Saturday, May 28, 2011

Selection from WNHP8

In my error, this piece was omitted by accident from WNHP8, and I did not notice that it went to print without this excellent story by Cynthia Ball. Here it is:

Cynthia Ball

I was raised a Catholic. As I became more educated, I continued to doubt the teachings of Catholicism until I found myself so far removed from my faith that it was now unrecognizable. Rationally I should be an atheist. It is my secret shame that I still believe in God. That said, I consider myself an antagonistic agnostic: I believe in God, I’m just not on speaking terms with him.

After 9/11 I was laid-off from my hotel job when I received an invitation to do some holiday shopping at the Lamb Store in mid-town Manhattan courtesy of my union. It was a weird season here. The entire city was a wounded hospital psych ward. No one was really sure what to do, how to behave. Is laughing inappropriate? Crying? This thing was so huge it seemed wrong to try to go about living, as if we should have all stopped moving out of shock, honor and mourning. But there was nothing else to do. I did get laid off, which at least seemed appropriate. I was collecting unemployment, riding my bike every day and I had just quit smoking after 20 years. I did therapy once a week and tried to teach myself the guitar. I wanted to keep my spirits up, I wanted to make something of myself and not slide off into some grand frayed out depression. I was trying to be a big girl in the big city and deal directly with my feelings. I was not going to crash, like I always do, and have nothing to show for another year in my life besides credit card bills. I was curious about this invitation. What is a Lamb Store? Is that a chain? Do they have them in suburban malls everywhere right next to Cinnabons? Do they sell sweaters? My invitation, arriving by mail, gave few details, but promised that I was being offered free goods for the holidays, generously donated to the relief effort.

The Lamb Store was located on 44th street and as it turned out, inside the Lamb of God Church. I can’t wait to write my union an angry letter- How dare they send such fragile souls to be brainwashed by the Jesus freaks? If this is their idea of help, no thank you. What if I’m Jewish? Obviously, I’m not, I’m just saying, how could they do this to us? But I can’t write the letter until I have the experience, so I unfreeze myself at the church doors. What’s the worst that can happen? I’m fairly certain I won’t be held against my will, forced to endure endless stories of personal enlightenment, and if I am, then my letter to the union is going to carry extra venom.

I enter the lobby through the heavy church doors. I am certain this is going to be just too precious, this experience. I am given a form to fill out. Entirely too much personal information, if you ask me, like my name and where I live, the name of my spouse and children. I am defiant. I don’t have any, is that OK with you Jesus freaks? Probably not. I consider filling in the abortion I’ve had instead. That’ll teach ‘em. I think I have to sneeze and I wonder how many of the people milling about will rush to say, “Bless you”.

There are others, like me, sort of, hotel workers certainly. Some were leaving with large overstuffed shopping bags. So I guess there is some stuff to get. And I want to get something for my trouble. I hand my clipboard back to the man at the desk and he looks it over. Some of my blanks are not filled in.

“Do you have any children?”

“No,” I answer, “was I supposed to? The invitation doesn’t say I have to have them.” I’m mildly annoyed already.

 “Of course not,” he reassures me, “It’s just that we have a lot of toys here. Will you be doing any shopping for children this Christmas?”

I rack my brain quickly, I think there are some kids of friends or relatives. I may go home to Buffalo, there are a hundred thousand cousins there. 

“Yeah, some.” I say. I haven’t the vaguest clue who, but someone might come to mind later and I would hate to have missed the opportunity. 

I rattle off a couple random ages and sexes for three children and he writes them down on the paper right in the spot for the Shopper’s children. I can’t believe this, I’m faking having children and this man is a complicit accomplice. In a church. Oh, God’s gonna be mad now.
I am told to take a seat and wait to meet my shopping assistant, who I suspect will try to bathe me in the love of Jesus for the duration of my “shopping”.

A bright blond male comes up to me calling out my name. His name is John, it says so on his sticker. (Will you accept John as your personal shopper?), I immediately assess HELLO, MY NAME IS JOHN as a closet case. He lisps that he is from California and has four children and has come to New York for four weeks through his church to help with the recovery efforts. That bright, bold sticker firmly written and stuck across his heart is such an earnest gesture, one that would garner smirks from any self-respecting (or self-involved) real New Yorker. Yes, I am from Buffalo, practically the mid-west, but I feel I’ve lived here long enough to earn smug superiority. My savvy city radar quickly picks up on the source of John’s weirdo religious beliefs. He buys into all that Jesus crap because it helps distract him from his own homosexuality. He figures it’s more acceptable to fixate on one nearly naked man rather than a bathhouse full. God, I’m crude. What do I care if he’s gay? And why would I think God cares? Why do I even care if God cares? The whole religious justification for homophobia is just one of the reasons I’m angry with God. John’s problem may seem simple to me, but I’m the one standing here unemployed, with no other (significant, omnipotent or otherwise) in my life.
He asks me to follow him, which I do, into a larger meeting place type room that is considerably darkened. There are some shelves, and on these shelves there are small knick-knacks and samples with handwritten numbers. There are shopping rules, John explains. I am to choose things I’d like: two things from some shelves with the smaller items and one thing each from others that have larger items. I should find the number assigned to these items and tell them to John. He will write them down and when we are finished, some one will fetch my chosen items from a storeroom. I look at these shelves, someone spaced out the items in an effort to make them seem not so bare. The donated goods are of odd and uneven origin: a scented candle, a pad of stationary, a crucifix, Calvin Klein soap, hand cream and oooh, Clinique Body Spray, a deck of playing cards. Where did this stuff come from, I wonder?

John reads from my application that I have three children. I consider telling him that it’s not true, but it seems too hard to explain. So when we reach the toy section, I am encouraged to pick out some gifts. Once again, it occurs to me that I have no need for these things, and I wonder briefly where I will re-donate them. The children’s toys are slightly banged up and out of date. I take paints that I find later are solidified and a spiral graph, which turns out to be missing some parts. I also take a talking Mr. Potato Head. I’m of an age group that had a Mr. Potato Head, but without the microchip that gives him the advanced skills. When his foot is pressed, he says brightly, “I’m Mr. Potato Head” and it makes me smile.

There’s a large table that is heaped with handmade sweaters. Among them is this sweater that really strikes me. It is crimson red with a perfect white square in the center. Sized for a baby, an infant, not even a toddler. All of the sweaters are the exact same size, made from a pattern reproduced in a Christian newsletter. Women (I imagine it’s mostly women, but what do I know?) from all over America had been struck with that same paralysis and a desperate need to help. But how? And so a hundred women took up their knitting needles and made sweaters for a hundred infants who might need warmth in New York at Christmas. I couldn’t take my eyes off that sweater with its bold contrasting colors. I had to have the sweater. I stroked the yarn, knitted and purled, appreciating the craft, the time and work someone had put into it. I could imagine a helpless baby on its back, arms stretched out like a star, its movements limited to kicks and giggles. John sees me admire it and encourages me to take it.

“But my children aren’t infants.” I say. “They aren’t even children.

“It’s ok. You can give it as a gift to someone else.” he says.

I consider how different our worlds are, I’m certain in his there are always infants, families growing and expanding. The rest of the country is reaching out to NY and they can only identify with their own culture. 

“Go ahead,” he insists. And I see in him the desperate need to help, to give, to assist in giving. I’m helping him by taking. So I take. It’s the least I can do. I have no idea who will fit into this sweater, but for a moment, my heart fits in it perfectly. I feel warm. 

John and I pack a large bag with these items and wait for the assistant to bring down the other gifts I’ve chosen. He tells me that the people of his hometown, in fact, all over America are praying for us here in New York. His eyes and smile are reassuring, yet they also make me feel like a fraud. I don’t feel worthy of the concern. After all, I’m taking toys for children that don’t exist.

 The place on my arm where my nicotine patch is starts to itch and burn. I resent that I quit smoking and I want to pull off the patch and start again. But I’m doing so well, two weeks without, after nearly twenty years of smoking. But for a moment, I can’t remember why I don’t want to get cancer and die.

While we wait, John pulls out a small notebook, writes down my name and says, “When I pray to God tonight, is there anything I can ask for on your behalf?” I’m charmed. Throw him a bone, I think. It’s his belief and I have no right to mock it especially since he is so sincere. I look at him from the side of my eyes and consider my answer. Should I ask him to pray for my fake children? That we’ll all be back to work soon? Those are phony answers to an earnest question and I don’t feel right. I wonder, is God real for him? And if, through his beliefs, has he established a close relationship with God? Maybe his version is right or, at least, honest and God listens to him. I wonder, if John prays on my behalf, will God look more kindly on me and intervene? My relationship with God is now so dysfunctional that I’m too proud to ask him directly for help. I can imagine him crossing his arms and saying back to me, “Oh, so I exist for you now? Now that you need me? How convenient.” I look at John and find that tears are welling up and when speaking, my voice is cracking, “Just, just ask him to help me get through this, this right now.” 

John nods and dutifully writes it down as if he understands exactly what I mean. I don’t even know what I mean.

My lack of true faith in God? The aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy? My craving for a cigarette? That sinking feeling that I have no job to return to? What? But I’m starting to cry anyway, because whatever it is that I do mean, I mean it with all my heart.