Dirty windows of heaven

Being a secretary can have interesting tasks involved, but it’s demeaning.  Whatever you choose to work on first is the wrong thing, how could you be so stupid not to see I needed this first.   You are expected to make coffee , but also run spreadsheets for quarterly budgets and reports on five year change.   It was stressful for me, but then sometimes grocery shopping was so stressful I would abandon a half-full cart and go home.

So I decided to move to Czechoslovakia.  Things had been going better with my parents, but this infuriated them.  How can you go when you’re so young?   Don’t expect any Christmas presents.

Czechoslovakia in 1992 was a dirty, post-Soviet country.  The grandmothers wore babushkas and waited for their husbands outside the bars when they closed at 10 p.m.  Our school looked like an insane asylum out of a 1950s thriller.  But I loved my students, and taught them about the English article system, question formation, and word roots from Latin.  They took me home with them for the weekend to meet their families, and we teachers explored the castles and factories in the back of the country.

After school every day, we walked to town to buy groceries, maybe a cup of coffee or a beer, then took a little nap, and helped each other on lessons for the next day.  There was no stress.  My mind was brighter than it has ever been, and I was happier than I ever remembered.

When I first arrived, the ugliness shocked me.  The pollution left a layer of grit on everything: You were filthy every time you left your door. It was unthinkable to eat meat because nothing was sanitary.  The country was grey and tan – buildings, fields, gardens, clothing, the sky.  It never got prettier.  I never saw one beautiful flower in a park and realized you had to look for the beauty.  I didn’t rationalize that beautiful people meant you didn’t need pastoral landscapes.  I slowed my pace of life and accepted things as they were.  It was hard to know why I was so happy and sane.

There was no reaching with Czechoslovakia.  The street vendors were not going to get green vegetables, and there were not going to be safety requirements for anything for a long time.  Stores were not going to start selling blue paint anytime soon.  You ask about these things, and always hear: Never mind.  I had been told such situations breed hopelessness or apathy.  No, not hopelessness.  Not apathy.  Acceptance, maybe.  Grit to stand when standing is enough.

I taught a 21-year-old princess.  She took me home to her family’s tiny apartment with enormous oil paintings of her ancestors on the walls.  She showed me the castle where her family had lived for generations, confiscated by the Communist regime.  They were trying to get it back, but we’ll see.  Never mind.

The exorcists

Following the fire, following the homelessness, following David, I took a secretarial job.  Words of pain from the past became voices in my head and terrifying visions were rolling behind my eyes.  I vomited every morning before work.  I shook.  I hyperventilated.  I saw stars.  I cried.

So I joined a church that exorcised people.  It was in an old, used up, rented out Baptist church in an iffy part of East Detroit.  Jim, the minister, was an ex-pimp with a bum leg from polio who looked like a mob thug.  The congregants were pretty much the same sort.  But the church!  There was loud music with electric guitars and drums.  We sang.  We danced in circles in the aisles.  We raised our hands above our heads like the children of Israel on the other side of the Red Sea.  We spoke in tongues and prophecied and prayed and were slain in the spirit.  The services went on for hours, hours wrapped in feelings of love and calm, with no voices, no memories, no pain.

Once a month, I exorcised drug addicts and factory workers and the physically or mentally ill.  Everyone being exorcised had hope of being freed of something awful; you don’t go to an exorcist until everything else has failed.  There were hours of singing and dancing, instruction on how demons operate and how to keep them out once they’re expelled.  Jim told us to go home and throw out all frog images and reminders of bad people.  More singing and dancing.  Finally, we went down the the low-ceilinged basement with crumbling, white-washed cement walls.  Fluorescent lights gave the room a bluish unworldly glow.  The church members-turned-exorcists looks into the eyes of those being exorcised and get a feeling about what their evil spirits were.  I denounce you spirit of witchcraft in the name of Jesus!  Come out you spirit of hatred!  People screamed, fell over, spit, for hours. More singing and dancing in victory.  A big late-night meal with the stunned exorcisees.

After my own exorcism, I carried my impure items to the curb.  For a couple of days it was silent in my head: no voices, no visions.  All my mental problems had been demonic.  I was the demon-possessed man whose demons had gone into the pigs and jumped off a cliff. I had been delivered: Mental illness was actually demon possession.  And now I was free from it.

But it came back. I was scared and shaking and throwing up again.  I went back to church and sang and prayed harder, louder, got exorcised again, blamed myself.  I wasn’t deserving.  I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I was secretly gay, but god knew: All the old tapes from my LCMS days were turned on again.  And the parallels to the ashram weren’t lost on me, either: An emotionally charged, hypnotic “spiritual” experience temporarily shuts off the voices and visions.  Did that mean spirituality was just an emotionally charged, hypnotic experience?  It didn’t matter which religion, as long as you touched the right neurons and excited your emotions?

I read Jung and the collective unconscious, which was supposedly the unifying force behind it all.  There were archetypes like the Eternal Mother and the Cycle of Life and Death that were common to all religions.  Jung said rituals moved us above the mundane into oneness with this force.  But then wasn’t it the rituals changing the brain, not necessarily that the force existed?  And then, what is the difference between religious visions, which are OK, and my psychotic visions, which are not?  Years before I read Foucault, even I was able to see that visions were treated randomly, pejoratively.

It was finally the logic of it, and not the feelings of being undeserving and worthless, that got me to leave the exorcists.  The church had an internally inconsistent theology, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s logical inconsistency.  Maybe that’s what the religions call the mystery of belief.  My head just isn’t made for religion.

So I was left with my own moral code, my own philosophy, and my own emotional experiences sometimes enhanced by my faulty neurons.  I still cried out to god when my visions were too horrible and the internal pain too unbearable, but I didn’t expect him to do anything anymore.  It was more a reflex than a missive.

O most merciful god, I a poor miserable sinner

Are zebras black over white, or white over black?  Black over white — you are at core good, with black stripes of evil trickling down.  That’s for all the denominations who believe unbaptized babies are saved and children are innocent.  White over black — you are at core evil, with stripes of good.  That’s the GLC, where unbaptized babies are damned and children have an evil, sinful nature.  Here’s the basic GLC prayer, memorized long before I could read.

O most merciful god, I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee.  Every night when we went to bed, my mother would crawl in bed with us to hear our confessions for the day.  While other children prayed, “God bless grandma,” we said, “I didn’t come to dinner when you called me.”  Since it was all home-based, and my mother was the one who enforced the law, it felt more like confessing to her than to god.  She was my first image of god:  full of rules and yet lots of fun, withholding love when you’re bad but warm and happy when you’re good.

I justly deserve thy temporal and eternal punishment.  I deserve any bad thing that happens to me on earth or in the afterlife.   Non-GLC people said that “Jane didn’t do anything to deserve that kind of treatment.”  We knew better.  Whatever happened, you deserved worse.  Salvation was the only hope; life on earth would be grim.

But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them  My sister thought we were saying “hardly” for “heartily” for a long time.  We were so bad, we weren’t even sorry for our sins.  I was very sorry for all the things I did wrong, and always had a long list at the ready.  I started then in keeping track of every way I fell short.

I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.  Salvation was never earned, and no good thing you did would put you in good favor with god.  The only thing that mattered was faith in Jesus.  Any good you did was only because of your gratitude to god, and you deserved no credit for it.  When complimented on good works, the response was, “To god alone be the glory.”

And then, tucked into our beds, we fell asleep all forgiven for our little crimes.