For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18
Sunday, I sat between my father and my mother, in the third pew from the back, drawing flowers on the back of the collection envelope with a tiny yellow pencil. Black-clad aunties in the front sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a minor key, their hats bobbing to the swells of the electric organ. When the Pastor spoke about Jesus’s great sacrifice on our behalf, Mr. Arakelian wept, for what unspoken transgression or injury I didn’t know. If she found me after the service, my grandmother’s friend Auntie Alice would bite the skin of my inner forearm and show me the garden that her teeth had left. I hid behind the pillar near the church door where the Pastor shook each person’s hand just the way Jesus might have done. Our Pastor was a Southern Baptist who could have been the twin brother of TV evangelist Billy Graham. The Watertown church was Armenian Evangelical, a legacy of New England missionaries who converted Ottoman Armenians from their national Apostolic Church to various Protestant sects. Our congregation was filled with Genocide survivors, their children and grandchildren.
Sunday School was held in the church basement. First they showed us filmstrips about lost lambs and prideful squirrels that repented and found their way back to God. Then we were separated by age into classrooms inscribed with moveable blackboard partitions. The Pastor’s blue-eyed, bird-thin wife was our teacher. She sat on the piano bench with her back to the keys while our small circle of dark-eyed eight-year-olds submitted to her ministrations. She told us that when she was our age, she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. “And children,” she said, “When Jesus came into my heart, I was filled with love for everyone. The sky was bluer, the grass was greener, and the whole world was lit with God’s grace.” I bowed my head, closed my eyes and made a chapel of my hands, silently asking Jesus to forgive my sins and to take up residence in the hotel of my heart. When I opened my eyes, the Pastor’s wife smiled at me expectantly. But the floorboards were still a dull brown, the dropped ceiling was grayed and stained, and I still didn’t like the sly face of the girl sitting next to me.
At the Pastor’s wife’s recommendation, my parents sent me to an all-girls Christian summer camp in Maine, as the previous summer I had brought home a song from the local day camp with the rollicking refrain, “Roll me over in the clover, roll me over lay me down and do it again.” So off to Bible camp I went, where in the green hills, among meadows, pine groves, and rocky trails, we prayed out loud before meals, we prayed before flag-raising, we prayed during Bible Exploration, we prayed at the sundown service, and we prayed again in our cabins before bed. After meals we sang an assortment of Christian hymns and songs with titles like “Jesus is a Way Maker” and “God Loves A Cheerful Giver.” During Morning Watch, I sat on a rock on the hill holding in my lap a red leather-bound Bible with my name embossed in gold on the cover, a tenth-birthday gift from my aunt. I turned the thin, brittle pages as I read through the begats in Genesis, one of my favorite passages. At the end of the week at evening campfire in the darkened Rec Hall, the Camp Director called girls to the Lord. As she spoke, girls would trickle forward to be counted among the saved. We also swam in the lake, did arts and crafts, learned archery—the usual.
I used to lie awake at night imagining what Hell was like, with molten lava spilling across the cavernous floor as bright flames shot up from boiling cauldrons. Satan himself was there, looking just like the one on the sign at the Underwood Devilled Ham Factory at the far end of our street. He was a bearded red creature with a scarlet arrowhead at the end of his tail and a pitchfork that he brandished in one hand as he jumped up and down, laughing with delight at the misery he caused. My school friends who attended the wrong churches—not Evangelical but Catholic or Armenian Apostolic—were all there among the damned. Their faces were blackened with soot, smoke rose from their singed hair, and they wept into scorched hands. When they saw me on the right side of the Inferno Gate, they called out to me, “Why didn’t you tell us about your Jesus?”
Year after year, I went back to camp, learning how to dive headlong from the pier and how to cook a tin-foil dinner in the coals of an open fire. I felt at home in the landscape, from the broad mown hill to the paths that threaded through the forest, and most of all along the edges of the lake. At school, I was anxious and self-conscious, but at Bible camp I was breezy and popular. The summer that I was sixteen, I met Ruth, who was a year older than I and had just been made a Junior Counselor. Sturdy and tall with short blond hair, she wore a jaunty red felt hat and carried a Swiss Army knife that bristled with blades and tools. She knew how to tie all the knots, she pointed out the constellations by name, and when she prayed out loud, her voice was so calm and assured that even the fidgety young campers hushed to listen. She was much smarter, funnier, and easier to talk to than the boy I was dating, who wrote me stilted letters with smiley faces in the place of punctuation. Ruth persuaded me to enroll in the counselor-training program so I could stay at camp an extra fortnight. Her specialties were sailing and riflery, so I chose those as mine and was assigned to be her assistant. We spent our free hours sailing the lake, and in the late afternoon, we went to the leafy rifle range where we talked as she scored targets. As a vegetarian and an admirer of Gandhian nonviolence, for me shooting was an odd pastime, but Ruth was my best friend so I loaded the gun and aimed for the bull’s-eye.
The Camp Director and the Nurse were in charge of counselor training. The Director, who had a sharp, sun-reddened nose, a honking voice, and a goose-like waddle, supervised our progress towards passing the practical requirements—surviving a four-night campout, lighting a one-match fire, tying five knots, memorizing an assortment of nature lore and the like. The Camp Nurse, who doled out pills in the infirmary, monitored our spiritual education. She schooled us in calling girls to Jesus, for we would be responsible not only for the physical well-being of the campers in our charge, but also for saving their immortal souls. The Nurse’s round, pasty face; her cropped, copper-colored hair; and the gray-tinted glasses she wore to protect her eyes made me think of nothing more than the larva I had found when turning up stepping stones in our back garden. She wasn’t fond of me either, especially after the conversion role-play exercises she had us do. I volunteered to be the non-believer, and rallied the Grand Inquisitor, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the wiles of Satan himself in my arguments against the narrow path to Heaven that was proffered. I guess I was a little too convincing. Ruth confided to me that the Nurse and the Camp Director had pulled her aside to warn her that I was a bad influence.
One night Ruth and I met on the hill after we had tucked our respective campers into their beds. I was a Junior Counselor by then, although on probation because of suspicions about my “spiritual development.” Ruth and I lay on our backs in the grass that thrummed with crickets and stared up at the net of bright stars hung across the black sky while we talked about predestination. Had God chosen us for heaven or did we have the right to choose for ourselves? Ruth explained, “There’s a gate you pass through entering heaven. On the outer arch you see, ‘Those who will shall enter.’ Once inside, you turn to read the inner arch, where it says, ‘Those whom God hath chosen.’” Her voice was mesmerizing, and the paradox she described echoed in my mind, but I doubted that my name was written in the Book at Heaven’s door. A few nights before, I had dreamed that Ruth and I were in the Nature Cabin, surrounded by dusty bird nests, snake skins, and rock collections, and that she had kissed me. When I woke up with my heart pounding, I prayed for forgiveness.
Each morning my alarm clock went off in the dark cabin, and I’d leave the sleeping girls to climb the dew-damp hill, sometimes crossing paths with a skunk that was ambling home. Ruth and I sat on stacked wooden boards near the boiler under the dining hall, a dark, uncomfortable spot lit by single hanging bulb. The Camp Director and the Nurse, who watched us warily, had made sure our schedules barely overlapped, so we had taken to meeting before dawn to read the Bible and pray together. We had chosen Ecclesiastes for our study. To me, there was no part of the Bible more exquisite or more despairing. The Preacher, whom I thought of as the original Existentialist, understood the hard travail of the human soul. In his book, there was no Hell and only God was in heaven; vanity, vexation of spirit, and evil alternated with the goodness of industry and human communion. Each morning after praying for guidance and understanding, we read the incantatory prose out loud a few lines at a time, discussing possible interpretations. “So I returned and considered all the oppressions that were done under the sun; and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” We were smitten by the words, and I with her.
One night towards the end of that last summer, Ruth and I left our cabins and met in the pine grove. From there I followed her down the steep path to the beach. We were breaking camp rules by being on the waterfront that late, and then we broke more rules, hefting one of the silver canoes from the rack and pulling out two wooden paddles. I climbed into the bow, Ruth taking the stern, and she pushed off, with the sound of metal scraping against sand. Our paddles dipping in unison, we glided across the lake. Tall pine trees lining the far shore, dappled moonlight and shadows played alongside the boat and across our wake. When we reached the middle of the lake, we stowed our paddles and surveyed the scene in perfect stillness. I remembered the Preacher’s words: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour.” We were the happiest of God’s creatures.
I started my first year at college, and Ruth returned to the Bible school in the Midwest where she was in her second year. Right before I left camp, one of the other counselors, all of whom attended Christian colleges, told me that whatever I studied at the godless institution I had chosen, I should not take any classes in Religion or Philosophy because those professors would attempt to destroy my faith. But she didn’t predict that an Introduction to Women’s Studies would have the same effect. When I went home for the holidays, the Pastor’s Sunday homily was taken from Saint Paul the Misogynist. As I sat in the pew, I felt like a hot air balloon that had been tethered to the ground by dozens of ropes that had been loosened slowly one by one, until there was just one last rope holding the balloon and its basket to the earth. When the Pastor quoted, “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak,” I heard the snap of that final cord. Up and up I rose, drifting across the landscape, exhilarated and terrified, not knowing where the wind would take me.
A couple years later, Ruth and I met for lunch at a café in Harvard Square. With another semester of college to go, I was living with my boyfriend—and despite my atavistic fears, having sex before marriage had not resulted in my being run over by a car or struck down by lightning. Ruth had recently graduated from Bible college and been hired as the assistant to the new Camp Director, a job which would prove to be Ruth’s stepping stone to eventually running the camp herself. The old Director, it turned out, had been hastily removed when it was discovered that she and the Nurse were lovers who had spent their days off together in a cheap motel room not far from camp. The Nurse went to Africa where she worked as a missionary. No one knew what became of the Camp Director.
I had a dream about returning to camp. It was nighttime in the clearing along the far bank of the lake. I found myself with Ruth and a circle of familiar faces sitting around the stone pit. We sang the old songs and watched sparks leap from the crackling fire. My hair and my clothes filled with the comforting smell of wood smoke, and I was happy that there were no more watchful, suspicious eyes. But even in the dream, I felt that I didn’t belong any more. It was Ruth’s camp now, and I, and the Director, and the Nurse, would have to know, to search, and to seek wisdom somewhere else.
Nancy Kricorian is the author of the novels Zabelle and All The Light There Was, forthcoming in 2013. After having been raised in the Armenian Evangelical Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, she is now a Secular Humanist living in New York City.