In the spring of 2003 I spent an afternoon exploring trails in a hemlock forest a short drive from my post-college apartment. I was with my friend Hammie, also known as Hamster or Hamstick, all plays on his last name coined by his buddies, one of whom had been my on-again, off-again college boyfriend when booze or babes weren't more enticing. Hammie played wilderness guide to my forest newbie, leading me along an earthen path that would narrow and widen like a snake devouring its prey. Eventually we found the stream he promised. Revealing our unevenly tanned feet, we gingerly stepped onto large rocks made smooth and slick by cool, flowing water. The forest was quiet save the occasional creature shifting leaves and birds talking bird business and crickets playing ambient noise. I don't remember anything we said or how long we stayed, but looking back on the still frame of that afternoon—two 20-something friends escaping the confines of small apartments, unsatisfying love lives, and uncertain career paths—it was as pure as a stream running through a protected forest. On the hike back, I was stung by bees that clung so hard to my pants leg I had to pry them off with a stick.
That was the last time I ventured into a forest, or any place too far from civilization. Since having children, I've become so accustomed to noise and disruption that I'm uncomfortable with silence and stillness. I steer clear of nature as it pertains to anywhere that reeks of isolation. As a writer I'm ashamed that I don't pine for nature as my muse. As a woman searching for God, I'm frustrated that I can't connect with Him in places where his glory is most visible. But for me nature means unwanted departure from the city's noise and movement, which I cling to for reasons, like wounds, both superficial and deep.
Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!
Religion and I have a long history. From the time I was born until age 17, I attended a small Freewill Baptist church in a small, middle-class town in North Central West Virginia. Although a large part of the congregation was family from my mother's side, it barely represented the universe of humans my Pap Aubrey created, having fathered 20-something children who had children who had children who had children, with all those generations intact until Grandma Helen died in 2007. Every Sunday we churched alongside aunts, uncles, and cousins once, twice, three times removed.
The church of my youth was modest and tidy, painted in a shade of almost-white likely named after textiles, dairy, or dinnerware. The narrow, lengthwise stage was elevated by one step and outlined at its front by three wooden kneelers where remorseful sinners loudly requested mercy whenever they felt led, often clustering together with sympathetic arms clasped around shoulders slouched in defeat. There were three sections of short oak pews with aisles in between. Mom, my brother, and I were partial to the section to the right, unless we were so late that we had to find seats in the middle. The left-hand section was the most civilized and the least populated, its tone set by the reverend's son and daughter-in-law, he in perfectly tailored designer suits and she channeling Dynasty-era Joan Collins. Although they were Resting Bitch Face before it was a thing, they were friendly, gracious people. Still, boundaries persisted. The left was a section for people with clean credit, orderly junk drawers, and flyaway hairs that didn't dare.
Reverend Bright was old and short, but he had the ups of an NBA great. When he was really feeling the spirit, which was often, his bulbous bald head would turn red and signal his ascent toward the ceiling. Up and down he'd go, shouting the victory of the Lord—Glory! Glory hallelujah!—like a ball player roaring to the crowd after a slam dunk. His sermons were founded on fire and brimstone that didn't motivate me, nor did Sunday school in the stuffy upstairs classroom where my best friend Marcie and I would feign reform when teacher Bobby halfheartedly chastised us for giggling throughout the lesson. More than anything, church made me bored and hungry. I wished I could bring trinkets and snacks like I did when I attended Catholic mass with my grandmother on Dad's side. Baptist church also clocked in at two hours, which was one hour and 15 minutes too long. Most Sundays the weight of damnation, death, and dogma was too much. I'd think to myself, Those Catholics might be doomed for worshipping Mary and confessing sins to the wrong guy, but they're okay by me.
Fast forward 29 years and I've abandoned my holiday-only church habit for regular attendance. I sit in the middle of three large sections in the sanctuary of a prosperous Methodist church in my small, prosperous city. I always choose a seat on the end of the row, making sure there's at least one empty chair between me and my fellow congregant-stranger, because spiritual awakening can't happen with a stranger all up in my aura. Throughout the sermons I go through waves of emotions, generally a mix of despair and hope, as I have felt every day for the past year for sure, and maybe two, possibly six.
Can you disconnect from the speed and volume of the world to get closer to God?
During an early-summer sermon, Pastor Kevin told us about his office in the church, which is situated such that it receives all the noise from the busy intersection below. Whether his window is open or closed, the buzz persists. Yet he tunes it out, he said, because the work he's doing—the Lord's work, that is—makes it easy to do so. He also goes on silent retreats. Silent as in no talking, no music or TV or video, for days. In the sermon, he extolled the virtues of occasionally retreating, not necessarily literally, from the aspects of daily life that get between us and God. My list of those things is long.
Last summer I had the perfect opportunity to get down with God on a weekend getaway with two of my college girlfriends. We'd take our kids to a cabin at a remote lake in nearby Pennsylvania. There's no internet! They typed with delight in a group message. Let's shop in advance because the nearest store is 30 minutes away, they said. As the planning became more specific and settled, the walls closed in. I imagined two and a half days without my social fix on social media or the TV that's on all day for background noise or drive-thru coffee or passersby on the street outside my house. Or generally the option to go somewhere new when the place I'm in has lost its capacity for distracting me. A few weeks before we were set to go, I bailed. I'll catch you another time, God. Preferably in a spot out in nature with a coffeehouse and a pizza shop nearby.
How do I get to know God?
I've been talking to God all my adult life, but kept Him at arm's length because the religion of my youth made a lasting impression that Christianity was defined by all the things one could not do or that "real" Christians wouldn't want to do: wear pants to church; associate in any meaningful way with gays; listen to worldly music; be Catholic; patronize establishments that serve alcohol; be a liberal; believe black lives matter; appreciate "weirdo" things like street art, nude paintings, body piercing, yoga, or environmentalism. Although these "rules" weren't explicitly taught to me, they became part of my understanding of Christianity from the time I was a child until I was roughly 41 years old. The church of my youth, ironically called Freewill, made me feel anything but free. It told me that God is vengeance, guilt, and alienation, in turn feeding the fire of anxiety that would burn low and slow for decades like a coal fire deep within me.
Does God answer prayer?
Pastor Kevin was silent when I asked, save for the small burst of air he pushed through his lips as he shrugged and cocked his head. Dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap befitting his alter ego, Rev Kev, he sat in a leather chair across from me in his large office dominated by a long, wide table reminiscent of The Last Supper, unless you'd been in church on a particular Sunday last spring when he respectfully dismantled that great work of art. It turns out the Last Supper table was u-shaped, Jesus wasn't seated in the middle, and there were no chairs. Also, all those left hands all over the table? No way. That's the hand for doing bathroom business. Pastor Kevin is part preacher, part brainiac—the peanut butter and jelly of Jesusdom if you ask me. We had met that day to discuss my numerous hangups about religion. Of my inquiry on prayer, he eventually answered: "Don't worry about whether it works. Use prayer as a form of communion with God." I like that.
For now I'll commune with God amidst the noise of my everyday life. Every writer isn't cut out to follow the steps of Thoreau or Whitman or Muir. Nor is every writer able to tune out exuberant vacationers, towering hotels, and banner-flying airplanes on a commercialized beach, but I can. Put me at the very edge of the water where the sand becomes silky sludge between my fingers, dripping and plopping into tiny fairy castles quickly wiped away again and again, leave me me to stare straight out to the line where the sea meets the sky—that's my personal heaven. So maybe that coveted vacation I haven't had in two years has a purpose after all. God, send me an oceanfront condo so we can talk some more.