Friday, May 11, 2012

On attending church

I was sitting in church the other day, daydreaming about velociraptors and man-eating centipedes, when our two-year old let loose quite a harsh criticism of the sermon.

After the outburst, it's possible that her dad pointed out to her several additional individuals wearing blue shirts. Gotta take funny where you can get it.

It reminded me of something I wrote about church attendance a while back:

I’m sitting on the back pew, waiting the 15 minutes before church starts. My wife is next to me. She wants me to put my arm around her. I can tell, because she has just said:
“put your arm around me.”
I’m resistant. I’m currently in my favorite listening posture, with my body slouched, and my legs extended, crossed at the ankles. My shoulders, more than my back, contact the hard wooden backrest. My arms are also crossed in front of me. I’m comfortable. Yet I know there’s a problem, completely unrelated to the callousness of a husband who will not extend his arm and become a cushion. My bearing, simply put, does not signal respect or reverence; I muse idly about this, considering the inconsistency of arriving early to church only to behave as though I’m ready to leave. In college, I was once involved in a conflict resolution training that taught me that my favorite body language indicates being “closed off” and unengaged, while good posture and even leaning forward indicate being open and interested. Forming Xs with body parts is a no-no. And yet, when I’m uncomfortable, I don’t listen very well. I’m pretty sure that my favorite posture extends the amount of time I can sit and be talked at by a factor of 2, maybe 3. Which means that, given ideal circumstances, I’ll be able to force my attention on the distant speaker for 6, maybe 9 minutes, before my mind seeks salvation somewhere else. Does recognizing my problem in any way mitigate it? I’m vaguely glad that there is no larger-than-life crucified god staring me down, though maybe if there was I’d pay better attention. And have nightmares.

I’m hoping there will be good speakers today . . . speakers who recognize nuance and difficulty in living fragile, messy everyday life according to perfected principles. There’s nothing that chloroforms my mind like a sermon that spouts easy definitions or explanations without any awareness that definitions are by nature recursive, and that language in general is a failing attempt to put into words things that transcend them. Barring a sermon given by Derrida or Foucault (and really, I’m sure they’d probably bore me too), I often appreciate a speaker who uses a preposterous extended metaphor, something like “God sends blessings to the faithful like Wal-Mart ships inventory to keep shelves perpetually stocked,” or “The comfort of the Holy Ghost is a lot like a pair of old running shoes . . . ” or even that wonderful blend of potty humor and self-righteousness, “If there was just a little poop in the brownie, would you still eat it?” Whether or not the talk is insightful or insipid, conceits such as these will likely get me leaning forward, on the edge of my seat even. Are they really going to try to carry this ridiculous analogy through to the end? Or will they drop it when things get messy? My comfort be damned! This might be entertaining.

My wife digs her elbow into my ribs. 13 minutes to go. She has our daughter, Addison, sitting quietly on her lap, a rare occurrence. If I don’t get my arm around her fast, I’m in trouble. I’ll be the destroyer of the perfect moment. I sigh, and she rolls her eyes as I scoot back up, and place my arm behind her across the bench top. I’d like to just let my hand dangle, but instead I cup it around her shoulder, and give a squeeze. See, it says, I’m being good.

Note our blue shirts
My wife makes the most of this, and leans contentedly into me. To keep from being toppled over, I have to stretch my leg out to the side and plant it firmly to get some leverage as I push against her. In high school I weighed in at a husky 135 pounds for my 5 foot 8 inch frame (barely avoiding the designation “underweight,” which I have now achieved), but I’ve dropped a pound or two every year since then, and that was 12 years ago. A sedentary life makes most people even better to lean against, but it has just made me skeletal. Sometimes I hold up my hands and think, Damn, these are bony. I should lift weights or something. I should get some protein powder. I think about whether I should just let myself go limp, and allow us all to tumble sideways in a heap. It’s a fun daydream as I imagine what the young couple next to us would do, especially if I didn’t get up, but just lay there across the guy’s lap, slowly sliding to the floor. I smile to myself. My wife nuzzles her head into the crook of my neck. She probably thinks I’m enjoying being close, and that’s okay.

Twelve minutes to go. In about thirty seconds, I’ll have repositioned myself again, this time probably leaning forward, my elbows on my knees. If the all-X’s slouch is my home, the forward-hunch is my vacation retreat. I spend a lot of time traveling between the two, as evidenced by the shiny spot on the seat of my pants. When my mother joins us for church, she directs disapproving glances towards my bum. I try to let my wife enjoy her moment, but the emergency count-down is rapidly ticking away for my body-clock.

I have a hard time sitting still. It’s not as though I have ADD or anything, although that would be a convenient excuse. I just don’t like sitting in one position. My back starts to hurt. Or my shoulders get tight. Or I get an itch right under my thigh that would look bad if I scratched it, which means I have to try to rub back and forth unobtrusively on the padded seat. Basically, I think that my body might be part shark. If sharks stop swimming, they die, or so I’ve heard. Something to do with water flowing past their gills, I think. I don’t have gills, but there’s something similar that happens in my body that I swear I have no control over. If I sit still too long, my brain sends an emergency signal to some part of my body that screams Move – quick! – or you’ll die! Sometimes I suddenly realize that the waistband of my pants has hiked way too far up, and it’s sitting in an awkward spot, definitely not where it’s supposed to be. Or I realize that my tie is too tight . . . in fact, it may be my shirt neck that is too tight – strangling me almost! Or my shoes – they’re cramping my toes. Did they suddenly somehow shrink a size? If I go too long without doing something, without repositioning myself and redirecting my thoughts, I start to break out in a sweat. If it’s not ADD, it’s probably something undiagnosed.

My wife thinks I’m a big baby. Especially at night, when I’m supposed to be cuddling her. Addison is in bed, and the daily tasks are either done or given up on, and she wants me to lie in bed curled around her, a loving husband giving his wife the physical intimacy she needs to drift to sleep exhausted, but happy. I do my best – body against body, whispering sweetly in her ear, “nothing, nothing, nothing . . . .” It lasts for about a minute, and I start to fidget. My hands get clammy. My fingernails suddenly feel as though they are too close to the skin underneath them. And the underarm! Circulation slows, as my wife’s beautiful body crumples the arterial walls, like a heavy foot on a hose. And then my attention goes to my back. Did one of my vertebrae, perhaps L1 or L2, just do a little shimmy? Did it shriek, “Move, you idiot! Move or die!” I’m weak. I give in to little L2. I groan and turn the other way. Sweet relief! I curl into a ball and press my back up against her, sure that she’ll understand I’m still being close, that my dorsal side is loving her just as much as my ventral side was before. I nuzzle her a little with the bony protrusions of my spine. In the morning, she’ll complain with bags under her eyes that I kept pushing her out of bed with my back. And that when it wasn’t my back, it was my knees. That I wouldn’t stop turning over. And then we’ll decide, once again, to sleep in separate beds.

Ten minutes to go. Our idyllic family embrace is a thing of the past. My wife has leaned away to chat with another family, whom I ignore. I don’t really know them, while my wife seems to know everyone. She waves or smiles to most of the people who walk into the meeting room. I’m watching Addison crawl towards an electrical socket. I’ll go rescue her before she gets there; I estimate I have maybe ten seconds. Addison is in a dress, and her normal crawling motion isn’t working, and she’s frustrated. Her knees hold down the dress fabric, and she keeps face-planting as she tries to move forward. She glances back at me, Are you going to help me or what, Dad? I shrug my shoulders and spread my hands, palms up, as if to say What do you want me to do? Disgusted, she continues her journey, now resorting to a spider-walk on her hands and feet, her bum raised high in the air. About a half second before Addison’s delicate little finger enters the socket hole, I swoop her up into my arms. Not yet having internalized the harsh consequences of gravity, she tries to jump. When that fails, she begins swatting my face repeatedly, making an ear-piercing sound like a little howler monkey.

The light socket beckons her
Nine minutes to go. We’re back in our seats, and Addison is standing on my lap, doing squats. As churchgoers walk into the meeting room, Addison beams up at them. If they walk by without noticing, I’m both relieved and offended, the former for my own sake, the latter for hers. What, you’re so busy feeling the spirit you can’t smile at a baby? I believe I’m being objective when I say she’s in the 95th percentile for cuteness. Just the other day, while my wife and I were out with Addison, we bumped into a friend with his daughter who is just a few months younger. I’ve since been told that I’m never allowed to say such things, but I determined after a careful examination that his little girl is cuter than ours, by at least a percentage point or two. I announced it to all present. My wife didn’t appreciate the comment, but why do we feel like we have to lie about that kind of thing? In any event, little Addison is pretty far up there, and she knows it. I pass her to her mother so I can enjoy the attention she gets without having to engage it directly.

I like our spot at the back of the room. It’s worth coming to church early in order to claim it, as I’m not the only one with this preference. It is ironic that such dedication is required to secure a spot on what seems to be recognized as the slacker row. The row furthest from the enlightening truth of the pulpit. My wife, the overachiever in the family, prefers sitting closer, which again is ironically where we end up when we arrive too late to snag the better seats. Nothing like clumsily climbing over fellow worshippers to share one another’s burdens. Elbows and knees, beware.

Seven minutes to go. A gunfighter, when choosing a place to sit, never leaves his back to the door. Seems like a good rule of thumb to me, to have a view of all entrances and exits. Don’t get shot in the back. Be in a position to observe. Be ready to make an escape. I sometimes daydream a scenario that goes a little bit like this: the Bishop is being held hostage by a an unhinged deacon. I’ve got a single bullet in my Winchester. Do I take a shot from the back of the room? Or do I low crawl behind the pews until I can achieve a more likely kill shot, knowing the dude’s got an itchy trigger finger? And what if my gun jams? (I just can’t seem to get around to cleaning it) Could I make a knife throw from this distance?

Six minutes to go. On the stand at the front of the room, the Bishop sits. We both survey the flock, he from the front, a point of attention and respect, and I from the back, his secret, unacknowledged counterpart. I see the defenseless backs of the congregation, he the guarded fronts. Is it my duty to imagine what may be hidden under the surface, what might be deflected by an intentional expression, but which cannot be hidden from the unanticipated eye (mine) directed from the most unexpected angle? I don’t know, but it passes the time. There’s the toddler who just dropped his mother’s phone into the purse of her neighbor. Should I say something? Or just enjoy the ensuing confusion? The man whose clothes are a wrinkled mess, and his wife next to him, her clothing perfect and starched, her locks too perfect and manicured to be anything but a coiffure, a foreign extravagance. Which of these considered sleeping in? Which hoped to be looked at? The newlyweds who each have mussed hair, but definitely not bed-head. What were they doing? Celebrating the Sabbath? As of yet, I’ve not been asked to share my insights or suspicions with anyone. Which is probably just as well; my stories tend to get rambling and involve gunslingers or sharks.

I’ve heard some people say it’s easier to pay attention in the front, but it’s not worth it. From the front, one is watched, and being watched lends an uncomfortable undercurrent of paranoia coursing beneath my every diverging thought. Did they see my head dip in fatigue? Do I still have Gerber squash in my hair? Maybe I shouldn’t have snorted in derision? Did I just drool? From the back of the room, the mind can wander (if wander it must) in comfort, because all eyes are directed away, and the doors are in sight. And if my head droops a little, I’m too far in the back for it to be a slap in the face for the speaker. Or so I tell myself.

Five minutes to go, and my eyes start looking for escape. I am thinking about climbing things. When one’s attention wanders, or I suppose that I should just say that when my attention wanders, lest I unfairly implicate others in frivolous fantasy-making, it inclines towards looking at spaces in ways that they were not intended to be used; and in particular, I imagine how I would enter and exit spaces in a variety of unlikely scenarios:

1) I am a secret agent and all of the traditional exits are blocked.
2) The doors are holding back a flood of water that will soon fill the meeting space.
3) There are snakes or Tyrannosaurs (or both!) coming towards me very fast, and the only escape is UP!

The focus of my attention is usually someplace near the ceiling . . . an air duct or an inaccessible window. And the task is to figure out how one would get there. Certainly leaping off of pews would be involved, as would using things like light switches and thermostat boxes as handholds and footholds. Pendulous light fixtures are a no-brainer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I really do try to pay attention. Most of the time. Well, a lot of times, anyway. But even after the infrequent sermon that has my eyes welling with tears -- likely something about fathers and children -- my brain goes to its safe, happy place for a breather.

The speakers behind the pulpit settle in to place. I take a deep breath and prepare for the plunge. Today, I tell myself, today I will get something out of this. Today I will invite something in. Today I will grow up a little, and not seek a distraction everywhere I look. Three seconds to go. Two. One.

I’ve made efforts over the last six years to invest more sincerely in religious experience. When my wife met me (six years ago) I was not much of a church-goer. On the occasions that I did attend a service, it was more to observe pageantry and practice mockery than to connect with any higher power. I’m a product of post-modernity, and if there is anything I have learned in my studies it is that everything can be broken apart and that there are no absolute foundations to stand on. There is not a lot of room for faith in such a world. When I dropped out of college at 20 and needed a place to stay, I was told by my parents that maybe I shouldn’t come home, since I had impressionable younger siblings -- siblings who still went to church every week.

And then, I met my wife. Our love story could be the subject of another essay, but suffice it to say that something changed for me when I met her. I realized there was space in my heart for things larger than myself. I got the inkling that I needed to open my mind beyond my insular preferences and comforts, beyond my own easy skepticisms and anti-establishment adolescent cynicisms. I still have my uncertainties, but along with them there is something comforting that has filled some gaps. Now we have a baby girl -- or hardly a baby, now, because today she strung eight steps together to make her longest trek ever. She toddled. I have a toddler. On her first birthday, February 16th, I have a toddler, a little girl who walked eight steps, the farthest she has ever walked, to get to me. With each one of those steps, with the fresh and unjaded look of excitement on this beautiful girl’s face, I am reminded why I’m now a churchgoer. Why faith matters, and how it might help me get beyond myself. Why there exists something tantalizingly indescribable and yet wholesomely undeniable behind the pageantry and tomfoolery. Forget church for a moment. It’s too big to be contained by church. It fills church up and spills out of its doors and windows and flows elsewhere to unexpected places, even places that have never heard of church. But on this bench, with my wife at my side, and my daughter sprawling drunkenly across us, I sometimes see our common family goal clearer than I do anywhere else.

And so I sit in pews, feeling talked at, sometimes enjoying my childish little fantasies, sometimes fighting them off. And I’ll continue to sit in these pews, not because the meetings are enthralling, and not because I even hear half of what’s being said. Despite my X’s, despite my post-modern fidgeting and the thread-bare seat of my pants, there’s something that sneaks up on me. In between moments of my frivolous escapism, my mind’s self-focused efforts to evade the clich├ęd and uninteresting of pulpit-talk, sometimes something completely unexpected crests and then breaks over me. I wonder if it was there all along while I was swinging from the light fixtures. As I pace the back row with my fussy daughter bouncing on my shoulder, I’m only half-listening. And then, in a moment I can’t pinpoint, a simple story or scripture about family, about falling, about redemption breaks through the wild six-shooting, snakes hissing, wall climbing. I’m whole, with no room for the jokes, diversions, or criticisms. My daughter cranes her neck and looks at me curiously as my tears splash onto her face. In a few minutes I may be eyeing the ventilation ducts again, and she may be going for the electrical socket, but right now my daughter is all wide eyes and seeing something new. So am I.