Larry Patzer didn’t set out to write a romance novel.
He intended to explore spirituality, a topic that has gently gnawed at him for more than 40 decades. But as he wrote the story of, essentially, boy meets girl, it naturally headed in that direction.
In “The Palm Tree: Coffee Shop Extraordinaire,” Ann and Michael meet at The Palm Tree, a coffee shop in an Oregon town loosely based on Corvallis, Ore. She’s struggling with a toxic religious past and searching for a meaningful relationship with God. He plays the mystery card and hides his past as a bodyguard. They warily circle each other, all while dealing with unsavory characters, gunfights, tragedy and paranoia.
The core of the story came to Patzer about 10 to 12 years ago, when he wanted to dig into the questioning some have about God, and whether God is separate from us or inside us.
“The story is mostly about the emotions of the people involved and their struggles and dealing with their demons,” says Patzer, 78. “It’s a rocky relationship. There’s only one place for that type of start to go — whether they develop a romance together or some compatible relationship, rather than banging heads.”
Patzer, a retired Air Force officer who worked as an aerospace systems engineer for two decades, began to follow the mystical pings in his mid-30s. Unexplainable events had been visited upon him all his life, beginning around 4 or 5, when he remembers curling up in a sunny spot on the concrete pad outside the back door of his family’s home.
“All of a sudden I wasn’t there, not physically gone,” says Patzer. “I remember Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series exploring the universe and seeing stars. I was there on that concrete pad and then I wasn’t there. I was looking at the whole universe and was one with it and it with me. I was one with everything there was. It didn’t last long.”
Pretty heady stuff for a child who didn’t have the language to talk or think about it. So he tucked it away and went on with life, only to have other mystical experiences follow him throughout the decades. Finally, he confronted his growing curiosity about religion and spirituality in the late ’70s, and eventually began to lecture, hold workshops and run study groups.
The thrust of his work revolved around one question: How do we have a relationship with the divine that isn’t dictated by structured and organized religion?
“Religions will tell you your relationship with the divine is very personal, that this is how you approach the divine, through the way we tell you the way it ought to be, through their theology,” he says. “Many never get past the idea that going to church and the ritual and dogma, that that’s the end of it, that’s all they have to do. I consider that to be an unthinking relationship and I’ve been exploring that for some time. That’s throughout the story.”
After retiring from the Air Force, Patzer trained to become a spiritual director and did clinical work as a chaplain at Memorial Hospital. Following that, he continued as a volunteer on-call trauma chaplain for five and a half years. It was there that more of his mystical experiences cropped up, he says. He’d arrive at the intensive care unit or the neonatal intensive care unit where a family would often be waiting with their loved one who was on life support.
“That’s when I spoke introductory words and don’t remember anything else happening. It’s a fog,” he says.
“That’s the Holy Spirit working through me. I got my ego out of the way. After the decision was made to take the person off life support and people filed out, they’d shake my hand and thank me for what I said or did. I had no clue what I said or did. To me, that’s a mystical experience.”
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