Thank God for the fall. Summer nearly does me in every year. It’s too hot and the light is unforgiving and the days go on way too long. This year the war on Iraq was still raging, even though our leaders kept insisting that it was over, and that people like me were giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I’m often sick about Bush, the war, joblessness and the deficit, but I was also soul-sick this summer to discover the secret gladness in me, gladness that everything has gone to hell for Bush. It was sickening, to feel relief when things went badly in Iraq, when joblessness didn’t improve, and I hated this in me even as it alone gave me hope that someone else might end up in power next November. I felt addicted to the energy of hating Bush, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft. I thought that if we stopped hating them, it would mean that they had won.
Then summer turned to autumn, 2003.
I headed out for church on Sunday filled with the usual mix of joy and profound anxiety about all of life. But church is my favorite place on earth, after the couch in my living room. In church, we don’t live from our minds — we live in community, which is to say, shared loss and joy, singing and praying and eating together. We don’t sit huddled together in church, thinking.
I talked to more than one person before the service began, about the snap in the air. Everyone seemed glad summer was over. Spring is sweet, the baby season; summer is the teenage season — too much energy, too much growth and beauty and heat and late nights, none of them what they were cracked up to be. Fall is the older season, a more seasoned season. The weather surrounds you, instead of beating down on you. Clouds bobble across the sky and there are fresh winds, and salmon pink sunrises, and then cool egg-blue skies. The weather is lighter, marbled — the wind, the fog, mild sunny days, and it makes you feel like striding again, makes you glad that so much still works at all.
There has been less light as the colors begin to change, but even though the world has grown more desperate, some of us have more hope. It’s partly because we finally believe we can bring this administration down, but it’s also the weather. Day 1 of this story was overcast, cold, and it looked like rain but the water in the air moistened my lungs. I started cleaning out drawers, for no particular reason, and in one, I found a horribly tangled gold chain. I sat on the step in the cool Sunday morning and tugged on it for a while. This is what you always try first with a tangled chain, with slinky filament. It always makes things worse, but it’s what you do.
I used to love to untangle chains when I was a child. I had thin, busy fingers, and I never gave up. Perhaps there was a psychiatric component to my concentration but like much of my psychic damage, this worked to everyone’s advantage.
My mother might find a thin gold chain at the back of a drawer, wadded into an impossibly tight knot, and give it to me to untangle. It would have a shiny, sweaty smell, and excite me: Gold chains linked you to the great fairy tales and myths, to Arabia, and India; to the great weight of the world, but lighter than a feather.
Sometimes I could put the chain on a table, and work it gently, letting the slink work itself out of the knot, but other times I had to use a needle to loosen the worst of it, poking at it lightly with the needle so I wouldn’t break any of the links.
Yesterday, though, I put the chain back in the drawer and went inside to read the paper. This was a big mistake. Our pastor has been trying lately to convince us to act more like Martin Luther King, but I have to say, some days go better than others. I not only hate what the White House does — I hate almost everyone I’ve ever heard of in the White House; except for Laura, and the dogs. Or at any rate, I like the springer spaniel, Spot Bush.
I’ve known for years that resentments don’t hurt the person we resent, but they do hurt us. In some cases, they kill us. You die of hatred for your ex, your parents, for people who have ripped you off, for your leaders. I’ve been asking myself, am I willing to try to give up a tiny bit of this hatred?
Yeah; finally; theoretically. And that’s a start. I used to tell my writing students to start their work anywhere they could, and then to let themselves do it poorly. This is the secret to life, and good writing. I was surprised by how reasonable this sounded. I wondered if I could try to love Bush, like Jesus or Dr. King would, without having to want to sleep with him, or have him for lunch, or a second term. I am sure that Jesus would not make me have lunch with him. Jesus ate with sinners. (Of course, they ended up killing him; so there’s that.) He’d eat with Bush, even if he knew that Bush would probably call the police or Ashcroft on him later for his radical positions. He’d do it, because He is available to everyone. His love and mercy fall equally upon the just and the unjust, upon the quick and the dead.
This is so deeply not me. How could I ever get anywhere near this, and with what? My mind? Yeah, right.
Singing in church, sitting in silent prayer and confession, I decided to experiment with turning to those things that keep us going on a daily basis, to the fuel, which is renewal, chocolate and change itself.
Unfortunately, change is not my strong suit. Neither is forgiveness, or letting go. Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it. But the willingness to let go comes from the pain: and pain makes us willing to change, and effort to change changes you, and jiggles the spirit, gets to it somehow, to our deepest, hardest, most beautiful, ruined parts. And then Spirit expands, because that is its nature, and it drags along the body, and finally, the mind.
So when seasons change, buckle up.
Everything was so sweet at church, the singing, the kindness, the plain old grief, and then the pastor had to go and ruin it all by giving the sermon — on loving our enemies.
It was like being in the Twilight Zone. It was a nightmare. It was clear that the pastor, Veronica, was speaking directly to me. She said that Christians have a very bad reputation in the world, because we have earned it, with our hate and self-righteousness. We speak in reverent terms of grace, justice, equality, mercy, and then we despise people who were also created in God’s image, who are Her children too. She said that if George Bush had been the only person on earth, Jesus would still have come down and died for him.
This drives me crazy. That God seems to have no taste, and no standards. Of course, by the same token, on most days, this is what gives some of us hope.
So I sat there in church working this through in my mind, tugging at it, yet hunkered down on the inside to protect myself from having to take it in, and then the pastor said the most stunning thing I’ve ever heard her say: “When someone is acting butt-ugly, God loves them just the same as God loves the innocent. They are still just as loved by God.” I was shocked. I thought, Boy, are you going to get it when Mom finds out. Also, I thought she was talking about the White House, but then she kept on preaching, about Jesus, and Dr. King, and — if you read between the lines — the people in my church. All of us — and there are some exquisitely good people in this church. It was outrageous. She said you don’t have to support people’s political agenda, but you did have to love them, if you want to follow Jesus. She said you could tell if people were following Jesus, instead of following the people who follow Jesus, because they are feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and making sure everyone has medical insurance. Then I zoned out.
I saw Bush’s face in my head, marching on the aircraft carrier with his little squinched up Yertle the Turtle mouth, like a 5-year-old whose dad owns the ship. But then I saw the photo ops where he’s signing papers, and I stopped there. I didn’t think about his legislation and tax cuts — I just experimented with the idea that Bush is just as loved as the good people in my church, just as loved as my 8-month-old niece, Clara. I stuck with it. And there was the tiniest of all possible spaces in my knot, the lightest breath between stuck links. I saw the face of a boy I used to know, superimposed on Bush’s face, a boy named John who liked the smartest girl in first grade. When she wrote at her desk, she squinched up her face fiercely, intently, and Johnny thought that expression was what helped her be so smart. So he did that, too, for years.
For a few moments, I could imagine Bush in first grade, doing this. Then I imagined him as one of the people in my own family, who failed at school or in life, who got lost or bitchy or drunk, all that innate beauty that had gotten so fucked up. Like mine did.
I still wasn’t sure what Jesus meant when he said we must love our enemies. I still think the White House is dangerously close to fascism. But Jesus definitely kept harping on forgiveness and loving our enemies. I remembered Mario Cuomo talking about the death penalty. He said, “If my daughter was raped and decapitated, I would be for the death penalty, but that doesn’t make the death penalty right.”
The sermon ended; people were crying. My mind was boggled. Veronica asked if anyone wanted to come forward for special prayer. No one did. I struggled to keep myself in the chair, like a Jim Carrey character, but I found myself lurching forward. She asked me quietly what I needed, and I whispered that I so loathed George Bush that it was making me mentally ill. She put her arm around me, and the church prayed for me, although they did not know what was wrong. I felt a shift, a softening in my heart, an experience I’ve had often in church. The fly in the ointment is that at some point I have to walk back out the church door, and into the world, and that’s when I usually get into trouble again.
But this time, I tried to live in what I’d heard that day, that to love your enemy meant trying to respect them, it meant identifying with their humanity and weaknesses. It didn’t mean unconditional acceptance of their crazy behavior — they were still accountable for the atrocities they’d perpetrated. But you were accountable for yours, and you worked at doing better, at loving them, because you were trying not to make things worse.
Day 1 went pretty well. I e-mailed Veronica that night, and I said that I’d heard her, way deep down; that I didn’t know how it would change my behavior, but that I had heard. She wrote back that this was a powerful beginning, to hear the truth, and to tell the truth. She said that we don’t transform ourselves, but that when we hear, the Spirit has access to our hearts.
I felt better. I lay in the dark and thought about this amazing moment I’d had in church. It had felt transforming at the time, like when I first converted, like when you stick a needle into another hole in the knot, and poke — poke, tug, feel, and if you stay with it, you have something to show for yourself at the end — gold! (Then you hang it up immediately, you don’t put it back in a drawer, because the tangle is waiting to happen again.)
I have to admit, though, that Day 2 has been a bit of a disappointment.
It began well enough, and ended in beauty: a molten autumn sunrise, a silver moon. But the hours in between did not go nearly as well as I had been hoping. They went quite poorly, actually. I thought at one point I’d isolated the problem, however, the facts kept getting in the way. I was very loving, until I read the morning paper. I realized Veronica would not buy this. But Veronica says God honors the struggle. God is in the struggle with us. I sure hope this is true, or I am doomed. It also occurred to me, on the second day, that loving Bush would be the single most subversive position we could take. Bush and his people love to hear our hatred, because it so weakens us. It’s their only hope.
I got the chain out of the drawer, and gave it another try but I didn’t have any patience for it. It crossed my mind to take a hammer to the miserable gold chain and bust it up into tiny pieces; maybe it was a waste of time even to try to restore it. Still, I am going to try to not hate so much, just for today. And of course, I am also going to continue registering voters, sending money to the ACLU, and a few of the Democratic candidates. I have to believe that if I do this, it will cause change — that there will be more give, and give means there is more light between the links. You never know exactly where the knot is going to release, but usually, if you keep working with it, it will.