Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You're a Long Time Dead


The telephone rang while she was brushing her teeth. Let it go to message, she thought, seeing ‘Anonymous’ come up on the screen. These annoying people who don’t let you screen your calls.

“… So I was wondering if you’re free for coffee,” she heard over the electric toothbrush.
Gil! I was just thinking about you!

What she had actually been thinking as the toothbrush pounded her gums was that he would be the person she would call for on her deathbed, this loyalest and dearest of friends. Of course, his wife wouldn’t allow her anywhere near should the situation be reversed. Sometimes she wondered what he had told his wife. “A comet streaking through the sky,” was how he’d once described her and a couple of other women whom he had known and lost.

She spat and rinsed and considered what her response should be. There were errands to run and work to do, but that deathbed scene was still in her mind. Incautiously, she picked up the phone and hit ‘last call.’

“So where should we meet?” he asked.
Mentally she went through the options: Café Figaro, but that was too far west, and anyway the coffee was too weak. Fix, but there the coffee was too strong.
“The only place with good coffee is Trader Joe’s,” she pouted. “But then we’d have to stand and make nice with the samples lady.”
He laughed on the other end of the line. Not only was he unfailingly loyal, but he laughed at her jokes too. An idea formed in her mind. She knew he loved adventure and relied on her to come up with the unexpected.
“What time do you need to be back?”
“Oh, two.”
That was four hours from now. Adventure it was!

Drawing up to the gates at The Huntington Library she held her breath and then exhaled in relief to see that it was open before noon. Not that it mattered really; the streets in this part of town were more lush than the regular city blocks and theirs was not a friendship that needed more than sharing a view of leaves through a windshield to be happy.

At the ticket booth she whipped out cash and paid for both of them. It was her idea, so it would be her treat. It was an extravagant gesture seeing as he was a successful lawyer and she an unemployed writer, but it was part of their code – to act like equals. Sure, she let him open a door for her, but then she would open one in return. He knew enough to let her.

“Everyone likes the cactus garden, but I like these winding, secret trails,” she said, darting off under the trees. “Look, look!” she cried excitedly, spotting the camellias beside the path. A shocking pink and a subtle, blushing egg-custard. It was too early for the camellias to be in full bloom, but on a December day they seemed the very generosity of God.

The trail led them into the Zen garden, where milling visitors gazed at neatly raked designs in the grey stones. It was as barren and cold as Brighton beach.
“That’s next for me in my spiritual journey,” he announced, “Meditation.”
“I can’t see the point of emptying your mind. I’d rather it be filled with color, like those camellias.”
“Yes, but you’re not supposed to have all those thoughts and colors charging around. Meditation is a way of achieving peace, slowing things down.”
She was doubtful. Peace was the luxury to savor thoughts, not to obliterate them. “You know, all that yoga and meditation and stuff. It started out as a way for old Hindu men to deal with their mortality. They believed you only had a certain number of breaths and so by restricting them you would live longer!”
“I believe that too.”
“I believe in an allotted span, but not that if I hold my breath I’ll somehow stop the clock! You’re a long time dead. I want to live as fully as I can while I’m still here!”

Their circuit had brought them to the cactus garden.
“You wanted to know why I can’t join Facebook,” he said. “My wife is on it and she would see all my friends – she’d be very threatened by you.”
Being cast as a femme fatale was actually quite flattering until he added, “We even argued about me staying in touch with Sue and Tiffany.”
Sue was in her sixties and probably grey-haired by now. Tiffany was fifteen and Gil’s goddaughter.

They sat down on a bench facing a slope dotted with the brilliant vermillion of Red Hot Pokers – an impressionist masterpiece in ridged and feathered oils.
“But why is she so jealous? I know some men can’t be trusted, but you would never betray your wife.”
“Ah, you see that’s because we’re not normal. Most people would think that you and I, like this (he motions to the companionable gap between their shoulders), is not normal. They’d attribute something else to it.”
She pondered this looking up at the branches overhanging the bench. Dark fronds like ungroomed whale’s teeth against the blue, blue sky. She was suddenly very sad.

“It’s funny,” she thought, “There are some moments that could tip from extreme sadness to extreme happiness.” She willed the moment to tip but it was suspended like the excruciating pause, the chronic hesitation, before the free-fall of orgasm.

“We really only have today,” she said, thinking again of the deathbed and glad that they were building memories before the regrets of a last parting. She saw that scene so clearly in her head. She wondered what is love when you already fear its loss? She wondered what other people would attribute to it.


© Copyright 2009 Louise Godbold

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bitch-slapping my way to hell

“So I wasted my time taking you to that interview at Safeway’s because you weren’t serious about getting a job!”

I throw my bag in the back of the car, irritation overwhelming me like primeval slime, sucking me back to an older, primitive self.

“What do you mean not serious?” she says from the front seat.
“You never went back on Wednesday like they said.” I put the keys in the ignition and turn to her. “What, do I have to take you everywhere?”
“That’s not fair! Anyway, you said you wanted to come; that you wanted to check it out for yourself.”

It’s true, I gritted my teeth to explore the world of ‘front end management’ and ‘courtesy clerks’ just as my mother had when my father was ‘farting around’ trying to get a movie made. Grim bravado in the face of Fate and lack of funds, and not a little interest in martyrdom.

“You can’t pay fifty-five dollars to get your phone fixed,” (she had said with an air of tragedy that things were “a little tight”) “but you won’t go out and get a job!”
“You have no idea what my life is like. You make judgments but you have no idea!
“So tell me then. What is your life like?”

At this moment there’s very little that I have not heard about her life, her crazy husband, her uncooperative kids, the child services court case that I had importuned a lawyer friend of mine to take on for free, growing up with a schizophrenic mother, her snake-like siblings… I have heard it all, over and over, in these last few months.

“I don’t have to defend myself to you! Why should I have to explain things to you?”
“Because I care about you, because I want to understand, and because I don’t want things to blow up in your face – but they will if you don’t go out and get a fucking job!”

So much for Christian love. In the summer I willingly slipped my shoulder under this load, believing that God had a purpose for her life and convincing her of that too. Or did I? Did I convince her? I’m not even sure why she’s coming to church with me this evening. Is it just the red wine and bohemians associating her with a life she always believed could be hers – a belief she still clings to in her thrift store glamour and riding in my car?

“I’m very busy; you have no idea how busy my life is.”
Oh yeah, I think, sweeping the yard and moving the piles of junk from one place to another. But oops! I’ve actually said it.

“You’re so judgmental! I don’t have to explain myself to you. I feel like I’m under interrogation.”
“That’s a circular argument. You can’t give me any good reasons, can you? How do you expect people to help you when you won’t do anything for yourself?” I think of my friend giving up paying clients, the temptation that had briefly, wearily floated across my mind to pay the cost of getting her phone fixed.

“Well, don’t help me! I never asked you to.” She slams the door and walks towards the warehouse building that is our church. I get out, arrange my scarf and as she shouts something at me, get back in the car and lock the door. I drive away aware that I’ve handled this all wrong, that I gave in to my anger and frustration and that I’m about the worst Christian on the planet. To confirm that, I’m going home to drink neat whisky. She can find another chauffeur tonight.


© Copyright 2009 Louise Godbold

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Practice of Knowing Nothing

This is where it all started, one of those ‘portals’ my friend keeps talking about – places where heaven invades earth. She now keeps company with a hundred foot angel and is regularly transported into God’s throne room when not engaged in astral travel to the Kalahari Desert. She calls it ‘normal’ Christian behavior. “But I don’t see angels,” I tell her, wondering if I belong to a lesser class of Christian.
“You will,” she consoles me.

I’ve driven on Bonnie Brae many times, noticing the handshake exchange of drugs, the shuffling people waiting on corners, but I’ve never come this far down and if I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked out the whitewashed bungalow with a porch and sloping roof from the other small houses.

Our guide arrives in a Toyota Corolla and parks across the street. She is a small Filipina with wiry hair and a square nose. Mama Rice heaves herself out of my passenger seat, leaning heavily on the car door. She is dressed for this expedition in full African garb, including a colorful scarf knotted on her head. I am all in white. My friend (the one with the angel) recommends it, along with fasting. The way I spill food, the combination of the two is probably good advice.

“I’ll just open the door and let you in. Would you mind if I left you alone for a while? I have an errand to run,” says our guide.
Mind? Left alone in the house where the Pentecostal movement began, where the Holy Spirit came down just as in the days of the apostles? Mama Rice and I can’t believe our luck.

We climb the concrete stairs to the small porch - the original one collapsed under the weight of the crowd when William J. Seymour preached to the people gathered in the street below. That was a hundred years ago. Now I only see a few Latino kids playing behind the high metal fence in the yard opposite.

Inside, I immediately feel at home among the small proportions and glowing wooden floor. My British sensibilities relax around history, as if they’ve finally found somewhere to earth themselves in this city of shiny surfaces and beauty that only goes skin-deep. William Seymour’s bible sits in a niche, propped open at the book of Acts. On the wall hangs the monochrome image of a bearded and serious-looking African American in a suit. Mama Rice looks over my shoulder and then at the neighboring picture of Seymour’s wife. When the Holy Spirit finally fell on the small group of believers who’d been praying for revival, Jenny Seymour sprang up and played the piano, even though she’d never taken a lesson in her life. The celebrating and singing spilled over into the street, the believers praying in their new ‘tongues’ – the ‘language of angels.’

Our guide has gone. I run my hand over the small upright piano trying to breath in its memories, then pace around the small sitting room, hoping that the sacredness will seep up from the floor and into my shoes. Mama Rice has started to pray, uttering loud guttural sounds that rise into a rebuke, and stamps her feet on the polished floor. I almost expect to see a tongue of flame on her head, but instead through the open door see the Rehab Center perfectly framed by the porch.

“Come here, Mama Rice!” Her ululations grow even louder as she stands behind me and sees the place where she has been volunteering for the past two years. Recovering drug addicts and the homeless flock to her GED classes where she instills the missing ingredient in their life: hope. It would seem that God is making a connection here, one that is not making a lot of sense to me because Mama Rice and I have wept over some of the things that happen at the Rehab Center – despotic administrators, sexual harassment, the usual mix of phonies and hypocrites who creep into every Christian institution and give it a bad name.

Exhausted by her exertions, Mama Rice has collapsed into a wooden chair. I come over and sit at her feet, laying my head in her lap. “I feel I should apologize to you, repent on behalf of the white people who shut William Seymour’s ministry down.” The first integrated church was bound to attract criticism, although people who lived through the revival don’t blame racism for its downfall, but the fact that William Seymour abandoned his practice of waiting on God with a box over his head. Does that sound silly to you? God uses the things that are foolish to confound the wise. Good thing I remembered that, because just as I am kneeling at Mama Rice’s feet, tears streaming down my face repenting on behalf of white people, two more visitors walk in, followed by our guide.

The tour of the house is brief – just a kitchen, two small bedrooms and a parlor, all empty of furniture. Finding ourselves back in the sitting room, our guide tells us how the house is made available to church groups on Friday nights for all-night prayer meetings. Once she was sent for in the middle of the night because fire trucks had been called to the house; the neighbors reported seeing flames coming from the roof. Of course, there was no fire. She tells us of a miraculous healing that happened right here when she was praying with a group of tourists. I tingle with anticipation, ready for anything, but when we conclude our visit with prayer there are no fiery tongues, no angels, not even an orb of light or a stray feather floating down.

I call my friend. She’s just been to a conference to see someone who oozes anointing oil when he preaches. From his feet. Seems like God has gone into show business. The Holy Spirit is supposed to lead us into all truth. Must be that I haven’t received this new, ‘second anointing’ because I don’t know what to believe anymore.

#

I am invited to give a book reading in Phoenix by my friend, our lady of the angels. She’s gone all Catholic on me. Not that I have anything against Catholics, I was raised one after all, but for a Southern Baptist to be talking about St. Joan of Arc and her spirit guides with reverence is a bit of a departure. In the morning, my friend comes into my room wearing walking shoes. “You want to go to Hummingbird Hill?”

Of course I do! This is where she saw the angels with construction hats and then there was some kind of Tolkien Last Days battle between angels and demons and it gets a bit mixed up in my head after that, but sure! I’m game.

We walk to one of the outcrops of rock that spring up out of the Arizona desert like giant monopoly pieces. She seats me on the ‘throne’ – a broken rock that resembles a seat. From here, she and the ‘prophet’ saw Jesus coming on a wagon. (Actually, that was a bit of linguistic confusion because the prophet is German and she was saying ‘Wagen’ which means ‘chariot.’) We are silent for some time. “Do you see the angel?” my friend asks softly. I squint my eyes at the opposite hill, but see only bare ground and a Wal-Mart at three o’clock.
“What’s its name?” I ask, having learned this much from the revival crew. Todd Bentley had an angel called Emma. She would go off and get him money. Nice! Except that this sounds, well, like God’s retired and everything’s being run by the angels.
“‘Acceptance.’” Then her voice goes all deep: “Do not analyze, do not question, just accept the things I am going to show you this day.” Her voice returns to normal. “Thank you, Jesus.” By this I know it is a ‘word’ for me from God.
“Was the angel lying sideways, with long wings?” I ask, picturing the angels you see on Christmas cards.
“Yes! Yes, you saw the angel! Woo-hoo! Praise you Jesus!”
I’m not entirely convinced, but I’m not willing to give up my first angel sighting if there’s half a chance I am finally seeing into the supernatural realm.

#

This evening, we are visiting the German prophet and her partner. Apparently, the German prophet detected a need for emotional healing because at the book reading yesterday I teared up remembering the person God created my husband to be, the person he was before he started the trail of self-destruction that ended our marriage… fifteen years ago. Having written and rewritten a memoir about it, I’m feeling pretty purged of any lurking emotional wounds, but it’s hard to argue with a prophet, particularly when she talks like an SS officers in an old war movie.

Seated in the all-white living room of the prophet, I am beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. All eyes are on me.
“Your desires are not God’s desires,” rumbles the prophet’s partner in a deep baritone. His dark eyes lour at me from under bushy eyebrows. He’s a banker from Houston and reminds me of my uncle. But I think my uncle’s nicer.
“God says that you must not look back!” comes the German prophet’s clipped voice. (Ve haf vays of making you speak!) But I’m a memoirist, how am I supposed to give readings and write more books if I am not to look back? “You haf to give up your husband,” (I thought I did when I divorced him thirteen years ago) “… Ah, yes,” she continues, “I am seeing it now: God says you haf to move out of your neighborhood to be healed.”

My neighborhood? Where I have prayed faithfully for the people in my street, even started helping one lady whose husband ran out on her. She saw my faith in God and wanted it for herself. She comes to my church now. But even if there weren’t the evidence of God at work, I love my neighborhood – the mixture of bohemian and barrio. It’s perfect. Where else could I live?

I start to cry. “Look, God,” I say, deciding to go straight to the source. “I give you back my book – again – and my husband,” (I let out a little sob, all this ‘husband’ business is reminding me that I don’t actually have one, haven’t for a long time), “…because he sure isn’t any use to me!”

The prophet springs out of her chair. “Yes, God, do your healing work,” she croons as she puts her arm around me. I wait for more tears, but the little sob was all I could produce. I’m in danger of becoming a grave disappointment.

When they realize that it’s all over, I excuse myself and go splash cold water on my face in the white tiled bathroom. I sink down onto the white mat and stare randomly at the white scales. I am feeling all the old anger and rebellion that got me thrown out of the missionary society… and the Skid Row mission… and one or two churches. The anger is against the feeling of being manipulated and forced to believe an Alice in Wonderland scenario where God, the being I know as God, is stuffed into a teapot and poured out by the Mad Hatter.

#

“I don’t know, Lou-Lou,” says my British friend, “I’m not one to say because I’ve got a fag in one hand and a drink in the other, but I think if God’s telling you anything it’s “Don’t follow people.”” Her voice – husky and slightly slurred – confirms the picture she paints at the other end of the telephone. But when Jesus ate with Republicans and sinners, er, publicans and sinners, I doubt all of them were entirely sober as they listened to the man who called himself the Son of God.

“I just don’t know what to believe anymore,” I wail. “All those things we took on because they sounded spiritual, covenants and fasts, formulas for prayer… and the stories of God moving supernaturally, raising people from the dead – I don’t know what’s true and isn’t!” I go back to the Bonnie Brae house and my repentance on the part of white people. Was that just hocus-pocus too?

“Look, Lou, you’re worried sick about your friend and the whacky things going on in the church,” she says, drawing on her cigarette, “But it’s not your responsibility. God can handle it. He knows what he’s doing.”

Maybe she’s right; it’s not my responsibility to figure it all out. Maybe God keeps pulling me up short and allowing me to see the inadequacy of my understanding so that I don’t put my trust in formulas, movements, man… Maybe he allows the church to be flawed, deluded even, so that I have to keep coming back to him. He shatters my religion and replaces it with live, real-time relationship with the eternal and unfathomable I AM. And the humbling recognition that I understand nothing.



© Copyright 2009 Louise Godbold

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Sleep Consultant


“I’m looking for a twin bed,” I say, hesitating in the doorway, “… for my son,” I add, not wanting to signal ‘Given Up On Relationships’ (which my flat shoes and lack of make-up probably already have).

Before me stretch acres of showroom, empty except for the salesman who is bounding towards me in a lurid tie. I must be the only person who makes big-ticket purchases three days before Black Friday – but my error doesn’t hit me until later.

“We have these three models,” he gestures to the beds immediately in front of me, “and then there’s our own brand,” he says, pointing to a Papa, Mama and Baby Bear set up. He notes the look of confusion on my face that is introduced every time I have to make purchasing decisions. I hate shopping. I hate even more the decision-making process, which will ultimately result in a sleepless night wondering if I made the right choice. “Why don’t you try them?” he hints, like a kindergarten teacher giving gentle cues. I tentatively sit on the first bed. “No, you can’t test a bed that way,” he says, sounding a mite less patient but still smiling, “You have to lie down.”

Now I know that extras in Sit ‘n Sleep commercials do it all the time, the woman lying down in her high-heels and matching purse and the husband turning towards her, smiling and nodding as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to be replicating your moments of greatest privacy for the viewing public. But I’m all alone and the salesman is hovering over the end of the bed like a mad scientist getting ready to fit me with electrodes. “Very comfortable,” I say primly from my reclining position and spring back to my feet.
“But does he sleep on his back, or does he sleep on his side or his tummy?” the salesman asks, exasperated by my unwillingness to play the extra game.
“His side,” I admit warily, unready to assume the fetal position in a vast showroom like a babe burrowing under the dry leaves of the proverbial woods. He senses my hesitation.
“Well, I’ll leave you to try them out!” he says, plastering back the smile. “My name’s Douglas, Doug, and I’ll be right over there.” He points to a desk at the side of the showroom as if I’m a child who needs to be reassured. But wait! I’m about to be left floundering in a sea of beds with no discernible difference between them, and only unintelligible signs declaring things like ‘Hb&F extra’ to guide me.
“But what about all the other beds?” I ask, gesturing to the pillow tops stretching to the horizon.
“Oh, I showed you the three cheapest ones,” says Doug. “They get more expensive as you go further back in the showroom.”
“Well, you sure pegged my demographic quickly,” I joke.
“I’m a salesman, it’s what we do,” he says proudly.
I am suddenly incensed that a balding man with a badge that says ‘Sleep Consultant’ and a fat tie with the photograph of two children on it (probably not even his own) should have written me off so quickly.
“I come from a very wealthy family in England, you know!” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop myself. (A lie, but being the ancestral kings of Suffolk has to count for something.)
“And I’m a neurosurgeon,” he says with a straight face.
“Really?” Times are hard.
“No.”

I whip out my credit card. “I’ll take the most expensive of the three you showed me.” (It’s my mother’s money anyway. Compared to my own finances, I wasn’t lying about my family’s wealth.)

I leave the showroom a chastened woman. All my years in social programs, working hard to dispel the impression of being the privileged white woman, I’ve obviously become too good at it! But the saddest thing is that somewhere deep in my European psyche I believed that ‘good breeding will always show,’ that I can dress in clothes from discount stores and still retain an aura of ‘genteel poverty.’ Oh, how we deceive ourselves. Dissed by Doug the Sleep Consultant.


© 2009 Louise Godbold

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