttons and had a harshly direct experience of the relationship between consciousness and matter. (These days, I recommend meditation…) Two psychotic episodes followed, accompanied by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I haven’t been hospitalized since, but I’m still crazy. As Krishnamurti said, "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."It took ten years to heal the structured functions of my brain sufficiently to re-enter the formal workplace again at the age of 39.
In the early 90s I became an Associate of Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar, founded by biblical scholars as a response to the rise of the Christian Right. The Western education that I’d received in opera workshops, musicology, and vocal training was extended to include historical, literary, and cultural criticism. In 2013, Westar formed the Seminar on God and the Human Future, which introduced me to postmodern theology.
In the mid 90s, my therapist told me that most people with stories like mine are either dead, in prison, or in a mental hospital for life. My first core understanding of my inner strength and resilience arrived at the age of 45.
Over 30 years, my unremarkable career shifted from singing to book production to technical writing. I spent the final eight years working for a global software company whose name you’d recognize. In 2008, 40% of the world’s life savings disappeared overnight, and I woke up one morning to realize that the only customer for the database software I was documenting was J. P. Morgan Chase. I had just helped the big banks kick off the Great Recession—the biggest heist of wealth to the top in human history.
The insights provided by Westar’s investigations of empire criticism helped me to understand the epiphany—though it would have been easier not to understand it. I had retainer class status now, and my retirement hinged on service to the world devouring machine. I stayed on the job for six years (I’ve never claimed to be a saint), but I began to give the corporation a little less, and my spiritual growth a little more. Resistance is a sublimely positive activity in the face of domination and violence. As my Instant Messaging app lied to co-workers behind the veil of telecommuting, I began to lay the groundwork for what would become Fools Mission. I retired in 2014.
As I enter this final stage of my life, my purpose is to set myself on a path to become the spiritual being that is my birthright as a human. Thank you for reading my essays. I think that our partnership in this endeavor will reinforce the field of Interbeing quite nicely, and I'm grateful for your companionship on the journey.