Saturday, February 27, 2010

Must Have Own Canoe

Peter shifts the newspaper off the small dining table. Right! No good putting off the evil hour. He opens the laptop, catching his reflection in the screen. Not bad, really, for fifty-seven. His wife had hated the cropped hair – said it made him look like a thug – but the woman had run off with a bloody property developer who dresses in open-neck shirts and loafers: So much for her taste!

He angles the computer screen to get rid of irritating reflections. Nothing really feels right in this flat. He keeps banging his head on kitchen cupboards and striking his elbow on the shower walls. But no use moping around. Better get down to business.

“Seeking woman not afraid to get her hair wet,” he writes. Clarissa never understood his wanderlust, was more the sort of hotel-with-a-beach kind of girl, whereas he wanted to trek the Himalayas. Nothing to stop him now! He types energetically, trying to put the image out of his head of Clarissa and her tanned Lothario sipping gin and tonics on a sun-baked terrace. After paying off a mortgage and putting the kids through uni Peter couldn’t compete with a villa in Ibiza and a thirty-foot yacht.

“Someone for the weekends – a ‘cupboard girlfriend’,” he writes, wondering if that looks odd. It’s what he said to his daughter Gemma when there was that unfortunate business with the married man. Clarissa was all for having a first grandchild but, “You can’t just put a child in the cupboard when you’re tired of it,” he warned Gemma. Turns out Nature knew best in that instance; not that Clarissa didn’t get her grandchildren eventually. He smiles remembering the holiday cottage in Cornwall, all three grandchildren jumping on their bed in the morning. He doesn’t realize it, but a tear is rolling down his cheek. How do you fit a girlfriend into that scenario? How do you repair a life torn down the middle? “Buck up, old chap!” he says aloud. Getting maudlin. Life’s an adventure, carpe diem!

Weekdays he doesn’t have much use for company. When he finally looks up from his accounting clients there’s usually only time to rush down to the little Thai place before they close and order something from the sweet-smiling waitress. Other chaps might ask her out, but Peter would say an English girl is more reliable. “Decent and loyal,” he types. Someone with blond hair called ‘Ginny’ or ‘Sarah,’ who reads the Guardian and knows how to fix a Pimm’s.

Trouble is, even with a weekend-only partner it’s going to be difficult bringing anyone back to the flat. The sitting room’s all right, furnished with a few odds and ends from the house, and Emily came to help her dad hang curtains, but the bedroom’s a bloody disaster. “I suppose he’s got his canoe in there with him,” Clarissa is reported to have said, which is a typical exaggeration but the limited space around the bed is jammed with a sleeping bag, rolled-up tent and two backpacks.

He uploads a picture of himself in a furry hat among a group of smiling Sherpas. That should give a girl the right idea. He hears his wife’s brittle laughter. “I could be better at expressing my emotions and saying what I am feeling,” he adds, in the interest of full disclosure; “Can worry about unimportant stuff.” Like the roses he’d tended for twenty-five years. Would the new owners of the house know to cut them back before winter? “Divorced eighteen months ago,” he finishes up. “Hurt very much at the time, but over it now.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Philosopher

Milky light bathes the bookshelves. It is late afternoon and the French windows opening onto the garden are drafty with birdsong. The vapors of varnished floorboards have not yet been displaced by the plump sap of summer. Philip smoothes the page of a book, words hopping like fleas around his fingers. He should get up and close the windows, pour himself a Scotch, but the peace is too precious. Poets and philosophers circle him, waiting for him to surrender into their ashen arms but something tick, tick, ticks inside of him. Is it his wind-blown heart or is it the hope that standing on illustrious shoulders he will finally see over the wall of random living to enlightenment? He shivers and closes the book, wishing that tonight he could be a lover of women, not wisdom.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lonely Heart

Billy Braithwaite tucks his scarf into his coat. Bloody parky waiting for the bus on this street corner! The wind whips round the chip shop and carries with it the snow on the moors, salt ‘n vinegar crisp packets, a sniff of something curried.

He wouldn’t normally be going to the shopping centre in this weather if he could help it, but the website says it will ‘increase his chances’ of being selected. Billy finds it hard to imagine that his image will inspire passion. He thinks of blond secretaries in London or ‘fit bits’ who frequent the local pubs and can’t believe that his unruly hair and Yorkshire wind stippled complexion will inspire love, but he’s doing it for Her - the one who will see through the black and white photos of design consultants and the heavy spectacle frames of the arty types and rest on him, an honest man, “Because I'm a warm, caring sensitive soul who will give everything to the right person.” He worked hard on that line. Surely she will see. He is willing to give his everything. No games. Surely that means something.

Life is not a dress rehearsal, he mutters, once he positions himself in the photo booth. Momentarily, he wonders if he should undo his scarf. No, he thinks, leave it as it is. This is no rehearsal, this is the take.

(Photo used with permission

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Rise and Fall of a Radical Christian

By anyone’s standards I am certifiably insane. I sold my apartment and when my consulting projects dried up, lived off the proceeds, waiting for my agent to sell my book. It’s not ignoring the ‘Don’t give up your day job’ part that makes me fear for my sanity, or even the misbegotten hope that I could sell a book in today’s ‘crowded market,’ but that it signaled another period in my life where I became the radical follower of a radical God… and seemingly destroyed myself in the process.

The first time this happened, I gave up my worldly belongings, my job in a management consultancy firm and went off to become a missionary in Spain. Two years later, I had made about two ton of marmalade from lemons donated by local nuns, watched the clothes we were supposed to distribute to the poor pile up to the ceiling, and had been accused of harboring an evil spirit because I had dared to ask a simple question: “Shouldn’t we be doing something?” Apparently not, because I was sent home with a flea in my ear and very little to show for my sacrifices. My church leaders, who had never liked the idea of tithing people to missions in the first place, had only one thing to say: “Told you so.”

It took me several years searching through the world and its riches (in case I had been mistaken and that’s where happiness really lay) before I was ready to try radical faith again. “Why not just ordinary faith?” you ask. “Why not church on Sunday and the occasional good deed?” Why indeed, but I am a person of conviction. If you tell me people are going to hell without Jesus, I’ll become a missionary. If you tell me that what pleases God is feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless, well then, I’ll volunteer at a homeless shelter on Skid Row. Which I did. I gave up my job in the movie industry (recognize a pattern here?) and took a pay cut to train as an HIV counselor. This time I can point to lives that I touched – the homeless and rehab program men with whom I prayed, the Latino population who finally had someone in the medical department who spoke their language. By the time I met Francisco, I was radically invested in the lives of these men and radically attracted to someone who had beaten heroin addiction to become the darling of the Mission, loved by staff and program men alike. He was going to be sent to Mexico to head up a ministry there and I wanted nothing more than to go with him. So we got married. Six weeks later, I discovered he was radically addicted to heroin once more.

The Mission disowned us, my parents were hysterical, my film world friends had long since dropped away. A friend from missionary days invited us to stay with her in Arizona to “get Francisco away from his connections.” (You see how little we understood about heroin addiction and the likelihood of such a plan succeeding.) By now pregnant, I had once again lost all my worldly possessions and, after I began the task of raising a child on my own, all taste for radical faith.

Eighteen months ago, I was finishing my book about my marriage and my subsequent descent into hell when I grew wistful for the days when I really did believe God had ‘a future and a hope’ for me. Right on cue, my Arizona friend called excited about a new move of God’s Spirit. “It’s revival!” she said and that is exactly what my soul needed – to believe again in a powerful God who could use me to bring his love and purpose to people’s lives, not least my own.

I should have known better than to take the radical route again, but true to form, I withdrew my book from the agent, believing that the behavior of some of the Christians in my story would only reinforce the cynicism people feel towards the Church. So, having sold my apartment, here I was with time and money and, when I woke each morning, a delicious anticipation of the divine assignments I would receive that day. I volunteered with a team doing outreach to transsexual prostitutes and quickly saw the flaws in the organization – but not before I had donated a large sum of money. I threw myself into the events at a mega church (bible studies, prayer meetings, small group leadership training), tithed an even larger sum of money – and received impersonal mail asking for more. I eagerly supported volunteers and graduates from the church-run rehab center by taking them out for lunch and on shopping trips, covering a late car payment… and got burned every time. I started a bible study in my home for the local trasher and her seven children, but the kids grew bored with coloring Sunday School pictures and the mother was too exhausted from dumpster diving every night.

Undeterred, I prayed, I fasted, I read my bible sometimes for six hours at a time; I even tried to learn the ancient Hebrew alphabet! Once I prayed in tongues for three hours straight, hoping for a breakthrough. (I was still trying to write an ‘uplifting’ book at this point.) Everywhere I went, I talked about God and prayed with people.

Several months later, despite having deleted every copy of my book and thrown away the notes (because this is how radical and insane people behave), God graciously hit the override button on my misplaced zealousness and miraculously unearthed a copy of the manuscript. Restored to my purpose, I began to revise my book. Meanwhile, I continued my daily prayer walk around the neighborhood. One day, a little woman popped her head over a fence and told me a sorry tale of poverty, abuse, abandonment... Irresistible to a radical co-dependent like me! I spent the next four months helping her out of the hole she had dug for herself, not realizing that the life she hated was the consequence of serious delusion - a princess complex - so taking her out to lunch to ‘cheer her up,’ buying treats for her children, introducing her to my (new) church of wine-drinking bohemians, did nothing but confirm that this was the life she was entitled to, and I was the agent of God who had made it all possible. Which worked well in the sense that she agreed readily to being baptized, not so well when I blew up one day, finding that even the most radical enablers can finally run out of patience.

That’s it! That’s all I have to show for eighteen months of radical obedience – a book my agent, dispirited by the contracted market, doesn't even attempt to sell; empty coffers I had believed God would refill if I were faithful (radically so) in tithing; a few people who may or may not have been better off before I tried to help them; and, watching my neighbor at church drinking her wine and hugging the people I had only just begun to know, the sense that I am the villain, the Bad Christian, for harboring the same kind of resentment you feel as a teenager when your kid sister shows up to a cool party and ruins everything!

In this mood of ‘life is sucky, Christian life is suckier still,’ I went yesterday to pick up some groceries from the Armenian store. As I was placing the items on the checkout desk, an old woman barged in front of me. The streaks of orange dye in her thin white hair reminded me of my grandmother, long dead. She was wearing a shabby cardigan over a cotton dress that revealed a few inches of lumpy, grey leg warmers. A small girl pulled on her, displaced from the beat-up stroller by a large loaf of bread. They appeared to be discussing the bananas the little girl was trying to put on the counter but in a language I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t Armenian because the checkout girl was unable to communicate her protest when the old lady suddenly upended her purse, cascading pennies onto the black conveyor belt.

I sighed and raised my eyebrows at the two men waiting behind me. The young checkout girl was valiantly attempting to count all the coins, but this was going to take a while. A woman in hunter-green cashmere and a gold necklace swooped down out of nowhere.

“No, you can’t pay with this. You have to go to a bank.” She thrust a Tupperware bowl at the checkout girl and motioned her to scoop up the pennies.
“Is money!” said the old lady, her sunken face confused and defiant.
“No! You have to take it to a bank,” repeated the Armenian owner, indicating the bowl of pennies the checkout girl held between them. The old lady made no move to take it, her lips working over toothless gums.

All through this encounter I had become aware of the song playing in the background. “…You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains...” Wasn’t that a song I’d heard at church? Or was it more New Age inspirational?
“You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas…” Oh, surely not! Despite the misgiving that I had suddenly found myself in the middle of a cheesy movie, the ceiling rose, the walls expanded, my ears began to ring, and I knew what I had to do.
“How much is her bill? Perhaps I can pay it for her?”
The checkout girl’s eyes opened wide with surprise. Understanding the significance of the proffered notes, the old lady grabbed my hand and kissed it effusively, making me turn a lovely shade of pink. I patted her shoulder awkwardly.
“…You raise me up to be more than I can be.”
The checkout girl was now trying to foist the pennies on me.
“No, thanks! I’ve got to go. Let her keep the change.”

“…But when you come and I am filled with wonder
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.”

Averting my eyes from the little scene behind me I raced for the door, in a hurry to get to my car so I could let loose the long, shuddery sobs inside of me. He knows. He thinks it’s sucky too, all those people who’ve let me down. Radically faithful or full of doubt, he doesn’t care because he’s never stopped having faith in me.