Neither the aroma of flowers decorating the altar nor the underlying familiarity of the surrounds-rows of pews left and right, altar in the middle, organ on the right, choir on the left-were much help in alleviating my nervousness. It wasn't going to church for the first time since adolescence that bothered me so much as being among a crowd of people once again.
The church I grew up with was a dark, musty, unpleasant place, but this newer building had a good deal of glass at the entry, making the room well lit, fresh, and inviting. Side doors were open, allowing June air that hinted of warmth but hadn't yet heated to flow through the room. The congregation, however, seemed timeless: children in their Sunday best, smiling adults, women in pastel dresses, even a hat or two, still, and white-haired old ladies seated in the front row. Attendance was sparse enough that I was able to sit decently near the front, but not immediately next to anyone else-amid but not among the congregation. At precisely eleven o'clock the organ began the prelude, its pedal tones resonating with the part of me that still sought tribal drums.
One absolute innovation was a young man with a portable microphone who passed up the center aisle from back to front inviting new parishioners and visitors to introduce themselves. As he approached the row in which I was seated, I noticed that my dress shoes were so old and neglected that the leather along the edges was dried and cracking. The minister took a minute to welcome the people who were new to the congregation, inviting them-us-all to refreshments and fellowship, to be held in the patio outside the sanctuary immediately following the service.
I doubt that the liturgy had changed since John Wesley first set it down. After the sermon, a hymn, and the benediction, we all filed out to the strains of the postlude. At the door, I shook hands with the pastor, as custom required. Four steps further along, my hand was seized by both those of one of the white-haired ladies who'd been sitting in the front row.
"How nice to see you," she said. "This is your first time here, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm just visiting today."
"Weren't the flowers lovely?" she asked. "Every time I see flowers, I'm reminded of God's love for us."
I gently extricated my hand from hers.
"Yes," I said, as I began sidling to my left, "the flowers were quite lovely."
"Do have some coffee and cookies!" the woman called out as I continued to move beyond the range of conversation.
Church ladies apparently still baked cookies, I noticed as I walked away from the sanctuary. To my right, along the sidewalk leading to the parking lot, several folding tables had been set up. On display, to tempt the palettes of regular worshippers and guests alike, were enough cookies to satisfy the entire congregation, plus aluminum percolators of both regular and decaffeinated coffee. As I navigated my way through clumps of people standing around and chatting over coffee and cookies, I passed near one of the tables, and my right hand was once again seized in the double grip of Methodist fellowship.
"Hi!" came an enthusiastic greeting over my right shoulder. "I'm Margaret Wilson, but you can call me Peg. Everybody else does. What's your name?"
I turned and looked to see who belonged to such an assertive greeting. "I'm Alex, Alex Winham."
Peg was one of the middle-aged ladies in a pastel dress, fairly tall, trim but not thin, on the attractive side of plain, with short, light brown hair that had been blow-dried into a non-style-a walking ad from the pages of the JC Penney catalog. Her grip persevered.
"How nice to meet you, Alex. Is the rest of the family with you today?"
"No, I'm here alone."
"Oh, so you do have a family, then?"
"Yes," I said, "I do."
"Won't you join us for some coffee and cookies?"
Refreshments, fellowship, and recruitment, it looked like to me, and I wasn't there to be recruited.
"No, thank you," I said, "I'm afraid I don't have time to stay and chat today."
"Well, then, perhaps next week," Peg said cheerily, releasing my hand.
"Yes," I said, "perhaps next week."
As it turned out, there was no next week, at least not for the Methodist Church and me. My not going to church didn't have anything to do with the church. It was simply one of those days when I didn't feel like looking the world in the face. I slept late, felt guilty, and frittered time away writing in my journal and catching up on email correspondence.
But I was back the week following, this time without any particular nervousness about being there, and without feeling the need to observe the order of service carefully. Predictably, this Sunday was just like the one two weeks ago. This week, when the fellow with the microphone came by, I was seriously studying a bit of architectural detail where the east wall of the sanctuary intersected the ceiling. My feeling was that I sat there and let the service flow past me. I wasn't there for the religiosity of it, I wasn't there seeking Christian salvation for my soul, and I wasn't there to build a relationship with the congregation. My being there was a test, an experiment to how I'd respond to the people around me.
Once again, after the service, I shook the pastor's hand at the door and let the white-haired lady grasp my hand with both of hers.
"How nice to see you back again!" she said. "Can we expect to be seeing you regularly now?"
"It's nice to see you again, too," I said. "I can't promise that I'll be a regular, but I will probably be back from time to time."
"Weren't the flowers lovely today?" she asked. "Every time I see flowers, I'm reminded of God's love for us."
"The flowers were lovely," I said, as I began sliding my hand away. "They add a nice touch of freshness to the sanctuary."
This time, I was prepared to see the tables of cookies and coffee, but I still didn't feel like standing around making chit-chat with the parishioners. I believed that my reasons for being at church were quite different from theirs, and, in truth, I no longer believed in Christianity as the only pathway to heaven any more than I believed in the Easter Bunny. It seemed to me that any conversations I might have would be vapid, hypocritical, or uncomfortable for all concerned. Again making my way around the clumps of people talking over their coffee and cookies, I chose a path on the far side of the walk, away from the tables and Peg. I did not reckon on Peg's keen attention to the crowd.
"Alex! Alex!" she called over the heads of a dozen people. "Come say hello and get some coffee!"
It's possible that if I had any real courage of my convictions, or that if I really were as antisocial as I considered myself to be, I would have feigned deafness and kept walking, or even ignored Peg completely. But I couldn't bring myself to do that. I couldn't be downright rude, regardless of how I actually felt about getting involved with the church fellowship.
I edged back through the crowd and let Peg take my hand in hers in that double-fisted fellowshiply way. "How are you?" she beamed. "So, you decided we were worth coming back to visit again after all, huh?" Like I was a long-lost friend. Serious recruitment efforts, here. I glanced down at our collection of hands and noticed that her left hand, on top of the heap, was not sporting a wedding ring.
"Hi, Peg," I said. "Yes, I decided to come back again."
"Is the family with you today?"
"No, I'm here alone. We didn't attend church as a family."
"If church isn't part of your family, what's brought you by yourself?"
"It's kind of a long story," I said.
Peg, having released my hand, stepped back and looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. "Oh," she said. Then, after a pause, "Would you like to talk about it?"
Would I like to talk about it? Well, yes and no. Part of me would have loved to unburden itself by pouring out my tale to an attentive woman. The more cautious part of me, the one that was currently dominant, warned that everything was too fragile right now to invest outside of myself. I wasn't sure where my center was, and I didn't especially want a witness to my fumbling around in search of it.
Peg took my silence as assent. "You're right," she said. "This isn't a very good place to talk. Listen, all I have to do is serve. Since I'm on the set-up committee, I don't have to stick around to put everything away. Why don't we meet at the Kozy Kitchen in a half hour. You know where it is?"
I could have backed out gracefully, but I still was, after all, flying by the seat of my emotional pants. My own decisions, my own actions, fate, and a slightly aggressive middle-aged Methodist woman had combined to create this particular crossroads of time and place. Which fork should I take? It seemed to me there couldn't be much threat in having lunch with a church-going woman in a public restaurant, and it would be good practice in reassimilating myself into the world. I agreed.
The Kozy Kitchen, a neighborhood family restaurant a couple of miles down the main street from the church, was full of Sunday brunchers and breakfasters, some looking like they'd just come from church, and some looking like they'd just come from bed. The mixed aromas of bacon, coffee, and syrup hung heavy in the air. After a brief wait, I got a two-person booth next to a window, ordered coffee, and waited for Peg to arrive.
I hadn't finished my first cup of coffee when I saw her come through the door, all pastel and smile, and look on tip-toes around the room until she spotted me. She came to the booth and settled in, and we both studied menus. After considering various socially and politically correct breakfast options, I decided to blow a week's cholesterol ration on the standard eggs, bacon, and hash browns; Peg chose a fruit and fiber combination. The waitress, a sturdy woman in a black skirt and white shirt with properly knotted black necktie, came and took our orders. Then I began to have serious second thoughts about being here.
I'd told Peg that the reason for my coming to church was kind of a long story, and I'd agreed to meet her at the restaurant, presumably to tell her some version of the story. It had seemed, I suppose, like a good idea at the time, but I hadn't thought very far ahead of that moment. I didn't have a rehearsed speech to deliver, and I was in jeopardy of just dumping out pieces of my insides that I wasn't sure I wanted to reveal. In fact, my reasons for going to church covered a lot of territory, a long period of time, a good deal of my personal history. I didn't know where to start.
Peg apparently sensed my unease. She dropped her extroverted church fellowship and recruitment demeanor and smiled encouragingly, personally rather than generally. "So," she said, "you decided to come to church even though your family didn't attend church regularly, and how you got there is a long story. It sounds like the story could be an interesting one."
"I doubt it," I said. "It's pretty mundane stuff. The reason my family isn't with me is that I don't live with them any more. My wife and I separated about three months ago. My coming to church is just an experiment, a test. I haven't done anything socially for a long time, and church seemed like a safe place to be among people again."
"I should hope it would be a safe place," Peg said, "but that sounds more like the end of a story than the beginning."
I sat quietly for a moment to collect my thoughts. Peg didn't press.
"What really happened, I guess, what really began the whole process that resulted in my going to church, was that I realized I was living two lives. I'd developed a split personality. Or something like that."
Peg's eyes widened perceptibly. "Two lives?"
"Life was 'ordinary' for a long time. I got up, went to work, came home. Spent time with my wife and kids. Mowed the lawn, fixed leaky faucets, read books-did all the ordinary things that ordinary people did, and enjoyed what I was doing."
"And then something changed?"
"Not so much had changed as did change, so slowly that I didn't see it until the amount of change and my internal discomfort with it reached a point where I couldn't ignore it any longer. Life at home had become very uncomfortable, really shitty, if you don't mind my saying so."
Peg's face didn't move.
"My wife and I couldn't talk about hardly anything without arguing. We argued for years, literally. Arguing became a way of life. The only way we could communicate at all was through argument. We even argued about arguing, for God's sake. And I got so sick and tired of arguing that I couldn't stand it. My stomach was in a knot almost whenever I was at home. We couldn't stop arguing through any kind of reason or agreement, and I began to withdraw. Retreat."
The waitress bustled up, her arms lined with plates. The interruption gave me the opportunity to see that I was teetering on the brink of dumping my insides to a complete stranger, of exposing a flaw and a weakness I found difficult to admit to myself. Huge issues of trust and vulnerability began to gather about my thoughts like dark, heavy clouds. I'd gone to church only as a means of dabbling my toes in social waters. I wasn't looking for rescue or salvation in the form of another person, another woman.
"Enjoy!" the waitress said, bustling off again. Peg looked at me expectantly.
I stopped and cut a wedge out of one of my over-easy eggs and sopped up the yolk with a bite of hash browns. Peg rearranged the pieces of her fruit salad. And I had gone far enough that I was committed to finish my story, whether I really wanted to or not.
"During the week, I led a normal workaday life. But on weekends, I slept late and then hid in my room-my study-from the constant judgment and wrath of my wife. I was scared to death to come out and face the world without a 'legitimate' excuse-running errands, doing chores, or making household repairs. Then I began to notice that my retreat at home was affecting my 'normal' life. I was becoming less and less willing to talk to people at work, becoming gun-shy about conversations that might tend toward personal matters, and liable to react angrily to people when anger was wholly inappropriate. My perspective was shot. I felt like I was getting weird. That was when I realized I was leading two lives: what I was on the inside was not what I was on the outside, and I was scared to death that someone would be able to see what I was like on the inside, find out who or what I really was."
I felt like my face must be getting red. There it was, my little secret, right out there with the murmur of other conversations in the room, scattered across the table around the salt and pepper shakers and the bottle of catsup, in plain view. Peg stopped a chunk of pineapple halfway to her mouth and looked at me with evident surprise.
"That's it? Those were your two lives?" she said.
"Yes," I said, unsure whether it was mortification or relief I was feeling.
Peg put the piece of pineapple back onto her plate, picked up her napkin, and dabbed at her lips. Then she started to laugh. She kept the napkin over her mouth and laughed in a reserved way, but she laughed nonetheless until the corners of her eyes were wet.
Mortification surged into the lead.
"Alex, Alex, Alex," she said. She reached across the table and placed one of her hands gently on top of mine. "Please, I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing at myself. Laughing with relief. I'd prepared myself for the worst. I had myself convinced that you were going to tell me you'd taken to beating your wife to a pulp or robbing banks or something, and that you'd come to church in a last-ditch effort to save your soul. Really. Truly. It sounds to me like what you went through is the same kind of loss of direction everybody goes through when a marriage comes apart."
Mortification slowed its pace and relief edged forward.
"So, if you didn't come to church out of desperation, what did get you there?"
Heartened by Peg's acceptance of what I was saying, I continued. "At the same time that I admitted my split personality to myself, I realized that my study, which had for years been my place of refuge from the world, a pleasurable place for me to be, had become a cell of fear into which I'd locked myself. Then I tried to remember what weekends used to be like, what normal people did on Saturdays and Sundays, and I wondered what I'd do with my weekends if I were free of the restraints I was feeling right then. What I decided was that I'd have to ease back into society after such a long period of exile. I didn't think I could just jump into a world of people with a large commitment. I'd have to do something passive, like sit in a mall and watch people walk by, or perhaps visit an art exhibit, or maybe go to church."
"Have you done those other things too, or did going to church win the debate?
"Church won. It seemed to me, after thinking things over, that I'd expanded my loss of faith and trust in my wife to a loss of faith and trust in people. What I was really looking for was normality and good intentions among people. I needed relief from the nuttiness of work in the computer business as well as from my wife's anger. I decided that just being in a crowd, like in a mall or at an art exhibit, wasn't quite enough. I needed more reassurance than that. Fishing back nearly thirty years in memory, I thought I recalled that church people were likely to be friendly, or at least not threatening. People with a focus and with good intentions. I know this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I guess the process that got me to church was more intuitive than logical. Or maybe desperate. I needed to put myself someplace where there were people and be prepared to respond to what I found when I got there."
The look on Peg's face seemed to suggest that I'd explained the long story of how I got to church satisfactorily. "It makes perfect sense to me," she said.
Our conversation-my near monolog-had been punctuated by bites of egg and toast, pear and romaine. Peg was sipping her coffee as I finished my second cup. The waitress had removed our plates and slipped the check under my saucer.
"Thank you for listening to me," I said.
"Alex, sometimes that's what people are for. And not all people, not all women, are your wife."
We scooted out of the booth. Peg waited in the entryway while I paid the tab. In the parking lot, I extended my hand to shake hers, and she once again covered our grip with her left hand.
"Alex," she said, "I haven't said much today, but before we go, let me offer you a couple of things to think about. The picture I got of you today was of a pretty okay guy. Confused and hurting after the breakup of a long marriage, but pretty okay. When you were thinking about what you'd do if you had the freedom to move about as you wanted, you picked some pretty tame and healthy choices. You didn't want to get even, you didn't want to take your anger out on anyone else, you didn't want to get drunk or go on a sexual binge, or anything like that. What you wanted to do was fix yourself. Maybe you should be a little easier, more forgiving, with yourself. And try not to think so damn much."
"I'll try," I said. "For me, that's not so easy, I guess."
"Will I see you next Sunday?"
"I think so. Right now, I'm planning on it."
We gave our hands a little squeeze and shake, and then went to our cars. On the drive home, I realized that, while Peg and I were standing in the parking lot, we did more than part with just a friendly shake. We held hands for several minutes. I hadn't been trying to hold hands with Peg. Of course, I couldn't know what her intent might have been.
The next Sunday I did go to church again. It was now late June, and Silicon Valley was experiencing the first of the dozen or so really hot days it has every year, temperatures in the 90's and dead calm air. Saturday it was hot and Sunday dawned already hot, with the promise of nothing but more heat as the day progressed. In the church, there wasn't a necktie in sight. Many of the men were wearing short-sleeved shirts, and many of the women sleeveless dresses. Lots of people fanned themselves with programs during the service. By now, my third visit to the church, neither the people nor the surrounds seemed totally unfamiliar. I nodded recognition to some of the worshippers, but I still sat apart from them, and I still looked away when the young man with the microphone came by. I was still there for me, not for them.
After the service, I shook hands with the minister again, then just went ahead to the coffee table, which today included sweating pitchers of fruit punch, to greet Peg and chat with her. After we'd exchanged greetings, I couldn't help but ask, "Where's the old lady who's usually standing right outside the door, you know, the one who likes the flowers so much?"
"She had a stroke last week," Peg said. "She's in the hospital, and it seems unlikely that she'll recover."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. And I was. This was, it seemed to me, where the rubber of religion met the road to eternity. I had to wonder whether her apparent years at church had prepared the old lady for this moment, whether she would in fact be the recipient of God's love for her.
"Peg, thank you again for listening to me last week. I feel like that was a bit of an imposition on my part, taking your time that way just to vent at you."
"Oh, Alex, for Pete's sake," Peg said. "I was happy to have the opportunity to get to know you better. Hey, look, want to have lunch today?"
I hadn't planned on having lunch with Peg today. But, then, I hadn't planned on not having lunch with Peg today, either. Why not?
"Sure," I said. "Want to do the Kozy Kitchen again?"
"It's so hot today," Peg said, "and my house stays nice and cool during hot weather. Why don't we go there? It's only a few blocks away."
"That sounds fine to me."
"Okay, why don't you mix and mingle here until the crowd thins and I can get away, then you can follow me over."
I agreed. I didn't exactly mix and mingle, but I moved among the groups of people, mostly eavesdropping to learn what these folks talked about during their fellowship time. It was quickly apparent that many of them had known each other for a long time, and they were chatting about mutual friends and family members, catching up on the news. By now I did have at least a nodding recognition of some of the people, and we nodded and shook hands in greeting, though we didn't speak beyond pleasantries. The church people were, of course, glad to see me back again and hoped they'd be seeing more of me. After a half hour or so, most of the crowd had dispersed. Peg touched my arm to get my attention, and we walked off to the parking lot.
Though the drive was short, in fact only a few blocks away, I could feel sweat trickling down my chest before we got to Peg's. It was in one of the mature areas of Santa Clara, almost but not quite in the shadow of the Mission. The lot was landscaped, complete with squatty palm trees, to look like a piece of old Mexico. The walls of the house were blinding white in the sun, resembling the plaster and whitewash finish of an adobe, and the windows were faced with dark, rough-cut wood, studded with black iron fittings. The roof was the typical alternating semicylindrical red tile. The portals on the front porch were made of massive, rough-cut beams, and the front door consisted of dark wood planks bound together by black iron bands. At eye level was a peep-hole guarded by wrought-iron latticework.
Inside, the house was cool. A red-tiled entryway opened into a large living room with vigas and latillas-the crossing large and small beams peculiar to adobe construction-on the ceiling, and bancos, benches, beneath the windows. Peg had carried the Mexican theme into her furnishings as well, dark heavy frames with plush cushions. The whole interior was dark, subdued, which lent to the impression of coolness in contrast to the glare of the sun, and smelled of oiled wood. The darkness did not feel oppressive or sinister, but inviting. To me, it indicated comfort and security, peace and insulation, the expression of someone who was perfectly content to lead a private, self-contained life, a sentiment with which I could empathize. We went from the living room through a dining room, which contained a heavy, dark table and chairs, into the kitchen.
"Have a seat," Peg said, indicating a lighter, more modern breakfast table. "Please excuse me for a moment. I've just got to get out of these shoes."