Easter Sunday and the spring rains so desperately needed in this dry Western town finally arrive. I’m on the phone with my former wife but I’m barely paying attention to the conversation, which revolves around our usual battleground topics of marital dissolution: child custody, past due bills, whose lawyer possesses the worst etiquette (we will eventually agree it’s a tie), and the two questions that never go away after a divorce: Who is responsible for this wreck? Who hurts the most?
Out the kitchen window of this listing wood-frame house that holds the dusty apartment where my nine-year-old daughter and I live, I watch the low spots in the dirty alley turn to mud puddles and the mountain maples come to life with the raucous chorus of Bohemian waxwings. I can feel my parched soul crack and fill with a texture resembling wet earth. What’s happening to me? Why can’t I muster my usual anger?
I have no idea where my wife of eight years is but I hear music and laughter in the background. “Hey, are you listening?” she asks urgently, sensing that our conversational rules are shifting to unfamiliar ground. I’m here but I’m not here, is what I’d like to say.
How can I begin to tell her about this cleansing rain? Would it make sense to explain that a personal resurrection is sweeping in with this weather front from Alaska on this holiest of Christian days? That after two dismal years my old self—the more hopeful one before the split—is returning with each precious drop of moisture? The drought is ending. Blossoms. I crave blossoms. I no longer want to be angry. “Hello? Hello? Where are you!?” she yells.
This crawling on all fours out of the cellar of anger into the warm light of sanity was the most painful and personal journey I had ever undertaken. Nothing I’ve experienced is more violent than divorce. Nothing compares to the disappointment of pulling the plug on the most intimate of relationships. Nothing is more gut wrenching than trying to explain to your child why their mother and father will not be living together. Nothing in my life had made me so angry.
We lived then in a small western town with a skyline of grain elevators, church steeples, and steep, wheat-covered hills. Apples and plum trees shaded our yard. We grew vegetables and lipstick-red tulips. I built our daughter a swing that hung from the sturdiest of oaks. Train whistles and bird song punctuated the dry air. I could depend on pheasants calling in March, lilacs blooming in April, and the deep, erasing snows of December. I could never have imagined an unhappy ending to such a life, and that faith would provide a new beginning.
My journey began with a simple request to God, a prayer from an agnostic, who considered the ritual of organized religion too constraining and who, instead, attended “church” alone in old growth cedar cathedrals and red rock temples. “Please restore peace,” I prayed. “Please give my daughter strength. Please give me strength. And, while you are at it, where can I find a good lawyer?”
When I closed my eyes and recited my newfound litany of prayers, I imagined addressing a person stronger than me, someone able to endure endless days and nights of tension, mistrust, disappointment, and abuse. Someone possessing a magical arrangement of words or a secret phone number to call to reach a certain someone who could rescue a drowning family.
At night, when I couldn’t sleep (which was most nights), I imagined and then, over time, felt the hand of this stronger man gently stroking my head, almost like a parent. Amazingly, he said to me, “You are safe. Rest now—there’s nothing else you can do tonight.”
Why I turned to this god (or God) remains a mystery. Perhaps I was like so many incarcerated felons who, when the cell doors finally slam shut, when all plea bargains have been exhausted, and now, in need of a new direction (or a favorable parole decision), they were instantly “born again.” An empty cell can bring about miraculous discoveries, but so can hours spent alone with a tragedy that is, in no small part, your own responsibility.
But I wasn’t born again. When it came to matters of religion I was barely conceived. Still, during this intense period of anger, I was not so arrogant and self-contained as to ignore that, in addition to a good attorney, I needed a spiritual guide that could indeed control my anger and anxiety. So, along with negotiating the messy unraveling of a matrimonial quilt, talking to God also became part of my daily routine.
As exhilarating as anger can be, the flame it produces is too hot to maintain for the long term. The intense heat soon exhausts the available supply of oxygen. For a brief, important period of time, I used the energy from that appealing orb of white heat, and my mind was keen and elastic, able to deal with the twist and turns of a divorce. But that same power supply faltered when I looked into the eyes of my daughter who simply needed a father to teach her to ride a bicycle, or help her with her homework, or just wash her hair. Normalcy was what she craved.
God was with me at work as I tried to lose and distract my mind in the deadlines of a magazine editorship. He hiked with me in the nearby forest of white pine and tamarack; he gave me the strength to prepare dinner when I was too tired to boil water. He led me to supporting friends and healing counselors. And I’m convinced that he kept my anger at a legal simmer when my inclination was quite honestly otherwise.
At times that I’ll never be proud of, the anger returned, like sparks flaring up weeks after a forest fire is contained. But the shovel of time extinguished the smoldering ashes and with each passing year I forgot what it was that had kept me so angry for so long.
My favorite quote regarding faith is by Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is walking as far as the light and taking one more step.” He could have been speaking about marriage, too, or driving a car on a busy freeway or simply asking a stranger for directions. Even though this explanation sounds simplistic I can’t ignore it: I prayed, peace was restored, the rains came, and God remains with me, no doubt in preparation for the next inevitable crisis. I keep seeing the light and “taking one more step.”
The sun peeks through for just a second. A “sucker hole” is what the locals call this temporary, teasing ray of light. But off to the horizon a solid bank of clouds is coming in from the Pacific. It will be days before the rain stops. I’m still on the phone with my ex-wife, who asks. “Well, are you there?”
“Yes,” I reply. “I’m still here. I’m just watching the sky.”
STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of four books of essays and journalism, most recently, Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. He is two-time recipient of a fellowship in prose writing from the Illinois Arts Council and his work has been published in more than a dozen anthologies, as well as Newsweek, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Sun, High Country News, Psychotherapy Networker, Salon, Audubon, USA Today, and dozens more. He has reviewed books for a number of newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star Tribune. He received a Notable Essay mention in The Best American Essays of 2016.
I gave blood for the first time at age fifty-four. I’d wanted to give before then, but at less than one-hundred-ten pounds—the minimum weight required to donate blood—I was too scrawny.
I came from a blood-donating family; both my parents were periodic blood donors. They went about it faithfully, though without fanfare. They felt the same way about giving blood as they did about voting. It was a privilege—as well as a duty—of citizenship. When he hit his fifties, my father had to give it up. He’d faint, or come close to it, after his appointment with the needle because of his low blood pressure. My mother gave blood well into her later years. My sister and her husband both donate when the bloodmobile rolls around.
Over the years, I’d attempted to slip past Checkpoint Charlie, always to no avail. Once, in South Carolina, I even wore my steel-toed boots at the weigh-in, but the nurse—she must have worked in a prison at one time— was on to my tricks. She slapped a consolation sticker (I Tried to Give Blood Today!) on my chest and marched me back outside.
As middle age crept up on me, so did my weight. One fine day, I stood on the scale and looked down. One hundred ten. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a sign at my former church: Blood Drive Here This Thursday. 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The Methodists: “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” Open veins, too, it would seem.
When separated into its components (red blood cells, plasma, platelets, and cryoprecipitate), one pint of blood can save three lives. The goal for this church on this day was thirty pints. Or, potentially, ninety souls.
How appropriate that my first blood donation would happen at a Methodist Church. My father came from a long line of Methodists. His grandparents were Methodists in Sweden before they immigrated to Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Daddy attended a Methodist Church Camp as a boy during the Great Depression. Even his middle name was Wesley, after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church.
My parents met at the Methodist Church in Hopewell where my mother sang soprano in the choir. I was christened there as a baby, attended before my earliest memories. I was married there when I was thirty-seven. But by the time I turned eight or ten, Mom no longer sang in the choir. She and Daddy attended only sporadically, making special appearances on Boy Scout Sunday, when Dad’s scout troop marched the flag in, or if I played my flute for a special hymn. Sometimes, not even then. By the time of their divorce when I was nineteen, my father was an absentee on the membership roles, and my mother was a self-declared atheist.
Except for a brief time in college, and despite my parents’ religious apathy, I’d gone to a Methodist church all my life, even attending as a girl when my parents had stopped. I was a pious little thing back then, though I’m not sure where it came from. I loved the hymns, the advent wreaths, the Easter cantatas. But after all those years, did I still buy the whole bit about the magic baby, forgiveness, resurrection, life after death? For that matter, did I ever?
When I lived in South Carolina in the early 1990s, I attended a tiny rural Methodist church. One Sunday in May, a young college-aged woman stood up to testify. “If a man came in this church right this minute with a gun and threatened to kill anyone who was a Christian, I would stand up and say, Jesus Christ is my risen Lord and Savior.” She continued in her heavy southern accent. “And I wouldn’t be afraid because I believe in life after death.”
Wow, I thought. I wanted to have that kind of faith. It would make things so much simpler. Maybe I just needed to try harder. Pray more. Just keep showing up. Which is how I arrived at Nelson UMC in 1996, after I married and moved to Nelson County. I liked this small church immediately. The choir seemed overjoyed to have another alto. The congregation took on meaningful projects. The men worked on Habitat houses. The women knitted prayer shawls for cancer patients. The members of the church collected school supplies, coats, mosquito nets for communities in need both near and far. Most of the congregation seemed heavily biased in favor the Virginia Tech Hokies (always a good thing in my book). I had found a new church home.
When my mother died in 2008, I took what I intended to be a temporary leave of absence from church. She’d lived two hours away in Hopewell and during her six-month illness, I traveled down there a couple of times a week. Combined with my more-than-full-time job, I was away from home a lot. Sunday had become the only day I had to relax at home with my husband, do laundry, help him with projects, maybe cook supper.
During this time, I missed seeing people in church, and I missed singing in the choir. But Nelson is a small county. I ran into folks in the grocery store, the library, the farmer’s market. “When are you coming back to church?” they’d ask. “When things settle down,” I told them. I would return to Sunday morning worship when things got less hectic.
Worship. Who was I kidding? When you sing in the choir, you don’t have time to actually worship. Right off the bat, you’re looking at the bulletin to see what hymns you’ll be singing that morning, then marking them in your hymnal. Even during the pastoral prayer, you can’t really concentrate because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to end and when it does, you’ve got to chime in with the Choral Response. Will it be the three-fold or the seven-fold Amen? You lean over to whisper to your fellow alto, trying not to make a spectacle of yourself, but because you’re sitting right up front near the altar, you’re doing just that.
There were other problems for me as well. In my mind, a lot of what came after Christ’s life, and always in the name of Christ, didn’t seem consistent with Christ’s message of acceptance, tolerance, and non-violence. In the Methodist church for example, homosexuals are welcome in the congregation, but not in the pulpit. With all the starving and homeless people in the world, why the focus on homosexuality? The Bible makes some references to it for sure, but it is even more clear on topics like adultery and killing, as in Thou Shalt Not. Methodists’ open minds, it seemed, opened only so far.
When we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War. With the Cross of Jesus, Going on Before,” I used to wonder, “Why not Marching as to Peace?” After September 11 and the wars that followed, I couldn’t sing that hymn anymore. I would stand with my hymnal in hand and not even mouth the words. I could barely stomach it when the minister read Psalm 137, ending with “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Jesus must get himself stinky drunk when he sees the twisted ways we’ve interpreted the Bible. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Were there some exception clauses that I missed along the way?
My Sunday school teachers taught me that Jesus is love. The ministers all along the way explained that when Jesus died, he became part of the Holy Trinity— the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. God is omniscient, they said, and omnipotent to boot. I thought about the on-going world condition that included genocide, poverty, and violence. If God was all-knowing and all-powerful, I reasoned, then he wasn’t all good.
I did not return to church immediately following Mom’s death in June of 2008. Dad’s Alzheimer’s had worsened, my sister and I had moved him into an assisted living facility, and I was on the road more than ever. Yet the following Christmas Eve, I attempted a re-entry.
I’d always loved the quiet excitement of the midnight service. Candles lit, poinsettias on the altar, the evergreen scent of the Advent tree. But now a large projection screen hung from behind the altar. Suddenly something like a comet swirled across the screen as though from another planet, and at the end of the tail lay a baby in a manger, as a large deep voice boomed, “And Unto You is Born This Night, in the City of David, A Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.”
“Christ in a bucket!” my mother used to swear when exasperated. Christ on a comet, I thought now. It was too much. I slipped out the back door before the end of the service and drove back through the night toward home.
Life is full of inconsistencies, but here was the real question for me. Could I worship someone or something I wasn’t sure I believed in to begin with? Christian faith. After a lifetime of looking for it, practicing it, even faking it, I had to admit it. I just didn’t have it. What I did have finally was the required poundage, and now another cross beckoned. The Red Cross.
It was raining when I arrived at the fellowship hall to donate blood. The workers were still setting up, and three or four donors were ahead of me as I filed past the greeting table manned by church volunteers. “Given before?” asked a friendly-faced man I didn’t know.
“This is my first time,” I said.
“Good!” said Dawn, a woman from the church I’d always liked. “You’re mine!” She peeled off a sticker and wrote the number 1 on it. She handed me some reading material, and I took my place in a row of seats to wait.
I looked around. This fellowship hall had been built since I’d last worshipped here. Gleaming acrylic floors replaced dull tiles. Brass chandeliers brightened the room, providing cheerful contrast to the gloom outdoors. Though they’d been stashed away for today, I could picture the folding tables and chairs that usually filled this space; could almost smell the fried chicken, garden vegetable side dishes, and vanilla-wafered banana pudding that adorned the counter during the many covered dish dinners I’d enjoyed here over the years. Now this busy place prepared to give sustenance of another kind.
Sanford Shepard, a rising senior at Nelson County High School was seated in a chair beside me, tapping away on his iPhone. He was a babe in arms when I’d first come to this church, seventeen years ago.
“How did your soccer season turn out?” I asked. His picture had been in the paper more than once that spring.
“We lost 2 to 1 in the regional semi-finals,” he said. “Lost to a Northern Virginia school though, so that’s not too bad.”
“Not bad at all,” I agreed. Little Nelson County High School had just graduated one hundred seventy seniors. The Northern Virginia school would probably graduate ten times that number. Then I asked something else that was on my mind. “Have you given blood before?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he said politely, then returned to his phone.
I was impressed. You can start donating blood when you’re sixteen years old, with a parents’ permission. Here he was, maybe seventeen, with multiple pints under his belt.
The Dalai Lama says that kindness is his religion. I’ve been giving that a try, but constant kindness is harder than it sounds. The Bible, the Buddhists, even the Boy Scouts entreat us to be pure in thought, word, and deed. As difficult as it is to constantly do good deeds, that’s the easiest one of the three. Followed by words. I curse and sometimes take the Lord’s name in vain. Even when I try not to, I slip up. If someone swerves into my lane, the first thing out of my mouth is “shit,” which may well be the last thing out of my mouth someday.
But thoughts? How is it possible to maintain integrity in thought? I’m working on it, but it seems an insurmountable task. Mostly I’m thankful that people aren’t mind readers. I remind myself that each day offers a new opportunity to make a new start. To work harder. To try to be better. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.
For me, it was one step at a time. One thought at a time, one word at a time. And in that fellowship hall, I’d joined others who were doing their good deed for the day.
After a bit, a uniformed woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, and who sounded exactly like Whitney Houston when she spoke, led me behind a small curtained enclosure for a “mini-physical.” If I passed it, I could advance to a questionnaire. If that went well, I’d “get the chair.”
I passed the physical—great temp, super blood pressure—but nearly balked at the finger prick. I hated those things worse than I hated needles. It’s practically impossible to sit calmly while someone jabs something sharp into your oh-so-sensitive fingertip. You never know exactly when they’re going to do it, so you try not to anticipate it and pull back, but you do anyway. It’s just dreadful.
I thought of my son, who needed surgery on his arm when he fell off a ladder. And of my other son, who climbs tall trees with chain saws. I thought of my nephew who recently joined the Marines at a time when the nation is at war. And of his brother, who joined the police force at a time when Virginians have never been more armed and dangerous. It is better to give than to receive.
I survived the finger prick.
I breezed through the questionnaire, which contained everything from where I’ve lived over the years (might I have been exposed to Mad Cow disease in England?) to questions about my sex life. I was escorted to a comfortable lounge chair. Whitney Houston swabbed my left arm with brown liquid, waited thirty seconds, then did it again. This time she made Van Gogh swirls until the crook of my elbow looked like an abstract painting, suitable for framing. “My artwork,” she said with a Mona Lisa smile.
I dreaded what came next, that horror of a needle. I made myself look elsewhere.
Elsewhere happened to be where young Sanford reclined, blood flowing from his athletic arm to a bag, nearly full. A boy’s blood.
All the ways young men can and do lose their blood— often in great quantities— flooded my mind. Car crashes, athletic injuries, plain old foolishness. I saw chainsaws, mortar rounds, bullets. Blood everywhere.
“We got it,” Whitney said, and I watched my own blood fill the clear tubing like tomato juice through a crazy straw.
There is no substitute for human blood, and in the U.S. and Canada, we need a lot of it; one person or another needs blood every three seconds. Patients use 43,000 donated pints each and every day. Shortages of all blood types occur during the summer, and winter holidays.
A few years ago, I dreamed about Jesus. He was the Caucasian Jesus presented to me in childhood, fair-skinned with long reddish-blond hair and beard. He was seated under a tree, beckoning small children to come unto him. I don’t remember what else happened except that when I awoke, there was no doubt in my mind—none—that Jesus Christ was the risen Lord and Savior. I had the feeling that I’d found what I’d searched for all my life. The whole deal, it was all true. I retained this assurance, and with it a feeling of joy, throughout the morning.
Then the doubts began to set in. Jesus wasn’t a white man bedecked in spotless flowing robes. He was a roaming Middle-Eastern man who bore more resemblance to Osama bin Laden than the Jesus of my girlhood. My dream must have been more of an aspiration than a visitation. Had Jesus really taken time out of his busy schedule to appeal to my skepticism? My certainty faded. Did I not have the strength to believe, or was it all in my mind? I prayed for the vision to come again, but it never did. Was it a visitation, or was it just a dream? I didn’t know. But over time, I’ve gained clarity on what it is I do believe.
I believe that there are more people who claim to have spoken directly to God than who actually have. I believe that Jesus is among those who actually have. I believe that his practice of embracing the poor, the sick, those disenfranchised by society, showed us a way to be good in the world. I believe what we do here and now is more important what comes after this life.
And what I was doing here, was giving blood. While my bag filled, I recalled so much time spent in so many hospitals. My mother’s cancer surgery, my father’s heart valve replacement, my husband’s adrenalectomy. Our sons, our friends, our families. All those operations. All that blood lost and replaced. It was always there and I rarely gave it a thought.
But I saw it now. My mother and father in a blood mobile in Hopewell. Big city people in line at collection centers. Rural people in country churches. This is my blood, shed for you.
Twenty minutes after I started, I joined other freshly bled people in the recovery area, drinking juice and chatting. Sanford was back with his phone.
I should have asked him how many pints he’s donated in his life thus far. All I knew was that I had some catching up to do. That day, I made a start.
LINDA L. CROWE lives in Nelson County, Virginia, with her husband Kevin, big-hearted dog Tem, and mean-spirited cat Mildred. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Virginia Forests Magazine, Slaughterhouse, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Full Grown People, NPR’s Open Mic, and Studio Potter.
“All the earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic… It has already begun.”
—Arthur Clarke, Childhood’s End
On New Year’s Day, I huddled next to a space heater on the porch as snow piled up on the windowsills. It was four p.m., that dead time between day and night. The utter lack of change blanketed everything, much like the snowflakes that dropped from the sky, unhurried and sticking fast, piling up like days, weeks, and years. It had been a year and a half since Dad died, since I moved back to my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Eighteen months seemed like an arbitrary measure of time; I had been there forever—perhaps I had never left.
I spent some time that day putting together a syllabus for a class I’d be teaching that winter called “The Evolution of Science Fiction.” One the works I most looked forward to teaching was Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In the book, a mysterious alien race called the Overlords descends upon earth and eliminates famine, war, and crime, ushering in a utopia. The humans don’t know the Overlords’ ultimate objective, but it becomes clear they’re trying to prompt an evolutionary leap in the human race—a leap that the Overlords themselves cannot make because although they’re technologically superior, they’re otherwise limited, or, as Clarke puts it, “trapped in some evolutionary cul-de-sac.”
“Evolutionary cul-de-sac” described my feelings about Kalamazoo. I’d already lived nineteen years of my life there, and when I went to the grocery store or to work, I ran into people who’d known me since I was a kid. Even though everything was different now, it was hard to escape the powerful orbit of history. On New Year’s Day, my thoughts solidified into a single goal: I needed to leave Kalamazoo. I needed to continue evolving. The stakes were immeasurably higher than the first time I left home, college-bound, still a kid. In a few months, I’d be turning thirty.
I started a blitz, applying to jobs from California to Cairo. I sent out at a dozen applications each week, waiting for the tiniest nudge in any direction. None came.
Toward the middle of February, we started reading Childhood’s End in the science fiction class. Another line echoed ceaselessly in my mind, an admonition from the Overlords: “The stars are not for man.” I seemed to be sending my CVs into a black hole—most of the time I didn’t even get the courtesy of a rejection. Is the universe telling me that the vast expanse out there isn’t for me? I wondered.
The day Arthur Clarke died, I spent hours in my dad’s office, sometimes spinning around slowly in his desk chair. The shelves were almost empty. I hadn’t yet taken down the pictures that showed us the way my dad had seen us: backlit against a campfire, laughing over a board game at the table, stuffing our faces with chocolate while dressed in soggy Halloween costumes. The family on the wall seemed unfamiliar, as though it could have come with the frames. In the third drawer of Dad’s desk, I found a stack of my own poems. I read them all, as though I’d never seen them before. If I concentrated, if I pushed my brain back through the quicksand of time, I could picture who I had been when I wrote them. That person was gone, yet like the family on the wall, she haunted any space still open to the past.
Clarke’s death felt like an omen. The death of a visionary felt to me like the death of a vision—the death of my vision. I’d expected the job search to be rough, but I hadn’t expected to be still entirely unacknowledged almost four months into the process. Unless I went to a random place on a wing and a prayer, I might not go anywhere at all. Come late May, contracts for the next academic year here in Kalamazoo would arrive; what if I signed one after the other after the other? I envisioned another year, or five, or ten, of unlocking the door of Friedmann Hall’s third floor and entering the same hallway that smelled of sneakers and White Out and microwave popcorn. A universe folding under its own weight.
The months rolled by. Kalamazoo was the last place I’d expected to be when I turned thirty. I still had no leads on a job or a new place to live, no indications of the change I’d been pursuing with increasingly frantic abandon. Was it okay that at age thirty, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, that I was as clueless as a child? Even though I was back at the starting point of my personal history, I felt way off the map. On my thirtieth birthday, I drove to a cabin in the middle of the woods even though I knew my life and everything I wanted to leave behind would find me in the end.
I shivered under my birthday moon and pulled the drawstrings of my hood until it was a small circle around my face. I thought about how Arthur Clarke gave a clipping of his hair to a company that sent it on a three-week suborbital ride to space and then returned, ready for another mission—perhaps a longer, more permanent one. Clarke’s DNA has and will travel to places he wrote about; theoretically, an alien civilization could reconstruct his genetic code. Either way, the stuff of Arthur Clarke could exist indefinitely and infinitely. Could the idea that one’s DNA can be perpetuated far beyond one’s physical body explain the many times I’ve felt Dad’s presence, sometimes uncannily enough to prompt me to look around?
If they have the ability, the sentient races in Childhood’s End evolve to a transcendent state in which they join an infinite consciousness, the essence of all things—the Brahman. When they do, they transcend reason, corporeality, time, and space. When I first read the book, I wasn’t sure what to make of Clarke’s fusion of spirituality and science fiction. Later in life, he ceased believing in what he called “superstition,” but I found my trajectory to be just the opposite.
What if life and death as we think we know them are only two stages of existing? What if spirits or essences can exist in an infinite number of forms not limited to corporeality or to conventional conceptions of an afterlife? Between what we think of as life and death, there might be countless planes of existence or realms where anyone departed from earth could dwell, neither alive nor dead, in some form unrecognizable or unconceivable to us. What if there are actually seven dimensions, or eleven, or twenty-eight, and what if some of them are places or spaces we go when we die? What if Dad, or Arthur Clarke, lingered in such interstitial spaces, uncategorized and uncategorizable, defying nothingness? What if the sense that he’s around me isn’t just me unable to accept that he’s truly gone—what if it’s me sensing his particle waves, the way one senses that a radio is on in an adjacent room?
After my birthday, I redoubled my efforts to move, keeping in mind Arthur Clarke’s second law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” My dad’s diagnosis and death had thrust me into positions I never would have chosen for myself: caretaker, custodian of information I didn’t want to possess, watcher of death. Everything felt impossible, and in some ways still did. But as I became a person I didn’t want to be in a place I didn’t want to be, I also became something I’d had no need to become before—the architect and guardian of hope.
If the universe gives us what we need, rather than what we want, then the story of my life—or at least my perspective on that story—changes. There had to be a moment that changed everything. There had to be a place to leave, a life to leave, a me to leave in order to go back to Kalamazoo. And there had to be a Kalamazoo to leave in order for me to rebuild and evolve. There had to be a time and place for me to decide to make my life about something other than Dad’s death.
At the end of May, I got an email from Emerson College about an adjunct teaching gig. I booked a ticket to Boston and sent my resume to every college and high school in the city. A week later, I got on a plane and then spent five days lugging a suitcase to job interviews and to apartment showings. I put all my eggs in that basket. One doesn’t make it to the stars by playing it safe.
Dad would have been excited at the prospect of my moving to Boston—he had taken us there on a family vacation when I was nine. I allowed myself a brief fantasy of walking down Massachusetts Avenue with him, past Harvard and MIT, pausing on the bridge to look at the sun glinting off the State House. Whatever place I next inhabited, he would never visit me there. That thought slayed me, but at the same time, I felt curiously liberated. For the first time since he died, I felt like a real person with hopes and dreams and a future that made my stomach buzz with excitement. Was it possible that after all this time dizzying myself with the unanswerable why, Dad’s death could take on meaning if I looked at it as a catalyst for evolution?
Childhood’s End depicts the evolution of children into something beyond human. My evolution wouldn’t be that dramatic, but I had the distinct sense of being catapulted beyond my parents, especially my dad. And ultimately, isn’t that the point? Aren’t our predecessors supposed to pave the way for substantial movement, for progress? I hadn’t merged with the Brahman, but I was no longer the person I had been and was afraid I’d always be.
The day before I moved to Boston, where three part-time jobs and apartment awaited, I finished cleaning out Dad’s office. I boxed up the pictures and slid the nameplate out of the holder. The empty office seemed not to belong to this world, as though it was a place in limbo, waiting to be filled. It wasn’t clinging to my dad, his belongings, or his memory. It was time for Dad to inhabit some other place, and it was time for me to do the same.
On Wednesday nights at the Boston University observatory, I look through telescopes at Venus, Mars, and sometimes Jupiter and Saturn. I imagine Arthur Clarke’s DNA on an endless voyage. As I look at our solar system, a tiny parcel of space, it’s clear that time and space have only as much sway as I allow them. They, like everything else, can be modified and adapted. Arthur Clarke is right—death can beget life, and extinction can be evolution: “There lay the Overmind, whatever it might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba…Now it had drawn into its being everything the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment.”
In this universe, my dad still exists. In this universe, there is room for the me that is six years old, still sitting on my dad’s knee, the me that tangles with the transition between life and death and back again, between then and now, and the me that believes that three dimensions are only the beginning.
JOELLE RENSTROM is a freelance writer based in Somerville, MA. Her collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in August; a version of this essay appeared in it. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. Her work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, and others. She teaches writing with a focus on sci-fi, AI, and space at Boston University.
David arrived at our house in an oversized raincoat. He’d brought a magazine for assistance; it was somewhere in the folds of that big coat. My partner Karen handed him a jelly jar, and we agreed that when he was finished he would put a candle, unlit, in the front window. Karen and I left him to his magazine and walked down the block. The day was pleasant for a Halloween in Seattle. We kicked at dry leaves heaped along the sidewalk and laughed at the strangeness of the situation, how we were waiting for David but trying not to imagine what he was doing, how none of the residents of the neighborhood could have guessed what we were waiting for.
After about fifteen minutes, the candle was in the window. As we went up the walk, I sang that Rocky Horror Picture Show song about a light in the darkness. Karen and I smiled giddily at each other, then stopped smiling so as not to spook David. I tried to act normal as we entered, not avoiding his eyes but not staring either. He was already wearing his coat. From its depths he pulled out the jar, wrapped in a washcloth to keep it warm. We thanked him. He raised his eyebrows and went out the door.
Karen and I had been together twelve years when I finally agreed to have a child. We had been moving around the country for jobs and graduate school since we met in 1985, and finally we had settled back in Seattle, my hometown, with solid jobs, mine at a community college, hers at the public health department. We bought a house. I could think of no more reasons to wait.
I’d never felt an urge to have children, but Karen always had. Still, when I agreed to try, I also agreed to carry the child because of Karen’s health complications. If anything, pregnancy and birth sounded cool to me; dealing with a toddler didn’t. I put one big condition on my agreement: I wanted a known sperm donor, not an anonymous one. He didn’t have to be actively involved in the child’s life, but I wanted to be able to show the child a picture and say, “This is your father.” I was squeamish about putting a stranger’s semen in my body, not for fear of disease—the latest testing procedures seemed reliable—but because I needed to know who I was communing with on a cellular level. I needed to know what he looked like and how he talked, what he cared about and how he treated people.
After spreading the word to our friends, Karen and I found our donor in a writer I’m calling David. He had gone to graduate school with a good friend of mine, Wendy, and wasn’t attached romantically. He was interested in helping us because neither he nor his brother had had children, and they probably never would. Although he didn’t want to parent himself, he liked the idea of his family’s genes continuing on. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was living in California now, not Seattle, but we were willing to pay for his flights up, and he liked the idea of free visits to a city he loved.
David was funny and self-deprecating, which suggested a sweet vulnerability underneath. I liked him immediately and grew to feel a brotherly fondness for him. Although we didn’t have a relationship that allowed for this, I often felt the urge to lay my head on his shoulder and nestle into him.
After discussing expectations, drawing up contracts with lawyers, having medical evaluations, and charting my ovulations for a number of months, we were ready in late-1997 for the first insemination.
David left that Halloween afternoon, and Karen and I sighed, glad to be alone. In the bedroom, I shimmied out of my pants and lay down, feet up on the wall. My doctor had given us a catheter syringe and tubing, and Karen put the syringe in the jar to suck up the semen. We both squinted at the jelly jar. It had been a long time since either of us had seen that liquid. It was oddly translucent, not milky, and there didn’t seem to be much. Karen wrinkled her nose, but I was fascinated. So much intrigue surrounding such a modest substance.
Karen was having trouble getting the semen into the syringe. “Maybe a smaller jar would be better,” she said.
Finally, she got what she could into the syringe, inserted it into the tubing, and pushed the plunger. I felt nothing, not even an ooze. And now I was supposed to wait, feet on the wall, for twenty minutes. Karen sat on the edge of the bed, keeping me company. It was exciting; it was nice. I felt engaged in something purposeful and good.
The next morning I was a wreck.
At the same time that Karen and I were trying to have a baby, I was casting around for a new writing topic and was drawn to the story of my great-great aunt, Ruby Jane Hall Thompson, a woman long dead. She was very large, which had earned her a nickname derived from the town in Idaho where she lived: “Lewiston,” as in “Here comes Lewiston.” It wasn’t a nickname she knew she had; my father told me his uncle used to call her that.
Ruby Jane was a Christian Science practitioner. At first I didn’t know what that meant, but I learned that a practitioner was a kind of faith healer. Christian Scientists, as I understand it, don’t believe that matter exists; our true reality is the spiritual. Believing in God means recognizing the false nature of the material world, including sickness and disease. Practitioners help Christian Scientists pray through their self-induced periods of sickness and back into right alignment with God.
What drew me to Ruby Jane was the idea of being related to a larger-than-life mystic, a western Idaho healer. I imagined Lewiston in the early twentieth century as a desolate, wind-swept town, and I imagined Ruby Jane there exerting her power in one of the few but classic ways available to women: as a kind of witch. My novel would be gothic, magical realist. I began to research Christian Science.
Mary Baker Eddy, it turned out, is the only American woman to have founded an influential religion. Born in 1821, she had health problems throughout her life, and in her ongoing quest for relief, she finally hit on the principles that would inform her famous book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy must have had tremendous determination, skill, and charisma to self-publish this book, teach a growing legion of followers its principles, and start the church in 1879. By 1894 she had erected the church’s first building. By 1908, when she was eighty-seven, she had started the Christian Science Monitor. Thousands of people still attend her church. On Wednesday nights, they gather to tell stories of miraculous healing.
That the church was started by a woman, and that it is peculiarly American, with its focus on optimism and boot-strapping, made it all the more fascinating. My great-great aunt Ruby Jane was born while Eddy was still alive, and the founding mother must have been a thrilling model of what a woman could be. Indeed, the church is quite female-centric; the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father-Mother.” I imagined Ruby Jane as an ancestress of power and wisdom. I would go in search of her.
When the inseminations began, I had been on Prozac for a year. After a decade of attempting to manage my many bouts of anxiety with meditation, hypnosis, exercise, and therapy, I had given in: Give me the drug. It worked, to some extent. Going on Prozac felt like finally taking an aspirin after a life-long headache; suddenly I could see more clearly and function more smoothly. As Karen and I began talking about having a baby, I researched the influence of Prozac on fetuses. Although there was a small risk of damage, many researchers said that the risk of depression was equally bad if not worse, so it was hard to say whether a woman should stop taking the drug. I decided not. Still, sometimes it didn’t seem to be helping.
The morning after insemination, I felt as if I’d mainlined fear and shame. What if the donor is infertile? What if he has HIV after all? What if I get pregnant and it feels like an alien sucking at my insides? Why do Karen and I have to share such an intimate act with a stranger? Why do I have to hold such a humiliating position against the wall? What is this body that used to be mine?
I did everything I knew to reduce the anxiety: writing down my fears, giving myself pep talks, going to yoga, working out. As usual, the tension would take days to dissipate.
Nine days later, I got my period. Maybe we mistimed my ovulation or maybe my cycle was weirdly short that month, but we were using an ovulation predictor kit and monitoring my cervical fluid, although it was often hard to read. One of the challenges of the process was predicting ovulation with enough accuracy to get David on a flight in time to be at our house during the fertility window. He hated to fly, and as the months went by and I didn’t get pregnant, his fear ballooned. He came off the plane each time sweaty and weak, which couldn’t have helped his sperm count.
In December, I made a chart of the logistics: David was arriving on Thursday. Whether the ovulation kit was positive or not, we would have to inseminate. If the kit was positive on Friday, then pregnancy was still possible. If it wasn’t yet positive Saturday, then we had wasted the month. What were we doing? Had my demand that we have a known donor doomed us to fail? Did I really want a child?
One of the terms from Christian Science that captivated me was “malicious animal magnetism.” The idea of “animal magnetism” was around in the nineteenth century, and Eddy added the word “malicious” to the phrase. It’s a way of describing evil, and in Eddy’s theology, evil always comes in the form of bad thoughts, that is, thoughts that contradict or undermine God. Therefore, people’s thoughts can be corrupted by malicious animal magnetism. In her memoir about growing up Christian Scientist, Blue Windows, Barbara Wilson calls malicious animal magnetism the “repressed madness” inevitably created by a church that focuses so relentlessly on the positive. She says Eddy was paranoid about competing healers and used the phrase to refer to their attacks on her.
The idea of evil as something tempting and animalistic somehow makes it less frightening to me; it’s not deliberate but subconscious, a feeling that sweeps one up and makes one do things. It’s the evil wrought by a scared cat, lashing and hissing from a corner. When the fear passes, the cat retracts its claws.
My anxieties seemed like a form of malicious animal magnetism. And like the Eddy cure—which was thinking right thoughts—various authors, doctors, and therapists had suggested that I write down my thoughts when I felt anxious and analyze them. So I did: It was obvious that I was afraid of having a child. But I was also afraid of not having one. And I was afraid that my anxieties about having or not having a child would hound me throughout the entire insemination process. In other words, I was anxious about anxiety. This was ridiculous. Surely it was normal for a woman embarking on a pregnancy to be afraid. I needed to accept the uncertainty of the situation and relax, let the cat retract its claws. Of course, relaxation was easier said than done. Maybe what I needed was a practitioner.
The following June, I skipped insemination to go to Boston on a Christian Science pilgrimage. I saw the Eddy monument in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I listened to a tour guide at the Mother Church talk about why she wore glasses; she wasn’t spiritually advanced enough yet not to use them. I walked through the Mapparium, the stunning, three-story, stained-glass globe made in the 1930s of over six hundred glass panels. I wondered if Ruby Jane had ever seen it.
One afternoon I sat on the outdoor patio of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, reading the copy of Science and Health I had picked up in a used bookstore. Men played chess nearby, and pigeons strutted beneath the table. According to Eddy, prayer should be silent; loud prayer excites the emotions. Prayer as it is often practiced is not that useful; it tends to make us hypocrites, as we promise God things we can’t or won’t deliver. In any case, God knows our thoughts already.
This conception of prayer sounded sensible. Prayer should be silent, like the silence I was trying to coax out of my body through yoga and meditation. I shouldn’t make promises to be less anxious, just strive to be. One of my yoga teachers said, “You don’t breathe; the world breathes you.” Replace “the world” with “God” and the phrase would mesh with Eddy’s philosophy.
Indeed, it was striking how Eddy’s ideas dovetailed with so many of those made by the books and therapists who had tried to soothe me over the years. In a book on meditation, for example, the author said that he noticed a small lump on his neck and started to worry. The lump had been there for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed it that he became afraid. In other words, his mind made him afraid, not the lump. Eddy would have concurred. She would have gone further and said the lump didn’t exist. Still, Eddy and this author shared a common solution: Stop thinking about it; think of something else.
I drank my coffee, listening to the chess players smack their timers. Maybe Ruby Jane could help me. Maybe I could conjure her when the fears threatened to overwhelm. Or when I was lying there, feet on the wall, willing the sperm to dance on up to the egg and get introduced. I didn’t have to become a Christian Scientist to recognize the value of positive thinking. Or to mentally rely on my ancestress, the faith healer.
In July, we seemed to have timed the insemination just right. My mucous was stretchy; the ovulation predictor turned a positive shade of blue; David was punctual. But I didn’t get pregnant.
In August we agreed to try one last time. By now we weren’t awkward with each other, even as Karen and I returned from our walk. David could get his part of the job done in nine minutes. We opened the front door, and I joked, “My man!” He passed over the jar.
This time, we all knew that I probably wouldn’t get pregnant with David’s sperm. We smiled tenderly at each other, hugged. We said goodbye. Karen and I went into the bedroom, and I put my heels on the wall. All weekend afterward I cried and moped. It felt as if someone had died. I was sad for us, sad for David, sad for what could have been.
On Wednesday, I got in the car and drove the five hours from Seattle to Lewiston, Idaho. The trip took me through an area of southeastern Washington called the Palouse, a surreal landscape of undulating brown hills that rippled to the horizon. Driving through them was like winding through a maze with no obvious exit. Once I had emerged from them, I confronted the Lewiston Grade.
Lewiston is at the bottom of an abrupt two thousand foot drop from the plateau of eastern Washington to a valley where the Snake and Clearwater Rivers converge. The highway built in the 1970s smoothly descends to the city, but the old highway, called the Lewiston Grade, sweeps back and forth in sixty-four curves, an engineering marvel of its time. Both my parents, who grew up in the region, remember sickening ascents and descents of the old highway, so of course I had to drive into Lewiston that way. The disconcerting series of switchbacks, a trip Ruby Jane must have taken many times, made for an atmospheric entrance to Lewiston.
After checking into my motel, I went to the public library and found Ruby Jane listed as a practitioner in a 1941 phone directory. It gave me her address, and I drove to her house, a modest, two-story structure near the cemetery. The church she attended had been abandoned for a new one in 1965, so I couldn’t see it, but I still wanted to attend a Christian Science service in Lewiston.
I entered the church that evening hesitantly, wearing a dress purchased for the occasion—I didn’t otherwise own one—and hoping not to attract too much attention. A dozen people, mostly women, were sitting in blonde pews. I took a spot in the back. The early evening sun saturated the colors in the glass panes: red, purple, and an earthy, 1960s orange-brown. On the wall hung two quotes, one from Eddy—”Divine love always has met and always will meet all human needs”—and the familiar “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
I had timed my trip to be here for the Wednesday night service, traditionally devoted to testimonies of healing. I wasn’t prepared for the coincidence of the evening’s topic: reproduction. A man sat at a card table in front of the pews and read passages from the Bible and Science and Health, passages which I later learned are chosen by the Mother Church and read at every service on that day throughout the Christian Science world.
One reading expressed the idea that children are not created from matter but from idea/mind. I listened, looking down at the place where my belly would swell if I were pregnant. If Ruby Jane were still alive, and if I had the courage to explain the inseminations to her, she would probably have said that my failures until now had been my fault, that I hadn’t believed enough. It was true that I had trouble believing I would get pregnant; it seemed fantastical that a child could coalesce out of cells swarming in my fallopian tubes. But hadn’t I done all I could, given the circumstances?
The reading went on, contending that parents must take as much or more care planning their children as they would propagating crops or breeding livestock. This language was straight out of the eugenics movement, a popular effort in the early twentieth century to “purify” the human race; it used the cover of science to mask its racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant intentions. If I had needed some prompt to help me better imagine my great-great aunt’s time, this was it. Ruby Jane had probably believed in eugenics, and she would have been horrified by my request for help with my fertility. Not only was I a lesbian, but the father-to-be was the son of immigrants. Better, she might have said, to let this opportunity pass.
I listened with growing skepticism to the testimonials that followed the readings. One woman got over a headache by reading the Statement of Being. Another said she had been praying about the recent bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. She didn’t like Muslims—Hindus were okay—but she was trying to love universally.
A third woman said her child had felt fine during the week but something strange had appeared on her face. The girl didn’t understand why she couldn’t go outside to play. The mother put her in front of the mirror and said, “Do you want people to see you like that? No? Then you will stay inside until you look the way you want people to see you.” Surely the girl had chicken pox. And surely the mother knew she was contagious but couldn’t admit it. What a twisted way to deny disease.
My romantic obsession with my great-great aunt ended right there. Ruby Jane was probably only as wise as her time and place allowed; we probably wouldn’t have liked each other. At least, we wouldn’t have agreed on much. I had come to Lewiston to learn the truth, and the truth had set me free.
My period arrived that month as usual; I would never get pregnant. I continued to work on a novel inspired by Christian Science, but it would go nowhere, even when I ran across the story of a woman, a contemporary of Eddy’s, who got pregnant when her husband was out of town and claimed Eddy was the father. A lovely twist on lesbian insemination.
Karen and I broke up a year later, for reasons unrelated to the pregnancy attempt. As I tried to understand why I had gone through insemination despite a lack of maternal urges, I came to understand that having a child with David, friend of Wendy, was a way to create an extended family, whether the members of that family were genetically related to me or not; I wanted us bound to each other, loving unconditionally, the way families are supposed to be.
When I considered the pleasures of childrearing, they weren’t what most mothers probably think of first: the cuddling, the joyful giggling, the birthday glee. Rather, I was thinking of a community of relatives and friends joined by the connections among our children. I imagined sharing coffee with other parents while our children ran in and out; imagined barbecues and croquet games and badminton; imagined roving holiday feasts. What I was remembering was the community my parents had made at a midwestern university when my father was on tenure track there. The most fun I ever had was darting through the parties of drunken academics, like the summer party where the associate dean roasted a sheep in his backyard or the winter party where the anthropologist taught me to fold wonton skins. That is, it wasn’t a child I wanted but a community, and my insistence on a known donor was related to that desire.
My obsession with Ruby Jane was related, too, to a desire for connection, one that stretched back through time and ancestry. She represented a visionary woman, someone on whom I could call for strength and clarity. But ultimately, I realized that whatever genetics we had in common, we probably didn’t have much else.
Some years after my last insemination attempt, Wendy called one June afternoon to say the baby had almost arrived. I raced to the hospital and ran into the room just a few minutes before Eva’s little head and gangly body emerged. The midwife handed Eva to Wendy’s husband, and we all smiled, breathless and awestruck. Every year thereafter, I have been invited to Eva’s birthday party. And the children run in and out, and the adults drink wine, and the party goes on well into the evening.
ALLISON GREEN is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (Ooligan), and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Calyx, The Common, and other publications. Web site: allisongreen.org.
From the second I read the subject line of the email—“More Information Regarding Your Apartment Check-In!”—I felt queasy. Having spent weeks looking for a one-month rental in New York and only finding places that were booked, bleak, or insanely expensive, I’d gotten used to the idea that our plan wasn’t going to work. But then, just minutes after requesting information about a beautiful apartment I found on craigslist, Gibbson’s response popped into my inbox:
Hello tobin! i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment! I will be more than happy to keep and maintain the place for you on your arrival. The cost for a month will be $3000 and i am willingly and ready to give you discount of $600 so you are require to pay the sum of only $2400. You are require 50% of the total fund ($1200) to secure the dates you have chosen also a security deposit of $200. You are require to pay $1200 + security deposit of $200 = $1400 the total fund to pay to secure and book the dates for you will be $1400. The apartment is much available so you will need to give me more information with the exact date that you will be checking in so that i can book the date for you to avoid other people to book for the same date, i do not like disappointment so i will be more than happy to know the exact date for check in so that i can keep and retain the place for you and your wife. Here is the link for more information or pictures https://post.craigslist.org/manage/1275981629/368jey.
I will be glad to hear from you asap. Regards Jeff Gibbson
This was way too much information for me to take in all at once: we already have the apartment? We’re getting a discount? But we need to send the deposit right away so no one else books it first?
Part of my queasiness was sticker shock: after all, $2400 for a single month’s rental was a lot of money and I am more than capable of feeling buyer’s remorse even before I buy; still, we knew from the start that this “small-towners spend a month in the big city” experience was not going to come cheap. No, there was something besides the cost that was making me feel like I was being pulled into a bad dream.
And that’s when I had to confront an uncomfortable question: was I really so petty (or, worse, so prejudiced) that I was bothered by a few uses of non-standard English, by the fact that this Mr. Jeff Gibbson was clearly a non-native speaker of English? Even while I knew that this might be what was bothering me, I deeply hoped it wasn’t. After all, I was by temperament, politics, and occupation (I teach college students how to write) conditioned to be sympathetic and open to struggling writers, including non-standard speakers of English and so I knew it would be illogical, un-PC, and flat-out unfair to draw any negative impressions or inferences about someone’s character based on a couple of unusual idioms. I could painfully imagine how well—or how poorly—I could write my own version of that same letter in my pitiful, supposedly “reading comprehension” French (“Bonjour, Gibbson, Je suis tres joyeux…”).
But there was more than an inelegant turn of phrase that made me nervous about Gibbson’s note; there was also his unsettling eagerness. I knew from all my fruitless searching that there was a seller’s market for what Gibbson had to offer, so why was he so amped up about my interest and so eager to close the deal right away? There was his almost spell-inducing listing and repetition of prices and numbers. And, still more disconcerting, there was his assumption that my request for info about availability and rates was actually a commitment: “i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment.” I was certainly interested in his place or I wouldn’t have written him, but what’s love got to do with it? And why had he already moved on to the details of our check in?
All of this seemed to add up to a not-so-subliminal message: act right away or you will lose out. Even the supposedly reassuring phrase—“the apartment is much available”—seemed intended (from the rest of the sentence and paragraph) to convey the very opposite—the idea that the apartment was not much available but was, in fact, in much demand and, therefore, required an immediate commitment and deposit.
And, finally, there was that ominous-sounding phrase—“i do not like disappointment.” Wasn’t that a wise guy’s understated way of saying “Disappoint me at your own risk; I’m not messing around here”?
Here are two facts about me: one, I have almost never been conned or even pushed into a bad deal. Two, I walk around the world with my own little personal homeland security advisory system and—like the government’s post 9/11 Homeland Security Advisement System which keeps its terror warning constantly high, even in the absence of any known or immediate threat—I normally run somewhere between yellow and orange. In other words, skepticism is my default mode; introduce the slightest bit of suspicious behavior and I start trending towards red alert. For all of my life I’ve connected those facts. I’ve believed that I never get conned because I’m always on guard, always reading between the lines, always fearing that every subtext has a sub-subtext. Determined to avoid the double pain of a material loss followed by a how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid? blow to my ego, I’ve always reacted to every offer that sounds good by telling myself that it sounds too good to be true.
Clicking on the link to Gibbson’s apartment for maybe the fiftieth time that night, I saw that he had just added a new link: “More pictures of apartment.” Looking at one of the additional shots, I had a sudden sense of déjà vu: I was certain I had seen that photo before. And, in fact, it only took me a few minutes of scanning through my bookmarks to find that very photo in an ad for an apartment on a website that advertised short-term home rentals. But weirdest of all, except for the photos and the opening line—“An elegant apartment in a top New York neighborhood”—nothing from this ad matched up with the craigslist ad. The owner was listed not as Jeff Gibbson, but as Jack Marsh; the apartment, according to the availability calendar, was already rented for the entire fall; and there was nothing about any $600 discount.
So whose apartment was this, anyway? I decided to email Gibbson to see if he could clear things up:
Hello Jeff. Thanks for sending me that information about your apartment. I am interested but I have a few questions: First, I saw an ad for the same apartment on another website and on that website it says that the apartment is already rented for September. It gives the owner’s name as Jack Marsh. Are you renting the apartment from him? And do you have his permission to sublet it to someone else? If so, could I speak with him, too? Finally, if I came to New York in the next few days, could you show me the apartment? I look forward to hearing from you soon.
This time, Gibbson didn’t answer right away; in fact, this time he didn’t answer at all. Not wanting to lose the apartment, I decided to email Marsh directly. Within the hour, my phone rang. “Hello, Jack Marsh here. You emailed me?”
He was calling to say that the apartment I had seen online was already rented but that he had another apartment which was available for September. He gave me the address of the link so I could look at it while we talked. This available apartment —“we call it ‘The Miller,’” Marsh said, “because the playwright Arthur Miller, you know, from Death of a Salesman, he once lived in it”—looked nice enough. The problem was that the Gibbson apartment looked much nicer and had, off the living room, a beautiful, little terrace with two appealingly-angled Adirondacks chair and a little wooden table where we could place our hot coffee or glasses of red wine while we read novels and the Sunday Times. I realized that I wasn’t ready to give that up.
“But is the bigger one available as a sublet?”
“No. I never allow subletters.”
“Well, I think your other apartment might be available as a sublet; I saw it advertised on another website for September rental.”
“It must have been an old ad.”
“No, I saw it yesterday. And actually I’ve been emailing with the guy who placed the ad.”
“Oh,” he said, clearly confused. Then, just a beat later, he said “Oh” again. But this time he didn’t sound confused it all; he sounded like he just figured something out. “The ad you saw? It’s is a scam; it was put on craigslist by a con artist pretending that my apartment is his.”
“But he had all those pictures of the apartment.”
“Yeah; they just copy ’em. It’s simple enough for them to do. Hey, could you send me the link so I can email craigslist and get his ad taken down?” Clearly this whole experience was easier for Mr. Marsh to shrug off than it was for me.
“Wait, so the reason his email sounds so different than his craigslist’s ad is that he used your words in his ad but he used his own words in his email?”
I was still a little shocked at how easily I’d almost been fooled and still a little heartbroken that we apparently weren’t going to get the terrace or the discount.
Still, the smaller apartment looked nice enough online and nice enough in person, too, when, after I took the train the next day down from my home in Maine to New York, Mr. Marsh showed me around. In fact, after the Gibbson debacle, it was enormously reassuring to deal with the ultra-professional Mr. Marsh. No strong pressure to take the apartment from him; in fact, he was in all ways the anti-Gibbson. As he walked me to the door, I said that I was almost certain we’d take it but that I wanted to go home to talk and think about it with my wife. Could he hold it for a few days while we decided?
He smiled and shrugged. “Well, I can’t officially hold it: my policy is always to rent it to whoever puts down a deposit first. But I haven’t even advertised it much yet for September so it should still be available once you decide.” Feeling reassured, I was halfway out the door when Mr. Marsh said in an offhanded way, “Except I guess I should mention one other thing: the tenant in there now, he has a friend he’s been trying to talk into taking the place after he leaves. So I guess the sooner you tell me, the better, since I’d hate to have you call and be disappointed.”
I’ve got next-to-no interest in run-of-the-mill hucksters—the car salesman trying to talk me into undercoating the undercoating, the Jehovah’s Witness wanting only a small donation to save my soul—but for some reason, I am captivated by the Nigerian princesses who email me from their hospital beds or prison cells or hospital beds in a prison cell to tell me that their dying wish is to make me the recipient of three million Euros if I will only agree to be the executor of their entire fortunes that otherwise would go unclaimed since all of their families have been banished or murdered, or murdered and then banished.
In fact, the more complicated and creative the scam, the more preposterous and chutzpah-laden the pitch, the more likely I am to give the scammer my grudging respect. How else to explain why, twenty years after the fact, I still find myself thinking about the time that my wife and I once agreed to tour a time-share complex in exchange for a nineteen-inch color TV, two free airline tickets to Hawaii, or a “secret prize worth over $500”? The tour turned out to be less awful than we feared—the complex actually looked surprisingly nice—but, by the end, our two young daughters were getting antsy and we were more than ready to collect our gift and hit the road. That’s when we were ushered into a little cubicle in a big room surrounded by many other little cubicles, and the hard sell began.
As the salesman kept dropping the price thousand by thousand, I just kept repeating: “We have absolutely no interest; we just want our free prize.”
But like Sartre’s “No Exit,” we were apparently stuck in a Hell that was other people, or more specifically that was one other person: our ready to fight-to-the-death salesman, Bill. He was clearly determined to keep us there until we opened our checkbook, and we were just as determined to get the TV or tickets without committing a penny.
“Okay,” our Hell-mate finally said, “This is my very last offer.” And he wrote down a figure, folded the paper in half, and slid it across the desk.
Though I made no move to open it, Bill suddenly shouted, “Wait!” and made a theatrical lunge to retrieve the paper. “What did I just do? Let me see!” As he read his own offer, he slapped his forehead with his palm. ”Oh, God, I just screwed up big time! I wrote down the wrong amount by mistake and I just gave you a price $5,000 less than my boss told us we were ever allowed to give anyone, even family. But legally I can’t take the offer back. It’s in writing. Don’t worry. It’s not your problem—it’s mine. You just got a time share that you could turn around tomorrow and sell for a huge profit—and it’s all because I screwed up. I better go tell the boss what I did.”
And before I could repeat my mantra—“We are not buying a time-share today no matter what price you offer”—he was gone. We waited five minutes, ten minutes, but no one came back to our tiny cubicle to give us our tickets or TV. On one side of our cubicle’s walls, I heard a man yelling that he wanted his free gift while, on the other, I could hear a little kid crying. Just as we packed up our own kids and headed toward the door, a different man suddenly scurried in. “Hold on a sec. Johnson just told me about the mistake he made with you—offering you the wrong price. I want you to know that I am going to lose my shirt on this but a deal is a deal. I can fire Johnson for costing me an arm and a leg—and I want you to know that I already have—but, much as I’d like to, I can’t take back his offer. So here’s the deal you got—and I’ve got to live with.” And he handed me a pen and a purchase agreement with the “mistaken” price at the top.
It seemed like a ridiculous theory when it first came up. I was having dinner with my nephew, Sam, and his girlfriend, Isabel, just a couple of hours after looking at Marsh’s apartment, and I was telling them what had happened with the craigslist ad. “That is a pretty good scam,” Sam said, “but you know what would make it a great one? What if Marsh were the guy running the scam and he invented Gibbson in order to make you trust him?”
I laughed it off at the time, but that night, lying in the bed, I found myself wondering, was Sam’s absurdist fantasy completely impossible? After all, I found Marsh through the link on Gibbson’s email. And he was quick to dismiss the scammer and introduce himself as the real thing. Wasn’t that the oldest trick in the confidence man’s book? As in: be careful; there are con artists out there but you can trust ME. And hadn’t he sucked me in with the oldest move in the history of advertising: the old bait-and-switch? I wrote him because I was interested in the first apartment, the nicer apartment, and then was told (predictably?) that it was long gone but that he had another he could rent me. Hadn’t he buttered me up with the soft sell—“I’m not even advertising the place right now”—and then thrown in that little bomb right at the door about how the tenant’s friend might change his mind and call?
The Arthur Miller angle suddenly seemed fishy, too. Wasn’t it just a little bit unlikely that after not being able to find any apartment at all, the one place that pops up was once occupied by one of America’s greatest playwrights? I couldn’t help but wonder whether Marsh saw my name and return email address, then Googled me to discover that I taught in a university English department, and then invented the Arthur Miller detail just to suck me in further.
I reminded myself that this was nuts, that Marsh had in fact answered the door when I rang the bell and had, in fact, showed me the apartment. But that, I realized, could have been a hoax, too. It was at least possible that the real owner of the building was out of town or at least away for the evening and that Marsh had a key—maybe he was a handy man or a dog walker who was once given access to the building—and had showed me an apartment he didn’t own.
It wasn’t surprising, given my apparently unlimited capacities for skepticism and anxiety, that I found myself deeply unsettled by that possibility. What was surprising, though, was I almost wished it were true. After all, if Marsh were the real con man who, in order to fool me, invented a less trustworthy fake con man, added a made-to-order story about the apartment’s role in American literary history, and then gave me the tour posing as the apartment’s owner, we weren’t just talking Arthur Miller; we were talking Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross Mamet.
The scariest con men aren’t the arm twisters; they’re the ear whisperers, the Iagos, the ones who use our own best and worst traits—generosity, trust, and love, on the one hand; foolishness, grandiosity, and greed on the other—against us. Or worse, they’re the ones who simply seduce us into using ourselves against ourselves. Since the clichés are true—there really is a sucker born every minute and if you build it, they will come – the best con men don’t need to be aggressive; they only need to set an attractive-enough trap … and then wait. One of the keys to the success of Bernie Madoff’s investment scam was that he played so hard to get: his strategy for reeling in wealthy investors was to pretend not to need or even want them. By creating the illusion of exclusivity—members at his country club asked other members to introduce them to Madoff as perspective clients—his services appeared all the more desirable and legitimate.
In a world filled with aggressive, clearly sketchy con men and women, the confident and confidence-inspiring Madoffian con man can have a field day. When we think we’ve finally found that one honest insurance salesman or loan officer, we are all too eager to let down our guard, and we throw ourselves and our money at him or her with gratitude and relief. “I am so happy I found you,” we confide to the last person we should be confiding in, as we reel ourselves in. “You won’t believe the sketchy offers I got from the other guys.”
Back home in Maine, at the island in our kitchen, I read and re-read the invoice for the deposit that Marsh had sent me. My wife and I had already agreed that we’d take the apartment, but with my checkbook open and my pen poised I did what I always do—I began to think through all the possible pros and cons (in both meanings of that word) of renting the apartment. I began to wonder whether I might not be falling into a trap, whether we might not find a better apartment in tomorrow’s ads, whether we should consider spending the month in San Francisco instead.
And that’s when I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t thought about in years. I remembered the time I ran into our neighbor, Joanne, at the supermarket. “Guess what happened to us?” she said. “We got an invitation to tour some condos in a time share complex.” Since the complex she named was the very same one where we’d been given the hard sell in that tiny cubicle, I figured she was about to tell me a similar horror story. “Even though we just went up there because we got this letter telling us we had won some special prize,” Joanne continued, “we ended up buying a time share. They explained that it’s a great investment — we can always sell our week for a big profit anytime we want—and the best part is that once you buy in, you can go there any time you want to use the facilities. They’ve got a pool, a golf course, a great dining room. We’ve been going almost every single weekend. We LOVE it!”
I looked again at the invoice. I took one more deep breath. And I wrote the check.
LAD TOBIN has recently completed a collection of personal essays for which he’s seeking a publisher or agent. Essays from the collection have appeared in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre. He teaches at Boston College and lives in Kittery Point, Maine. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).
The first time I got the instructions for how to avoid burning in hell, I was five.
I sat on my older sister’s bed as one of her friends asked me, “Are you saved? Because if you’re not saved, you’ll never get into heaven and you’ll burn in hell forever and ever. It’s easy to be saved though. Just close your eyes and repeat after me: I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. Just do that and you won’t burn in hell. See? Easy!”
I looked at her skeptically through half-closed eyes and only mumbled the words, hedging my bets because that’s what children do when told things by older, supposedly wiser people but don’t fully buy it. I was a naturally suspicious kid, I suppose, and her curly perm and blue eye shadow didn’t inspire confidence. Afterwards, she nodded her head and popped her gum loudly, satisfied with her work. My teenage sister, having had enough of me crashing her space, kicked me out of her room and changed the record on the white stereo system I coveted. I clearly remember not understanding what had just happened, but I hung onto the words “Jesus” and “hell,” those two things feeling like the most critical parts of whatever lesson I had just learned.
I grew up in a non-religious family in one of the most religious places in America. Lynchburg, Virginia in the 1980s was an Evangelical Christian mecca that is second only to Utah for the religious devotion of its residents. The disaster smash of the Reagan years and the rise of Evangelical Christianity in the political arena happened literally in my backyard as an influx of thousands moved into my town to be closer to Moral Majority rock star Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church and his freshly minted Liberty University. Our once-quiet street was suddenly three deep with cars on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. When people couldn’t get into the too-packed services, they’d sit parked at our curb and listen on the radio, completely overdressed for their Pintos and Datsuns, smiles plastered on their faces as they sang along to the hymns and nodded to their preacher’s words.
It was impossible to get away from the proselytizing. After-school clubs at friends’ houses always started with bowed heads and a prayer, and random teenagers would ask the status of your soul while you swung on the swings at the playground. As the church grew, it steadily bought up the beautiful old brick houses on my street and filled them with missionaries, families from other towns with five, six, ten kids who were homeschooled and who went door to door passing out small cards with bloody fetuses on them warning of the evils of abortion and whom to a fault could barely read. I never understood why they didn’t have to go to school, but I played with them because we were kids and they were fun and I just always ignored the warnings of what would happen to my eternal soul if I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. You get used to being told you’re going to burn in hell. After a while, it’s just static.
But it was a static that itched and was omnipresent. We did not go to church, but everyone we knew did. As I got older, there were lock-ins and youth groups, and Scare Mare, the Thomas Road Baptist Church–sponsored horror house that is still a Halloween tradition in my town. Before it turned overtly political with rooms like The Abortion Room and The Drunk Driving Room, it was actually pretty fun, a generic scary house with strobe lights and people jumping out at you in masks, harmless and spooky and something to do in a town with not a lot to do.
The last room of Scare Mare was always the scariest because it was after you’d left the haunted house completely. Puffed-up young men in polo shirts and crew cuts would line the path back to the parking lot with flashlights repeating in a disturbingly stern unison “Last room of Scare Mare, folks, last room of Scare Mare…” as they ushered you into one in a very long row of musty old army tents. It was always clear that this room was not an option. All attempts to skip it and just go back to your car felt forcibly cut off. I never knew anyone who got away with avoiding this last room even though we always talked about how we were totally not doing that, there’s no way they can make us go in there, the entire time we waited in line.
I was around twelve when my sister and her boyfriend took me with them the first time. As we left the haunted house and were funneled into the ancient army tents, my sister’s boyfriend just kind of shook his head in a “let’s get this over with” fashion and we took our seats in the metal folding chairs. My experience sitting in a church service was wholly limited to the rare Easter Sunday with my grandpa, some light singing and a short service and he’d slip me candy bars he’d sneaked in in his pocket. I was unprepared for the frothy and furious young man who stood at the front of the tent shouting at us and regaling us with the horrors of a forever in the fiery pits. “DO YOU WANT TO SPEND ETERNITY IN A PLACE LIKE THAT???!!!” He screamed at us, reminding us of the perversions and terror of the haunted house we’d just exited. “IF YOU DON’T ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR SAVIOR, THAT IS YOUR FUTURE!”
He went on and on about pain and death and depravation and was generally terrifying and foamy-mouthed until my sister’s boyfriend, recently home from the Marine Corps, and generally very strong and in-charge looking, spoke up and cut him short mid-sentence. “Hey!” he shouted. “You need to calm down. There’s kids in here.”
Slightly chastened, the lunatic preacher man slowed his roll and transitioned into the final part of the whole experience. “I’d like everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads…” He then gave a much quieter but no less passionate description of heaven and the story of Jesus and how he’d died for us and if you were a grateful and good person you’d just thank him for that by accepting him as your lord and savior so you could spend eternity among the peace and goodness of heaven and be happy forever and thank you for coming to Scare Mare folks, God bless you all, drive home safe.
I’d peeked through my eyes when our heads were supposed to be bowed and seen that, for the most part, everyone was doing as he’d told them to do, but I did spy a few hold-outs like me, others who were sneaking a look and just waiting for their chance to escape. I marveled then at the braveness of my sister’s boyfriend to challenge the preacher. You mean you can do that? You can tell people like that to stop yelling at you? If you can do that, then does that mean we don’t really have to come in here? Do I not have to bow my head even though people are always telling me to? I had questions.
Despite years of being told I’d burn in hell if I didn’t Accept Jesus Christ as My Personal Savior, I never decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Even as a kid I saw the fallacy of the whole process. If he’s so nice, why would he send people to burn in fiery pits forever just because of some loophole clearly based on vanity? That never sounded like something a personal savior would expect from you. Beyond that, though, I steadily became aware that there was always a streak of fear and smallness that ran through the hundreds of exchanges I’d had with the True Believers in my life. It was nothing I wanted to be a part of. I can still count on two hands the number of families that consider themselves Christian who actually act in a way that the Christ I’ve read about would be proud of. Two hands in this town of thousands upon thousands of families.
I grew up with what I now know is a siege mentality, this feeling that my universe was occupied by hostile forces who were not only not on my team but who openly and publicly proclaimed that terrible things were going to happen to me and my kind and good-hearted family if we did not jump through their very specific hoop. It’s a terrible thing to be told repeatedly in public and in private and by strangers and friends alike that you are not worthy and will be punished horribly for it. That does something to you down deep; it changes you and others you in a very specific way. I’m not sure at what age exactly that it finally happened, but at some point I embraced this “otherness” and made it my own. I have no religion, I don’t want a religion, and I am completely comfortable telling anyone that.
Home is home. though. That nightmare Halloween house is staged on the grounds of the long-gone cotton mill where my grandfather’s people all worked and lived and raised their babies. The community of Cotton Hill is still a vibrant one, where people share stories of the weaving room and the mill nursery and birthday parties on Carroll Avenue. Our memories are long. Despite the tidal wave of evangelical Christians that poured into my town starting in the eighties, I’ve always been quick to claim ownership. Though so often it seemed like I didn’t fit, here I refused to be run off. “It’s them who don’t fit,” I’d think, “I was here first.” So, like my own parents, I parked my little family right behind Thomas Road Baptist Church where for a long time after old Jerry still preached and dared all comers to try to make me feel less than, try to make my children feel less than, woe unto those who might try.
Walking my eight-year-old son home from school the other day, he said, “Michael asked if I believe in God and I told him no, and he said I was going to burn down there forever.” I looked at him and he was pointing to the ground with a smile on his face. We laughed about it because I have done my best to make my children bullet-proof in this city we live in. I have prepared them so they know that there will be people out there who will tell them mean and untrue things so it doesn’t bother them like it did me when I was small.
“Well, that wasn’t nice of him. But you know it’s not true, and you know he can’t help it. He just doesn’t know any better.” My son smiles and nods at me but he always looks bummed when this happens, because it happens and happens and happens, as it happened to his older sister, too, and it will to his younger sister as well. He is a kind boy and he would never assume awful things to happen to others for no good reason. A god like that makes no sense to him. He figured out the falseness of it long before I did.
Homeschoolers keep their kids out of our public schools because, ostensibly, it’s my children they should be afraid of. My godless, secular humanist children and their evil ways. But I learned a long time ago and I continue to see now that the pressure so often moves in only one direction. I am certain that my children aren’t roaming the halls of their schools shouting, “God is dead! God is dead!” The lack of love and generosity extended to those of different sexual orientations or religious beliefs or other ways of life is still blatant and harmful. But call them out on their unwillingness to just let others live their lives as they choose and you’re persecuting them for their religious beliefs, as if a religion based wholly on the persecution of others is a religion at all.
But not all is lost. Whenever my kids come home and tell me the latest story of how they’re going to burn in hell, I don’t just remind them of the falseness and foolishness of the statement. I also take time to remind them of the Christian families we know who are good and love us and all others without reserve, those who’d never tell us that we’ll burn in hell. It took me a long time to realize that those Christians really are out there, and if I believed in a god, I’d thank him or her for them. Because those are the people who remind us of the possibility of good in a world that so often promises us otherwise. Who remind us to not pick up and throw back the stones we so often find at our very own feet, who would never ever force us into a musty old army tent to shout.
JENNY POORE writes about parenting, public education, politics, and occasionally things that do not start with the letter “P”. Her work has most recently appeared in xoJane, Mommyish, Dame Magazine, and Role Reboot. You can follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Poore and at her blog, Sometimes There are Stories Here.
It should be simple, purchasing a toll bridge pass. I cry when I consider it. My daughter lives on the other side of that toll bridge. In prison.
Several times I have attempted to purchase a pass online. I searched the Department of Transportation website, selected the toll bridge, but I couldn’t convince myself to click the purchase button. Buying a pass for future trips across that bridge would mean I had given up hope that she might win one of her appeals and be released.
My husband and I could have depleted four toll bridge passes by now. That would equate to twenty-four visits. Instead, we pull into the toll plaza each time and idle our SUV in the long line of brake lights. Vehicles with pre-purchased passes whiz by us, their toll fare deducted from their account by remote sensors.
In our rural county, on the opposite side of the state, we have no toll bridges. No need for multi-passes.
To visit our thirty-nine-year-old daughter, we drive six hundred miles round-trip. Those kind of distance and time constraints limit our visits to every few months. In the wintertime, our visits are further apart, with two mountain passes and treacherous snowy roads at higher elevations.
She has been there four years. Even with better weather, our visits are becoming less frequent. Visits are a double-edged sword: a reminder each time we pass through the clanging of the metal gates with the razor wire curled the length of the fencing, that this is now our daughter’s life. Visiting her in prison has become a part of our life.
My silent prayers prior to her conviction were, Dear Lord, may the highest good come from this situation. Please touch her heart with your loving goodness and keep her safe.
When she was arrested, and during the eighteen months she was out on bail, my faith in God’s goodness never wavered. I believed he would watch over her. I believed he would answer my prayers.
My belief in His goodness was answered when my daughter purchased a soft-bound red leather Bible. I was overjoyed when she showed it to me. From the amount of scriptures highlighted in yellow and bookmarked with torn scraps of paper, I could see she had been on her own journey to accept Him.
When she was convicted and sent to prison, I felt God had betrayed her and me. I questioned how I could continue to believe in his goodness when he had not answered my prayers for her safety. How could this be the highest good? I wondered if our daughter would be in prison if I had shared my beliefs vocally. If she had accepted Christ earlier, as I had as a child, would we be in this predicament now?
After receiving her sentence, she worried that our visits would lapse, and our letters would dwindle. I promised her that we wouldn’t forget her. I told her we’d visit often. I told her to not give up hope. I told her God would hear my prayers. I told her He would hear her prayers. During the past four years, I have doubted if he listened.
Time has eroded my faith in His powers. Hope is all I have left.
Visiting a few days after Christmas, my husband and I and our daughter’s daughter were waiting inside the prison lobby to check in. Behind us, a buxom Italian woman in a white peasant blouse chatted and extended kind words with everyone in her vicinity. I admire women like her who aren’t afraid to reach out to other people. Her dark hair tumbled in soft, bouncy waves to her shoulders, and her perfectly applied crimson lipstick enhanced her vibrant smile.
I used to have that type of enthusiasm for life. Since our daughter’s incarceration, I have become more and more emotionally closed in. More doubtful. More protective of my space. I prefer to observe quietly and stay under the radar when in public. I smiled at something the Italian woman said, but kept my body turned away from the conversation.
Our fourteen-year-old granddaughter stepped in front of my husband, and the top of her long brown ponytail grazed his salt and pepper beard. He tugged gently on the dangling portion and was rewarded with a smirk barely wide enough to see her braces. I placed my hand on his muscled arm as we stood in line.
When it was our turn to step up to the desk and present our IDs, I felt my usual trepidation. Would something appear on my clean record that would preclude me from visiting? Or would there be a new guard who wouldn’t recognize me? The picture on my driver’s license was three years old and barely resembled the tired sixty-year-old I was that day. My gray roots showed, and my brunette hair was chin-length and wavy instead of short and neatly wedged like when I renewed my license so long ago.
It seems a lifetime has passed since my daughter was sent to prison. I yearn for the days before her arrest, when I never questioned my faith in God’s steadfast love.
The normal guard with the kind smile was behind the desk.
The Italian woman’s presence had changed the atmosphere in the lobby; even I felt a lightness. She radiated kindness and warmth and brought smiles to the large group of holiday visitors. The lobby had the feel of friends reuniting after a long absence instead of a docile line of strangers.
We were assigned a table number for our visit and a key to a locker to leave our belongings in. We proceeded to the next station to remove our shoes and pass through the metal detector. When cleared, our hands were stamped with invisible ink, and we joined other visitors waiting at the third barricade. The guards released us, and we traversed outside to the next blockade.
Between buildings, a gentle mist of rain fell on our group as we gathered at the steel gate. It buzzed open. We moved like cattle into the next enclosure. The gate we passed through must clang shut before we were allowed passage to the next station. Shiny razor wire coiled in ringlets on the ground and double coiled on top of the fence that surrounded us.
The razor wire overwhelmed me. It’s as if my mind pretended my daughter was away at college. The razor wire jolted me back to reality.
The next double set of doors brought us closer to the visiting area. It had no razor wire. We wedged into the tight enclosure, the guards in their raised station behind tinted glass waited as the exit door behind us closed. In front of us a heavy steel door slid mechanically open. We formed another line and gave the guard our inmate’s name. Our assigned table had the number carved deeply into the top of the table, similar to the old-time school desks with the deep groove for pencils.
Our daughter is in CCU (Closed Custody Unit), the politically correct term for Maximum Security. Her unit is often the last of the groups of inmates to arrive at the visiting room. We watched as other visitors reunited with their daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers.
The Italian woman was assigned the table next to ours. When she saw her daughter, she stood and bounced with joy on her toes anxiously awaiting her daughter to clear the guard station. She rushed towards her excitedly and enveloped her with motherly hugs and happy tears.
Our daughter appeared and gave us a slight wave of greeting before she checked in with the guards. We nodded and smiled and waited. Her five-foot-four frame appeared thinner than the last time we visited. When she joined us, our quiet hugs seemed feeble compared to the Italian woman’s. I wondered if the other visitors felt the same.
Our visits follow the same routine. My husband and I sit on the opposite side of the four person table so our daughter can sit next to her daughter or her almost-adult son when he comes with us.
We asked about her new roommate. She asked, “What’s new at home?” We tried to remember something new to tell her. Our conversation felt stilted compared to the laughter and reminiscing that transpired at the Italian woman’s table.
Some days, our scheduled three-hour visits fly by. Other days, we play Yahtzee to pass the time and keep the conversation light. This was a Yahtzee day. Visits near the holidays are emotionally difficult. At home, I have tried to keep our daughter’s traditions alive; like baking and decorating Christmas sugar cookies with her daughter or preparing her kids favorite foods for their birthdays.
Her two children live with us. We celebrate milestones in their lives without her.
The guard at the raised station announced that visiting was over. We took turns hugging our daughter and joined other visitors in the exit line. Our daughter sat with the other inmates, all matching in their gray shirts and sweatpants. They would be searched before they returned to their units.
The heavy steel door opened slowly. We crowded into the tight enclosure. The Italian woman stood next to me and shared with everyone how good it was to see her daughter; that she hadn’t seen her for seven months. She dissolved into gasping sobs and tears streaked down her face.
I uncharacteristically wrapped my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head into hers and said “It’s difficult, the leaving, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “She doesn’t get out for another two years. Does it get any easier?”
I told her, “Some days are better than others.”
She smiled and with a trembling voice said, “I miss her so much.”
I tightened my hug, then released her. I prayed our conversation was over. I didn’t want her to ask the inevitable next question. Our conversation was not over.
She asked, “How long is your daughter in for?”
The agony of the answer contorted my face, and I began to cry. “Life,” I said.
Speechless, the Italian woman, wrapped me into her full bosom. The door buzzed open. She released me. Side by side, we walked towards the enclosure with the razor wire. Our group was silent as we passed through each buzzing, clanging gate. When we arrived at the original lobby, we swept our stamped hands under the black light. The invisible stamp magically appeared. We were cleared to leave.
I entered the single restroom and locked the door behind me. I splashed water on my haggard face to clear my smudged mascara. I lingered. I prayed the Italian woman had left. During previous visits, I had observed an unspoken code of ethics; no one asked about other inmate’s convictions. I was grateful it was taboo. I certainly didn’t want to talk about that, either.
My husband, our granddaughter, and I were in the parking lot walking towards our car when the Italian woman, from several cars away, waved and called out to me, “What’s your first name?”
I was stunned by her question. I preferred anonymity, but she asked with such urgency.
“Bonnie,” I yelled back and watched as my granddaughter disappeared into our car. I wanted to do the same.
The woman bellowed back, “Bonnie, I will pray for you and your daughter. I will have my prayer chain pray for you too. Never give up hope!”
Her kindness buoyed me. “Thank you.” I managed to squeak through the emotion that constricted my throat.
Maybe I have been wrong in doubting God. Maybe He had heard my prayers. Maybe the Italian woman was a sign from Him to keep my faith strong. Maybe I won’t be needing that toll bridge pass.
BONNIE S. HIRST is currently working on a book-length memoir. After a thirty-five year hiatus from writing (being a mom and grandma), she is enjoying connecting with other writers. She loves feel-good movies and stories with happy endings. When life tries to shorten her stride, she prays, cries, reads self-help books, and writes. She can often be found kayaking on a calm mountain lake. Connect with her: https://www.facebook.com/BonnieSHirst and https://www.icantquotescripture.com.
The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.
The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.
“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.
There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.
Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.
A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.
An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.
One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”
He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.
He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.
We had nothing in common.
We fell in love.
I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.
Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.
It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.
St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.
I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.
But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.
The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.
Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.
Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.
I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.
“Daddy made this for you.”
Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.
Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.
Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.
I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.
We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.
One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.
Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.
My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.
“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.
By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.
Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.
“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.
It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.
My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.
Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.
I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.
An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.
I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.
Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.
I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.
“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.
Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”
Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.
It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.
In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.
And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.
I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.
I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.
We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.
Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.
I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.
New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.
In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.
He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.
DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
When a grown woman and her seventy-something mother engage in yearly debates about the existence of Santa, I think we can agree: there’s a problem. Of course, my mother believes the problem is mine, while I tag her as the source of the annual angst. But who’s telling this story?
My mother, a bookish only child, grew up yearning for a house full of kids and a big, old-fashioned Christmas, like the ones Louisa May Alcott wrote about. My father, who had ditched his nominal Judaism by the time he married my mom, was willing to comply with her yuletide agenda.
And so began my mother’s strictly secular, Euro-inspired holiday extravaganza. It started early in December each year, with the cookie baking. Buttery Swedish stars; Viennese crescents, rolled warm in vanilla-scented powdered sugar; gingerbread men; Swiss chocolate crisps; linzer cookies, each with its shiny pocket of raspberry jam. Over a three-week period, with her three children as floury assistants, my mother rolled out as many as fifteen different varieties at our Formica kitchen table, carefully packing the finished batches between layers of waxed paper in tins to be stowed in the basement freezer. By my mother’s decree, the cookies would emerge for the first time on Christmas Eve; sampling them before that date was verboten.
Later in the month, we adorned the house with simple pine cone decorations (no tacky plastic Santas in my mother’s home), and we kids fashioned homemade gifts to stash in secret hiding places. The holiday rituals continued with the tree selection (December 20, not a day earlier) and, on the evening of the 23rd, the decoration: while classical music played softly on WQXR, we took out the ornaments while my mother related the story behind every wooden Waldorf gnome, vintage glass ball, or lumpy, pre-school-made button string. The next night, we ate fondue in front of the fireplace, dunking warm pieces of baguette into the melted Gruyere, before hanging our stockings. Finally, there was the ceremonial, dramatic reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (that’s The Night Before Christmas for you non-literary sticklers).
Permeating the entirety of the festive season was my mother’s Santa Doctrine, enforced with the rigidity of a decree from the Vatican:
1. Santa Claus exists.
2. Doubters: button those lips. If you can’t believe, pretend.
3. Santa alone fills the stockings.
4. Never thank someone in the room for a stocking present. It came from Santa!
5. Befuddled by an item in your stocking? (A not uncommon occurrence in our house.) Mom will interpret. (“I’m pretty sure Santa would say that’s a do-hicky to put your tea bag on.”)
6. Questioning the existence of Santa is tantamount to Killing the Magic.
I don’t know when, exactly, my mother formulated her Santa Doctrine, but my siblings and I absorbed it early, along with the rest of the holiday rituals, each yearly repetition enshrining our customs deeper into the family bedrock. And it worked. Just as my mom had planned, Christmas was indeed a time of festivity and magic for us kids (who, thanks to my mother, believed in Santa longer than was really quite seemly).
But marriages crumble, and children turn into sullen, cynical teenagers, no longer wonderstruck at the sight of the Christmas tree, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. My mother figured that our holiday traditions were one element of family life that she could keep the same for us. But everything else had changed, and Santa couldn’t make up for that, not really.
Mom remarried eventually, to a tolerant man who knows better than to suggest alien rituals of his own at Christmastime. We kids got on with our lives. But no matter how much we’ve changed over the years, it’s made clear to us each December that, if we come home, there will be no deviation from the holiday of our childhoods, not now, not ever. When it comes to Christmas, my mother adheres to Tradition! with the fervor of Tevye the Milkman.
Which is ironic, considering that these days, when December comes around, I’m on Tevye’s side of the fence.
Like my mother, I was a solitary, bookish child. Like her, I loved books set in “the olden days.” But while Mom was eager to shed the Episcopalian shackles of her stuffy WASP upbringing, I had a secret hankering for religion, a topic so resolutely avoided in our home that I felt a subversive thrill whenever I encountered it in my reading.
I trace the birth of my Jewish identity directly to fourth grade and the copy of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family that I found on the school library shelf. Here were my two fascinations, the olden days and religious ritual, united in the delectable story of five turn-of-the-century sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. Enfolded in that middle-grade novel was a year’s worth of vibrant Jewish life: Mama, praying over the Sabbath candles in their gleaming brass candlesticks, Papa blessing his daughters; congregants chanting Torah at the synagogue; the Passover Seder (unusually somber when scarlet fever strikes the family); and Purim, with its costumed revelry.
Why, I wondered, was this entrancing world closed to me? My father was Jewish, after all. Why didn’t he do anything about it? His silence made the idea of Judaism all the more tantalizing. My friends all belonged to one faith or another. “What are you?” they used to ask. “Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian?” I could only answer: “Nothing.”
My own kids, I vowed, would be something.
By the time those theoretical kids arrived, I had been a member of the Society of Friends for years. I loved the deep, living silence of Quaker Meeting, the concern for peace and justice, the gentle fun we poked at our rivals, the Unitarians. And I still felt Jewish enough to appreciate that the “inner light” of Quakerism doesn’t mean the light of Jesus, if you don’t want it to.
“So we’ll raise the kids Quaker, right?” I said to my husband.
“Sure, sure,” he replied absently, distracted by graduate school and the fog of sleep deprivation that had descended with the birth of our first child. My husband had grown up in a Conservative, kosher home. He no longer practiced, but he had a strong cultural affiliation with Judaism, the kind acquired automatically when your entire extended family hails from Brooklyn. Still, the Quakers were okay by him.
The Quakers were okay by him right up until our first child was four and I was set to enroll him in First Day School, where every Sunday he would learn about George Fox walking in the glory of the inner light.
“The Quakers are great, with the anti-war and the social justice and all,” my husband told me then. “But they don’t have—well, enough tradition.”
The product of Quaker summer camps, Quaker high school, and Quaker college, I knew that the Society of Friends has plenty of traditions. Much like Quakers themselves, these traditions are plain, not easy to spot. But I wasn’t about to argue the point.
“You want tradition?” I said. “Dude, you come from five thousand years of tradition.” (I married a surfer, a move that results in sentences like this.)
My husband gave me a look. “You’re saying you want to raise them Jewish now?”
“I’m saying I want to raise them something. Jewish works for me.”
“You do realize that we would have to join a synagogue. And actually go. And celebrate Shabbat and all the rest of it.”
We visited the progressive, Reconstructionist shul, where the rabbi assured my husband, who balked at the concept of a deity, that he himself thought of God as the cosmic force of the universe, rather than, you know, God. That my own Judaism came from my father, not my mother, troubled the rabbi not a bit. Did I consider myself Jewish? Did I plan to raise my kids that way? Fine.
And just like that, we were all Jews.
Except for yearly visits at the High Holidays, my husband hadn’t spent much time in a synagogue since leaving home. But when we started attending services, I watched it all come back to him. He knew the melodies, the prayers, and, impressively, he could read Hebrew, a skill I knew he possessed but had never seen in action.
Yet despite my own lifelong pull toward the faith of my forbears—well, half of them—I couldn’t help an initial sense of detachment. I rose with the congregation when the rabbi took the Torah out of the ark, but inside my head a tiny anthropologist was busily taking notes. Observe the tribe ceremonially processing with its totemic object! The language was unfamiliar, the alphabet was different, and while the customs here were intriguing, they felt decidedly foreign.
In other words, I soon realized, it was a situation made for a former Peace Corps volunteer.
With the zest I’d once brought in Morocco to learning Arabic and the proper way to prepare couscous with pumpkin, I now dedicated myself to learning the ways of my people. I signed up for a class in beginning Hebrew (for the record, much easier than Arabic). My toddler in a backpack, I experimented with challah recipes, ultimately achieving a golden, braided loaf that is reliably more photogenic than I am. Self-consciously at first, I lit the Shabbat candles on Friday nights before dinner, experiencing a quiet satisfaction that for my young children, listening to me sing the blessing was simply routine.
I was surprised at first, and a little chagrined, by how easily I’d abandoned the Friends and taken up with the Jews. Just how committed a Quaker had I really been all those years? On the other hand—and I elected to view it this way—my speedy switcheroo was certainly a testimony to the “many candles, one light” theory of religion.
That was over ten years ago. The tiny anthropologist tossed out her notebook long ago and moved in with the tribe, embracing its rituals and community, its scholarly dedication to seeking contemporary meaning in ancient texts and traditions. The holidays that entranced me in All-of-a-Kind Family back in fourth grade have become my family’s, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, my own: Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey; the solemn introspection of Yom Kippur; Passover’s festive seder, when we welcome the stranger among us. And in December, the arrival of Hanukkah, with its latkes and candles to warm the winter nights.
Of course, we all know who else arrives in December.
When my boys were little, I gave them the lowdown on Santa, that jolly imaginary fellow, who even grown-ups like to pretend about. Never tell another kid that Santa doesn’t exist, I instructed. Believing in Santa is very important in lots of families, and it’s not your place to say otherwise. This, I thought, was the respectful approach. Unfortunately, I neglected to include my mother in the category of people whose belief in St. Nick must be preserved. And when one of the boys innocently mentioned the words “Santa” and “pretend” in the presence of Grandma—well, the reindeer poop hit the fan.
It was useless to protest that my little band of Jews shows up at her house every December 25th. To remind her that my husband orders the Christmas morning breakfast croissants from her favorite bakery, that I make my share of the cookies, help decorate the tree, stuff stockings. My mother is painfully aware that, really, I’d rather avoid the entire holiday, and my siblings aren’t crazy about it, either. She knows that my family participates only because we love her and she lives seven blocks away. (What are we going to do, stage a boycott?) Nothing could have illustrated this more sharply than my flagrant violation of the Santa Doctrine.
“You actually told them there’s no Santa Claus?” my mother said, her voice rising in disbelief.
“Mom, the kids love celebrating Christmas at your house,” I said. “The presents, the stockings, all that. But I’m not going to tell them Santa is real, or pretend to believe in him myself, anymore. I’m just not.”
“What’s wrong with letting them use their imaginations?” she demanded, adding darkly, “I suppose you tell them there’s no Tooth Fairy, either?”
“Mom, the Tooth Fairy is not associated with the birth of Jesus.”
“Neither is Santa Claus!”
I gave her a pointed look.
“Well, not in our family, as you know perfectly well.”
“Yes, but that’s beside the point,” I said. “Jewish kids don’t believe in Santa. It kind of goes with the territory, don’t you think?”
My mother fixed me with a bitter eye. “You’re just hellbent on killing the magic for those boys, aren’t you,” she said.
A framed passage from Khalil Gibran hung on the wall in my mother’s house when I was growing up. “Your children are not your children,” it read in elegant calligraphy. “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” I doubt my mother was pondering this sentiment as she orchestrated her Christmases back then; as she carefully cut out those cookies, grated cheese for fondue, told the stories behind the ornaments. She was establishing a beloved tradition for us. That her children would grow up to reject it must have been far from her mind.
Last year I watched my oldest son stand on the bima at his bar mitzvah. In confident Hebrew, he led the morning service, singing the psalms of praise and blessing. Then he chanted from the Torah, his voice rising and falling in the ancient rhythms. Watching him ritually take his place in the community, I knew that I had given my children what I always wanted for them, even before I knew their names. Not faith, which isn’t the point in Judaism—a good thing, for my little atheists—but identity. Whether they practice its traditions or not, they’ll always have a place, a people, a sense of belonging.
That’s what the Santa Doctrine signifies to my mother, I know. Her Christmas rituals are bound up in family and belonging, too. Now that I’ve strayed from the script, she can’t help realizing that it’s all going to end. Years from now, when she’s gone, there won’t be Christmas Eve fondue, or stockings, or a tree, not in my family. I’ll always make the Viennese crescents in December, but we’ll go out for Chinese and a movie, like the rest of our tribe. I wish that my mother could accept that, instead of fighting it every year, using Santa as a proxy for what really saddens her. I wish she could recognize that she’s given me things I consider far more valuable than Christmas: a love of books and literature, the shrewdness to hunt for a bargain, her piecrust recipe. And if, one day, my kids convert to Catholicism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I’m able to greet the news with equanimity—well, in a roundabout way, I’ll have my mother to thank for that, too.
KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.
Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.
Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.
“With me?” I asked Joann.
“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”
“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.
“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.
I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.
Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—
I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.
From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.
* * *
For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.
Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.
In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.
Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.
* * *
Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.
The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”
He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”
A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”
He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.
We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.
For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.
Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.
As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.
Finally, I said, “I can’t.”
“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.
“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.
We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.
Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.
He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.
Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.
A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.
In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.
In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.
Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.
Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.
God, I loved him. He resurrected me.
But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”
In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.
You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.
Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.
Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.
Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.
It was spring by then, the season of possibility.
This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.
Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.
If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.
One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.
“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.
I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.
I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.
I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.
For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.
He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.
Before I went in, I looked back.
I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.
In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.
And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.
In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.
I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.
He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”
He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.
On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.
He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.
But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”
But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.
And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.
Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.
We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.
I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.
Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.
SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.
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