Job 1:21

“And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

When I was in my first year of college a pentecostal preacher in a one-room schoolhouse of a church told me if I didn’t beg for God (or Christ, the details are hazy there) to come into my heart I would die. “Do or die.” were his exact words.

My family had decided to go to Pensacola to visit my aunt at the last minute, and having nothing else to do I tagged along. A devout pentecostal known for attending church at least twice on Sundays, we were expected to attend church with her. Here the details become hazy again, but I remember thinking we would get to go to the buffet after, so it seemed a fair exchange. At the time I was still a believer, but I was not evangelical. I believed religion should be personal, not some gauche accessory you brandished at people to show how evolved you were.

So anyway, my aunt dragged us along with her to visit a church at which she was a guest soloist. The church was old and composed of one room and a bathroom conveniently located at the entrance of the church. It smelled a lot like urine and sweat. Everyone wore their best except my parents, my sister, my cousins, and me. Decked out in jeans and a t-shirt, I slouched in the back of the church next to my cousin.

At any pentecostal church it isn’t really over until the holy ghost has swept through the building wrestling condemned souls from the bored yet overworked hands of satan, so there was a long period of people being guilted down the aisle to be pressed violently back from the altar. I supposed that if a mild concussion didn’t follow your encounter with christ it didn’t take.

Sometime during the service the preacher received a message from The Lord. He said, “someone in here is in danger. The Lord says “do or die.”” Clearly the person for whom the message was intended was supposed to make their way to the altar and fall prone, begging for forgiveness. My heart began beating wildly in my chest. I wasn’t particularly drawn to Sin, though I had attended my share of parties and underage drinking was involved. But I felt the approximate amount of guilt, so like the others I stared around searching for the guilty party. I remember eyeing my cousin thinking it might be her, since she was obviously much more likely to sin than I. As I was compelling her to the altar with my eyes the preacher shouted “You!” His finger looked like the branch of a tree as it pointed to me. I jumped and pointed to myself, absurdly. “You!” He shouted again.

My first thought wasn’t relief. It was fear. Not the fear of the lord, which I never did master. It was the fear of death. I had carried the fear as a form of anxiety from the time I was twelve. I believed death to be constantly lurking around the corner ready to catch me unaware. To hear that God had Death on a leash waiting for me to not beg him back was terrifying.

On shaking legs not my own I stumbled to the altar, tears blinding me. My heart was beating so fast then it kept pace with the wild music that welcomed the holy spirit.

Knees buckled and fastened to the altar I prayed aloud, “forgive me!”

I wasn’t sure what I was asking forgiveness for, but I asked anyway. When I was released, my soul firmly in check for the lord, I didn’t feel relief. I didn’t hear the voice that told the pastor I was in mortal danger in the first place. I felt humiliation that I had to be called; clearly those present knew the love of the lord and, were it not for this pastor, I would have likely died on the steps of the church.

Immediately after the humiliation came doubt. If God wanted me so badly, why didn’t he ask for me himself?

In the years since that moment I moved from pentecostal to non-denominational to spiritual to catholic to agnostic and now atheist. Or maybe I’m still agnostic.

The anchor that the preacher from the little pentecostal church in Florida cast about my soul is still in me. Occasionally the fear of not doing wraps itself so tightly around my neck it becomes difficult to breathe. At the time of the great humiliation I assumed the “doing” was repenting of all sins and asking for forgiveness and love. Now I question, as everyone questions, compulsory love: if I pretend to love you, will you not hurt me? If I tell you everything I’ve ever done, will you let me live?

Is it blasphemous that, on Sunday, as I do every Sunday, I will take my children to church to pray to a God I don’t believe in?

Is it blasphemous that I have anticipated the questions my children will ask? That I will tell them we live in a world where people hurt you for not being what they want and the God will be the first?

He chastises you because he loves you. No, whomever you love shouldn’t do that because it’s manipulative and wrong. But he who loves you most of all? He will do this and humiliate you because he loves you. He gives and he takes away.

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Infinite: A Letter for William, Beyond the Veil

I suppose I am accustomed to a finite never. That hangover was so spectacular that I will never drink again.

She actually turned out to be quite the bitch, I will never speak to her again.

Now that we make more money we will never make beans and cornbread again.

Never is tenuous and comes with limitations. Maybe I’ll drink if the setting is appropriate. If she apologizes I will consider deigning to grace her with my presence. Perhaps beans aren’t really that bad.

I don’t attend funerals. They are for the living. There seems to be no way to erase the image of an empty vessel from the mind. I went to yours for your mother. Somehow I imagined, naively, that if we were all there we could buffer her from the absence of her own heart. I wasn’t yet thirty and therefore wisdom had not yet settled.

But I went to your viewing. I was late and everyone else had gone. I had to view you alone.

George was with me. He allowed me to clutch his arm. The girls were in the parlor. I didn’t want them to see. Even then I believed–I could hide them from death.

The breath was pulled from my body without warning, but I stayed in my feet. I wanted to touch you but I didn’t. You were darker than you were in life and this bothered me. I wanted you to look exactly the same. I wanted to feel you could have been sleeping.

The music was horrendous. Were I not crying for you I would have been crying for that. It was truly awful. Exactly what you’d expect from a funeral home.

You were surrounded by photographs. You were unmoving. Your chest did not rise and fall with breath.

You were not in there.

I cried aching tears, the kind that seem to bleed when they out. I contemplated my own mortality.

I didn’t eat at your repast. Some years ago Grammy called that sin eating and it has stayed with me. I couldn’t let a single morsel pass my lips.

So here I am months later. In the Catholic Church (yes I am agnostic and yes I do attend church…it’s a long story) the period following Halloween is reserved for contemplation of those we have lost. I wrote your name as one to be remembered on the cloth this morning, and I felt the aching pain again. I was surprised.

You will not come this way again. This surprises me. The fact that this surprises me surprises me also.

It is the infinite never that I do not comprehend. This state without you is not temporary. You will never greet us with your mischievous smile again. We will never hear the tinkling innocence that your laughter never seemed to shed again.

I keep asking George if he remembered standing beside me looking down at you. He does, so it was not a dream. You have crossed the veil, and you do not come back this way in our lives a way that is familiar. We must do life, always, without you.

I placed these words here carelessly. I understand them in theory.

I am snagged by the “never.” Never. I turn again to my phone, waiting for the message that you have been found. Even now I wait for it.

I do not comprehend an infinite never.

Invocation: Pretty For a Black Girl

HERE words form haphazardly, and they are the jagged breath of a dying man. The last one will spray onto the page and its stain will linger, but it will seem that there was more to say. They will be crude and unvarnished and raw, but they will be.
When God was still alive I would have petitioned a favor.

Help me, I would have begged. I would have swallowed thickly and my throat would have ached and I would have felt a deep and abiding embarrassment in my chest; it would have seized my heart and for a moment I would see clearly my mortality, and I would have pressed any negative thoughts past that which I thought God would have seen. My link to hm was tenuous, torn asunder by the mere thought of wrongdoing.

Help me. I would have begged. Please help me write.

I would stare blankly at the page then and wonder if the first words should be a dedication to him, God, if I might be smote to the depths of hell if I did not. But the words I gave before were all that I could muster, and there was never room or word enough for God.

I did not receive the favor. My prayer was too low in my chest, or perhaps he was too high to reach, or, more likely, he had already died. My words, secular though they were, were my own.

I would invoke the muse, had I one. Move in me muse. Sing in me muse. My mind would travel to paradise and I would be lost in it and I would imagine them, the words, erupting like spring blossoms or spilling out like awakened virgins, but when the pen pressed against the page the muse would have gone, or she would have sighed into another missive dedicated to the boy whose eyes locked with mine or the dance that I wouldn’t be allowed to attend.

Here instead I remember yesterday and tomorrow and I grab the words that I know and mourn the loss of ones long gone and yearn desperately for the arrival of ones that will free me.

I will look in the pages beyond and see my body and myself and I will be pretty and intelligent and whole and pretty.