Housing Grief

In our neighborhood sits a fire-gutted house. For months it sat, its yard weed ridden and rodent infected, its shattered windows like eyes into a dead soul. How long would it be left in that state? Why not just tear it down and rebuild?

Then in came the troops. First, the lawn was mown. Then, inside, fresh wood transformed the space from empty into potential. Outside, the crew built additions onto the existing structure. The house was, at its soul, what it had been, but also something new. A resurrection house.

The house reminds me that fires come. They destroy what has been. And we grieve. Grief takes the time it takes. Slowly, we’re opened to hope—not for what was, but for what might be. A resurrection. A soul house transformed.

This Eastertide season finds our family in loss. Last month, my husband’s job was outsourced. The life we’d known, the life we’d counted on, is gone. At 60+, we look out at the world through broken windows. Around us, as we wait and watch for what will be, we see resurrection. In nature. In the lives of others. In fire-gutted houses.

Whatever you are grieving, I hope for you clear evidence of resurrection. And with it, anticipation of fresh, new life.

eScapegoat Easter Reading

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Eastertide. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Into the Wild

Never at home with the points of the compass or even with directions left versus right, I stopped to get gas, apparently turned the opposite direction I needed to return to the Interstate, and found myself deep in a neighborhood of weary houses and weed-ridden yards. Kids played in the street without adults around to yell at them. I pulled over, made myself breathe, and then turned the car around, looking for familiar landmarks. Thinking backward, I retraced my drive through the neighborhood, down the drag of decaying convenience stores, through light after light, until finally I saw the Interstate cutting across my vision: a ramp of gray marked with huge stars—we are the Lone Star State, after all! Following the blue and red shield signs, I made my way onto the Interstate, which immediately sloped upward into the sky.

I drove in another world: only gray barriers and clouds existed here. My car moved itself toward the embankment; I felt powerless to do anything to stop it. In a moment, I would be flying in these clouds, and then falling. It was fixed, it would be. My heart thudded and my stomach clenched. I felt dampness under my arms and a prickling at my scalp. I sat, helpless, as the car sped up and moved toward the barrier.

I told myself, forced myself to realize that I was pushing the accelerator; I was steering toward the sky. Since I couldn’t seem to stop it, I did the first thing I could. I eased off the gas. Looking behind me, I saw a single car approaching. He’d just have to understand—this was the best I could do. As my front bumper approached the barrier, I pulled my eyes away from the clouds and onto the road before me.

“Drive here,” I commanded myself. “Only here.”

My front bumper veered into the lane and I forced myself to hold the sides of the hood between yellow lines that depicted the lane’s boundaries. Below me, closer and closer, cars sped down the Interstate, grounded and going about their business. In a moment, I would join them. I would end this successfully.

Down the ramp, merging into traffic, accelerating to comparable speed—I had made it. Only then did I realize I’d been holding my breath, only then did I glance down to see my heart thudding through my t-shirt. Only then did I feel my exhaustion. I longed to pull over to the side of the road, close my eyes, and sleep. Since I couldn’t do that, I cranked up the radio and sang along at the top of my lungs. I was alive—more so than I could ever remember—and I found that I was glad.

***

I arrived at the dorm the day before my assigned roommate, accepted my key at the front desk, and plunked my stuff onto the floor. The dorm was empty, except for a few other women who’d arrived early. I nodded to them, head down, as I walked down the hallway. But mainly I stayed in my room, reading and rereading the college materials I’d received until, at last, my eyes forced themselves shut.

I woke with a start the next morning, fearful I had overslept and missed registration and orientation. An absurd worry, since both activities began after lunch. It was still quite early when I stuffed the campus map into my pocket, and decided to stroll over to the administration building and look around.

A catwalk spanned the street between my dorm and the administration building. I stepped out in one world and midway found myself in another. Below me, splotches of green—fresh spring green; sad, withered green; deep, restful green—covered almost my entire plane of vision. Here and there the hard gray planes of housetops evidenced the distance between my feet and the unseen ground below. A rusty guardrail spanned the catwalk. Since the rail was high enough from the sidewalk to allow a body to slide through, someone had strung metal cording through holes in the railing, cutting the space in half.

I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I felt, instead, drawn inexorably toward the guardrail. My feet would, of their own volition, propel me toward and over the railing. I would have no choice but to plunge over the side, down, down into the canvas of trees. I stopped myself inches from the rail, heart racing, and sat squarely in the sidewalk. I needed to feel myself on the ground.

I couldn’t stay here; already students were gaping at me as they hurried by. I waited until a break formed in the traffic, forced my knees to unbend and my legs to straighten, focused my eyes on the sidewalk’s edge nearest the street, and made my feet carry me there, away from the siren song of the guardrail. A car blew its horn; I ignored it, knowing that walking this traffic-riddled balance beam was the only way I could make it to the other side.

One step. Another. Another step. Another. After an eternity, I beheld a world like the one I’d left before stepping onto the catwalk; I forced my way toward it. When I stepped off the catwalk, exhaustion claimed me. I made my way to a bus stop bench and collapsed onto the searingly hot metal seat. I didn’t care. This felt real: evidence that I had made it out of the strange world of the catwalk and into the world of choice.

 

eScapegoat 10

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

…he is to lay his hands upon the scapegoat, symbolically laying the sins of the people upon it. He then sends the scapegoat away into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people with it.[i]

***

I couldn’t live in a world where I could believe Sheila would betray me.

I would not believe she had.

I was going insane trying to disbelieve it.

I imagined her apologizing for what she had done or what she’d failed to do; I thought I could keep my sanity if only she would own her actions. If that happened, these tormenting thoughts could, at last, end. But day after day went by with no word from her. It was as if our friendship happened in a bubble and when that bubble burst, the friendship no longer existed, at least not for her.

I realized I didn’t want to live: even more, that I hadn’t wanted to live most of my life. I begged God to kill me. I wanted to kill myself, but I’d embarrassed my family enough. At night I prayed to die in my sleep; I awoke each morning discouraged to discover breath in my body. I stopped painting, stopped eating, stopped imagining Magic Land. Still I lived, still I endured every unendurable moment. My family no longer even feigned interest in my welfare, exerting no effort make me eat or sleep. And still I lived on.

 

When it became clear God would not let me die, I realized I hated Sheila. I hated myself, too, for being fool enough to believe she valued me. Fool enough to believe myself valuable. Sheila would never apologize; I knew that now. I didn’t matter enough to be stood by. Shadows can take only the form given them by substance. In my family’s world, in Sheila’s world, I had no substance of my own. Days went by and weeks as I existed in the sterility of my family.

Weeks turned into months; I ceased going to church. I imagined everyone sighing in relief at my absence. Especially my family; they had grown smaller, tighter. They’d closed ranks: reformed themselves with me outside the door. Wilda’s place of seniority was secured. My shadow hardly darkened our family’s consciousness anymore.

I made plans to simplify their lives. My plans grew solid at the mailbox; one evening at dinner, when a lull formed in the conversation, I spoke.

Everyone jumped; I rarely spoke these days and it seemed in poor taste to put myself forward. I kept it short: “I am going to East Texas College and majoring in art. I’ve been given a full scholarship. I start next month.”

***

The goat that was to be sent into the wilderness was designated by a black mark on the head, the other one on the neck.[ii]

***

Thanks to my job at the hobby shop, I’d bought myself a car: a used Pinto with more miles on it than my parents’ ancient station wagon, and a stain in the back seat I tried not to think about. I had it loaded: Mother had bought the necessities: towels, sheets, flashlight, crackers and Velveeta cheese for snacking. The three of them stood in an awkward semi-circle at my car’s door. Then Mother lurched forward and gave me a hug, the others followed suit, laying cold hands on my back, doing their familial duty.

I could feel their relief as I closed myself into my car and cranked the engine. Then, astonished, I felt myself relieved as well. I was alone in the truth of myself. In my family’s world, they spoke of their faith as the peace that passes understanding. For me, it’s been more the pain that does.

***

He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.[iii]

[i] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Gen. Ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Baker Academic Grand Rapids, MI 2005, p. 449.

[ii] Orr, James, Gen. Ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI 1955,   p. 344.

[iii] Lev. 16:21a NRSV.

eScapgegoat 9

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

Other closed doors followed. I had long held a secret torch for Bro. Jake’s son: a tall, slim boy with curling red hair and warm brown eyes. He was named Jonathan after King David’s best friend, and he carried himself with a nonchalant confidence I couldn’t resist. He spoke to everyone, even me, and he even, occasionally, looked me in the eye.

I learned all I could of Jonathan: what music he liked, what subjects gave him trouble; even that he had a raunchy sense of humor his Father knew nothing about. I gleaned all my information by observation because, though Jonathan spoke to me, I rarely said more than two words to him. Instead, at school and at church, I placed myself where I could observe and adore him. I dreamed he would recognize me as The Special One and then we would be happy ever after. I told no one of my feelings. Still, somehow Wilda knew. She had a gift for reading people.

***

The Wednesday following the deacon vote, I stood near the door to Jonathan’s classroom, ostensibly sorting my books. As he neared his classroom door he stopped, turned, and walked toward me. I tried to meet his eyes for a moment—just that much—and succeeded only in glancing his way.

He stopped. Right in front of me.

“Hi, Wanda,” he said in a voice surprisingly deep for a high school boy.

“Hi,” I whispered, wanting him to stay, willing him to go.

“I was just wondering. The game Friday night. You want to go with me?”

Me?” Misery and ecstasy collided and I was lost to them.

Then I heard. That repressed snicker. I knew that sound; I grew up on it.

I turned my head toward another: one of golden curls bobbing with repressed expressions of glee. A covey of other heads, snorting heads and giggling heads, surrounded the golden one. Somehow I found the strength to turn my eyes toward Jonathan. He cut his eyes toward the circle of giggling girls. Color filled his cheeks and he lifted his shoulders as if to say, “What choice did I have?”

I rushed away before he could see my full devastation. At the end of the hallway, I gathered courage enough to turn for a last look. Jonathan stood with his arm around Wilda’s shoulder, talking and gesturing, drawing in the group, working his magic. Her head rested on his shoulder.

I locked myself in a bathroom stall, sat on the toilet and put my hands over my head while my body shook with shame and sorrow. I guess Father’s distant, silent approach was too indirect for Wilda’s temperament. I had embarrassed her; she needed to see me humiliated. Point to Wilda.

***

The next day, Father announced that Bro. Jake had called to say that, for the next several weeks, the Junior High students would be doing a special study during Sunday School. I could take a much-deserved break from teaching. Rummaging under my bed, I hauled out my plans for Sunday’s lesson and tucked them in the bottom of my art box. I couldn’t bear to come across them, unprepared, but I couldn’t bear to part with them, either.

Outside, I walked to the tree where I first painted Magic Land. I sat against it, feeling the harsh roughness of its bark against my back. And I wept.

***

Junior High Sunday School Lesson for Sept. 13: The Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16

1.Tell the story.

First, the High Priest stripped off his High Priestly garb—the breastplate inlaid with three rows of sparkling jewels, the ephod, the robe, and the tunic, and donned the white linen apparel worn by all the other priests. He then acknowledged his sin in full view of the people, offering a bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering. Then for the one and only time that year—and all alone—he prepared to enter the Holy of Holies. Inside the Tabernacle tent, he created a censer from the glowing coals on the altar. Bearing this before him, the High Priest, carrying the blood of animals who died that his sin might be atoned, entered through the veil into the holiest of holy spaces: a space so holy, so “other,” that it was kept in darkness. Human presence was allowed only during this one visit each year. To obscure the face of God so that the priest’s life might be spared, the priest now lit the censer. Smoke filled the space to its corners. The Holy of Holies measured ten cubits in each direction (a perfect cube), and lay behind a blue and scarlet curtain.

In utter and pressing silence, the priest seven times sprinkled the blood of the slaughtered animals onto the holiest space within the Holy of Holies: the mercy seat. The mercy seat—known also as the lid of the Ark of the Covenant—was crafted of acacia wood and overlaid in gold. On the lid sat two golden angels, stern and regal, facing one another, their wings touching. The priest cast the sacrificial blood onto angels’ wings already besmirched from past years’ atonement offerings.

The priest returned to the people; he cast lots to determine the fate of two goats that bleated forlornly, edging forward and backward against their ropes. Two goats that served one purpose: the banishment of sin from the community. The goat chosen for the LORD was taken into the community in the deepest sense: it was slaughtered, its blood taken behind the veil into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled onto the front of the mercy seat.

On the other goat’s head—the one for Azazel—the High Priest laid hands and confessed the community’s corporate and individual sins: ALL the sins. He transferred all transgressions from the past year onto the head of the goat. Then a man designated for the task led the goat far into the wilderness to a bleak, deserted, desolate place, and left it behind. The goat was to be taken so far into the wilderness that it could never return to the community. Before returning home himself, the one who led the goat for Azazel into the wilderness was required to ritually wash his clothes and bathe himself, so that he might be purged from the sin carried into the wilderness by the goat. The skin, flesh, and dung of the goat chosen for the LORD, along with the bull offered for the High Priest’s sin, was carried outside the city and consumed by fire. He who burned these animals, too, was required to wash his clothes and bathe before returning to camp. So passed the most holy day on the Hebrew calendar: the Day of Atonement.[i]

 

  1. Invite volunteers to read the story from their Bibles and the definition of ‘atonement’ from the Bible dictionary.
  2. Invite students to paint a scene from the story that particularly struck them. Ask them to describe their work and talk about why they chose the scene they selected.
  3. Ask the group to pray silently, confessing their sins and asking God’s forgiveness.

***

The next time I went to church proved to be my last. It was deacon ordination. I saw Sheila hovering in the aisle before the service, searching for someone. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face.

“Sheila!”

I made my way through the crowd toward her. She turned, registered my face, terror took her over and then, close on its heels, loathing. She ducked between pews, steered for the main aisle, and skirted out the side door. Clearly, I had been the subject of conversation in the Bower family; I had become a pariah.

I claimed my seat in our family’s pew, head bowed more to avoid the stares and questioning of other congregants than to worship, and waited for my family to take their seats. In time they perched beside me: backs rigid, doing their familial duty.

Bro. Jake invited each new deacon to speak before we did the laying on of hands. Each spoke for an eternity. I don’t recall what they said. Then the deacon chair laid out three cushions and the men knelt on them, lined up as before a firing squad.

“Let us each come by, lay hands on these, our brothers, and give them our blessing,” said Bro. Jake.

The pianist began to play softly to cover the sounds of shuffling feet. I watched John McKenzie as he joined the line. He wore an expression of infinite, almost messianic, sorrow as he made his way forward. It entered my head that it is possible to enjoy even suffering. John laid hands on one new deacon after another while the congregation stared in wonder and admiration.

Our pew stood and shuffled its way forward. My father placed a hand on the first man’s head and, leaning to whisper in his ear, placed the other on his shoulder. His gesture appeared warm and fatherly. I imagined the words were, too. He moved to the second man and mother stood before the first. Mother’s hands levitated above the man’s head. Her words sounded low and hurried. She moved on. Wilda rested her hands on the first man’s head and leaned over, careful to show just enough leg beneath her skirt. I couldn’t hear what she said, but the man smiled. Even deacons smiled at Wilda.

I stood before the man, awkward and unbelonging. Aware of probing eyes on me. I placed my hands on his head. The sanctuary vanished. Before me stood Mrs. McKenzie, her face streaked with tears; in another flash I saw John McKenzie, shoulders heaving with repressed emotion; then Bro. Jake’s Bible binding his hand in leather. My insides quailed, forcing food up my throat. I swallowed hard and tasted bitterness and bile. I lifted my hands and the visions snapped shut. I moved on, feeling the man’s surprised eyes on my feet. After that, I followed Mother’s example with the next two deacons: placing my hands just above their heads and then moving on.

Back in the pew, I stared at my palms; they felt like foreign things, as if poison had entered and altered them and was now threading its way up my wrists. I was going to be sick. Panicked, I squeezed past my Father, down the aisle and into the foyer bathroom. Kneeling at the toilet, I vomited again and again until only dry heaves racked my body. Then I wept into my hands—tears and mucus that glistened on my palms and seeped between my fingers. I washed my hands, thinking of Lady Macbeth and of Pilate, then walked across the parking lot to the car and waited for my family. The ride home this time was not silent. The three other family members chatted and laughed. Together, they had moved on from me.

[i] The Day of Atonement Story based on 1) Leviticus 16, NRSV; 2) Keck, Leander E. Ed. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1 Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994, pp. 999, 1109-1111; 3) Werblowsky, R. J. Geoffrey Wigoder, Ed. In Chief. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, p. 666.

eScapegoat 8

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

“John McKenzie is on the deacon ballet for our congregation. John certainly has served us well. He drives the bus for our children’s church and he rarely misses Tuesday night visitation. So I can understand why members of this congregation would wish to nominate him for deacon. We have a difficulty here, however, that John and I have discussed at length and prayed over many times. Let me begin by citing the biblical mandate for our concern.”

Brother Jake lifted his black leather Bible—the leather cover draped itself over Brother Jake’s hand—and flipped toward the back. “Beloved, we find the passage in the book of 1 Timothy: one of Paul’s letters to his son in the ministry. If I could have a son in the ministry, I could do no better than John McKenzie. In Chapter 3 we read: ‘Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.’ Now the crux of our difficulty lies in verses four and five: ‘He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)’

John has sought repeatedly to involve his wife in our congregation, but he has been unsuccessful. John, you asked to speak to this matter, correct?”

“Yes, pastor.” John stood and faced the congregation, his face convulsing with repressed emotion. He stood for a moment, grappling with strong feelings, trying to bring himself under control.

“Thank you to everyone who wanted to vote me in as a deacon. I am…I am honored. But a deacon is to have management of his household and I have failed in this. My wife refuses to leave her church and join us here. I cannot convince her. I don’t deserve to be a deacon, but I will continue to serve as I can, if you will allow me.” He barely got out the final words; he sat down in a rush, resting his head in his hands. His shoulders heaved—up down, up down, pushing his emotions inside.

“Thank you, John. We are honored by your continued service,” said Bro. Jake, reclaiming the front. “That took great courage. Now, I propose someone make a motion in keeping with this biblical mandate: an bylaw stating that only men whose wives join this congregation and whose children regularly attend our functions may be considered for the role of deacon. Then fine men like John won’t be put through trials such as this one. Who among us, after all, can say we live totally in keeping with biblical command?”

Heads bowed, then nodded solemnly.

A deep voice from the back pronounced, “So moved,” and another, in rapid response, “I second.”

“Thank you, brothers. Let’s put feet to our convictions. All in favor, stand!” declared the pastor.

I could not stand; my legs wouldn’t allow me. All around the sanctuary, feet slid together, books were set aside, skirts smoothed. Knees straightened. I looked across row upon row of empty pews. With chins thrust forward, eyes bright, deep breaths taken, everyone stood, proud to be counted. Everyone, everywhere in my family’s world had taken to their feet. Except me.

I felt my father do a double take at me, felt his eyes on my downcast head, felt shock reach his brain. I needed to stand for my family, with my family. That was reason enough. I needed to spare them the difficulty of me. I must stand. Wilda, standing on the other side of Mother, bent toward me, motioning me with determined hand to rise. At the movement, I lifted my eyes and caught the pastor’s gaze—he reacted a split second behind my family, having just caught sight of me.

“Everyone in favor please stand,” he declared in an effort to clarify for the slow girl. Then he looked at me, bobbed his head up as if indicating the direction my body needed to take. I think it may have been the first time he ever really saw me.

I met his gaze, held it in an unspoken apology for the inconvenience, and tried to rise.

“No!” a shout declared. Had someone spoken? No, I alone heard the voice. “No! You can’t. You know it!”

What power was this, dictating the actions of my body? What had gotten into me? Then I knew. I had spoken. My self.

***

It took an eternity of seconds for my action (or lack of action) to communicate itself around the sanctuary. Heads turned as if I were a magnet and they metal shavings. As whispers hissed, I felt the burning of my family’s shame.

“The motion carries,” the pastor was saying, “with… almost unanimous support. Thank you, everyone. Now let’s be seated and vote on the remaining deacon candidates.”

I sat in the pew between my parents just like I’d sat as far back as I could recall, but I was not in the midst of anyone. Bro. Jake called names, there were seconds and discussions and votes. I raised my hand when other people did and lowered it on cue. It didn’t matter anymore. For one instant—the moment in which I did not stand—I was seen. I mattered terribly then..

“Let’s stand and close in prayer.”

This time I managed to stand. As one of the deacons, known for his marathon praying, droned on, I searched the room for Sheila’s fair head. I caught sight of it in the center section, a few rows ahead of us. She was easy to find because, instead of bowing her head, she looked straight ahead, her gaze open and hunted. I could feel her confusion across the room. Sheila, I felt sure, wished she could have joined me, could have summoned the will, but she was young and it was too hard for her. I forgave her in an instant and felt Mrs. McKenzie would have, too.

She must have felt my gaze, because she turned toward me. Then it happened: the scene that replays on the screen of my brain and leaves me cringing. Her eyes went cold, her face hardened into a replica of her mother’s, she breathed out fiercely as if expelling me from her system, and then she took her mother’s hand and turned her back to me.

“Amen.”

Congregants surged forward pretending to stop by our pew for a visit, but actually offering my parents

their condolences.

 

“What’s going on with your youngest?”

“The teen years are such a trying time…”

“With more life experience she’ll come to realize…”

 

Next, forced smiles and warm greetings descended on my bowed head, as people did their Christian duty on me. Sitting there, I could feel Wilda’s wrath, Mother’s embarrassment, Father’s anxiety: he wanted to get me out of there, to get himself out of there.

A familiar voice sounded above me. “Just checking in to see how the Schaefer family is doing this evening. How are you, Bro. William?”

“Just fine, Bro. Jake,” I heard my father’s respond.

“You, Sister Schaefer?”

“I am well, thank you,” replied my mother.

“Wilda?” I could hear the smile in his voice as his lips formed her name.

“I am quite well, Bro. Jake. Thank you for asking.” Wilda’s voice shook with barely repressed anger.

A pause. “W…Wanda?”

Eyes on my shoes, I sat silent, my toes squirming. Then my father’s voice, stern and reproving above me, “Wanda, Bro. Jake asked you a question.”

“Fine,” I told the floor. Then almost, but not quite, involuntarily: “She gets to choose.”

“What? Excuse me?” Bro. Jake sounded startled, rattled.

I met his eyes, watched them slide from my face, then I swallowed and said in a trembling voice: “Mrs. McKenzie. She gets to choose.”

The pastor stood, digesting this. Then he turned to lay a comforting hand on Father’s shoulder: “She’s young, William. With time…” With a nod and a smile, the pastor turned away.

To the others grouped around us, Father murmured something about having work to do at home, then moved us into the aisle. Eyes turned on me; whispers pierced my back. I could feel them; I could taste them.

***

In the car, Wilda exploded: “What were you thinking, Wanda? You embarrassed all of us!”

“Be still, Wilda,” said my Mother, for once speaking successfully. All conversation ceased. I knew when we got home, there’d be an inquest; Mother and Father would demand that I explain myself, and I couldn’t be silent before them. I was so churned up I knew my response would come as a flood of tears and a rush of passionate words. I was sick with revulsion at myself and, at the same time, I knew I’d make the same choice again, if given another opportunity.

We trudged into the house; my cheeks burned with shame. Father closed the front door and said, “Wanda, go to your room.” Wilda started to join me, but he said, “Not you, Wilda. In here.” I trod up the stairs, and then stopped at our bedroom door. Quietly, I retraced my steps and looked down on my family below. Father’s head ushered Mother’s and Wilda’s heads into the den, his hand pressed the door firmly closed. I sat at the top of the stairs, gazing at the block of wood separating me from my family. I was the topic of a secret discussion. I was a problem to be solved.

 

What transpired behind that door I never knew. No one spoke to me that night—about anything. I never had to defend my choice, because no one in my family ever spoke of it before me again. I guess they decided that was the Christian thing to do. But if I felt like a burden before, I had clearly become one now.

eScapegoat 7

Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

I let two students present before raising my hand. I thought if I didn’t get it over with, I’d scream or vomit or maybe both. I’d planned out and practiced my first sentence: “People of Ireland take care choosing names for their children.” My hands shook as I set the posters on the chalk rail. I heard some say “Whoa!” in an awed tone. I gathered my breath and made my way through my opening sentence, then turned my attention to the poster, read through the names, and explained the illustrations I’d done for each one. The room fell silent as I spoke; I felt the other students’ attention on my work and found myself relaxing and even enjoying their regard. At last (though it was probably four minutes, max) I sat down, surrounded by applause and smiles. The teacher asked if she could keep the posters to show her other classes. I nodded yes.

“Creative,” she said, looking at the posters and nodding. “Unique and well executed.”

After that, I was able to attend to the other students’ presentations. I saw lots of white, blue-lined index cards, heard sentence after sentence initiated with “Ummmmm…” and, not surprisingly, heard the names Joshua, David, Benjamin, Rachel, Mary, and Esther defined time and time again. One name, Azazel, caught my attention, partly because I liked the sound of it (it sounded like lightning looks), and partly because it meant a demon of the desert. I imagined fiery eyes peering out from under a scorched stone, then shivered with delightful horror. I thought I would paint Azazel someday.

***

In a small-town high school, word—any word about just about anything—spreads fast. A student in my class told her little sister about my project, and it was soon known that I painted. The other students, noticing me for the first time, seemed to feel I was, myself, some kind of rare art piece: something to be placed under glass and examined from all sides, while remembering to keep your hands clasped behind your back and not to get too close. Painters were a rarity in my family’s town. No one knew quite what to do with me.

***

“You paint?”

“Yeah.” I hesitated before owning it. I didn’t know where the admission would lead.

“I want to see.”

“Oh, they’re not that good. I’m still working on them some.”

“Please. I want to see.”

I tingled with some composite emotion borne of terror and hope. “Okay. They’re in my room.”

We mounted the stairs and Sheila thumped onto my bed, grabbing the pillow and hugging it close. She kicked off her sandals and folded her legs under her. I fished the box from the back of the closet and tenderly lifted the stack of paintings, now warped with water and paint. I silently apologized to the works for any misunderstandings or hurtful words they might be forced to endure. “We’ll be all right,” I soundlessly assured them.

In neat rows, as I imagined they would hang in a gallery, I laid the paintings on the floor at the foot of the bed. Sheila flopped over onto her stomach and surveyed the process. When I finished, she lay there silent, staring. I didn’t know where to look—at the paintings? At Sheila? Out the window? I could hear blood pulsing in my ears like an ocean trapped in a seashell. Would she never speak?

“Wow! These are wonderful, Wanda. I could never do this! Where do you get your ideas?” She stared again and said quietly, “I could never think of these things.”

“I don’t know. It just comes. Thank you.”

“Yeah. I mean it. Really. These are more than just beautiful. I could never paint trees like that.”

“Sure you could. Want to learn?”

Her eyes widened. She sat up and pushed her pale hair behind her ear. “Really? You could teach me?”

“Sure! We can start now.”

I’d never had anyone want me to teach them what I so loved to do. Euphoric, I pulled my paint box from under my bed and searched out two pads of watercolor paper.

“Let’s paint outside so we can look at some trees.”

Her large blue eyes shone with anticipation. “Okay!” she bounded off the bed and grabbed the paper. “Let’s go!”

***

I loved Sheila as I’d wanted to love my sister, and Sheila responded to my love as my sister would never allow herself to do. The guarded expression Sheila wore around her mother vanished, and the brightness of her soul shone on her face. I knew her mother was ashamed of Sheila’s size, so when Sheila and I were together, I stayed far from the subject. Instead, we spent hours in the library, we flew kites that dipped and danced on the winds of March, and, in every season, we painted. With me, Sheila allowed herself to open up, and I tried to be worthy of her trust. She called me “Big Sister,” and, for the first time, I felt the word “sister” might mean something good. She knew I loved her as she was. I knew we’d always be important to one another. I didn’t know then that comfort is an all too common, if unrecognized, addiction.

***

“Do you know Mrs. McKenzie?”

“The seventh-grade English teacher?”

Sheila nodded, gazing at the ground.

“Sure. I like her. She introduced me to Sherlock Holmes. A hard grader, but fair.”

“Yeah…” Sheila separated out a strand of her almost white hair and inspected it for split ends. “I like her, too. It’s just…”

“What?”

“Well, I overheard this argument—her and her husband. It’s weird thinking about teachers having problems…”

The turn of conversation dimmed the joy of our reading time; I wished Sheila would either say what she wanted to say or just drop it. She pushed her hair behind her ear and sat up with her hands in her lap as if she were on one of those lawyer shows as a witness. “Okay. So Mr. Grosman asked me to make photocopies of this handout, ’cause we were short eight for the class. He told me to make the copies in the office—he chose me over Beverly, who had her hand up to volunteer—and come right straight back to class. So I was hurrying and the paper jammed in the copier. I got really scared I had ruined it, and I didn’t want to tell Mr. Grosman, ’cause he gets mad kind of easy and ’cause Beverly would know about it, so I went to see if someone in the office could help me. The teacher’s lounge door was open a little, so I pushed on it. It smells like cigarettes in there, did you know?”

I nodded, hoping she’d move on along with her story.

“Mrs. McKenzie was standing there, talking to her husband. I thought they’d tell me I needed to leave because I was right there, you know? But they never even saw me. I knew it was Mr. McKenzie, because I’d seen him at our basketball games with Mrs. McKenzie. He goes to our church, right?

“Who?”

“Mr. McKenzie. John McKenzie.”

“Yeah.” Strangely, I hadn’t put John McKenzie and Mrs. McKenzie together as a couple, I guess because I’d never seen them together.

“Anyway, his eyes were really…pleading, and she—she had tears in hers. She said something like, “I just can’t, John,’ and he said something about Bro. Jake. Then she just shook her head. I backed out of the lounge and I don’t think they ever saw me. When I got back to the copier, Mrs. Teague was working on it. She said it happens all the time and it wasn’t my fault. Then she helped me make copies and I ran back to class. When I saw Mrs. McKenzie the next day, she was just like usual, but I kept thinking of her with tears in her eyes. What could make her so sad? Do you think she’s getting divorced?”

In our community, divorce carried as much shame, if not more, than distributing birth-control pills. “What God has put together,” Bro. Jake proclaimed from the pulpit, “let no man put asunder.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, wanting to get back to reading. “Could be anything. Adults worry a lot about money. Maybe it’s that.”

“But Mr. McKenzie mentioned Bro. Jake.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen Mrs. McKenzie at church, so why would she care about Bro. Jake?”

Sheila shrugged and I forgot about the conversation. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me.

eScapegoat 6

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

In World History class, we studied cultural names and their meanings. Four our class project we could choose: Native American (the new, approved name for Indian), Greek, Hebrew . . . or Irish/Celtic. I liked the sound of the name, “Ireland,” and the idea that an island so small had such a big, ancient, mysterious story. For centuries, Ireland survived foreign invaders—both human conquerors and microbes that blighted their potato crops. It seemed magical to me: this faraway isle where people lived and died centuries before Columbus discovered my country.  I admired the attention the Irish gave to naming their children, and I wanted to learn to pronounce their beautiful, unpronounceable names.

No one else chose Ireland; most of my classmates favored Hebrew, since we’d already learned many of these names and their meanings in Sunday School. The project required us to research at least ten common names from the culture of our choice, to discover the meaning of each name, to learn whether the name was male or female or both, and to discern approximately how long the name had been in use.

I rode my bike to the library and sorted through card after card in the file drawers. I found lots of books on the history of Ireland, on St. Patrick, and on the Potato Famine, but nothing on Celtic/Irish names. Could I change my mind? Would the teacher let me do Hebrew names, after all? Would she count off?

I sensed a presence at my side and whirled around to find the librarian standing at my elbow. She was shorter than me (her head just reached my shoulder) and, in her straight skirt and crisp white blouse, she looked as neatly packed as the file cabinets.

“I noticed you searching our files.”

“Oh . . . I . . . I . . .”

She just stood there, squarely and comfortably in her space and surveyed me with open, blue eyes.

“I . . . I . . . I’m supposed to do a project.”

She waited, nodding.

“ . . . on Irish names. You know (how stupid, of course she didn’t know). Oh, uh, how they . . . I mean what they mean, where they came from, how old there are. All that.”

“Yes, well. . . “ She opened the set of half-glasses that hung around her neck on a black cord and set them on her nose. “That would be in the 900 class, ‘Geography and History,’ sub-section 20, ‘Genealogy, Names, Insignia.” We have a few books on the subject. I’m sure a few have chapters on Irish names. Here we are. Check out the books numbered in the 929s—down that aisle on your left.”

I thanked the librarian and ambled down the aisle, enjoying the symmetry of the books, standing at attention one after another row upon row, flank upon flank. I had a good grasp of the Dewey Decimal System and soon found the section I needed. There were eight books. I needed three sources. When I checked out the chapter titles, I discovered the librarian was right—not many mentioned Ireland. Thankfully, three did—just enough. I fished out my library card and took it, with the books, to the desk. The librarian placed her huge metal stamper over the little date pad in the back of each book and pressed down, “Cha-chinggggg!” I loved that sound. I wanted to become a librarian just so I could play with that stamper!

***

It seemed fair to me to choose five female and five male names. I thought most people would start with “A,” so I worked backward from Z. Not many Z offerings in Irish, not many Ys either, a couple of Ws. For the boys I chose

  • Wynne (win), a Celtic name meaning “white, fair.” Also spelled Winn or Wynn,
  • Uaine (OON-yuh), an Old Irish name meaning “young warrior.” Also spelled Owain, Oney, Owney; also Owen
  • Tadhg (TAYG), a Gaelic name meaning “poet” or “honors god”; also can be Timothy. Tadc, Tiomoid, Teague, Taidgh, Tiege
  • Seán – (SHAWN), an Irish name meaning “god’s gracious gift”; can also be John
  • Cedric (SED-rik), a Celtic name meaning “chieftain.”[i]
  • Hewney (HEW nee), Gaelic meaning “green.”

For the girls I selected

  • Teagan, meaning poet;
  • Riley, meaning rye;
  • Keira, meaning dusky or dark haired;
  • Cadence, meaning a rhythmic flow of sounds.[ii]
  • Bridget, meaning exalted one.[iii]

Once I got my ten names, I started flipping through the books, searching out the names of people I knew. Wilda meant “wild” and Wanda “wanderer.” Both were German names. Were we German? Did my parents know what the names meant? In the Native American section, I noticed the name “Awan” which meant “somebody.” Awan, I thought. That should be Sheila’s name. She could name herself Awan and know she’s somebody.

Now to structure the report. Most students in my class stood up with blue-lined note cards, finding their way through the presentation as they talked. When I stood before the class it was as if I’d taken some drug that made all my body systems go into overdrive: I felt every eye that turned to on me as if they were lasers, colors took on life and assaulted me, sounds increased to a screaming volume. I’d stumble over my words, blood would pound in my ears, and my brain would freeze up, refusing to form a single thought.

If only I could find a way to turn everyone’s eyes onto something other than me. Then I could—I hoped—make myself think and talk. One reference book contained a photo of a beautiful page from something called the Book of Kells. The photo looked like a Bible page, except the letters were painted by hand in rich, shining colors, and illustrations around the page illustrating the Bible passage. I could do something like that! I could paint the names onto poster board and draw in the meaning next to each name. Then I could stand beside the poster, point out each section, and just explain my drawing.

I pulled out my paint box and got to work. When Mother called dinner, I didn’t want to stop, but I made myself. They’d get mad if I didn’t come and then I might not be allowed to get back to work after dinner. So I forced down the food, said I didn’t want dessert, and worked until Wilda crawled into bed and demanded that I turn off the light. I barely slept, imagining what colors fit which names and how I could illustrate the meaning of each. I got up with the dawn and, in the clear light of morning, worked until I had to dress for school. I took my work downstairs “to dry.” That was what I told my mother, anyway. I really just wanted her to keep an eye on it and on Wilda anywhere near it.

***

Hank was a high-school graduate; he went to community college and to church and he worked part-time to pay for his education. He was respectful, and he studied—a lot more than Wilda did. Hank was training to be a med tech; he was more mature and less tortured than Wilda’s other conquests. He was darned near perfect. Darned near wasn’t enough, however, because Hank’s part-time job was at a public health facility that, under certain circumstances, provided birth control pills. The Pill was the hot button for our church: it fostered premarital sex and promiscuity—period.

Hank filed medical insurance and refilled supplies at the clinic. He didn’t distribute pharmaceuticals; it would be against the law. Still, my family could not tolerate his presence in “that place.” Wilda pleaded and, to her surprise, found Father unmoved. She slipped out to meet Hank and found herself, for the first time in her life, grounded. Hank tried to explain his situation: he needed the job, it was honest work and it paid well, he worked with good people and didn’t want to let them down. He didn’t like the clinic giving out birth-control pills, either, but he thought people should make their own choices.

Father was immoveable; he had the entire congregation behind him—for support or serveilance—I wasn’t sure which. Wilda grew frantic, wailing at Father, pleading that she loved Hank; she couldn’t bear to be without him. A stone would have been more yielding than Father.

Wilda cried hysterically in her bed; I’d stroke her hair and tell her it would be all right. Sometimes she was so overwhelmed, she let me comfort her. Other times, she would bat my hand away and tell me to leave her alone. Wilda’s wailing and Father’s rigidness went on for weeks.

Then one day Father came home and asked to see Wilda in the den. She emerged a few moments later and raced to the telephone. Within thirty minutes, Hank stood at our door. Wilda, seizing his arm and smiling (her eyes gleamed) led him into the den. Voices rose and fell. Hank’s at first level, then pleading. Wilda’s pleading, then shrill. Father’s cold, clear, determined. At last Hank and Wilda emerged. Father shook Hank’s hands. Hank’s eyes look dead and his walk seemed robotic. Wilda danced at his side, chattering and patting his arm.

***

From snatches of conversation in the coming weeks, I pieced it together: Father had found Hank another job in another medical facility. It wasn’t a good job or a good location, but the facility didn’t supply birth-control pills, favoring abstinence as the only means of birth control. Together, Father and Wilda talked Hank into quitting his present job and taking the new one. He couldn’t stand up between the two of them.

A few weeks after Hank changed jobs, Wilda started bringing other boys home. Hank came by a few times, his eyes now tortured like so many others. I hated lying to him; we both knew the truth.

Hank may have been Wilda’s chance to love something other than what she was expected to love. I think Wilda tried, for a season, to break free with Hank, but between she and Father, they just domesticated him.

I sorrowed for Hank, made to bend under Father’s steady, strong thumb and under Wilda’s heady appeal. She didn’t want him after that; why should she? She’d had all of him; once he yielded, he could not help her be any more than she already was. I felt sorry for Hank because he had no choice but to comply, yet he lost Wilda and he lost himself the moment he shook Father’s hand. He’ll live out his life in the shadow of that. When I think of him, I hope he returned to his old job, regained his self respect, and moved on with his life.

As I thought on it, I came to a startling realization. Had it been me, I could never have yielded: not to Father, not to Wilda, not to all the powers that be. I could not have relinquished my selfhood. That knowing was the beginning of the end.

***

I got a job at the new hobby shop—saw the sign in the window, went in and got hired. Just like that! I get a paycheck and I get discounts on art supplies. And the people don’t know my family.

***

After I left home, Wilda married Edward, a business major she met while attending class at a nearby university. Edward had all the right credentials: right answers, right job prospects, right beliefs. To save money, the young couple moved in with my parents while he finished school. They went on to conceive and birth two children in that house. Edward drives two hours to another town for work and socializes there afterward until his children are in bed. Wilda keeps busy with church and civic affairs, passing off her children to Mother’s care. And Mother takes them. I begin to think Mother is something of a shadow herself. Maybe more so than I am.

***

[i] (http://www.irishwishes.com/)

[ii] www.babyhold.com

[iii] www.behindthename.com.

eScapegoat 5

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

No one volunteered to teach the Junior High Sunday School class, so I said I would. They weren’t much younger than me, but I was a warm body and I filled a needed blank, so I got the job. They handed me some curriculum, but I got my main inspiration from the Bible Storybook that sat on our home bookshelf. I thought we could plumb the magic of these stories, imagine ourselves as the different Bible characters, and explore how their stories and ours connected. Maybe, we could even create our own paintings of these stories and hang them in the church hallways.

My nerves ached as I stepped into the room my first Sunday teaching, but I found the students to be much more ill at ease than me, that I forgot my nerves trying to soothe theirs. I had only three students: two girls and an extremely shy boy. I began by inviting them to tear out shapes from construction paper that felt like them. They complained a little about paper tearing—it was too hard to get it right, it was a kid activity—but when talked a about the shapes said about themselves, they left that behind. Then I showed them how to find the story in their Bibles. I chose Moses in the basket boat because it was familiar, because it had such strong characters, and because it provided such powerful mind pictures.

I told the story aloud, backtracking when I forgot a key piece of information (like Moses having a big sister), then I asked them to share the part of the story they remembered best. All three recalled Jochebed leaving her son floating in the Nile River. One of the girls, Sara, recalled Miriam watching from the bulrushes. Our boy, Robert, remembered the slaying of the Hebrew baby boys. Why, I asked, did those parts feel important to you?

Robert realized he’d have been killed if he had been born in Egypt; Sara had a little sister, and wondered how she’d felt having Miriam’s job. Our other girl, Susan, imagined the baby inside the basket boat where it was pitch dark, rocking on the waves. She imagined the royal dress of the Egyptian princess.

I pulled out watercolors and paper and invited my students to paint scenes from the story—they could choose which. Susan got right to work, Robert looked at me as if I were kidding, then decided to humor me, And Sara sat staring at her paper until time was nearly up, then dived into the paints with a fury.

I decided to do the closing prayer, because I didn’t think anyone would volunteer. They filed out of the room without speaking, but I knew they were glad they came. I washed brushes and set out their paintings to dry before going to the worship service. I felt clean, somehow. As if I’d been newly baptized.

***

In my sixteenth year, our small congregation swelled by three. The news director for our town’s one TV station retired, making way for a newcomer. The Bower family arrived well pressed and smiling. The man, a dark-haired executive with weightlifter shoulders and a perfect smile, memorized names and occupations as we shuffled our way through the church’s greeting line. His wife, beaming under a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and wearing a teal suit that accentuated her exquisite figure, clasped my outstretched hand in a surprisingly tight grip. The daughter, Sheila, was more amply proportioned than her mom; her almost white blond had escaped from its hair band, framing her face like a halo. She stuck out her hand for me to shake and gave me a nervous smile; she never met my eyes. At least one member of the Bower family was less than happy with her new situation.

***

“You look so pretty!” I told Sheila. “I love your dark hair ribbons in your blond hair and the way your ribbons match your shoes.”

Mrs. Bower’s face pinched as she looked at her daughter. “Pretty is as pretty does,” she announced.

Sheila’s smile flashed at my remark and vanished at her mother’s, replaced by downcast eyes and an ashen color of skin.

“You’re in the eighth grade, right?”

She nodded, her eyes still on the ground.

“Then you’ll be in my Sunday School class!”

I thought I saw a small smile at that. I hoped so.

***

“I try to find empire-waisted dresses for her,” Mrs. Bower sighed, “to hide that God-awful stomach. It’s hard to find anything in that style elegant enough for after-five wear.”

“Well,” replied our Chair of Deacons’ wife, measuring her words, “it’s clear you take great pains to dress her to her best advantage. You are a good mother.”

“Like hell!” I thought to myself, and then felt shocked at my internal language.

***

I came home disgruntled by Mrs. Bower’s remarks to find Wilda plastered across my bed, her nail polish and polish remover sitting at a slope on my bedspread, my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in hands. With a pen, she was writing on the pages.

What are you doing!” I demanded. “Get your nail stuff off my bed before it spills. Stop writing in my book!” I heard my voice shouting, heard the words pour out, knew I should stop, but didn’t.

Wilda sat up and blinked. Her wide eyes declared: Who do you think you are?

“I needed to annotate To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have time to get a copy and you already have one. So I took it.”

I just stared at her.

Wilda picked up her fingernail polish and remover and set them on her desk. Then she slammed my book closed, threw it onto my bed, and flounced to the door; Wilda knew how to make an exit. At the door she stopped.

“I am surprised by your anger, Wanda.” Her tone was parental, patronizing.

Surprised at my anger? I, too, was surprised—because for the first time I recognized what Wilda said and what she meant did not match. Her phrase “I was surprised,” meant something entirely different. It really meant, “Shame on you. You are not allowed feelings or behaviors that inconvenience me. Remember your place.”

Shame was a potent weapon against me; I don’t know if Wilda was insightful enough to perceive that or if she just hit a lucky mark once and, finding success there, struck with it whenever it suited her purpose. And, for as long I could remember back, such remarks had assured my compliance. I watched her make her exit sure of her success, sure she’d hit the mark. Had she?

 

eScapegoat 4

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

 

I imagined the foods of Magic Land: glistening fruits with tart-sweet juices and colors so deep their beauty hurt my heart, and breads buttery crisp on the outside and steamy soft inside, baked on stones by the sun. I painted these magic foods and, though I never quite got them onto paper the way I imagined them, painting them, dreaming on them, awakened in me a craving for these foods alone. In comparison, the food served up at our table looked pale and tasted bland. It was plastic food and toxic to my system.

With my fork, I pushed the food around my plate, separating it into patterns, rearranging it to pass the time until I could be excused.

“…wasteful!” Mother was saying, her tone disgusted. “… work hard to cook for you and it just goes in the trash.”

I awakened in my family’s world to find everyone’s eyes on me, as if I’d been in a conversation. Looking down at my plate, I saw my meatloaf neatly cut into cubes and then arranged in a circle around the plate’s perimeter. Green beans formed spokes in the center of the plate.

Ashamed, I thought at first to cover my stupidity with a napkin, but I’d already been found out. Everyone watched as I picked up my fork and tried to eat, but my stomach turned traitor. I shoved back my chair and raced to the bathroom, terrified of making a further scene by vomiting in the hall. Vomit fumes filled my throat and the small amount of dinner I had ingested poured out of my mouth into the toilet basin. Mother stood at the door.

“Rinse with this, but don’t swallow it.” She handed me a glass of water and watched me follow her instructions. Then she flushed the toilet.

“Done?”

I nodded, fearful of opening my mouth.

“Go to bed. I’ll take your temperature.”

I complied, though I knew I had no fever. I couldn’t eat family food; I needed the food of Magic Land.

 

After that, I made myself eat something at every meal, though I had to force it down. Still, the meatloaf trouble gave me an inspiration. I could get rid of the family food and protect Mother’s feelings at the same time. I would force down as much as I could and, as soon as I had privacy enough, lock myself in the bathroom and make myself throw up. Sometimes just the thought of the food squelching around in my stomach was enough, other times I applied my finger or the handle of my toothbrush to the problem.

One night Wilda, ill with the flu, kept running in and out of the bathroom at all hours. I couldn’t get enough privacy to throw up, and thinking of the food slowly poisoning my system kept me awake all night. Finally, I thrust my finger down my throat and threw up in the wastebasket. Mother heard me retching, came in, and thought I, too, had the flu. She got that weary look on her face, but I got some privacy in the bathroom the next day.

If I couldn’t get to the bathroom to throw up before bedtime, I’d lie awake until the house slept, then go to the bathroom and purge myself of the food toxins. I started running, too, to sweat out any leftover poison through my skin. Then I washed it all off in the shower.

 

Always hungry, I yearned for the food of Magic Land. Painting it was the closest I could come to having it, so I made my paintings as real as my young skills allowed. I also painted my inner self—what it looked like with the food poisons attacking it, how it looked after I’d purged it and given it Magic Land foods. Always I found a way to include the unfinished circle in each painting. I grew more and more creative in its placement, often hiding it so the viewers I imagined looking at my work would have to search for it. These viewers were wholly imaginary, however, because no one saw my work.

In my imaginings, an gallery curator discovered me, and, astonished by my skills, gave me a show. How I would meet such a person and how he would see work I’d buried in the back of a closet behind a screen of clothing I never included in my imaginings. They were my consolation; they didn’t have to make sense. I imagined my work hanging in an art show where my parents (Wilda was conveniently absent from these phantasms) would see them and know, at last, that I was Somebody. Their eyes would light up and they’d really smile at me. They wouldn’t feel so tired of and burdened by the care of me anymore.

***

But someone did see my work. Someone did find my stash. I wasn’t careful enough. One day, as I was secreting a new painting, Mother bellowed for me to come, help with dinner. I didn’t respond quickly enough, and Mother sent Wilda to fetch me. Wilda didn’t like the bother of dealing with me, so she stomped into the room wearing an irritable frown. Panicked, I slid the closet shut too hard; it bounced off the frame and stood slightly open. I’d forgotten to screen the box behind the hanging clothes. I slowly slid the closet door closed, trying to appear nonchalant. But Wilda’s sharp eyes had caught my alarm.

“Mother wants you . . . Now!”

Wilda wasn’t leaving. She would stay until I left and then she would snoop.

I stood my ground. “I’m coming. In a minute.” I’d have to find a new hiding place fast.

She stood her ground as well, planting her feet and crossing her arms.

“Wanda, get in here now!” Mother yelled.

Wilda gave me her “I win!” smile as I slinked from the room.

Mother kept me busy until dinnertime. I felt so sick over my paintings, I didn’t even try to eat. Wilda was all smiles and conversation.

“Are you ill?” Father asked with forced patience.

I nodded, blinking back tears. “Could I be excused?”

My parents exchanged glances and nodded. As I stood, Wilda took up the conversation, sweeping them into one of her stories. She didn’t want them thinking of me.

I entered our room nearly faint with fear, and opened the closet to find the box lid discarded on the floor and the clothes I usually piled around my box strewn like dead soldiers across a battlefield. I plowed through the wreckage and lifted the box—far too light in weight.

I knew what I’d find before looking. The box was empty. Not one painting, not one container of paint, not one brush remained. I looked across the room at Wilda’s desk. Centered neatly on her blotting pad lay paint containers and brushes: an eye-catching centerpiece for me. She’s claimed my paints and brushes and I’d never find my paintings.

I undressed and climbed between the sheets. The bedsprings groaned so pitiably, I wept. When Wilda came in later, I closed my eyes, feigning sleep. She didn’t try to speak to me. Why should she? She’d made her point without a word.

 

The next day, Wilda sat at the piano in a yellow flowered dress, practicing her recital piece. Over and over the same missed notes, over and over the same rhythmic errors. My head pounded with loss and rage. Driven by impulse, I rushed across the room and yanked the piano bench from under her.

Squealing, she went down—a flurry of yellow tangles and yellow blobs—banging her head on the bench seat. She sat, knees akimbo in a most unlady-like position, dress crumpled. Silence. Then wild screams. Shock, pain, rage—the screams spoke them all with economic eloquence. Terror pricked my spine. What had I done?

Silence again.

Wilda’s hands pushed against the keyboard, the air rang with dissonance. She pelted past me into the bathroom and slammed the door.

Mother and Father were out; I sat alone with my shame.

 

That night I confessed my crime to Father. I could think of no harsher punishment. He was reading in the den when I crept in and sat on the floor at his feet. I told everything to his hands.

“I’m sure you didn’t really mean it,” he said to his book. “Just don’t do it again.”

But I did mean it and I wanted someone to know that.

 

That night, as Wilda stripped to her slip before putting on pajamas, I saw train tracks of angry red where her spine ought to have been. I realized the piano bench had delivered a massive scrape, at least an inch wide and several inches long, down her back. As bad as the scrape looked, her head must have ached worse with the wallop it took.

She never told our parents, never retaliated against me. Maybe, like me, she needed punishment for her crime: for having violated my paintings. My act of violence freed her of guilt; she was thankful to bear the pain. But I had no one to release me. She’d won again.

***

I could control how much family food stayed in my system and, by now, my practice of purging had become a daily ritual. Father took to calling me “Scarecrow”: he meant it, I think, to shock me into eating more, but I liked it. I finally had a name of my own.

***

I went through childhood shadowing Wilda, following her through classrooms where she’d first sat and sparkled, seen puzzlement on the face of one teacher after another when they discovered my family connections. What happened here? their faces read. By the time I followed Wilda to Junior High, I discovered another difference: whereas I could walk through the school hallway unnoticed, Wilda’s presence, even unseen, attracted attention—particularly male attention. Boys paused in conversation, alert and searching, like dogs scenting a lush prey. Wilda strutted down the hallways, flanked by her army of hanger-on girlfriends, pretending not to notice. But she made them hope: a sly look to the side, a word spoken just a bit louder as she passed him by, a flip of hair or hip. Standing there, watching, I found myself wondering who was the hunted and who the hunter.

By the time I followed her to high school, I’d watched a string of hopefuls pass through our house under Father’s watchful eye. Some simply disappeared, others came again and again, their faces haggard, their eyes pleading. It was my job to do the lying: she wasn’t home or she was studying or she was grounded—which was particularly ludicrous, because Wilda was never grounded—at least, not until Hank.

eScapegoat 3

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

            I took it into my head one day, bouncing in the back-facing seat of the wagon, to paint what I saw rolling behind me in the magic way I imagined it. I saw the painting, finished and just as it was to be, before my closed eyes. Before it disappeared, I had to get it onto paper. My toe tapped an impatient beat on the floorboard; I grew frantic for us to arrive home. What if I lost the Magic before I started?

The moment Father pulled into the drive and I felt the car shift into park, I was out of my seat twisting the back door handle and pushing open the door. I didn’t want to take the time to shut it, but I knew Mother would call me back if I didn’t, so I gave it a good shove and ran inside the house. In the hallway stood our trunk of art supplies: rock-hard play dough in lidless yellow tubs; manilla paper, mainly soiled or creased; crayons in the big box with the sharpener—we’d stripped down the crayons and sharpened many of them to nubs, because sharpening was at least as much fun as crayoning; a 16-color pan of watercolors (with the colors all muddied together)—brush included, and a sheaf of typing paper. These last items I snatched up and fled with into the bathroom. I shut and locked the door, rolled off a length of toilet paper, carefully moistened it, and began painstakingly to wipe each paint pad free of encroaching colors. How I resented the time this process took, but my project was hopeless without clear, clean colors. At last sixteen glistening colors—some nearly gone—blinked up at me from the tray.

I picked up the brush and instinctively felt the bristles: rock hard. If I’d known a curse word, I’ve had used it. Back to the sink: water had no effect on the stiff bristles, so I tried soap. Deep-pink suds slid off the brush, puddling in the sink base. More soap and water and more pink suds. I repeated and repeated the process. Rose pink suds faded to pale pink and, at last, to white.

“Let me in!” Wilda bellowed, pounding on the door. We had another bathroom, but Wilda knew instinctively when to torment me.

“Just a minute!” I wrapped the brush in a wad of toilet paper, grabbed the tray and paper, and opened the door. Wilda stared at the assortment in my hands; I could tell she wanted to take them from me, but the call of nature was too strong. She dashed past me and slammed the door.

I feared that, once she finished, she’d find me out and take my precious, clean materials away, so instead of working at the kitchen table, I grabbed a photo album from the living room and dashed outside. I chose a hiding place behind a tree and settled down to work.

Rats! No water. I skulked into the kitchen, looking and listening for Wilda. Mother, up to her wrists in dough, gave me a raised eyebrow.

“Thirsty,” I lied, pouring water into a large plastic glass.

She gave a half-nod and went back to kneading.

Back in my sanctuary, I finally got started. Using the photo album as a desk, I settled a clean sheet of paper on its top and dipped the brush first into the water and then into the pad of purple paint. At the top of the page, I created a purple night edging into blue at the horizon, then a landscape of sky yellows, greens, and pinks. I wanted to paint in an animal I’d imagined, but I didn’t know how. Toward the bottom of the page, the colors muddied, and I cursed myself for not bringing extra cups of water. Hadn’t my kindergarten teacher taught us to change out the water when it got muddy so the watercolors would stay pretty? How could I be so stupid?

***

I emptied the muddy-colored water onto the grass, which hopefully didn’t care about the murkiness of its refreshment, and headed toward our outdoor hose. I’d have to be careful; inside they might hear me turning it on. I scrunched up my face and inched the faucet knob open. Water trickled into the cup. When the cup was as full as I could carry without spilling, I turned off the water, set down the cup, and darted into the garage. I grabbed some margarine tubs Mother had stashed there. These I filled, too, terrified at being found out and my project interrupted. When I returned, my painting had dried, leaving one small section of typing paper, just in the bottom left corner, free of paint. I decided not to paint it in, but, rather, to edge the brush all around it until a circle of white, untouched by paint, winked up at me. Then I went back to the landscape. By adding just a hint of water to some colors, I made flowers pop out from their surroundings and each of my magic land’s three moons take on her own personality. I didn’t attempt any animals, though.

I set that painting aside and started a daylight scene at a shoreline, filling the air with weightless birds and washing the water with the colors of Magic Land. Again I left a circle in the bottom left corner clean of paint while I painted a shoreline dotted with fantastic plants and—almost hidden from view—strange, small animals. Since I could mostly hide the animals with the plant stems, I felt I could risk putting them in. I created several, each with wide, honest eyes that looked right out of the painting at me.

With the next painting, I moved the unpainted circle into the sky in place of a sun. I filled the sky with blue-green paint and, below the sky, created a forest of silver and golden trees, their branch-like arms reaching upward. I painted trees right down to the bottom edge of the paper, so that only the top branches of the closest trees appeared in the painting. The blue pad of paint was now empty and the green nearly gone. The sky of my parents’ world was darkening as I carried the treasures into the garage. Father was out there, sorting out the twisty-looking nail things and metal octagons in his toolbox.

“See what I did?”

He looked over the lid of the toolbox and nodded. “Nice,” he said. “I never saw a green sky, though.”

“Yeah, I know. I just . . .”

“Sure. It’s nice. You should put one on the fridge.”

I surveyed the three paintings. Which one most deserved the honor? I chose the final painting of gold and silver trees. Holding it before me and taking careful steps so the wet paint wouldn’t run or the painting blow up against me and smear, I threaded my way into the kitchen. On the fridge, I had to move the family photos and one of Wilda’s coloring book pictures aside to make room, but Father said I could. I chose tiny magnets that could hold my painting’s corners without taking away from the look of the scene. I stepped back and looked. The sun circle could be rounder on one side and some of the trees weren’t quite the right shape, but I liked it. I felt proud of my work and I could do even better next time.

At dinner, Father said, “Did you see Wanda’s painting on the fridge?”

Mother looked over and nodded. “Very nice, Wanda. Very nice.”

***

The next morning I surveyed the fridge. My painting was gone. The photos and Wilda’s coloring book page had been moved back to their original positions. Wilda had taken my painting. If I had any doubt, it was removed by the toss of her hair when she saw my eyes on the fridge. But if my parents ever noticed that the painting had gone missing, they never spoke of it. I never did, either.

***

I asked Mother to buy me more paints and paper and she did: a nice set this time and a whole tablet of paper to myself. I kept my paintings to myself after the fridge day, tucking them into a packing box and then secreting them under a mound of old clothes in that back of my closet. I created a screen of hanging clothes over the mound and felt myself secure. Wilda hated cleaning and picking up, and she never went into the closet except to toss something inside or to grab an article of clothing off the hanging rack.

Mother bought more supplies when I asked, but she never asked to see anything I painted, and neither did anyone else. I never volunteered to show them, so the stack grew and grew, paintings varying widely in subject—even some animals once I checked out books from the library that described how to draw and paint them—but always, always I found a way to leave a tiny circle unpainted. This had to be.

***

“Father, why don’t you like strawberries?”

“They’re sour. And the seeds get stuck in your teeth.”

I digested this information and decided there’d be no strawberries in Magic Land.

***

I sat in prayer meetings, my skinny bones aching against the hard pew seats, my body feeling small and lost, my mind posing razor-edged questions no one wanted asked aloud.

A man stood, spoke: “I’d like prayer for our down-the-street neighbors. They’re Catholics, and . . .”

Across the sanctuary, I heard sighs and saw heads shake in communal sympathy.

The man nodded in assent. “I’d like prayer that they’ll get saved.”

I searched the sanctuary, studying each face. Wiser, older heads than mine nodded in solemn agreement. I sat amazed at these people who could know the need of another soul, when I couldn’t even figure out my own. We, in this small space, understood the needs of everyone. We had the Answer.

I knew at once to be amazed at their certainty and conviction. And, at the same time, I knew I could not share it.