Winter of My Disbelief
In southern Indiana, in the spring of the year I turned twelve, I was baptized for the second time. My parents had had my infant head sprinkled with water by one Reverend Sam Sly, but the second time around was different. There would be more water, for one thing — the pleasant, chlorine odor of the baptismal pool at the back of our church reminded me of this whenever I walked by. And there was another thing, seductive in its own way: While the purpose of my first baptism had been to enclose me in a Christian family, this one would release me into religion as an individual. Now when the loaves of bread, the trays filled with tiny, glistening vials of grape juice were passed, I would be permitted to take them, and while I listened to the elder’s words — “This is my body, broken for you” — to assimilate them into my own body. I had occasionally seen my mother and father in the brigade of adults who prepared the communion trays in the church kitchen before the service. Now I would be able to taste what they tasted on Sundays.
To get ready, I took a class that met in one of the Sunday school rooms and was led by our minister, a gentle, reticent stalk of a man named John Bean. My friend Elizabeth and I went together, carrying Bibles and spiral notebooks. All winter we spent our Saturday afternoons n the straight, smooth chairs with our Bibles open in front of us. King James was the required Bible (we had been given them upon graduation from third grade Sunday school), but Reverend Bean sometimes read to us from the folksier Good News version so we could decide which we preferred.
Christianity had no inalterable sacred text, committed to memory and pored over in the original. No laws, no commentary on the laws, just the story of Jesus, told by dozens of bibles. The faithful chose in what form they wanted to hear the story, plain speech or poetry, English or some other language. The key was not so much to learn as to believe, and to find the book that most embodied that belief — for you personally. Reverend Bean would read from one bible or another about a miracle performed by Christ — “He took her by the hand, and the fever left her” — then gaze up inquiringly — “how does this suit you?” — and meet the uncertain faces of nine 11-year-olds.
We couldn’t have been an easy group. Some of us squinted at him, trying to follow the arrow that led from the construction-paper world of Sunday school through this class to immersion in the mysterious pool. Some of us, being in the sixth grade, were gazing out the window, thinking of slights suffered in school or of soccer games that were taking place elsewhere. Elizabeth fit neither profile — she seemed to have chosen her faith already and to be waiting only for the formality of confirmation.
Elizabeth and I didn’t have a lot in common. Her father (“my real dad,” she called him) had been killed in a sledding accident when she was two, while mine remained unscathed, a healthy business executive whose pounding walk and pockets full of change I could hear from wherever I was in the house. Her family had moved into town from way out in the country, where her stepfather had owned orchards (in town, he owned a camera store). Mine had moved from the urban east coast, bemused at the strangeness of living in a county seat in farm country that also happened to serve as headquarters for a Fortune-500 firm. We were in the same Sunday school class, and sang together in the children’s choir, but I was the better singer and did better in school and was encouraged by my parents to think of myself as unique, not because God had made me so but because more secular qualities had marked me for success.
Also, there was God Himself. Elizabeth was sure that we were at risk of offending Him, a concept I couldn’t grasp. What about the big-tent, choose-your-flavor ethos that Reverend Bean projected so effortlessly? In Elizabeth’s house it seemed not to prevail. My parents merely raised their eyebrows if I took the Lord’s name in vain, but in Elizabeth’s house, “Oh my God” was one of the worst things it was possible to say.
From the time Elizabeth and I became friends in the third grade, something had nevertheless fused us together. I was with her constantly, playing with her Barbies, hitting tennis balls in the park for whole afternoons on summer weekdays, swimming or skating at the man-made lake across the street from her house. She possessed knowledge of things I did not — teaching me swimming flips and dives, introducing me to the Dukes of Hazzard, and showing me how she used hot rollers to make brilliant curls appear in her thick red hair. We’d stay up for hours at night talking. Did Hell exist, and was God vindictive enough to send people to suffer — that was a favorite topic. Yes, she answered, but also, of course, benevolent enough to save them if they were believers. I began to think that there must be things about God I had never been told at church or by my mother and father.
Eventually I desired Elizabeth’s approval, and thus I believed exactly as she believed — about the absolute necessity of using conditioner in my hair, about the attractiveness of Bo and Luke Duke, and finally about the and need to struggle tirelessly to avoid displeasing God. But I also found myself irritated by her fear of holy retribution, and I felt compelled to resist. Once, when we were ice skating on the lake, we heard a faint crack and felt a distant vibration under our feet. Elizabeth said this meant the ice was beginning to melt from beneath. At any moment, one of us might step onto the seam between two sections of weak ice, and it would crack open. She said we had to get off the lake.
I wanted to keep skating. It was late afternoon, and the sky was full of colors. I didn’t think the ice was capable of failing. Or maybe I believed it might fail but relished the thought of a disaster, thinking of the attention that would have to be paid if one of us needed to be rescued, the blankets and hot cocoa and intensified parenting that in my experience followed accidents. “It’s not going to break. It’s not. I swear to God,” I said.
“Don’t say that!” she shouted. “Don’t say that!” She pulled at the tie to her poncho. It had a little fluffy ball at the end — I considered it tacky. “Come on! We have to go in! It’s getting ready to crack!”
“Why is it bad to say that?” I asked her.
“It just is,” she said. “You should never say God like that. Come on. We have to go in.”
“No really, I swear, it’s fine,” I said. We were alone on the lake. Lights had started to come on in nearby houses. I wanted to keep skating around in circles in the middle of the lake until it got to be dark and we could see a few stars.
“Right now. We have to get off the ice now. I mean it!”
“No,” I said. “It’s not going to crack. I swear.” I retrenched. “I swear on the name of God.”
She turned and skated away, giving me up. Her red hair swung and the edges of her skates flashed in the pale light from the windows. Suddenly I was full of regret. I sped after her, not catching up until she had reached the lake’s edge. I told her I was sorry, that I hadn’t meant it. I told her not to tell anyone. She wanted to tell her mother but I convinced her not to. That night, as we lay in her room — she in her bed, I on the mattress beside it — I promised her that I had not meant to swear on God’s name. She finally agreed to keep silent for me.
In Reverend Bean’s class, we reviewed the life of Christ. Each of the four Gospels portrayed it differently. I learned that the Christmas reading we heard every year was a kind of mix and match affair. Luke brought the stable, the manger and the shepherds; Matthew contributed the three wise men; John framed the story with big-picture declarations. In some Gospels Jesus reproached God before he died, while in others he simply yielded up his spirit. In some, the angel sat inside the empty tomb on the third day and in others he sat outside it on a small rock. The message was always the same, however, and this was what, in Christianity, was not negotiable, regardless of what version of the story you chose. Jesus died so that all who believed in him could be cleansed of their sins and claim eternal life. You had to believe this, and you had to believe that Jesus had been sent by God, his father, for that specific purpose.
This was what I couldn’t swallow. I could believe that Reverend Bean believed these things, and that Elizabeth did. I could believe that our church — where my family joined others every December in an evergreen-hanging ritual, where there were glazed doughnuts served after choir practice, where we trick-or-treated for Unicef at Halloween and where my little sister was not frowned on for roller skating in the halls — was a sacred place. I could believe God dwelled there, if He smiled on these benign, earthly things. But the line leading from fellowship to baptism and adult belief was unclear to me. I had completed the detailed summary of the Book of Matthew that Reverend Bean had assigned, yet I was sure that what I would taste on Sunday mornings was grape juice and bread prepared by men and women in a kitchen. The problem was that this was not true for Elizabeth, and I did not dare tell her how I felt. I wished for her easy belief.
In my house, meanwhile, what I had assumed invulnerable was falling apart. My mother had sat at the edge of my bed one night in October and told me that she and my father were having “difficulties.” By Thanksgiving they had decided to separate. We celebrated Christmas in despair, our family traditions skipped this year, or darkened with bile. On Christmas Day my father took me for a long drive in the car, and cryptically explained that one day I would understand it all. In January, he headed for Boston in a snowstorm, leaving us to our own long winter. In March my mother decided that she and my sister and I would move away too, far away as my father had done. Nevertheless, in April, I would be baptized on schedule.
The Sunday afternoon of the baptism was chilly. We put on white choir robes and filed down the steps into the baptismal pool to meet the Reverend Bean. Elizabeth went in front of me, walking steadily, sure of her place. In the row behind Elizabeth’s parents, my own sat side by side (my father had returned for the occasion), and I fantasized that they would give me something to symbolize my induction into the community of belief — a silver dove on a chain was what I imagined receiving. But I wasn’t given any gift. The event seemed grim for them, or perhaps just embarrassing, since they had once been regarded in the church as a model pair. As my head and body went under I felt nothing more nor less than what I always felt in swimming pools — the vaguely sweet smell of the chlorine and the suspension of noise from above.
On my last night in Indiana, I slept over at Elizabeth’s and we stayed up all night talking. We had been looking forward to junior high school and its freedoms: basketball games on Friday nights, free periods when we were allowed to leave campus and go to Taco Bell, our church’s youth group, where furtive games of spin the bottle were rumored to take place. We had a lot of ideas about our wardrobes — there was a long discussion of pink Oxford cloth shirts. But we would have to pursue our sartorial aspirations, not to mention our entire lives, separately because in a matter of days, I would be in Baltimore. On that last night, we didn’t talk about God at all.