Month: July 2014

Jesus Christ: On Playing House and Finding Fruit in Bras

I effing love Jesus.  Probably not in the way my mother wishes as she and my dad pray each night for my soul.  And not in a way that a good Catholic should.  Mostly because I am not Catholic.  In fact, as a kid, being Catholic was perhaps the second most obvious way to send yourself to Hell.  Premarital sex always trumped Catholicism.  Murder had a flexible You’re-Going-to-Hell placement based on intent and whether or not that guy was actually on your property when he was nailed by your hunting rifle with surprising accuracy.


Since I did not grow up in sin pits like LA or New York or Canada, I– like most others I knew– was raised on a healthy diet of meat loaf, potatoes, and praying before every meal.  Church was Sunday, Sunday night, Wednesday, and sometimes an extra Friday night youth rally or Saturday morning getting-volunteered-to-volunteer.  Throw in Vacation Bible Schools, church camps, a father as an elder, and a mother who was not only in choir and the children’s leader, but a minor in-church celebrity with her quirky no shoes policy and expert church dinner culinary concoctions.  Halos hovered just above my mother’s casseroles and pies and the things we called salads (but were actually made from Jell-O and marshmallows and pretzels) at congregational potlucks, with every seething old biddy internally trading her salvation for that recipe.

The familiarity was thrilling:  the thick red carpets, the stained glass windows that turned my hands black when I swiped them, the heavy wooden doors that stood between myself and the important men who would decide important things like what color the hymnals should be.  But the best of these church-hold items were those gilded-and-framed portraits of Jesus: Golden Jesus with the dazed and distant blue eyes, Jesus-Loves-to-Fish on a boat with his pals, Jesus-Loves-Animals with his sheep and goats and children.  This was fantastic!  I love animals!  I love to fish with my friends!  I love to gaze out of frame for hours on end thinking!  Except for his historically accurate blue eyes to my brown eyes, Jesus and I were practically the same.  And, as I dutifully learned, this dude could go anywhere with me.  In fact, he was currently sitting beside me, my teachers explained.  So I took to the habit of putting him in my pocket and taking him home.

Having my own personal Jesus caused a little guilt.  Certainly, as I learned in evening slide show presentations by visiting missionaries, there were more deserving and needy children out there who could use a pick-me-up from my holy hang-around.  So when I sensed Jesus was tired of playing the mom in our game of house, I– as the dutiful head of the imaginary household– released him to Africa or Haiti or Jamaica, telling him to return around bedtime before my apocalyptic nightmares set in.  He would spend time playing cards with the untouchable Father in Heaven while I finished up homework, and politely waited to be invited on my long walks in the woods where we would uncover secret treasures that he himself planted under mosses and inside rotting tree stumps.

When my friends would talk about their own personal time with Jesus, I would smile kindly and nod, but I pitied them.  These poor, delusional kids with their emotions running wild, mistaking the rustle of leaves for Jesus himself.  I didn’t doubt it was something holy, sure.  Maybe an angel or Father God or one of the less personable types that spent their time on clouds and stars and authorized modern day prophets to rewrite the Bible to accommodate new archaeological discoveries.  Jesus was mine, bitches.


Just as I was conditioned, I grew into my teen years with the religious zeal of a fiery prophetess, taking every Sunday morning to plead guilty and make promises to work harder.  Not even the wandering hand of that 30-year-old worship leader to my 15-year-old body could sway my eyes-on-the-heavenly-prize.  Not even the sexual manipulation of that blonde-haired-blue-eyed-Christ-complex pastor’s kid who took his father’s hatred of women as a divine example could push this 19-year-old gal from the straight and narrow.  Nope.  There were still sunsets that blazed just as I happened to be driving into them, and exactly one of my favorite donuts left with no one in the house to contend with, which meant Jesus was still loud and proud to be my fan.  And there were golden mansions and silver lakes waiting for me if I just kept believing in those sunsets.

Somewhere after college graduation, in the midst of picking up smoking and learning to take my whiskey neat and a failed marriage before the age of 30 and the awareness of the general sexism that exists in the church and reading books that weren’t my Bible, I did stop believing in sunsets.  It was probably the cigarettes.  But I didn’t stop believing in everything.

On an evening last year as I was entering a friend’s house to escape my own one-bedroom-complete-with-a-screaming-husband home, I had packed an extra set of clothes and some breakfast fruit on the off chance that I would be stuck sleeping in my car again before work.  As I was removing the grapefruit and mango from my oversized purse, I realized they had landed themselves precisely in the cups of my bra.  There are few things more cosmically and comically arranged than the old fruit-in-a-bra.

When my surprise turned to delight, and my delight to everyone’s attention, I argued the moon and the sky for the odds of this happening to me.  This is when my favorite Irish-Catholic-turned-maybe-athiest-punk-music-loving-Jameson-drinking-softy-of-a-guy friend shook his head and said, “I sincerely believe that you believe that the universe has set up these fun, quirky situations that were created just for you.”

It never occurred to me to think otherwise.  Years of Jesus-is-Mine had conditioned me.  So I began keeping a log of those fun, quirky situations to prove to my obstinate friend that the universe– while it does not revolve around me– takes special delight in my delight.  Or something in the universe does.  Like how I find a penny every day.  Or the light that comes under my door at exactly the time I need to be awake.  Or getting a package from a friend at the end of a long day of waiting in a jail for my now-ex-husband to be released.  20’s of red birds who plant themselves in my tree.  A herd of elephants marching downtown Nashville.


And, my favorite, the Jesus pictures.  I’m not sure what they mean, or what I even really think of the religion.  I haven’t been to church willingly or without trying to please my mother in over two years.  In fact, most of the time, I feel like I’m going to vomit the moment the sanctified pulpit dust hits my nose.  But each of my journals have a designated page for these photos of Jesus that end up in my path.  I tape them in and give them names.  There’s Bob Marley Jesus and Check This Shit Out Jesus and Jesus H. Christ and Whoa! Back This Train Up! Jesus.  I don’t talk to them or play house.  I don’t really pray or feel guilty.  But for all those years that Jesus took special interest in me, the least I can do is take a little delight in his varied face popping up in unlikely situations.



Nobody Here But Us Chickens: On Entering Without Knocking


There is a side effect to never locking your doors in Western Pennsylvania.  It is a common condition, and often incurable while remaining in those few county perimeters.  When the business of others is accessible with the simple twist of a knob, you can turn yourself nebby in 2 seconds flat.  Variations of this include becoming a nebnose, a busybody, or– on particularly difficult cases– a nebshit.  Outsiders often comprehend the term as gossip; but there is a finesse and a furrow of the eyebrows that will land you in the true and unsavory condition of nebby.

As a kid on a compound of family members, where each house was built by two generations past on the backs of horses and grandfathers and great uncles, nebby just meant that Grandma dropped in during dinner to make gagging sounds at the plate of bacon in the middle of the table.  Nebby also meant that an afternoon could go from playing on bulldozers and train tracks alone to Pap Pap pulling up in his blue Chevy ready to take you downtown to the soundtrack of Johnny Horton and Dwight Yoakam.  And nebby also meant that all of Pap Pap’s friends would ask you more questions than you had time to answer and give you Chinese finger traps and tell so-and-so’s secrets in low tones when they think you can’t hear them while your fingers are stuck in paper.

Never locking your doors on our compound would also welcome a blonde-haired, brown eyed kid, who was often already talking before she even turned that knob.  And every house had its assortment of familiar treats, that– though she was taught better than to ask– would inevitably end up in the hands and belly of this doe-eyed, tan lined girl.


In a choose-your-own-adventure sort of way, much of after school and summer was spent passing through other people’s doors.  Grandma Graham’s house in back meant sliced pickles, TV shows mom didn’t let us watch, candy dishes that rotated among gum drops, homemade hard tack, and peppermints, and the faint smell of scratch made dumplings.  Great Uncle Paul’s place was least frequented, as the overwhelming smell of tomatoes and chewing tobacco was enough to curl a kid’s toes backwards.  The candy selection was often anise inspired, anyway, and a few vegetables from his enormous garden.  Great Aunt Mildred and Uncle Pete– the ones still there alive and well and in their original home since the start– always requires a quick knock.  But only for the distinct pleasure of hearing Uncle Pete call out, “Hallo! Come in! Nobody here but us chickens!”  And then the rewards are long stories and the only jokes I can remember and cookies so good that, even the mention of his name, will cause locals to begin salivating at his master selection of lady lox and buckeyes and nut horns.

Cancer teaches some people to lock their doors.  At least when Grandma Graham gets cancer.  Maybe it’s to keep death out.  Maybe it’s to keep the disease in.  And with locked doors come hushed tones, and the hushed tones are whispering change for those that stand closest to the locked doors.  Grandma’s locked door told me to go find one that was open, and being just a kid, I found that Aunt Mildred’s door-next-door could occupy me for the time being until Grandma’s door reopened.

The smell of death seeps into some people like a peaty old Scotch: it changes them, makes them draw hard lines and form allegiances in secret back rooms with stale thick air.  And when they leave these rooms, they enter the daytime with the smoke still burning their eyes, and booze still tilting their brains, and find nothing but enemies for miles as they squint down the sidewalk.  I was the one waiting outside the small back room door when my older sister stumbled out and told me I had betrayed our grandmother by spending my days in Aunt Mildred’s house, that I was the least grateful of all of her grandchildren and that she didn’t want to see me, anymore.

Every door grew a large question mark in the shape of a knocker that day.


It doesn’t last forever, the door locking.  In North Carolina, where I lived two years in a post-college-sort-of-commune, I learned that locking my door meant missing out on the joke.  It could mean leaving out the one person who also learned to be scared of closed doors.  When you walk in, or allow someone to walk in, it decides that formality is a waste of time and let-me-get-you-a-drink-how-are-you-really-doing?  There are more easy-breathing ways of keeping death out.  Likely, those ways won’t work either, but it’s better than fermenting behind those latches.

Maybe knocking isn’t such a bad thing, either.  Practically speaking, I’ve likely discouraged many-a-burglar with this novel tactic.  And if I knock, there’s always that special idea that someone from the other side could holler, “Come in!  Nobody here but us chickens.”



Deer Carcasses: On Sympathizing with Dead Things


I wasn’t raised to believe in none of that hippie dippie shit.  Recycling was as far as it went.  And treating our dogs humanely.  And occasionally hearing my mom sing “Give Peace a Chance,” except replacing “peace” with “peas” before serving them up for dinner.  A rifle rested next to my parents’ bed for the ease of shooting groundhogs from the bedroom window, and all the area school districts didn’t bother holding session on the first day of deer season for lack of attendance.  By the time I was in high school, my mother had burgered, steaked, sweet & soured, stir fried, chili-ed, and kabobbed venison with the mastery of Van Gogh– if Van Gogh only had one paintbrush.  And the paintbrush was made from dead deer.

I learned to be a closet tree hugger too late, and was harassed accordingly.  My Great Aunt Mildred loves to sum up my bleeding heart condition by telling every boy I bring home about the time my father shot the baby rabbits on the property, to which my 6-year-old self cried, “How would you feel if someone shot your babies?!”  My flare for the dramatic didn’t help my cause, and my pleas were ineffective.  So I stopped.  And then things got weird.


Maybe it was the over viewing of Pocahontas, being the youngest of four with siblings who equated the idea of playing with me to eating their brussel sprouts, and spending nearly every weekend at a cabin on 80 acres of land and not a TV for miles.  All that time in the woods can make any kid into a supernatural being who can communicate across time and space to the creatures that once inhabited the dead carcasses I came across.  And there were always dead carcasses.

If I had to live in a world where a deer head was being hauled back home in the same vehicle as my library books, hung on the same backyard maple branch I climbed, and put in my stomach in a matter of days, the least I could do is try and explain this very complicated matter to the glazed, unseeing brown eyes of the slain.

I began dutifully watching early in the process, as animals were hung by their necks and slit longways, seeing, as my dad affectionately calls them, “the gut bag of a deer” fall on the ground.  I pet their heads and asked them if they heard the one about the three guys who were going to the desert, touching their sides in hopes of still feeling them warm.  I waited by the window to see signs of the blaze orange coats coming back around lunch time, and met my dad in the back woods ready for service.  I learned to pierce the breast of a grouse without cutting the meat, and stick my fingers through to pull apart the feathered skin with a small popping sound, revealing the bright, shiny pink and white future New Year’s Eve dinner.  And before we threw the rest of the deflated bird, I would take its little head between my fingers and stroke its cheeks and tell her she did everything she could.  But I would never be part of the hunt.

There is a slight possibility I developed a teensy, unhealthy obsession with dead things, I’m sure my future therapist will tell me.


Something unmistakably otherworldly happened for me in those moments: getting to look at something so close, that was moments ago breathing and romping in the same woods I do, and have it not move or stare back or make me feel stupid for staring.  To get to cuddle the things you ordinarily can’t touch, or even look at, as long as I want.  And to believe that I was communicating in a language no one else could hear, and that these creatures were hearing it and appreciating it and taking it with them to the other side, where they’ll build an animal kingdom that I’ll find when I pass through, too, and they’ll greet me with high hooves and feathers and throw a raucous party where we all eat acorns that taste like butterscotch and speak the same language.

It’s easy to believe the best in creatures when they don’t talk back.

I gave up the ghosts, eventually.  I learned to shoot guns just like everyone else, added bacon to my burgers, and even feigned a brief interest in getting my hunting license.  It’s my heritage, after all.  It didn’t occur to me to become vegetarian until my mid twenties, and even then, it was for health over the love of animals.

Still, there is something about a dead robin on the sidewalk that will give me the same sad-happy nostalgia.  And just for good measure, I wish it well.  I would hate to neglect my future welcome wagon.



Funeral Homes: On Stealing Candy and Believing in Sunsets

After the usual pleasantries with the local mortician at Marshall’s Funeral Home, updating him on my latest report card and confirming that art is still my favorite class, it was time to get to the business of stealing candy.


I spent much of my childhood in the funeral home.  Grandparents, great grandparents, Sunday school teachers, cousins, friends, people I’d never met: it was a rotation of faces in the same glossy box with the same bouquets and the same cast of characters on either side of the receiving line.  Old ladies clucked their tongues and old men shook their heads while my friends and I ran rampant in the cool downstairs basement, experimenting with powdered coffee creamer in our tea and spooking ourselves with the infant coffins kept in the back room we weren’t allowed in, but always found ourselves shooed out of.

My father led the protocol of laughter.  When we were inevitably suspended from the basement on account of mischief, he wrangled us to the corner of the viewing room where the floral stench was at its minimum, and transformed a gaggle of uncomfortably dressed kids into an espionage unit.  We were sent on missions to ensure that the corpse wasn’t moving, bending our faces, one at a time, close to the chemically bloated skin and pancake make up, and reporting back.  We were ordered to avoid the decorative vases, on account of them being “the last guy’s funeral” (note: this instigated my early wish to be cremated after death, accidentally left in other people’s funerals, and ultimately shot up in a firecracker).  Most importantly, however, we were sent to find every candy dish in the joint, inconspicuously empty the contents, and bring our booty back to my father.  He would pay us our share, and place the rest in his own pockets.  The striped peppermints and green anise sugar drops would reward each completed tasks for the next two days, through hours of visitation and weepy services and American flag laden coffins being walked away by old men in pointed hats and church basement casseroles and hymns that are older than the dead themselves.


These are the best parts I took from a string of unfortunate events, the quartz from pallets, the diamonds from roughs, treasures from trash, and all the other things we say about making good from bad situations.  These are the memories that also caused me to falsely inform the other half of my band, Scott, that I’m “really good at funerals” as we traveled at 80 mph from Nashville to Chattanooga to attend the funeral of our pal– a fellow musician friend we’d known for three short years.  When you’re a traveling band like we are, you make these “road friends,” who become your real friends, who house you when you pass through, and who you return the favor to when they are in your town, and who you share these evening-long experiences of music and drinking on each other’s porches, who you make promises with to meet up halfway when touring subsides and you have just one free afternoon to be “real time” friends outside of late night shows.  These are the people with whom you are your most hopeful: your best self.  And you love them like you wish you loved your family.

This year, I learned that we, as artists and travelers, are in the business of watching our friends die.  We are swept from each city, leaving pieces of ourselves behind with a return address.  And then we wait at home with our selves all scattered about and hope, for once, that this delivery will never be made.  But it is– it always is– because we are also in the business of having our hearts broken.


On this April Monday, the package came as a phone call.

“We lost Josh,” our friend Scotty said. “He, um… did it himself.”

You see, we are in this business by birth and by choice.  The business of loving bigger and writing it out for the rest of the world.  And sometimes this long range of emotion is confusing, because our co-workers in this field sometimes fall victim to the work itself.  And then we all lose.  And we, the carriers, must then take on that fallen one’s load, too.  And we must, for a time, blame ourselves for not helping to carry it earlier.

Because we are not in the business of pretending it is none of our damn business.

It was two nights before I slept.  The first night was impossible.  The nagging feeling that I should wait… I lit a Mary candle to keep me company, and we waited together.  We sometimes faded, seeing Josh behind my eyelids.  But then Mary and I also saw him in her flickering– in my chair.  By my door.

My friend Bryan, who I am convinced I need to start paying to listen to me, told me I accidentally held Shivah– waiting with the body so the soul knows even during its transition that it is not alone– and that he is loved.

What I believed was this: what if he wants to come home again and finds us only sleeping?  Who will be there to tell him to stay?  Who will be there to tell him it’s okay and we love him and we want him here with us?

Shivah, maybe.  Or maybe the hope that a mistake can be reversed.  Maybe all that checking to make sure the body wasn’t moving those years ago gave me too much hope.

The next night, there was a sunset.  I could spend time explaining its likeness to a Saharan haze and a Neptune moon and a dragon’s fiery eye with feathery scales, but in hindsight, it was likely just a sunset.  And I am not a believer in sunsets, anymore.  Not like I was– when a twilight sky was the palm of god’s hand opening to me.  I gave up on my belief in sunsets sometime when I gave up my belief in cable television.

But I believed in this one.  I believed that if Josh had waited just one more day, this one would’ve had the power to keep him living.

I told him so.

Somewhere, I think he agreed.

And we watched the sky creature’s eye sink low into sleep together.

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The next day, I knew he was gone.  I thought about the lone vulture I had seen late Monday afternoon.  The bird who, Bryan says, stands for us in the gaps of life and death.  The only one capable of digesting the stickiness that comes with the unforeseen end of things.

I’m still looking for the buried treasure in all of it.  I, with an overflowing room full of people, bawled our way through a funeral, with not a peppermint candy in sight.  And we are now in the business of seeking a cure for what happened.  To write more.  To listen harder.  To love bigger.  And to meet up halfway like we said we would sooner rather than later.