I went to church yesterday. It was the parish's annual Black Heritage Sunday, and also the first Sunday in Lent. The choir I'm in was singing an anthem after Communion, and I treat these occasions to perform as seriously as if I were in a theatrical production -- there is no acceptable excuse, short of dismemberment, for being late to rehearsal, or missing a performance. Plus, one of the basses had a new choir robe, that fit across the shoulders, but was far too long, so I offered to alter it for him. After too many adventures with the sewing machine, I got it hemmed it to the right length, and he needed it for the morning. Obligations, instead of anything more sublime, propelled me down the Garden State at dizzying speeds. Well, and I did want Starbucks too, before getting started...
At about the middle of the mass, there is the opportunity for those in need of healing to come forward, stand at the Communion rail, and receive a special blessing and prayer. I usually use this time to doodle in one of my ever-present drawing pads, wondering how long it's going to take for the priest to make it through the line-up this week. Although I try to dress nicely for church, I must admit that at times, I'm not especially noble.
But yesterday, as I was moving around in the little chapel where my group was sitting, so someone else could go up for a blessing, I realized -- wait -- I've had heart surgery. There's a three-inch incision, healing nicely, along my left collarbone, and underneath that, I'm seeing more clearly, every day, the outline of The Device. I've been telling everyone it's like having a ravioli under my skin, but now, as the swelling subsides, it doesn't look cute and potentially edible at all. So, somewhat to my own surprise, I went up and stood in line with the rest of the penitents, feeling especially conspicuous (a 200 lb man, 6'2" tall, shock of greying hair, and wearing a long-sleeved, ankle-length polyester choir robe, in cardinal red, is not exactly going to "blend in") and fraudulent. Across the sanctuary, the stained-glass windows were back-lit by our unseasonably strong sunshine, and I reflexively scanned these images, partly as a critic -- how wooden the figures in this tableau seem -- why are the colors in this scene so harsh -- but also looking for something. In a kind of low-key panic, I was hoping to find some reminder, a hint of anything at all that would put me in a more 'believing state of mind' -- and fast -- as blessing, posing a different problem altogether, slowly made its way toward me.
Now as I'm sure I've said before, it's not as though I don't believe in things -- it's just that, with respect to that particular ecclesiastical environment, I feel -- oh I don't know -- like a mud pie artist at a baker's convention -- trying to hide my low, crude creations, which are all I can make, and which bear only a very very distant similarity to the colorful football party confections and towering wedding cakes around me.
My beliefs, I think, are more like a vineyard at the end of the harvest -- everything of value has been plucked and taken off, foliage has been stripped, and the year's new growth has been severed. Only some dark twists of apparently dead wood are left, sticking up, in a kind of confused way, out of the dirt. It must be something of a shock, even for plant, to have been supporting any amount of lush, twining growth, and struggling hard to soak in water, and then urgently sending out nutrients to unknowable destinations (what can blind grape roots actually know of their own offspring -- of tendrils and leaves and clusters of fruit, after all?), and then, just when the work begins to seem a little less demanding, there's the slick cut of a blade, and all weight and cooling shelter falls away, and there one stands, wounded, exposed, and not knowing whether healing exists.
When I was a boy, I really was like a grape vine, if you'll excuse me. No, really -- I think that one of my truly remarkable innate capacities was that of belief. I believed like steel -- I believed like a door bolted in three places. I believed like the force of gravity at the bottom of the roller-coaster ride, when you're pushed down into your seat and can barely move. I soaked up the stories that were provided -- I read the lessons, I colored the pictures of the olive trees and the disciples. (I also colored pictures of Lady and the Tramp, and their cute puppies, and the nasty Siamese cats, which I suppose was another, not altogether alien system of belief) I knew, with the certainty that can completely occupy a nine-year-old boy's physical frame, that there was Help. That I could just pray, and Jesus would figure out a way to make things all right. I knew this, like I knew the sun would come up on that October morning in 1955, when we were woken up early, in our new house, surrounded by packing boxes again, even though we'd just moved in a few months earlier. I knew Jesus would help, as we got in the black car and drove off, leaving my mother and sister standing in the doorway, waving.
I continued to know, to know, to just know, that if I prayed just a bit harder, or figured out a better order of the words, that Jesus would surely do something to help -- not just me, but my brothers too, as we tried to make sense of this new place we found ourselves in -- where old women came to pinch us at bed-time, where strange kids gawked at us and called us names, where even worse punishments gathered and crashed over us, like the way we imagined a wave at the beach might do, if we were ever to live to see the ocean in real life. Real life for us, at the time, feature beatings and worse things. Oh, there was church on Sunday. Mid-week worship services, with us younger kids sitting on the wide formal staircase, as the cruel housemother played the upright piano, treating the piano keys with more tenderness than she would ever show us. Rolling chords, simple, reassuring songs, and after all, we were singing to Jesus. And a little while later, being beaten again.
One night, as I lay in my bed, in the windowless north attic alcove, three stories above grey stone porch where visitors would pull up on weekends, I came wearily to a conclusion. I wasn't thinking, in particular, about the 1950 + years that Christians all over the world had been waiting for the Promised Return. I was just nine after all, and had only a nine-year-old's limited sense of time, and a nine-year-old's limited sense of strength, and right then I found myself deep down in a well of confusion and cruelty that was more than I could bear. I had prayed all that I possible could. Not silly praying -- not asking for stupid things like toys or a new car. These were prayers of life and death -- praying for physical safety; praying to know where my parents were; praying to be released from this awful place. But I was still here anyway, lying on my left side, facing the wall. Everything bad still thriving, still firmly in place. So, in the kind of desperate clarity I think only a child can manage to summon, I decided to pray just one more time.
But not to Jesus.
I lay there, on my left side, in the little bed, and I prayed to the Devil. Or Satan, or whatever you want to call whatever you think this entity is, if you believe this entity exists. I surely didn't know myself, at the time., and I really didn't care. I just knew that there were far more bad things than good, for me, right then, and it seemed that, if the Prince of Goodness wasn't going to pay any attention (of course there were better, more interesting boys and girls all over the world), why should I not try to reason with the Force of Darkness itself? Even a bad effort is better than no effort at all. So I lay there, trying at first to locate a genuine sense of connection with... that great Evil Something, and then -- in spite of getting no answer there either -- trying to... to reason? To figure out the possible benefit, for example, of boys being beaten? "Why do you want these things?" I asked. "Do you get pleasure from us getting the razor strap? How could this mean anything to you?" Other related queries arose, as they occurred to me. I never slept well in the orphanage anyway; it didn't matter how long I lay there, half-awake, trying to use all my little mind and my little heart to create, in this overwhelming mass of evil I perceived, just the thinnest possible leading edge of a narrowest blade of compassion -- the tiniest sliver of some relief, for all of us in the Junior Boys, really -- even Danny Reed, who I hated because he was the only boy who could run faster than me. I really believe that, if I had burst into flames then, and left a pile of greasy ash and bone on the cheap green blanket, for the housemother to find the next morning, I wouldn't have cared, if it had made a difference.
Which, as it should surprise no one at all, it did not.
And now, more than fifty years later, I live in a state I never thought of as a little boy, and I'm standing up in front of a crowed church, wearing a long red robe and waiting for someone to come down the line and.... heal me? Are you kidding?
And in spite of my soured expectations, something did happen, it annoys me to say. As I stood there waiting, I had been admitting, incontrovertibly, to myself and to others, that I had been wounded, and that I needed to be helped. That awareness alone shocked me a little, and made me wonder for a moment -- if I am so automatically and even eagerly tender to someone who might need a little help, might I somehow manage to rechannel some of that same compassion, for myself? Even though that feels bad and wrong?
When it really was my turn, for the laying on of hands and the anointing and stuff, something -- another, further thing -- happened. No deep electric jolt (after all, the technician just reset my Li'l Intruder last week, so that shouldn't be happening any more); there were no white lights and doves -- just the keen eye contact between, as it happened, two men: the priest, and me. And the priest himself has just had a medical event himself, so when he gripped my head, he looked at me in a way that, honestly, I would love to have been looked at by my own father, even once. Nothing soppy -- just a clear, acknowledging glance. And then he said a little prayer -- easily, almost inconspicuously, his hands still gentle on my new haircut. It wasn't supercharged, as though he was trying to force anything into me -- he just said a few things, in a familiar petition form, and then he said something smart and fresh and wonderful -- he hoped that this renewed energy he called on, would be used 'recklessly', for creativity. What a perfect word! And exactly what I myself would hope for -- now, and far in the future (really, really far, by the way) -- that I had used my life to create... recklessly.
So, back again, to beliefs, and believing. Reflecting on what I've written in this collection, I'm actually perplexed that so much has been about what I guess I'd call religious topics. And honestly, I had hoped that these bits of writing would be outrageously funny, enough to make someone inordinately powerful decide I need to be on TV, and then soon I would have even more cars than Jay Leno... You know, the usual grown-up, mature mind set of a recent, forcible retiree.
But the challenge of believing is central to me, maybe because I feel I've been in the fitting room, if you will with so many of these prepared religious solutions, only to find each of them a bad fit. What I need, simply, is a dependable means of navigating across the abyss of everyday life, where, in spite of appearances, treachery and betrayal can be behind that hydrangea, or lurking in the lower right ventricle of my own heart. And in the cases of improbable inevitability -- one's younger brother dies, years ahead of schedule, for instance -- what can I take into my hand, to feel steadied for the next few steps?
I would have to say, just for today, that the steadying thing is the nearest person. And that person may well be you. Whether you're sitting next to me on the bus (I've got that story all ready), or standing in line for coffee, or walking to your car with a bag of groceries... Or, sitting in a room I'll never see, reading these words on a computer screen.
I'll try to be of help to you, wherever you are. And if you can, you try to be of help to me, even if I don't look familiar. Doves and earthquakes and fiery chariots are all well and good, but I think this simple pact is enough of a miracle for now, and maybe just what I've been praying for, all along.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman