Whimsy, Faith, and the Thirty-Something Woman.

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1.

I don’t belong in Icing by Claire’s*. The other shoppers browsing beside me wouldn’t be able to sit legally at a restaurant’s bar. They wouldn’t be able to rent a car at the considerable discount adults over 25 are offered. Their faces are unlined, their hair devoid of even a single silvery strand. They are still girls, really; crow’s feet will not alight on their faces for several years to come.

This is my second trip. The cashier has natural hair. The first time she rang up my purchases, her afro was pushed away from her forehead with a plain black band. Now her hair is a garden of two-strand twists. It looks like the kind of work I don’t yet want. I smile at her and recommit to my TWA. The TWA, after all, is why I’m here. Cutting my hair was one thing; feeling elegant and feminine with this cut will, as it turns out, take quite a bit of accessorizing. I know nothing about accessorizing.

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We are closer in age than the customers around us. When I approach the counter this time, she doesn’t let on that she remembers me. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, I’m grateful as I empty the mesh shopping basket of its contents. She rings up the molehill of trinkets between us: earrings fashioned of plastic and tin, shaped like peonies and roses; cheap garlands of synthetic florals; gilded Grecian headbands, bound to tarnish if worn more than a few times this summer.

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I took this about ten minutes after leaving Icing the first time. That little smile signifies a style breakthrough.

I am probably too old for this. I am mother to a girl who will be starting pre-K in the fall. In November, I will be closer to 40 than 30. For six years, I have taught college students, every semester widening the chasm between their sartorial sensibility and my own. As someone trying to make her living as a writer, being taken seriously has always felt like an Everest climb, a consumption by quicksand, a swim upstream. I am at an age where it is necessary to pinch the bridge of my nose while hunching over bills, at an age where my elders wonder aloud when the work that I do will afford me a lifestyle commensurate with grown-womanhood. (Whither the mortgage, the marriage, the retirement plan?)

And here I am buying flimsy floral baubles at the very accessory chain that interviewed (but didn’t hire) me for my first job at 17.

The cashier tells me the total.

“That’s almost, to the cent, what I spent here last time.”

She courtesy-smiles, waits silently for the debit system to approve my transaction, then hands me the bag. “Here’s a frequent shopper’s card.”

I accept it with thanks but hope I’ll never make enough purchases to redeem it. Two teen girls compare tubes of glittery fruit-flavored lip gloss as I walk out.

2.

At revival, the visiting evangelist descended from the pulpit into the congregation. He was illustrating a point about the importance of vision by asking children what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was 8 and the third kid he asked.

Self-serious little person that I was, my answer was immediate. “I want to be an author.”

Mine was the first response he’d gotten that wasn’t, “I don’t know.” So he riffed on it for a while. “Will y’all excuse me for a minute,” he said, pulling up a chair near my aisle. “I gotta sit and talk to this young person.”

He began to tell me my future. “You’ll read a lot, write a lot of books. You won’t be like all the other children.” His voice took on a wistful, kindly tone. “You’ll never have a day of lack.”

This is all I remember, but he spoke to me for a good five minutes: a monologue amplified by microphone. In the end, we bowed our heads as he prayed that the things he’d just said would come to pass. I kept the cassette recording of the sermon and listened to it once every few years until college. That was when I lost it.

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My church calls this sort of thing a prophecy and the man delivering it a prophet — even when the foretelling is fairly straightforward (Voracious reading is a requisite for quality writing, for instance). Though mostly taken with a grain of salt, my faith still regards prophetic words as sacred.

We are no strangers to mysticism. We believe that the spirit of God might manifest itself during a church service as an indoor fog, the effect like a supernatural smoke machine. We believe that speaking in tongues communicates something to our God that English can’t. We believe that through mere touch — hand to forehead, hand-to-hand, hand-to-shoulder — a minister can confer the spirit of God upon us in ways that make us swoon, faint, convulse, or sprint. We call this being “slain in the spirit.”

For all this trust in experiences that would seem, to anyone who lives outside them, illogical, loopy, or unsound, it’s hard to believe that pursuing a life in the arts would not be accepted as a natural progression.

But being a writer — particularly of fiction — often felt like an unnatural desire. To write fiction was to lie. To lie was sin. Writing nonfiction, if not self-help or testimonial, also felt like the wrong kind of work, for honesty about one’s deepest flaws or exposure of the cracks in other folks’ facades, was regarded as a very real betrayal.

There is little left to write — and even less to write well — whenever these are the guardrails.

In my teens and early 20s, I sometimes came to church wearing a sarong as a skirt with a macrame brooch of a black, Afro-puffed angel holding it in place at the hip: a tiny reclamation of the fanciful. Sometimes I wanted to wear glittered wings and frolic like a fairy, to create a worship experience that felt like the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel or Angela Bofill music sounds. Otherworldly. But I always suppressed the real questions I wanted to ask in prayer. I wrote trite, implausible stories of Christian conversion. I kept my longing for purple hair and hennaed palms to myself.

What do you want from me? I should’ve asked at a much younger age.

I know now what God would’ve told me: Not this.

3.

I have always had muses — none of whom were acceptable choices for teenage churchgoing me.

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Lisa Bonet
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Shannyn Sossamon
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Angela Bofill
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Vonetta McGee
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Erykah Badu

Wear what you want. Love who you want. Give birth when you want. Find ways to live freely. I am drawn to an artsy woman whose look belies her life’s philosophy, because life philosophies — genuine, personal ones — are not easy to form.

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You cannot take stock of present-day Lisa Bonet and not know with all certainty, you’re beholding a woman who — to borrow from Langston Hughes — stands on top of the mountain free within herself. I don’t think that confidence came at low cost, but we purveyors of pop culture have always been drawn to Bonet because we sensed that she saw no trail ahead yet continued, somehow, to set one ablaze.

That kind of freedom can feel like it’s at odds with a few of my faith’s tenets. For us, submission to God’s word and will are the only real freedoms. As Christians, we do not live to please ourselves — and this runs counter to everything I know of myself as a writer. A writer must create to please herself; it is that very self-assurance that earns her reader’s confidence.

4.

For a few months in college, I tried to grow out my perm. I lived alone and if my hair looked too unruly, I’d wrap fabric around it (usually an old t-shirt) and pretend that it meant something regal. I’d stand taller, jaw set against stares or uninvited comment and, for the first time in life, I felt in control of the image I was projecting to the world.

I still wonder what it should mean for our daily lives that we were made in the image of God with the intent that we should behave as though we are reflections of God.

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But for years, it meant treating my body and whatever adorned it as an afterthought. It meant treating my appearance as inconsequential rather than as a point of particular pride. I wore neutrals: denim, earth tones, cotton tees, department-store, factory-outlet dresses. I am still uncertain which colors best complement my skin. (Am I a winter or what?) And this belief that reflecting God meant being conservative in attire and carriage has also meant decades of long hair. Hair long enough to draw a curtain. Hair that doesn’t out the wildness underneath.

The wildness I wanted then seems more permissible now. Churches have factored arts and entertainment into their Sunday rituals. Spoken word, drama, pantomime, liturgical dance. It’s all there. But I am a different brand of feral these days.

My mother convinced me to perm my hair again in college by insisting I couldn’t attend church back home in a headwrap. “It’s Easter!” she’d said. “Easter!”

It took fourteen years to go natural again. Fourteen years and here I am leaving Icing, eager to embrace the sprightliness I denied myself so often as a teen. Here I am writing about my faith’s messy intersections with my chosen vocation. Here I am being as weird as I’ve always suspected I could be.

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But am I too old for it? At 34, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an overgrown child whenever I place a crown of fake flowers on my head. It seems that, by now, I should have my personal aesthetic figured out. If nothing else, I should know what stores don’t make me feel like the old chick at the club.

(When did I become this self-conscious?)

We talk about reinvention as though it’s a very mature and high-brow process. But so much of it is playing dress-up and making yourself okay with prancing around in new personas till  you find the next one that’s a natural fit.

6.

The Jesus who keeps me Christian roamed and ruminated and attended riotous parties. He heard disembodied voices, battled demons, drank good wine and was led by a calling higher than himself. That Jesus gets me. He gets why I don’t find nudity particularly offensive, since according to our own sacred text, nudity isn’t the sin; shame is. He preferred a complicated story and understood that not every tale worth telling ended with profession of faith in him. He didn’t recoil from the grotesque, and he was irrepressible. The Jesus who cursed fig trees wouldn’t care one wit if I ring my hair in fake foliage. He didn’t conform. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be disgusted with anyone who’d ask me to.

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How I long to be more like him.
*I found out Icing has a shop online option while writing this piece. Guess where I’ll be copping hair garlands instead of in-store now?
Whimsy, Faith, and the Thirty-Something Woman.

To Die is Gain: On Meriam Ibrahim and Freedom.

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen
Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. […] Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. […] For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him….  — Philippians 1:21-24, 27a, 29, NIV

They say that even in labor, your swollen legs remained shackled and that your son, Martin, just over one and half years old, has been living with you under hellish conditions in Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison since you were arrested in September 2013. Yesterday, the world saw you holding your newborn daughter in a photograph. She was also shown resting in her father’s arms; this was the first time they had been allowed to meet. Her name, by coincidence and serendipity, is Maya, born days before the passing of the most renowned “Maya” the world has ever known. Your baby girl is breathtaking, as is your tiny son, whose large, dark eyes are like yours: serene, aware, uncompromising.

You are 27 and Christian and married. In America, this would be referred to as “doing things the ‘right’ way.” Had you married here, you could’ve danced to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” at your reception — simply because it’s true. No one would’ve questioned the validity of your union or labeled your joy as apostasy and you as an adulterer. You would’ve been lauded, held up as an exemplar of wholesome living. And had you been born here, it would be simple logic that you would adopt the religion of the parent who raised you — but only if you were so inclined. Your mother’s faith, after all, is the one to which you have been most exposed, the faith that you would have observed in action. Your father has been absent since you were six; who can know what he believed, other than that men can leave wives and children whenever they wish?

In America, faith is languorous and theoretical. We are extended the leisure of lifelong contemplation. Many of us are only as close to God as we feel and when we seek Him, it is often because we are wanting, unhappy with ourselves, after moral superiority, or courting approval. We pretend we have not come to Christ for a relationship that’s transactional, but too many of our churches preach that this is exactly what Christianity is: belief that if we perform, we will be rewarded. To be fair, I may be perched at the more cynical end of our faith’s branches. It has been a long while since I have seen fresh fruit from this vantage, so long, in fact, I sometimes wonder if the flock of us here are figs accursed: either tough and underripe or so fat and dripping we are on the verge on rot.

You should be in the throes of an intercontinental love affair, well on your way to joining your Sudanese husband in the home he’s secured for you with his U.S. citizenship and his residence in New Hampshire. By now, your new neighbors should have the benefit of proximity to your faith, so distinct from their own in that it has been threatened with government-sanctioned death. When you get here — and my faith is still strong enough to pray and hope and believe that you will — Americans will try to tell you that we know religious persecution. They will tell you our government has taken prayer out of schools and they’ll give you anecdotal evidence about gunman who’ve asked victims to deny God before shooting them in cold blood. They’ll cite abortion laws and tell you how challenged and buffeted they feel by The World’s changing mores. They’ll also have stories about missionaries at the ready — jailed for smuggling bibles and murdered for sharing the gospel.

Here, in order to access empathy, we distill people into the facets of themselves with which we can identify. To comprehend their plight, we need their reality to bend toward our own, and we discard the dimensions that are too complex or inaccessible to do so. (This is, in some ways, an inversion of what your own government is doing, in isolating the parts of you it cannot comprehend — not just your Christianity, but your insistence on maintaining your agency as a woman, as a daughter of a Christian mother, as a wife of a Christian husband, as a mother to Christian children you are willing to die to see raised in your family’s chosen faith.)

But if we are at our most honest, we would have to admit that a faith strong enough to submit oneself and one’s toddler to disease, interminable confinement, 100 lashes two weeks post-birth, and hanging in two years — as soon as the baby is weaned — is foreign to many of even our most devout. We have little context for women like you — yet women enduring punishments similar to yours are not uncommon. You are being flogged, killed, or threatened with either fate not just elsewhere in Sudan, but in the Maldives and Iran and Saudi Arabia and in countless countries other than my own. I would be remiss and disingenuous to attempt any personal parallel to that kind of suffering; I wish this were true of all of us who know full and well we will never face such brutal conditions.

Nonetheless, forgive my naivety in feeling grateful to have heard of you, at least, while there are still a few days left to fight for you. I’m sorry our embassy has so thoroughly failed your husband. We didn’t act when he first made us aware, waiting instead until your beauty and faith and cherubic children made your story more accessible to our sense of what’s right and just. It feels so late and impotent an effort, but we are fortunate to be forced to reckon with our negligence and what it does to families like yours.

We need to see the cost of unbroken faith, need to be ever reminded that the persecution of the privileged is not equal to that of the oppressed, need to recall what a woman who refuses oppression looks like after months of enduring the worst conditions and least possible care in a country that has always denied her freedom of speech, faith, choice, and identity.

It is not a universal experience. You are your own — and you are willing to die to remain so.

Here, we are often asked if we are willing to die for what we believe in. But we are asked in air-conditioned churches, where interfaith couples are as common a sight as dresses and suits. When we say yes, it feels like a favor; we are willing to give up a world where we have always felt some level of freedom for an eternity where we will feel yet freer. You are giving up a world that has denied you even the most inalienable of rights for a God who has always understood how vital those rights are to your existence.

I hope you live. I pray you do. I believe you will. But if you are martyred in two years or earlier, know that we who remain as witnesses will make sure your son and daughter know why you held on so tightly to yourself and your God. We will be here to help them make sense of your reported words to your husband:

‘If they want to execute me then they should go ahead and do it because I’m not going to change my faith. I refuse to change. I am not giving up Christianity just so that I can live. I know I could stay alive by becoming a Muslim and I would be able to look after our family, but I need to be true to myself.’

We will all be freer for it.

To Die is Gain: On Meriam Ibrahim and Freedom.

What Contraceptive Ignorance Costs Us All.

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^^ The adults in my life, on the issue of birth control. ^^

I was taught nothing of birth control. In the white-walled rooms of youth groups where we buried our noses in bibles and pretended the promise or memory of sex wasn’t palpable, we were not permitted to ask. And in our nightfallen homes, the flicker of TV-light dancing on the weary, work-ashen faces of our parents, we dared not bring it up.

I did not have friends who I knew were on it, did not discuss its dire need among the ones who were already smitten and surreptitious. I wouldn’t hear any of my girls openly, casually discuss it till we were in our mid-20s and even then, the possible side effects sounded terrifying: bloating and rapid weight gain, mysterious acne and blood clots, uncertainty attendant to possible misuse.

Contraceptives felt like contraband, something to be secreted away or shrouded in enigma and shame, if used at all. It would take years for me to truly understand the vital need for a woman’s vigilance around procuring it.

I had sex for the first time at 24, a week before my 25th birthday. A condom was used, and this set a precedent: one partner, one form of contraception, one party responsible for securing and using it (him). My first pap test was during that 25th year, with a black woman in a Midwestern city who did not press me on the issue of birth control. She asked if I was fine with condoms. I nodded meekly. Her lips became a terse line as she jotted this down in my chart. We moved on.

The same happened at my grad school clinic a year later after a pap. “You and your partner are welcome to explore any contraception you wish. Or none, if you’re exclusive and tested. It’s up to you.”

And so it was that I never saw up close the oblong compact I could gingerly open, looking down and comparing it to a theatre in the round: each compartment a tiny seat, each pill a fully paid ticket to bodily freedom.

No one told me there were springy bits of copper and plastic that could be positioned inside you for years, preventing all possibility of pregnancy. I knew little of the patches we could press to the backsides of shoulders or the sexiest curve of our hips, patches that withstood the daily pulse of shower-water and willed their potion firmly under our skin.

I was doggedly incurious and there were many reasons: the long-distance nature of my relationship made physical intimacy infrequent — far too infrequent to warrant the constant use of a contraceptive. And what would come of my body? Would it rebel, resist, reconfigure? Would I be labeled loose if the pills or patch were discovered by the women who’d never seen for to tell me they existed in the first place? Would an IUD lodge itself someplace precarious? Would I forget to use whatever I chose?

Would it fail? Would I?

I was not raised to prepare for premarital sex but rather for any number of punishments that could befall me in its wake.

Indeed, my pregnancy at 29 was considered, by some, to be some sort of handed-down sentence. Among those for whom discussion of birth control remains a hushed or silenced subject, conceiving you seemed evidence of a fundamental failing. And to the extent that it is true that I’ve failed at anything, it is at handing responsibility for my body over to a partner whose stake in its reproductive health is, necessarily, far lower than my own. It is at not investigating all the (then relatively unthreatened) options open to me. It is at leaving so many stones of knowledge unturned.

Contraceptive ignorance is far costlier than a prescription. It limits the conversations we can comfortably enter, armed with an informed opinion, an educated vote. And, to be sure, remaining willfully ignorant of the myriad roles of contraception — those far beyond the mere prevention of pregnancy, far beyond the myopic scope of stigma — makes us complicit in every legislative battle women and men are waging to retain affordable access to birth control and care.

Pretending we are not sexually active often enough to need it directly threatens the rights of those who are certain that they do.

Make no mistake, the decisions to conceive and give birth to you were entirely mine. No legislator told me I had to; I was not barred any preventive prescription I would’ve needed, had I made a different choice. I want you to grow up in a society where the same is true for you.

You are still so little. I am still so out of my depth. How will I give you a wide, unobscured berth of information when I am still cobbling my own knowledge together in bits and pieces? What exactly will we say when we whisper close, over cocoa, ’round issues of sex, reproduction, contraception, and faith?

I have time to yet to figure it out, but I am alarmed at how fast that time is dwindling. I am equally alarmed at how many of your options are dangling in the balance.

There is no way of predicting what, precisely, you’ll need. Every woman is a wonder, in her capacity to decide what is best for herself. And this, of course, is where we will begin. This is your God-given body. This is your God-given mind. This is your God-given will. These are the tools you must use to lay claim to your every choice.

What Contraceptive Ignorance Costs Us All.

The Wall and the Air: Meditations on Post-Poverty Life.

Hold the wall. Your fingertips should always graze the tile. It is unsanitary. Do not lift your fingers to your mouth or to your eyes. You could become infected; you could die. The walls underground are filmy with sewage, are coated in the filth of those who’ve died and who’ve survived. Survivors hold the wall. They do not allow themselves to forget where they are. They know that no wall is endless, that someday their fingers will again find air.

You will be hungry, often. The occasional mole person you pass will show you all the manholes, will tell you where the dumpsters are the richest. And you will decide whether it is worth it to breach these stark parameters and dive. This act will prolong your stay; but sometimes, the lengthier stay is the wisest. Sometimes the lengthier stay will be your last. You will determine whether or not you’d rather starve or eat what is surely the innards of rats, proffered in the thin skins of sausages. If you have a bit of money, you will count the costs of low-cost markets, of bread two days past molding, of fruit not just bruised but left to rot. Your children must eat when you will not. Try not to be ashamed of what you feed them. Humiliation does not kill as quickly as hunger. After they are sated, do eat their crusts.

When you are alone, when money is no longer your currency, when you’ve seen too few people with whom you might barter, when you no longer understand the function of days, this is when you are closest to the feel of nothing, to an opening through which you can grovel and claw, escape.

But it does not end with air. Freedom is never as simple as breath. Breath is a beginning. You have exited into the world of the employed, a world you once knew well and have forgotten. For so long, this has been a citadel on the other side of a sea. The underground has been neither a bridge nor a buoy. And here, you can no longer feel the walls.

Soon enough, a way, however winding, will become apparent. Employment is an invitation; depending on its type, it will arrive on filigreed parchment or on an inscrutable scrap. But neither the invitation nor the work will reacclimate you to air’s architecture. It will be the pay and how far you can stretch it. It will be how you behave, above ground, when there is nothing left.

You will remember how thoroughly forgotten you were when you were too poor to be more than cellophane to the people who now use expense accounts to treat you to lunch. You will avoid mirrors, because they portend a regression into your more desperate self. It is in the shabbiness of a too-worn dress, in the raggedy soles of your only shoes. It is in the hair and the skin and eyes — you swear it — that film that cannot quite scrub off. It isn’t permanent for people like you, up here, experiencing air. Poverty above ground is a different beast’s belly. Roomier. You can slosh around; you can wait. This beast regurgitates. And when it does, you will find yourself, at least temporarily, free.

But there is something wrong in a world where some live in constant fear of being swallowed whole while others remain blissfully unaware of the rampage. If you have ever been poor, if you have scraped to afford furnishings then found yourself hastily throwing them away in a sudden move to a city with more livable wages; if you’ve been down to a dollar, swinging wildly at debt collectors to stave off an overdraft fee; if you’ve begged for payment arrangements; if you’ve been denied a bank account; if you’ve eaten Saltines as a meal: you are at war; you are being hunted. And an estimated 80 percent of the people in this country are crouching and flinching and looking over their shoulders right along with you.

Someone wealthy will tell you it is peacetime. You are no longer eating entrails, so we are in recovery. They are wrong. It is neither the opinion of wealthy nor the condition of the world that will determine when you are in recovery.

Only when you are no longer so reliant on walls that you waste whole years building them yourself, only when you are no longer afraid of what may await you underground, only when, upon seeing a hand emerge from a manhole, you can kneel and clasp it and pull with all your might — without fearing it will snatch you down before you can lift it up — will you know that you’ve reached recovery.

The Wall and the Air: Meditations on Post-Poverty Life.

Oil and Water (or What Happens in Church Does Not Stay In Church).

The oil clings to everything. It is an intrusion; it follows me home, persists, demands decisions. To be rid of it, scrub the skin. But I do not want to be rid of it; it recalls too many things hallowed. I am not ready to reach up to my forehead and, with one simple swab, remove it.

It has already begun its migration. I’ve touched my face, hugged myself tightly, brushed my fingertips along my daughter’s hair. The oil is omnipresent.

I’ve inhaled this before, as it wafted up from a street vendor’s table, usurping the stalks of Black Love incense and the low-end imitations high-end fragrances. I have seen it in a twist-top vial, its name hastily scrawled and Scotch-taped to the front. Frankincense, it reads, or maybe myrrh.

* * *

In the car, we are three women leaving a service of confirmation: grandmother and mother and child. The windows are rolled against the cool night air, and the fragrance rushes ’round floor and ceiling. It occurs to me then that, like so many things at churches, the oil is decidedly masculine.

I am thinking over what was said, deciding whether I feel betrayed, wondering if everyone’s looks of concern afterward meant that, now, they see me as a danger to myself.

They would not be entirely wrong.

Scent is an association. We are our associations.

The last man I dated smelled of deodorant and fabric softener, which means, for better or worse, I pine for him as often as I pass any clean man in freshly laundered clothes. Before him: a man whose scent recalled potting soil; for eight years, I tried to plant sustainable things. I do not remember the smell of the preceding man — perhaps line kitchen and bar soap; I was rarely with him and, at the six-month-mark, eager to leave. And my first boyfriend, the 24-year-old I dated at 18, always smelled of an oil, something airy, almost unisex, rarely overpowering.

My father smells of aftershave and cologne with aggressive top notes. What he wears is not oil- but alcohol-based. It absorbs, burns off, rarely lingers.

* * *

The five of us who had taken adult bible class for three weeks stand gathered ’round the altar when called. Our regional bishop, having traveled from the Midwest for this purpose, is seated, a pillow at his feet. This is where we are to kneel when it is time. He takes the three on the left first; they are being received, not confirmed. They are already of this denomination and now they are joining this parish. They, like 98 percent of our small congregation, are white.

My mother and I are aloft, on the other side of the aisle. In our 30 years of churchgoing, we have never been part of a denomination. I am here because I like the liturgy. I am here for the parts of this I can comprehend — and also for the marvels we are happy to leave unexplained.

There are four priests in front of us, standing at the seated bishop’s right. On his left is our pastor. He has instructed the four to impart “a word” to each of us, if they feel led.

I know what is coming.

The three people being received kneel when called, and the bishop presses a cross of oil onto their heads. He tells them about their lives: you are hurting; you have a gentle spirit; you’ve overcome something insurmountable; you are going to serve faithfully here. He has lifted a veil on their futures, glimpsed in, and backed away. They are discreetly weeping, but mostly composed.

Prophecy makes me uncomfortable. It has since I was nine and a young visiting minister stopped mid-sermon to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him: an author, and he told he several things: that I would not be like other children, that I would write many books, that I would never have a day of lack. It was recorded and I kept the cassette till college.

I do not like predictions; they apply an uncomfortable pressure.

I am 33, unpublished, and I often feel invisible, the very definition of ordinary, even as I know I am not.

Also, I have not been behaving. If obedience is better than sacrifice, my life is often a landscape of lack. I have tried out autonomy, doing as I wish, loving who I want, in whichever ways seem right. I have not followed the letter of the law.

So I know what’s coming.

* * *

In the churches of my youth, prophecy began with “I hear the Lord saying,” and ended with any number of messages, though the most memorable were “rebukes.” No one wanted to be rebuked; it meant someone would have to “pray a spirit off” of you — and there were spirits for everything. Spirit of poverty, spirit of promiscuity, spirit of depression or rebellion.

I had few greater fears while sitting in service than when a minister paced the aisles, pointing out congregants and calling them to stand or walk toward the pulpit for prophecy.

This is, in many measurable, relief-filled ways, a different kind of church.

But I know how I live. The blank after, “I hear the Lord saying…” could fill with flotsam fairly quickly.

I kneel when it is time. The bishop rests his hands on mine, says that what he sees is compassion. This is not what I thought was coming: he says that I have a good heart.

There are other things about hardship, how I’ve seen some, how I’m likely to see more. And then, it becomes about men. Perhaps I’ve been abused; abuse comes in many forms. He says that I do not trust men, that it is hardest to find love in men who have not been fathered. “So many men haven’t been fathered….”

There is more, but I am crying and thinking and wondering where You are. I am wondering if even this can be trusted, when another priest jumps in to say I’ve been searching here and there for comfort — any kind of comfort. The comfort God gives will not leave you, he says.

This is what I expected: to be told, in front of onlookers, that I have unresolved father issues, that I’ve become the classic looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places cliché, that I need, in some fundamental way, to change.

The priests are not wrong.

Yet another chimes in and says that a wall I’ve built is breaking tonight. This, I have also heard in churches before. I have heard about my walls, everywhere, for all my life.

I am no skeptic. But I do not like feeling so exposed. And I do not understand why anyone would want to be told by relative strangers, before a cloud of witnesses, what lies in the reddest, sorest recesses of her heart.

The bishop says he feels led to embrace me and when he does, as all look on, I cry a bit harder into the folds of his crimson and ivory vestments. I am not sure why; I am exactly sure why.

This has been my experience of faith: to remain ever uncertain and to be certainly present.

In this way, I, myself, am the oil, meant to stain and to blur and to stay.

* * *

Lord, You’ve been a long haul, and I’ve been resistant. Your burden has not felt light. To feel as weightless and unyoked as I should, I would need to more of what happens in church demystified. Prophecy has always made that difficult, itself an act that mystifies.

You know better than most that I do not mean to be resistant. Were I a simpler woman, I would float along the water, or better, I would walk upon its surface. I’d let you bear me up. Were I uncomplicated, all the wounds that were reopened would be healed in the rushing current. Instead I am a slick, amorphous; I am moving in ways I can’t control.

And yet again, I’m left asking You: can living water ever commingle with oil?

Oil and Water (or What Happens in Church Does Not Stay In Church).

Dovetails.

1.

The last time you were here, you left an open pack of tube socks in the trunk of my car. It’s still there, two weeks later. It will stay there until you return.

I often feel responsible for the things that remain when you leave. There are imprints of you where I do not want them and one beaming emblem of you I could not live well without. I am accustomed to keeping things safe till you reclaim them. I suppose I will continue to; it does not seem to do me much harm.

I can say this without animus now, but it is not always as easy as I lead everyone — including myself — to believe.

2.

Loving anyone other than you had long been an alien concept. Twelve years long, if we’re honest. We were only together for eight (nearly nine) but even when it ended — even during the pregnancy, when I hoped and I prayed that alone or reconciled to you would not be my only options — I did not truly believe I’d fall in love again. I would not let myself, not if this was how I’d feel at love’s departure.

But what could I tell my daughter of love if I could not remember its shiver? How would I hear her fawning first brush with a tremulous hand if my own palms knew only a craven kind of emptiness? How could we parse her first heartbreak if I never let go of mine?

3.

This is the supernova, the white burst, the back-pressed-to-wall, the unending kiss, the lips that won’t leave yours even to whisper, the words you get to roll on your tongue and relish the fact that they were once, just moments before, not your own.

You are holding them now. You are holding him now. And being held and being held and — Father in heaven — being held.

It hardly seems sane, for your arms to know an embrace other than your wriggling toddler’s, to know kisses other than the ones she sees fit to bestow, in boredom, in blessing, at bedtime.

And it isn’t sane, really, or sustainable. It peters as quickly as it popped, a fire in a lidded jar now. And this great, ghastly, heart-pounding, promise-eating love is swallowed up in air, in sky.

4.

Weeks ago, Father John, the eldest priest in our small parish, preached of love.

I wanted him to say something sense-making about women like me, alternately afraid and excessive, who understand love simply as being someone’s priority. I wanted him to tell me how such a low bar could be so difficult for some men to clear.

But I wasn’t entirely listening. I was thinking of all the things and people to whom I’d come second and third and sixth. I was wondering whether or not I was worthy of preference, whether it was fair or childish to expect to be preferred.

“You know that passage, that 1 Corinthians 13 that people like to read at weddings? That’s God’s love. Agape,” he said with a wave of his massive hand. I watched him shake his head, as if all we romantics were a bit misguided.

Father John moved on quickly; for him, this was just an aside.

For me, it was a lifeboat.

Someone else would find this alienating, this idea that we should not use agape love as a matrimonial blueprint because we could not possibly erect it properly and would feel as if we were failing whenever a window shattered. Someone else might scoff at the notion that we shouldn’t strive toward a perfect, selfless care for our fellow man.

But all I could do was think of my own loves: often impatient, sometimes insecure, disinclined to hope or believe all things, occasionally self-seeking, and certainly — if nothing else — susceptible to failure.

I leaned back in my seat, and I sighed relief.

5.

How do we do this? How does anyone do this?

6.

I used to believe I would never be rid of you because you were my predestination. Then I thought I could never be rid of you because of our girl, who looks back and forth between us, whenever we’re together, with calculating eyes.

You make moving on difficult, because you are a kind amnesiac: giving and grinning and hoping to catch us, even as we flutter on, mostly without you. For all your texts, your calls, your checking in, you do not remember — and sometimes do not even accept — what you are not here to witness. You will always believe that I am the keeper of things you happen to leave behind.

I am your safe deposit box. I am your cage.

7.

The other one was elegant, an autodidact, confident in ways I couldn’t imagine, calm in a manner that requires discipline not artifice. He was meant for a family — but he was not meant for mine.

Of all the things that are difficult to accept, this is perhaps the hardest.

He, himself a cage, a keeper of things left behind, always treated me like a bird who’d forgotten the grace of flight.

We who understand what it is to be a series of gilded, bloodied bars want nothing more than to bend them for others. We are the freers, even at our own expense.

8.

I used to be a woman of many compartments. But motherhood makes you an open space. Anyone you love must stand on your floor and face the things and the people you once had an inclination to hide.

There are no fallout shelters. There is no time to assuage hurts, massage egos. No strength for mediating others’ aughts, for carrying burdens larger than those upon which we’d already agreed.

Everyone’s interests must dovetail. Or else, the only door stands open. All are free to exit at will.

Dovetails.

The Antithesis of Faith.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. — Psalm 42:11

1.

The grocery cart is an ice floe, every row of overpriced food an isle to be sailed past without much autonomy. To be underemployed is to live without oars; I turn where the tide and the wind allow. Often, I think of You as the Wind: favorable, then fierce, and at times, capricious. This is difficult to admit as my eyes glaze over at the cost of four quarters of butter, as I grip the cart’s handle in abject panic, as I calculate the total in my head. In those moments, I do not want to feel tossed or untethered or tested. I do not want You to be as impossible to grasp as a gale.

For so many other believers, You wouldn’t be. For them, when there is too little left to budget, You become the multiplier of fishes and loaves. Right there, in the long stretch of frozen meals, You fill their hearts with manna. For them, You’d become a testimony bellowed into a microphone, echoing through a revival tent: It was only at my poorest that I learned You own the cattle on a thousand hills! It was only when my own hand was empty that I could accept the provision in Yours.

I am supposed to sing a reassuring song about the physics of faith (when praises go up, blessings come down).

But this is not where I live.

It isn’t that I don’t believe. I do. Of course I do. It is a logical step for those who create to believe that things much larger than themselves have also been created. And it is necessary for those who understand guilt to believe in the work of atonement. I feel ill at ease imagining a life over which I must assume totalitarian control and sicker still at the thought that whenever and wherever we die, our stories end. No, doubt has rarely been the deterrent.

2.

Every once in a while, we went hungry. Those were the lonely years, when we lived in an oversized and underfurnished house, and the congregants of our church considered my family to be spiritual stalwarts: the husband, pious and devoted; the wife, fiery and dynamic; the daughter, creative, aloof. For them, we were emblems, were ministers. For them, we were a comfort, a mirage of peace and safety when, in their own homes, destruction felt imminent.

But they never knew how often our home felt combative, despite the absence of physical aggression, how at the sound of the husband’s ticking engine in the driveway, the daughter crept into in the darkness of her room on the third floor. They wouldn’t have understood the way she stared at the pacing shadows, two dark and darting foot-falls, scuttling like rodents and obscuring the yellow slit of light from the hall. They couldn’t have imagined what it was to feel imprisoned by someone else’s prayer or how it could throw into turmoil the daughter’s concept of who You were.

The husband would leave within a year of those last instances, when he took to praying in tongues outside the daughter’s door as though he was an asylum guard in charge of a girl possessed, and when he called her out of that room once to ask if she was “bringing evil into his house.” These were the last of many years they’d spent locked in an epic battle, each round fought when her mother wasn’t home, each accusation a dagger, a wound, a scar that would, in some small way, shape the woman she would become.

Before he left, from time to time, he would neglect to buy food for three. He ate at home less and so did the mother and daughter. The contents of cupboards would thin; the shelves of the fridge emptied. It was preparation for the months to come, when the daughter would begin to support herself and the mother with the money from her work-study checks and her summer jobs in retail and reception.

The mother would tell the daughter that You sent her home after college to help her through the divorce. And the daughter believed. For four long years, she believed–just as she’d secretly wondered, after hours of listening to her stepfather’s prayers, if she had, inadvertently, brought evil into their home.

They’d each seemed so confident.

This is, I suppose, what happens when some children come to know You through their parents. It begins as a tangential acquaintanceship; we understand that we need to know You but let our parents do most of the talking. We trust their instincts, their judgment. It never gets personal until it needs to, until we need You–but by then, we’re struck by our own uncertainty of who You really are.

Are You a God who believes our enemy when he insinuates that we should be exorcised? Are You a God who plans our purpose and only reveals it to people other than us? Or are You the other things we imagine You are: mind-reader, romantic, redeemer, refuge, lighted path?

3.

It began as an atom, a nodule of resistance nestling inside me like a pebble at the base of a well. I didn’t feel it, even after I sensed it growing, never acknowledged it as I scrawled small notes onto church bulletins or wept openly, not over Your goodness but because You were so chatty with others and impossibly silent with me.

When I tell the story of how I became a single mother, I do not start it here, with the atom. But these are the particles inside it: a profession of faith at the age of eight; a number of folks advising me of the various ways I should let You use me; modest clothes and earnest gestures, tepid prayers; a semblance of sound morality; the realization that most of my faith felt merely mimicked, followed by a waning trust in others who insist that they’re speaking on your behalf.

No. Indeed, doubt was never the deterrent. The antithesis of faith, for me, has always been hopelessness.

I felt the least hope when I believed You’d decided You would only tell others what I needed to do with my life. I waited to hear You say that I’d finished fulfilling Your promise to my mother, that I was free to go discover the other things You’d placed me here to do. But with every year that passed, this pardon seemed less plausible. Maybe it wouldn’t be me You told at all, but my mother. Maybe You’d sent the message and I missed because I didn’t know the sound of Your voice. Maybe I’d never know it. Maybe there was no voice, but only the bible, and all this time, I should’ve been decoding that for answers.

It wasn’t even not knowing. It was the fear that I’d never know, that I’d been betrayed or duped or terribly misguided, that I still am. It was when, every time I tried articulating any of this, all I got in return was, “Did you pray about it?”

There’s a desperation, a terror, in the idea that the God of my fathers (and mothers) is all that there is. Who You are to them is not who I need You to be, for me. But for the longest time, who You were to them was all I believed You could be.

And this is how I came to make a few choices of my own: a master’s degree, a teaching career, a well-intentioned courtship turned secular, and several years later, the baby, the hunger, the jobs that pay pennies, the re-turning of my face toward the Wind.

It’s still true I do not like being tossed and that, despite our long history, confidence in Your intent to rescue me isn’t my first response to hardship. I am still working hard to maintain hope, to believe in the unheard as well as the unseen. But if this is who You are, I will not resist the gusts. May they carry me closer to You, may I glimpse Your face in the dust that dances up and stings the eyes. Be the gale, and I will be Your feather. Be my reinvention, and I will teach my daughter to know You for herself.

The Antithesis of Faith.