observations, reflections, and occasional missives from one sure he's on the spiritual path, but also sure he might be on the short bus on the spiritual path. Hop on for humor, faith, and frequent stops for grace spotting.
When a summer thunderstorm drives 12-year-old Samuel Chambers into a local antique shop, he finds himself watching through a crack in the door as three old fortune tellers from a visiting fair scratch a message onto the surface of a table: “Find the Tree of Life.” Tragedy strikes his family less than 24 hours later, and as those words echo in his mind he realizes that Finding the Tree of Life is his only hope. His quest to defeat death entangles him and his best friend Abra in an ancient conflict, and a series of strange events leads them closer to the Tree, closer to reversing the tragedy that took place. Can death be defeated? But as his own personal quest unfolds, Samuel comes face to face with a deeper, more difficult question: Could it be possible that death is a gift?
Friday, May 8th, 2015
6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Join Shawn Smucker, author of “The Day the Angels Fell”
for a reading/talk and book signing.
$5.00 cash or check donation requested (more appreciated, a portion of proceeds benefit our Social Outreach/St. Martin’s Hospitality Center)
Child care provided.
Saturday, May 9th, 2015
2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Join author, Shawn Smucker for Writing Workshop
“The Power of Story and Our Power to Write a New Story: Righting Our Way through Grief & Everything Else”
EVERYONE is welcome and encouraged to join us for this workshop focusing on the transformative power of story in our lives and in our hands. You don’t need to consider yourself a “writer” to attend. Everyone can benefit from this experiential workshop.
$20.00 donation requested (more appreciated)
Space limited. Please r.s.v.p. PreetamDas at firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, May 1st to reserve a spot. No payment is required to reserve your spot. Payment by cash or check only accepted at the workshop.
*one truly from the archives: circa 2004, but hey, it’s lighter! In-joy
My second cousin came to my very first public reading of my writing. In one of the pieces I read, I spoke openly about how dire my financial situation was at the time of that recently written essay. After the show, she, her mother, and sister showered me with congratulations and hugs. Then, her mother slipped some money into my pocket against my protests and her daughter planned a day to take me to the grocery and asked if I needed to do laundry. I pulled her close and said into her ear, “You have no idea. My socks actually stand upright in the corner, without me in them!” She laughed and we set a date to begin the mountain of laundry. This kind, generous gesture was made even more disarming by the fact that my cousin and I had enjoyed virtually no contact for years, despite living in the same city.
Two days later I stood in her kitchen as she began to cook and the first of the ‘winter laundry’ began to spin. I asked about her job and she explained that she hadn’t returned to work since the birth of her now toddler son, Little Joe. Her time was consumed daily by tending to the needs of her son and by occasional volunteer work. One of her volunteer activities is being a precinct judge and officiating at voting sites during elections. Now, after all these long years, my cousin came out to me. I had, of course, suspected, even knew this in the back of my mind. But, well, to hear her say it right out loud, well, it still cut like a knife. All the tell-tale signs had been there. She is white, very, very, white actually, married with a kid, and drives . . . a mini-van. We share an ol’-time Pentecostal religion upbringing and she still attends weekly services locally. Her family, with their backyard deck and two car garage, appear to enjoy middle-class status. Perhaps, even more telling, is her family’s holiday tradition of sending out those family update form letters that detail all of the family tragedies and triumphs with photographs since the previous Christmas. All of these signs and red flags and I chose to remain in denial, until she said it again, “Of course, being REPUBLICAN, I said that of course, I wanted the Bush campaign sign in our yard when they asked down at the headquarters.” I turned my face away, knowing it would betray me and register the shock, pain, and repulsion that I felt at her declaration. The intensity of my response was surprising, even to me. Instantly I just wanted to leave. I wanted to pack my baker’s dozen or so bags of still dirty laundry back into the mini-van, return the groceries, and have her drive me back home in stony silence. I just wanted out. How DARE here extend such kindness: invite me into her home and then casually drop this bombshell! “Oh, by the way, I strike preemptively and deny you equal status under the law. Would you pass the gravy and those potato rolls?” Great. “Bring it on”, I’d reply. This was horrible, unbelievable. I wondered if she had told her mother. She must have. No wonder the woman has had so much trouble with her heart recently. It must be just killing her. After doing her level best to raise her daughter right, to now be faced with the dark reality of her being: a Republican.
A moment later I became aware of just how snug this shoe was on my other foot. What kind of a Falwellian bigot did I sound like? Next I would instigate panic and controversy by suggesting that she and “her kind” should not be allowed to teach or adopt children. Jesus wept! So much for building bridges. I remembered again the Walt Whitman quote, “We convince by our presence,” and I stayed, despite my initially deep internal resistance. I insisted that this kindness was too extravagant and that she should allow me to do something to express my gratitude. “I could . . . wash the mini-van. I could give you some money when I get paid on Friday.” She said ‘no’ repeatedly to all of my offers, then paused. “Well, there is one thing you could do.” “Sure, what is it?” “You could come to our Easter cantata at our church this Easter.” “Alright. Okay.” I had already said that I was usually off work on Sundays. No saves there. In my mind I calculated exactly how much time I had before Easter Sunday to catch something that would render me bed-ridden and a risk for contagion, but aloud I said, “I can do that.”
On Easter morning I sat next to my cousin as the Passion play unfolded. Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount, turned water into wine, and calmed a raging storm at sea. I had visions of Ted Neeley and Mel Gibson and lamented my decision to smoke that joint before church. I can hardly stay awake. I finger my mala beads and pray to stay upright. Apparently, “cantata”, the word itself, is an ancient Latin word used only in certain religious sects and roughly translates to the equivalent of the Spanish word “siesta, or more accurately “coma”. Now, Christ was dying and I was surrounded by people who would wet themselves trying to decide whether to stone my because I had been a ‘rebellious child’ or because I’m a ‘homosexual’. My mouth was as dry as disciple’s sandal. Smoking weed before Easter service was not a good idea after all. It feels remotely inappropriate to be looking forward to the last supper so much. Maybe they’ll have communion. Wafers and juice. LOTS of wafers and juice. God, I could eat my hymnal. The munchies seem so ‘high school’ like hickies. Nevertheless, they’re here and I ask my cousin if maybe she has any little thing at all, in abundance, in that huge purse of hers to eat. She clears her throat. “PreetamDas”, she says, “this would be the crucifixion part.” I cast my eyes downward, then back to the stage and think to myself, “It’s the Passion play for Chrissake, the whole thing is the crucifixion part.”
The pre-recorded clap of thunder startles me awake from another 8 second, head-bobbing nap. Base begins to rumble from the speakers throughout the church, apparently signifying the saviors final breath on the cross. Lights flashed as the choir hummed ominously and then, suddenly, all went completely dark and silent. A hush fell over the darkened church auditorium, with the exception of random, muffled sobbing. The director held the moment, caressed the moment, then squeezed the silent, dark moment like a wet washcloth for all he was worth. When the lights came back up, Mary rushed out of a papier-mache tomb declaring that Christ’s body had been stolen and she darted up the path to tell the others. In a flash, a painted, transparent screen was whisked up in front of Mary to reveal a scarred, but resurrected Jesus. I had wondered how they would effect the resurrection. I ‘d had amusing fantasies of an unfortunate messiah crash landing into Pilate’s balcony as his Peter Pan wires got crossed.
But, as the director would have it, a veil was simply removed and Christ was revealed.
I decided not only that I appreciated this dramatic treatment, but also that perhaps this was also part of the message: Christ hadn’t flown in or even descended. His feet still touched the ground, yet He was risen. Having seen several Passion plays with my family on summer vacations, yep, including “Christ of the Ozarks, the “greatest story ever told” was not new to me. There was no surprise ending. What I did find useful was the reminder that right where we are at, feet on the ground, we are called to and able to rise. My cousin took my hand in hers and together, we sat there on our church pew, both a little bit risen.”
I believe in the possibility of reconciliation under any circumstance, and yet there are things that we say to each other sometimes that may not be beyond the reach of forgiveness but remain beyond forgetting.
I was a skinny kid that grew up in a family of fat relatives. In an extended family where being overweight was the norm, I stuck out like a sore thumb; a thumb made more sore by frequently being made fun of and enduring nicknames mocking my body size. It was 1976. I was ten years old. Even an adult cousin that I adored would announce, “Jimmy, you’re so skinny, you look funny cuz your bones stick out.” Of course the bones she was referring to were elbows and knees. Given that kind of public derogatory announement today after years of building a fine defense and a quick, bitter tongue, I’d probably snap back that it was her that looked funny because when I stood next to her, we looked like the number 10. But, then, to suggest that visible elbows and knees were normal would have been risking switch-welted legs or a bloodied mouth. I was outweighed and outnumbered.
I was a skinny kid with a gap between my two front teeth. Braces would correct my teeth when I was older, but no stage of growth changed my underdog size. My slight size combined with my fastidiousness and what my birth mother called being “tender-hearted” got me called a “fag” by kids at school long before I knew what the intended insult meant. I only felt the way the kids said it and I felt dirty, dirty and outcast without knowing why; dirty, even before they spit on me on the crowded school bus.
When I was a kid, adults said that I’d “fill out” when I grew up. They lied about that, too. Ten years later, other gay men started dying. No one understood anything about H.I.V. then. Everyone was afraid. The government, at best, didn’t care. The church told us that we had it coming. They told us that we were being punished and we were, but not by God. We were being punished by the fear and hatred of people who left us to fight and die alone. I remember being so young and so afraid. I remember at one gathering, a young man, Jeff, carried his own drinking glass so as to not risk contagion. Jeff and countless other guys in the bars would speculate and sometimes outright accuse me of having A.I.D.S. Does anyone get “accused” of having cancer or heart disease? It was never a good time to be a skinny kid. It’s never been a good time to be a skinny gay man, even among other gay men. It was shaping up to just not be a good time to ever be me. Jeff’s personal drinking glass didn’t save him.
At middle-age now, it remains an elusive goal to hit a hundred and fifty pounds. No, ladies, it is not an enviable thing. Please stop saying that. Yes, I can “eat whatever I want”, as you so often say, “without gaining a pound”. It’s also true that if it’s not eighty in the shade, I’m cold and it hurts to sit. I’m getting closer to looking into finding an ass prosthetic; either that or I’ll be that guy that carries a pillow with him everywhere to sit on. As a rule, stress seems to effect our eating habits in one of two ways. Under stress some of us will eat everything and some of us will eat nothing. I tend toward the latter group. During a period of hardship and predictable weight loss for me five or six years ago, I was at dinner with my friend Suzanne, when she took my breath away when, while encouraging me to eat, she told me that I looked like “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”.
I’m not often speechless.
I didn’t much want to go outside for awhile after that.
Sometimes we say things that are not beyond forgiveness, but remain beyond forgetting.
I ache when I consider the times that I know I’ve been guilty of this.
Three years or so ago I was as physically present as I’ve ever been weighing in at an astonishing personal best of a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Since our car accident last year and the head injury I suffered I struggle to hit a hundred and thirty-five pounds. As a result of that space between my two front teeth when I was a kid and the braces and the slightly off-color cap on one of those two front teeth, I’ve always been a little o.c.d. about my dental hygiene. It hasn’t paid off. None of my enthusiastic flossing or gargling with hydrogen peroxide a half dozen times a day has made any difference in the tremendous bone loss that continues to happen. Dec. 30th, tooth number fifteen, the upper back left, was extracted. Not five weeks later, number three, the back upper right had to be extracted. I now have no upper back teeth to chew with. Pending insurance approval, a partial is hopefully on the way. In the meantime, I eat soft foods and boy, do I have cheekbones. I look like I’m doing an impression of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” now, even when I’m actually not . . . or “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”
Those words said to us that remain beyond forgetting don’t live in our minds in a moment-to-moment or even in a daily way. They’re not predators so much as scavengers. They wait until we’re vulnerable, exhausted, and just about to give up and it’s then that the jackals of some one’s words return from the nowhere of the past in hope of feeding on what’s left of us.
I was washing my face one morning a few days ago and when I saw my face in the mirror, it broke my heart. I saw hollowed spaces and shadows and weariness and I cried looking at my own reflection. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve become rather obsessed about my appearance; not in the way that beautiful people do, but in the way that only the deeply wounded do. I’ve been grieving my teeth and terrified of getting “A.I.D.S. face”, daunted by the prospect of one more obstacle to self-acceptance and crumbling at the idea of one more reason for public rejection. Now, I was losing my hope to the sallow reflection in my bathroom mirror. When it happened again, when I washed my face and cried again at the rather Nosfertu reflection looking back at me, I decided that I couldn’t do this anymore.
I remembered that in a recent issue of AARP magazine that Cher had been quoted as saying that she had “given up mirrors”, that she “hadn’t looked in a mirror in years.” Of course she’s lying, but the idea of not looking in a mirror at all was nearly as compelling as it was frightening. You have to understand how vital, how strangely addictive mirrors are for someone like me: always one more glance, one more snip at a hair, one more disapproving look and then one more. No, you wouldn’t want to live with me and ever want to be anywhere on time, ever. I guess mirrors and cigarettes are to the life of my ego what humility and love are meant to be to my walk of faith. But now I couldn’t see past my own fear and grief, so I made a decision.
I took down the obsessively checked mirror to the right of my office door. I put the eye-level framed pictures on my desk on top of the bookshelf where I can see them but they can’t reflect my image back to me in their glass. I covered my bathroom mirror save for an eye-level strip opening about an inch and a half long by an eighth of an inch high. I can see just my eyes, just my nose, or just my mouth at one time. Mind you, I’m not throwing vanity completely out the window. I will know if that blueberry or spinach is visibly stuck in my teeth, but I won’t face self-rejection with my every reflection.
This is how I’ve come to begin this Lenten season by sitting shiva. The Jewish custom surrounding the ritual of grief dictates that mirrors be covered because mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance, that mourners should be aware that their normal priorities have changed, and that mirrors should not be present in rooms where we pray as we are to direct our focus on God, not ourselves. I’ve been in mourning in many ways no more so than now as the shallow sand-built defenses I’ve invested a lifetime of energy in are incrementally and systematically stripped away. I mourn not only for myself, but for the suffering all around me that I feel so acutely so often. I grieve for living in a world so abrasive that I frequently feel sanded raw.
This Ash Wednesday is only the third day of no mirrors, but I feel drawn to continue the sacrifice of my painful vanity for the entire Lenten season, not just because of the hurt reflected back at me right now, but also because it might help. Already, without my physical image constantly reflected back at me, from time to time I can forget what I look like and just remember that I might Feel good in any given moment. Maybe without my appearance being my constant priority my focus will begin to shift, even a little. Maybe I’ll come closer to understanding that my reflection in a thing isn’t necessary for a thing to be beautiful. How much more beauty there must be to see in the world when our identification with something or someone isn’t required for them to be seen as beautiful and worthy.
Maybe, right now, while it’s so hard to see myself through my own eyes, let alone through God’s eyes, maybe it’s best if I only see myself through your eyes and only see what you show me.
If this life is about union and communion, and I believe that it is, then our self-rejection keeps us only ever halfway to the table and nearly all of us are too malnourished to not pull all the way up to the banquet table of our Father’s love and full acceptance.
Maybe, in covering some mirrors, maybe in borrowing each other’s eyes, we might get closer to pulling up a chair to the Table together.
My current health challenges and life stressors bring me again to the Root and roots of my faith and baby steps of progress toward improved health and more strength and energy as I continue to hope, pray, and believe that being pain-free again can be a reality. My regular doctor is a constant source of gratitude, while it will be impossible to not write about her at some point, there aren’t really words enough to say how incredible her skills AND heart are and how my life is better because of Miriam. But a couple of days ago I saw a different doctor other than my own and didn’t get what I needed. Why is it so confounding for some folks when you’re clear about what you need? Anyway, on the train home I came up with this, maybe it could be helpful for someone else when “baby steps” are again needed or maybe one or two a y’all might wanna join with me for the next 21 days. If you’re up to some baby steps with this 2 Great Commandment Preschooler, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences as we stumble along, and try to remember what immense pleasure it brings our Father, as it would any loving father, to see us learning to walk:
My own Rx:
5 – Five minutes of Affirmative Breathing
Full inhalations & exhalations. On the exhale mentally affirm what you need affirmed. This could be a literal affirmation i.e. “I’m.
safe, loved, home, forgiven, etc. Could be a portion of a Scripture. I’m fond of “blue and green”, shorthand for the still blue waters.
and green pastures of 23rd Psalm I learned from a character in a work of fiction by John D. Base. One need not be a Christian to find.
the image calming. The affirmation on the exhale is key, as without the already disciplined mind that we lack yet, silence alone can
be an entry point for negative voices and thoughts.
10 – Ten full minutes (as only a minimum, but at least 10) of singing Out Loud.
Obviously, something positive would be ideal, but with this one, the songs selected are not as important as simply doing it. If you’re
feeling low, like a motherless child, then sing that, but sing it Out Loud, don’t just feel it in silence. I’m convinced this is the other
reason God made showers. You can do it. It’s not public, not a performance.
15 – Write for a full fifteen minutes.
If you find yourself resistant or staring out the window for more than a minute, begin your time again. As with the singing aloud,
what you write is not even your concern, it could be anything from why you’re grateful to why you’re pretty certain that the world/
God/your spouse/ ex/ or mother is out to get you. “I’m feeling _______” is often a good entry point.
20 – Ideally, simply walk for a full twenty minutes.
This is the goal: walking. When weather makes this impossible, a Very distant next best would be on the floor or mat gentle.
stretching i.e. slow neck rolls, shoulder lifts & drops, gentle twisting from the waist while seated, etc.
Reach (out) – As a routine, and at a minimum, make the phone call.
Yes, even this Everyday. For those of us more comfortable and with time, the “Reach” could be sharing coffee or a meal
or much more like some form of community/church/social involvement, but again the key is that daily, so making that phone call
is basic, if not easy. Serving at the shelter or attending a meeting, etc. do fill the ask but these are rarely everyday. Bottom line:
you really will need to use the phone. No requirement on content or time, only you need to connect Live, even if only briefly. No,
leaving a voice mail isn’t enough or rather leave the voice mail, then dial again till the Live connection happens.
These are challenging for many of us, but also do-able for all of us.
What’s the goal? What do we win, earn, or accomplish? I’d suggest that those are ego-based questions, so the only answer I’d suggest is that we’ll find out, the old “more will be revealed”. Then why would we do something, anything without a goal? Ya’ gotta love our ego’s persistence (or not). The only answer is that where we are isn’t working for us so well and maybe, since it takes (depending on your phone time) only about an hour, maybe we could commit to trying a different way, this routine for 21 days and just see what happens.
Prayer? (Shhhhh, don’t let it get out, but these are all forms of prayer. Add as much and as many kinds of prayers, as often as you’d like)
When I was a kid, I not only imagined that my bedroom was its’ own world, I also worked to make sure that it was. Surviving the red-velvet clutter and “Chuck Wagon Gang” gospel music that assaulted you at the front door and making it to my bedroom was, in my mind, akin to surviving Mordor on your return to the Shire, or making it through the rest of *Texas to get to Austin. Even at a young age I was deeply embarrassed by my simple, unrefined parents and, much to their frustration, I took every opportunity to accentuate our differences. In fact, I thought we were so different from each other that we couldn’t really be related at all. I was filled with new hope as an adolescent at the idea that I must have been adopted. My determination culminated in an exhaustive, but futile secret search through my parent’s boxes and drawers, looking for papers that would prove my adoption. Years later, at my high school graduation, I would take great satisfaction when adult friends would comment to me that they couldn’t believe Mom and Dad were my parents. Now, other people; adults, suggested that perhaps I was adopted and I couldn’t have felt more . . . proud. In a room full of people, a stranger wouldn’t connect me with my parents; not by looks, or speech, or demeanor. My determination to be as different from them as I could be, had paid off.
Of course, my adult perspective of my parents is more seasoned; they’re not complete scapegoats to be sure. While I don’t remember an exact moment of such a decision, I think that maybe, at some point early on, I made up my mind even as a child, that I didn’t want a relationship with them. Some of my embarrassment was certainly typical of most all of us growing up: floundering for independence and embarrassed by our dependence. Like every child and adolescent, like every teen, like every human, I wanted to be and to belong. But there were other factors that grew the need in me to retreat to my imagination; to cocoon in my room. When my refuge was ruined, when my retreat was destroyed, I would eventually rebel. But, before there were clearly drawn enemy lines, before I defected, it’s true, I fought for the cause.
If Mom and Dad had a “cause”, or purpose, or a life at all it was the country church we drove forty-some miles to attend. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday night; every Wednesday night, and at frequent week long revivals, the piano and tambourines were banged, people “spoke in tongues”, desperate altar calls were given, and “sinner’s prayers” were repeated. Best of all, my Sunday school teacher, Sister Opal, would routinely amuse and frighten me by “shouting” the vast number of bobby pins out of her carefully constructed, pinned, and sprayed hair. If the old joke about Pentecostals, “the higher the hair, the closer to God”, is true, Sister Opal surely must have touched the nail prints in His hands. At home, Dad didn’t allow a television in the house for years. No secular music was allowed in the house at all, none; not jazz, not country; only gospel. This was, for the first part of my life, the only world I knew. I knew nothing else, so I emulated what I knew, certain that it would please Mom and Dad; and ‘pleasing Mom and Dad’ if nothing else, had to hurt less.
An aunt of mine is still fond of recalling how at five-years-old, I would take my little wooden chair and stool that Dad had varnished and painted with my name, “Jimmy” and turn that little chair into a pulpit for some of the fieriest sermons stuffed animals never heard.
The “prayer hanky” came from my favorite family friend at church, Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was round and happy and chocolate brown and had the very best laugh and I loved her. I reckon I believe that if anybody ever did know anything at all for certain (and most of us don’t), Mrs. Williams knew something for certain and from the very first time that I had special permission to sit with her in church, I just wanted to be like Mrs. Williams. So it was only natural that I had to have a prayer hanky in my belt, just like Mrs. Williams kept in the belt of her dresses to dab her eyes or mop her brow, but it wasn’t the female accessories, it wasn’t the belt or the hankies that was alluring. “Pentecostal drag” is frequently gender-neutral: soaked hanky, dry hanky, Bible, and lotsa perspiration. What I wanted to be near; what was magnetic, what I wanted to be like was what folks like Mrs. Williams were like. I wanted what they had, or what “had them”, to know what they knew that made ’em move like they did -real sure and real humble; to know why Mrs. Williams always did seem like a calm sky and a solid place, no matter what, when everybody else felt like hard rain.
Deepest the deepest convictions of my pre-Evangelist trail-five-year-old-self, I was still only five, so even I eventually grew impatient and restless in church services. As a result of my talking and squirming, I became so accustomed to being taken out of church and into the Ladies Room to get switched, that one Sunday on the way into the church I simply looked up at Mom and said, “We might as well go in now and get it over with before church starts.” Now, I imagine the resignation that must have been in my little boy voice, knowing that this, violence, was just a fact of my day, and it makes me sad for a moment, to know that at five, I felt beaten. I felt so beaten in fact, that I soon gave up the continually prophesied big calling on my little life to be a preacher. Soon, I hardly spoke at all. Ever. People began to inquire aloud as to if I was mute. “Can’t your little boy speak?”, people would ask my Mom, their voices offering pity even before she could answer.
Now, I was born in 1966 and unfortunately for me, any changing with the times my parents might have done stopped a decade before my arrival. Looking like an extra from “Peggy Sue Got Married” surprised by the 1970’s, even Mom’s best Sunday dresses were worn with the ever-present white bobby socks. Our modest home felt like a time warp. Mom alternated between secret shopping trips and illness. Dad always stank of the burning rubber he molded into tires at Cooper Tire and Rubber. When he wasn’t breaking his back at work, Dad would sometimes sit and read his Bible and write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. Sometimes he would lose himself in the garage, which was so full of stuff, that getting lost was actually possible. And sometimes to break up that routine up, he’d beat the daylights out of me. As I grew older I became more ashamed of my parent’s simple, poor, country folk ways and “old time religion” fervor. In a world in which I increasingly felt I didn’t belong, these two characters were apparently sent the long trip down Walton’s mountain to be certain that I never would. In our family’s defense, it should be noted, that there was not a velvet oil painting of Elvis over our couch. Appropriately enough, the velvet oil painting over our couch was of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a kind of a morbid marquee:
“Now Playing, In It’s Record Breaking Twelfth Year: “SUFFERING.”
In the picture, Christ is kneeling at an altar of rock, arms outstretched, hands clasped together in prayer, His face pained and pleading, as He and I ask that this bitter cup pass from us.
My bitter cup, as I saw it, was to survive, not only my father’s welts and blows, but also the crushing embarrassment of my Mom’s elastic-waisted polyester pants and incessantly cheery habit of answering the phone, “Hello! God loves you!” I imagine myself as Carrie White in the Brian De Palma directed movie and Stephen King story, “Carrie”. I can see the scene now; although, unlike Carrie, returning home from gym class where she was terrorized by her first period and tormented by the other girls, I am returning home from a church youth group gathering where the very people that I saw in church each Sunday played records that, to my serious horror, were not (gulp), gospel!
Imagine, me, twelve and Piper Laurie as my mother:
“I can see your dirty little Top 40 music, Carrie.”
“It’s not dirty, Mama. It’s just pop music. It’s just Anne Murray. Even the folks at church like her, Mama.”
“Heathens and Hypocrites. First sin was secular music. Say it.”
“No, Mama. Why didn’t you tell me? They all laughed at me ’cause I was so surprised they weren’t afraid of going to hell for listening to “Daydream Believer”. You shoulda told me Mama.”
“First sin was secular music. Say it child!”
“Go to your closet!”
And so, I did go to my closet. I could be found, but it bought me time. Sometimes just a few minutes could give mom enough time to calm Dad down a little. So, in the cramped, smothering hiding place in my bedroom closet I continued to learn the value of retreat; the safety of invisibility. If my bedroom was going to be my safe haven to retreat to it must be guarded and insulate me from all that was frightening, painful, and tacky just across the its’ threshold. However things might be outside the four walls of my bedroom, they would be as opposite of that as I could make them within.
Since the rest of the house was unkempt and cluttered, my room would be immaculate: no clutter, no dust, no wrinkles in my bedspread. In my room I countered the harsh light the living room picture window cast on my reality by creating indirect lighting with night lights and desk lamps hidden behind the removable speakers of my 8-track stereo. Since the only music in the rest of the house was country gospel, there would be classical music in my bedroom. I won the battle to play classical music as an exception by emphasizing its’ lack of lyrics and syncopated beats. Just by being thought about in my room, the lowly fiddle became a violin. There was a cork board that hung over my desk that I decorated to celebrate each season and holiday. My “desk” was actually a carpenter’s workbench. Of course, I had stored away all of the ridiculous carpenters’ tools and now imagined it to be a roll top desk.
Perhaps the most stark cultural contrast between the world inside my room and the “outside world” of the rest of the house was during the Christmas holiday. One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the annual Christmas conflict over whether or not we could have a Christmas tree. Dad saw it as an unwieldy arm of evil meant to replace Christ with commercialism. Mind you, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him, it was just confusing and embarrassing when he threw the Christmas tree into the front yard. If there would be no Christmas or only Christmas conflict outside my room, then it would be a Christmas-effin’ wonderland in my room. It began at Thanksgiving with a huge roll of colored paper from school on which I would create a Christmas mural. By the time the holiday arrived I would have a wall-size chalk depiction of the nativity. Garland and evergreen lined my dresser, bookshelf, and windowsill. Scented candles burned while Christmas carols played softly on an 8-track loop. From the ceiling I painstakingly hung hundreds of individual icicles, for what I saw as a tremendous effect. By just the streetlight from my bedroom window, when the furnace kicked on blowing warm air through the floor vent, all I saw were dancing flashes of silver light; stars in the low-slung heavens of my very own room. Here, it was a little easier to believe that I was somewhere else. Here, maybe I could find that hope again, that hope I use to have when I was sure I must have been adopted. Here, maybe I’ll find hope while I ponder the question posed by the quietly playing carol, “What Child is This?” What child is This, indeed.
In the end, I retreated to my room so frequently that my dad, the enemy, began to infiltrate my camp, even in the daylight. It became a rule that my bedroom door had to be left, not only unlocked, but open all the time. I broke no rule more consistently. As a result, my bedroom door was unhinged and removed by my Dad, as I would be very soon. It was sort of a cocoon C-section, and yet there would be wings; tattered and atrophied, but still, wings – wings that I could flex and extend, strengthen and bend – wings that could heal and mend and, for now, wings that would keep me warm while I learned to walk.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 2004/20014
*sorry, Texans, but well, you’re in Texas, you’d better have a sense of humor.
**a slightly different version of this story first appeared in the chapbook, “Growing Up Jimmy: Tales of Bible Belt Survival on the Yellow Brick Road”, at http://www.sematikon.com, and in “Dayton City Paper”.