So here’s the thing, kids:
I recently complained on this blog that I am a giant, and while this bothers me, it isn’t keeping me from pursuing my happiness and a fulfilled life. Before that, I told a little story about a late-night adventure at the local laundromat, and how the asinine bigotry of others is small potatoes next to the love and acceptance I’ve found in my family and friends.
Now, these two vectors on the plane known as Claire’s Little Life have converged.
See, I have what used to be euphemistically referred to as “an open face.” Not only is every emotion immediately broadcast on my features the moment I feel it, but people instinctively sense that I am too polite (or, more correctly, too terrified of being thought impolite by total strangers) to run away or shut them down when they start spouting craziness my way. It also means that I have encounters like the one I did last Monday night at the laundromat.
It was about 9:30, and although I was reluctant to schlep three giant baskets of laundry to The Highlander (“There can be only one…available washing machine in the row you planned to use”), I knew that if I didn’t take care of business I’d be trying to dry off with a dish towel after my morning shower the next day. So, I grabbed the Gain and the Snuggle and hied it over to the suds palace. I had just finished loading the second washerful of whites when she appeared.
“She,” in this case, was a woman in her late forties or early fifties, dressed like a babushka and smelling faintly of extended car living.* She seemed friendly enough, and when she asked me how late the laundromat was open, I smilingly informed her that it was, to my knowledge, a 24-hour establishment. This answer seemed both to surprise and satisfy her, and after she chucked a few garments into a washer one row over, I assumed I’d seen and heard the last of her.
Oh, how very wrong I was.
She soon returned, pulling up in front of the building in a minivan filled to bursting with brick-a-brack, clothing, food wrappers and, as was revealed when the side door slid open, a flannel-ensconced husband with road dust in his shaggy hair and the glint of insanity in his eye. These were traveling folk, it was clear, and the Highlander was their oasis in the shifting winds of the Ohio wastelands.
He introduced himself as James; his wife was “Nomi” or possibly “Nori” (these were used interchangeably throughout the evening). They were visiting relatives and had decided to make a “pit stop” for laundry. As is often the case in these situations, I mistook their friendly conversational salvos as a sign of deeper sanity, rather than a thin skin of social facility stretched taut over a yawning pit of positively Cuckoo-for-Cocoa Pops craziness.
And so it was that I found myself, five minutes later, reading a Little Golden Book edition of “The Life of Robin Hood” and listening to James explain how King Richard’s brother Prince John was, as it turns out, not such a nice fellow, and how Robin Hood embodied many Christian ideals. From there, it was a hop, skip and a trip on the Concorde to Crazytown, population: them.
James, you see, had made his lifelong ambition the creation of a Christian political party. A party that was called “The Black and White Party,” not out of love for fancy cookies or some sort of latter-day racial harmony platform, but because “the truth is right there in black and white in the Bible.” He was, through clever marketing and constant evangelizing, the most successful candidate in Oklahoma during the last election. He had the data sheets to prove it.**
My original intent was to chronicle our entire two hours together, but instead I’ve decided to try to boil down the experience and present the following choice tidbits for your delectation:
1) The following things were said to me, with a straight face:
- “You’re Hispanic; do you think you could organize all the local Latinos and Hispanics into a procession led by a statue of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe? It’s for Somalia.” (This was followed by a quick trip to the van and the hasty presentation of a three-foot statue of The Lady herself)
- “Well, I don’t know if you know much, since you haven’t been through much of anything in your life, but I have tapes of the JFK assassination that would keep you up at nights. Why would he lean forward and grab his throat? WHY?”
- “You know that shot in the Zapruder tape when Jackie O crawls back on the…the…you know, the back of the car…(“A trunk, dear?”) a trunk! Well, that was when she scooped up the piece of brain she wanted them to put back in his head.”
- “We don’t believe in computers. Computers have ruined society! You know who created computers? I’ll give you a hint – his name rhymes with SATAN!”
- “Every president from Lincoln to Kennedy was ordained by God Himself; Kennedy was the last real president, and all the others have just been placeholders.”
- “They put my political columns on the “Arts & Entertainment” page! No one will take me seriously if they think I’m trying to ENTERTAIN them!”
- “You’re a published author? Give me your cell phone number. We don’t use those infernal computers, but we might need your help to get my work published.”
Now, I’ll admit I’m having a little fun with the future President and his lady wife. They were perfectly nice, very sweet people who were clearly committed to something in which they deeply and truly believed. Of course, many of the things in which they believe would land me in a concentration camp, but here’s the real rub: they had conviction. We’ve all been in the presence of (or perhaps, if we are very, very lucky, even felt ourselves) the sort of deep-seated faith that moves mountains and raises the dead and makes people believe that no one can tell they’re wearing a toupee.
And, whoo-wee, did James and Nomi/Nori have faith. They were clearly a few cassingles short of a vintage music store, but they were sustained by faith – a faith I recognized immediately because I used to have it, too.
As a child, I was drawn to the mysteries of Christianity. All that joyful noise and collection plate nonsense was fine, but what I wanted – what I still listen for, late into the watches of the night – is the fabled “small, still voice” that spoke to my wounded heart and said, “I created you for a purpose, and you are cherished no matter how the world might try to tear you down.” When I was a kid, I became a Nazarene, and, as is my wont, I gave it my whole heart. I went to revivals, and church camps, and cookouts, and Youth Group; I sat in hard, uncushioned pews (“God wants your attention, not for you to be stretched out in a Barcolounger™ while you’re praying!”) and poured my fears and secret terrors into prayers so fervent I trembled and grew light-headed.
“God, please make me a good kid. Help me not to be mean, or selfish, or thoughtless.”
“God, please help my friends who have so much less than I do. Help me to live a life of gratitude, and not expectation.”
“God, please fix me. I know I am a girl, but nobody else does. Did I do something wrong? Can you please fix me so I don’t have to tell my parents? They won’t love me anymore if I do.”
“God, please make all of Lisa’s hair fall out. That’ll teach her to tell me my hair is not nearly as long or luxurious as hers.”****
And so it went. I’ve never made much effort to separate prayer into a distinct category of behavior; I can pray on the fly, in just about any circumstance. It forces my magpie attention to focus. And occasionally, if I can maintain that inner silence, I can recapture (fleetingly) that sense of being held in the hands of something greater than myself, shielded from harm as I am guided toward my destiny. But it takes effort, and the suspension of my skepticism (which is not easy, especially in a world where there are so many things that encourage, if not demand, our skepticism).
James and Nori/Nomi were obviously untroubled by such difficulties. They were convinced that “The Lord” had guided them to our rendezvous. They had only come to Yellow Springs because of the biblical connotations of the name “Antioch;” they didn’t know anything about the college or the university, and grilled me about the nature of both, and whether they were sufficiently “Christian” for James and Nomi/Nori’s liking. But they were, in a very literal way, “letting Jesus take the wheel;” they were plucky operatives scraping up support for their political party and their mission to transform America into a Theocracy.
I know what some of my friends and family will say: “Why on earth did you keep listening to and speaking with these people? Why haven’t you learned to shut these idiots down and walk away?”
The thing is, I think it’s important to have people in one’s life whose beliefs are radically different than one’s own. I don’t want to sit down with James and Nori/Nomi every damned day for coffee, but meeting them forced me to reevaluate my own long-held (and, to some, no doubt equally-crazy-seeming) assumptions. We didn’t have a lot in common, but our differences brought our similarities into sharp relief. As a pro-choice, liberal dyke who firmly believes we have an obligation to help one another but not to impose our beliefs on anyone, I am (if you’ll pardon a small pun) fundamentally opposed to the idea of theocracy, of government interference with health care, and organized religion in general. But I also remember that these are beliefs, and ideas, and not the people who hold them. James and Nomi/Nori aren’t monsters or mannequins or aliens. They’re human beings, just as I am, and to ignore and diminish others is to embrace the sort of inflexible craziness that makes me want to punch a baby seal. We live in a grey world, and there’s so much more to see than mere Black and White.
Despite fearing few things more than I fear an American Theocracy, I felt a certain resonance with James and Nori/Nomi. They didn’t just spout craziness; they were all about racial equality, and empowering the poor, and finding a way to temper capitalism with reason before it completely destroys the people it allegedly benefits. But they were anti-choice, and anti-LGBT in the extreme (I twigged to this early on, and declined to mention either my transfabulousness or my vagitarianism), and deeply committed to an idea that might become a lot more pragmatic if they dialed down the crazy about 2 billion clicks. Even so, there was that resonance; the feeling that a strange sort of empowerment and grace are granted one when one surrenders to a force larger than oneself. Was it, as they said, the Holy Spirit? Were they being led across the United States by pillars of fire and smoke that only they could see?
I don’t know, and I most likely never will. But I do know that I envied them their certainty. I know I returned the hug Nomi/Nori offered me at our parting with a mix of surprise and gentle amusement. And in my secret heart, I know I will always remember a kid kneeling on splintered wood in a forest chapel behind a revival tent, crying out for succor and hoping to feel, for just a moment, that she was flying instead of falling.