“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” –Jeanette Winterson
I am eight years old and I lie on my back on the narrow cot at the rear of my grandparents’ Winnebago and watch the string of the pulley to the cabinet door swish back and forth like a pendulum. I gaze hypnotically and I pray rhythmically, softly, a prayer as a mantra I have come to believe will elicit a miracle. Our Father who art in Heaven, Lord God Above, Ruler of all Things, please give me a sign. If you are listening to me, if my life is of any significance to you, if you have a plan, please stop the swinging. Make the tassel stop. Make it stand still, like the Red Sea, with the walls of water still like unsung statues, like the sun, how you made it stand still in the sky until the nation of Israel defeated its enemies. Since you can make still the water, and stop the sun, and you can bring your son back from the dead, make this little string stop. Show me you are listening. Show me I matter. Please still the tassel.
I pray this every day. I am eight years old and I pray this every day in my grandfather’s Winnebago, as we traverse the southern states, performing circus acts as a pre-show before the proselytizing plays we offer for a pittance at Kampgrounds of America. As I march in these campgrounds, hand out tracts, sing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a little white nightgown every night to crowds in these KOAs, I come back nightly to the cot behind the curtain at the back of the Winnebago. I come back nightly to stare at the ceiling and pray. Please God, give me a sign.
It may be that the Lord wants to test my patience, like he did Job’s. Maybe I’m not in tune with his words. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m not a precious stone, not a precious metal because I haven’t been tested. I think of what I know of Jehovah, what my grandfather has personified for me, as he sits like a refiner and purifier of silver, burning away the dross. So I pray, dear God, I will show my allegiance to you and read your book, every word of your book, starting now. I will read your Holy Book cover to cover. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.
You are the word. I am the flesh. Let your word become my flesh. Let my flesh become your word.
And so I begin at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God Said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And as I begin, I know I will continue, that I will pass this test, that I won’t skip a word no matter how tired I am, no matter how much motion sickness projects vomit into the bag I keep hanging next to the plank bed that nestles against the rear of the Winnebago, where my grandparents Orrick and Ruth snore each on one side of me in their matching nightgowns. I keep vigil. When they sleep, I turn on the tiny pinpoint light and I read. I keep reading His words, through the iconic stories in the books of Moses, through the books of laws and judges and chronicles, on into the prophets and the Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon, who the Bible says came from Bathsheba. Her story breaks my heart, that her child died as punishment because the King commanded her presence. Bathsheba lost both her husband and her child because of David, who said he loved her. It seems to me that what he really did was worship her beauty, found her a Muse he couldn’t resist, and God punished him for coveting her, like worshipping a golden calf. The baby dies to punish David and Uriah dies for his loyalty to David. Nobody, not even God, has pity on Bathsheba.
And I read on through Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, which I memorize and use like a chant, the writing on the wall Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, that moves me more than Joseph and his dreams and his colorful coat ever could. In that year before I turned nine, I read through every he begat in the Old Testament, the lineage of Jesus our Christ, and I note any time a girl is named, because it is so seldom, and this is evident, even to my child-self. And as I continue on into the New Testament, I wonder why the only central females are both named Mary. I stare at the names of the sixty-six books I am reading and ask myself why only two books of this tome are named after girls, and I try to justify why these girls are named, why others aren’t, what role they play in the world of men, the only world I know, and I beat myself up for this, but I keep going back to these girls, to these two books, and even though I have to keep reading every other word chronologically, I also go back. I mark passages. This is not what I have been taught. I have been taught not to question. I use a highlighter. I don’t write the questions because I can’t talk back to God, but Ruth makes me question. Esther makes me question. Hagar and Rahab and Hannah and Bathsheba all make me quiver and I have no idea why. I have been taught that they saved the Jewish nation, and I don’t question that, but it is more than that, what they do, how they do it, their grace and style and this is what I absorb:
Yes, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David and thus worthy of patriarchal mention, but the long line of he-begats informs me that most women in the line of Jesus are unnamed. Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. Ruth was not following tradition. She didn’t remarry among her own family. She followed the mother of her dead husband, and who can say why. The Bible doesn’t say why. My grandfather says Ruth is a woman of principle who is true to her husband even after death, that she is true to his spirit and he lives on because of her loyalty. But her dead husband doesn’t procreate with her and doesn’t end up in the line of Christ. Yes, she stays loyal to his people, but what does that have to do with either him or his God? Is it loyalty to her late husband, or is her love for this woman thick with the love of self, heavy with the knowledge that women are their own people, that our people are the true outliers, the underdogs, the forgotten ones. She sticks with Naomi and lies on the floor near the bed of Boaz because she knows she has no inherent value. Her value lies in the comfort her body will provide for a man, and the fruit of a masterful performance can perhaps yield quality food and shelter for the offspring she will undoubtedly bear. But her pride? Her strength? The triumph of her will is in her loyalty to her true people. And Naomi is her girl, her road-dog, with whom she will live and die. People say these words at wedding ceremonies and I want to use my voice like a red pen and correct them for taking poetry out of context, for mixing metaphors, for misrepresenting a proclamation of independence as ordinary romance.
I don’t trust romance.
Like Ruth, and like Esther, who knew the King forbade her questioning and yet, who knows but that she came to kingdom for such a time as this. She says if she perishes, she perishes. But she cooks him a meal and invites his friends and wins his heart, and this isn’t romantic, but pragmatic. At eight, I know this.
Esther doesn’t choose the King. The King chooses Esther because she is beautiful, and Esther manipulates the King into saving her people. He does this willingly, defensively, protectively, for her.
The King chooses Esther. He protects her people. She is his family of choice.
I will collect a family of choice. I will leave my people and find new ones, and my path will not be a clear one, but I don’t know this yet.
Because I know the Lord will come back like a thief in the night, I keep reading, through Nehemiah and Lamentations, Obadiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and I don’t stop reading, through every single word of his book, the blessed King James Bible, my grandfather’s chosen tome. I read the letters to the churches they call epistles and the crowning glory of Revelations, which almost chokes me with its numbers and symbols and I draw diagrams to imbibe the vitriol of the Whore of Babylon and to quell my fear of the Beast and the four horses of the Apocalypse. That year before I turn nine, I read the first book I will ever read cover to cover, and I unwittingly set the tone for my life. Every single word. I read every single word.
And in the end, after all those words, God did not have mercy upon me. God did not make that tassel stand still. We traveled through Texas and Alabama and Florida, through Virginia and Maryland and back through Michigan and into the Dakotas and I sang in my high sweet voice night after night and conducted a poodle on the piano to laughter and applause and the tassel swung side to side every day, obeying the laws of physics. And God in his infinite wisdom did not send me a sign.