dream at night
girl with a cobra tattoo
and try to hear the garbled transmissions come through.
- The Mountain Goats "Girl with a Cobra Tattoo"
A few days ago, rooting around in my jewelry box, I found among the earrings and hair-ties a little red and silver cross from a Valencia cathedral. My mother bought it a decade ago when we were living in Europe and I took it for my own a few years back. I fingered it a long time, before I strung it on a chain stolen from a rarely-worn necklace and put it on around my neck, careful to tuck it hidden underneath my sweater and my shirt. In my last two years of college I wore this cross all the time, perplexing my liberal Jewish boyfriend and my radically secular friends. I went regularly to Catholic Mass and sat in the back and learned all the prayers and never spoke to anyone except in the moments immediately after the Our Father when ritual dictates you turn and greet your neighbor. A few times I almost asked the preist about converting, stopping just short of actually having a conversation. Those years I read a lot of Milton and Hopkins and Donne, and carried Christian Wiman's Every Riven Thing with me like a bible. I read King James scripture and dogeared most of the pages in an anthology of stories about Belief. I thought and wrote almost exclusively about faith and its absence and from all this I built and took apart a hundred Gods.
I dreamed the wild lover who took over Margery Kemp's body and made her wail, and the God Flannery O'Connor scratched on Parker's back. I wrestled with the personal, inflexible Christ the billboards in the mountains at home promised, and mapped the Lord onto a boy I'd adored as a child: with a Carhartt jacket and a soft southern accent, a fucked-up family and eyes so clear, pale blue they sometimes looked like ice or air. I searched out God in the Virginia clay and the wood-heated house of the neighbor who played Christian television to herself all day and liked it when I read her Psalms out loud. I wanted so badly to make him the reversal of my sister's absence: gentle and young and flawed and looking like me. I wanted a God who was rustic and resurrected and material, who would talk to me in the static-y silence I heard playing in my head all the time.
My mother was raised with a lot of manners and no particular religious observance, and my father has a Louisiana Catholic boy's love of saints and a real distate for pretty much everything else about the church. When I was young we made some half-hearted sojourns to the Presbyterian church in Amherst, but that had much more to do, I think, with my mother trying to figure out how the hell to belong in our little rural community than with God. Whatever my attachment to God, it did not come from them, and it persisted in spite of growing up in the heartland of what often feels like the worst religion has to offer: bigotry and prejudice, rabidly anti-intellectual attitudes, the inability to yield even a single hard-edged certainty up to kindness or questioning or complication. My faith in something, some kind of higher power, feels built into my body, borne up out of something animal, dogged and deep.
But I should be honest. In the last year I largely forgot about God. And I did it for banal, daily reasons, and I did it almost without noticing. I got busy, I moved, I got pulled away by so many other small things that cropped up to take away my attention. I never made the decision to take off the old red cross. One day the chain I was wearing it on snapped, and I thought: I'll restring it, and then I didn't, and then months passed. And because my faith is a quiet, messy, and uncertain thing, largely secret and unspoken, because I am young and full of flaws, because I am distractible and sometimes so angry that I care about this probably god-damned impossible thing thing in the name of which so many awful things are done, it's easy for it to go under like a silent, sinking city: fence, and smokestack, and finally steeple disappearing...
Often, I feel like a tourist in church, like I lack the discipline or selflessness or certainty for real belief and just want the trappings: the lovely church, the chorus of voices, the candlelight and the ritual and the firm hand taking mine. But I'm fond of those great lines in André Dubus's A Father's Story: "having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and the wonder of ritual." His protagonist muses that a prayer, whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith.
And so I put the cross back on, not as an adherence to any particular creed, and not as any public declaration, but to make my searching material: to set it against me, to hold it in my hand and let it insist upon itself. I murmur and murmur to the shape shifting in the distance. I want to hear the garbled transmissions come through. I want so much for all this searching to be a labor of being better and braver than the fool I am. But also, while I'm being honest, mostly what I'm saying is Please God, whatever you are, don't leave me alone. That little prayer over and over and over again.