Sunday, March 30, 2014

Born Again

In a few weeks I will celebrate the 39th anniversary of my “Born Again” date. In certain Christian circles, the “Born Again Date” is the most important date in a person’s life. It’s the date when everything changes, and all things became new. As in new life, new creation, new family who call themselves “brothers” and “sisters.” The Born Again date is the reset button. Press it, and everything is fresh and green.

My “Born Again” date happens to be April 7, 1975. I was nineteen years old and a sophomore in college. It was springtime, and everything was fresh and green.

I recall the events leading up to that date fairly clearly. I had spent my entire freshman year in misery. My family was falling apart. My mother was a mentally ill alcoholic, my father was a serial adulterer who cared only about his dick, and I was living in Rock Island, Illinois, stuck in a small liberal arts college full of Born Again Christians who kept foisting off their Christian pamphlets on me. I stuck them in my sock drawer, and I had a rather large collection.

So I got out of there. I transferred to Ohio University, Party School U.S.A. with a world-class Creative Writing program, and partied myself into oblivion far too often, or as close to oblivion as I could get. But I kept running into Christians. I was in a new state, and I didn’t really know anybody, so I sat down in the cafeteria next to a guy with hair down to the middle of his back and a beard down to the middle of his chest. He looked safe enough, and then he pulled out a Bible. Shit. I fell in love with a cute girl who liked to party, and then she became a Christian and started toting around a Bible. Shit.

I spent six months discussing – yeah, that’s a nice euphemism for it - Christianity in overheated dorm rooms, staying up far too late. I accompanied those Christians to their worship services, and watched them raise their arms in worship, and called out “Touchdown, Jesus!” in the middle of some sappy chorus. I argued vehemently in those overheated dorm rooms. “What about the Crusades?” I would say, and “Remember when there were multiple, dueling Popes during the Middle Ages?” And they would say, “How are you doing?” and “You seem like you’re really hurting.” And they were right. They did nothing but love me when I was a jerk. So I thought I’d give their God a try. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I think I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer ten or twelve times, trying to get in the proper mood, trying to get it right. Finally I stopped trying. This was my first real prayer: “Fuck it. I give up. If you can do anything with this mess, go for it.”

April 7, 1975. The grass was turning green. The leaves were reappearing on barren trees. Born Again.

That was 39 years ago. And here’s the current state of the union: all things have not become new. I was sold a bill of goods. I was the victim of false advertising. There was no reset button, and I’m still a mess. I see the mess constantly, every day, and here’s how it manifests itself: I am angry and I don’t even know why. I am selfish and sad. People let me down, and I resent it, and I carry that resentment around and I don’t even know how to let it go, although I pray and work the 12 steps and ask for the grace to forgive. I sing “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” every Sunday, and it’s always true for me. Every single time. I am the person I love best. Not Jesus. Not my neighbors.

So what do I do with this Born Again business?

All I know is that I see a lot of grey. Charcoal grey, dark grey, grey so light that it almost looks white, grey tinged with blue. But not black. Not white. I am neither a new creation nor the same old jerk. I am in process. I am becoming a Christian. Born Again-ish. Sometimes barely breathing, and in need of a slap on the ass to help me take in huge gulps of air. But not dead. Alive.

In Florida last week, in the midst of impossibly bright days, swaying palm trees, fancy cars and fancy hotels and fancy people everywhere I looked, I felt horrible. I spent my glorious, highly anticipated vacation worrying about work, where I was not present, and to which I did not want to return. I was impatient and worried and unable to live in the moment for five days, and then those five days were gone, and then I regretted that they were gone. What is wrong with me?

And then I returned to work. And I worked with people who edited my writing, turned those nice, crisp, active-voice sentences into a muddled, passive-voiced mess, and I sat there and took it, and thought, “Just give me the money. All I am is a writer. I only communicate for a living. You’re the boss. It doesn’t matter what I do or think. It doesn’t even matter that I’m here, really. But since I’m here, please pay me.”

Resentment. Anger. Here’s your Born Again boy, Lord, now creaking toward my dotage. What have I done? What have You done? And why can’t we work together? And lo, there was morning and afternoon, all through the workweek, and they all blended together, and I wasted more precious days that will never be mine again, and I waxed wroth at God, and myself, and the whole fucking universe. Charcoal grey. Dark grey. I’ll even permit “midnight grey,” which is probably just a euphemism for another color. But I’m not going to write it.

Because this also happened. When I was in Florida, preoccupied, stewing in my own misery, I talked with my niece about her paintings, which are very good paintings, and I told her so. And I was encouraging, and I meant it. And I talked with my daughter, and we connected, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I’m thankful every time that happens. Really, I am. And I met a homeless guy in a park, outside a fancy hotel, and he told me his story, and I listened, and I acted like I cared because I did, and he gave me a big hug at the end of our conversation, and I let him, and I hugged him back.

Small things. Born Again things. Black shot through with light. Grey.
Almost forty years ago I expected this all to happen spontaneously, immediately. It has not. But this is the state of this Born Again-ish man. He has done something with the mess. All things are becoming new. All things. But oh, so slowly.


Melissa Jenks said...

I'm sitting in a Lao hotel room, trying to find a way to write about my experience here--I revisited your site where I haven't been in ages, looking to find other writers who get it right. I found this post and it brought me to tears. Thank you for your crisp, active-voiced sentences. Thank you for reminding me why I also believe in Christ. Thank you for containing multitudes, for writing about whatever you want, so carefully and fearlessly. Thank you for reminding me why I read in the first place, why I want to take the words of other writers into me, and hold them in my ears and my heart and my mouth.

Andy Whitman said...

Thank you for your kind words, Melissa. I read other writers for the same reasons. Thank you for understanding. I appreciate that.