Recycling Faith

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When I was in elementary school, our district did a can drive to promote recycling and cash-in the deposits for funding. Classrooms competed to collect as many aluminum cans as possible. The principal promised an ice cream party for the winning homeroom. I begged my parents to buy soda in bulk (“It’s the responsible thing to do!”). Instead, my father took us dumpster-diving.

We lived at the edge of suburbia in the midst of America’s housing boom; any square-foot of untouched land held potential for profit. At the end of each day, once construction crews were finished, we’d cruise the neighborhood looking for promising worksites. My sister and I scaled the metal walls of dumpsters glancing toward our father waiting by the car like we’d just been granted permission to rob an ice cream truck. Once in we would pick our way around the rubble, tossing any cans over and out where Dad collected them, like they were Easter eggs on a church lawn. Memory exaggerates, but I’m sure we collected several hundred cans with this routine.

A couple of weeks back, I went for a drink with a friend from grad school. We discussed his doctoral work, which was creating something of a faith crisis. “The old stories just don’t work for me anymore,” he told me. His tone was neither desperate nor dismissive; he wasn’t looking for answers or advice. Good thing, because the only response I could muster was swishing my glass while muttering “the drinks here have always been a bit too weak for me.”

It was in middle school that I began attending the weekly youth meetings at our church. We met on Tuesday nights for games and a Bible study. The youth pastor was young and cool (like, wore jeans-to-church cool); several college-aged leaders with frosted tips greeted us as we arrived. For two dollars, we could buy two slices of pizza and a soda.

We talked about Jesus and the Biblical stories. Seven days of creation, belly of a whale, virgin birth, the apocalypse…we got a crash course in fundamentals of the evangelical tradition. More importantly, we learned how to express that tradition (“share the good news”) to others. It was the latter that gave our education a sense of urgency. Faith had to be erected quickly like the new homes of the housing boom, structures built to meet the material demand of the masses which call for answers and concise paradigms. But, like a bursting bubble, not much is needed to reveal the weakness in the frames.

My childhood and the housing boom ended at roughly the same time. Dumpsters and muddy plots of land were replaced by overgrown gaps in the sidewalk. As puberty struck, I grew peach fuzz and skepticism. By the time I graduated college, enough of my long-held assumptions had been scrutinized that I felt like I was coughing in a cloud of smoke but still asking “is something burning?”

All this makes me think of a metal mug my father had in his office which he used for stashing all his loose change. Every six months or so he enlisted us kids to count up the coins into paper rolls— 100 pennies, 40 nickels, 50 dimes, etc. Completed rolls were left on his desk to be deposited in the bank. He called it our college fund. I never saw the deposit slips, but I’d call that “dark humor.” That said, it’s only recently occurred to me that the school district and my father seemed to employ a similar strategy for funding my education: save what you can, it just might add up.

I like to say that my childhood faith has evolved into deconstructed pieces. Practicing this faith is a kind of dumpster diving. Instead of checking boxes next to “I believe” I seek the pieces of my Christian heritage that can be recycled. Some days it’s difficult not to feel as though my tradition takes sincerity and cashes it in for platitudes. The 2016 election, for instance, was like someone gathered all those recyclable cans I’d been collecting and tossed them into the ocean, right above some seals. Baby seals. Just because they could.

I never left the church. Even though the old stories haven’t been working for a long time.  I think I lack the courage. A hiatus here and there may have done me— and my faith— some good. But I’ve never had the bravery of Thomas— searching for answers out in the world while the other disciples remained huddled, terrified, in a locked room.

My class won, by the way. And ice cream during school hours never tasted so good. Which is to say that I do think there’s still–there’s always— hope. Even if it comes from a dumpster, even if only worth a nickel. Because who knows, it just might add up.

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Snowy Earthquakes All the Time

6) Snowly Earthquakes All the Time

It’s a clear morning, the kind when the sun unveils delicately, like a baker unwrapping a loaf of fresh, sensuous bread. I’m at a window, overlooking a blanket of new snow upon the woods. I find myself returning to my first memory of snow.

It takes place in a car with my father. It’s our grey minivan— faithful and clunky. We’re parked with the engine on. On the radio is a musical number from Cats. My father is explaining the concept behind Cats, which is entirely lost on me; I was not a budding thespian, nor high.

I place this memory in late autumn. Humid snowflakes fall around us. Their life is brief; they drop like tiny parachutes anchored to rocks and melt upon impact. Tired windshield wipers raise and lower themselves, removing slush in uneven strokes.

The novelist Anthony Doerr notes that there’s more to an individual snowflake than meets the eye: “Take a snow crystal…it looks rigid, frozen in place… (but) on an extremely tiny level, as it freezes it vibrates like crazy, all the billion billion molecules that make it up shaking invisibly.”

Snowflakes are not static; they constantly reshape their own existence in ways we cannot identify, yet always observe. That, Doerr says, is what gives them their shapes: “tiny instabilities.” We see change happen without knowing it. “On the outside, the crystal looks stable, but on the inside, it’s like an earthquake all the time.” The same can be said for memories; tiny vibrations are always there.

The faith of my childhood was simple. I was raised in church and never doubted the reality of Jesus as God any more than I doubted the realness of the bread and (albeit, sacrilegiously cheap) grape juice of communion. The world constructed by my faith tradition was a world of knowns. It was like dancing without pausing to ask where the music came from and if there were any other tunes. Remembering this now feels like watching an autumn snowflake melt in my hand.

The memory of listening to Cats with my father was, at first recollection, static. “It’s just a memory,” was my initial thought, said in the tone of a housewife holding her prize sweater: “oh, this old thing?” But this just a memory is vibrating with questions—little earthquakes of life: why are we parked and what are we waiting for? Why are we listening to Cats? How is it- in my mind- autumn, yet snowing?

Childhood faith (“this old thing?”) is likewise far from simple but is made up of a billion billion questions, even if I didn’t know it then. The snow I saw for the first time that autumn evening had a life of its own; the faith I felt as a child was the same way. Thousands of years ago, my ancestors caught a break in the evolutionary cycle long enough to look up into the night sky and ask “why?” The acceptance of this little earthquake makes doubt feel less like darkness and more like the first step into a snow-laden forest as the sun also stretches its legs.

To such an end, Cats is also a guide. The number titled “Memory” is sung by the character Grizabella, a cat whose days of glamour—faith of a child, if you will— has long since passed. “Let your memory lead you,” she instructs. “Open up, enter in…”

Again, I find myself standing at the edge of the forest. There’s fresh snow; taking a step forward feels exhilarating if slightly foreboding. But a melodic, feline voice invites me to “let the memory live again.”

“Let faith live again.”

Remembrance is a discipline, one to be handled with care. Memories aren’t things to be thrown around nor should they be an object of belittlement or self-deprecation (“what, this old thing?”). But I also think that memory, like faith, is a lot stronger than I give it credit for. While their composition may seem as simple as an autumn snowflake, its nature is that of an ongoing earthquake, tiny enough not to tear it apart but strong enough to make it dynamic and shifting. I have to let these vibrations not startle but fascinate me.

“Let faith live again.”

On mornings with fresh snowfalls, I consider it a discipline to wake early and take those first steps into the woods. Sometimes this is opening a Bible; sometimes it is quietly staring at the snow. Either way, I answer Grizabella’s call; I enter in. And, with my first step, I feel the rumble of an earthquake.

Yams & Stuffed Animals

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A professor I know grew up in Ghana where he would sometimes spend the day working on his uncle’s farm. After work, his uncle insisted on providing him a load of yams to take back home, a 12-kilometer walk. On the way, he passed over a stream where many travelers with similar burdens would stop for a drink. One day there was another man who was carrying a large load of yams in his arms, a few too many to manage. As my professor watched, the man lost his grip on the yams so that they slipped and fell as if they themselves plotted the escape. He scampered about, trying to recollect them. But each yam he picked up seemed to push another from his grasp.

I’m coming to feel this way about memories.

As a child, I had scores of stuffed animals. All were intimately named and loved with a pastoral affection. I insisted on having them sleeping in bed with me each night.  All of them. Suffice to say, the bed was filled to capacity and inevitably one or two would take a tumble. Bedtime became a precociously anxious affair. It simply wasn’t possible to hold everyone so dear.

“We shed as we pick up,” the playwright Tom Stoppard once wrote, “like travelers who must carry everything in their arms.” I find this to be the case with memories. Every year, I seem to forget more experiences and more recently. I think of that man running after his yams or my five-year-old self trying to share a bed with thirty-odd stuffed animals. Should I take up scrapbooking?

The last thought gives me pause. When I first encountered the memory of my childhood bedtime, the picture that came to mind was, well, not a picture at all. It wasn’t anything physical that aroused my memory but was the emotional recollection of those nights.

But when I dig deeper, I find physical memories: my childhood bedroom was painted dark blue, with wallpaper at about eye- level (of a child, that is). On the wallpaper were mountainous ocean scenes starring orcas, my childhood obsession. The bed was twin-sized, with brightly stained wooden beams. There was a bedside dresser with three drawers, the handles of which painted red, yellow and blue. The carpet was soft, like the knock-off luxury carpets of a three-star hotel. When I think of the room, I feel a sense of appreciation for the childlike wonder and mourn the possibility that I have since lost it-

And, just like that, my physical memories have been superseded, and I find myself feeling again.

I spent several summers in my twenties as a kayak guide in Maine. One of the islands we paddled around had a bald eagle’s nest. One summer we could see two chicks peeping their heads out of the nest. A senior guide told us that this was rare; the normal practice of bald eagles when more than one egg hatched was to evaluate the chicks then force the weaker one out of the nest. Instinct said that only one chick could survive; they had to choose the strongest.

Physical memories or emotional ones; which do we keep in our nests of time?

Scientists say that most emotional memories are the result of a cued recall. Meaning, that there is some sort of handle, a leg-up, to prompt the memory. Something experienced by one of our senses, something physical. But you can’t carry everything. And so, once recalled, the emotional memory kicks the other chick out of the nest. Emotional memories are, in short, bullies. And in more ways than one.

Memories built on emotion dictate a reaction; we’ve nothing else to grasp, nothing to go off of, other than our memory of how it feels. On the other hand, physical memories allow us to experience things all over again. Physical memories take our hand and lead us into the forest, rather than holding us at its edge telling us what it’s like.

What if we decide to carry the physical, and leave the emotional behind? Maybe this cognitive choice might allow us to re-experience the emotional and maybe, in such a small way, re-experience the memory itself again. If I intentionally accept the reality of not being able to hold everything and, instead of fretting over trying to, I decide what I’ll hold, I wonder what might happen? Could memory itself change?

I’m not sure that’s a choice we get to make. But, when it comes to how we handle our memories- those to which we do hold on- I believe we have some say in the matter. As I remember it, my parents eventually talked some sense into me. “Choose one animal to sleep with at night.” And, having been granted this limitation and choice, I slept much better.