Monday, May 5, 2014
An Ongoing Story
I have always been an avid reader. When I was in third grade, after I was supposed to turn out the light and go to bed, I would turn on the nightlight that was just a few inches above the side of my bed, cover myself in a gold comforter, and read into the night without my light being detected.
On one hot North Carolina summer night after “lights out”, Mom asked, “What are you doing under there?” and snatched the cover off of me, exposing me, my night light, and my book. I thought I might be in trouble, but Mom laughed.
At the end of third grade, our family moved into a larger house, and I had a more private bedroom, so I could generally read as late as I wanted to without being detected. I believe it was in junior high school that I decided to read the whole Bible, but I didn’t want anyone to know, so again I hid my book under the covers just in case someone stopped in.
I’m not sure why I was so secretive. Both of my parents were raised Southern Baptists, and they raised us in a Southern Baptist church. We went to a progressive church, where we were more likely to read The Velveteen Rabbit than the Bible, and from time to time, my dad complained that we knew nothing about the Bible. He complained about this one morning on the way to church, and I argued (as I often did). He said, “I’ll bet not even one of you knows the first Book of the Bible.”
“I do, too,” I said. For some reason, I had a Bible with me on that day, and I flipped to the beginning.
“Genesis,” I tried to say, but I’d never heard the word and pronounced it more like the plural of the Irish beer, Guinnesses.
I didn’t make it far in my first reading of the whole book, though I tried several times. Each time, I got to that long list of “begats,” and gave up. I didn’t see where people found Truth (yes, with a capital T) in this story. The Little House on the Prairie sequence was much more compelling.
I was more interested in church than either of my younger siblings. It mostly raised questions for me. Once, in a small service or discussion of some sort in the Poteat Chapel, my mom and I talked together, as instructed by the leader. We had been told to tell the person we were talking with something we had never told anyone else. I follow teacher’s directions, so I told my mom, “I’m not sure I believe that Jesus was the son of God.”
She whipped back with, “Why not?” This question I did not expect. I had thought she might say, “Why?” and I could explain how it seemed to me that we were all children of God, so Jesus wasn’t really so special.
After that, I kept my truth to myself, though as an adult I visited my childhood church with my partner Ann (like I said, it’s a progressive church), and the minister at the time preached a sermon that was more intellectual and did a lot of interpreting from the Greek, but basically made the same argument that I had made as a child.
The church, a mainstay of Southern life, was a foundation for our family.
Both of my parents grew up in Southern Baptist churches, so some might say I was blessed, and others might say I was doomed. My church, named for a not-too-distant ancestor, comprised an eclectic congregation of hippie Southern Baptists, professors from local colleges and universities, artists, and young parents like mine who wanted to attend a church more liberal than they were. The church took a stand against the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and had a sister church, a storehouse church with a primarily black congregation when I attended the church in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Scandalous.
When I was in high school, my youth group visited this sister church, Bishop Larsen’s storefront church. We usually wore blue jeans with peace sign patches to our hippie church, but we had been told to dress up for this church visit as a mark of respect, so we knew this church would be different than ours. We sat in a row in the church’s folding chairs, among the thirty or so people, mostly African-Americans but a few white people, too, all struggling through poverty.
Bishop Larsen was a large woman, imposing in her purple headdress and billowing purple robe. She delivered a fiery sermon, and stopped in the middle to point her powerful finger at a small boy, maybe eight years old, in the front row. “Boy,” she intoned. “Come here.” He moved tremulously from his front row seat to stand before Bishop Larsen. She chastised him for laughing, admonishing him to remember that church is not funny and neither is God.
I suspected that Bishop Larsen’s God wouldn’t approve of my friend Ande and me going to the park during the sermons at our church, either. I surmised that this God would have no compassion for our boredom. I wondered if it was fair that these people, having a harder life, had a harder God, too. I wondered how they would answer the question, “Who are you?” and if their answer would reveal the poverty of their lives or if they saw their poverty as a circumstance separate from the essence of who they were.
I found much to inspire me in this church where the minister preached against the Vietnam War and for integration of blacks and whites. I wanted to understand faith: some people seemed so moved by it and used code words like “saved” as in “Have you been saved?” Faith and God just seemed confusing to me, though.
In college, I wanted so much to be certain about God and such, but the more I learned, the more unsettled I became. On a walk around the town one night, my roommate Angelique and I happened on a tiny church that would hold maybe ten people in its pews. We found the door open, so we let ourselves in. Spontaneously, we began to spoof a church service and made up readings from the Bible. We shouted from the pulpit and banged our fists. I remember feeling that this was probably blasphemy but not caring. I was angry.
I thought of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem, “The Collar,” where a minister slaps the board and cries, “No more,” ranting and raving about his doubts until “I heard one calling, ‘Child,’” and he replied, “My Lord.” I wanted to hear that voice call to me, but there was no call, and Angelique and I finished our spoof, finally saying, “We should leave. We’ve been loud. Someone might come and see us.”
Towards the end of college, I continued to struggle with who I was, who I might be, and what life I might lead. One Sunday when I was home for Christmas break, our minister, the good Reverend Siler, asked me, Sister Jen, and his son Mark to share our stories on doubt and faith in place of the sermon the Sunday after Christmas. Doubt was easy for me. Faith was harder, but “Yes,” I told the minister. “I would love to share my story.”
I often felt faint with all of the standing and sitting during a church service, so on that Sunday I did not stand to sing the hymns. I stayed seated on the pew’s golden cushion until it was my turn to speak. While I waited, I held the pages of my words tight, crinkling the paper. When I stood to deliver my piece, I saw purple rings in the darkness and heard the high tone in my ears that usually told me to sit down. I tasted metal. Right then, however, I was to speak to 400 waiting Baptists. This was not a convenient time to sit, so I walked up the five steps to the podium.
I took a deep breath, hoping my head would clear. I knew my mom was in the choir loft, dressed like a bluebird in that long blue gown under the church’s seven stained glass windows. (Christ was in the middle, as usual, wearing his crown and looking like a nice guy with that dove flying around him.) Dad sat in the congregation, in the third row, behind Ande’s parents, who held hands every week. (Thirty years later, I hear they still do.)
As I stepped into the pulpit and up to the microphone, I smoothed the papers in front of me and began reading the words I had written about doubt. I was a college senior who had declined marriage to a suitable boy. I was trying to come to terms with the nuclear arms race and life after college, so doubt was a familiar companion.
In my mini-sermon, I wondered about the three wise men after they left the baby Jesus. Where did they go and what did they do with their experience? I wondered if, like me, the wise men felt a little lost.
As I came to the close of this section on doubt and tried to move to the section on faith, my ears rang shrilly and my vision began to close in, like the darkness that closes Bugs Bunny cartoons. I saw my friend Heather’s mom, and I tried to focus on her and to continue my sermon without my notes, since I could no longer see them.
The ringing got louder; the sanctuary’s blues and purples swirled, and the darkness closed in. I don’t remember the rest. Mom says that I sighed deeply and rested my head on my hand for a moment. Then I fell.
When I returned to consciousness, I was lying on the floor, and my parents were beside me. The good reverend Siler was saying to the congregation, “She’s alright. She’s coming to.”
I was still pale and a little sick to my stomach, and I had twisted my right ankle when I fell and kicked my foot against the podium, so it hurt. Mom and Dad helped me to a seat by the podium, where I sat—a little embarrassed—throughout the rest of the service, and at the end of the service well-wishers formed a long line to tell me that they hoped I was okay. Only one woman said she wanted to hear the rest of the sermon, and I still appreciate her attentiveness to my struggle beneath my dramatic fall.
Though I saw a neurologist and had a CAT scan the following week, the tests detected nothing, so the brain tumor that was partly responsible for my blacking out was not discovered for another twenty years.
However, my tumor was not the only cause of that fall: I felt overwhelmed by doubt and faith and all they meant about who I was and who God was.
When I moved to Dallas after college, I tried seventeen different churches, but never found one that seemed right for me. I had not realized that my church was unusual and did not have the language to look for a church interested in social justice. Most of the churches seemed more like social gatherings than spiritual ones to me.
The church I returned to the most was a Unitarian church that met in a brown room, with a brown carpet and brown drapes. The lectern, not a pulpit, was brown, too. Though the thinking in this space was more compatible than in the other churches I visited, I missed ritual and stained glass windows. This church felt more like college than church to me, and so I finally gave up on church. I was no longer a church-goer, though I was still full of wonder about God and spirit and all that they meant.
During this time, I continued to follow the news on the church of my youth, which my parents still attended. The congregation tussled with questions of rightness, and then decided to ask the minister to perform a gay union ceremony. That was too far. The church was expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention and is now an American Baptist Church.
The church’s struggle came after I was an adult and had moved away from Raleigh, and before I came out as a lesbian. The congregation’s thoughtful process, its minister’s wise leadership, and its conclusion that gay people live in God’s love just as straight people do, later helped me and my parents as we struggled with what it meant for me to be gay. I still say a prayer of gratitude for those adults of my youth, an older generation, who have stuck with the church and its vision of God’s radical love. (When I visited as an adult, my partner Ann and I went to the church together. The church had two ministers: a straight man whose intellectual sermons would make many more traditional church-goers cringe and a lesbian who, just by being both a woman and a gay person, may make many of those same folks cringe.)
Though I stopped attending church in Dallas, I continued to explore a spiritual life, and I began reading Buddhist texts. I did not understand the Baghavad Gita with its war metaphor, but Western texts influenced by Buddhism gave me new ways of thinking. I remember learning about the five-fold path to Truth, and loved the idea that there was more than one way. My favorite book in this time was Zen and the Art of Archery, a short book that challenged my thinking and not my reading skills. I also loved Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, and especially her chapter called “The Present,” which introduced me to the idea of being in the moment rather than in the past or the future or in my analytical brain. How interesting that such a common sense notion would seem so radical to me.
I taught a poetry course at the high school in Dallas, and I learned along with my students to love the poetry that we read together. In particular, the poets John Donne, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson took me into new realms of language and self-discovery.
I married a man in Dallas. On Sunday mornings, we did not go to church: we watched “The News Hour with David Brinkley.” We moved to Seattle. Then we divorced, and I came out, first to myself and then to my world. My world spun.
At last, my world came to rights: up seemed up, and down seemed down as I came to know myself as a lesbian. I learned to still myself and to listen to silence in yoga, stretching into a new life.
When I felt ready to try church again, my partner Ann joined me in the search, and we found a small United Methodist Church eager to embrace us a couple.
God no longer seemed so confusing, and church became a place of healing. A decade into our membership, the community supported us when I had one brain tumor and then a few years later a second one. A few years later, Ann and I would participate in a mass wedding, where gay and lesbian couples who had had ceremonies married in unions recognized by our state and, not too long afterward, by our nation.
My forties were fraught with health issues: two brain tumors, the swine flu, food allergies that caused me to lose forty pounds, pneumonia, and a car accident that might have killed me but only bruised my thigh a little.
Before neurosurgery, I wrote a will and power of attorney. I signed organ donor forms. I faced the possibility of my own death, which felt especially real to me after surgery when I started hallucinating and once thought I was in the crematorium.
I was not afraid of death, though I was sad at the thought of dying just yet. I felt deep gratitude for my new life even as I mourned the loss of my life as an athlete, a backroads’ adverturer, and a teacher. I did not swirl, and I thought that I had found a solid place in my faith where I would always know up from down.
Then this fall, I participated in a simulation of loss in death, and in imagining a story being told that was much like my own, I began to swirl again. If you have been reading this blog, you know about my months of intense grief.
I don’t know if I finally settled because of time’s healing salve, a ritual that my therapist recommended, or some combination of those two things and others that I cannot name. Right now, I am reading Phillip Levine’s Waking the Tiger, and in it he describes the body’s experience in trauma and theorizes that, though in surgery we may be under anesthetic, our bodies still experience trauma and must release the energy pent up when we were in danger. Perhaps all that whirling was a part of my healing.
Whatever the reason, I feel grounded again. I know that my sense of God is not conventional, just as it was not conventional when I was a child. I believe that I do not know what God is, just as I do not know what death is. I believe it was the poet Rumi who said, “Do not confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon.” To me, this means not to confuse the word God with the reality of God. I believe that there are many names for God and that there have been men and women throughout history, in different traditions, who were unusually close to God. I believe that there is some elemental energy in the universe that Christians may call God or The Holy Spirit, and I believe that in prayer, in breath, and in meditation I connect with that spirit.
With the poet Max Ehrmann, I believe that whether or not it is clear to me, the universe is unfolding as it should: ”With all its drudgery, sham, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. “
I am okay with this partial knowing. I sit and breathe, and I am grounded. Like the lilies of the field, I neither toil nor spin. For now.
This is my story. It is an ongoing story.