March 26, 2001

"Here is the church, here is the steeple;
Open the doors and see all the people!"

While walking to my neighborhood BART station yesterday, I passed a church. I'd walked by it before, for months actually, without its church-ness being all that obvious. It sits on its own artificial hill, squatting over its parking lot. The building itself is a marvel of non-traditional architecture, with three parallel roof segments, and a front wall entirely of glass, revealing a spider's web of steel support beams inside. It reminds me of those collapsible plastic spheres you see in toy stores these days. In a condensed state, the sphere is almost solid and is surrounded by spiky protrusions; expand it with a gentle pull or a skilled wrist-flick, and it opens, huge and spacious.

It was yesterday, though, that I noticed the fence. It's probably mostly a required safety precaution, something to keep the children running off the edge of the flat topped artificial hill, falling to the sidewalk below. The gates, however, are impressive. They are heavy looking things with doorknobs and large steel locking mechanisms. They say "keep out" without mincing words. They encourage a separation between believers and the rest of the world, something I've heard urged from Sunday morning pulpits more times than I care to count. (I've often wondered how Christians are supposed to make any difference in the world if they are not supposed to interact with the world.) These gates are serious about keeping a sinful world out of God's house.

Locked churches bother me. The locks seem to contradict everything the church claims to endorse. One night in Santa Barbara, I went walking, more out of depression than any interest in exercise. I passed a church, a beautiful stone thing with arched doorway, and thought I'd try working through my troubles in God's house. Since it would not be full of people, maybe I would ask for guidance and perhaps God might have time for me. But the door was locked; not just locked, it was heavy wood bound with iron and utterly immovable. I had never, in my whole career of feeling cosmically isolated, felt so cut off, so abandoned.

What ever happened to the notion of Church as sanctuary? What if it hadn't been just my psyche tormenting me that evening? Once upon a time you were supposed to be able to seek refuge, protection, or aid from the Church, whether from drunk soldiers intent on rape or from the tax collector threatening your freedom rather than working out a payment plan. You could go inside and throw yourself on God's mercy, and the soldiers and the tax collectors couldn't touch you.

Perhaps I watch too many movies, or perhaps I have romantic notions of history. But if Jesus, the very person the Church claims to honor, said "Come unto me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28), then it would seem that fences and doors have no place in a church. How can anyone come if the doors are locked?

Of course, most churches lock their doors to keep out the vandals and the homeless. No believer in any faith likes to find spray-paint and splinters marring his place of worship. Nor is America's Puritan heritage very lenient when it comes to giving "handouts" to people who don't work and who want assistance. ("He who doesn't work, doesn't eat." -- Captain John Smith) So, the doors are locked. There isn't the budget to keep someone on hand at all hours to chase away "the bad people," to give a meal and a warm bed to someone who needs help (conveniently forgetting the parable of the good Samaritan), to talk with someone angry and disillusioned, to comfort a person feeling small and forgotten. It's never been a Sunday morning when I needed a little touch of heaven.

What a sorry state to come to: judging and turning away the very people Jesus, "anointed... to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18), loved. By closing the doors and minimizing the staff, churches may be ensuring that their sanctuary is always pristine or that there is the money for that really fabulous youth retreat to Tahoe at the height of ski season. They're also ensuring that the only people whose lives they will ever touch are the ones whom they've already saved.

March 15, 2001

"Ignore Reality.
There's nothing you can do about it."

The other day I found myself thinking about things I wrote during my last significant period of creativity, pieces written when I was certain that I would be a writer and when I did not doubt that I had something to say. The stories are neatly packaged narratives, written with the simple belief in the clean orderliness of the world. Right is right, wrong is wrong. I wrote them when I knew everything.

Now, 10 years later, it seems I know so very little. When I left my small high school of teenage horrors and went to college, I stopped writing stories. I wrote some poetry, dark and dismal stuff. I wrote personal essays, and I wrote a lot of term papers. I learned I didn't know everything, that I could never hope to know that much. I learned that the world was bigger than I ever imagined and full of more ideas than I would ever understand. I learned to doubt that I had much to say, that I would ever be a writer.

Despite this, I am writing. I am filling journal pages with the stray bits I find in my mind: to-do lists, movie critiques, self evaluations, and pop psychology. This collection of random thoughts has 16 entries in it now. And it is because I am thinking of tackling new, different, bigger writing projects that I find myself reminiscing about the things I wrote before. I remember it was easier before popular "reality" got in my way.

For it is reality which tells me that I must accept that I am small and the world is big, that my thoughts are insignificant droplets in the sea of humanity's accumulated ideas. And because I have never been very good at pushing the limits, my tendency is to accept them and retire quietly to my corner. I never had a rebellious stage. I was a diligent and ideal student. I continue to be a conservative dresser. I have no piercings, no tattoos, and only occasionally color my hair a subtle burgundy.

Still, I am a person in love with language, and I find I'm happiest arranging my words on a page. So, despite my excruciating awareness of my ignorance and insignificance, I will write something. I will find a story to tell. I must teach myself to ignore reality, to step outside the dictated lines, to believe mine is a unique and worthwhile voice, to know I have something to say.

Perhaps I shall start by coloring my hair aubergine...

March 07, 2001

"It's the future already, a new millenium.
I don't see any flying cars, though."

May I be forgiven. I am about to launch into a fit of nostalgia, and I'll just say "I'm sorry" up front and get it over with. This isn't even going to be a mellow, sighing sort of nostalgia, wherein I wax poetic about happier, simpler times, the joys of childhood, the blankies you drag all over the house, and the importance of afternoon naps. No, this is going to be hard-core, the kind of delusional, rose-colored glasses nostalgia engaged in by storytelling grandparents and by most Republicans. This is going to be a fit of nostalgia that longs for times long out of memory and probably nonexistent.

You know the nostalgia I mean, I'm sure. This is the kind that leads policymakers to lament the "moral decline" of America and long for the days of the "traditional" family. Somehow it's become a popular belief that if Mother always stayed at home with the 2.5 children and the 0.6 dog while Father spent days at the office and evenings in his chair with his pipe and the paper, things would be better. Lower teen pregnancy rates. Lower divorce rates. Lower instances of juvenile delinquency. A well-scrubbed country of smiling faces and popular opinions waving from behind our white picket fences. Because that's "how it's always been" and only since we've started deviating from that model has the country become the morally corrupt thing it is today.

Um, does anyone remember any time before 1950? Remember when both parents (and everybody else) worked one way or another? Remember the Middle Ages, when if you weren't nobility or clergy, you were a farmer who worked your plot of land with parents, siblings, spouses, and offspring and then gave most of your crops to your landlord? Remember the Industrial Revolution, when Father worked in the mines, Mother worked in the mill, and the children joined her there as soon as they could tie broken strings together? Our happy mental picture of the "traditional family" was born in the 1950s, out of post-war affluence and leftover aspirations of the Victorian middle class.

But this is not my point.

You see, I woke up this morning with a sour taste in my mouth and really determined crusties in my eyelashes. And no, I did not earn such an experience by exceeding my recommended daily allowance of alcohol last night, either. I felt miserable, depressed, purposeless. And then it came to me: today I want to sit in a sewing circle with other youngish, newly married, newly expecting women, drink tea, munch dainty cookies, and quilt. We would be making another quilt for the orphanage in the city, feeling ourselves righteous with every tiny stitch. No, that's not it; I wanted to take my laundry to the wide space in the river and chat with my neighbors over our suds and washboards.

Never mind that I'm not newly married, not expecting, or that I lack the strength and stamina to wash my clothes by hand with rocks in a river. If I actually had to live my life that way, I'd not have the time to write these rambling thoughts for your amusement. But still with these "life was better then" glasses, that's what I long for this morning. And if I look closer, it's not the river, the laundry, the cookies, or the quilting that I want. It's the community. The supportive gathering of friends.

How sad that we have become a nation of individuals so completely individual that we don't connect with anyone outside our home or workplace anymore. Gone are the days of neighborhood get-togethers; for that matter, gone are the days of neighborhoods. We work our mind-numbing jobs and go home, swearing at strangers on the highway who dare slow us down in our rush to get somewhere where we can be alone with our computer, our eBay account, and that guy in the chat room with the cute avatar. We know more than we ever knew before; we travel faster, horde more stuff, and spend less time with fewer and fewer people.

Welcome to the future; is it everything you hoped it would be?