May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
May 28, 2009
Natalie and I found a broken crayfish in the stream below my house. The back of its shell was cracked, and some bloody pus was leaking out. We stared at the crayfish for a long time, eyes welling up with tears, certain in our hearts that its pain was intense.
Natalie was from town. Her mom had bought us cream-filled powdered donuts on the morning after her slumber party that May. She had, I think, packed different clothes when she had come to my house, the kind her mother would call “play clothes,” not her usual bright name brands. I vaguely wondered if the creek water that seeped into her shoes troubled her as we gazed in solemnity and horror. We knew what we had to do.
I scoped out the creek bed and found a good-sized rock, one that required both of us to lift it. The whimpers started before we even dropped the stone, before the muted crunching sound or the ooze of brown blood. Then we just started wailing and running for the house, never checking under the rock to see if the wounded creature was indeed put to rest or if its mangled body was still squirming. We held each other and sobbed in the tree house. Two tiny women with no desire at all to make heavy decisions for life or for death. But we had met a broken thing and thought it could never rightly live if it could not live whole.
Natalie and I grew apart in junior high and high school, moved on to different crowds and styles of clothes, and we forgot our murder of mercy at the creek. We did, however, come upon more fragmentation, broken backs, and bleeders. We ourselves would bleed once a month as well. We experienced the splitting off of selves inside of us, the adolescent us, and struggled awkwardly to choose the one that was good and right.
We haven’t spoken in years, but I’m pretty sure that Natalie, like me, occasionally receives the gift of seeing people, just for a moment, as broken dolls. We get that glimpse of damaged parts. The men in the bus stop limp from some unknown wound; the women bend over strollers or carts and don’t fully straighten, their skirt hems absently tucked into a high stocking. The huge rocks we could drop are nowhere to be found. We are bleeders all.
* * *
Sarah Liv and I are in the car, driving back to Washington DC from a New York folk festival in late July. We left in the middle of Ani DiFranco’s set: just Ani and an acoustic. We hated to leave, but we have to go in early tomorrow to the adult literacy agency where we work as stipend volunteers. We turn down my Gillian Welch tape and we start talking about a line from one of Ani’s songs: Move over, Mr. Holiness, and let the little people through. We talk about how we are each deciding to handle the sacred vocabulary, she, with her Lutheran roots, and me, with my ingrained Bible-belt Methodism. We wonder if the words of our childhood faith-lives—words like worship, praise, holiness—have any real clout for us when we really stare them in the face as adults and when, out of the corner of our eyes, we see more and more brokenness in the world, in the city where we live and in the basic reading classrooms where we teach grown men who puzzle over phonics and who may or may not have homes. Can we sing these worship-words, or recite them meaningfully as we walk past bus stops or begin a lesson on simple subjects and predicates? Don’t words decompose anyway, like a dead pigeon in the alley? We should know by now to be paranoid around words that only attach and detach from meaning like chips of magnetic poetry on the fridge.
In the car tonight, the word holiness seems so demanding: some hand coming to stroke us, expecting bright pearl. It seems narrow and unforgiving, even unforgivable, like a father who uses a belt when the crime doesn’t warrant it, and the child is left to make sense of the blue-black on her legs. Only, we’re not the child—we’ve grown up in okay homes of church-going parents—but we’re standing in the next room, the little people listening in on the hurt, standing empty and praiseless, at a loss for words.
Sarah Liv and I fall quiet and listen to Gillian’s “Annabelle.” We talk intermittently; we mention our heads of hair. She donated hers to kids with cancer when she got it cut. It meant a free haircut and someone’s gorgeous auburn wig, but she cried the whole day for the loss. We consider stopping for a bite to eat: fast food at the next exit off the turnpike.
What’s the point of exhausting already winded words? I grew up singing sacred words in my youth choir at Beatty Church in rural West Virginia, songs about the blessed poor in spirit, the morning’s new mercies, the everlasting arms you could lean on. And we went into the Sunday school rooms for lessons on a holy Jesus, white and pasty on a flannel board, with ruddy disciples stuck up on the board beside him. It was a church like so many small churches, dotting the hillsides in small towns and dying out, like the towns’ local hardware stores do when Wal-Marts move in. As a church kid, I spoke and sung the words with fervor, but now, since I’ve left home, the words at Beatty can seem deflated, part of an insular, insignificant community. Since I’ve left, I’ve sensed the loss: the sacred language goes limp in a world estranged from itself, a world that doesn’t always consider the everlasting arms substantial enough to lean into. The loss I feel in the power of these words may be a kind of nostalgia, but for many of us who grew up in the church, I think it’s more than that.
What’s the point of exhausting these words—unless there is something to them that is still powerful. Something that could terrify or exhilarate beyond tired themes. Should we not try to claim the word bank of holies as our own? In the car, Sarah Liv and I wonder if, with a little sanding and polishing, they could be functional and relevant. Maybe. Or maybe we should just get new ones, but I’m not sure that we can.
* * *
For me, holy has to be more light than dark. Maybe it is whole. One big newness, unbroken, or if broken, then healed, or if not healed, then healing. To come into my own vocabulary means inspecting its foundation—built of an upbringing of supper talk and Beatty’s revival services and nights of blubbering prayer on a blue gingham bedspread—and reconstructing the terms for myself. As I build it back, I know I will find a stubborn part, and I will have to struggle to go against the grain. It will seem easier and truer, though resigning, to make the saw sing and go the way of the old hardwood grain. It’s difficult to make music any other way—to make something that matters and holds. Maybe I shouldn’t try. Maybe nothing whole will emerge for me until I do try.
Sometimes there comes a moment when the sacred words still make music for me. With one voice, like a group of altos at the cathedral, they make sense—not because they’re perfect, imposing words, but because they are my formative words: they gave me my first context for making meaning, for connecting with something larger than myself. They need, I’m convinced, constant re-imagining, as they shoot up like sprouts, in a memory or on a street corner, and I sit with them, bug-eyed, as I’d like to sit once again with a tiny bleeding crustacean. Very still, attentive. My reaction is visceral in these moments and my impulse both creative and completely undone. Re-imagined, worship-words take on body, become substance, beyond the liturgical phrase, and I can watch them come together, the way fragmented pieces create one huge mosaic on the side of a busted-up building.
* * *
Once, I inherited a dress, a hand-me-down from my sister. It was probably a gift to her from an Ohio relative, since it was store-bought and heavy knit material. I remember loving it up, thinking myself lucky to be small enough for the fit. The skirt part was bright yellow with red polka dots; it had a low, irregular seam where it connected to the bodice just past my hips and little-girl pad of belly. Smaller versions of the skirt flared in cuffs at the wrist. The bodice was all white except for a picture of a cat, not embroidered but attached like a decal, with a yellow and red ribbon tagging its ear. The dress was long-sleeved, a winter dress despite being knee-length. On the clothesline, its skirt would flutter like a freckled yellow poppy.
I remember the day I saw the dress on her.
I knew it was the same dress because it wasn’t from a local store where just anybody could have gotten it, since it had been a gift from an Ohio relative, since it was knit, thick, warm.
I’d grown out of it finally, and, since I had no smaller siblings, Mom had packed it with the other worn-out clothes into a garbage bag for the county clothing center, for the last day of the month when they handed out clothes to the needy. And here was the girl who’d picked my dress from the lot. The yellow skirt fanned slightly as she spun around to speak to the girl behind her in line. The seam between skirt and bodice underlined her belly as it had mine. Our lines were passing as her class headed to recess and mine, an older class, to the cafeteria. Girls and boys swung on the railings around us.
I felt instantly charitable and instantly violated. The dress had obviously been handled, had gone through the wash a few times. One cuff had been sewn back on, its new thread conspicuous. I don’t remember the girl’s face, whether I found her pretty or coarse or dirty, but I clearly remember the weary dress and my restrained hand that could almost touch it.
I’d received so many used-up things: chairs, snowsuits, tops and bottoms, bikes, balls, shoes. But rarely had I given or tossed off, shed something that another person found valuable. I felt like the upper crust, begged from like a kid on McDonald Street, one of the doctors’ kids. This girl was my beneficiary, and I was to be thanked.
But I only wanted my dress back. I wanted to be small, with a belly not so noticeable and with narrower shoulders that didn’t strain the stitches. She had somehow crawled inside me, the used me, and sought promise and newness from a dress hopelessly faded: the red gone to a dull pink, the yellow pale, the cat face peeling at one ear, offering nothing. A pity flooded me. I knew that eye of longing all too well. Soon it would be an eye darkened and dulled by the dress’s loose seams, by a flash of cold comparison as another body in a new jean skirt would swoop down on the bench beside this used yellow.
The girl and I passed and said nothing. Both our hair ribbons blew and trailed down our backs.
The girl and I did not know what we would do as women when people would beg from us, when we would wear our one dress to church and the same one to weddings and to luncheons, with a different necklace each time to make it seem new. As grownups, we would doubt our tricks would work and fear a blown cover. We would act as if it were a choice of deliberate prudence and simple living. We did not know if we would be the beggars.
The dress has to be an image of something holy, as though holiness were defined by longing itself. The single sight of a girl in a dress. She deals with the plain truth that shabby always shows. She seeks promise, honey, milk, star all her life.
Holy is single: one dress, worn old. Hold it, fold it, and smell the folds.
* * *
Once, when I was home on a visit from DC, Mom sewed my red bridesmaid dress for a wedding in late fall. She said to me, “Now, Jessie, it will look homemade,” with a face tinged with worry over the thought of mismatched straps or fraying hems. She had sewn the bodice, and I tried it on like a halter top with my running shorts. I thought it looked sheen and satiny and clean in the wardrobe mirror. What does it mean to look homemade? “Why shouldn’t it?” I asked her. Why make it look store-bought, as smooth as manufactured candy?
She tacked the bodice ribbon down late at night, in an effort to make sure it would match the other bridesmaids’ for the pictures. The ribbon peeked out of the bodice like a bloom. In the middle of canning season, in between doctor visits with my grandparents, therapy appointments with Aunt Becky, in between caring for broken bodies, Mom fussed with this ribbon. She put love into a dress.
Holy emerges, sewn and mended. It’s a tacked down ribbon.
Holy, you look homemade, you look stitched.
Why don’t you want to bear your stitches and let them bloom into a new kind of right?
It is no wonder we are rendered wordless, with our eyes of longing unblinking before the world. We want to be seamless sheets, bright and holy in moonlight. We are looking to be consecrated, smoothed.
* * *
Four living creatures in John’s Revelation are full of wings and eyes, sit before God, and say without ceasing: Holy. Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. I want to be them for a moment, with my eyes full of perfection, my voice having to utter only a single word. Is it a smothering word? Is it my word? Maybe it’s a word that drowns out the asking, which is also ready on the tip of my tongue.
* * *
Prophets of the old covenant spoke in oracles. They start off with something like: The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. Then they go on to tell their ominous news of destruction and desolation. Sometimes they foresee a rebuilding, stone upon stone, a people’s homeland fixed up. Sometimes they just ask. Isaiah, the prophet who in his oracle’s fifty-seventh chapter said that God’s name is Holy, collapsed from seeing God’s glory and declared himself undone. Undone means not whole yet, like a quilt in a plastic bag, just pieced. Undone means not purified yet, with unclean lips that utter humanity’s dirty words. Holy touched a hot coal to Isaiah’s drawn mouth and gave him new words to say.
I would rather not be a prophet. I would rather be one who has eyes to see and ears to hear. One who fixes for a moment on something shimmery in what a prophet shares, then goes back and replays that vision over and over, selecting my own glowing visions as though they were a handful of moving marbles, cat-eyes, the first revealings. I’d go on my back steps, holding these glimpses close as kittens and stroking them, sustaining them, alone.
I am one of the little people, wanting to know, despite myself, awaiting an oracle. I think I hold fast to you, Holy, as a child holds the string of a helium balloon: wrapped around twice, so I don’t lose you. Mystified by all that fills you up so full. I don’t have the words for it.
* * *
I am as empty and full as a glass of water on a cleared desk. I want a cup not so full with the booming of my own life. I want it to be full of hush to sip from. Maybe that’s what holiness is, that hush, when all of our sacred words have been said and the silence follows. Sarah Liv can sense it better than I can, in the car as it nears midnight and she’s the only one driving because I can’t drive stick. We’re tired and silent, sitting with the tensions in our own conversation about language, but feeling a life there, where we sit in our two bucket seats, a life pulsing beyond our own.
* * *
When I can be still, I stop trying to sound out holiness in words altogether, and I try only to picture it, looming there, among the words that are really only attempts. There was a boy, C. P., in my youth choir back at Beatty. He died as a teenager in a car wreck, but I remember that his face shone when he was a boy. Right now, I conjure him up, sitting in the pew with his folks—seeing what he sees.
C. P. pictures holiness in a squat:
And let us pray as our Lord taught us to pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Hall-oh-wood. Hallowed is holy, hallowed like hollowed, a hollowed out bowl on top of the altar. The pray-ers churn out one big voice from their throats—a droning with a pause sometimes after a word like kingdom or with hiss echoes after trespasses. A Big Voice, a small hand, C. P. covering his mouth as he yawns. His mouth widens, swallows some of the words.
Beside him, before prayer, his mom and dad shared a hymnbook in their hands. Now, the man’s big hand keeps a finger marking the hymnal page; his other’s in his pocket. Her hands hold each other closed. C. P. doesn’t put his hands at all, except to his mouth as he yawns. The older congregants in the church laid hands on all three of them once for prayer, hands like leaves fallen just short of the ground, catching on a sleeve or shoulder.
To C. P., the hollow bowl is a beggar’s bowl, empty, no beggar seen at the altar at all. If there were one, he’d have skin leathered by the sun and hands always open. The young C. P. yawns again, his mouth a new bowl, and his and hers, the man’s and woman’s are bowls, as the last beads of the string of all that fits in the bowl, before the Amen, rumbles on in the Big Voice:
For Thine is the kingdom
C.P. crouches down, as if to shoot marbles.
He pictures how a beggar would hold the bowl, between his squatting legs, want marking up his face like face paint.
And the glory forever.
Hallowed’s bowl fits the boy’s hands. It is not as heavy as he thought. He decides to want.
* * *
Maybe holiness is a posture. The stooping and the asking.
There is room in holy for ask.
* * *
I know this guy, Richard, who pictures holiness in a bust:
A friend of a friend of my sister, Richard has quit his job to take a ten-year portrait-painting class. You could raise a family for ten years, trace a wife’s face and neck and collect her quirks for a deep ten years. But he will study seeing and knowing for ten years. He will paint one bust for a year, over and over. He will know its chin line and every socket and curve in this full year of replication. He’ll be drunk with the study of the single. The next year: a still life. One solid thing a year for ten years till the seeing drives him mad and he’s a master and he sees the same face in a thousand shattered mirrors, pictures himself multiple and alone. But the jaw line, the jaw line is perfect.
I squint like Richard to focus in on holy. I stare till I see double, then triple, then many. I strive to master it, and the more I strive, the more it confounds me. Holy refuses to be mastered; it is only laid out like a scant trail of bread crumbs to lead me back from a cold bank of snow and a shivering perfect, to be grounded in a warm room with people of flesh and of love. A touch to a drawn face. A kiss that blooms.
* * *
I picture holiness as a roughed-up bleeding crayfish, twitching its pincher as it sits there by my friend Natalie’s bright shoes. A broken, partial thing. A part of the mutilated world, with its rush of fears, its rush of hallelujahs.
* * *
Holy, at its root, means set apart. Bud Angus evangelized at Beatty one night and preached entire sanctification in Christ, separateness from the world, achievable perfection with the right faith and language and jaw line. But, imagine: perfect holiness. There are days when I think that all things shabby and split at the seams are holy, set apart to be loved utterly. To be won over in an intimate heap of promise. I want to be sanctified there.
* * *
The steps to my house are broken. We are two strips stitched together, Sarah Liv and I, we are two women in the space in a car, two friends having to prove I’ve mastered, I’m different and grown, I have my own words for things now, until we settle into one another and become two at one table at a fast food place, off the turnpike, our voices fluid and wavery and fast. And then still. Sarah Liv, you take one frail word and I’ll take another, and we will string them as we could popcorn and cranberries for a Christmas tree. I will beg from you. You will take parts of me and piece me together, meet me, the used me, on broken steps on a city street.
Hold my face as if it were a single stone.
Jessie van Eerden
Jessie van Eerden holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, Image, Geez Magazine, Oxford American, Riverteeth, and other publications. She teaches at the Oregon Extension of Eastern University and lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband Mike. This essay will appear in Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, an anthology that will be released by Cascade Books this summer, in partnership with The Other Journal, edited by Hannah Faith Notess. See the Jesus Girls blog for more information.