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 clichĂ©, 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?

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.

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

Make Haste.

I am often afraid, though Your word says, “Fear not.” I have been told that my fear offends You, that my anxiety is a rebellion You cannot abide. I am told that I am not to rely on this brain You’ve given me, so limited in its purview, so primitive in its ability to decipher; but instead, I should relinquish the boundaries of my own intellect and allow Your presence to invade that which my instinct tells me to protect and to closely guard.

I do not know, I do not know, I do not know what I know.

So, come. The kingdom I’ve erected is crumbling. I am willing to let You reign. I will quit the deteriorating palace and take residence in a hut at the foot of the hill, until You re-establish all that my hand has failed.

This does not mean I will be an unquestioning subject. It will be difficult to see all my work dismantled: the education I fought so hard to attain, through debt and jobs worked well after midnight, to finance what exorbitant loans could not; the home I scraped up just enough to rent, by teaching twice as many courses as a full-time professor, at three different colleges, while sleeping on the sofa of relatives; the car I waited 13 years to own, 13 years to be able to drive, after droves of attempts at earning a license.

These will not be easy losses. And though I know that I only attained these things because You allowed me to, I still do not want to let them go.

It is terrifying to trust. And it is terrifying to plead into the silence of a dark room for deliverance from a disaster of my own making. I do not like the idea of needing things I cannot supply for myself. Basic things: food and shelter and transportation. It is too cliche a fate, to be pressed into trust by the vices of under-employment and poverty.

But if such pressing is what is required, I submit myself to the stocks.

We have been here before. And I know that we are here again because I did not learn how to trust You implicitly the first time. We are here because there is a point You need to make. We will come here again, and again, if need be; we will return to this isle as often as it takes me to accept that I am not You.

On this isle, there is a scripture in the sand, just beyond the reach of a rising tide. It is the first I ever learned, the one I hoped I’d never truly need, though I recall and recite it for even the lightest afflictions. It is the one I’ve never needed quite as much as I need it today:

Make haste, O God, to deliver me. Make haste to help me, O Lord.

I learned it when I was eight, and somehow it still carries me. It is the raft and the oar, when I am tossed from the oceanliner into the sea. I say it when reason betrays me and the sky closes under Your eyelid and the water of an unrelenting rain is all that is keeping me alive.

Hurry, it says. And wash me back to the shore of choice. I will choose differently, this time. I vow I will choose only You.

Congratulations! … Or Something Like It.

This isn’t noble, this pregnancy. You aren’t at all saccharine about the sanctity of human life. This embryo is matter-of-fact, with its bulbous head, translucent eye-coverings, webbed feet and pre-hands. Its growth: an inevitability, your refusal to squelch it, a foregone conclusion.

You were startled when your family suggested you have it removed, startled and frightened and offended.

The child is not a goiter.

But for those first few days, they convinced you to imagine it. You Googled clinics, read up on procedures, tried to envision yourself, tilted horizontally alone, in a room where the only sound is the deafening whir of eradication. Could you close your ears to it? Could you stare at the ceiling and will your eyes to roll two overlapping circles there, a Venn Diagram of options to list the practical pros people had offered you (freedom being chief among them) and to ignore the giant Con:

You want a child, this child.

Perhaps not now and, now, not with him. But the child itself has been a latent and long-held desire.

You didn’t know you wanted children until you turned 25 and suddenly had the urge to brush your fingers along every freshly cut head of boy-toddler hair you encountered. You didn’t know until you were strolling through Target and found yourself involuntarily fondling the fabric of navy blue onesies. You didn’t know until you called your mother one day, after teaching an insolent class of freshmen, and you were crying when you told her that your need to nurture something had staggered you, that every few steps across campus that day, a wave of debilitating maternal longing accosted you.

You asked her what to do if this happened again.

Let yourself feel it. Then let it pass.

You did this. Of course you did this. Because being in a long-distance relationship, with little intention of relocating, is a lot like being involved with an inmate. The sporadicity with which you see each other trains you not to plan for a family. You live independently, shouldering your own burdens, until those small respites where you find yourselves together: helpful, willing, hastily amorous.

This has always been fine, in varying degrees, for both of you. Now you wonder if it’s because you never loved each other all that much to begin with, not enough to be unselfish for one another on a daily basis. But that’s not an idea you can spend much time entertaining now.

What you always held firm, in the back of  your mind, was that if you ever wound up unexpectedly with child, you’d accept your lot with aplomb. You’d absorb whatever judgment, however loud or silent, and you’d gestate that life. It seemed a resolve you could afford. You’re educated and old, by childbearing standards (five more years and you’d be classified as of “advanced maternal age,” all your pregnancies doomed to “high risk). You own things: furniture, a small personal library, a car; you have your own housing. You possess the beginnings of a career, however tenuous and uninsured.

You are well on your way to feeling entirely adult.

These days, you wonder why you let anyone insist you that you could very well be doomed (to pennilessness or public assistance or post-partum depression–perhaps all). From the vantage of a month, you marvel that you even imagined other options.

This thing inside you, twinging and pulsing, is yours. The only option you ever thought you’d need to consider, at this point in life, was how to help your body hold onto it, all nine months, and expel it healthily.

Of course, when this was all just matter in the back of your mind, you never imagined how you might feel. Sure, you’ve openly wept scrolling people’s shower registries at Babies R Us. And yes, your heart has literally skipped beats when a child with uncertain footing absently touched his tiny palm to your leg to steady himself.

But these things happen, on average, once or twice a year. They do not mother-readiness make. And in all your sentimentality about eventual child-rearing–someday, in the sweet by and by–you did not believe you’d be alone from the very outset.

Now, you simply feel rejected and unwanted. When you pass children’s clothes, toddlers’ haircuts, seven-year-olds, your heart sinks. When a commercial for Pull-Ups bleeds onto your television screen, you want to vomit. When people congratulate you, your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, rather than responding with thanks.

These are sensations you try urgently to quell, before they’re passed on, like so much vitamin B or folic acid, to the embryo. You can’t escape your loved ones’ immediate skepticism. You can’t forget how easily your erstwhile love refused to father. You still marvel that he doesn’t call.

You’re terrified of your first prenatal appointment. You’re worried something’s wrong with it–and if something is, it’s because you’re so unprepared. It’s because you don’t understand love. It’s because you eat so poorly. It’s because of those days you absorbed others’ doubts. It’s because you Googled abortion clinics. It’s because you imagined a life without it. It’s because your heart keeps calling your ex an asshole. It’s because you should’ve chosen a more secure line of work.

It’s because you weren’t happy, when people congratulated you.

You should’ve waited the requisite three months before telling anyone. Perhaps by then, you’d have worked through these cold and dark caverns. Maybe then, you’d be smiling, well past your preoccupation with people’s opinions, far beyond any unhappiness at all.

But you know that isn’t your nature. Your life has always been about measured melancholy; your pregnancy will not be much different. Even so, you are slowly finding it in yourself to evenly say, “Thank you,” when you are congratulated.

You are capable. You know you will not likely fail. You know that your capacity to love is an iceberg, and because most only see its tip, they are entitled to their concerns–both for you and your unborn.

But you are a wondrous well, of beauty and fury and caprice. When anyone is gracious enough to congratulate you, remember that.