Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sailing and the Plum Tree

For the first time since arriving in Greece, I woke up before the rest of the crew. For some reason, ever since I got aboard Reflections I’d been sleeping like a rock star in the morning, hung over from the UV rays and hypnotized by the swaying of the boat on water. When I was in Paris with my friend Raphaelle I didn’t sleep for about a week, but instead lay in bed staring out the balcony window. So sleeping, even on a hard bunk in a sailboat, felt great.
That morning though, I got up early, climbed up to the pilot house with a mug of instant coffee, and began reading my Bible. The Captain awoke next and came to join me in the pilothouse with his version of coffee—instant cappuccino mix.
“What are you working on there?” he asked curiously.
“Um,” I hesitated. I was still trying to be careful about how showy I was with my faith on the boat, knowing I’d be on board with these people for weeks and not wanting to create any unnecessary tension.
“It’s a study on the life of Paul,” I paused, “Which is really interesting because his missionary journeys take him around the Mediterranean.” I hoped Max would pick up more on the sailing in the Med than the whole “missions” part.
But suddenly Cap didn’t look so curious. He leaned back still clutching his coffee cup, his face hardening over. “You know what?” he said, “You don’t find God in a book. That’s not where you find Him at all. You find him in your heart.”
I sat for a moment in silence, trying to decide how to respond. How do you respond to someone who doesn’t believe in the book that’s supposed to guide your life?
“Well, I find God in other people,” I said slowly. “And I see Him working in my relationships.”
“That’s beautiful, Rachel!” I heard Terri-Leigh, one of the crewmembers, shout from down below.
My struggle with faith has been going on since birth. As a child I witnessed the unshakable devotion of my mother and godmother, Nellie, making it so easy to believe. To them God was as inextricably tied to life as water, like a sixth sense. Nellie was the person who reestablished my mom’s wavering Catholic conviction, showing her the Christian ideology of salvation through faith, rather than works, or rosary prayers.
Nellie used to take me outside to pray underneath the plum tree that didn’t bare plums. The tree had been barren for years. It wasn’t dead, as the green leaves as big as my four-year-old face proved, but I had yet to see the plums that gave the tree its name. Situated in the corner of our seemingly huge back yard on Hayworth Avenue in Los Angeles, on the small plot of grass laid out in a square behind the driveway, my main reason for visiting the tree was to swing on my wooden rocking horse. My dad hung the swing up with thick white ropes, and it served as one of my only escapes from the scorching summer heat. It was like my personal Garden of Eden in the middle of the city, the roots of the tree buried deep beneath the cement crust.
Nellie and I walked out and prayed under that tree every day, asking God to breathe life into its buds. It seemed so natural to me at that age, to be bowing methodically like a tiny student monk, my hands clasped on top of my bent knees.
Even more amazing than my solid faith was God’s answer. The following summer the tree bared fruit. We had the best plums I have ever tasted in my life. They burst open in my mouth, dying my hands and cheeks a deep violet color, the juice running down onto my little blue dress and ashy legs. We gave them away to neighbors in brown paper bags because there were too many for us to eat. Imagine that, too many plums from the tree that didn’t bare plums.
I want faith like the plum tree again—the illogical kind that doesn’t need explanation beyond your own deep, inner well that tells you to believe in something bigger than yourself. My belief system in general was tested a lot on the sailing trip. I found it really hard to live with seven different people with entirely different views about God and religion. Sometimes I felt like I was under constant scrutiny while other times I felt satisfyingly encircled in unbiased hope and love.
The one thing we all had in common was a belief in a higher being who created us and moves and works in our physical world. We also had traveled quite a bit so we certainly weren’t ignorant about differences in people’s cultural norms.
Everyone, even the Captain, accepted my Christianity for what it was, as long as I wasn’t being the judge about heaven and hell and who got to go where. I was careful not to talk about my spirituality in that sense. I wanted it to be more material than that.
“It bothers me when people talk about what heaven’s going to be like,” Rommy, my closest friend on the boat, said to me one morning. We sat on deck munching our corn flakes and staring out the plastic windows towards the water. “What does it even matter?” he asked.
Rommy was right. What does it matter? We aren’t in heaven yet, and we won’t know anything certain about it until we die, so why start making plans? Live for today. Live for the people who surround you. Find, as one of my professors always used to say, how to be “In the right place and at the right time, and still do the right thing. That is the best you can do.”
Unfortunately, while I don’t have to be Judge Judy, I still feel I have to be concrete about what I believe. Like, if I believe Christianity is the only religion leading to salvation, and if Christ is the bridge connecting us to God, is it enough to love God and your neighbor? Or, does a person literally need Christ to fill the hole in their soul that cries out for freedom?
I  always thought the Bible was so clear cut, especially growing up in a conservative, expository preaching style church, but now I wonder if I’ve been too close-minded, too intolerant.
Rosie, one of my crewmates from England, once told me how an old man who looked exactly like Santa Claus used to come into the grocery store where she worked in Leicestershire.
“I tried to be extra nice to him,” she said. “Just in case.”
The matter-of-fact-ness with which Rosie said this amazed me—complete honesty in one sentence.
Maybe I’m trying to be extra nice to this man called Jesus, just in case He really is the Son of God.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

California Centerfold, in Prose

      I flew into San Francisco quickly. Not that the plane flew all pell-mell, just that I was asked there quickly, made the decision quickly, bought the ticket quickly. And before I knew it, I had left San Diego once again, landed on the long runway up north, and was walking through the sun-drenched SFO airport to wait for my ride.
            “I’m in a bright blue truck,” he said.
            “He,” as in, I still can’t remember “his” name.
I realized once I got into the car, that maybe it’s time to start being a little more careful about who I work for. I didn’t even know these guys. Kyle texted me a few days earlier—hadn’t even called to ask if I could come up north for a while.           
“When do they need me?” I texted back.
            “As soon as possible. They’re ready to harvest.”
            The thought that immediately came through my head was, Oh shit, they must be desperate. 
            But then again, so was I. Desperate for money.
            After getting lost in the six-story parking lot, I found my way idiotically onto the street. My driver finally pulls up—bright blue truck, as promised.
            “So you live in Santa Cruz?” I ask, pulling the front seat forward and stuffing my bag into the back.
            “Uh, no,” he pauses, and laughs. “We live in Calaveras County. Didn’t Kyle tell you?”
            Sure didn’t.
As my driver and I chit chat briefly, I search the map on his phone to find Calaveras. Stretching out, east, east, east, past Stockton, and nearing the Sierras, I text my location to my roommate, and to my brother.
“Just in case.” I write at the end of the text. As in, just in case this was a horrible idea and I don't get reception at this random cabin in the middle of absolutely no-where-county. If the young girl in the woods screams and no one hears it, does she exist?
We drive out of the Bay Area and onto the highway, passing stretches of yellow hills, tumbling and falling over each other like ripples in a lake. My driver and I make pleasant conversation. In his Dickie pants and skater t-shirt, he reminds me of my friends from high-school.
“Oh, I love this song,” he changes the position of his hands on the steering wheel and looks over at me and smiles. I turn up the volume on the radio.
“Mason Jennings is perfect for a day like this,” he says. “I once saw him live in Santa Cruz, but the problem was everyone in the crowd was a couple. Except me, of course. The guys all stood behind their girlfriends with their arms around their waists, stroking and kissing.”
“Oh, god, I hate that,” I say.
He nods his head.
“All I wanted to do was smoke pot, but I figured I’d get kicked out,” he laughs and pauses to sing along to the chorus-line. “But this song,” he points his finger at the dash. “This song is when I gave up and lit one.”
“Really?” I stare out the window at my hand, cutting through the air like a hot knife through butter. I loosen my fingers and let them flap in the wind behind the rear-view mirror.
“Yeah, I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I lit up a joint and the moment I did, Mason looked up and said, ‘Smells good in here, Santa Cruz.’ That was the best concert I’ve ever heard.”
On the way to the house we stop at Rinaldi’s Market, a local grocer just outside of Calaveras, where, as my driver says, “People are always nice.”
“Do you expect people to be mean?” I ask.
“Well no, but,” he stops to get pull a cart from the stack by the sliding door, “Let’s just say there are other stores we don’t go into.”
Stores we don’t go into? Where am I? I feel like I really am headed back in time—back into Mark Twain’s stomping grounds. This is where he wrote his Jumping Frog about a hundred years ago, literally the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and, let me just say, I vaguely remember something in Huckleberry Finn about rivalries and family feuds. Is this what we’re talking about? A little Shepherdsons versus the Grangerfords?
“Why can’t you go into certain places?” I ask. We’re walking along the ailes now—he picks out pepperoni slices, cheese, and beer. I pick out apples and bell peppers, but who am I kidding? I’ll be juggling a meal of beer and cheese in about a half hour.
“This is a very small part of town,” he says. “Everyone here knows everyone else, so when I or one of the other guys goes into one of those family owned markets, they have no idea who we are and start asking questions. They suspect us of something.”
I don't ask what.

            We pile our things into the back of the truck and point our front wheels into the hills, winding through bumps in the road. He takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. I breathe in the smell deeply.
            “Oh, sorry, you want one?” he holds the pack out to me, and for a second I think I’m going to say no, but suddenly my hand reaches forward and takes one. He stretches his arm across the center seat to light me, an act I’ve always found mildly romantic.
            “I don’t know how this happened,” I laugh.
            “How what happened?” He keeps his eyes on the road.
            “This!” I hold the cigarette out between my two fingers, eyeing it suspiciously like I don’t know how it got there.
            “What, don’t you usually smoke?”
            “Not really!” I feel defensive, but also mildly stupid. Like I don’t smoke. Here I am, in a strangers’ truck, with my window rolled down, blowing smoke into the air. If that’s not smoking, I don’t know what is.
            “Eh, it’s alright.” He rubs his forehead with the back of his hand. “Just enjoy yourself.”
            I sigh, and turn my face into the setting sun to watch the hills roll by. Their backs arched towards the sky, they remind me of big yellow elephants. 

During the day we take breaks and load up the Bebe gun for target practice. I push the butt of the gun into my shoulder, right at the point where my arm meets my body, a little trick I learned while hunting in Virginia.
A piece of metal scrap hangs up in the trees, and as I aim, point, and shoot, a loud ding echoes into the forest.
            “You hit it!” the boys shout.
They seem impressed, which makes me smile. When I’m the one girl in a group of five boys, I feel I have to prove my worth. Boys are easy. Somehow hitting a piece of metal with a gun is all it takes to become one. I pull down on the barrel to reload, push a Bebe into the hole, and snap up on the handle to cock the gun.
“So what’s next?” I say, propping the gun on the railing.
“We have some turkeys on the property,” one of the guys says.
“Give me just one minute,” I say, walking around the side of the porch to the front of the house.
I pull on one of the guys’ boots, which are a little big, but at the same time embarrassingly not. Tying the laces up high on my calves below my skirt, I throw the gun over my shoulder, and motion for the guys to follow.
“Let’s go get us some dinner.”

           Later that evening,  I slip outside onto the wood porch overlooking the Sierras. Leaning on the rickety railing, the bars shift slightly under my weight. I crane my neck back and stare up at the stars, hundreds of them, popped into the deep night drapery like holes in the fabric. I can suddenly feel God’s presence and how truly close I am to Him, and how I need this moment more than ever to acknowledge that fact and ask for help and guidance.
            Give me the ability to let go of destructiveness, I prayed. And please, please, if possible, prepare me for what's next.
            Finally, with a mild sense of guilt, I whispered, “And show me a sign that you’re really here.”
            I stared hard into the stars, half expecting a shooting light or a meteor or even an airplane, but only a bat flew by, its small wings flapping into the darkness. I went and sat at the wooden table, picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and read a chapter about accepting pain and acknowledging that with time, everything will pass.
            My sign.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sun is Bursting Forth

The shadows are passing over this mountain,
And lately, faith is falling off in boulders.
What are the shadows?
And who conducts their changes?

From billowing clouds overhead,
They reflect and sway,
Swagger, two-step,
Slowly across the blue sky,
Their boot heels clicking the mountain base,
And tossing the gravel into pillars of dust.

From down here they are heavy and cold,
But way up,
Outside my time and beyond my sight,
Wind pushes these shadows into another horizon,
And the moment of darkness,
Is a small patch of misshapen black.
Covering what is truly,
A vibrant, fertile earth.

The sun is coming,
Oh yes, I can see—
The sun is bursting forth.