My Mennonite neighbor Dawn exudes a manner of calm acceptance. She hugs me when I meet her, and doesn’t seem to mind when I block her attempts to talk to me about Jesus, or when I shoo her away so I can have a cigarette.
“It doesn’t bother me, really,” she says, “I kind of like the smell of smoke.” I laugh because Dawn often challenges my assumptions in gentle ways, and I like that — I like when my apprehensions turn out to be groundless. Dawn knows I’m gay; she doesn’t judge. She knows I haven’t had much success with quitting my vices; she offers only encouragement. She knows I have no interest in her religion; she just continues to be Dawn. She lets her 12 year old daughter talk to me about anything under the sun, and doesn’t feel the need to remind me what is and isn’t in the realm of their beliefs. I check my own speech out of respect, but occasionally slip with a damn or a Jesus that seemingly goes unnoticed.
Almost every day, particularly when it’s warm, I see Dawn outside. Sometimes she just walks in circles in the gravel parking lot, wearing a jean skirt, a baggy sweatshirt and a cap of lace, praying to herself or meditating on scripture. Sometimes her husband joins her and they hold hands as they go for longer walks. On sunny days, her daughter Becky rides a bicycle while her mother tests her on Psalms or history.
Becky is a girl who laughs easily and who can tell me her entire life plan in under five minutes. She wants to go to college early, get her Master’s, and become a teacher. She wants to get married at 21 and have babies. For now, though, she likes glittery toenail polish, learning to play the harp, and eating sweets. She favors M&M’s, milkshakes, and cookies, which she makes in batches for home-school credit. The last batch was oatmeal raisin. “I know you’re on a diet,” she smiles, bounding over to where I sit outside, “so I only brought you three.” She’s wearing jeans and an Abercrombie t-shirt and her smile is contagious. She reminds me of a young gazelle—grace in the making—but for now she’s all arms and legs, and completely unaware of her own beauty.
One time, she ran over to me with a big bag from Old Navy. “Forty-nine cents each!” she exclaimed. The bag was filled with summer thongs, in every color. “Pick a pair,” she said. “We got all sizes and are giving them away as gifts.” I picked a purple pair, size 9, and she seemed pleased. “I have polish to match those,” she told me. Her mother joined us and the talk turned to mountains and balloon rides, Amish cooking, and the difficulty of losing weight past a certain age.
Whenever I leave the company of Dawn and Becky, I feel happy by some trick of osmosis, and I want to dwell in the innocence surrounding me for as long as I can. Dawn is not a naïve woman—she has held crack babies and seen lives destroyed by drugs, alcohol, and other vices—but she is eternally hopeful. She was reared in sunlight and the belief that God has a purpose for everyone and everything, and that the hardest times are only tests of faith and endurance. She would quickly tell me that she is imperfect, but strives daily to make herself a better person. She walks and prays and when she falls short, she finds a teachable moment and comfort in scripture.
After a lifetime of pleading, searching, questioning, falling and standing up again, I know God is not the answer for me. I find myself in need of something concrete—something I don’t have to guess at, with motives I don’t have to wonder about or question. I have taken too many long, prayerful walks of my own, and railed too many times against an expanse of sky that has never offered more than an echo back.
I yearn for brick and mortar, bone and soul, stable and touchable miracles.
There are no such miracles on the horizon.
When I fall, as I do often these days, it feels like there should be something to lean against or hold onto, but there’s nothing there. There are only hints of where something foolishly optimistic and ultimately futile tried to exist—leaving behind stains that taunt and reprimand: Not yours, not yours, not yours, never yours. Stand up, stop crying, be tough, be strong.
Refuge, like so many things, like life, is fleeting and always temporary.
I fall to my knees and pray to the god inside of me, the one that has a history of keeping me resilient, if only with well-worn promises. Tomorrow’s another day, anything can happen, you’ve come this far, you’ll get there one way or another.
I plead to my higher self. I am overflowing, I say. There’s just been too much, too many lifetimes lived in this one, and there’s no release—no matter how many words I write or cages I invent to hold the excess. No matter how often I try to make sense of the senseless. Take some of this away, I beg, any part of it—take away the thousand triggers, the broken dreams, the failures, the endless anxiety and fears, the mind that never rests, the spirit that has been inflated and deflated so many times that it’s left sagging and vulnerable to attack, even from the blindest and most thoughtless of people.
Let me sleep. God, I need to sleep.
Eventually, I leave my impotent god in a puddle on the carpet and get up to wash my face. My Mennonite neighbors have slipped a belated holiday card under my door. Smiling pictures and a church tract reminding me that Jesus is Lord.
I find myself happy for them all over again, not only because they find solace in an untouchable savior but because they believe so strongly that all in life has a purpose and that anyone can be saved, including me.
Stand up, be tough, be strong. Make wiser choices, and wear blinders when necessary.
And when all else fails, buy a king-sized packet of M&M’s for a sweet little girl and watch her green eyes sparkle with joy.