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Posts Tagged ‘Big Red’

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            Today I am back to the place where I spent the first half of my life, and everything has changed but the carpet and pews and maybe something else, but I can’t put my finger on it because I’ve never been that observant. It’s been a solid seven years since I last walked into this building. The key to it is cold in my hands, and I run my fingers up and down its skeleton as I walk the aisles. The lights are on but it’s dark outside, so the windows don’t show off their color like I remember. Maybe that’s it.

I’m pacing the aisles, and it’s reminding me of how old Mr. Jones used to pace them, hands shaking and tongue shaking as he spewed out what we call our own prayer language. He scared the junk out of me, that man. I laugh thinking about my six-year-old self seeing a wrinkly, wobbly old guy shouting in what sounded like a cross between Spanish and a toddler trying to speak English with a stutter. Boy, he would tell me in a quiet voice when he wasn’t praying, you’re just like your father. Just like your father.

I remember again why I’m here. I continue rubbing the key; it’s still cold.

Funny.

There was a point not too long ago when my father would worry excessively that I was going to hell. It’s not like he told me those words, exactly: “I think you might be going to hell”. And he never once told me to go there. But he would preach to me after he’d finished preaching to the church, asked me if I needed a fourth Bible, and at one point he took me to a Christian bookshop to buy fifty dollars’ worth of books that quoted the Bible every other page.

When the time came for me to leave the house, he called me once a week to ask me about the Sunday sermon at the church I was supposed to be attending. The one we (he) had decided upon, after spending an entire evening reading “What we’re about” pages on every church website in Ohio. I’d roll around in my bed and lift the phone to my ear before I’d register it was him, bright and early Monday morning the one day I got to sleep in, asking me ‘how was church!?’ Truth is, I attended church now and then, but when I didn’t I usually knew what to say to make him think I’d gone. Sundays I usually spent sleeping in, dealing with my pile of procrastination spewed all over my desk, and updating my Netflix queue.

We’re praying for you, he would always say before I hung up. As if he could tell that, despite all my words, I wasn’t sure about this whole God thing those days.

I wasn’t.

I had met a friend named Brian, and we were focusing on our music. University was just a means of pleasing our parents and ensuring some sort of security to fall back on while our music was beginning to take off. I’m in a band, we could say to our elders and childhood friends. Their eyebrows would raise and they would nod, sympathetic. And I’m also studying Architecture and Business. Oh! They would perk up. Isn’t that something? A man of many talents!

We were an acoustic band called Scream Oh! We thought that was a hoot. We wrote songs mostly about girls and about the ironies of life and double-meanings. My favorite song was one about doubting love after a harsh break-up; when I sang “she takes from my hands what can’t be replaced/ the skin from my palms/ exposing real bones that could never love her face”, I knew that I was also talking about the church, about God.

And my father kept calling me.

Once a week, Monday morning. The start of the week for me, the second day of it for him.

The key in my hand is being pressed violently into my skin. I’m squeezing it. The shape of it is in my palm for a brief second, the blood hot red around it. When I look up from my palm I see that there are new flowers in the vases by the altar. Mom must’ve done it, which surprises me. The woman who orders the same coffee every morning and goes to bed at nine forty-five to the minute, has switched out the vases full of red roses for white ones. I walk up to the altar, bend down and take a whiff of them. They smell the same. Like Saturday walks to Flora’s Flower Shop, begging mom for an ice cream or a bag of Pop Rocks since I’ve been good considering I’ve been forced to spend an entire afternoon in some girlie flower shop.

Smelling them makes me nostalgic for the first time since I’ve walked in here. I scrunch my knees up and sit on them, touching both my palms to the prickly carpet. It’s the same. I lay my back and my head flat against it, staring at the white arched ceiling. Before I’m aware of what I’m doing, I’m rolling two rolls to the left, my nose scrunched underneath the bottom of one of the old pews. It smells like dirt and musk and old lady’s perfume and wood and mint leaf and of sweat and sermons and shouting.

And that’s when I remember how Big Red was the best gum already-chewed. Most definitely. If the sermon got a little too long, you’d just plop your head down like you were taking a nap, then as soon as everyone got loud and jumped up screaming Hallelujah Amen Preach it, roll yourself right underneath the tops of the old pews, grab a wad of that pre-chewed stuff and think about how momma won’t find out you’re chewing another person’s spit, ‘cause she’s too busy watching everyone get saved. Juicy Fruit was often underneath those pews, too, but all the sugar had drained out of those pieces. Not Big Red. Big Red tasted like fire and cinnamon and even when it got raw in your mouth, when you would let it sit out for a little bit then put it back in, it would taste brand new again. Like fire, just as strong as the first time.

I’m laughing. My nose is shaking underneath the pew and my gut is shaking against it a little, too. I know I’m obviously bigger than what I used to be, but I didn’t understand it until right now. Why didn’t I crawl under a pew last time I was here?

Last time I was here, I was eighteen and about to travel halfway across the States for school; telling my parents I was going so far for the education, but knowing it was mostly to get away. I went into that building without my family knowing, especially Dad. He might get too sentimental. Make it something I was convinced it wasn’t. It was early, around five a.m. I snuck the key out of mom’s purse on the kitchen counter and made a mad dash down the street. The sky was dusky blue and it was the first time I had been alone in it. The trees leading up to the doors were waiting on the side of the road with their crooked fingers pointed up toward the sky. They would often make me wonder if trees could take some of our places the way rocks were going to, raising their hands to the sky while the rocks cried out.

Walking into the church was like smelling a familiar scent from my past, though I hadn’t yet left it. It was a formal farewell to a place I both loved and loathed the responsibility of. I watched my face change for ten years in that big, finger-printed mirror over there; that is, when I was tall enough to see past the mini table with the tacky fake flowers on display. Momma saved the real flowers for around the altar. I had dreams that I was sliding off the top of that staircase right there, fingernails scratching the carpet to keep me from falling. I had those dreams after I would crawl under the pews and press my tired face into the prickly carpet to take a nap, while phrases like “are you truly saved?” and “you are not perfect, but He is” slipped into those dreams. I had been there not only on Sundays but on days my dad needed to work overtime in his office; his office that was jammed full of what I thought must have been important papers, so important he couldn’t throw any of them away or the whole building might be snatched from us. I knew every tile on the floor in the kitchen, knew where to find the keys to open the snack machine and steal Skittles, knew how the church looked when the sun was just starting to come up and when the sun was just starting to go down.

When we stayed after service, which we usually did, I would sit in the swivel chair in the office and pretend that I was the new pastor. I am sad to inform you, good church people who love Jesus, that my dad has unfortunately died in a suddenly deadly car pile-up. Or, actually, he just wanted to go on an extra-long vacation to Fijis, ‘cause that’s not super sad. In those moments I was married with a wife and kids, bossing my wife to make me coffee (black, like a real man took his coffee) and file something important, telling my kids to be respectful and stop playing on the desk tables. I don’t know if Dad ever saw me in those moments, but if he did you can bet he was overjoyed. He would say it plain and simple: This place is yours if you want it, and I can’t help but hope that you do, son.

I was eight while I was playing those pastor games. Thinking that all it involved was sitting in those swivel chairs and having a pretty wife to file vital things for you, while you were making phone calls with a deep man-voice asking people how they were doing with Jesus these days. Maybe counseling every now and then, letting someone lay on the office couch, pencil on my lip, quoting scripture every time they brought up a problem.

I don’t know when exactly the games stopped. I simply grew up and understood the responsibilities that I could never fully grasp when I was eight, and started planting other dreams. It would start with music lessons, a lyric scribbled on a napkin, visions of performing in a band underneath lights that made my long hair drip sweat; talking to a swarm of girls who thought showing emotions like that was hot.

When I was eight I could sit in a swivel chair like my dad’s and feel what it might be like to lead people to the Lord, to save lost souls, to show them  how to love Jesus. But when I was eighteen I had given up fully, knowing that to execute it was an altogether different concept.

One day I thought about the church and it sent bile shooting up my throat, real, raw-tasting bile. Why was I baptized when I was seven? I didn’t know any better. The church had been a comfort, a safety zone. But it was gone. And it wasn’t real. None of it was real. I read poetry about wanting to believe in God, but not being able to: Why am I blind to sights my brethren see? I wrote songs about doubt. Why was I restrained from life, real life? Restrained from trying drugs or having sex or getting drunk or believing in Buddha or goddesses or Greek mythology? It’s not that I wanted those things, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be told that I could not want them when I wasn’t sure if I did or not. And finally, why did I have to be a bad person simply because I couldn’t believe, really believe?

So the most spontaneous decision of my life came to be—in a rush of adrenaline and boiling blood I spun the globe on the top of my desk, closed my eyes, and crushed my finger into it after a few seconds had passed. Screw the band. Screw the Monday-morning phone calls about going to church and putting me through spells of unnecessary guilt. Screw the lying to my father. Screw the two years left of my major. Screw wanting to travel the world but never doing it. Screw wanting to go after something but never knowing what it should be.

If I opened my eyes and my finger was in the middle of the ocean, well hell, I’d find my way there.

I opened them.

And there it was; my finger over a teardrop. Sri Lanka. I was going to Sri Lanka.

Before I had time to talk myself back into being rational, I was buying a one-way ticket, throwing what I could fit into my dusty suitcase and applying for a fast-track Passport. The next few weeks passed and I dropped out of school. I sold what I could of my furniture, some clothes. I called my parents only when I was in the airport to tell them. It came out robotic, like a recording. I still can’t remember what they said to me, not how they acted or whether or not their voice fluctuated, I was so numb.

That’s what was so funny, huh? That I could close my eyes and let my finger land on such a foreign ground then drop everything and leave, thinking some part of me would be fulfilled by doing so. Thinking I would leave all my doubts and fear of the unknown behind. Thinking if I was surrounded by all things new, maybe I could be new, too.

But it was what was the same that brought me revelation. When I arrived, the ground still held my feet. There was still dirt underneath my toes, and trees were still a greenish color in the summer. Birds still populated the air, and people still knew how to smile or frown or laugh. The air could still get sticky, a breeze could still rush in. I knew nothing of their native languages, but found a good amount of friends who could speak English by my second day. But even then, though I didn’t understand most everybody all around me, though they spoke something that sounded babbling and foreign, I understood what they were trying to say. There was a lady trying to barter for fruit at the market, her two children strewn about her knees and starving. There was a man with his head held high, walking in front of his wife, showing his life off. People needed food like I needed food, and we ate in the same way, with our mouths and eyes and noses. There were eyes full of love, eyes full of rage, eyes that were empty. I was seeking for a world where no man would think himself greater than the other. No man would tell another what to do. Where wealth and food would be shared, where hands would be opened freely; a world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine… and I knew, immediately, that I would never fully find it here, or back home, or anywhere. A world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine.

Yet I stayed. Weeks, months. Taking up odd-end jobs wherever I could find them. Living on the loans meant for school.

The closest friend I had was a man who spoke English, Saman, but not as well as most. The first man I met who could understand when I asked “Do you speak English, please?”

When I asked him after months of friendship what he believed the meaning of life was, he told me that it was whatever I wanted to believe it was. We were lying on a spray of smooth brown-red rocks, listening to the ocean.

“Life means what you want,” he said.

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

“Life means that.”

“But don’t you ever think there has to be more than you and me?”

“Yes.”

“Then, what is it?”

“What you want it, I think.”

The waves crashed around us still. They were much too far away to touch our toes, yet I had visions of them snatching us by the ankles, leading us out into the open sea where we knew nothing.

In the middle of that sea, what would we believe? That, as our heads bobbed above the surface, we were still the most powerful beings? As our legs and arms grew weary of kicking, there was still hope? I once was taught that Jesus could walk on water. Would I think about that if I was in the middle of it, drowning? If a man were to come to me, stepping on the water as if it were smooth pavement, would I touch his hand, or fear it were an illusion and not even try, confident in my own senses in that moment of panic and sinking fear?

Saman and I continued to talk. I told him about Sunday school and growing up believing in God right there; it was the first time I had talked about what I was running from all the time I had been there. We talked until sundown. We stretched our arms and let the blood enter other parts of our body; on the red rocks we breathed like we hadn’t before.

One week later I found a church buried under lively green trees, in a little cream building. There were no pews. We folded our legs and sang in a language I didn’t know. Yet all around me, I felt that I understood what was happening. A familiar sensation lit up the air, whisking me off to the days of sitting on my knees around my father’s altar, covering my eyes with my hands and asking God to please please show me what he thought about me, what he wanted me to do. Receiving a response that always just said I love you, coming over my body like a runner’s high, like a good night’s rest, like if I wanted to I could fly… a lightness, a simplicity. God? I whispered for the first time in years. But as soon as it came off my lips, it didn’t feel like a question anymore.

One year later I went home. My twenty-three hour layover was in Dubai, and I took the opportunity to scale the Burj Khalifa. Standing atop the observation deck, watching the way the earth curved, I knew I could never go back to not believing in God. Because as I looked out beyond me, to the very horizon and dip of the globe, I found myself saying under my breath: “This is it.” This was the tallest building in the world. This was as far up as we had ever gone, and even if we went any further up from the ground, we would still ever only be under the sky.

All my dreams of escaping the church and God led me to here, the tallest building on the earth, only to realize that not even here could I see everything.

The key is warm in my hands. I roll out from underneath the pew. There’s this verse in my head that’s been playing as if it’s a soundtrack on repeat for the past few weeks since father called: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he will not depart from it”. I’m not old yet. Twenty-five years old with memories of this place at ten, still fresh in corners of my brain. Memories of Sri Lanka and going to church with Saman and standing on top of the Burj Khalifa in another corner. Memories of sitting in the basement making music for hours, of thinking that the best in life was to be found only in words I created.

I’ve been back to school. I’ve sat through Business classes with a fresh mind. I’ve been attending a church each week not with feelings of obligation, but because when I wake up Sunday mornings I know there’s no place I’d rather be. I am more confident that life is not about me, not about how I see it, more than I’ve ever been.

I walk up to the white roses again, and smell them. It’s like they’ve lost their color. Maybe I’m more observant than I give myself credit for. They’ve gone from red to white. Clean.

My dad didn’t expect to get a call from me yesterday, I bet. Telling them guess what, I’m coming over there tomorrow, just for a weekend. I’m closer to them now, and much closer than Sri Lanka of course, but still further than they’d like me to be. So they’re of course thrilled that I said I’m coming, though I knew mom would spend the next twenty-four hours dusting in-between the kitchen tiles.

Here I am now, the key warm in my hand. An offer I know still exists. You can work here with me, son. You’re always welcome. The very place I thought I would avoid. The very place that taught me to love God yet taught me to unknowingly hate him and mistrust him, too.

In Sunday school, I was always the star pupil. Answering all the questions before any other kid had a chance to think about them. The star of Bible trivia and Sword Drills and that kid who sang a solo in the Christmas pageant every year, wearing a shepherd’s costume.

But one specific day in Sunday school we shared our prayer requests out loud. Everyone was required to say something, and we went in a circle. Karen asked if we could please pray for her grandma who was very sick. Matty asked if we could pray for his leg which he had broken a week ago, and also his baby sister who was a brat. Finally, it got to me. I had been racking my brain trying to come up with something that needed prayer. Before I was ready, it was my turn, and my body went cold. I don’t need prayer, I had told them. Well, what about someone else that you know? My teacher had suggested. I thought about it, thought hard. Then, I looked up from my palms and said: I don’t know what they need.

Me, star Sword Driller, always the shepherd with the solo in the Christmas plays. Son of the pastor, Bible quizzer.

I wasn’t even aware of what people needed prayer for, or what I needed it for, either.

I continue pacing the aisles. I walk up the few steps to the pulpit, standing upright behind it, shoulders back. I imagine hundreds of faces in front of me, expectant. When I do, a chill goes down my spine so good and so frightening. That scripture in Luke about the Holy Spirit speaking through me jettisons through my mind, and I find myself saying out loud, Yeah, Holy Spirit, you better, or we’re in trouble. I scan the crowd. There’s those elderly ladies in the back, their walkers sitting next to them. Mr. Jones’ wife, Edna, and her best friend Mary. Today they are going to receive healing, I don’t care how old they are. And there, on the right, is Walter Wimbley and his family. Anne, his eldest daughter with an eating disorder, is going to be told how beautiful she is. And it won’t come from human lips that have so long haunted and deceived her, and can never make her feel worthy. It will come from the lips of her father that will skip through her vanity and insecurity and fall into her soul like a seed, sprouting words of true beauty and life. And there, in the middle, underneath the second pew is a child that looks like me. He’s picking the bottom of the pew, tugging at a piece of gum that keeps bouncing back into the air. Son, I’ll tell him. You’ll remember these words that you hear. And even though you’ll have to wander to figure it out for yourself, you’ll know that these words are always an option. And I wish I could tell you this so you would understand, really understand, that these words are true. They’re not mine, so they’re true. But you’ll still have to learn that for yourself, and I can’t help that.

I try to keep my back straight, but it crumples. I fall to my knees on the stage, shaky. I don’t know if my life will keep me here or take me back to Sri Lanka or lead me to another place somewhere like the middle of the ocean, where I think for a moment that maybe I’ll drown.

I crawl back down the steps, on hands and knees, and lie down against the carpet once more. This place will change. The carpet will be taken out, the flowers will die, the pews will rot. One day it will be demolished, turned into dust. Its bones will die. But its body—its real body, the one that must be discovered aside from the carpet and pews and flowers, will continue to live as it has for so long. Stretching its fingers and toes and heartbeat toward every region of the world, every corner of the mind; moved by something grander than this human heart.

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