Friday, October 21, 2005

the real story

She would come early to church, or late as the case would be, and while she was well-dressed, sixty-something, she looked for all the world like a stray cat, too skinny, hungry and big-eyed, more fragile than a person ought to be. I loved the way Elaine climbed into a pew, slipped off her shoes and hugged her knees to herself, staring off into the rafters regardless of what she had walked in on. It seemed as if perhaps she had never been in a church before, though that is hardly possible. Her posture reminded me of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and drinking him in.

That church was in the center of town, and my husband and I called it The Church of the Broken People. Our congregation attracted the newly divorced, a good indicator for a place that claims healing is possible. Elaine wasn’t the first to discover the miracle of it, the warmth of that church at that time, but she embodied the experience of being left behind, forlorn, bereft, like no one else. Starved for goodness, she responded with gratitude to any drop of goodness that could be found, and she found it in the architecture, in the way the light streamed in the window, in the smallest hello.

Prior to the weekly worship service, St. John’s Adult Forum was truly a forum—what we lacked in racial diversity was made up in theological and class diversity, and what congregants believed covered a remarkably broad range. One Sunday, I lead a discussion titled “What is the Bible,” which I introduced with a group cheer:

WHAT is the Bible,
what IS the Bible,
what is THE Bible,
what is the BIBLE—

I made them shout this just to make a ruckus and to loosen up our tongues for the tough questions and differences ahead. I began with a blank flipchart and asked people to tell me what was the biggest, gnarliest question each held in regards to the Bible and modern life. Elaine practically stood out of her seat, shaking with her question when I nodded to her to speak: she blinked as if she might cry and whispered,

“What if… what if it’s real?”

I felt chills as she said it, blood rising to my face in a great rush, and I paused at length to let the question sink in. “Now that,” I nodded, “that is the best question of all, isn’t it? What if this story is true, what if the ending is really good, what if God really cares about us the way this book says, from creation until the end. You win, Elaine! Write that one down.” We proceeded to have the kind of rich, wild discussion one would expect in an Episcopal church where not everyone believes the same thing about the Bible. And every time I saw Elaine after that, I thought of that moment, of magic and vulnerability and grand insight. Every time I saw her I wanted to congratulate her.

Years later I worked in a college office building where Elaine also worked, whole and generous-hearted and capable, not a stray cat at all. And I mentioned Elaine to Gretchen, another member of that community, from that time.

“Now, Elaine, she is a case isn’t she? She never seemed to concentrate on a single word said in church, lost in her own little world. I remember one day she asked in Adult Forum what if the Bible was real, and I wanted to shake her and say, if you’d just pay attention, maybe you’d find out!”

And now it was time for me to be astonished, again, blood rising to my face again, but this time in bewilderment.

“Did you see her face when she said it? You didn’t feel how deep this question was, for her?”

“Deep? The opposite of deep. I just gave up on her. How can a person like that learn anything?”

Now I was discouraged. How could anyone see Elaine that way?

I know my experience. I was present in the room in that Adult Forum, wondering if the Holy Spirit would whisk us all away on a big wind—so was Gretchen, present in the room and permanently discouraged, writing off Elaine as too far gone. You are reading my story, not Gretchen’s, so you will think my side more likely. Which is true?

I am intrigued. It’s perception, interpretation. It’s what we are ready to see. It’s where we have been, along the way, and Gretchen has certainly been some places along the way to see suffering. She is not shallow, not blind at all. I remain convinced of the fire inside the question, convinced I have something to learn from Elaine, to be Mary at the feet of Jesus. But the other perception? I need to know that, too, that mine are not the only eyes in the world, mine not the only view.

Perhaps the lesson for me, once again, and again and again, that others see things differently, feel things differently, even when the Real Version is as plain as the nose on my face, to me. The disparity is unsettling, discordant. And as a writer exploring my own past, this disparity is important. Is my version true? Has my memory embellished it?

In the case of Elaine, she seems vibrant, now, and thrilled when I bring her a yellow tulip for her office. As for me, I laugh and shake my head. Regardless, I like my version better, and I’m sticking to my story.

What if it’s real? Isn’t that the best question of all! What if.


Byron K. Borger said...

What a great, great essay. A good memory, you have, and a good heart. I'd stick by your telling of the tale any day.


The other pieces--kids cutting up pumpkins, buying sewing stuff (you mean you can actually go in those fabric stores? Geesh.)--are so charming and intersting and good, but make me feel like the parenting and homemaking nerd I am. Or worse. Still, although a bit exasperating, you are SO gifted at these things, and convicting (ouch. I don't even try) it a joy to behold. Keep writing!

Denise said...

thank you, Byron.

I have a problem of only describing the enchanted moments, which is not a problem except some folks think every moment of my life feels enchanting, which is not true. These are just the moments that make me want to write them down. You are probably not envisioning me shouting from behind my sewing machine to please stop asking me questions, or else there will be no dessert... I taught a friend the basics of sewing when we both had three year olds, and she wondered if every seamstress sews at the kitchen counter with one foot in the air to fend off approaching toddlers.

It would be a fun topic to write about, half-assed talents I have nearly forgotten. One year I forced flower bulbs for Christmas, one year I sewed fleece hats. Never, since. This year I plumb forgot to plant the vegetables, though I like gardening. I used to play the guitar! My photos are filed, ready for the scrapbook, but... I know how to weave leaf crowns, and must do so before the season gets too late. Friends are always thinking I could make money from stuff I make-- but by the third knitted kitten/pocket elf/pair of slippers/etc, I am stubbornly done, forever.

There is a weird burden to knowing how to do many things. I have to choose where the enthusiasm goes (and sometimes there ain't none), and I'm also a person who needs to waste a lot of time to feel at home in the world. So I sort of need to see it all as wasting time, sewing as wasting time, writing as wasting time, cooking as noodling around.

Now I need to find a way to see exercise as wasting time... Parenting as wasting time, though, that is blissfully right: I do much better when I forget about accomplishing anything more than a costume that needs to last 48 hours, a pot of pumpkin soup that only I need to like, as everyone else will be filled with candy.

I have to write you a note about the class I am taking, Memoir as Story, good feedback from the teacher. Soon.