I do not know what God is, but I know all too well what it is to be haunted by God. Strangely enough, I am perhaps best defined by that for which I do not have a word. ‘God’ is a present absence in my life. Or perhaps an absent presence. Oh I am haunted. I know not why nor by whom, nor from where, nor for what. People often speak of undertaking a ‘leap of faith.’ I did not so much take a leap of faith as I was caught unawares and pushed from a cliff and gravity has taken over. Say what you will, but when one has entered a state of freefall, however involuntarily, stopping and reversing directions does not seem like an option.
My predicament often leads me to wonder what it means to be religious. I have known a great many people who attend church every Sunday yet are not haunted by God in the same way that I am. For them, God is a familiar certainty. They know exactly what He, for it is almost always a he, wants and expects of them. Similarly, I have known a great deal of supposed atheists who are unmistakably haunted as I am. Their every heartbeat seems to me an act of devotion. And yet they are not religious?
The modern notion of ‘spiritual but not religious’ is even more troubling. I am admittedly a heretic, but that does not bother me. The line between heretics and saints has always been delightfully blurred. But if a single tradition will not have me, should I claim instead to merely be spiritual? Is that what I am? It seems like such a cop out, a lazy abstention, a way of ignoring but not dismissing. I cannot call myself by such a name because God’s engagement with me is not casual; it is all consuming. I cannot devote a single day each week to God; God demands them all.
It is perhaps inaccurate to say that I desire God. To say that I desire implies that there is an object of my desire. I desire, but I know not what. I love, but I know not who. I weep, but I know not why. I am passionate for God-knows-what. I am praying for a prayer.
I sometimes think things would be easier for me if I were to let my hair grow wild and roam naked in a desert eating locusts. Then perhaps my exteriority could reveal some of the fervor, the passion, the turmoil that so permeates my interiority. Those who are similarly persecuted would be able to recognize our kinship and we could find solace in keening together, lifting our shared lament to the night sky. Yet as it is, I am so fundamentally undistinguishable. So well adjusted. So prone to laughter. So blonde. My intelligence, or depth, or what have you always seems to catch people by surprise. When men approach me at bars and strike up a conversation, I often see flashes of shock cross their faces. Some are disappointed-they realize I will not be an easy lay and move on-and others are intrigued-these boobs come with brains too?!– but they are surprised all the same. A mind cannot be seen across a crowded room, and neither can a soul. Thus it has always been that my interactions with those who share my specter have arisen entirely out of chance, as happened last December.
I can still hear it now. I never went in for afterglow or candlelight on the mistletoe, but now when you turn the lamp down low I’m beginning to see the light.
There is a peculiar tradition at Washington and Lee University known as Christmas weekend. A two night date function, it, like all great W&L traditions, involves a curious juxtaposition of formal wear and debaucherous behavior, a haze of bourbon and bowties. One such night from my junior year is particularly vivid, although it began ordinarily enough. It seemed to be simply another evening of pearls and perfume perhaps notable only for my silly insistence on wearing my father’s old bomber jacket over my cocktail dress; something about the contrast between the earthy leather and the white silk amused me. I remember that a faint dusting of snow made everything shimmer, and the lyrics to an old standard, “I’m beginning to see the light,” kept playing over and over in my head. My date was sweet and familiar, a close enough friend that we were content to drift in and out of each other’s presence. So when he was called away on official fraternity business I wasn’t distressed; I simply found my way to a seat at the bar. There was the usual discussion of hometowns and home teams, friends, finals, and plans for New Years Eve. By chance, something prompted me to make an offhanded remark about the number zero. I have long since forgotten what I said, perhaps it was a joking question about how nothing could be something?, but that is where my evening changed.
I watched as the boy suddenly became alert and cocked his head to the side, a curious look in his eyes. He matched my query with another and an imperceptible spark of recognition flashed between us. Those around us attempted to continue the usual witty but superficial cocktail banter, but the two of us kept steering the conversation back to laughably serious quandaries. Our comments were directed at the group, but we were acutely aware of each other’s presence, searching each other for signs of recognition. It was a sort of mutual test; every seemingly innocent comment about nothingness begged the question: You too?
One by one, the others who had congregated at the bar would wander off, yawning or shaking their heads and muttering “I’m too drunk for this.” Yet we continued on, our conversation comically frantic as we discussed the paradoxes that stirred our souls. We discussed Heidegger, and Plato, and Euripides, and Calvin, and Caputo. Discussions of such thinkers are not unheard of at cocktail parties, but this was different. It was sincere. There was no smugness, no namedropping, no blasé well obviouslys. It was an earnest and exuberant search, not really for solutions, just for someone who could see the conundrums. We spoke of salvation, of damnation, of living, of dying, of loving, of language, and of thinking. And it was exhilarating.
I should perhaps mention that this was by no means a romantic encounter; he was four years younger and happily dating a girl who was only absent because of an athletic commitment. But that is not to say it was not intimate, for it was profoundly so. I stayed at the corner of the bar until four, my soul naked before a boy I had met mere hours before. And in truth, our parting was as clumsy and awkward as any morning after. When I stood to leave I said the words usually appropriate at the end of first meetings: it was nice to meet you. But we both knew it was all wrong for the occasion. Stilted and overly formal. So I tried again: it was nice to be known by you.
I walked home alone that morning in a haze brought on by too much whiskey and too little sleep, knowing well that our chance encounter would never be repeated. How could it be? In truth, I have seen him around campus many times since, and his has always cocked his head to the side and curiously smiled. But what can you say in a lunch line to someone you barely know yet have exposed yourself to fully?
And yet I somehow feel our one encounter was enough. I remember that during a rare lull in our conversation he remarked that it was like we both saw an extra color that no one around us could perceive. As he explained, flowers have ultra-violet light patters on their petals, imperceptible to the human eye, but which catch the attention of honeybees. He tilted his head slightly, looked towards the heavens, and ruminated that we are perhaps like those honeybees. We were not crazy, we just had never been around a fellow bee before, someone who saw the patterns. I may not know whom I love when I love my God, but I at least know that I am not alone in not knowing. And yet wanting to so very desperately.
I wonder though, when did it start? Looking back, I remember my second birthday, the inexplicable outpouring of cake, and gifts, and love, but I also remember much that I cannot date from long before then. Some memories are accompanied by words, but I have others from before I knew what words were. I hear it is unusual to remember thoughts from infancy, and I think this is a blessing. Oh, how I ache when I recall that deep oceanic feeling, the synchronicity of heartbeats, and the security of being physically connected to my entire universe.
Eli Wiesel ruminates that the instant an infant is born it “is still loved, but not as before. Neither boy nor girl will ever again be loved as they were one minute earlier.” I understand this well, and I wish so desperately that it were not so. I wish that it were possible to become a self without that initial bloody schism and the countless bloodless ones that follow. Is it really worth it; is it worth sacrificing union on the altar of our selfhood? Perhaps all that can be said of my own opinion on the matter is that I never chose to leave the womb. I was nearly three weeks late and showing no sign of budging when the doctors decided to induce labor and extract me by artificial means.
Then as a child I was what my mother describes as almost too empathetic to function. Apparently, I never had to be taught to share or be considerate of others’ feelings. Instead I ascribed feelings to everything around me. I carried on long conversations with the birds and the trees. I shed tears over the mosquitoes I could not stop myself from swatting. After rainstorms, I spent hours picking earthworms off my driveway so that they would not die a senseless death under my father’s tires.
Perhaps most strange of all, I felt deeply for objects most people would consider inanimate. For instance, there was this mattress. When my mother was young and struggling she purchased it at a hotel sale. She later passed it on to me, and it was the first big-girl bed I ever had. After a long and exhausting day of playing dead man walking with my neighborhood friends I returned home and found this mattress unceremoniously discarded at the street, sprawled and contorted into a pitiful heap. I sprinted to my room and found a sterile new mattress waiting for me upon my bed. I was confused, and deeply wounded. My parents later found me with the garbage; unable to drag the mattress farther than a foot or two, I had thrown myself over its ratted, pee-stained body and proceeded to sob uncontrollably. It had been nothing but loyal and supportive, faithfully carrying out its sole mission in life without complaint. And yet we rewarded it by throwing it in the trash? You don’t discard someone who loves you. You shouldn’t treat anyone like that. How could they? ‘ Reason’ did not work on me, and I stayed there until I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on my dear friend one last time and my daddy tenderly wiped my tears and carried me to my new bed. When I awoke the next morning, disoriented, I panicked and pressed my nose to the window. It was too late. The garbage man had already come.
Although I barely remember it, my mother tells me she felt intensely ashamed before me at my fifth birthday party when a similar incident occurred. For as a child, I deeply loved dolls. They were thoroughly real to me, and I cared for them with profuse and genuine affection. For this birthday, my mama had agreed to order me an extra special new one from a catalogue that I had already decided to name Hazel. But when I tore through the paper wrappings and cardboard box, she was appalled at the utter lack of resemblance between the glossy catalogue picture and the mangy monstrosity in my arms. She immediately swooped in, grabbed the doll, and assured me in comforting tones that she’d return it and by me a nice, beautiful doll instead. At this, I am said to have burst into tears and looked up at my mother in shock. She recalls that it was as if I no longer recognized her. And then in my childhood innocence and sincerity I asked: Would you have sent me back if I had been ugly? Isn’t everyone beautiful to God? What could she have said in return? And so it was that I was allowed to keep my Hazel. I kept her close, whispering to her each morning and night that she was beautiful.
Reflecting back, my mother insists I was a living embodiment of the golden rule. She claims I always seemed to do onto others as I would have them do onto myself, even if those others were a potato and a couch cushion. I’m not so sure. The more I reflect back upon my early years, the more certain I am that I simply took far longer than most children to comprehend the unbreachable rupture between myself and others. My supposed kindnesses were selfish acts of the most fundamental kind; I was doing onto myself as I would have myself do onto myself.
Yet things did not become easier once I finally discerned that the universe is shattered. About a month into college, after an evening spent eating Chunky Monkey from the carton and laughing ourselves sick I look over at my roommate and sigh. I will never be whole again. While I’m here, I am always missing the people back there. But when I go back there, I’ll just miss the people here. She throws a pillow at me and tells me to stop being so melodramatic . But in truth, I have never been whole. For when you are raised travelling between two places, loving people in each, it splits your very soul.
My father, a pilot, has to leave my mother alone with me because I am born so many weeks late, at a serendipitously precise time of 7:47 in the evening. It is too much for her, so she takes me to stay with her mother. Thus I ride on an airplane for the first time when I am just over a week old. But really, it is not my first time. My mother was a flight-attendant until she grew too big to fit down the aisles, and I was up in the air with her then. I am a child of the air; I am most at home when I am 32,000 feet above the ground. But strangely, I do not become consciously aware of it until a college professor provides me with the space to reflect.
For on the first day of Nature and Place we are warned that we will have to write a term paper on a sacred space. Any sacred space. While gazing out the window I see the dissipating remnant of a contrail and I realize what sacred space I wish to choose. So I speak with the professor after class. He seems almost amused but gives me permission. I struggle with the project for a few weeks on my own before slinking dejectedly back to his office. As always, this man provides graceful guidance and hands me something I never would have expected. I am writing a research paper, and yet he gives me novels. Novels! Novels with names like Up in the Air, Aloft, and Never Land. And then he tells me to do something I never could have conceived. Write it in the first person. Write it as fiction. And so, I stop struggling. I stop trying to make my inner musings conform to some scholarly model of what a term paper should be and simply record the quotes that stir me and the musings which drift through my mind. I stumble upon paintings and poems about airplanes and I allow myself to ponder them too.
And then it takes shape on its own. It begins and ends in the first person, a fictionalized account of what I am thinking as I look down from the window of an airplane, marveling that I am more at home there than I will ever be on earth. In it, I do not so much explain the meaning of quotes from great authors as explain what meaning they hold for me. An Inquiry into the Essence of Airplanes. It is a grossly imperfect little creature, but one that I have conceived and labored and birthed and every one of its flaw is an echo of my own. My professor, a man who always seems to intuit my thoughts and feelings before I am even aware that I have thought or felt them, gives simple advice. This means something to you. Home. Pursue it. And then he warns me that my thesis must be different. There is a set format that such essays must follow.
It doesn’t matter though. After that term paper, I write in an entirely new way. Though the language I use for my thesis is scholarly and objective in form, its content is saturated with the wanderings of my soul. I write of nostalgia, of the all-too-human ache to be at home upon the earth. I write in long stretches and time slips away from me. Often when I emerge I am faintly surprised to discover that while I was buried in a windowless room deep within one of Lexington’s hillsides, the sun has decided to rise. I am afraid of how the department will react, but while this paper too is hopelessly flawed, they receive it tenderly. I am blessed.
I cannot reflect upon such currents in my life without remarking that while the clouds may be profoundly beautiful and worth craning one’s neck to see, I have found that doing so while continuing to walk makes you very liable to trip. And so the girls, the women, I have flocked to have always seemed to have both their gaze and their feet planted firmly upon the earth. I deeply appreciate the sort of friends that some might describe as bossy. The sort of girls who will rip a book out of my hands and playfully beat me with it when I attempt to read at parties, the sort of girls who will make plans for me ask are you really wearing that?! and then drag me to them, the sort of girls who tell me my music is making everyone in the room sleepy or suicidal and turn on the radio instead. The sort of girls who remind me to turn the oven off. Such friends keep me sane.
And yet, when I am around them for too long I cannot help but feel like someone has amputated one of my limbs. I can function yes, but I am left with an oozing, bloody stump. I have to bury the part of myself that no one else cares for, and it is never easy. During one lunch date, a dear friend threatened to overturn her mac and cheese upon my head if I mentioned any dead white men. I started counting, and I physically had to bite my tongue at least seven times.
For many people the academy is the graveyard in which one buries ones selfhood. All remaining remnants of a subjective conscience are entombed for the sake of objective truth and impersonal investigation. This is not true for me. There are vital parts of my selfhood that I can only unbury and visit with when I am deep at work on a term paper. Such papers are my spirituals, their apparent meaning obvious but their covert meaning also plain to those who care to look. When asked to write a five page paper on Job, it is inevitably woven with my soul.
Yet as a child, I never particularly excelled at school. My kindergarten teacher told my parents I was destined to be average at best all of my life. In a sense, I just never cared; my teachers never seemed to tell me anything I couldn’t find out far more easily in a book. In second grade, my teacher allowed us to sit quietly in the library if we had finished our homework early; I started filling my worksheets with nonsense so that I could leave as soon as possible and read books instead.
A sixth grade teacher changed everything. I met him for the first time at a school picnic while climbing a tree. My mother called up to me have you met your teacher yet? and as I stared down at that man I’m sure my response was what most people would consider rude. I have been told that my face always betrays my true feelings; at that moment it was surely showing nothing but incredulity. What was this thing? Where was his orange lipstick? His obnoxiously cheery brooch? His condescending stare? His sensible shoes? How could that be a teacher? He just raised an eyebrow and slightly smiled. Nice to meet you.
As the year unfolded, I never could comprehend him. He was this maddening paradox and though I was utterly devoted to him he was entirely beyond my grasp. He wasn’t just our teacher, he was the school headmaster. He rode to school on a motorcycle. His ears were pierced. He was a pastor, but also a particle physicist. He introduced us to Shakespeare, and to allegory, and to quarks. He was achingly wise.
For the first time in my life, I had met a teacher who seemed to know something that I could not find in a book. This revelation made me frantic; my desire could not be quenched during class. Fortunately, this man allowed us to pursue an unlimited amount of extra credit. All we had to do was be willing to write short papers on anything and then spend part of our lunch in the headmaster’s office discussing them.
When I’d go to his office he would always treat my quandaries and assertions with such gentleness and such care. Yet he was not afraid to challenge me, to leave me wondering how I could have ever been so misguided. And as young as I was, he always spoke to me as if I were a real person. We once spent an eternity discussing who that Jesus of Nazareth might have been; he taught me that school could be a place for questions, not just answers. I received a 116% in 6th grade Social Studies. It was not enough. At the end of the year, he left us and our privileged world of morning meditations and immersion weeks to teach in the inner city. School became flat once more.
It was alright though. I learned how to stifle those questions and get by. I learned how to blend. I will seem just like any other cheerleader on the squad; I will be on homecoming court. My teachers tell my parents I am a gifted writer and they are confused when I tell them I hate writing. It is such a labor. But gradually it becomes easier and easier for me to shut off my heart and argue whatever I think my teachers or an abstract grading board want to hear. The papers I write are empty rhetorical exercises; I transform myself into a machine. And oh how it works! I become the first female in my high school’s history to score a 5 on the AP US History exam. Those essays I wrote seem so foreign to me now.
But what is not foreign to me? What or where is my home? I should perhaps know by now; growing up in a family filled with aviators has allowed me to glimpse the world. We never vacationed like normal families, making plans to spend leisurely weeks inhabiting a place. Instead we’d go where we could when we could, often at a moment’s notice. I’d come home from school and discover suitcases stacked in the doorway. An evening in Paris. A weekend in Beijing. Dinner in DC. We always pack light.
We float in and out of these places, never substantiating our presence or thinking for a moment that we could grow roots. Yet there is one place that always draws me back. One thing. A tree; a wizened and glorious old banyan tree stretching towards the sea from the open-air courtyard of the oldest hotel on Waikiki beach. My love for this tree is incomprehensible and inexplicable even to me; there are countless trees on the Hawaiian Islands, so many other fish in the sea! And Waikiki usually frustrates me; I hate the bustle and the brand names and prefer to get deliciously lost and eat confusing fruit on some other beach on some other island. Yet I am tangled up in this tree and it in me. Years may pass, but my banyan inevitably pulls me back. And there, on ground that belongs to a corporation in a courtyard millions have passed through, I am curiously home.
Of all the times that I have napped in its shade one meeting remains so vivid that it stings to remember. I have just had foot surgery, but lying on a beach sounds infinitely preferable to lying on the couch for yet another day. And so when daddy invites us to come to work with him we pack quickly and lightly. We stow away on his airplane, ride the bus with his crew, and slip into his hotel room. Us three are an endless ocean of laughter as I attempt to wade through the sand on crutches and then flop about all gangly and contorted as I try to submerge as much of my body as I can without wetting my cast. Our progress is slow, but we traverse down the beach until we reach my tree and I am overcome.
It is lovely. So lovely that when the captain departs my mother and I stay behind to soak up what we can of the last rays of summer. Our last night we wander aimlessly through the streets and discover that gravity has pulled us back to the courtyard that houses and is housed by the wide canopy of my tree. So we linger and watch the sun languorously set over the ocean. And it is so achingly beautiful that we stay as the moon and the candles are lit. I remember the faintness of plumeria, the comforting reverberation of acoustic guitars, and the maddening tangles of my salty hair.
As the waves continue to visit us, we sit and we reminisce and we are so open and so bare. We are variations on a theme us two, and it seems that for every incommensurable difference there is something vital that resonates and is amplified until it becomes too powerful and we must cast it out over the sea. And though I have long since forgotten what lead her to say it, I will never forget her uncharacteristically poetic words. I am a wanderer. I am never happy unless I am wandering. But you…you are a wanderer who longs for roots. How can you ever be happy?
The truth of her words burns my throat and makes my mascara run so I reach for my crutches and attempt to navigate my way to the nearest mirror. It is a mess of stopping and starting and turning as I duck to keep from running into the tangled masses of roots which my tree is dropping from the sky to the earth. And then I realize how much I want to be this tree, how much I am this tree. It soars and it travels, potentially someday for miles, but it is paradoxically also rooted firmly in the earth. It is living a life of both and. It is whole in its division. It is a marvelous contradiction.
Sometimes, when you head west in an airplane at just the right speed at just the right time, twilight stretches. Time becomes a meaningless concept and space is only an endless expanse of hazy purple. You can miraculously inhabit that moment of liminality. And it is beautiful. Periwinkle. Yet when I think of blue I think of the struggle to put on a particular play, hoping against hope that it will sing. The struggle remains particularly sharp, not yet dulled by the flow of memory.
I have been rehearsing endlessly and the result is technical perfection. We know our lines, know our blocking, know exactly which spot in the audience to stare at if we want it to look precisely as if we are examining a painting two feet from our eyes. I can even make myself cry. And yet, it means nothing. It is sound not music. My fellow actor and I were cast reluctantly; instead of the bawdy comedies or the political satire we were shanghaied into taking part in the token drama, a piece that seemed overdone and melodramatic on the page. He swallows a few times, smiles apathetically, but decides to accept the part anyway. And so we are strangers in an art gallery, transfixed by the work of Rothko. As he and I speak of color blocks and portals the audience is supposed to gradually realize that I am an image of his dead mother conjured forth by his experience of the artwork. And then, I mysteriously disappear back inside a painting. Yet our rendition is entirely flat.
But one day our student director opens rehearsal with a proclamation. I chose this one act because I know what it feels like to lose a parent. Both of them, actually. My mother and father were murdered by my brother while I was away at college. He wrapped their dead bodies up in sheets and threw a party. Google it. And then she tells my cast mate that he needs to know what such helplessness and bewilderment feels like-but she makes him explicitly promise never to discuss anything she tells him with anyone, especially me. I watch his Adam’s apple bob as he follows her.
And so I am left alone on an empty stage for nearly an hour while they speak in private. I feel abandoned, confused, and morbidly curious. For lack of anything better to do, I run lines in my head and mark the blocking, hoping to impress her with my perfection. But when they return, she does not take her usual place in the audience. Instead she whispers. Follow me. She leads us out of the theater and down the hallway into an actual art gallery. She moves a bench and places it in front of a painting. It is a huge abstract canvas, impossibly blue. And then, she leaves.
We look at each other, and I can tell he is as lost and confused as I am. We gather we are supposed to perform, but to this wall? There is no one to watch us. We begin, and it is odd. The room is so oppressively empty; it echoes our words back to us. But as we continue, as we stare into that blue swamp, we are transformed. It is no longer a performance but a reality in which we are entangled. I lose myself in the blue, and this time the tears I cry are authentic and desperate. Being lost to a child seems impossibly worse than losing a child. I am helpless to alleviate the pain in his eyes.
When we finish, we are silent. The whole gallery is eerily silent and hushed. Neither of us is capable of breaking such a silence, so we just sit. In front of the bench, still swimming in that blue. And out of urgent desperation we lean on each other’s shoulders, seeking any comfort we can find. Finally, our director returns and breaks the silence with a somber how’d it go? I am honest with her. For the first time, I don’t care if we ever perform. This doesn’t need outside validation. Too much of my soul is wrapped up inside it.
Yet three days later, perform we must. But we do not so much perform for the audience as we perform with them. As we walk through this art gallery together, a charged hush falls over the audience. We are all stitched together in this silence, and the tears I cry onstage are reflected back in the gazes directed towards me. By the time I walk through the painting, the audiences’ gasps and sobs are audible. And when I leave the stage, more tears await me. But these tears are not contemplative. They are urgent. The director grasps me tightly and words pour out at a furious and almost nonsensical pace. Do you know why I cast you? It was your voice. It was so rich but so fragile and it sounded like it could forgive. We Jews are bitter. We hold on to our resentment. But you have a Christian voice. And I just needed to know that my mom was as lost as I am but that she could forgive. She continues to ramble. Thank you seems inappropriate and inadequate so I just hold her and let her sob.
While it usually lacks such moments, I love the game of badminton almost as much as I love theater. When played correctly, it is a dizzying blur. Few things are as satisfying as suddenly stopping that whirlwind with a well placed smash at an opponent’s feet. I’ve tried other racquet sports of course, but it is never the same. My badminton racquet is an extension of my arm and it knows exactly where to hit a birdie to make it go fast and low and deep. I am what coaches call a power hitter and my serve is killer, always flying just higher than where an opponent can reach but somehow still landing precisely within the line.
It has been years since I have picked up a racquet. There is nowhere to play and no one to play against. I’ve tried a few times, at graduation parties or backyard picnics, but it lacks any sense of satisfaction and only leaves me frustrated and desiring more. It is just too painful. So I try to make myself into a tennis player. I make my arm move in a way that is deceptively different. I angle my body in this foreign way and I tell myself that it is fun. And look! There is never a shortage of courts or opponents! But I always relapse. My body moves in the way it moves, and the strange racquet is rejected like a tissue from an unmatched donor.
And so it is that theater is my release. Oh callbacks! You are so close but so far. We all report to the auditorium after school and the director calls out names pair by pair. I have been through the process many times before, but it is always excruciating. This time is no exception. It seems as though hours have passed before my name is called. We have a few seconds to look over the scripts we are handed, and then we are prodded onstage.
The afternoon has been monotonous and repetitive, but we are electric. The scene is violent-she is my elderly mother and I am beating her- but we commit to it fully. I barely recognize the savage voice that is coming from inside me, and the audience of our peers, usually so unresponsive, is suddenly wide-eyed and alert. They are stunned.
I get the part and I am overwhelmingly grateful. I have been in many plays at this high school before, but I always play the same two parts. Vapid sluts or kind mothers. The Madonna or the whore. Having my father see me onstage in various stages of undress has become so strangely ordinary that I no longer warn him. But this role…this role is different. I wear overalls, I wield a gun, and I shoot a man in cold blood. I know I can act the hell out of it, and I am ecstatic that the director has finally seen it too.
But then, about a week into rehearsals, I develop a cold. I blow my nose, and when I go to throw my tissue away I see my name on the corner of a slip of paper. Ever curious, I grab it. It is the director’s notes from the original auditions; he has made a list of who he wants to see read for each part. My name is on the list twice. Once as the protective mother of a handicapped child, and once as the town whore. It sucker-punches me in the gut; I was called onstage merely to read opposite the girl he wanted to play the elderly mother. He never thought I could actually do it.
He is not the first though. He is only one in a seemingly endless stream of boys who will look straight at me but see only the image which they have projected upon me. I have dealt with it all of my life, and I sense many others have too. I recall a day from my childhood.
I want so very badly to sit by my friends so that we can French braid each other’s hair on the way to the museum. But I am incapable. I know I’ll feel the familiar tug and inevitably be dragged away, so I preemptively slide into the screamingly empty spot next to him. I’ve noticed that he usually has a sketchpad with him at recess, so I ask him what he spends so much time sketching. Beasts. Bones. Birds. His voice is now, as always, uncannily formal. I ask him to show me and he opens his backpack. They are anatomical works of astonishing mathematical precision.
I am the sort of ‘artist’ who works blindly and haphazardly. Sometimes I end up with a mess, but other times I create something better than anything I could ever envision. I am a junkie for surprise and I crave the inexplicable. Back then, I’d dip my brush in every color of paint and see what happened, while in high school I’d let light leak into my camera. Or expose the wrong side of the paper and watch the ghosts appear. Almost weekly my teacher would smile then sigh. This is art. I can’t give you higher than a C though. The rubric…
So I am transfixed. I know even as a twelve year old that I will never be able to achieve such exactitude in anything. It is mesmerizing and I tell him so, but I can’t comprehend it. Do you ever draw anything that isn’t real? Now he can’t comprehend me. I try again. Isn’t it boring to draw things the way they are? He is still confused.
On Valentine’s day, I receive an anonymous drawing of a Pegasus. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that it has the anatomically correct wings of an eagle attached to the anatomically correct body of a horse. I suspect I am right though; a few years later he found me on the internet and professed his eternal love. Not understanding that such things have no need for reason or explanation, he offered one both juvenile and clichéd. You’re the only person that makes me feel alive. When you’re around, I feel as though I can do anything. I try as tenderly as I can to show him that he is not in love with me; I am nothing but a mirror in which he has spotted a flattering reflection of himself. But he does not understand, nor do the others. The boy with the guilty smile insists I am his muse and is constantly flooding my inbox with songs. The boy with the oversized suits wears black for a year and posts melodramatic poetry on the internet. Yet I am still unprepared for the bizarre tribute I recently received from yet another boy, this one 22 years of age.
I have heard many people complain that he is pompous and annoying, but I have always enjoyed the company of the boy with the furrowed eyebrows. Although our interaction is infrequent and primarily takes place between the hours of midnight and two am, he is always willing to discuss the TV show Mad Men like the work of literature that it is, or analyze a passage of Salinger after we discovered that we’d coincidentally endeavored to read his complete works over the same school break. I was desperate for someone to marvel at Franny and Zooey with, so it seemed like such a mercy.
This acquaintance, an English major, decided to publish a novel. Wanting to support him, I purchased a copy of his book from him as soon as it came out. However, I was excruciatingly busy and it sat on my nightstand until his fraternity brothers started winking at me and making pointed references to Daisy Buchanan that prompted me to open my copy. He had signed the first page, calling me an “artist, intellectual, and great wit.” As I read, I was horrified to discover a version of myself both foreign and familiar. I am Valerie Carter; I am from St. Louis rather than St. Charles, and the narrator with the furrowed eyebrows occasionally runs into me late at night and discusses “Breaking Bad” rather than “Mad Men.”
I struggle to inhale as I realize his brothers were right. Anyone who knows me knows that of all Fitzgerald’s heroines I am Clara. But this version of me is all Daisy. From a distance I seem to have some depth, but up close I am just as shallow and sloppy as every other girl at this country club of a liberal arts college. And I am not so much a “great wit” as an object of fetish. At one point, the narrator discusses, or perhaps dissects, me with his fraternity brothers while they play X-box. My appearance is numerically ranked, and I am noted for being “a little uptight” and repeatedly rejecting their sloppy physical advances. Or is it “a little slutty?” They can’t seem to decide.
Yet all illusions of purity are dispelled when I lure the narrator out to a party. I am wearing a Santa hat and pigtails. Pigtails. If there has ever been a demeaning hairstyle, it is pigtails on a woman grown. And oh how I am demeaned. Although on the page, it is I doing the defiling. A great deal happens on the dance floor, and perhaps all that can or should be said is that the night ends with him cleaning my vomit from his pillow. As I set down the book, I feel as hollow and confused as I would have if the encounter were real. My eyebrows furrow and I beg him. Write fact. Or write fiction. But not this.
This horrifying mirror which he has held up makes me think back to my sophomore year, which I spent living in the curious petri dish of insecurity and competition that they call a sorority house. The rooms each had two identical closets, and because of the asymmetrical way we chose to arrange our furniture, no one could ever tell which closet was whose. Occasionally someone would begin to ask, but they always stopped short as they turned the handle; the difference was overwhelming. If it was her closet they happened to open, they are confronted with an explosion of color and patterns and bows-like the ones I wore in kindergarten-and the smell of peonies. But if it were my closet that they opened, they are greeted by the tawny smell of leather and wool which permeates what she calls my grandpa clothes. Old sweaters I stole from my dad. Rugbies from the men’s section. Tweed. All in colors like hunter, navy, and chestnut.
Whenever I came home that year my mother would hold up delicate lavender or rose colored clothing and beg me to please wear something feminine for once. I always tried, but I would feel inexplicably itchy and short of breath. It wasn’t till my junior year that I realized why.
The boys and I are sitting on the front porch of their fraternity house, watching the parade of drunks and sharing embarrassing stories. As the evening settles one of them looks over at me and offers an odd compliment. You’re such a dude. And then he stops and considers his words, wondering if they weren’t quite right. I mean, you’re not a girl girl. And he realizes this is worse and gets endlessly frustrated. I laugh and playfully punch him but I am confused by his words and slowly mull them over. What does he mean, a dude?
I know he did not mean to imply that I am masculine; I have never been the sort of girl who drinks beer and belches or watches normal sports like football. But what am I if not masculine? Something androgynous? A Lady Macbeth, unsexed here for all the world to see? I slowly realize: he was not trying to make a statement about my gender at all. In fact, the opposite is true; he was trying to say that our interaction was not defined by our genders, that he sees me as a person. I find this revelation so pathetically sad.
But then it hits me; this is why I feel so uncomfortable in pastels. It is not that I am uncomfortable or ashamed of my own femininity. It is that in this strange microcosm where girls starve themselves into pre-pubescence and admit to me openly that they’re looking for a man like their daddy to support them so that they never have to hold a job, being feminine could cause me to be seen as something dependent, something inferior. It is not that I want to be a man; it is that I want to be an equal. I want to be respected as a person, and so I have subconsciously done all I can to escape the scarlet letter of my body. I have given up the possibility of being known by them in that one way for the chance to be known by them in every other. And then I am so enraged at myself for allowing this to happen that I pull on stilettos, as much a weapon as their medieval counterpart, stomp off into the night and demand to be respected. Not for my soul despite my body, but because they are one and the same.
Yet as bold as I was that night, I am guarded more often than not. Chinks appear in my armor only occasionally. I remember a night from my junior year of high school. Some tiny travesty has just occurred and I have had more than I can handle. I burst out the stage door and, thinking that I am alone, attempt to catch my breath in the icy evening air. Shit. Such a commonplace word, but she is alarmed because she has never heard me utter it. Are you alright? And I am too shocked to answer. Not because of her presence, but because she seems to care. I don’t know how to react to someone else’s love and concern for me. It is so foreign and wrong. I know how to give, but am utterly ignorant when it comes to receiving. She freely offers a hug and I am awkward and uncomfortable; I feel exposed, as if I have forgotten to put on pants. But then it all pours out: the mess Katrina has made of my family and my utter inability to do what is expected of me, what I want to do, in a twenty-four hour day. I am drowning. And then she wipes my tears and laughs, a tender and kind laugh. She lists the people and the causes and the art for which I have poured out all of my time and my self and tells me it is not selfish to take time for myself, that I am more than what I give to others. And suddenly, hearing it from her, I realize that acting in three plays at once really is preposterous. This outpouring will never fill me up. And yet I am terrified of what will happen if I slow down.
Yet gradually, I learn to linger. That summer, I almost learn to be reckless.
Say it. I can’t. Just say it. It is midnight and we have driven far into the country for our monthly bad-ass day. Such days started when she noticed that I instinctively turn my blinker on even when no one is around and I am turning into my own driveway. She says I need to learn how to flirt with sin. And despite my insistence that I might not believe such a thing exists she, the rationalist, insists that it does. So she drags me out and makes me jaywalk on deserted streets, or drive with only one hand on the wheel, or scream FUCK! when no one is around to hear. Fuuuuujibit. Foooooklestein. Fuuuuhicantdoit. She starts to threaten me I’ll drive off and leave you when I interrupt. FUCKaaaaaaaahijustdidit! We scream and run down the valley to the reservoir where we collapse in a fit of giggles and spend the rest of the night saying prayers for the passing cars. I am the one who insists upon the prayers.
So often we dig up dinosaur bones and catch fireflies and then snuggle up and read stories and say prayers and then they drift off to sleep and I drift seamlessly out of their lives. But it is not always so gentle. Nothing has the capacity to break my heart quite like caring for other people’s children. Sometimes I want to scream at parents whose absence hangs thick in the air. Money and love are not equivalent currencies! My affection will never have the same worth as yours! She just wants you to love her enough to say no and mean it! But I am the nanny and I am paid to tend silence and so I cannot. My heart throbs for these children who have everything but nothing.
But there are also the children who have even less. Because the old teacher quit and there is no one else I am wrangled from an endless stack of paperwork and become their art teacher for a summer. I know nothing about art but everything about the raw yearning in their eyes and so I tell them of the many ways in which they are miraculous. There is no finger painting, no macaroni portrait, no popsicle stick Jesus in which I cannot find remarkable beauty. I hold them up in front of the class. The lines! The color! The cleverness! The innovation! I wax and expound until I can see in their eyes that that they know I am not speaking about the mass of glue and paper.
For liability reasons, we are not allowed to touch them. Even when they lunge at each other and scream words too violent for such tiny vocal cords we are only supposed to pry them off one another if death seems imminent. That’s what security guards are for. But when a fragile little girl who is away from home for the very first time and misses her mommy slips and skins her knee and then looks up at you with tears welling in her eyes, or is so very proud that she finally did it that she comes running to you expectantly, you hug her. I hug her and I do not regret it. And I wish so badly that it could be enough.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I am nine, a mere child like the ones I now teach, when my mother decides to take me to an Ash Wednesday service on a whim. It is poorly attended, and I suppose it continues only out of a sense of obligation to tradition. We somberly process forward for the imposition of the ashes. It is a messy business, vulgar even. For those around me, it is a labored effort. Something morbid to shudder through so that the polite domesticity of Easter can arrive. For me it is a revelation. This Lutheran church’s mantra is mere symbolism, yet here it has lapsed into a genuine ritual. It has lapsed into holiness. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Grave words, but I feel impossibly light.
When we arrive back home, I do not know what to do with the ashes but intuit that asking is somehow inappropriate. Rinsing them away in the shower with tropical burst body wash just seems crude. So I save them. I carefully press a tissue to my forehead and then tuck it away in a pirate treasure chest underneath my bed.
I have never missed one since, but I love the Ash Wednesday service most of all when everyone else is too tired or too busy and I am left to go alone. I find a pew of my own in a near-empty church and there is no pre-service chatter, no pandering sermon with lame jokes and sports metaphors, no donuts. Just profound silence. And I am gloriously free to slip away from myself as we chant the psalms and raise our hymns to God.
And yet, a dear friend thinks that silence is cause for despair. One night, the boy with the untamable hair decides to explain to me why, as much as he’d like to, he can never be religious. He shows me a movie that proves God does not exist. And then he looks over at me, in genuine sincerity, and apologizes for shattering my faith. I try so very hard not to, but I laugh. And once I start, I cannot stop. I laugh so long and so hard and with so many tears streaming down my face that he is afraid I will fall off of my lofted bed and out the window. He is so very confused. I struggle to explain myself between my staccato exhalations. You….have no idea….how much I…wish…it were that simple…And then I collapse into another fit of giggles.
You can kill it, but it cannot die. It will be there, rearranging the furniture as you sleep. A glint in the corner of your eye that you almost thought you saw, an echo of a voice you nearly heard.
He does not understand, so I wait until I can breathe deeply once more and then try again. Have you ever read the Nicene Creed? If you disprove a point the whole thing doesn’t topple. It doesn’t even begin to contain it, and if you were to recite its complete opposite it would be neither more nor less true. Neither of us is convinced, but we let it dissipate and join the crowd waiting for Trav.
There is another time. We four play volleyball by moonlight and turn cartwheels across the lawn. Another boy tries to put the intensity of our bond into words but he can only shout. These people. THESE PEOPLE. We laugh because it makes no sense but we know exactly what he means. He has mysteriously gone missing lately, but tonight he is all ours. They suspect he has a secret girlfriend. I sense otherwise, but I do not press him nor do I share my thoughts with the others. He has been drinking all evening, and in his sloppiness he spills rum across the floor. But instead of wiping it up, he spells out our names in continuous cursive and pulls out a match. For a brief moment, there is an ecstatic expression of our unity blazing before us. And then it is exactly as before.
Later that night, we are all frolicking across a field. Or they are; his arm is around me and I’m guiding him home. When they are far ahead of us he leans over and whispers in my ear. I love you. And I smile and answer back. I know. And then he pauses. I’m gay. And I answer once more. I know. And then his words start tumbling out. But you can’t tell anyone else. Not here! Not yet! So I kiss him tenderly on the forehead and put him to bed and whisper that he is beautiful and loved.
Gradually he shares his secret. First with These People and then with others. But things are not the same. She is different around him, around us. I see something I do not recognize in her eyes. So I tell her and she tells me. We all know he’s going to burn in hell. Why are you encouraging it? And suddenly it is cemented. I do not recognize this girl. A chasm has opened between us. I am helpless and confused. Isn’t everyone beautiful to God? But I am older now, so I do not cry.
Instead I read. All spring and all summer. Books that get strange looks in waiting rooms and on airplanes. But I do not care. I need to understand her and I need to understand myself. So I stifle my heart and I think from my head. Yet the heart can only be silenced for so long, and in the fall it bleeds upon my schoolwork. I write of the early church fathers and the way their rhetoric surrounding homosexuality changed drastically over time. I write of Pagan family values. I write of Paul. They are well-reasoned, methodically executed papers that remain faithful to the primary texts they address. And yet their origin is fourteen inches south of my brain.
What will I do without class, without a place to get this off of my heart?
I am turning 22 and it is the very last real day of college classes, the very last time that I will sit in a circle and have a conversation about an author I never would have thought to pick up on my own. And like so many other times in my life, I cannot keep myself from crying. I thought I was ready to graduate, but at this moment leaving seems unbearable; I am terrified that the big wide world will have no more circles, that it will be flat and utterly devoid of wisdom. In truth, if a demon were to steal into my loneliest loneliness I would gladly accept his offer and stay drinking green tea and listening to the words of the others for eternity. I trust them. I respect them. I am moved by their observations. And so when we all stand to leave l wonder if or how things will ever be okay again. The tears keep flowing.
But as we climb into my car and prepare to head down the mountain, I realize I have received a message from my father: a hazy photo of my banyan tree that he took that morning. I cry harder, but these tears are different.
Everything is going to be alright.
I met the boy with the untamable hair one night when I was taking out the trash from my freshman dorm room. Instead of hauling bags down three flights of stairs, I’d usually launch them out of the boy’s bathroom window to the dumpster directly below. Chance was our friend; we likely never would have spoken if I had not been wearing an old Sufjan concert tee when I walked past his friend’s door. He made some mindless comment about the shirt, and I was immediately intrigued because he recognized that Come on Feel the Illinoise was both a joke and an album title, instead of asking if I had family at the University of Illinois or something? This then lead to a rousing conversation about banjos and I confessed to him my secret dream of starting a band just so I could name it Jazz Killed the Banjo. Because they say it did, you know.
We cleave to each other in a way it seems only freshman, suddenly cut loose from everything they have known and loved, ever can. We are so alike, yet so decisively different. We perplex each other; we agree on everything except conclusions. We are constantly having something between a conversation and an argument. He is my best friend in exactly the way fourth graders use the term, but our freshman year is also dappled with brief forays into more.
In late August I flew into D.C. just for the day, wonderfully free from even carry-on baggage. I took the metro to the Smithsonian to meet him, and we spent a jubilous afternoon wandering aimlessly. I show him my favorite horse on the carousel, a vibrant turquoise seahorse-out- of-water that clashes with all the other stallions. He shows me the dinosaur bones that transfixed him on 3rd grade fieldtrips. I take him to the propellers that bored me to tears on our annual family pilgrimages to the Air and Space museum, and he shows me the modern art which my mechanically-minded parents would never have thought to visit. As the sun sets, we make predictions for the coming school year and tease each other about the embarrassing speeches we intend to make at each other’s weddings. He sees me to the metro station.
It is the last time I ever see him. Two weeks later, when everyone else has returned to Lexington but I am still at home, squeezing what I can from the last moments of summer, my phone rings. It is one of our mutual friends. He never moved in, and hasn’t returned anyone’s phone calls. Surely I have heard from him?
Years later it is two in the morning and I am suddenly sobbing uncontrollably in my bed. My throat is so swollen that I am incapable of forming words. I know only that I am utterly incapable of staying in the relationship I am in, but also of ending it and hurting the sweet and vulnerable boy that I saw too much in. This boy with senator hair is long graduated and lives several states away, but somehow the distance is not enough to keep me from feeling suffocated. And so, in my paralysis I send a desperate and ridiculous plea to a boy with ridiculous hair whom I have not seen since or spoken with since that August day several years earlier. Am I incapable of loving anyone?
My phone rings instantaneously, a baffling miracle, and for a moment all is forgiven. He allows me to sob, not hurrying my explanation, and then with his characteristic thoughtfulness and deliberation offers an answer or something like it. You’ve always loved everyone. You’ve only ever been in love with God.
And with that, he said goodnight.