Grace, Grit, and Gravy

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I’m several years late on the bestselling book, but prompted by reading her wonderful blog recently and the fact that one version or another of it seemed somehow always in my view every time I was in a bookstore, I finally gave in and bought a copy of Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts”. Somehow the few passages I had turned to prior to purchasing the book didn’t cue me in on what might have been obvious to most from the title alone: this book is about gratitude. I mean, I’m sure I might have thought that it had something to do with gratitude, that whatever spiritual story or practice or formula the author was sharing included gratitude, but I was wrong. Spoiler alert: it’s actually all about gratitude. Really, it’s not about anything else at all. It’s all about gratitude and creating the mother of all gratitude lists, hence the title, “One Thousand Gifts”. Jesus Christ. Had I known I would’ve been grateful to not buy it. Don’t get me wrong, Voskamp’s heart is as beautiful and generous as her writing is eloquent and authentic as it can be. I actually recommend the book, for you. It’s just that for me, halfway through it, I don’t get it really. It’s lovely writing but it might as well be about animal husbandry and written in Farsi. I just don’t get it. I mean such sentiments about gratitude make great Precious Moments coffee mug text, but who really sees everything, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g as a gift? Never mind who it is, just keep ’em away from me. “Gratitude List #862: shiny dish soap bubbles.” Ugh, truly, like animal husbandry written in Farsi. Mind you, I haven’t finished the book, but right now it seems to me that to accept every little thing, even calamity, as a gift assumes that I even want to be at the party to begin with. “One Thousand Reasons to Want to BE at The Party” would be the primer I need as a prequel. “Parties”, such as this world offers that include such incredible and escalating suffering and the majority of us who are either complicit in the suffering or somehow not heartbroken by it, don’t interest me at all, let alone being at the “gift” receiving table.

Unlike the weaver of the mother of all gratitude lists, I can pretty much count on relating to or at least being amused by David Sedaris’ writing. The other day, after reading a new piece he had written for The New Yorker, I clicked on the title of an essay he had written in 2013. The piece deals with a Sedaris family tragedy and is, I think, some of his finest writing. At one point in the decidedly unsentimental essay Sedaris refers to his family of origin, saying, “Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of,” and I experience a disconnect, an absolute, total disconnect. I simply have no frame of reference for such a sentiment. Families are terrifying and should all come with an escape route. For me, someone screaming, “FAMILY!” in crowded movie theatre would induce way more panic than someone shouting, “FIRE!”. At least with fire there are extinguishers to put it out immediately, but with family you’re stuck undoing the damage for the rest of your damn life.

I don’t think that I’ve ever seriously contemplated staying here. Perhaps that’s not completely true, there have been a few moments and those moments have been the great loves of my little life. It is accurate, though, to say that I cannot remember a time in my life, no matter how young I was, no matter how happy a particular day, when I didn’t contemplate leaving; staying never really seemed like an option, let alone desirable. Group me with those living daily with p.t.s.d. from the car wrecks that are families, and The Church, and the pile up of grief, and those living with p.t.s.d. from actual car wrecks for that matter. The only club I’ve been a member of, and my wanting to had nothing to do with my induction, is the club of outcasts and orphans, the club of mourners and prodigals, the left-out, locked-out, and the left-behind; the club of the never-good-enough, the wanderers and drunkards, the loved in beds and left in alleys, the lepers and the lame, the hungry and the always looking over their shoulder. This is my club. These are my people. No, none of these are badges of honor; membership doesn’t grant boasting rights. None of these are fishing lines for sympathy. None of these negate personal responsibility in my life and in the lives of my people, nor though, does it negate grace and mercy in lieu of being born into boots with straps your own two hands can reach for pulling on. What it does do is give us a completely different frame of reference. Gratitude lists are harder to get to from Survival Kit Checklists. You may hear the word “family” and think safety and refuge; we feel fear or nothing at all. You may hear the word “Christmas” and think of happy hearth, cider-mug smells; we remember hiding or abandonment or chaos. It’s a different life than we dreamed of and your life – your life of one thousand gifts to be grateful for, when we can’t come up with ten good reasons to stay – is a life we can’t even imagine. We don’t even know that language, except as a foreign tongue often spoken by those who sometimes look like us, but turn out to be aliens just the same. One of the few privileges of membership in this club is how often we find ourselves washed ashore together, shipwrecked at Calvary. Those of us who are lucky and brave and have insurance also find ourselves in therapy.

I tried to explain to my therapist today that the expiration date on all of this “everything” we’re supposed to see as “gifts” really ruins the gifts for me. Ask any of us orphans what we want and temporary shelter or foster care may bring relief, but home is what we really want; it’s home because it can’t be taken away. Ask any of us who have truly known hunger what we want and the fast food sandwich or the one-off meal will bring blessed relief, but what we really want looks more like a full pantry, a packed deep freezer; the security of relief without the sting of scarcity or famine tied to the end. I tried to explain how hard it is to even understand how other people seem to find something so good about being alive that they’d want to stay. I just don’t get that, not on my best day.

Sitting across from my therapist I pause, lean forward, and say, “Of course, you don’t have to answer this, after all, you’re the one that’s s’pose to be asking the questions, but you’ve shared briefly how you’ve survived an incredibly painful, life-threatening, life-changing situation. Can you tell me what’s so good about being here, through all of that, that you wanna stay here?”

My therapist, Donetta, originally from Spain, with her large, dark, expressive eyes and mandatory placid-lake-therapist-demeanor, folded her hands in her lap and in her lyrical accent explained how she visited an astrologist after her diagnosis. She said she had gone there wanting to know if she would die, when she would die, and about her relationships. She wanted definite answers. She wanted guarantees. Donetta shared the astrologist’s metaphor.

“He said, eet is like when you can have thee most Wand-er-Full, thee most deLICious meal, all of your very faVOrite, Wand-er-Full foods, but,” she said, her eyes suddenly growing large, feigning wonder, “but Steel, veedy soon your body will begin to diGest, to break Down, and to process this wonderful meal and, of course, eventually, we will go to the bathroom and…”

It’s here that I break in.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but, so the moral of the story is that it all goes to crap? Yeah, that’s where I’m running into the problem.”

I left her office and walked up Roma Street, a neighborhood so monied that even here in the ongoing drought, all of the homes have lush green lawns, many with water fountains and babbling little brooks. The park on Roma has a few tables and benches in addition to the children’s jungle gym area, all shaded by generous, old trees. I found a choice bench, exhaled deeply, and pulled my notebook and pen out of my backpack. I had written nearly a sentence when out of nowhere an old homeless man appeared just to the left of the park bench.

Guess that’s one of the other few benefits of membership in this club, and it’s surprising every time, but no matter what it seems, we will find each other.

“What’cha writin’?,” the old man asked.

“Oh,” I said, looking up, “just jottin’ down some thoughts.”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting down uninvited next to me on the metal bench, “I write sometimes.”

“Better to get it out on paper, otherwise it gets too heavy to carry here,” I said, tapping my forehead.

Underneath his dirty baseball cap, his face was tanned and textured like jerky. His gray hair matted in bands at the top of his t-shirt collar and he sported only two visible teeth which gave even his animated smile the look of something deflated. He took a moment to think about it when I asked how old he was and I was surprised when he decided that he was only sixty-five. Assuming that he was homeless, but still not wanting to be right, I asked him where he lived.

“Oh, I live over at The Regal,” he said, “That ol’ hotel they made into little apartments, not much, just one bedroom, well, it’s just one room.”

Based on his appearance, I was a little surprised that he lived indoors at all, even if it was at a place ironically called “The Regal”. I asked him how he paid for it.

“I’m on SSDI,” he confided, “since, oh, eighty, two, eighty-three.”

“1983, did you say? That’s a long time ago now. What happened?,” I asked.

“I’m paranoid schizophrenic,” he volunteered without any hesitation and without hesitation I asked if he was on medication.

He explained which psychotropic medications didn’t really work and which one was best before admitting, “No, not anymore. I self-medicate,” he said and made the extended pinky and thumb, folded middle fingers-universal sign for booze.

“Well, that kind of medication’s pretty hard on your liver,” I said.

“No,” he said laughing, “I got an iron-clad liver.”

Then he told me how a friend of his, whom he said drank way more than he did, died last month, in an alley up near The Regal, behind the BBQ & Burger Hut.

One other privilege of our membership in this club is knowing that we have nothing to lose, so we will just say it.

“You know,” I said, “I’ll bet if I was sitting here with your friend, he’d tell me how he had an “iron-clad liver”, too. You outta take care a yourself and take it easy on that stuff.”

After fifteen minutes or so I said, “Look, we’ve been visiting too long for me to not even know your name. Sorry about that. What’s your name, brother?,” I asked extending my hand.

“Michael,” he said, taking my hand and smiling. I introduced myself, repeated my name, and he shook my hand again and said, “It’s real good to meet’cha.”

Over nearly the next hour I learned about Michael’s move from Chicago to Florida when he was two and half years old and to New Mexico with his mom and brothers when he was four and heard several random anecdotes about his brothers and his experience in high school. I asked him if he hadn’t married and had children. Now, I’m no prude. I can hold my own and maybe yours too (see what I did there?) when it comes to innuendo and locker room humor, but even I probably blushed as I did my best to not laugh disruptively in the otherwise quiet park as Michael proceeded to rather graphically shared about his attempts to impregnate the woman who would be his son’s mother. Positioning his hands and spreading his legs to illustrate, he explained,

“I had to get it in those, um, what do ya’ call ’em? Utopian tubes.”

Smiling hard against my laughter, I said, “Um, I think it’s fallopian tubes, Michael, but I s’pose, maybe, if it’s real, real good, maybe it is “utopian tubes”. I’m gonna defer to your experience on this one.”

Michael’s experience had been sometime ago now as he put his son at being around forty-seven and mentioned his grandson going in to the Marines, but something Michael had said earlier had stuck in my mind.

“Michael,” I said, “you know earlier when you talked about your mother passing away, you said that the ‘precious Lord took her home’. Now, I’m not trying to sound judgmental, I just know myself pretty well at this point and frankly, Michael, if I was on the street begging for food and drink, hadn’t seen my family in years, and was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, I’d probably have some other names I’d call God besides ‘precious Lord’. I’m guessin’ I’d be pretty bitter in my lucid moments, but all things considered, you seem kinda happy and still willing to accuse God of being good. Why?”

“Look,” Michael said, “I took a class years ago, a, uh, a theology class, that’s what they called it and there was such a fuss over deciding where man came from. Was it a theological cause or a, uh, what’s the word?”

“Evolution,” I supplied.

“Right,” Michael said, “What a fantastic waste of energy is what I always thought. I mean whatever the details, it weren’t no accident. I mean, from a baseline of zero, do you wanna be plus one or minus one? The problem is that some people think that everybody owes ’em somethin’ and some people do owe us somethin’, but then you get that somethin’ an’ some folks keep on askin’, an’ more an’ that is just greedy. I mean, the way I see it, the good Lord put us here so we can hear, see, speak, and breathe; it’s the least we can do. It’s when we don’t do that stuff an’ try and ask for more an’ is ours and complicate it all that we get all scuffed up.”

Well that seemed clear enough without having the blinding sheen of a thousand gifts. I thought of the outrageous dimensions of God’s love described in Ephesians 3:17-18, “how wide and long, how high and deep is God’s love that we would be filled to fullness with God.” Michael’s statement poses it’s own questions to us about our love of God and each other: how wide will we hear and listen? , how long are we willing to see? how high, how life-giving can we speak? how deep can we breathe to be filled with the fullness, the abundance of God? Activist and author, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written that “People listen because they see signs of hope.” Michael’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia not withstanding, his clear-headedness about life and God randomly glimmered hope for me where gratitude lists had left me discouraged, rather than thankful, so I chased the glimmer and said,

“Michael, you know one of the things that wears me out?”

He looked at me, shrugging his shoulders.

“I hear people say stuff all the time like how we should all see everything as a gift, how it’s all from God. “It’s all good,” they say over and over and I’m guessin’ they have to repeat it constantly because they’re battling reality in order to hold on to that bull crap. I mean, anyone with two eyes and a tiny bit of honesty can clearly see that it is so not all a gift. If it were all God, if it were all from God, well, there’d be no need of God, would there? People tell us “it’s all good” and then, when we cannot help but see that it most obviously is not all good, we also get to feel somehow less than, somehow less spiritual for not joining them in their denial. Christians’ version of this sometimes sounds like how it’s all a part of God’s plan, grrrr,” I growl my frustration before continuing, “I mean, I really do actually believe that God has a vision, a purpose, and a plan for our lives, but, I’m also convinced that disharmony and division, broken families and broken hearts, violence and cancer are not a part of that plan! Honestly, if there’s anything worse than going through some hardship or heartbreak, it has to be being told that your hardship or heartbreak is really a “gift”; that your pain is actually “good”; and, worse yet, that it’s from some monster God who uses tragedy as the preferred lesson plan.

Apparently unphased by my little rant, Michael turned to look at me directly and asked, “Say, do you know that old story about the man with two sons?”

“Well,” I replied, “I know the parable in Luke about the man with two sons. It’s my favorite.”

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head, “the other story.”

“I guess I don’t then,” I said and Michael proceeded to tell me his version of an old story that it turned out I did know and had repeated myself, the hybrid parable that had been handed down and born originally from the James Kirkwood novel.

“So this old and very wealthy man had two sons,” he began, “and one day late in his life he decides to devise a kind of test for the boys to really, you know, gage their love and loyalty, to really see who they were becoming as men. So the father brings his firstborn to a room, some folks call this a son a pessimist, he brings him to the door of this room and invites him to open the door, telling him that everything the room holds is his. The firstborn son opens the door to this giant room that’s just full of every fine thing he could ever want: wine, women, every new-fangled electronic gadget; just jam-packed full a the finest a everything ever in one room. Well, the son is walking through this maze of luxury just saucer-eyed at what he’s seein’, but then his eyes narrow and he asks his father what the catch is, is something wrong? Was he leaving the boy outta his will?

Well, the old man then brings his younger son to a different door to a different room and explains to his son that all that the room holds is his. The father leaves and the boy opens the door to find a room full of shit; not garbage or trash mind you, I mean, actual shit, manure everywhere; it’s a room packed with manure. The old man returns a good while later to find his son digging through the piles of manure and he asks his son what the blazes he’s doing. The boy, some folks call him an optimist, the boy raises his head and says, “Well, I figure with all this shit, there’s gotta be a pony.”

Now, every version of this I’d heard previously had stopped there, leaving me amused but not long inspired, not shot through with gratitude.

Michael continued, “Now, God love’em, that boy loved his father and knew his father loved him. That boy had faith in the goodness of his father. Most a the time I do, too; that’s what the good Lord asks of us. But, the boy didn’t confuse one for the other. I’ma have faith in God’s goodness and if it ain’t goodness I can know it ain’t come from God. I mean, there ain’t no amount of molding or shapin’ of it that you can do that’s gonna make me mistake shit for a pony.”

“Well said, Michael. Vivid, but well said,” I replied.

New-age priests with tattered Franciscan credentials and pop self-help and even well-intentioned Christian authors espouse non-duality and celebrate that in our modern age that there’s no such thing as sin, but those of us who have both, felt and unleashed it’s willful sting, know better. They encourage us to see it all as a gift, all as good. Michael helped me to understand, to remember more clearly, that there is no call, command, or reason to see everything as a gift when not even God has seen it all as good since the dawn of creation. If it was all good, there’d be no hunger, no poverty, no disease, and no grief. If it was all good, there’d be no need for spiritual warfare and there is such a need for spiritual warfare in the bunkers of our lives and on the frontlines of our world. It’s been said that the best tactic of the enemy is to convince us that there is no enemy and what a success that tactic continues to be. Sometimes small words can pack a wallop of a change in meaning. The Scriptures in I Thessalonians 5:18 tell us to “give thanks IN all things,” not FOR all things. We are called to be thankful from right in the middle of it, but not necessarily grateful for our location in it or, to paraphrase Michael, “We can be grateful In the crap without being grateful For the crap.”

It is almost without fail that it is those of us who can no longer afford blindness who refuse to deny what we see.

We who have been roped off from The Table, the meal, the family, the altar, and the embrace understand the reality of lines, barriers, boundaries, and walls that keep us out from the other side of them. There is no lens pink enough to gauze them away as an illusion.

I looked at Michael and said, “I’m sure glad someone else understands. It sure ain’t all good.”

“No sir,” he said, “it ain’t. But there is grace and even gravy. It’s not all just the other stuff. Guess the math might change, different percent from one day to the next maybe, that’s all. I mean, I’m here,’ he said and looked surprised, “that’s grace. And a young man earlier gave me enough money for a hamburger and I got a snack for later.” Michael nodded to the crumpled ones and the packets of mayonnaise and relish he held in his left hand. “That’s grace,” he said.

“I guess bein’ paranoid schizophrenic is shit, but I try an’ not think about it. Every single test, you know, says that worry is just no good for paranoid schizophrenics,” he said and smiled and I smiled too, thinking it would at least be redundant to be both, paranoid and worried.

“And these shoes,” he continued, “these shoes from the Penny Saver are shit. Heel came right off before I could make it from the store to the curb. But, the Good Book says that one day I’ll see my ma again. That’s gravy.”

“Well now,” he said, rocking himself back, then up to his feet,” I need to go get me a half-pint. Thank you. I had a nice afternoon.” And with that, Michael walked off but left behind generous portions of both, grace and gravy.

– PreetamDas Kirtana
October 6, 2015

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The Blacksmith’s Garden

**Note: This piece first appeared as a guest blog via the kindness and generosity of Zack Hunt on his blog at  http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/  Zack is rather amazing: great heart and humor and lover of Jesus and neighbor (an uncommon & wonderful combination!) You should really do yourself a favor and check out his blog. Just subscribe. You’ll be glad you did. I post this, as I recover from some health challenges and, honestly, it remains a piece that still ministers to me. I hope you find some meaning and blessing here also**

 

The Blacksmith’s Garden – By Preetamdas Kirtana

(H/T)

When I was a child growing up in Pentecostal churches the phrase “turn or burn” meant mouthing a panicked sinner’s prayer or burning eternally in the Monster God’s hellfire. Today as my heart breaks again for my friend, Jerry, that phrase unexpectedly returned to my mind. Less than a month ago Jerry lost his beloved brother suddenly in an accident. Today, just minutes ago, Jerry emailed me that his sister, the remaining half of his spiritual arsenal; his shield that had worked in conjunction with the sword that his brother had been, has received another diagnosis of cancer. And what can I say? “My God,” is absolutely all I can think as the tears well up and trace the paths of their countless predecessors: tears of pain and joy, of loss and gratitude, tears of questions with no answer whatsoever, tears when there are no words left at all. I weep. I cry silently and then I notice a peculiar emptiness.

I don’t know what to do except pray, even if it’s only these simple, desperate words, “My God.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing and that’s where the emptiness is – right there: right where a loud, accusatory, and raging “WHY?!” would have been before. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m not doing at least right now, in just this moment, is not asking why. This leaves this space vacant, empty; this space where previously tough resentment, hard obstacles, and heart-high walls have been hammered into fine, glistening, repellent fashion by a blacksmith of isolation whose every challenge and loss blew like bellows into the toxic fire of “whys” and bitter “One day…” threats. Oh, the smoke from the noxious flames always sent signals of alarm and distressed calls for rescue, but without fail anyone, anyone, even God, who cared enough to get close enough to help, also got close enough to get burned. But now, now a cool wind blows through the blacksmith’s darkened shop and the anvil looks more like an altar. Without the the echo of the hammer and the crackle and spit of the fire I hear “turn or burn,” which, frankly, with it’s brimstone baggage seems like damn cold comfort. But on the next breeze that stirs old ash, also comes a fresh understanding in this hallowed out space. If we can, through resistance and ritual, with white knuckles and bended knee, through sometimes saltine-dry prayers and sobbing surrender, if we can just empty the space, if we can just turn from any and all questions of “why?” even for a moment, lay down the bellows, douse the fire, take off the apron and sit, we sometimes notice, perhaps in the cooler corner opposite the old furnace, a tiny green sprouting intruder of trust. It’s a strange and welcome sight, though more than a little perplexing as all I’ve really known is blacksmithing. I don’t know nothing about gardening.

I’ve grown skilled in burning offenses, glowing hot resentments, cauterized wounds, and throwing relationships like kindling. I know nothing of growing something new and tender green. The wonder of the tiny sprig of trust with it’s reaching roots and the wonder of my own unknowing amid the smell of soot and ash lights this new understanding of “turn or burn.” I can burn with questions of why. I can be consumed by the fires of needing reasons and in believing that in each denial and in every loss that my answers are gone or I can turn toward my complete unknowing, my complete lack of questions and also toward this love that has been likened to a great, Good Shepherd, this gentle, determined Gardner, who asks me, as He asked Mary, with the tomb behind her and the garden before her,

“Why are you crying?”

“They’ve taken my answers and even my questions,” I reply.

But then, in the stillness of the glory of this single seedling of trust, hardly a garden, He speaks my name.

He speaks my name and, like Mary, the Knowing of His Spirit within me springs forth and answers,

“Rabboni! Teacher!”

My Pentecostal training of “turn or burn” left my soul’s only option for vocation as blacksmith but my not knowing is, with bleeding hands and soiled knees, preparing me to be, finally, a Gardner’s apprentice, a Rabbi’s ragamuffin disciple, a faltering, failed, trembling, and faithful child of God.

But without answers and without even questions, how does that help Jerry? What does that leave me to offer my frightened and grieving friend? What it leaves is something better than answers that never helped even when they came. It leaves me brokenhearted, but faithful and willing to weep and wait in the garden outside empty tombs with the brokenhearted and weeping and waiting and to listen for the Gardner, ready to recognize the Teacher, to sit together in our unknowing until Daybreak dries our tears and we feel That Which We Felt Was Lost rise up within us and we know resurrection.

That’s all we have: brokenness, hope, and glory.

– See more at: http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/#sthash.WxURtDn9.dpuf

Cocoon

Cocoon

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.

"You MUST be born again! Huh!," I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister's harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews. I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was  determined  that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire.  Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things:  a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water,  and a handkerchief, or a "hanky" where we were from."
“You MUST be born again! Huh!,” I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister’s harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews.
I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was determined that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire. Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things: a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water, and a handkerchief, or a “hanky” where we were from.”
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!”

“No, Mama!”

“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”.