Week #5 – FAITH
I grew up in a Pentecostal home. Thinking back, religion was, by far, the dominant theme of my childhood. We went to church constantly –Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, mid-week sometimes if my homework load wasn’t too heavy. In the summertime, my mother would take my younger brother and me to tent meetings. They were hot and sweaty, and had a predictable rhythm to them: a slow-burn start with hymns and prayers, followed by a lengthy, growing-in-urgency sermon about the plight of sinners and the need to become born again; then more music, this time driving and fervent, climaxing with an alter call for those in need of saving, and a laying on of hands for those in need of healing. All around me, people spoke in mysterious tongues, sometimes openly weeping, while the aisles filled with converts waiting for their chance to be anointed by the evangelist, often fainting when touched, and, sometimes, miraculously, walking away from wheelchairs. It was both intoxicating and unnerving, and a part of my life that I hid away as deep down as it would go.
Religion steadied my mother. At age six, her own mother died and she was placed in an orphanage, separated from her older siblings. This was Latvia, pre-WWII, and I remember her telling me that she was always cold and would often pretend to be sick so she might be held. When she was 12, her father (who left when she was an infant) brought his four children to Canada. Though my mother spoke only Latvian, she was sent to English school, triggering a stutter that she would never lose. As a young mother, she became agoraphobic and struggled with an eating disorder –a harbinger for the illness and disease that would dominate her life. She was tall and beautiful. She was an artist. And she was broken.
At some point in her 30s, before having me, she went to her first evangelical meeting and became born again. To say that the experience saved her is an understatement. Religion became her compass, and she was passionate to share this with others. She handed out tracts wherever we went, even once getting us kicked off a public bus. More than a handful of times, I returned from school to find several Jehovah Witnesses sitting in our kitchen, Bibles open, in full debate. She felt it was her duty to proselytize, or witness as she called it, and was known in the neighborhood. Kids made fun of her causing me to, early on, grow a thick skin and learn how to fight with fists. She was my mother, and I defended her always, until one day, in my later teens, when I turned on myself, her guardian, and rebelled against everything she believed in.
I could blame my mutiny on AC/DC (she smashed Back in Black in front of me) and all of the other secular desires (books, dances, movies, non-church-going boys) that she denied me. But the real reason for my dissent was that my mother’s relationship with God got in the way of her relationship with me. Prayer was her answer to my problems; the Bible her response to my inquiries; the Afterlife (and her fear that mine might involve flames) the arbitrator of our intimacy. The more I grew into myself and needed to be understood by her, the harder she turned to her religion for answers, the greater the division between us, until, eventually, we broke in two, and all I could do was leave.
So I ran, from my mother and her beliefs. Hard and fast. I never wanted an ideology, again, to get in the way of my ability to connect with someone, to hear their story, to tell the truth. I intellectualized religion to be a coping mechanism, a way for people to make sense of the chaotic world, and, sometimes, a way to escape it. I married a Jewish man, and then an atheist. When my mother died, I took her Bible, the one she read from my entire life, wrapped it up and put it at the bottom of a box. I called myself a spiritualist (whatever that means), and raised my kids to examine and explore religion for themselves. I washed my hands of my mother’s doctrine again and again and again, but what I couldn’t do, what I didn’t do . . . I never stopped praying.
For five decades, prayer has defined my life. When I was young I prayed out of fear, on my knees, that I would sleep a dreamless night, that my parents wouldn’t die, that my brother (who had started smoking cigarettes and saying the f-word a lot) would be spared from hell. In my 20s, I prayed in my journal, for the strength to survive the pain of my mother’s death, and the end of my marriage. In my 30s and 40s, I prayed through meditation, for understanding and patience, that I might be a better parent than my own, that my marriage would endure raising children, that I would find my place in the world. Now, at 50, I pray to everyone and everything, all the time: in the car, walking my dog, on a run, making dinner. I pray passionately and out loud, and, like my mother, I don’t care one iota what anybody thinks. And while I sometimes pray for trivial things like a bigger house so we don’t kill each other, for Invisalign so I can have straight teeth again, and that the person in the car in front of me will, please, dear God, step on the frickin’ gas pedal … prayer at 50 is about meaning: meaningful work, meaningful relationships, meaningful moments, both mundane and extraordinary, because the years, and all of the moments they contain, have started to pass so very quickly.
I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History the other day. One of my favorite narrators, he wrapped up the episode in that beautiful way he always does, by finding the story’s heart and relating it to his own. At the end of the piece about a father and son and a forgotten medical experiment (and revealing that he had just lost his own father), he posed the question, “What is a child’s obligation to their parent?” Though my mother’s been dead for 25 years, my heart clenched in thinking about the parent/child relationship and my betrayal so long ago. Gladwell went on to posit that while we can’t expect to uphold our parents’ beliefs (time and place playing too big a role), we can honor the principles by which they lived. My mother’s principle was faith. Faith in her Christian religion, yes. But also, more abstractly, faith that something bigger and more powerful existed outside of herself, and that prayer –to God, or whomever or whatever one chooses— can provide courage, fortitude, compassion, healing, and even meaning. Faith is what my mother lived by; it’s what she gave me. And though it wasn’t what I wanted at 17, it’s what I’ve needed for a lifetime.