Wednesday, September 19, 2007

last day as a church hedonist

written on a sweltering Sunday two weeks ago-- church school started last week.

I sit by the window this hot, hot morning in church, glad I dressed in lightweight layers—a pink camisole I don’t wear often, covered with a tunic of sheer silk, the floral skirt and plain sandals. I take these summer church services as a personal retreat into who I once was, a worshipper undistracted. In my pew by myself, I forget anyone else exists for stretches at a time. I sing “like a charismatic,” as one Episcopal friend puts it, head thrown back and happily lost to all but my one great love.

I come alone to church in summer, just for this.

During the fall, winter and spring, I teach church school for ages nine to twelve. I do my best to do justice to the children and the material, and I fail sometimes, but they know I love them. When I finish church school, I rant a little to anyone in the kitchen as I get a glass of water and I try to shake off the tensions, the frustrations and the power struggles. Afterwards I arrive in the sanctuary late, rattled, thinking what I will do differently next week—I do not arrive in a meditative state. During the worship service, I’m aware of my oldest child and all the other children from my church school classroom: are they paying attention to the sermon? Are they antsy and needing assistance?

When the schedule shifts in summer months, then, my husband attends the eight a.m. worship service and I attend the ten a.m. service, while the kids stretch out on the floor at home and toodle with toys, and skip church entirely. Parents “tag team;” children lounge. Our congregation offers no church school, no childcare for children over seven in the summer. I know I could easily “make” children attend worship, but then I would lose my retreat.

Will I pay later for this choice? Am I passing along the wrong message? I LOVE GOD. More than anyone or anything else. It’s not a message to anyone, against anyone. In summer I experience God, truly for me. Quite honestly it’s the most selfish thing I do all week, go to church. I walk in slowly, sit down slowly. I pack my journal and noodle around a bit before things start. I sing with gusto. I cry inexplicably.

And toward the end of the service on this hot, hot day, I sit with my back against the arm of the pew, kick my sandals off and place my shoeless feet on the pew to sit and listen to the postlude. I close my eyes and pretend it’s just me. Something tickles my foot and I jump—I look up to find a white-haired friend from the pew behind me, with his finger curled a few inches away from my foot, laughing merrily. “I couldn’t resist!” he whispered. “You remind me so much of my daughter.” His wife slaps him in the shoulder, but he is busy being bemused, obviously thinking his actions worth the cost. I laugh at him and shake my head, then close my eyes again and return to the lovely fugue.

When the organ solo ends, Charlie’s wife quickly exits, scandalized. Charlie shrugs and apologizes, still smiling at his church mischief. I brush off the apology and ask him how he is, how is his wife, how are their children. I’m an easy target for flirting, in my summery clothes, radiating happiness. I know Charlie enough to know he is harmless and kind-hearted and there is nothing at stake except his wife’s pride. Nowhere else do I get this treatment but my church, and at times it’s given me as much life as it gives my favorite old men. I am not the same kind of pretty I once was. I weigh too much, and my forehead sports a grid of deep creases. Everyone here knows my husband, my children, my reputation as a teacher and my happy summer arrangement. I am harmless, too. My regular flirt, Dan, is out sailing today, his own summer schedule, and perhaps Charlie thought I’d be lonely. No matter. I hope his wife will forgive his indulgence, but he couldn’t care less, just now, wrapped in his own merry orneriness.

We are both worship hedonists, today, then, me and Charlie. I’m coming back next Sunday, too, my last hedonist Sunday before church school begins. I only wink at my man Dan, but I’ll smile at Charlie if I see him, and I’ll make it a point to talk with his wife about kids and houses and weather, to make sure she knows I’m not embarrassed or put off by Charlie’s impishness. Not at all. I wish him joy, while summer lasts.

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