Friday, April 6, 2012

Two Holiday Stories. Without Bunnies.

For years, I've wanted to observe three hours of silence, from noon until 3 pm, on Good Friday.  I think this desire arose from the superstitious belief that, if I were able to do this tiny bit of... something remotely like penance, I would get extra spiritual brownie points for later on, when I would really need them.  Like now, for instance. 

Much later, I started thinking less about one particular Sacrifice, and more about Sacrifice in general -- the every-day, voluntary and mandated setting aside of individual preference, or safety, or even personal survival, in service of a larger good.  This more constant and wide-spread version of Sacrifice seemed a worth-while topic for contemplation, for a couple of hours, once a year.      

But whatever level or degree of Sacrifice I might want to honor, I never seemed able to work a three hour period of silence into my schedule, no matter how I tried.  After all, even a long lunch only lasts from noon until two.   

And then we arrive, finally, after all these years, to... today.  Where, by some act of magic and/or determination, I managed to get the cat food purchased, and bought some ingredients for my contribution to a Sunday brunch, and made a short, verbally-active visit with some friends, and still got myself back home in time for my personal vigil.  (Actually, when the clock struck twelve, I was at the corner of Prospect and South Orange Avenue, waiting for yet another person to make the illegal left turn, across double yellow lines, into the Rite-Aid parking lot.  But my lips were sealed.  Sour and disapproving lips perhaps, but sealed)

And now, barely half an hour into this longed-for experience, here I am, typing away like mad, because I don't think I can stand it.  It's either this or take a nap.  And what if I talk in my sleep?  So, in an effort at least to keep to the general topic of my failed effort, I'll focus my day's comments on the holiday season, by recounting two personal Easter-tide experiences.  Starting with the relatively recent past...

Well, What Does He Look Like? 

In the spring of 1995, I was one of four artist residents, at a glass-blowing facility in Millville NJ.  It was just a year after I'd graduated with my MFA in glassblowing from RIT, and I had a commitment to  put together a solo show in the spring of 1996, so the timing of this residency was a Godsend for me.  Plenty of time for me to make plenty of glass, and then plenty of time to create plenty of work.

I was scheduled to be in the hot shop, glassblowing, on Good Friday morning.  Even though we had 24-hour access to the facility, and could make as much work as we wanted, I didn't want to give up any hot shop time.  But I was also much more religiously observant at the time, so I wanted to leave the hot shop floor and drive the perhaps two miles into town, for the noon service in the dismal little Episcopal chapel. 

I'd been startled, the first time I went in -- in part because everyone present turned around and gaped at me as I entered, as though instead of being at worship, they were all standing at some country cross roads, and I were a  neighbor's stray cow.  The worship space itself was dark and unkempt, with little natural light, and a high altar backed by three niches filled with lopsided arrangements of pink artificial flowers, lit from the side and underneath by what seemed to be green theatrical gels.  It felt more like a funeral parlor than a church, and struck me as the sort of place where unnatural things could happen at any time, without anyone particularly noticing. 

But it was the only Episcopal place of worship within reach, so I decided it would have to do.  And on this Good Friday morning, with everyone at work, I thought getting there on time would be a snap.

But glass-blowing is an hypnotic, all-absorbing and sometimes unpredictable discipline, and I become fixated on the material and processes as I work.  The heat is practically narcotic.  Contact with the hot glass, via a water-soaked pad of newsprint, charring like a campfire as it shapes this new, emerging object, is compelling and intimate.  As a result, instead of leaving myself an adequate window of opportunity, before leaving for church, to rinse my head and brush off my clothes, I looked up at the studio clock and realized that I was going to be late.  I shut down the glory hole, flicked away the bigger chunks of residue -- wondering why I'd been so stupid as to wear all black that morning, and in the hot shop no less -- and then I raced off. 

I got in the sanctuary door, and found a seat toward the back, just as the little organ up front was wheezing to the close of the first hymn.  As usual, everyone present turned around and stared at me, never losing a beat as they sang of some Christian virtue while looking resentfully askance at this stranger.   Today, perhaps because it was Good Friday, they seemed especially sour and vigilant.

We went through the proper ritual of the service, with the readings, and the Gospel.  Then the priest stood up at the pulpit and posed the question that was the topic of his sermon.  "What," he asked sharply, fixing all present with his piercing gaze, and I thought, looking at me a little longer than the others, "What does... the devil... look like?"  

I looked down at myself.  All in black.  Sweaty black.  With soot in my hair and on my hands.  The smell of fresh smoke curling off me.  And my face brightly flushed from standing for three hours before 2000 degrees of radiant heat -- the intensity of which any reasonable person might well mistake for the fires of Hell.  And if I smelled like this to myself, I thought, the others in this tiny space must think I reek...

The sermon came to a close (I don't think I actually heard a word of what the priest was saying), and if the other congregants weren't actually staring straight at me by then, they were certainly using their peripheral vision for all it was worth.  You could practically hear their necks cracking from the strain of opposing forces.  Now it was time for the confession.  The entire congregation knelt, and as I began to bend my knees, my right leg seized up (not enough potassium?) and I couldn't get down into the proper position of penitence.   I was grimacing in some pain, half standing and half-leaning, while the longest prayer of contrition I'd ever heard spun on and on.   I managed, with some involuntary gasps of pain, to massage my leg back into cooperation.  Communion, which came next, went off without a repeat of this inability to kneel, and since the host didn't burst into flames in my hands, I felt just a bit exonerated.  Still, at the end of the service, I quickly left, fearing that if I stayed too long, I would find myself forcibly escorted to the church basement, thrust into a little room with a heavy wooden door, and locked in irons, after which the priest would run upstairs, to begin his triumphant letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury: 

'Your Worship -- Praise be to God, We've got him!'

Easter Tales, Part Two.  Or, 'A Tisket, A Tasket...'

Long before I was ever a glassblower, I was a miserable adolescent, living the life of a Huguenot in a staunchly Catholic household.  Presbyterianism, as I then understood it, wasn't much of a laugh-riot to begin with; the heavy layering of tacit and expressed disapproval made my Protestantism seem both an obligation and a cruel burden.  Or, character-building, Calvin and Knox would likely have said. 

In any event, the major church holidays in my step-mother's house were times of near-orgiastic paroxysms of preparation.  Ritual house-cleanings, elaborate concoctions of special food only eaten at the very holiest times of the year.  It would be my job, among other things, to help my horrid grandmother with the Easter baking -- a lush experience, certainly, with the scent of butter-laden yeasted dough, rising in great aluminum pots left to sit out on the back porch, covered with dish cloths.  I had to punch the dough down two or three times, until it was ready for her to cut it into chunks, and roll it out into poppy-seed rolls, or walnut cookies.  Which she called by harsh-sounding Croatian names.  I was also given the task of grinding the horseradish -- an operation so noxious that it could only be done outdoors, no matter what the weather -- the fumes were all but blinding.  And we were going to put this stuff in our mouths?  

The special even at at Christmas featured the priest coming to the house, to write the initials of the Three Wise Men on the inside lintel of the kitchen door.  At Easter, a particular large wicker basket would be packed, with a sample of all the various foods we would be eating -- ham, kielbasa, boiled eggs, some of that weapons-grade horseradish mixed with beets, selected breads, cookies, and so on.  This basket would go to church to be blessed, and would then come back to the house again.  As a heathen, I wasn't even allowed to witness this sanctification -- I just knew that my horrid grandmother would make a great fuss when the basket had been returned safe and sound and sufficiently holy.

Usually, my step-uncle Jim, the cab driver, did the honors of taking and returning the foodstuffs.  But one year, my step-cousin Gerard was given the responsibility.  He was really my step-mother's cousin, and he lived with us because his parents were both dead.  I hated him, because even though his mother was dead, he knew where she was, which was more than I could say about my own.  Plus, he was fat and spoiled, and he used to pray for my soul.  Which so infuriated me that I used to twist his arm behind his back, and punch him.  Which probably gave him still more reasons to pray for my soul.  But I didn't think of that.  And probably would have punched him, anyway. 

But on this particular day, Gerard was very pleased with himself, to be trusted with the basket.  I think he took the bus downtown.  The basket was way too heavy to carry on foot, and the church too far away.  I was in the kitchen, scrubbing something, when nearly two hours later, Gerard finally came back.  I'd been hoping he'd been kidnapped, and that we wouldn't be able to afford the ransom.  But no such luck.  There he was, clumping loudly and clumsily up the front steps.

'Boy, church was sure crowded!' he said, as he heaved the basket ahead of him down the hallway and into the kitchen.

My horrid grandmother exploded.  'What did I tell you?; she screamed.  'What the (bad word) did I say to you?'  Gerard looked paralyzed with terror.  'You (bad word) (bad word)!  Can't you remember a single (bad word) thing?'

She took Gerard by the elbow, thrust the basket back at him, and shoved him toward the front door.  'Now, you (bad word) (bad word), you take that (bad word) basket,  you (bad word), and you walk at least one (bad word) time around the (bad word) block, and when you come back up the (bad word) steps and walk into this (bad word) (bad word) house, you had better make (bad word) sure that the first (bad word) words out of your (bad word) (bad word) mouth are 'Christ is Risen!  (Bad word) (bad word) you!'

I enjoyed this greatly, partly because for once, the dainty and sacred Gerard was getting yelled at, and also because I was certain that, under this barrage of cursing and the taking of several really important names in vain, whatever official blessings had managed to stick to this wicker symbol of our Easter meal had been completely scoured away. 

Ah, I thought.  A cursed, pagan feast for us all this year.  Perfect.  Just perfect.

(And now, if I can just keep my big mouth shut for twenty more minutes...)

©   2012            Walter Zimmerman

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