Houses that Man Built (part 1)

My parents began shopping for their first house when I was around 11 or 12 and my brother was 9 or 10. My mother had grown weary of living in old places, mopping and waxing hardwood floors, and trying to make out-of-date styles look fresh. Both she and my father wanted something cozily carpeted with resale value that they could turn over quickly when the time came to get on the planes for Petra before The Great Tribulation set in. They were still giving up to 30% of their income to The Church (as all members were), but the financial hardship had lessened as my father moved further along in his career.

According to the strictest doctrines of The Church, my parents were becoming “worldly in their desires” – obsessing over things like neighborhoods and floor plans, cabinet styles and fixtures, and carpet and wall colors – but so had other members. By the mid- to late-1970s, many families had begun buying homes and televisions. They’d begun wearing stylish clothing. As a group, we started to “blend in” with The World (if only in appearance). The odd, old rules meant to “set us apart from The World” were slipping out of Church teachings.

According to the old rules: When pipe-legged pants are in style, put your shoes on before your pants. If you cannot get your pants over your shoes, do not wear those pants. They are “too worldly.” When bell-bottoms are in style, again, put your shoes on first. If you can get your pants on over your shoes, do not wear those pants. If “worldly women” are wearing pantsuits, “godly women” must wear skirts. Do the opposite of what The World is doing and never try to “blend in” – never try to pass as one of “them.”

Some men and boys had begun to let their hair grow long enough to touch the collars of their shirts. Some women, my mother included, cut their hair short in stylish shags. The Church lifted its ban on make-up and many women began taking pride in their appearance. Once dreary Church Services became fashion shows of sorts with adults, teens, and children parading the latest and best they could afford and handing out compliments as they would have Tic Tacs and chewing gum.

Even the higher-ups in The Church hierarchy had grown lax as the old man Herbert Armstrong faded into the background and a leisurely life of jet-setting around the globe and having his picture taken with world leaders. By the mid 1970s, Armstrong’s handsome son Garner Ted had taken over the radio and televangelism. By 1976, Garner Ted was singing on Hee Haw with Buck Owens, hobnobbing with country music stars, and bringing them on stage with him to perform during The Feast. By 1977, he had even done an interview with Penthouse magazine.

This “worldliness” wouldn’t last. Herbert Armstrong would “get The Church back on track” in the 1980s, but for a small window we would have a tiny bit of freedom – the same abuse, but with a little more autonomy.

garner_ted_playing_guitar_1979
Garner Ted (with guitar on the left) performing at the Feast of Tabernacles in San Antonio, Texas. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

During the house hunt, my parents, my brother, and I – dressed and looking like any worldly family – met in the offices of realtors and builders after school when my father wasn’t traveling for work. During one of these evening meetings, we were looking at floor plans when my brother and I spotted a city map on the wall. We ran up to it and started pointing to places we knew and talking about routes to get from here to there. Nothing extraordinary. Maybe we were less inhibited than usual. Maybe we were excited about choosing a house. Maybe we were just expressing curiosity the way “normal kids” did.

Whatever the case, our father took notice. And when we left the office, he praised us, saying, “I’d like to see more behavior like that from the two of you.” That’s what he used to call us: The-two-of-you.

I suddenly felt self-conscious and regretful that we had done something so out of the ordinary that it merited scrutiny and special mention. What did that say about who we were in every other circumstance and social interaction? His praise (which was rare) didn’t feel like praise as much as a backhanded criticism. After all the isolation and abuse (which hadn’t stopped), were we now expected to be vital and engaged participants in The World?

Something had changed. Before, we had only needed to keep up appearances for The Church. Now, it seemed, we were expected to care about what The World thought of us too. It may have been my age, but I noticed a change in my parents’ and my own relationship to The World. We were trying to fit in.

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A current aerial of our suburban cul-de-sac. Image taken from Google maps.

My parents settled on a wooded lot at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs where our house would be built. The neighborhood was one of those subdivisions that crept in multiple directions as bulldozers pushed dirt lanes through trees and wildflower fields. Dirt lanes turned into paved streets and concrete curbs notched with driveway stubs. Families with a mom and a dad and 2.5 kids (like us and so unlike us) bought the lots and tied bright orange plastic ribbons around the trees they wanted to save. Builders came in and decided which of those trees were convenient to keep before they bulldozed the rest, laid the foundation, and slapped up one of the 4 or 5 prefab designs that the family had chosen.

The newness of this place was striking – so different from the old houses to which we’d grown accustomed. Yet, I would come to enjoy suburbia. I’d make friends there. My brother and I would explore the streets on bicycles and skateboards and follow the trails and creeks on motorcycles. We’d become allies and look out for each other. We’d learn to tell lies when we had to protect ourselves.

Suburbia would be the place where my childhood anger would bloom and grow fertile with teen rage. Its streets and woods and remaining fields would be my new refuge. I’d learn how to escape into them and wander aimlessly, smoking Marlboro reds and picking wildflowers. Picking flowers would become my go-to excuse for getting out of the house, my consolation for sadness, and my first practice in converting anger into things of beauty.

*Houses that Man Built (part 2) continued in next post.

New Year / Old Fights

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It’s year’s end and the snow has covered the ground and trees. After a week of eerie and unseasonable warmth, our promised winter storm has finally come and gone. And it’s stunningly beautiful. I’m sitting in the dining room, looking out the window with my laptop and my notes sprawled across the table, planning the next stage of this memoir project.

My notes are written on anything and everything, whatever was at hand in some inspired moment in the middle of the night or whenever. I’ve scrawled on envelopes (unopened junk mail mostly) and prison letters from my father (opened and read but unanswered) and paint chips and sticky notes and tuition bills and medical statements and store lists and birthday promotions and printed drafts of this project. I’ve written palimpsestic notes over notes about alternative and herbal insomnia remedies (because when you write about this sort of thing, sleep isn’t restful and doesn’t come easily) and about home repair and remodeling plans and about titles or approximate titles of books my father wanted me to research and send to him.

I haven’t sent my father any books recently. I haven’t taken his phone calls either, not since weeks before the presidential election when the stress – set off by traumatizing similarities between the Republican nominee’s bullying and gaslighting and the things I endured as a child and young adult – became too much to bear. Even now, I have too many thoughts intruding at unwelcome hours and interrupting what little sleep I get. I can’t talk to my father when I’m having nightmares.

I’m sure my father knows why I’ve refused contact and why I make no attempt to explain myself. He’s not stupid. He knows the history. He and my other relatives will do as they’ve always done. They’ll be dismissive, they’ll laugh it off, and then bond over how “she needs to just get over whatever her problem is.”

I’ve heard it all before.

“Get a life,” my father would say.

Like the time when I was riding in the back seat of my parents’ car not soon after I had left The Church and I complained about the hate spewing from the Rush Limbaugh radio program my father was playing.

My mother asked, “Why don’t we just turn it off?”

“Get a life!” was my father’s answer as he turned the radio up louder.

If he could no longer squeeze the breath out of me by my own dress bows, he could at least drown me out.

My father found an abusive idol in Rush Limbaugh as he did in Herbert W. Armstrong. (That both bullies used radio as their pulpit seems significant.) And were my father not in prison and thus able to vote, I have no doubt that he would have supported the current president-elect (especially since he was running against “that bitch”). It’s these small-time authoritarians like my father who are willing to make heroes and saviors of celebrity hatemongers and propagandists. They’re eager to hang on to the coattails of abusers with false promises and determined to stand behind bullies rather than in front of them. These are the people responsible for this current political nightmare we’ve all woken up into.

And their political acts are less forgivable than any personal abuse I might have endured.

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My scattered project notes live in a manila folder. The folder is scrawled on every surface: front, back, and inside. I hadn’t meant to keep a folder of notes. I have a lovely little cork-bound notebook (half-full by now) for that – a gift from my department when I gave notice to spend my last few months of this year on a sabbatical (of sorts) to work on this memoir. The notebook, which I began with handwriting as neat and tidy as I could muster, has become as disorderly and indecipherable as the folder notes. Both sets of notes are much like this year has been: chaotic, productive, and predictably unpredictable – planned one way but then detoured by that inevitably messy turn.

The year hasn’t gone as I thought it would. I’d anticipated that it would be a year of forward progress, not regression. I had faith that my narrative would fold into some larger triumphant coming-out-of-Egypt story. I was wrong. I hadn’t thought (only feared) I would be writing this project about escaping authoritarianism while living in a country about to be taken over by far-right extremists. I didn’t want to believe that my tiny little hell of bullies and abusers and silencers and narcissistic cult leaders could ever play out on a national scale. But now that I know it can, I’m more fearful and less hopeful than when I began writing.

I also thought I would be further along in this project, but there’s too much that needs to be said and so much writing that’s taking place behind the scenes of this blog. Things are moving slowly. Thus far in the narrative, I haven’t even written myself out of latency yet, which seems fitting as the real rebellion in my story begins in puberty.

So, I’ll be writing about my early resistance against The Church as a majority of this nation learns how to resist and survive the neo-fascism that’s ahead of us. This time I won’t be alone in my rebellion. And yet, I still don’t look forward to that. I don’t like these fights fueled by righteous indignation.

But I do know how to have them.

Interlude: This Election, Empathy, and Personal Narratives

open-book

1.

I spent the week before and after the presidential election reading hundreds of personal narratives on social media. Most of the stories were shared within the safe confines of secret groups formed around political goals and the shared desire of members to protect civil liberties and fight hate. The stories (and the generous, empathetic responses to them) are a lifeline of hope in what has been a cruel and abusive election season. They will continue to be so in what promises to be an even more abusive presidential administration.

And, yes, this presidency will be as abusive and cruel as the president-elect has promised. Trust me, I know. When a narcissistic authoritarian shows you who he is, it behooves you to believe him.

I’ve marveled at the outpouring of empathy and respect (I would call it love, even) in the troll-free safe spaces, but I’ve also been outraged by the bullying and hate-spewing elsewhere on social media and in the physical world. I’ve witnessed people (whose bodies, marriages, and very lives are at risk) be threatened for speaking up, for being visible – for merely existing. I’ve seen their allies mocked and ridiculed for daring to shed tears or speak angrily over the rise of Neo-Fascism and mob violence.

I’ve watched people gain more support from strangers than from their own family members, coworkers, or “friends.”

2.

Personal narratives hold power. If they weren’t powerful, then a narrative wouldn’t garner an outpouring of love and empathy from some while inciting mockery and violent threat from others.

What would happen if everyone stepped outside of the big sweeping ideological narratives imposed upon them? What if they let go of the scripted and certain tales and began to tell their own small stories? And what if they told them honestly? What if they allowed themselves and others to express vulnerability? And what if they sat with that shared vulnerability – that humanity?

3.

About 15 years ago, my father began writing a memoir. He wrote every evening and emailed his drafts to me for revision and feedback. (I was living in California at the time; he was living in Tennessee.) His writing was quite good and he had a strong voice. He also had the temperament for the work, which is to say he wrote impulsively – without inhibition or filters. The language and all it revealed came easily to him.

But then he began a pattern of self-censorship.

When my father wrote something evocative and vivid from his childhood (like the time he found a cotton nest of baby mice in a bedroom wall), he would then stop sending drafts for a few days. When he’d return to the writing, he’d take the beautiful narratives he’d begun to unfurl (like how he kept the newborn mice as secret pets and called them his baby pigs because they were pink and hairless) and dutifully fold them back into trite summations about Family or Loyalty or Hard Work or Sacrifice or What it Means to Be a Man. Rather than push through the difficult parts of his own story (like when his older brothers found his secret nest of baby pigs), he gave up on his own voice. He stammered. And rather than talk through the stammer (the feelings of loss and anger), he let others step in and speak for him.

He turned his childhood caring into adult sadism. Why love something when it can be tortured and killed? He disciplined himself out of his own unique story because it was easier to adopt misogyny than to admit that his mother abused him.

Eventually, he stopped writing.

4.

I’ve spent years trying to write my story without having to own it.

I didn’t want to own my story because I was ashamed of it.

So, I disguised it as scholarly research.

I tried to write it as fiction.

Then, on November 14th, 2015, I woke up to a notification scrolling across my phone from The Guardian saying that bombs had gone off in Paris. This attack – of all the horrifying attacks and heartbreaking murders that had scrolled across my phone in recent months – this attack on secularism, urbanity, and diversity – devised as a wedge between communities that by some “natural order” should not enjoy one other’s company – this attack – meant to split relationships into their most crass binaries: Us/Them, Believers/Infidels, Winners/Losers, Strong/Weak… and by extension, Masculine/Feminine and Straight/Gay – this attack became the final straw.

I knew I had to speak up and share my narrative.

I started with a Facebook post that read:

This is going to get personal, but necessarily so. I’m thinking about Paris, about religious fanaticism in general, and my own upbringing in particular. I grew up in an apocalyptic cult – a contorted blend of Judaism and Christianity – under a rigid and controlling hierarchy. There were so many abuses (particularly of women and children) in this environment, but, for me, the worst was how this group isolated us from human culture and took away any hope we had in the future.

I had no future. From the time I was a baby, I was told the world was going to end. There were dates set and dates missed and new dates set. My parents said I should be grateful that I’d never have to go to school and be in “this evil world.” When I did go to first grade, I was completely unprepared. I knew how to read and do some math, but that was about it. I knew nothing about how to navigate “the world.” My parents assured me that I didn’t have to worry about school for too many years because “the tribulation” (a time of war, enslavement, and extreme torture described with such specificity as to give children nightmares) would come before I reached middle school. And because I was one of “God’s Chosen” by fact that my parents were “Called” (meaning converted to this crazy religion), I would be swept away to a “Place of Safety” in some cave in the Middle East, probably in Petra.

When the world didn’t end by middle school, I was told I wouldn’t go to high school and then that I’d never graduate, never go to college, never marry, never have children. They told us to be thankful that we wouldn’t have to grow up, to be thankful that the world and all its inhabitants would be destroyed, to be thankful that we would be spared while other children and their parents were being killed and tortured, and to be thankful that (by some magic wave-of-the hand) God could make it all new again – that nothing or no one of value would really be lost. They took such delight in the anticipated destruction of everything and everyone except their tiny sect.

I went to college and read art history books. I felt so outside of human culture. I had no culture of my own, no history, no tradition. I didn’t even feel human. At 24, I left the group and my first husband. My mother stalked my art studio and my friends. She threatened me with the loss of “God’s protection,” with being “burned up with the rest of the world!” and with “getting killed!” My brother joined in by claiming that he had “always looked up to me” but had now “lost all respect.” And, predictably, my father called me “a disgrace,” as fathers in oppressive patriarchies do.

So, when I see/hear/read statements from ISIS or attacks on sites of secular culture or the destruction of cultural objects or the degradation of educational institutions or Zionists staking their claim as “rightful heirs” or U.S. politicians calling for a Christian Theocracy or any religious fundamentalists casting themselves as players in some “End Time” drama, I recognize and remember.

I received a flood of support for writing about what had been difficult for me to own and accept. I had kept the details of this piece of my life so secret that people who had known me for decades had no idea about my past.

In the midst of this empathy, my brother interjected himself at the center. He made what had been a painful (and politically important, which had been the whole point) post to write into something about him and his hurt feelings.

He sent a single text telling me: what I wrote “must have somehow sounded good in [my] head, but didn’t sound so good outside,” that I was “difficult to love,” and that I was on my own.

That text was painful. Losing my niece and nephew has been even more painful. But that text set me free. That text reminded me that my narrative is powerful. And for that, I’m deeply grateful.

I’m no longer ashamed.

This is my story.

First person.

And I won’t stop writing it.

The Feast (part 3): Pith Helmets, Spanking Tents, and Healing Trailers

Continued from The Feast (part 2): Memory, Water, and Protection

The first service always occurred after sunset on the eve of the first High Holy Day of The Feast. We and thousands of other Jekyll Island feastgoers would put on our finest clothes and drive in from our respective campsites, beach houses, or motels and descend upon The Big Tent, our meeting tabernacle for the next eight days.

Men wearing white safari pith helmets and reflective vests over suits would colonize the spaces surrounding The Big Tent. They would direct traffic with flashlights and white-gloved hand signals – divide the sheep from the goats as it were by Feast Sticker color. Feast Stickers were small diamond-shaped bumper stickers with the black letters ‘FT’ floating on a ground of day-glow orange, red, or green. Cars with orange stickers belonged to ministers and were reverently waved through to the best parking lots surrounding The Big Tent. Cars with red stickers were guided to the spaces reserved for the handicapped and elderly just outside the tent’s edge. The remaining hordes of green-stickered cars were directed into fields and sandy outer lots typical of state fairs.

Some years, my father volunteered to direct traffic. Volunteering was a steppingstone for men like him wanting to move up in The Church hierarchy, but it was also a way to experience the exhilaration of bringing large crowds to order and the power of telling individual drivers where to go and how to get there. Like every other volunteer opportunity within The Church, parking duty was a platform for exhibiting godliness and appeasing authority.

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The Feast tent at Big Sandy, Texas. The Jekyll Island tent was similar, only green and beside the ocean.

Once parked, families did the usual collecting of materials from their trunks. The men gathered their briefcases full of Bibles, notebooks, and song hymnals. The women gathered their purses, diaper bags, paddles, and sleeping pallets. Then this army of smug, strutting tyrants dressed like little businessmen holding briefcases led their straggling crew of abused, stumbling children and overburdened, diaper-bagged wives toward The Big Tent.

What a ridiculous spectacle we must have been to the locals.

The Big Tent, we were told, was the largest of its kind. Bigger than any circus tent, they said. Our tabernacle rose stories above the tarmac, which in other seasons could have supported street fairs, Ferris wheels, cotton candy vendors, and 4-H animals. But for us, it was our own carnival of parking lots, spanking tents, healing trailers, mothers’ rooms, and portapotties.

As we made our way past the portapotties and through the parking lot just at The Big Tent’s edge, I could see them – the people we weren’t to look at. They were especially visible in the daylight.

“Don’t stare,” my parents scolded.

I could see them: “the infirm” fanning themselves in cars with the doors open, “the crippled” in wheelchairs sitting outside of vans, and the “mongoloid” children with dark, freckled skin hiding in their parents’ car behind bamboo blinds. They were like the “hard of hearing” with earphones and sign language interpreters near the front of the stage. They were like the rest of us.

They’d come a long way from all up and down the Eastern U.S. and Canada. Some made the pilgrimage with hopes of touching the hem of a healing garment “like back in Christ’s Day,” only symbolically. They’d ask ministers to pray over them and to hold anointed cloths drenched in olive oil against their foreheads, not in some public stage show, but privately in healing trailers and motel rooms.

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The Good News magazine (Jul-Sept, 1973) article “The Early Crew” (page 10). Volunteers setting up folding chairs for Feast Services.

Once inside The Big Tent, we would go-find-our-seats.

Members spoke the phrase as if it were a single word: go-find-our-seats. We have to go-find-our-seats. We need to go-find-our seats. Let’s go-find-our-seats.

Or singular: I’m gonna go-find-my-seat. I need to go-find-my-seat.

Or to children: Go-find-your-seat.

My father always found his seat on the aisle. It was the natural place for fathers. All the fathers sat protectively on the aisle seats with their brief cases on their thighs like lap desks with Bibles and notebooks on top. No matter that their wives had to balance crying babies and diaper bags and struggle past them and their lap desks and Bibles and notebooks to get to The Mothers’ Room. No matter that their wives had to drag crying children over them and their lap desks and Bibles and notebooks to get to The Spanking Tent.

Fathers had to be on the aisle at the ready when their wives “lost control of the children.” They had to be ready to throw their Bibles and notebooks into their briefcases, snap them shut, and leave their seats without fumbling or embarrassment. They had to be free to grab rebellious kids by the upper arm and quickly get them to The Spanking Tent. Fathers had to be able to drag children – wailing, forearms dangling, hands wringing in despair – without looking pathetic, flailing, and out-of-control themselves (which they always did).

Children had to try not to make-a-spectacle of themselves or their parents.

My parents spoke the phrase as if it were a single word: make-a-spectacle. Don’t make-a-spectacle of yourself. Try not to make-a-spectacle this time.

Or the past tense: You really made-a-spectacle of yourself.

Their Angels Do Always Behold

There’s a sweet picture, a black and white Polaroid (my estranged mother must have it) of my brother, another little boy, and me as preschoolers sitting together on a seesaw swing. My brother is sitting on the left holding his side of the swing bar. I’m in the center facing the little boy to the right; we’re holding the other swing bar together. Both boys are wearing short-sleeved button downs and dress pants and I’m wearing a sleeveless white dress with a dropped waist and the shortest, most perfectly pressed little pleated skirt. (My mother could starch and iron with exceptional precision.) We’re all smiling great big smiles and scrunching our shoulders up under our ears the way anxious children do.

We look so happy.

The little boy is my brother’s first and best friend: he’s called Gerald*, named after his father and maybe his grandfather. I remember thinking the name ‘Gerald’ was such a grandfatherly name. When all the other boys were called Jeff and Gregory and Scott and Kevin, I wondered how anyone could look down at a little baby and say: This one, he looks like a Gerald.

Gerald’s parents were sturdy people, strong and muscular. His mother was tall with a handsome, chiseled jaw like a man. Having grown up Amish, they’d spent their childhood working on farms until they left the community in young adulthood. Shunned by their families, the couple created a new life together and found a new religion in Armstrongism, which with its pacifism, clean living, agrarian millennialism, and disfellowshipment (excommunication and shunning) was superficially familiar.

Gerald and his little brother were sturdy, too. Even as preschoolers, they were big-boned, rough-and-tumble, and sweet. My brother and I spent a lot of time with the two boys and other children after Sabbath Services and during the week. We bowed our heads over shared meals as our fathers “said the blessing.” We played together in the crop rows, ate dirty strawberries, stuck our hands in blueberry bushes, and got stung by bees as our suntanned mothers picked peaches and berries and corn and green beans. We sat in cars as they gathered wild blackberries by the side of the road. We hung out as they scouted health food stores and farmers markets, shared gallon jars of raw milk, and attended flower-arranging workshops. We built crafts together over long tables set up in Gerald’s backyard by the woods. We made shellacked and wood mounted mushrooms molded from bread dough and sprinkled with sesame seeds and clove-stuffed spice sachets out of braided yarn and pinked-edge circles of calico, which never lost their scent even after decades of hanging on my mother’s kitchen wall.

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When Gerald and my brother were both about 9 years old, they buddied up together at a local church outing at one of those lake swimming areas with ropes, buoys, docks for diving, and a lifeguard stand. One of the church adults or teens experienced in life-saving may have been on guard. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

The boys swam and played together with the other children. My brother said he saw Gerald bob a few times above the water. Nothing alarming. Nothing unusual. Then Gerald went out of sight. My brother assumed he had swum behind someone or moved to play elsewhere.

It wasn’t until one of the girls stepped on Gerald’s hand that they found he had drowned and settled to the bottom of the lake. The adults dragged him out of the water and tried to resuscitate, but it was too late.

child-prayer
Teach Your Children About God. Written by Arch Bradley. Published by Ambassador College Press (1974). Retrieved from the Herbert W. Armstrong Searchable Library. (I hate this picture and other pictures like it, dripping with sanctimonious coercion. I feel that hand on my shoulder, see that look on the kid’s face, and recognize the implicit threat.)

The first thing we did was pray.

I was on a sleepover with two other girls from The Church. We had just sat down for lunch with the girls’ parents when the phone call came. The mother got up and answered the phone and came back to the table and told us Gerald had drowned.

We girls asked, “But he’s okay, right?” And then with increasing panic, “They got him out, right? They brought him back, right? But they saved him, right?”

“No. He died.”

“You mean dead dead? Are they sure he’s dead?”’

And then we held hands around the table, whimpered, bowed our heads, and prayed.

In the days that followed, members and their children asked: How could this have happened? Worldly children die, yes, but that’s because they don’t have God’s angels around them. Aren’t we “under God’s protection”?

Gerald had gone through the same ceremony all we children had. On the second Sabbath after the Feast of Tabernacles in the first 24 months of his life, he’d been carried up on stage (maybe crying) by his parents for The Blessing of The Little Children. He’d had ministers lay hands on his head and bow their heads and pray over him using his name, his parents’ names, and the name of God The Father and His Son Jesus Christ. He’d been assigned his own personal guardian angel and helper angels, whole fleets of angels to “watch over and protect him.”

Gerald’s parents didn’t cry, not even at the funeral. They refused to talk about their son’s death or to mourn in predictable ways.

Members huddled in groups after Sabbath Services and talked quietly over meals. Children listened. Adults wondered: Could it be their Amish upbringing that made them tougher than the rest of us? Could it be they have a measure of faith that we don’t have?

In the weeks that followed, members continued to search for cosmic meaning in what others would have mourned as a tragic accident. In the fundamentalist mind, there are no accidents – only dots to be connected superstitiously and formed into pictures of blame.

Members concluded as they did with all tragedies that someone was “being tested.” Gerald’s parents were “being tested.” The church was “being tested.” The children were “being tested.”

They repeated like a mantra: Sometimes God tests those he loves most. Sometimes we lose protection because we “lack faith” or “have a bad attitude.” Sometimes we’re disobedient and sin outright and deserve punishment for that sin. Sometimes we grow complacent and God needs to “wake us up.”

Yes. We had grown complacent. We’d grown accustomed to abiding in the space of miracles where angels and demons fought invisible wars on our behalf – where God showed us favor – where we were always the side of winning until we weren’t because that favor was conditional.

And we didn’t know how to handle loss.

*The little boy’s name has been changed.

Interlude with You, Me, Two Deer, a Bear, and Some Tourists

Twenty years ago today my now-husband and I went on a romantic picnic in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What began as a celebration between two new lovers having just made the decision to run away to some unknown place and spend the rest of our lives together ended in a near bear-mauling and a spectacle for tourists.

two_deer

Our plan was to run away to go to graduate school together. It sounds funny now, but it was both radical and reasonable considering we’d met only a few months earlier in a GRE prep class. We were both in the same place doing the same thing (non-degree seeking graduate work at the same university), both trying to figure out what we wanted to do next.

I’d just written some monstrous tome with an annotated bibliography as long as the text about religious fundamentalism. What was disguised as scholarly writing was an emotionally-confused survivor trying to make intellectual sense out of why anyone would be caught up in such nonsense.

Some years later in 2001, I wrote the story of our picnic/origin story as part of a video art project. The story has since manifested in multiple works and incarnations. This is but one.

smoky-mountain-black-bear

We drove up into the mountains, a Saturday in September. You brought blue cheese and crusty bread, red grapes, pink wine, and a book of Keats. We stretched out on a blanket in an open field and ate and read to each other about death and autumn.

I told you autumn had always been my favorite time of year. A time of new beginnings. Succulence. Harvest. Abundance. These were words I used.

It’s the color of the sky, I said. Everything seems just and purposeful – the final reaping of labor.

And you agreed, Life had never been so just.

We tried to imagine where we would be next fall. California maybe, we said, a place with no fall, where nothing dies or fades or grows old and the grad schools are good.

We snuggled to each other under the breeze.

As we lay there, two deer came up to our blanket and stood beside us. Side by side for the longest time, they watched us with wide brown eyes. So close. I could have stretched out my arm and touched a hoof. You could have reached over me and touched a leg.

They looked at us directly in the eyes and then over their shoulders and back at us again and again. We marveled, the pair of them looking at the pair of us. What do they want? What are they looking for? Why so close? Why so still?

And then you saw. You nudged me and pointed. Look there, you said.

A bear at the edge of the field rose up on her hind legs.

I stood up on my feet. But you pulled me down as quickly as I stood.

We held each other and mumbled things I don’t remember as the bear charged toward us.

I thought, We’re going to be mauled. In the midst of planning our future, we’re going to be mauled. This isn’t just. This isn’t purposeful. This is what I get for being happy. I’ll have to play dead and cover my head and lie face down like they do on TV. My beautiful face. Your beautiful face. I’m going to witness your mauling even if I can’t see it because I’m playing dead and covering my head and lying face down. I’m going to hear your mauling, which is probably worse.

But you kept looking into my startled eyes. Huge as deer eyes, you told me later. You said, it’ll be okay.

You had a plan. You were going to make a big ball of leftover blue cheese, crusty bread, and grape stems. You were going to throw your bolus as far away from us as it would go. Then we were going to run, run, run. We’d never stop running.

We looked at each other and then back at the charging bear, but before I could play dead and you could throw the bolus, it was over.

The deer leapt off into the woods. And the bear charged past the corner of our blanket and off into the woods after the deer.

When we looked up to make our way back to the car, we saw a crowd had gathered. The road was jammed with tourists in and out of their cars lining up with video cameras and binoculars and kids to see the deer, the lovers, the bear, and maybe a good mauling.

When we made our way back up to the road, people wanted to talk to us, express their sympathy, and share their excitement.

Huge as deer eyes, you said laughing. My eyes were as huge as deer eyes.

The Feast (part 2): Memory, Water, and Protection

Continued from The Feast (part 1): Calendars, Harvest Festivals, Pagans, and Booths

Memory is a fragile and fractured thing, especially without corroboration.

When I began this section of the narrative, I planned to write about the years I went to The Feast on Jekyll Island, believing they spanned all of my pre-pubescent youth. The time at Jekyll seemed endless (in the way time does for young children), a constant, yearly punctuation of every fall season from birth to tweens.

As I searched the online archives of WCG literature, I became less convinced of my recollections. I discovered that I went to Jekyll Island as a toddler until about 3rd grade. After that, I traveled to Virginia, the Caribbean, California, and Mexico. And although my reminiscences are clear, the years are a jumble.

I have no personal records from those childhood years at The Feast, save the few photos I took with me when I left and a head full of vivid, albeit disjointed, memories. Anyone who might be able to fill in the gaps, share photos, or map years to events is either deceased or wants no part in having this story told.

What I have are patterns – annual Feasts, weekly Sabbaths, daily abuse – engrained with repetition and altered with distinct details. But the details themselves are likely composites of years spent in the same places, with the same people, doing the same things.

jekyll-camp
Jekyll Island campground. Photo retrieved from Georgia Tourist Guide.

In the earliest years at Jekyll, my parents set up our “booth” in a group campground with other members. I don’t remember much about the camping years. I remember our tent had lots of zippers and bug screens. The sleeping bags had hunting scenes on the flannel inside. And there was a fancy propane lamp with little white socks that lit up. I remember hearing about how much my mother hated living in a tent, taking cold showers in a cement stall, and cooking over a propane stove. I also remember hearing about how angry my father had gotten when a church lady (maybe my grandmother) walked through his brand new tent in her high heels and poked holes in the floor, which let in water when the storms came.

One year (maybe more than one), we rented a beach house big enough for all our member-relatives to share. By then, I was elementary school age. There’s a picture I can’t find of all of us crowded there at the dining table: my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and her elderly friend, both of my mother’s sisters, my father’s oldest sister, three cousins, my brother, and myself. My father (the only man in the house) was taking the picture and wasn’t in view.

Most years we stayed in motels with swimming pools as close to the beach as we could afford. Swimming and water activities were integral to The Church culture for those of us living in the Eastern US. I can’t speak to experiences in other parts of the world, but members we knew claimed that going to a Feast Site without a beach (and there were many in the US and abroad) wouldn’t feel like “A Real Feast.” Many of us, especially children, would have spent all day every day in the water had we the option.

With that much water and that many thousands of people at Jekyll during the festival, there were always drownings, one or two every year. We were told that, with so many of us, the odds were that a few would eventually “fall outside of God’s Protection.”

“Falling outside of God’s protection” usually meant you were open to the kinds of things that only ever happened to other people. It could also mean that God was punishing you for “a bad attitude,” “a lack of faith,” or any number of other spiritual or physical sins. Whenever a child died (which was not unusual as The Church forbade medical intervention), it was either a punishment for the child’s disobedience or a test of the parents’ faith.

myself-jekyll
Picture of me in a beach house on Jekyll Island with a green Coleman cooler in the background and a baby cousin’s teething ring at my right foot. My hair is wet from a swim. I’m dressed for one of the daily three-hour services.

For all the ways my parents and The Church told me I could (and would) die, it never sank in that I, or anyone close to me, might actually die by drowning. I never experienced personal danger in the water. The water was one of the few places I felt completely safe, protected, and free. Even when it was cold, which was often during The Feast, I craved being enveloped in water. Being in the water was more important than being warm. The water supplied its own comfort. It shut out the world above and muffled the sounds and conversations I didn’t want to hear. Water was my perfect retreat.

I taught myself to swim at an early age. Swimming empowered and energized me. As a preschooler, I swam underwater like a frog. When I got to elementary school, my mother enrolled me in swimming lessons. I learned how to swim on top of the water, to use different strokes, to tread water, and to dive. I wasn’t very good at diving, but I became a fast and strong swimmer, winning races against older boys until I lost my edge at puberty when the boys and I both aged out of elementary school parity. Even with my skill, I’d regress so I could retreat like a frog to the bottom of the pool and swim for as long a distance as I could hold my breath.

My mother, however, was terrified of the water and never learned to swim because of her fear. In her childhood, my grandmother forbade her and her siblings from swimming because they “didn’t know how to swim.”

Despite her fears (and out of spite of her fears), my father used to force my mother into the water anyway. More than once, he put her on a float in the ocean at Jekyll and pushed her out to sea. He loved to tell how one time a wave flipped her over and she clung from the underside with her skinny legs wrapped around the float and feet locked. That story always made him laugh. It was the absurdity that struck him – that she would cling to something she thought might save her while the act of clinging was the sure thing keeping her head under water.

My father was cruel that way – mocking weakness. But he did have his insights into my mother’s willingness to cling, to trust, and to do what she was told even if those things might get her killed.

My brother was terrified of the water, too. He cried whenever he got near the edge of a pool or my father put him in the ocean. He cried his way through years of swimming lessons. Reluctantly, he learned how to swim and participate in church water events.

He wasn’t wrong to be afraid.

Childhood fears can be eerily prescient.

The Feast (part 3) to be continued in future posts interspersed with other parts of the narrative.