why church

I’ve found myself back at church, though I hadn’t gone in decades. The last time I remember going, I’d ditched out of youth group in search of some party with boys and booze. I imagine Jesus looking downwards, dejected, as my friends and I peeled off into the night.

I was raised in a non-religious household, though my parents introduced us to church and even went themselves for awhile. The one church was too Fire and Brimstone for one, the other too Hippy Dippy for the other. I liked the Hippy Dippy one best. We watched The Yellow Submarine and ate graham crackers heavy with cinnamon sugar. The crackers at the Fire and Brimstone church were plain, possibly saltines.

At the fun church, we got to draw all over a plain white belted robe with magic markers. While captivated wholly by the tale of poor Jacob stripped of his trippy robe and thrown into a pit by his own brothers, which I could easily imagine because I had an older brother, I was mostly thrilled to somehow win this robe as a take-home prize. I kept it folded neatly in the dress up box underneath my bed and wore it occasionally during solemn events, such as the front garden funeral for Sundance the hermit crab and, later, his brother Spicoli.

I don’t know why then that I wound up back at the Fire and Brimstone church a year or so later, alone and voluntarily to my recollection, though we all know how memories are holey and not to be trusted. I remember sitting around a table and closing my eyes tight when the sunday school teacher told us to ask Jesus to enter our hearts and feeling nothing but embarrassment for all of us.

And how on earth did I wind up back at church at the ripe age of 40, or is it that exactly? Is this what people do in middle age, like taking up exercise and paying bills on time and giving up booze and cigarettes? Let’s hedge our bets, play it safe where we can. No one lives forever, you know.

I’m pretty sure that giving up the drink led me to church in a roundabout way. Alcohol was a real spirit blocker and the god talk in early recovery never really bothered me because I picked up right where I left off. I don’t still have Jacob’s trippy robe, but I feel power and comfort in something bigger beyond my own little world. I feel tapped in to other people doing better by themselves and their families and the world at large. It’s intoxicating, ironically or maybe not.

I wound up back at church to give my kids a hopefully well-rounded base for their own spirituality and for my own selfish reasons, though I don’t fully know what those are. A sense of community, maybe, or the feeling of connecting and giving back. The decision to try church again reminds me of when I quit drinking. It feels sudden yet a long time coming, with some purpose beyond grasp but instinctively accepted. It feels like the right place to be, though not without causing conflict in our household.

My husband married someone who didn’t go to church because Sundays were Hangover Days. We drove to Target in the late morning and joked it was our church, with Elvis belting out hymns on the radio. Many years later, his wife is this strange teetotaler who puts on work clothes voluntarily on a Sunday morning and drives the kids to church and isn’t around to paint the hallway or help out with yard work, though to be fair that may be for the best. It’s one more change to adapt to, and I have a hard time explaining to him or anyone why church? so I guess I am just attempting to do that here.

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The below post was inspired after reading two recent and lovely pieces by Michelle and Sherry. And also a short trip home.

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While watching my daughters reenact the “I’m Flying!” scene from Titanic on my dad’s boat, I realized I don’t hum on boat rides anymore. It was a bittersweet moment. I’ve always hummed involuntarily on boat rides and took it as a sign I could be deliriously happy at sea no matter my state on land. Watching my girls goof around and sing, I felt like I’d passed the baton.

We cruised past an eroding strip of undeveloped land, my dad at the wheel. I could see a tramped down path in the bluff above, but I’ve never seen another soul up there. My dad told me he’s recently walked along the trails, which branch out like fingers. He asked if I ever explored it as a kid, and incredibly I hadn’t and stopped to think how that could be. Then I remembered Old Man Jenkins.

Jenkins wasn’t really his last name and his real name was actually more fitting, but he’s long gone so let’s just let him rest. He was an ornery old fella when he was alive and who knows what his ghost might be like. The real reason I never explored the bluff was fear of death by shotgun. Neighborhood legend was that he once shot at some kids who wandered onto his land, which was only separated from our neighborhood by a tall chain-length fence strangled with ivy and weeds.

Jenkins ran some kind of ship repair shop or hospice for dying boats and he lived alone on an overgrown compound on at least five acres of prime waterfront real estate. He could have sold it and bought himself a house on the Riviera, but I guess he liked his spot and I can respect that.

The town where I grew up has always been a mix of newcomers who just want a pretty water view and people who stick around for what time hasn’t been able to change. It still has the same old country store my parents didn’t want us going in as kids because it was dirty or the clerk surly or prices jacked too high or all of the above. The post office and fire station look the same from the outside and I can still picture the inside of the fire hall from that neighborhood dance in 7th grade when I was allowed to wear eye shadow and mascara for the first time and felt beautiful for two solid hours.

My brother used to walk home late at night from his dishwashing job at the crab house and sometimes burnouts from the rougher neighborhood threw things at him. Once he got pelted with the letter E from our nautical-themed neighborhood sign. It wasn’t class warfare exactly, but there was a clear divide between new neighborhoods and old. Several decades later, all the neighborhoods are old and waterfront lots are scarce. People with money will buy up anything, tear it down and put up window-covered castles on postage stamp lots.

Jenkins’ old land sold and has a handful of new carriage homes on it. I don’t think he would have cared for anything called a carriage home. The undeveloped bluff has to stay that way, according to my dad. For the record, I don’t think Jenkins ever shot at anyone, but the rumor kept me out. I imagined him poised at a murky window, his sweaty, nicotine-stained finger twitching close to the trigger, his eyesight not all that great but his hearing pretty keen.


 

I love visiting my parents and smelling the brackish tides and watching osprey carry off long sticks to nests high above. I love visiting “home” but the place I miss isn’t here anymore. The kids are old now, like me, and most of them gone. The woods we played in are long gone too, except for that bluff I never went in anyway. Now I want in.

We were only visiting for one night and most of a day, so there wasn’t enough time for trespassing. There was barely enough time for a boat ride and a swim in the creek, but we managed both.

By we, I mean the collective we. I stood barefoot on the pier with my sweet baby nephew while my girls and dad swam in the silty brown water below. I paced to keep the bottoms of my feet from burning as they waded in to water that was still cold but sea nettle free. Soon they were swimming and splashing around. My dad offered a bounty to anyone able to locate the sturdy wooden rocking chair that blew off the pier in a big storm a couple of months back.

My girls felt around tentatively with outstretched legs and arms in the murky water and tried not to think about what else might be down there. Somewhere nearby or far away or who knows really, the rocking chair laid on its side, already fuzzy with algae and forgetting what the warm sun felt like on its softly silvered wood or the sound of unmuffled squeals of girls or rumble of motorboats and other things that had once been home.

He might know, but he's not talking.
He might know where it is, but he’s not talking.

 

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