This time of year feels more religious to me than Easter or Christmas ever does. October is the time to put your bulbs in the ground which is a sweet symbol of belief and hope for the future no matter what is happening with the pension funds. The blue skies above the pinky red and orange Maples next to the yellow Elms and the bright red Sumac down in the boggy areas all amount to almost more beauty than I can bear, especially knowing as I do how transitory it will all certainly be. Walking in the woods where the birch trees with their curling white bark stand in stark contrast to all the black and orange, inhaling the loamy smell of leaves and dirt, I smell God’s perfume.
I grew up in a Methodist home with a lady who loved to sing the old hymns and drive down to the church only three blocks away several times every week. We went on Wednesday evening for prayer meeting after an early supper. Every other Friday there were board meetings once a month and pastoral relations committee meetings also once a month. My dad died when I was five so my Barbies and Dawn dolls and I tagged along with mom and listened to the grown ups read financial reports and speculate about the preacher’s argument with Minnie Dillard or Wanda Robeff. The minister’s names changed over the years but the lady’s names in the quarrels stayed steadfastly the same. On Sunday mornings we were at Sunday School by 9:30 and church at 11. Then once I was about 12 or so I was back Sunday evening at 6 for youth group and then there was a short Sunday evening service at 7. We also had wonderful Vacation Bible School in the summer and every few years a Lay Witness Mission to boot. (They gave out cute little silver crosses which I carried with me everywhere for good luck sort of like a rabbit’s foot maybe) It was a lot of church. But with only one parent these people became my extended family. The summer weeks I spent in church camp at Little Grassy Lake in southern Illinois are still some of the fondest memories of my childhood. There was a sense of community in that church that I have rarely seen or felt since. Even if it was an ornery community a lot of the time.
The choir director wore pointy-toed blood red shoes and sang her solos in a wavery soprano that made your teeth ache. She also wore bright red lipstick, which stained her top teeth, and she was usually mad about the sermon or the way the preacher’s kids dressed. We sat in the third pew on the left; a remnant from when I was little and mom hadn’t wanted me distracted by all the folks in the rows ahead. From where I sat only the pianist ever sat ahead of us on our side and one family, Marylee Herman and her daughter Jennifer, sat in row two on the right. Husband and dad, Charlie Herman sat up in the choir loft where he winked and flirted with Edna Jones the organ player. Behind us was a sweet widow named Liz Stevens. She had a handsome college age son called Doug who showed up from time to time smelling of something exotic which I later identified as pot. His mom was the church treasurer and she would grab the collection plates after church with Minnie and Marylee looking over her shoulder to see which family envelopes were in the plate. The envelopes had your family surname conveniently typed on them in bold so that everyone could see who was contributing and who wasn’t. After church people milled around and gossiped about one another in their rows and then traded places on their way out to shake hands with the preacher and gossip to him about the people they had just been gossiping with. But these same people knew when I ‘d sneaked my first cigarette and didn’t tell my mom, and stood up for me when I took a petition to the school board to argue for something or other every year or so. They came to my school plays and offered me makeup advice when my blue ringed eyes made me look like a fly.
Then I became a feminist as a teenager and found the patriarchy of our religion impossible to bear. The gossipy church people seemed like obvious hypocrites to me. And the stories and mythology of Christianity no longer worked for me either so I gave up on God too. Nine days after my eighteenth birthday I moved out of my mother’s house for the first and last time and stopped going to church that next Sunday. I let go of God, but God didn’t let go back. I have always had this old itch where my religion used to be. I was a Wiccan for a while in my late teens. I went through a Native American phase studying that culture’s stories and myths looking to see if they had anything for me. My feminism took me to the oldest nature religions and I became sort of a self-designed pagan believing God was manifest. Jesus was a really cool guy who was just more in touch with the creative force in the universe sort of like Gandhi maybe, or even Mother Theresa. After we had kids I missed the sense of community my church family had given me more than ever. We became Unitarians for a while then. Those folks believe in the integrity of a person’s belief system. So long as you are looking, thinking, trying, you are where you are supposed to be. I was a great Unitarian. I was always searching.
But then we moved to Vermont and the nearest Unitarian church is almost an hour away in summer and fall, and in winter and spring it can be much longer. So we traded church for Tim Russert and walks in the woods. And somehow this time in my life, amid these old hills and living so much closer to the natural world has been the most spiritual of my whole life. I can believe in God again here. He seems to come with the geography. I don’t have a language for this oddly cracked and patched belief system of mine. I am still very pagan I guess, but my old Chrsto-centric language is the one that still forms in my mouth when I pray, which is one part meditation, one part belief, one part gratitude, and two parts hope. I wander around the woods in our mountains with my dogs and I sing the old hymns my mother sang. “I Love To Tell the Stories”, and ‘How Great Thou Art”, “Are Ye Able”, and “Amazing Grace”.
This is the recipe of my religion. I feel God here in this old place with me and I am grateful for the beauty and love of this place which gives us everything we need if we simply ask and pay attention, and I want to be a better person…. among other things on my ever-changing list of wants.
My Gram used to say, “Lord make me a blessing to someone today.” That is one of my prayers. And actually, come to think of it, it might be one of my better ones…..