September 25, 2007

"Sunday School in Alabama – 1976"


by Jason Daniel Thompson

Mother bought a special foot for the sewing machine to tackle the thick double-knit material that she would expertly fashion into two tiny leisure suits just in time for Easter Holiday. We were a secular family and Brother and myself were just two of twenty-seven
first cousins and seventy-one second cousins, so childcare resources were always stretched thin. Into this vacuum, local churches had no trouble attracting a captive audience of pagan offspring to their educational offerings.

Father had met Reverend Pruitt in January, he was selling construction supplies and The Reverend was a contractor. In their first conversation The Reverend had offered to send the church bus through our neighborhood a mile away from his church to pick us up at seven AM on Sunday mornings. We did not ordinarily rise that early and my memory of the first class is similar to what Patty Hearst might have felt when the SLA ripped the hood off. Who are these people? I recognized a few kids from school, the boys were an average assortment; the girls were different with hair that had never been cut falling to the waist or elaborately braided and carefully pinned to the skull. Brother had been pried from my body by two broad ladies and carried off screaming to the baby room, which seemed like a good idea to me at the time. Free to socialize, I set about discerning exactly where I was. Dresses in the palette of Jordan Mints nearly touched the ground as a group of the devoted clued me in on the tenets of their faith. They did not watch television or read the newspaper and the women were forbidden to cut their hair. That was it really, at least according to the four-to-eight year olds I had been sequestered with.

We gathered around a felt bulletin board and a lady with bosoms the size of an ice chest told us Bible tales with paper dolls backed in adhesive. At the conclusion of each narrative I would stand and clap; this is what we did at daycare at the conclusion of play pretend, or “children’s theater” if you are a sophisticate. After the third story had drawn to a close, Mrs. Bosoms asked me why I was clapping. You are so good at this, I said. Why do you think it is good? she asked. Well, I could never make up such long stories and keep track of the dolls and… the faces of the children around me cast downward. I had said the wrong thing, again. These are not made-up stories, child. She leapt upon me, burying my face in suffocating cleavage. These are the stories of the Bible, child, stories of The Lord God Almighty Jesus Christ who died for you sins and will return at The Rapture. Take the lord into your heart, repent, and repent. She smelled nice.

A sound began to seep through the drainage holes in the cement block construction. Not singing, yelling, or talking, still it was a passionate human sound. That’s the tongues, someone said. I would not figure out the meaning of that short sentence for years but I slipped it into my vocabulary immediately. Grandmother offers you a mealy grocery store tomato, that’s the tongues I would say.

Between the classroom and the service that children attended, tongue-free, we would take a break and were invited to play on an acre of barren red clay. I would decline, my Mother may have been known across three generations as the stain master but I would never test her temper with the kind of damage these wildings wrought on their wardrobes.

It was on the field that I first noticed Steven. At eight, he was older and taller and his speech was slurred. His red crew cut and white skin were striking, movie star handsome and Star Trek guest alien all in one towering package. All attempts at conversation were rebuffed. My mother filled in the blanks. A part of Steven’s brain had been damaged during birth and he would always talk that way; be nice to him she said. I wanted to do more than be nice to him; I wanted to teach him to speak. I told Mother we had been instructed to wear old clothes to church and spent the next two months chasing Steven around the yard yelling at him to be still and sit. He would grunt over his shoulder at me and keep running; I must have frightened him.

By Easter I had given up on good works. Mother had finished the leisure suits. Mine was foam green and Brother’s was white, both had snap closures in the jackets she put in with a special spring-loaded tool that I wasn’t strong enough to use. Twice as many people came to church that day, which was tongue-free the whole way through. Everyone was in fancy clothes. My parents came for the first time and introduced me to many people whom I was not aware they already knew through work or school. There was an egg hunt on the field. Some teenage boys held up a clear plastic shell filled with name-brand candy bars. A duplicate shell had been hidden along with one hundred eggs. The child who found the candy-bars got to keep them, obviously. The child who found the most dyed eggs would win a fancy basket filled with still more bars.

After the big announcement the kids just milled about, not really seeing any place eggs could be hidden. It was hot, the metal clasp on my clip-on tie seemed to absorb the heat from my body and direct it back to my throat. At the edge of the field was a wooded lot and there was a discarded car hood that I had found while chasing Steven. I nonchalantly began snaking towards it, trying my best to look purposeless. When I had my hands on the rusty metal I looked up, satisfied to see that no one had followed me. I heaved and nothing happened. I heaved to exhaustion. A voice was closing in, Over here baby, over here! A teenage giantess with a newborn tucked under one arm pole-vaulted into the grass. With one hand she flipped the steel artifact towards me. I narrowly escaped being crushed. She lofted her prize. Looky looky what I got, e’rybody!

No one looked. While I had been struggling alone the other children had realized the ingenuity with which those teenage boys had hidden the one hundred eggs. They were under the clay. With fresh eyes you could see the divots quite easily. Fifty children rooted through the soil like truffle pigs slinging muck in every direction. People were running back and forth screaming full Christian names. It was an angry Easter. Mothers were screaming for those responsible, who took off on foot through the lot. Red dirt on savage faces met the slaps of home training. I ran around the building to our car to wait out the siege.

We switched Sunday schools the next week. We still saw Reverend Pruitt and occasionally his wife. They would come by the house to pick up a package of nails or get drafted to perform one of my Aunt’s second weddings. I ran into Steven a decade later when we were teenagers. I was exiting a movie theater and recognized the back of his head from years before on the field. Father had told me that he had learned to drive and was working bagging groceries. I called out to him and he turned around, saying Do I know you? I explained the connection and he looked worried. Don’t tell my Dad you saw me here, he said. It was difficult for him to speak and he was already making his way to his car, so I let him go. I was happy he had the independence of spirit to see Terminator Two if he wanted.

I moved to New York and people at home started to get married and die with greater frequency than I remembered from childhood. The Rev and Mrs. Rev as we called them always attended these events. They had been fond of me when I was little and I looked forward to a few minutes with them each time I saw them, a pleasure I was denied. They were all business, breezing in at the last minute and leaving as soon as the service was over. I made assumptions, after all I do live in sin city and I am a sodomite. I began to passive-aggressively tip them larger and larger amounts. Customary gratuity for a wedding or a funeral would be fifty to a hundred dollars. For Brother’s wedding I gave two hundred, for my grandmother’s funeral I gave four hundred. Still, they seemed to ignore me.

Five years went by and my father called to say that Mr. and Mrs. Rev were in New York
celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary and they wanted to come visit me at the restaurant where I worked. I was shocked on two accounts, our recent history and the fact that only my immediate family and three closest childhood friends had ever come to see me in the twelve years I’d lived here. Two aunts and a cousin had flown through without so much as a phone call. Long-held resentment gave way to the warmth of being acknowledged.

After I had seated them at a table and been introduced to their pastor friend who had a congregation in Queens, I asked them how they’d been. We are just happy to be alive, The Rev said. We were both diagnosed with terminal cancer ten years ago and now we are both in remission. That's wonderful, I said with the shame and full knowledge of my own pettiness and self-centeredness heating up my belly like a can of sterno, There is so much to be grateful for in life, isn't there?

Our Lady of the Lanes
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

Most teenagers need the empowerment of making their own decisions. As far a moms go, I got a good one, and she respected that notion to the best of her ability. The only two things I ever begged for that got the "Not until you're 18" response were getting my belly button pierced and getting baptized into the Mormon church.

So that makes at least two guaranteed mistakes she saved me from. --Leah Blunt

Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

"...The sand gathered around his body and eventually buried him."


by B. Foote

Though not religious, or even spiritual really, my life’s been pock marked with a handful of moments that have perforated the lining of my already anemic head. Lacan says that our true self is shattered in childhood and that we spend our lives trying to put the pieces back together, only to make matters worse. It’s like Jenga, trying to put the blocks back in is just as likely to tip the whole damn thing over as pulling them out.

I clearly remember the first time my reality cracked a little. I spent my early childhood with my grandparents. Good, solid, hardworking people who bought the American dream with a sensible mortgage and believed in Jesus with the same amount of gravitas they believed in the promise of their pensions. Good was God, and Bad was the devil, mischief was a negotiation between the two, and short of a death in the family or the occasional car wreck, there wasn’t much reason to question the divine order of things. By and large you could handle your own with a little good sense and a strong back.

Any kind of misfortune that came our way was blamed on Reagan first, the new neighbors second, and bad luck if the first two somehow dodged the bullet. What I remember from that time was that the stakes were so low. There’s something about childhood that swaths you in understanding. You know the answers before you know the question. Two houses down, Mrs. Woods sat on her porch and talked with all the old ladies who walked by doing their morning laps around the block on doctors orders to keep the weight down and the lungs healthy. We’d sit on her porch and she’d relay information she’d picked up from her morning intelligence reports; we’d learn that Betty had passed away last night, and Arlo’s grandson was going to have to take summer school. Somehow the universe was in order; people died because they grew old, kids lost a summer because they horsed around too much in the fall. The world would continue and we’d make our weekly trip to Montgomery Ward’s to pick up a new pair of jeans for my grandfather since he tore a hole in the old ones.

On one of those easy afternoons, while my Grandmother was taking her nap, my Grandfather and I flipped on PBS. This was a high ritual for us, he’d explain things about Egypt or the dinosaurs that our narrator had failed to mention and the two of us shared a space that was timeless. The handing down of wisdom from a life of experience and learning, a ritual probably millions of years old starting in the Russian Steppes and continuing on down to the two of us, on the couch still covered in plastic that only came off when company was over. The episode that day was about Africa, and how animals lived there. My Grandfather had dozed off, tired from a day in the garden, and I watched as the film followed a pack of hyenas from their birth till their end.

It was the end of one of them in particular that wrecked me. These hyenas had traveled together for some time, hunted together, taken care of their young, and somehow found themselves traveling in the desert. Days passed and they couldn’t find anything to eat. Weary and starved, the pack was swallowed by a sandstorm. They could do little but march on as one by one they began to fall over from exhaustion. Eventually the tribe decided they would all stay together and wait out the sandstorm, so they huddled together and settled into the dunes. But one of the hyenas got up on shaky legs and started out away from his marooned family. The narrator said something to the effect of “…but one of our hyenas knows his death is certain, and chooses to press on…” and the camera followed the apostate as he staggered off into the storm. He walked ten yards or so, the camera trying to keep him in focus through the khaki waves of sand, until suddenly he collapsed. The camera held as the sand gathered around his body and eventually buried him.

By this time I was sitting a foot from the TV, my glassy eyes reflecting the horror. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. They’d done nothing wrong, they weren’t old, they were just lost. I remember looking back at my grandfather, and him being asleep. I wanted to wake him up and talk to him, have him tell me something, anything to make me feel like the world was different for us, but I knew if I woke him he’d be upset. So I turned back around and turned off the television. I don’t remember much else, just running my hand over the static of the television screen and the smell of their house.

that's got to hurt 2.0
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

"Chaos Ekstasis!"


by Tom Blunt

In those days, at that time, initiation didn't come cheap. You had to do for yourself or risk never being done at all. The desert is supposed to be a spiritually powerful place, which I suppose is why the metro Phoenix area covered it all up as fast as it could; to the uninitiated, such an expanse isn't even threatening-- it's just a blank screen to project one's ego onto. And that is how you end up with people struggling to maintain moist green lawns in 117 degree heat.

In those days, at that time. People refer to everything before September 11th, 2001 in terms like those. Those were the last great days when it was safe to be spiritually ambivalent. Before the renaissance of the pale, sweaty moral majority, before the backlash of antagonistic atheism peaked in pretension. Islam was a weeklong chapter in your Comparative Religions syllabus. My growing obsession with concerns beyond my life in this world was merely silly, having not quite yet become revived as the national past-time. And as much as it seemed fitting to me that I struggle alone in my entanglements, I was not alone. In fact, in some ways I was never to be truly alone again, for the unsolicited arrival of a new friend broke open my world bare months before four plane crashes rudely initiated the rest of America into a national religion of prophecy, purgatory, and pride.

Vince was just the friend of a friend, but would be your best friend if you let him. The way you did this was to feed him if he was hungry, and answer every question he asked you; in this way, he would associate you with nourishment of the flesh and of the mind, and seek you out at any hour when he required either. Anything he took from you was returned tenfold in the forms of inspiration, unexpected gifts, or new friends (in the form of others who found themselves dragged along within his gravitational field, whom you might end up feeding as well). Vince was shocking in conventional ways-- he tamed his wild curls with Elmer's glue, he wore his vinyl trench coat in all seasons, he gave his poor catholic mother hysterics with his occult-themed artwork-- but he was conventional in shocking ways. He was a clean and sober college student, was earnest and considerate, made good grades, and seemed to attract no end of consistently beautiful women, no matter how unbearable he seemed determined to become. On the day I turned 22, when we still barely knew each other, he was so excited to discover it was my birthday that he insisted on driving across town to take me out to lunch. He had been out shopping, preparing for a performance in his acting class which required him to dress in drag, so this was also an opportunity for him to test his new look on an unsuspecting public. As we sat in a sunlit booth during Souper! Salad!'s lunchtime rush, I looked across at him and suspected we'd be friends for life. He could have actually passed for a woman-- a big, scary woman-- if only his store-bought hair had been any color other than fuchsia.

As one of the many who loved him but one of the few who could tolerate him in marathon sessions, I came to occupy a unique role in Vince's life. I quickly became not just a sounding board for his ideas or a late-night source of entertainment, but a human laboratory where experiments could be performed. We took turns as each other's witness or rhesus monkey for this or that theory of gnosis or ekstasis. What are the Mormons trying to keep hidden under Joseph Smith's hat? How much Hebrew does one have to learn before the kabbalistic spheres would divulge their secrets? How many Hare Krishnas can dance on the head of a pin? Can one simulate the effects of a sensory deprivation chamber by sealing the bathroom door with duct tape? If you hold magic to scientific scrutiny, is justice served to either? Can one adopt a truly ascetic lifestyle that somehow doesn't exclude video games?

From the outside, our friendship probably seemed pretty ordinary, punctuated by the late nights at IHOP and long drives to nowhere that are the main source of entertainment in para-suburban zones. In fact, our only truly suspicious quality was attitude. Vince was unfailingly cheerful and tended to tell the truth no matter what was asked or who was asking, qualities that endeared him to his professors but bugged the shit out of store employees, police officers and concerned bystanders who preferred their young no-good weirdos to play a little closer to type. Countless times I grew panicky and finally all but dragged him away from someone in the middle of his explanation of why the Universalist congregation was perhaps more Christian in spirit than any of the Protestant churches he'd been to, or why the inverted five-pointed star wasn't really the sign of the devil. Years later he would finally have me write a list of safe deeper-than-small-talk topics that he could keep in his wallet for emergencies, as in most social situations he went from greetings to Jesus in about six sentences. If we had been dutifully angsty and antisocial, we could have operated invisibly; instead, I found myself playing sheepdog near constantly, making good use of leftover social paranoia from high school (which Vince may never have had to begin with). If Harvard had no patience for Leary and Alpert, we certainly couldn't expect any love from ASU campus security.

At about that point, it all became real to me, no longer just a steamer trunk full of esoteric spiritual traditions that we liked to play dress-up in. I'd participated in all these games, rituals of self-transformation and reality-manipulation, as a temporary refuge from the plain facts of life that had always kicked me from behind to keep me marching-- but ultimately they were proving to be a door I could step through into a new way of living altogether. And they were hard work, and I had to begin to take care of myself in previously unfathomable ways in order to keep up physically and mentally. Who was this confident stranger sleeping in my skin? Could he be trusted with my future, devoted as he was to things that were not thought to exist? I spent the summer of 2001 watching the world go by as if from a high ledge, daring myself to jump, silently begging to be pushed.

One hot summer night Vince asked if I wanted to go to the wheatfield. Since when did we have a wheatfield? I asked incredulously. It only took a fifteen minute drive to prove he wasn't making it up. Somehow, there was an endless wheatfield just past city limits that seemed to be ours for the taking. Our asses dented the hood of his car as we stretched out under the moon and continued the same long talk that we'd been having, in bits and chunks, for several months. Tonight it was Jesus again, a subject Vince relished picking apart and putting back together the way a soldier would his gun. By now I was numb to Christianity. It was like looking at yearbooks: bad enough when I was there the first time around, so why would I want to look at the pictures? I laid back and made the most of the scenery as I patiently waited for him to run out of steam. If I let him go for another few minutes he'd inevitably change the subject all by himself, most likely to women; that was just the track his mind followed.

It was a mistake to think he wouldn't notice my disinterest, or would tolerate it. A restful silence descended over us. I felt him slide down off the hood and heard him pace toward the wheat, followed by the snare drum of urination against the cracked earth. He returned smiling. Beatific. Tom, he said. Don't move, okay? I want to show you something. You have to trust me, okay? Well sure, at this point anything goes, right? He went to get something out of the driver's side of the car, so I stayed put. Then the engine roared to life beneath me, but despite the instinct to leap off, I caught myself. Despite everything, I really did trust him. I'm going to drive, he said. Hold onto something. Are you sure about this? I asked. He had an expression of resolute concentration on his face; we were back in the laboratory, the experiment was about to begin. I gripped the hood on either side of the windshield wipers and held on.

The car began to roll through the wheatfield and turn back toward the dirt road that landed us there. Holding on through the turn was hard, but once he got us moving in a straight line I was comfy enough. Then he went faster. And faster and faster. Perhaps not so fast really; the earth orbits the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, no wonder we earthlings are such speed-junkies. The acceleration threw my mind into turmoil, I laughed at the top of my lungs, I couldn't see where I was going, the wind tore at me from all sides, tears uncurled like pennants from the corners of my eyes. What is happening to me? I thought between screams, And does it really have to end? Chaos ekstasis! The car peaked in speed, and then began to slow down. I relaxed my grip on the hood. For those last few seconds, I flew.

I found myself on my knees in the headlights, dust swirling like the cosmos through the beams and into my hair and eyes. I heard footsteps as Vince bounded from the car. He stood over me and began to read from the Gospel of Thomas:

And Jesus said: If they ask where you have come from, say to them, "We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established itself, and appeared in their image." If they ask, "Is it you?" say, "We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living father." If they ask you, "What evidence have you of this?" say to them, "It is found in motion and repose..."

He may have continued, but when I heard the words "motion and repose", something wrenched inside me, and I was filled with unbearable emotion. In experiencing motion and repose simultaneously, so suddenly and so literally, I had for just a few moments appreciated the state of effortless activity combined infinite potential that was the seat of creation. An outsider driving past would have thought we had pulled over so I could be sick, or that perhaps I was under attack-- for once, Vince's demeanor was deadly serious. For once, though, I was moved beyond the point of keeping up appearances. I wept in the dust and clamored to absorb the essence of my ride through this new lens, through this Christ who so many fools brandished as a weapon, and captive in the bright lights, I clung to Vince's leg, grateful to finally see through his eyes, even if I had to be driven halfway to hell on the hood of a car to do so. The dove descended. Please, Vince. And more. Gimme that Jesus. The place where the light. Motion and repose.

He helped me up. Sniffing, I collapsed into the passenger seat, surprised to find reality enfolding me again so quickly as we rolled off down the road, leaving the laboratory behind us. We rode in silence sharing a menthol cigarette. The heaviness in my lungs was a ballast as I watched streetlamps flit past and longed to fly with them, though of course I knew that they were really standing perfectly still.

This was our last innocent experiment, just as the first three quarters of 2001 were an innocent experiment for everyone as we played at putting on a new millennium the way kindergartners put on pageants. As if the millennium could be something we had, instead of something that happened to us. And after it happened, Vince and I still experimented, together and separately, but with such high stakes hovering over our world that our frivolity became sharpened to a point. We each had to work on becoming the person we'd have to be in this new world, and though our day-to-day lives seemed to change very little, it was suddenly easy to feel genuine nostalgia for the summer that had passed under our noses just months ago. Vince became more serious, more manic. I discovered a rare calm that had always seemed to elude me. Talk of Christ was everywhere, suddenly everyone in Arizona felt themselves to be a New Yorker and a Nazarene. I moved to New York. Vince's college program sent him to Israel. Neither of us had ever had a brother before.

defaced saint 2.0
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

"...I would die with a clean (and thin) soul."


by Chris Kelly

I was anorexic during my junior year of college, and if Heaven meant weighing 120 pounds, then this was a religious fast.

As an atheist, I have trouble discussing religion in a way that others find respectful and inclusive. Even the choice of comparing faith with an eating disorder, though many have made the connection before me, will strike some as insensitive or derogatory. Still, I cannot help but see religion as a series of regulations and rationalizations devised for and by a populace with a natural inclination toward fear. Sometimes we just want a sense of control.

My days were spent in accordance with self-imposed laws; I prayed to an emaciated God, penitently striving to exist in His image. I knew, of course, that society did not approve of the choice I was making, and that if discovered I would be urged to resume my previous habits. Practicing in secret to avoid discovery, I felt like a persecuted minority. When the Inquisition came, I would die with a clean (and thin) soul.

There was no food before noon, only water; I commonly consumed nothing until at least 3:00 PM. It was necessary to be seen eating on occasion, of course, but the amount was carefully controlled. Something like a muffin or an apple was ideal; people who saw me take the first bite assumed that I would finish what I had started. Jogging was also vital; it burns calories and creates the perception that one is healthy rather than crazy. While beneficial for other reasons and still a dietary restriction of mine to this day, vegetarianism provides an excellent excuse to deny one's self at meals or to consume only a sparse salad in lieu of actual sustenance.

Though I did not make the connection at the time, my experiences with anorexia give me a lens through which to view faith and its benefits. I strongly recall the thrill of waiting an hour longer to take that one bite of bread, the guilt of cheating or slipping, and the constant self-judgment based on the fluctuating numbers doled out by the bathroom scale. This new plan gave me an easy way to measure my worth: the lower my weight, the better a person I was. I had control. I had purpose. Is it so strange a leap to expand this concept further? If I was able to judge myself based on these rules, why not others? Why not hold my entire life to concrete standards, however arbitrary? I can only imagine the satisfaction of easily categorizing the world into good and bad based on an unchanging rubric.

The trouble with such systems, says the atheist, is that they do not bring you happiness. Your prayers go unanswered and your only comfort is that the Lord works in mysterious ways. You fail to live up to impossible standards and writhe under the scrutiny of self-examination. You live a life of want: the want of things forbidden, the want of divine guidance, the want of freedom from want. I would not have been happy even if the needle had hit 120 before my friends caught on and staged an intervention over a brownie sundae. There is no pleasure to parallel thinking for one's self.

Control does not mean following someone else's plan; it means taking what you want. If a God decides my fate, then I am he, and that is as religious as I am prepared to get. I will make my own rules and claim my own right. I eat bagels and ice cream and chocolate and all the things I taught myself to shun despite my crippling desire, and if I have kept myself slim without anorexia, then I can make myself divine without belief.

Jed's Godzilla
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

"What am I giving birth to?"


by Lucy Pastier

My relationship with Temple Beth Am in ninth grade was a strange one. A year earlier, my classmates and I had officially entered the world of adulthood in the reform Jewish community, having undergone our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Normally this would mean the dangling carrot that had motivated us to give up our Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings had disappeared. We were now adults, free to decide if getting up in front of the congregation was the beginning of an earnest spiritual component of our lives, or an opportunity to take the checks in amounts of multiples of $18 and run. I decided to continue attending religious classes, since staying until the tenth grade meant I would get a deeply discounted trip to New York City with my classmates and the Rabbi. It turned out most of my classmates found the promise of an inexpensive, under-supervised, cross-country flight too good to pass up as well, so there was not a dramatic drop off in class size.

Religious class had previously consisted of two components: Hebrew and Judaica. We no longer had to study Hebrew, which came as a huge relief to me since nothing about the language ever properly clicked in my head. This year, the focus had also switched from specifically Jewish theology to a comparative religions course. As a result, after reading and discussing each religion’s basic belief system, we frequently took trips to houses of worship to see different religious services. In retrospect, it seems a bit strange that a religious institution would go to great lengths to introduce other religious views to their younger congregants, but such was Beth Am’s policy. And while I had previously understood reform to be the most liberal of the Jewish branches, I realized my naive mistake when we began our section on Reconstructionist Judaism.

Before going to the Reconstructionist Shabbat morning service at Kadima, we were given a brief primer of their background. It was a movement that had started in the US, and like Reform Judaism stressed contemporary and societal morality over strict adherence to biblical law. We were also told psychedelic drug use was not an uncommon form of spiritual exploration among their followers, though I’ve found nothing to verify that since.

The congregation at Kadima had no permanent space of their own. The service was held in a sparse and nearly empty room in a Unitarian Church. My class easily made up two thirds of the total number of people sitting in on the service. Had we not been there, I’m not sure if there would have been the minimum of ten people to have a minyan. I don’t know if this lack of participants would have made a difference to their decision to have a service, though. To this day, I cannot recall if there was even an arc or torah in the room.

A woman with blonde curly hair stepped up to the front of the room to face the rows of folding chairs where the participants sat. She was not the permanent Rabbi; she was only visiting and acting as the guest leader for this service. After introducing herself and the philosophy behind this particular service, she asked us to look around the room and choose a prayer buddy. This prayer buddy would be someone who you prayed for, so that your spiritual thoughts and well wishes would not be limited to yourself. Instead of making me feel secretly protected or admired, the whole concept bothered me—there was no way to ensure that everyone would have a prayer buddy, since this was all done in secret. This was not a spiritual secret Santa, with everyone drawing a name from a hat. What if two people chose the same prayer buddy, and that person got twice the protection as others? I was also convinced that most of the guys would end up praying for the girl with the biggest tits, while I would be left to fend for myself in the spiritual realm. My teenage insecurities did not mesh with the selfless goals that this woman had in mind.

The service continued on in a manner that was so casual, it almost felt as if they religious or spiritual aspects were last minute additions. She told personal anecdotes which she shoehorned examples of Jewish ethics into. My fellow students and I weren’t sure how to handle the whole situation. While we found ourselves mildly uncomfortable, it really wasn’t a whole lot worse than being stuck in a boring conversation. We sat respectfully waiting for the service to be over so we could get on with our day.

Then the moment came when the mild discomfort boiled over and became undeniable.

The woman began to recount the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac. Where this story appeared was unclear, since no one I’ve spoken to since then recalls it being in the Torah. As her story went, Sarah and Abraham were quite old when they were told by visiting angel they would give birth to a son. While they did not believe the news at first, they eventually became overjoyed at the news. However, when Sarah actually went into labor, the whole ordeal proved incredibly trying for her ninety-year-old body. The pain was so excruciating, she found herself cursing God, asking what she had done to deserve such anguish. The woman told us that Sarah was so focused on her own suffering that she lost sight of the fact that she was bringing a new life into the world.

“So,” the woman told us pointedly, “next time you find yourself in an immense amount of pain – emotionally or physically – stop and ask yourself, ‘What is coming out of this experience? What am I giving birth to?’ ”

As soon as these words left her mouth, a woman in the back of the room burst into tears. Deep gasping sobs filled the room. Shocked by the sudden outpour of emotion in an otherwise uneventful, if not highly unorthodox service, I found myself completely unsure of what to do. Should I look at her? Would eye contact be a sign of support, or would my facial expression betray any good intentions I might have had? Was this a private moment of pain? What horrible experience triggered that reaction to the question “What am I giving birth to?” And above all, Dear Lord, how long was this going to last?

After a moment or two of decreasing sobs, the visiting Rabbi continued, unfazed. I can’t recall if I attempted to make eye contact with any of my classmates for a moment of recognition, or if I was too stunned by this very public display of emotion to move at all. I know I felt my entire class disconnect from the room emotionally. My curiosity finally got the best of me, and I snuck a peak to the back of the room. The now (quietly) sobbing overweight, middle-aged woman was being comforted by a companion. Even if a room full of fifteen-year-olds tried to pretend she did not exist, at least someone was there to shoulder her burden.

The service may have ended there or gone on for days, I remember nothing beyond that point. While I think her analogy was deeply flawed, I remember engraving those words on my brain. Throughout the rest of the service, I silently sat in my folding chair, imagining the trip to New York City that was waiting at the end of the school year.

Saint Chapelle
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

“Sickness of a seventeen-year-old...”


by Ben Epstein

As I watched my partially digested dinner splatter into some finely hedged shrubbery, I came to a savory revelation: I drank too much. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, seeing as I possess the tolerance of a Canadian ballerina, however it still vexed me.

The wired pangs of a guitar could be heard drifting from the dance floor and across the abandoned courtyard in which I now lay, redecorating the greenery. Turning onto my back, feeling the stone tiles dig into my back through the Gucci shirt, I looked up at the stars.

“I love weddings.” I mumbled, reaching for my lowball whiskey glass.

The tips of my numbed fingers struck metal, dislodging the glass from its resting place and sending it cascading to the ground. Rolling over and away from the slowly spreading liquid, I sat up.

“Oh shit.”

Turning and vomiting more, I took off the shirt and wiped my mouth and face with it. That was when I realized how drunk I was—that shirt had been a gift for the wedding. Leaving it wrapped around a tree branch as sacrifice for the sprites to claim, I wandered through the empty tables. Still set with the remains of dessert, they stood like ghosts. Even though I could see the lit windows of the dance hall, it seemed oddly disconcerting. I was alone.

It was that same feeling that crept over me in the late hours before sleep. Finite life on this rock with limited meaning. Even as young as I was, I felt like time was moving too quickly toward a worthless destination. I needed to find something to change that—some way of slowing things down toward a direction and destination of my choosing.

“Feeling a little sick, mate?”

I turned to see an off duty waiter smoking a cigarette by the fountain. It looked like he had snagged a beer on his way out for a breather, which he now used as an ashtray.

“Just a little overwhelmed by it all.” I vaguely replied.

I would have lit up with the gentleman had I not given or smoked away all my cigars for the evening. However, with enough tobacco and alcohol in my veins to kill several Dutch children, it was a good thing.

“How old are ya?” he said with an accent I couldn’t place. Irish?


“Sickness of a seventeen-year-old,” he mused.

I nodded, not quite knowing what to say.

As I looked about for an excuse to leave, he spoke again, “Troublesome years. How do you know the happy couple?”

Meeting his incisive blue eyes, I teetered on the edge of blackout. Several breaths ran through my system before I steadied myself.

“Bride’s my sister.”

“Here’s to ya,” he said, taking an especially long drag of his cigarette before sliding the butt into the beer bottle.

Another few moments passed in which he simply looked at me. I felt as if he were assessing something, seeing if I were fitting. Then, without much ceremony, he nodded.

“Well, be seeing you.”

With that, he took off in the opposite direction from which he had seemed to come. Pushing in some chairs and straightening the tables on his way past them, he removed my shirt from the entanglement of the tree and carried it off with him.

Part of me wished he hadn’t left, as that feeling of mortality crept over me once again. I was alone. My feet throbbed from dancing in shiny shoes and my eyelids felt heavy. Maybe that was how things always would be. People alone only distracted by passing attractions. I shrugged that thought away with a cough—it was too cynical.

I sat by the fountain and stared into the lights until my eyes were shocked awake by the intensity. The sound of running water had a soothing effect over me. I hated being drunk but it wasn’t as if I could have gotten stoned at my sister’s wedding.

The clinking of glasses behind me gave the impression that someone was clearing the tables. Paying no mind to the servants of Barbados, I ran my fingers through the fountain.

vaquero at rest
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007

She Applies Makeup Well and Eats Donuts Too

by Marcus Gonzales-DeCardenas

“Mommy? Mommy, are we still going to church today?”

I gazed at my mother’s large bed curiously and intently poised for her answer. It was fifteen minutes before ten o’clock, the hour which she normally reserved for church time. We would wake up at eight and spend the following hour and a half bathing and selecting our outfits carefully, considering the outfits we had worn to church for the previous several weeks to make sure that we weren’t being seeing in clothes that her mother’s friends had recently noticed.

“No, sweetie. How about we go out for donuts instead?”

Staring at the ceiling, her eyes read the three double shots of Glenlivet and the half pack of Saratoga cigarettes that she imbibed the previous evening at JR’s, the local two-story gay bar where friends would gather on the second-story patio, either to make out, drink, or to yell playful and suggestive obscenities to the passing well-dressed men showered in hickeys and cosmopolitan stains wandering in and out of The Village and comfortably-dressed women hand-in-hand with their lipstick girlfriends stumbling in and out of Sue Ellen’s.


She put on her glasses and I climbed into her bed, only half-dressed as to appear as if I had taken the initiative to begin to get ready. My dress clothes against her bedsheets left me with guilty pleasure and while she slept for another thirty minutes I studied her face, recounting the details of her face that I am now beginning to notice in mine: the narrowing eyes, the maturing angles, and the postured lips that developed through her early- and into her mid-twenties. Annoyed with the distinctly warm air that came through her nostrils, I carefully snuck out of her bed and watched Rocko’s Modern Life, waiting for her to wake up for the second episode.

When she did, we sat and watched together, sometimes laughing at the same time and at other times my laugh coming just half a moment after hers in response to the more sophisticated jokes that only grown-ups were supposed to appreciate.

After the episode, we got ready. I changed into a slightly more casual outfit and after I was done I watched her sit at her vanity listening to David Bowie while she applied lipstick in her traditional fashion: foundation, smoothed with powder, then her first layer of deep carmine lipstick, followed with another blot of powder, and topped with a final layer of lipstick. Each successive lipstick application was impressed into a square belonging to a sheet of paper towel, creased into twenty-fourths, in the end resembling an Andy Warhol print.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

We stepped into her big palatinate purple van and she curled her eyelashes and took a big gulp of her 64 oz. jug filled with tar-like coffee, and as we drove down Central Expressway to the donut shop we pointed and laughed at the upscale, snooty women driving uncomfortably in their light gold Lexuses.

“Two plain donuts, one blueberry donut, one glazed donut, two kolachis.”

We looked into the donut case, and at the warm kolachis gently fogging the glass of their case, and then we sat in our stationary van for breakfast, instead of eating them as we drove further down the expressway hurrying to church.

“I loooovvvvveee sausage”, my mother moaned ecstatically. I laughed. “So what are we going to tell Grandma?” “I guess we’ll just have to make something up.” I smiled and asked if we had any errands to do. She sighed. “Yeah. I need to go to Kinko’s and run some copies for the office and we might need to pick up a few groceries.”

We sat in the van for another five or ten minutes after we finished, staring into the foggy morning thinking about and discussing gossip about her friends and our family.

This became our new Sunday morning tradition: her uncomfortable lecture from the teetering decrepit priest as she sat disdainfully but nonetheless well-poised among the wealthy Highland Park women and my trivial and uninspiring lesson from my Sunday School instructor as I sat and appeared vacuous only changing my facial expression to a false attentive smile while answering questions—all replaced by warm pigs in blankets and moist plain donuts and fabulous conversation of how Dawne lost all of that weight so fast and why Sean always flaked on her and her girlfriend at the gay bars and the disgusting, eye-watering furniture her mother had recently purchased.

This was our new religious practice.

something in a size 2.0
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2006

"The Dark Side of the Moon"

by Tom Blunt

When I was a child, I felt a unique calling to God because of a dream I had one night, when I was about eight years old. In my dream, a huge golden whirlwind descended from the heavens, and in a booming, not-to-be-fucked-with voice, it began to orate to me and my parents and sisters as we gawked in rapt fear and ecstasy. After it had established the proper authoritative tone, it took turns speaking to us individually amd explained to each of us what the purpose of our life would be, what we were to pursue beyond all other things. I woke from the vision gasping and sobbing, overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude. The next morning, however, I was very disappointed at how life was clearly just the same as it ever was, and rather than risk being mocked or misunderstood I kept the dream to myself, where it glowed warmly for several days and then was more or less completely forgotten.

I did, however, retain an incredible curiosity about religion, and Christianity of the miscellaneous Protestant stucco ranch-style church-building variety being the only immediate outlet, I began to pack my brain with as much Bible as it would hold, trying my best to spread the Word. I even went so far as to tell my cousin that if she really hated her sister like she said, that she was sure to sear in hell. ("I'll see 'er in hell, all right," she swore with gusto.) My family never belonged to any specific church, because my wise mother quickly grew appalled by each of them for one reason or another, but she was proud of my interest and supported my decision to attend whichever church I wanted—which was usually that of whoever I was best friends with at the time. That is how I ended up in Jesus Camp.

These camps were quite benign compared to the regiments of tear-streaked tongue-speaking toddlers that populate the nightmares and documentaries of New Yorkers. There were crafts, and singing, and the decent, sweet, generous people who organized them did everything they could to build us up, that we might pass through life more buoyantly because of our love for God. No one made us pray for the unborn. I attended almost every summer -- though never the same camp twice -- and enjoyed myself immensely. As I grew into a young man, however, the expectations began to intensify; when I felt the train go off the rails toward a destination I hadn’t planned on ending up at, all I could do as an earnest, trusting Christian was admire the wildness of these moments as they passed and then sink them into the tar pits of my memory. Just like my dream.

My last Jesus Camp was "Encounter," a camp hosted on-campus at Lubbock Christian University in western Texas. I was fourteen, and the trip was expected to be an exciting preview of the university life: we slept in the dorms and ate in the dining hall, roaming the great boggy lawns with little supervision. The lessons were broken up into workshops that one could choose freely from, so in the first few days everyone tried to glean by word of mouth which workshops involved fun games or fog machines or movies and which ones were long preachy duds, and then we scrambled over each other for tickets. Determined to pack 'em in, many of the instructors overachieved to an extent that was truly Texan in nature.

One workshop transformed a classroom into a giant board-game, and handing us each a stack of fake money, besought us to play the game and get ahead in life by bartering and winning candy prizes. After fifteen minutes of this, suddenly the lights went out -- it was explained to us that we were all dead, that we'd wasted our lives on material things, and now we would have to pay the ultimate price. Herded into an adjacent room, we bumped around in the darkness until we found ourselves to be inside a large cage made of PVC pipe and wire mesh. Once the damned were all packed in, strobelights and blacklights began to sizzle while blasphemous heavy metal blared overhead. From the murk, counselors dressed as demons emerged to taunt us through the bars, jabbing the writhing mass of tweens with makeshift pitchforks. We screamed appreciatively, and when they eventually released us, our brush with death seemed to have left a powerful impression. I mean, what if that had really been it?

In another workshop we were invited to lie on the floor in a dark room and relax. Strange music echoed overhead as we were led through a guided meditation and then left alone with our innermost thoughts. BRRRRANNNNGGGG!!!! Suddenly the sounds of clocks and alarms battered us awake. We all sat up, panting in fright. One girl was scared to tears. I don't remember what the lesson was, but some years later, I at least figured out what the music was. For reasons I will never comprehend, they'd been rocking us gently to Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon."

Days passed; by the time the truth about this place began to sink in, I was in too deep to do anything about it. One workshop seemed benign enough at first; we'd heard movies would be shown, so it was not to be missed. Sure enough, we got to watch the "Reproduction" science-class musical number from Grease 2:

Reproduction, reproduction!
Put your pollen tube to work.
Reproduction, reproduction!
Make my stamen go berserk.
I don't think they even know what a pistil is!
I got your pistil right here...
Where does the pollen go?

Queasily received, this was followed by the entire scene from Mrs. Doubtfire in which Robin Williams was transformed by his make-up artist brother into the British nanny we all already knew and loved. The instructor seemed dismayed by requests to let the movie keep playing; it turns out that this workshop was supposed to show us how pervasive dirty sex talk was in movies aimed at young people (Grease), and how positive portrayals of homosexuals were being slipped into movies to desensitize us to the fact that they were sickening abominations. I was scandalized -- it had never occurred to me that Uncle Frank and "Aunt Jack" were homosexuals. To naïve me, they had just seemed...well, rather fabulous, that's all. I felt ill. It was the first time any Christian had spoken to me about gays, and I felt cold, dark waves bouncing between my stomach and heart. As the instructor relented and allowed the movie to play on, I had plenty of time to consider this second set of bars I'd found myself behind in as many days.

This was the true nature of revelation, I felt. It was the feeling of being in the company of the Eternal, but alone in the world. It was the lesson you taught yourself about whatever else the world tried to teach you. It was the two way mirror that allowed the Holy Spirit into you, but sheltered you from detection of boys as they passed by, oblivious to your devouring eyes on their hips and shoulders. So during the last few days of Encounter, I allowed myself to fall deeper into that half-lit world, experimenting with this new faith that would let me hide everything and still be everything.

Each evening after dinner, baptisms were performed in front of the entire camp congregation. By the end of the week, literally dozens of campers who had been startled, cajoled, or inspired by their Encounter workshops would line up and await the ultimate vacation souvenir. I was one of them. I called home to ask permission. My mom granted it warily, and said she was proud of me, though her tone of voice was completely opaque. My dad's congratulations rang even more hollow. By making this decision alone and celebrating it with strangers, we all knew I had slipped their bridle. As I shivered backstage in my white robe and waited my turn, that dark wavy feeling returned to the pit of my stomach; remembering my mother's voice, I decided this must be what grownups felt like all the time. Entering the water before an entire auditorium, I embraced the darkness.

nicho I
Amy Lee Pearsall, 2007