See how the fearful chandelier
Trembles above you
Each time you open your mouth
to sing. Sing. -Donald Justice
When I was in junior highschool, I’d stopped believing in God but still belonged, nominally, to the church. I was going to be confirmed in the Lutheran faith, at the same altar where I had been baptised, and where much of my family had been baptised, married, confirmed, and blessed at death before me. There was never any question about this. It was just done. I was fully able to say the words without feeling any qualms about the unanswering silence in the sky, nor the equal unanswering in my heart.
Most of what I learned, at this time in my life, I learned from drugs and books. Somethings I learned from boys or rock and roll. But mostly it was drugs, cheap liquor, and books.
I suppose I looked forward to my confirmation as a kind of graduation, a time of release: once I’d done that, my mother would no longer have as much moral sway over me, and I could quietly disappear from the church as if I’d never been there. I’d mostly stopped. I rarely went on Sundays any longer. I attended the Wednesday night confirmation classes halfheartedly, much more concerned with what happened before and after than what happened in the church basement, or in the bible. Indeed, I’d already come to dismiss the bible as something mythological, contradictory, and utterly lacking in its strength as a moral compass. I’d dismissed it as a thing that condoned violence, separatism, slavery, and misogyny. It wasn’t a book I cared much for, though with my reverence for books I’d still respect it. Once I’d been confirmed, though, I was technically an adult in the eyes of a church. I was a member, not a member’s kid, and a member has the liberty to leave.
I was confirmed with two other kids, both boys I had gone to Sunday school with, then school school. We’d played baseball and eaten junk food in summers, ice skated snotty nosed in winter. We all donned white robes and red scarves. We all knew the answers to the questions, and were set to recite the Nicene Creed, as a testament of “I believe”, though it wasn’t that at all, it was a rote memorization of something dull and void of reality. Afterwards there was sheet cake with buttercream frosting. We posed for photographs together, in the gangly way young teens will; being told to stand closer, get in the picture, but holding our hands tightly at our sides, so they wouldn’t touch.
My mother gave me a music box as a confirmation gift. It was a small, carved wooden block, with a bit of stained glass on the top. It played Amazing Grace.
It was a gift I rejected. Not formally. I carried it home in sweaty hands. I set it on the kitchen counter as if I were going to put it away, later, as if I’d just set it down like a baseball glove set down in passing. But I never picked it up again.
Years afterward, I lay on my floor in New Orleans, stupefied and overdrugged. I sometimes regret my New Orleans: it is a beautiful city, of many things I love. I lived in a beautiful if falling apart house with a porch and french doors, every room painted a different brilliant color. There was a banana tree in my backyard, and a yellow tomcat I’d taken to feeding, and calling yellow. I never got any furniture in that house. I had a trunk full of books and records, a bag full of clothes. I slept in a mess of blankets on the floor. This is what I regret. I never really lived there at all. I was at the tail end of my using history – I went on drinking for another ten years – and in many ways I’d gone to New Orleans to kill myself, to finish and die. But New Orleans was present, even if I wasn’t very much. I lay on my floor and I could hear it, outside. Neighbors. Music. Sultry often putrid air.
The man in the other half of the house was old and wicked. He was mean. I’d tried to converse but had long ago given up. Sometimes I still waved. He answered with a stare down and would not blink. At the time, I thought him awful. Now, I can see that he probably just didn’t like having a junkie living next door, who kept insane hours, disappeared for days, lay in that stupor afterwards for more days. It’s not like I was a good neighbor.
The man played piano, and sometimes a violin. There wasn’t much of a wall between his side of the house and mine, and those were the noises of New Orleans that sometimes came to me. One day, I heard the man playing Amazing Grace.
Grace – the concept of being saved, of being absolutely loved, in spite of how ugly you are – made a bit more sense to me by then. I knew it as an impossibility. As a terribly masochistic kind of delusion; a thing desperately wanted, and altogether false. I think I’d had inclinations of this, way back when I was confirmed and given a music box: a loving god is unreal. If such a thing exists, then the pain is an insult to his power. There is no reconciling who I am with a god-being, especially a sappy one that wants to love me for who I am. That’s why I rejected the gift. That’s why, eventually, I’d end up in New Orleans.
Hearing the song, then, hit me with shame and quiet loss. The song, anything spiritual, hit me as a reprimand. I was certainly a sinner, by now. I was evil and sad and wrong. But music, song, the things people make out of the passions and sorrows of their lives, were still the things I learned from. Like books. I loved that someone would write such a haunting thing. I loved even more that someone would sing it like a broken lullaby to their junkie girl neighbor. I loved the heart that made it, and I felt it in mine. The sadness of being human is the quality of all that love, unrequited.
Also when I was very small, I took piano lessons from a woman at church. Her husband had died years ago, but her house was filled with his photographs, and the smell of a cat. I am not musically inclined. I never learned a thing. And I hated Wednesdays because they were piano days.
But I do remember learning something about grace notes. On sheeted music, they are printed in small, pale ink, like ghosts behind the main melody. Grace notes are extra. They are free. To play the tune, you just play the outline.
To play a masterpiece, you hit the grace notes.
Grace notes are difficult. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to already know the rest of the rules, the song, the way it’s done. Then, the grace notes can come in as filigree, as pure extravagance. They are like the breathing part of a body. The taste of a mouthful of food. The salt in a tear, or the fact of a tear, when a tear duct itself doesn’t mean a thing.
Grace is hard, I mean.
The essence of being human is that coitus of love and pain. It hurts to live, but we go on doing it. For most of my life, I have clung to the love that human beings are capable of: that we write the songs, that we sing, even though the chandelier might crash down on our heads. I believed – believe still – that the most holy incarnation is a human being fully alive. A thing that happens when we are bent over with love and music. The passions, and depth of commitment, that bind us to our names.
I did not believe that there was any answering call to that love.
I wonder at my mind, and at synchronicity. If maybe my writing, my poems, are a hell of a lot wiser than I am. Just getting sober, I wrote my own version of the Lord’s Prayer. Flagrant defiance. Rifted with love, anyway. One of the lines spoke of whores on the prairie.
I wonder, today, if I wasn’t more aware than I thought I was. Two days ago, I ‘confessed’ to being a whore. It is what it is. I’ve taken money for sex. And I’ve come home, to the prairie. Someone used that whore bit against me: called me a piece of shit whore and told me to go suck cock to get through life. I’m not a dumb broad. I know what the guy said was absolutely uncalled for, downright abusive, totally out of line. But I also know what he’s said is true.
Girls don’t go into pornography because they like it. Money does not translate to love or respect when it purchases a girls most tender and private self. I was 15 the first time I took money for sex. I didn’t want to do it. What I wanted was to get out of the situation, and compliance seemed the best way out. Grace is a paradox, in which what the guy said to me today is true, and also is not. I was a whore: I am not one now: no one is, ever, even as the thing itself is happening. The fact of grace means love, deep love of the human: grace is the part where I a human girl, and no one has the right to call me a whore to hurt me, even in light of my history.
There is a story told and retold in some christian literature, about a woman who has been severely abused, ends up prostituting herself to survive, and is deeply, deeply hurting. A pastor asks her if she has ever considered going to the church for help. The Church?! She says. Why would I go there? That would only make me feel worse.
What she says is true. I left a music box on the kitchen counter, walked away from anything resembling god or christians, because it only made me feel worse.
My mothers house, where I am now, is a web of significance and meaning. My great aunt’s rocking chair. Photographs, trinkets, an odd stocking cap that I remember my father wearing when I was three or four. Food, everyday, from family recipes. In her bedroom, on the dresser, she keeps her collection of music boxes. My niece likes them. She likes to have them all playing at once. Throughout the day, she’ll color, or wrestle, or build with blocks and puzzles, but keeps returning to my mothers bedroom and pointing at the music boxes.
The little wooden one, with the stained glass top, is there.
I walk muddy cornfields, thinking of my grandmother. I listen to birds, and try to remember their names, as my grandfather taught me. I listen to country songs on the radio, and I watch people go to church every Sunday morning. I am not usually brave enough to go with them, but sometimes I do. For 20 years, there was a music box that belonged to me, waiting in my mother’s house. When I came back, I came with all the tools and mess and detritus that a really graceful beginning needs: I have a ripe history, and I know the taste of shame. It isn’t easy. It is very, very hard. Grace notes being the part that comes only after you’ve done the work, lived the life, know the basics by heart, I suppose it could be true that I belong here. That the house, the land, the turned over earth, isn’t mine, but I am it. I belong to the music box. I belong to Amazing Grace.
Henri Nouwen is quoted as saying the glory of god is the human being, fully alive. And, he said, the life of the human is beholding god. It is not easy to accept who we are, and what we are given. But it is whether we accept it or not. It is the opening, painful sometimes but sometimes kind and good, that allows us to inhabit our lives, and realize what we are seeing is god. When a child is confirmed in the church, she is affirming what already is: herself one in the body of all that is, or god, or an awful amazing grace. I am one part of the body of god, a whore on the prairie. How I manage to accept that, to inhabit it, is the question, and is what I mean when I say prayer.