Writing my Religion

“. . . my tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer . . .”  
Psalms 45:1

I write on Sunday mornings. It is my Sabbath observation, that and turning white flour and foamy eggs whites into golden waffles. And finding Mr. Rogers just as he comes home to change his shoes, and kissing the sticky syrup from my husband’s mustache. Then, finally, still connected to sleep by my pajamas, I enter the converted garage off the kitchen, the far corner of which is my sanctuary, office, hide-out, rabbit hole and throne. And I write. It is my designated time, two hours which I can fool into three if the weather’s good or there’s stockcar racing on TV. I used to mess with rose candles and meditation breathing before I got down to it. But nowadays I’m so pressed for time that I just get my butt in the chair and flip a switch. Under my fingers tapping the keys I recite the private mysteries of my week, scrub my soul, weave a picture that looks something like real life. Only better.

I’ve tried other religions. I loved singing of harvesting grapes as we gathered in slow lines, though in our flat Houston suburbs we grew nothing but blades of sharp grass. I loved the tiny glasses tippy with wine, the circle of cardboard heavy on the tongue dissolving suddenly like every bad thing that ever happened before that moment. On Sunday I was no longer fatherless, voiceless, aimless, hopeless or strange. I was not lonely in my stepfather’s badly-decorated house of girls. Nor the object of my mother’s misplaced rage and dim depression. Walking back to my seat, my hands hanging clasped as if I had just stolen something valuable and hid it there, following the boy I was in love with while the choir sang “Alleluia” over and over, I was transformed into a writer. The desperate poetry of the Psalms (“You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”) taught me to love words. The solemn repetition of the Creeds (“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”) gave my heart rhythm. And the bountiful metaphors of the hymns (“The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord; She is his new creation by water and the word”) fed the tangled roots of my imagination.

Later, when I got out on my own I worshipped the vibrations of my body. Those of the night, when it was cool enough to, on a mattress on the floor, emanating from between my legs. And those resounding from the center of my being as my voice blended with others’ chanting “om,” while we sat cross-legged in the gym.

Over the years I have worshipped: food, drippy strawberry shortcake and brittle Indian papadums; men, skinny ones with big dicks and ones living with other women and ones who were gay and ones who loved me as much as sunlight; books that made me feel smart, dumb, flammable, like singing, and mortally sad; and I’ve loved women who saved my life, grew closer than blood, whose beauty made me want to fly. But I’ve found that it’s the voice inside me (“My heart is stirring with noble song”) that I count on if times are tough or I’m over-brimming with praise. 

All the week the world flashes bright like someone’s endless vacation slides. This week’s images: a man under the highway holds up a blank square of cardboard; he looks down then flips it over. It’s still blank; he grins. For this my hand reaches out into the heat with a dollar which isn’t enough for a cup of coffee not to mention whatever he needs to get his life back on track.  Then there’s Gerald, a small dark boy who, though only six, spends my entire creative writing class writing alphabet rhymes (“A is for Arnold Alligator; B is for Betty Baboon; C is for . . .”) Every single week, no matter what the assignment is, he wants to read his 26 new lines for the class who doesn’t want to hear them. There are the calls I get where I work providing affordable housing to (some of) those who need it. A woman whose husband is in jail for hurting her has managed to gather a job, childcare, first month’s rent and a place she can afford to live but there’s a waiting list; another woman, who has not a dime nor a friend, with her four children will be evicted on the same Saturday I take my son to a birthday party. There is also joy: of returning to the garden which, while we’ve been sleeping, eating, making money and polluting, has created new bright orange tomatoes, tiny strawberries that taste like red velvet, and black eggplants that droop like darkest tears. What can I do with these painful, heart- breaking mysterious things, but write about them?

For me, the purpose of religion and spirituality has always been to feel the tautness of my connection to other humans and the world. Over the years, my cynical mind and wandering heart may have deserted the temple, but I’m still a believer. My writing is both the string that binds and gives me free rein. Through the ritual of writing, I praise life’s bounty, question its secrets and ask forgiveness for my mistaken steps and small uglinesses. Mine may be a tiny temple, with just one dedicated disciple and a message that sometimes is too simple or bland, but it is the one faith that makes me whole, again and again. And I am thankful for its song.

Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Visit her site at www.robinbradford.net