An eighty year old woman wearing a floral dress and red sweater crept along a sidewalk toward the Winter Park Presbyterian sanctuary. She smiled as she studied a white egret stalk with elegant steps across the lawn.
A mother and father wiped away tears after the youth minister described the trials their son endured after arriving three months premature. Minutes later the same minister baptized Oliver, now a handsome two year old. The boy sought out his grandfather for an embrace before the ceremony after kicking up a bit of a fuss, but he smiled when the reverend patted a wet hand three times on the top of his head. When it was all complete, he turned to the congregation and graced us with another smile.
The organist’s exit hymn started with a series of discordant notes that jarred until they sweetly evolved into a fugue reminiscent of Bach.
Two deacons sat down with me and offered advice as I asked questions about a new job at church. They offered, like other deacons before them, to field additional queries and to provide guidance as I took on new duties. They sensed my feelings of confusion and inadequacy and wanted to reassure me.
I ran into Will, Touckay and their two boys on the way out. Will had questioned me several months before about a “Super Chicken” t-shirt I had worn to a family get together. Now he said, “Every time I see you, I think about that cartoon.” Jackson asked, “What cartoon?”, and I explained that Super Chicken was a chicken with super powers who had a complaining lion for a sidekick. Jackson smirked at the happy absurdity of the premise, and his dad promised to show him some episodes.
Judy handed me a vase of tulips to carry out to the car. Oliver’s grandmother had circled the fellowship hall handing out bouquets to late lingerers.
Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.
When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.
And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.
I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.
I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.
Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…
I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.