Word by Word

Spiritual Chemotherapy by Anne Lamott

Published February 13, 1997 6:43PM (EST)

sam is the only kid he knows of who goes to church, who is made to go to church two or three times a month. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly true. The truth is he never wants to go. What 7-year-old would rather be in church than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he's there he enjoys himself, that he gets to spend the time drawing in the little room outside the sanctuary, that he only actually has to sit still and listen during the short children's sermon. It does not help that I always pack some snacks, some Legos, his art supplies and any friend of his whom we can lure into our churchy web. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there. All that matters to him is that he alone of all of his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.

You would think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. You might wonder why I make
this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weeks, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say.

I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly l00 pounds.

But that is only part of it. The main reason is that most of the people I know who are doing well psychologically, who seem conscious, who do not drive me crazy with their endlessly unhappy dramas, the only people I know who feel safe, who have what I want -- connection, gratitude, joy -- are people in community. And this funky little church. It is where I was taken in when I had nothing to give, and it has become in the truest, deepest sense, my home. My home-base.

My relatives all live in the Bay Area and I adore them, but they are all as mentally ill and as skittishly self-obsessed as I am. Which I certainly mean in the nicest possible way. But I do not leave family gatherings with the feeling that I have just received some kind of spiritual chemotherapy. I do when I leave church, though; like something horrible inside of me is healing.

Believe me, church was the last place I would have ever imagined wanting to be; and so I understand why now it is the last place Sam wants to be. I think he would almost rather spend Sunday mornings getting his teeth cleaned.

"Let's go, baby," I say cheerfully when it is time for us to leave for church, and he looks up at me like a puppy eyeing the vet who is standing there holding the needle.

I did not mean to be a Christian. I have been very clear about that. My first words upon encountering the presence of Jesus for the first time 12 years ago, were, I swear to God, "I would rather die." I really would have rather died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing non-believer friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond. At least there is some reason to believe that Strom Thurmond is a real person. You know, more or less.

But I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; he was relentless. I didn't experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up , mewling outside your door, you'd eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk. Of course, as soon as you do, you are fucked, and the next thing you know,
he's sleeping on your bed every night, and stepping on your chest at dawn to play a little push-push.

I resisted as long as I could, like Sam-I-Am in "Green Eggs and Ham" -- I would not, could not in a boat! I could not would not with a goat! I do not want to follow Jesus, I just want expensive cheeses. Or something. Anyway, he wore me out. He won.

I was tired and vulnerable and he won. I let him in. This is what I said at the moment of my conversion: I said, "Fuck it. Come in. I quit." He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, he didn't shed or need to have his claws trimmed, and he never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a savior, right? Then, when I was dozing, tiny kitten that I was, he picked me up like a mother cat, by the scruff of my neck, and deposited me in a little church across from the flea market in Marin's black ghetto. That's where I was when I came to. And then I came to believe.

Enter Sam: I got sober, I got pregnant, don't ask me how that works, it is just the way it was. And as some of you may know, there were these tiny little problems. For instance, the father was -- comment se dit -- not that enthusiastic about my having a baby, and I had no money. But I'd been going to this little church for a while by then, and when I announced during worship that I was pregnant, people cheered. All these old people, raised in fundamentalist houses in the Deep South, cheered. It was so amazing. They almost immediately saw me as the incubator who was going to bring them a new baby, to have and to hold. So they set about providing for us. They brought clothes, they brought furniture, they brought me soul-food casseroles to keep in the freezer, they brought me assurance that he was going to be a part of this family. And they began slipping me money.

Now, a number of the older black women live pretty close to the bone financially, on small Social Security checks. But routinely they sidled up to me and slipped bills in my pocket: 10's, and 20's. It was always done so stealthily, so surreptitiously, that you might have thought that they were slipping me bindles of cocaine, or blueprints for the submarine. One of the most consistent donors was a very old woman named Mary Williams, who is in her mid-80s now, so beautiful in her crushed hats and hallelujahs, who always slipped me plastic baggies full of dimes, noosed with little wire twists.

I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame, or dereliction. But then I'd remember that wonderful line of Blake's, that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, and I learned to take a long deep breath, and force these words out of my strangulated throat: "Thank you."

Eventually Sam was born. I brought him to church when he was 5 days old, and they all passed him around, from one set of arms to the next -- I've said somewhere else that it was a little like watching a team of champion dwarf-tossers in action. They very politely pretended to care how I was doing but were mostly killing time until it was their turn to hold Sam again. They called him "our baby" or sometimes "my baby." "Bring me my baby!" they'd insist. "Bring me my baby now!"

I believe that they came to see me as Sam's driver, or roadie, or sherpa, the person who brought him and his gear back to them every Sunday.

Mary Williams always sat (and still sits) in the very back by the door, and during the service she praises God in a non-stop burble, a glistening dark brook. She says, "Oh, yes." "Uh-huh." "My sweet Lord."

Sam loves her, and she loves him and she still brings us baggies full of dimes. Every Sunday I nudge Sam in her direction and he walks to where she is sitting and hugs her. She smells him behind his ears, where he most smells like sweet unwashed new potatoes. This is in fact what I think God may smell like, unwashed new potatoes, a young child's slightly dirty neck. Then Sam leaves the sanctuary and returns to his drawings, his monsters, dinosaurs, birds. I watch Mary Williams pray sometimes. She clutches her hands together tightly and closes her eyes only most of the way, so that she looks blind; and she is so unself-conscious that you get to see someone in a deeply interior pose. You get to see all that private intimate resting. She looks as if she's holding the whole earth together, or making the biggest wish in the world. Oh yes, Lord. Uh-huh.

Last Saturday I was driving Sam and his great friend Josh over to Josh's house, where the boys were going to spend the night. And for whatever reason, Josh changed his mind about wanting Sam to stay over. It was a terrible, wrenching experience for me: My boy has so little armor. He started crying and I tried to self-will and manipulate Josh into changing his mind, but he wouldn't, and Sam wouldn't stop wanting to spend the night. Sam wept. He said he wished we'd all get hit by a car. Josh stared out the window nonchalantly. I honest-to-God thought he might be about to start humming. It was one of those times when you wish you were armed so you could stab the kid who has hurt your child's feelings.

"Sam?" I asked, "Can I help in any way?"

"No," he said. "I just wish I'd never been born."

I cannot for the life of me figure out where he gets this shit.

"Shall we pray?" I asked finally, "as a family?" You know, when all else fails, follow instructions, right?

And he said yes. I was totally surprised. I said, "Out loud?" He said yes. So I prayed that God help us find a solution, and help us remember in the meantime how much we all cared for each other. We drove along in silence for a while, and I waited quietly for the plates of the earth to shift; waited for any small free-floating brown-bag miracle that was looking for a place to roost. After a while Sam said, "I guess Josh wishes I had never been born." Josh stared out the window: dum de dum.

To make a long story short, Sam did end up spending the night. Josh's mother insisted that the invitation be honored, and they had a wonderful, somewhat quiet evening together. I did not know this until later that night, after they had gone to bed. What I did know, though, was that the next morning, we would all go to church together, me, Sam and Josh. I would bring them drinks and snacks, felt pens, papers, Legos. What I did know was that Mary Williams would be sitting in the back near the door, in a crumpled hat. I knew that Sam would hug her, that she would close her eyes and smell the soft skin of his neck, just below his ears, like it was something holy, which of course it is. And also that we were due for another baggie of dimes. It had been a little while since her last dime-drop, and just when I think we've all grown out of the ritual, she brings us another stash.

She doesn't know that I'm semi-famous now, even semi-affluent, and no longer really need
people to slip me money. But what's so dazzling to me, what's so painful and poignant, is that she doesn't bother with what I think she knows or doesn't know about my financial life. She just knows we need another bag of dimes.

And that is why I make Sam go to church.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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