. . . from Part Two — AWARENESS
“So, your grandparents didn’t ask you to go to church with them tomorrow?” she asked, at some point.
I shook my head — the thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
“No, they never mentioned it. Maybe they’d be embarrassed with me — you know.”
She looked up. “Embarrassed? Of you? Whatever for?”
I shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know — lots of reasons. I’ve always been the bad child of the family — don’t you think? Didn’t finish college — my being with Jack — being a writer — working in television — anyway, I don’t really believe in going to church these days.”
Immediately, I considered what had just fallen out of my mouth — shocked that I had spoken so freely. But, if I’d said too much, or anything unusual, or something wrong — Grandma didn’t show any indication of being offended — just genuinely surprised.
“Well, my land! I like you just fine! And I think Jack is a terrific fellow! And it don’t matter to me what you do!” She ate another bite of food, then added, “Nobody’s business what you choose to do.” She plowed through the baked potato with great concentration. “When your Grandpa was really sick, and it wasn’t lookin’ so good, their minister come to see us.”
I didn’t understand. “Their minister? Came here?”
She nodded. “Uh-huh. Actually the Baptists come, and the Dutchtown Brethren come, too. I understood the Brethren coming, since we’d been to that church before — with Audrey and Ray. We didn’t know the Baptists, though he was a really nice man. Meant well, I suppose. They all wanted to make sure Grandpa was all squared-away with God — thought coming to some services would help.”
I could count on one hand the times I’d ever seen my Grandpa in a church.
“You know what Grandpa told them?” Grandma said, chuckling.
I couldn’t imagine.
“He told them his beliefs were a personal matter — between him and God — and he didn’t believe he had to go to church to talk to God — to get squared-away and all that.” She took another bite of potato. “I don’t think they liked that idea — of course — if everyone believed thataway, well, these folks would be out of a job.”
I smiled at the logic of this thought. Grandma just kept eating and talking.
“They wanted him to say he believed Jesus Christ was the Son of God Almighty and died for his sins. I suppose they meant well.”
I pictured the living room, filled with ministers of all sizes and shapes and denominations, trying to squeeze a Godly conversation out of Grandpa.
“They asked your sister to go to church with them — last time she visited,” she said, a devilish look on her face.
I smiled again, puzzled. “Yeah? Is that funny?”
She shrugged. “It’s just they asked her to go with them — she was with her boyfriend. Said they made her sit in the very front row — had her stand and introduce herself to everyone. Said she nearly ran out of the building — after about five minutes — thought she was gonna’ die — she wanted to leave so bad.”
I considered this. “But why? Why did she feel so bad?”
Grandma finished chewing a bite. “Felt like nothing had changed — said it was oppressive. You know.”
Should I know? I did know, sort of. But I didn’t know. What was it about this church — my grandparents’ church — my childhood church? To hear my parents speak about it now — well — it was never without a frown, a shake of the head, a judgment, a knowing look. You know. No, I didn’t know.
From my earliest memory, I had regularly attended this tiny, rural community church. In the beginning, it was a group of people meeting in a basement. Later there was a building fund. The group built a sanctuary over the basement and moved their meetings above ground. There were two Baptist churches within a quarter mile of one another. That was due to some ancient dispute that eventually divided the original congregation into two factions. My parents attended the church that broke away, because my mother’s family went with that group.
But — what else? When I was very young, to keep me quiet during services, Mom drew pictures on a tiny notepad, which I would then try to copy. My favorite picture was of a cat — drawn in a series of large and small circles. If I fidgeted too much, I was carried outside onto the front steps of the building, and given a spanking. The first time this happened, I thought oh good! — we’re getting out of here! But it took only a moment to understand being carried outside didn’t mean relief from the boredom inside. From then on, whenever Dad plucked me up off the bench, and stood to exit, I screamed as loudly as possible, drawing stifled laughs from the congregation. Looking back on it now, I wondered if my parents punished me so much because they actually believed I needed it, or because it was the right thing to do in the eyes of the group and my grandparents.
The basement church was unbearably hot, the sermons droned on and on, and everyone used paper fans advertising the local funeral home. Grandma was the official pianist. Grandpa was a deacon. Afterward, everyone stood around outside and talked farming, politics, deer hunting, and looked at any new cars that had been recently purchased.
For me, more often than not, the message of Sunday School classes was very confusing. God loves you, but fear God. Once, my class had to meet in the adult Bible classroom. I was astounded to see the walls lined with pictures, maps, diagrams — this was Serious Business. On one particular wall — as big as the wall — was a huge cloth map meant to depict the Spiritual World. There was Heaven — in the sky someplace — and Earth — where everyone goes because of Sin — and Hell — where you go to be with the Devil if you don’t get right with God. The picture of Hell was convincingly unpleasant — a raging pit of boiling blood-red liquid fire. People were in the pit, writhing with regret and sorrow for having been judged by God as too evil because they wouldn’t surrender everything to His Will.
Now, sitting at this table, staring at the kitchen wall, I could see that cloth map again, just as clearly as in that childhood moment. How frightening it appeared. How completely inscrutable to me — that God could be so selfish, cruel, angry, unforgiving. What a misuse of power. Even more confusing was the thought that God couldn’t help being perfect, couldn’t help that we were all imperfect — and so he was powerful enough to cast the imperfect ones away, but not powerful enough to say that the whole business didn’t matter. It didn’t make sense. This wasn’t the God I knew. This wasn’t the magic, and angels, and fairies, and loving pink-white soft light that I imagined God to be.
Remember the baptism? Yes. I remembered it — clearly. One morning, my brother told me he was going to be baptized. What did that mean, I asked. It means you believe in God and God died for your sins, and you ask God to forgive you. He urged me to consider being baptized, too — so that in case we died, we would be in Heaven together. Anyway, Mom and Dad would like it. What is sin? — I wanted to know. When you do the wrong thing, and Mom and Dad have to punish you. Then you’ve offended God. I looked at him in amazement. That was sin? Sin? Jesus died because of that stuff?
It’s simple, he insisted. Do you believe that Jesus is your friend, that he loves you, and you love him? Well, sure I could believe that. Then you can get baptized — you do it to tell Jesus that you love him. Well, that sounded okay, so I said yes. My parents were surprised, because I was so young, but they were also pleased, and, so, the proper arrangements were made.
“Are you sure you understand what this represents? — to be baptized?” Mom kept asking, very solemnly. Yes, I understood. It didn’t seem very complicated.
When the Sunday evening arrived for the ceremony, I watched the people lined up to be baptized in the new baptismal unit that the church had built behind the altar and the minister’s podium, at the front of the church. One by one everyone filed down the red metal steps into the chilly water. My brother and I were the youngest initiates — everyone else was an adult. One by one the minister asked the rehearsed questions, to which the single rehearsed answer was given — “Yes.” Then each person was grasped at the waist, a cloth placed over their nose and mouth — and they were lowered into the ice-cold water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One by one each came up, gasping for air, to be led away by an usher to a special dressing room, to change into dry clothes.
When I went down into the water and came back up, I felt an intense sense of euphoria. I felt white light surround me. I heard the most beautiful sounds. I felt a golden warmth flow through my suddenly weightless body. My heart opened — white doves flew in and out. Afterward, all through the remaining church service, and at the reception downstairs, and during the drive home, I still felt waves of shimmering gold flowing through me — moving within and without my being. It’s like a giant halo is dancing through me, I thought. All through my body.
I told my family about my experience, afterward, driving home in the car, and again as we walked into the house.
“I’ve changed!” I kept repeating. “Something wonderful has happened!”
Even after we were home — while everyone walked to their separate bedrooms, to change out of Sunday clothes and get ready for bed — I followed behind them, describing it again.
“Didn’t you feel it too?” I asked my brother. “Doesn’t your heart feel so light? Isn’t this incredible? I can feel the love of God!”
But he didn’t answer.
Mom was helping my sister change into pajamas and get into bed.
“Better get out of those clothes,” she motioned. “It’s been a long day. We’re all tired.”
As my parents walked up the hallway to their bedroom, I came out of my room and stood in the center of the hall, between my bedroom door and the bend in the hall. I still grasped my dress in my hands — hugging it to my heart — standing in my slip and bare feet.
“But I feel something has changed!” I insisted. “My whole body feels so — alive — so light!”
As I spoke, everyone continued moving away. My display of emotion seemed to embarrass them. In my state of sheer joy, I was only partly aware of their response, or lack of response — it only felt important to share my experience with them. My father disappeared into the bedroom, but Mom paused in the doorway.
“When something like this happens,” she said in a low, scolding voice, “it isn’t proper to talk about it.”
I looked at her, confused. How could that be possible? Not talk about feeling all this golden liquid light pouring through me? Why ever in the world not?
She sighed, implying this was universal wisdom. “You don’t talk about it. If you’ve changed, as you say — and you are truly serving the Lord now — your father and I will know. We’ll see it in your actions. Your day-to-day behavior will improve — you’ll obey us without complaining so much — you’ll serve the Lord by being a better little girl — you won’t be such a disappointment.”
It was an interesting moment, because so much happened at once. I turned and walked back into my room. I changed my clothes, got ready for bed, moving in a haze. It was me, I thought. I was unable to explain how I felt — that’s why they didn’t understand. But my brother wasn’t displaying such excitement. Already my new connection to God was shifting. I didn’t mean to be a disappointment — was my behavior so bad? I hadn’t been conscious of the thought before. I argued with my brother — and my sister — sometimes — and I didn’t typically like my sister much, but I didn’t mean anything by it. We were all actually great buddies. Certainly God understood that.
The golden halo was fading. The liquid light was slowing to a thick sticky mess. The inner fire was doused. My heart was shutting down.
But my parents must know the truth about me. They wouldn’t lie about it! And if what they were saying was true, I didn’t deserve God’s love. I couldn’t even get through a day without disappointing them — much less God.
So I began keeping track of the days when I wasn’t scolded or punished. On these days, I was pleased to think that I had not upset God. Then, I would pray for God to love not just me — but everyone on the planet. That felt good, because other people might forget to do it, but since I was constantly aware of falling in and out of God’s love, I could do it for everyone. On days when I sinned, which, basically translated, meant displeased my parents, I would go to sleep knowing I need not bother to pray at all. My sins completely separated me from God’s love. Where was forgiveness? — kept in a secret place by my parents at the request of God. When would I receive it? — when I proved myself deserving of it. How was I ever going to be able to prove that?
Many nights I would sit up suddenly in the darkness, awakened by — what? — a nightmare? — and stare desperately out into the darkness of the bedroom. I could hear my sister sleeping nearby. I could hear the refrigerator, way out in the kitchen, cycling on and off. I could hear the silence of the outdoors, and the silence of the inside. So quiet. So penetrating. So infinite. Panicked, I peered out through the darkness, searching for a ray of light, for relief, for an assuring sign. Where was Jesus now? Where was God is Love? Where were the angels? Where was magic? There was no relief. There was no assuring sign. This darkness was my simple truth. It sifted all around and through me like a damp fog. I could not see my way clearly. I was shackled to this place. Here, I feared my parents more than God. Not even Jesus could save me — not Jesus, not Superman, not the Knights of the Round Table, not magical incantations, not special prayers, not a King or Fairy Godmother, not Captain Kangaroo, not White Flying Horses. The darkness penetrated them all. I existed in a place of no-love — my love could not escape, and none from the outside could get in.
In the terrifying moments that elapsed, as I sat staring into the vast emptiness, my utter despair was such that my heart would die a little — a little more each night. I would, with great effort, lie down again, and wait in the terror for sleep to return, to drift over me like a great spell — altering the reality a little while — before another day broke in to remind me of the lonely dark prison that was my life.
Oh my God, I thought. And how was it any different today? Now? Despite all the work I was doing to physically heal, to change — all my work with Nick — everything I was doing in the name of truth — digging for information — to know to know to know — and yet, for what purpose, really? What was it all about? I was trying to get out of this lonely, dark prison. Still. And still, at the end of the day, I was left with these same childhood feelings of terror that threatened to eat me up. And still, at the end of the day, I was left with this awful war inside of me. Wanting to feel that golden liquid light again. Wanting to love and be loved. But utterly unable to do it, to achieve it. Guilty. Guilty. Condemned to exist in the darkness.
How often, still, in the night, lying in bed next to Jack — hearing his sweet breathing, feeling his body, feeling the weight of Tybee, cuddled into and purring at my ankles — when the inner war paused, when I was too exhausted to rage back and forth in it — and when I was too exhausted to sleep — then, then, that same old guilt would tiptoe across my inner battlefield — guilt draped in cruel logic and loneliness — to attend to the wounded parts of my heart with a balm not meant to heal — oh, no — not a balm of healing reconciliation — but a balm meant only to regenerate the inevitability of the despair I felt — that I had felt all these years — so that when morning arrived, the war could resume. Guilt chided me for not adding up — not seeing how beautiful was my world, that the sunshine was a warm gift when I felt it on my skin, that I was missing the wonder and sound and color all around me — the birds, and flowers, and the smile on Jack’s face when I walked into the room, the touching, and tastes, and creativity, and pleasure. Guilt came to remind me of my painful flaw — and to remind me that I could be aware of my wonderful life, of my wonderful world, but that I was forever banished from it — from holding it in my hands — from grasping it — from owning it.
The overhead light dimmed, causing me to jump in surprise. Grandma laughed.
“Well, you’ve only been a couple million miles away! Been sitting there for over thirty minutes! Didn’t want to disturb you! Want some dessert? More tea? Sure you can’t have a cookie?”
Dinner was over. She had even cleared the table.
I smiled, sheepishly. “No, thank you — nothing else. I’m so sorry — I — thank you for making dinner.”
She shrugged. “Don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. I’m going to bed.”
“Me, too.” I stood up.
She turned out the lights, leaving only the tiny lamp in the hallway glowing, and called from her bedroom door.
“I want you to get a good night’s sleep — no overdoin’ it tomorrow!”
I promised, as I moved through the shadowy kitchen, pausing at the sink to get a glass of water, looking out the window. The backyard was completely illuminated by the outside lamp atop the pole behind the garage. It looked as bright as day, but bathed in a cold, surreal light.
I rubbed my eyes, tired to my very soul, and murmured, “A couple million miles wouldn’t begin to cover where I’ve been today.”