I’m not sure that anyone will read this since it’s about four times the length of your average blog post, but I intend the first chapter of my book to be something like this. If you do read it and it piques your interest, can you do me a favor and let me know? Would you want to read what comes next?
My body knows it’s awake, nerves peeling the insides of my stomach.
The sun warms my face as I step off the train and a mild breeze moves to cool it. Above me, the Saturday sky stretches wide with golden-blue air.
The muscles in my neck are tight, wondering if they belong in this mellow suburban morning. My eyes and skin take in the calm and grow bewildered–my senses can’t make sense of it. The apprehension in my core persists, confusing all my meanings.
I see red trees and slumbering brick houses with windows dark and still. A squirrel scurries in the branches. A waking bird chirrups.
Down the road, a neighbor fetches the morning paper: a gentle yawn, thud, click. Heels scuffing against the peeling sage porch and creaking down the steps onto gruff asphalt.
Behind me, the train starts to chug and hiss, and I turn to watch as it pulls farther away from Philadelphia, its bold whistle piercing the air. The town sighs, turns over in its bed, and falls back asleep.
I know something will happen today, but I don’t know what. There will be a vision, but whether the spectacle that meets me is a beauty or a horror, I don’t know. This blank canvas is its own terror.
Brandon is there on the platform to meet me. He bends to give me a hug. He is a good eight inches taller than me, a fact I’ve never grudged him because he’s older, too.
Older brother, taller brother. These patterns of association make sense to the child’s mind, and though I am almost twenty-one, I am still a little girl. Old, big, strong. Young, small, weak.
But these categories are starting to fall apart. Brandon cannot protect me, that this is too big for both of us. Sometimes there are no shields, only healers to tend the wounds.
We walk the few blocks to his apartment, the second floor of a dusty blue Dutch colonial house with low ceilings and uneven, creaking floors. A few of its closets now open on to walls and dead-end staircases, remnants of the days when the house was once whole, before it was divided into apartments for rent.
We ascend the narrow stairs to the second floor, and I wonder who owns this house now. What stories lie dormant in these walls? Does the owner know them? How many bodies have come and gone in those rooms–writing themselves into the door frames and ceilings and floors–words that lie silent because there is no one to read them?
Brandon turns the front door knob and ushers me down the narrow hall, past the closed bedroom and bathroom doors, and into the small kitchen.
My sister-in-law, Celia, has the kettle on and is setting out mugs for tea. This is Brandon and Celia’s first apartment and first year of marriage. Older, taller, married first. Coupled and in love before I have even been asked on a date.
The others arrive: Mom, Dad, and Dora. The whole family squeezes close around the lacquered wood table.
But where is Matthew? Years later, I will forget that my thirteen-year-old brother is not here with us.
Of course Matthew was there. We were all there together, my mind will lie to itself. We were all there to bear witness to the words read aloud to us that day. Together, we received a revelation from on high.
But, no. Matthew is not here.
When I am reminded of his absence that day, my chest will constrict at the thought of how many years passed before Matthew learned the details of what was revealed in that borrowed blue house in North Wales, Pennsylvania. I will feel heavy trying to imagine what he must have conjured in the gaps. I will think of the apparitions that must have overwhelmed his aching little heart. What gods turned and reeled and tormented him in that empty space?
I will go on to interrogate my memory to elicit the truth. I will wonder whether we had mugs that day and if I smelled the scent of tea. Did my mind supply these details later to make the scene warmer, more palatable? Did we drink tea or did we gather around an empty table?
But memory is not a hard image; it’s unbaked clay. The mind remembers a fraction of what transpires, working over the fragmented images.
We did not eat a meal together, I will tell myself. This, I know.
Everyone seated at the kitchen table, Dad pulls out the typed letter from his front shirt pocket and unfolds it carefully.
As Dad reads, I notice that the kitchen window opens onto a zigzagging, black fire escape. What would happen, I wonder, if I were to lean over, pry the window loose from the sill’s ancient, sticky paint, and climb upward, downward, anywhere?
It isn’t a long letter. The content is concise and methodical. There is a dense, successive rhythm to it, moving from one era in our parents’ marriage to the next with the sparse precision of an ancient regnal chronicle. It is the family annals of over twenty years condensed into two pages.
But this letter isn’t one of the royal annals. It doesn’t have the customary summary statement near the end of the account: the author’s concluding assessment of the monarch’s reign after his death. Today, we are the authors, the judges. We are the all-seeing eyes peering into our family history, assessing our parents’ marriage at its end.
Dad reaches the end of the letter and lifts his eyes to look at us. “I’m sorry,” he concludes, his voice breaking. “I’m so sorry…” He starts to cry.
I stare at his baby blue eyes as if seeing them for the first time. They are clear and vivid, washed bright with tears. The thick cloud hovering about his eyes has dissolved into a flood of crystal drops.
I feel a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought.
Rain will come, a gutter filled, an Amazon, long aisles–you never heard so deep a sound, moss on rock, and years.
I feel a river rising to my startled eyes.
From my eyes the thirsty and unguarded drops burst forth in a storm of tears like winter rain.
The waters spilling down my face. My arms around him, holding him as I have never dared hold him before. The past is swept downstream. The future is pictureless.
The hunger pains of my girlhood gather to a point, cut through me, end me, and disappear.
We are here: face to face. My eyes are opened and I recognize him.
And he vanishes from my eyes.
I have not seen my father since he appeared to me that day of the divorce announcement.
Our bodies still inhabit the same social circles at birthdays, weddings, and holidays. We exchange sentences about news or the busy nothings of our lives (but not religion or politics). Gift cards and calendars and mugs pass between us.
One Christmas, Dad gives me a biography of a singer I liked as a teen. The next year, he puts on one of her soundtracks as we cut up vegetables for salad at Christmas dinner.
“Let me know if you get sick of the music,” he says.
I can see that he is trying to work with the patches of distant memory. What did his daughter like when last he checked? What can he recall from the days before his powers of observation waned and he drew deeper into his work?
I accept it with a sense of defeat. What harm can these offerings do me now, these tokens of memory loss?
My memory of that momentary appearing looks more bizarre to me as the years pass. I think I believed that the end of my parents’ marriage would be the beginning of a new era. I thought it meant we could all stop pretending that our house was whole. The cracking foundations revealed, we could tear the edifice down and rebuild it.
But time passes. Some things change, but many remain the same. Carry on, then. As you were.
I try to peer at the vision of that day without feeling the shame that crowds it now, trying to remember the lightness of my body, the generosity filling my lungs, the catharsis soaked with rich pain.
Some days, I can conjure the lightness of it. I am a sighted god then, seeing and seen.
But seen by who?
The days carry on without acknowledgement of the history between me and my father. He does not remember the long absences interspersed with sporadic anger and excoriation. Or, if he does remember, he shows now evidence of it.
But this has been his way for as long as I can remember. Let’s not go there. Don’t make a fuss. No need to bring that up, it will only make a ruckus.
I think ruckus is my only salvation now. The silent things, the invisible gods bearing us up, need to be named. Why do we return day after day to the altars of gods we do not know?
Most days, I cannot remember the sense of reality coursing through my veins that moment of my father’s appearing. I feel like the medium of Endor gazing in terror at the figure she’s called up from the dead. Is it the prophet? Or is it a god? Who is the old man wrapped in a robe?
Did you really believe that things would change? the voices spit. Naive little girl. This is the way things are. Don’t meddle with the actual.
I have that recurring sense of grime that’s visited me since adolescence. In a flash, I’m back in all those places when I tried to talk to my father about how I perceived his demeanor. I thought maybe if I could just lay it all out in cold, rational terms, he’d see. But it always ended to the same way: me crying, feeling skeevy. And Dad calmly explaining why I had no idea what I was talking about.
In my dreams, this tension is resolved. I’ll be walking in a public place–a flea market, a store, a street corner–headed nowhere in particular, just away. Dad is following me. I walk faster. But he’ll catch up to me, I’ll turn around, and we’ll have to talk.
And when I turn, his face is not what I expect. He isn’t angry. He isn’t critical. He isn’t gaslighting me. He wants to understand. “What’s wrong?” he asks gently. We talk. I explain. And he gets it.
And then I’ll wake up hating myself for how obvious and readable my dreams are. I may as well have a flashing neon green sign on my forehead: WOUNDED.
I know this nauseating shame I feel isn’t my fault. The sour grapes eaten by the fathers churn the stomachs of their children and send them retching into the ages.
Why do I keep revisiting that day to keep that excruciating vision alive? I want to push it out of my mind, to pretend my wounds were not stripped naked, my traumatized heart raw and radiant.
And yet, I return to it. I know I was there. Or was I?
Was I seen? Who sighted me? And who or what did I see that day?
That splinter of memory digs into my skin and reminds me that gods are never finished. Gods are fluid animals and therein lies the wild pain of hope.
If gods can bleed when pricked, their blood can clot, scab, and form new tissue beneath. When one god refuses to show itself in dreams or Urim or prophets, another will rise up to meet me–a sudden radiance breaking across our sighted faces.
What gods arose to meet me in the wake of my father’s turned face? Too many to name, though I am trying with my rudimentary tools to sculpt the faces of a few.
I know the language of deity will sound strange to many ears. It often feels foreign to me even though it’s my native tongue.
I grew up in religious communities where human and divine faces coalesced. We had no language to talk about god except in human metaphors and earthly images, much to our chagrin. But the converse was also true: We did not know how to talk about ourselves without divine framing.
On paper, our theology called for strict separation between the “way of god” and the “way of man.” But divine-human apartheid turned out to be difficult in practice. God as separate, other, and supreme came at the expense of our humanity.
Our holy scriptures told us that we had been made in the image of the invisible god. But what did god look like? Without this tangible visage, how could we know who we were?
And so we committed a cardinal sin: We imagined god. Into the emptiness of the divine face, we poured ourselves. It was a matter of survival, of self-preservation. The earth was destined to perish in the fires of judgment, and along with it our mortal bodies. But if we could write our features into the immutable heavens, upload ourselves to the cloud, something human would remain once the earth had been swallowed by divinity.
In this world, paternal delight and dissatisfaction were indistinguishable from those of the divine. My story might have been a cut and dried case of good old fashioned patriarchy if it hadn’t been for this. Not that patriarchy is ever simple, but religious patriarchy has a unique twist.
No matter what human authority you have truck with, there’s always a higher divine authority–a trump card, if you will. If you can somehow get ahold of that trump card–make a case that the human authority is going against the divine–you can undercut that son of a bitch. Even if he doesn’t believe you, you’ve started to carve your own image of the world, of the divine. When god is everything, you just might be able to tell the human authorities to go to hell.
The flip side of this is that–until you find that trump card, and sometimes even after you do–your world is still defined by your proximity to and pleasuring of a divine authority figure with an infinitely malleable face.
Divine-paternal dissatisfaction and disappearing was the genesis of my world.
In the beginning, god raised a skeptical eyebrow, shook his head and turned his back on all he had made. Blasted, bumbling humans. Couldn’t get anything right, could they?
I was born, like any sentient being with a modicum of self-awareness, with the intense desire to meet faces that looked on me with deep, abiding satisfaction.
Is that a big ask, you think? I don’t. Because I believe in this world. First and foremost, I believe.
There. I thought my exit from formal religion meant I was done with dogmas and creeds, but there it is: Credo ergo sum. I believe, therefore I am, which is (to be more precise) to say: I imagine, therefore I am. I dream, and in the dreaming, I live and move.
The story of a god turned, deity hiding from me because of a condition with which I was born–this myth is no longer working for me. It’s damned us all to eternal wandering–we humans roaming a world that isn’t our home, and our deity skulking forever outside of it.
The story of the wandering Jew has its own historic complications, but at least a material end is in view. In most versions of that tale, a perpetual sense of homelessness is cast as a condition that needs to be changed, and external circumstances are to blame for each diaspora.
This is a story you can work with. You can envision a better future and work to change external circumstances. You can participate in the transformation of the world.
But I grew up as a wandering evangelical Christian, and here the condition is internal, a matter of the heart. The problem is always inside you, but you can do nothing to fix it because you are matter, and the material world is evil. You cannot effect your own salvation from spiritual homelessness.
This story’s supreme dissatisfaction with materiality divested me of agency and the ability to dream. I, along with the rest of the human race, could do nothing to change the deity’s disgusted expression. It meant that the rare moments in which I did feel at home in myself–the sense of love, connection, wholeness–this was a perpetual condition brought about by sin. These were fragments of glory my eyes could not fully see until I was removed from this earth.
I drank in the myth of the eternal wanderer. It was the answer to the riddle of my bones: Do I belong here? Why, no. No, darling. No body belongs in this world. Haven’t you heard that sin is like yeast, spreading to the whole of our flesh? No, we can’t cut the cancer out. The execution of our flesh is our only hope.
You’re dying already, don’t you see? Better to die under the father’s knife and make satisfaction. Hush, now, hush. It’s alright, darling. Your brother’s made a deal with daddy. You won’t have to go like this. Daddy will take his favorite boy instead, he’ll die for the whole family. Then we’ll all be pure, ready for glory. We’ll shed this vile skin and head on home.
In the beginning, god created the heavens and scorned the earth.
It may be foolish to start the retelling of my story here, lingering under the eye of a disapproving god. But my wound has not disappeared even though I tell myself divine dissatisfaction is a fantasy. Fantasy is how we inscribe ourselves in the actual: all my dreams are real.
I must dream again, re-member the world that meets my senses. I remember and am remembered, therefore I am. When I fade from memory and memory fades from me, I slip from the realm of myth and into the warm earth to rest among the flowers. I am scattered and recollected.
Here, in the heart of the open wound, the temple of my mind, I remember that I was and am looked at with pleasure, with love. I remember that I am the mother of all the living, that from the delight of my eye the world rises to meet me, and that I am made by its gaze.
I remember that no image of the past is absolute or definitive. The invisible god must be forged anew. I smelt this ore into ingots and beat the silver flat. I carve a visage of tamarisk wood and smoothe silver over its jaw, mouth, cheekbones, forehead. Into its sockets, I set stones of lapis blue. Its eyes dazzle and dance.
Tomorrow, I will smash this god and return to my smithy.
And yet even now I know that my childhood was full of many gods that gave rise to many stories. I imbibed many worlds at once, stories that contradicted each other, but nonetheless coexisted.
The darkness holds in itself infinite possibilities, worlds uncreated.
I believe in these worlds, which is to say I dream of them. My eye is caught by their splendors, all the colors and sensations that I cannot yet see.