The Daily Prompt: In Good Faith
Describe a memory or encounter in which you considered your faith, religion, spirituality — or lack of — for the first time.
A Journey Begins
The woman rose from her bed in the darkened room. The man who had slept by her side for 37 years tossed fitfully in the stale air, his apnea-like snoring punctuated by long moments of silence. Her bare feet shuffled noiselessly across the faded tan carpet. She folded her arms on the open window ledge and breathed in the cool evening air…air that had not enough gust to push its way inside.
There was no moon tonight that she could see, but in the dim glow of her neighbor’s porch light she could just make out the glider in her backyard. It might be nice, she thought, to sit outside. But the hour was late, nearing midnight, and surely the cool air would wake her, not help her sleep.
And so she stood quietly watching the stars, listening to the fits and starts from the bed behind her and the barking and hissing of neighborhood critters. And she began to talk. Oh, not out loud, and not to herself…exactly. No. At least she hoped it wasn’t to herself. But then again, sometimes these days she wondered. Wondered if it were all a myth as some claimed, a figment of her imagination. Sometimes she even wondered if she might be emotionally unstable! And yet she had seemed to know instinctively at a young age that someone was out there listening. Someone. She had thought of that someone as He then, but as she had grown she’d realized you couldn’t put a gender on whoever or whatever it was. It just was. Or so she believed. At least she thought she believed.
She thought back to her first awareness of Him there in the woods at church camp in central-Ohio, and that first encounter that was anything but inspiring. Forty eight years later she could still remember that camp, the rusticity of it settled there in the middle of the forest. It was an old Bible camp even then. There was no lake like in the movie Parent Trap, or she probably wouldn’t have wanted to go as terrified as she was of water. No, this camp would be free, at least, of THAT worry.
She loved the woods. Spring, summer, and fall, her dad would drive her family to Mohican forest for picking wild flowers, picnicking, or gathering autumn leaves. There was hiking up to Old Man’s Cave, and in late autumn and early winter there were hayrides and wiener roasts with other kids from church. Wrapped up in blankets, they’d all pile on bales of hay in farmer Harry Koch’s big, wooden hay wagon, and the tractor would pull it into the woods.
Standing at the window in the April chill, the woman could still remember the Dogwood blossoms in the spring, the reddish-pink smears on the outside edge of their white petals supposedly symbolizing the blood Jesus shed on the cross at Easter. She could still see the woods carpeted in deep purple violas and orange-red poppies. To this very day, the smell of wood smoke and burning marshmallows took her back to that familiar forest as the fire popped and crackled and dry autumn leaves crunched beneath her feet. And apples! Wild, tart Jonathan apples snatched ripe from Harry’s orchard!
Spring and fall were her favorite times; summer, not so much. Whenever she spent too much time in the sun, her fair skin turned a deep Valentine red and hurt like crazy. Unlike her friends, who grew dark brown over the summer, her skin would peel and look an ugly patchwork pink and white. But getting sunburned hadn’t worried her much, either. She had suntan lotion for that.
That particular summer she was 9 years old. (Or was it 10 . . . ah, the woman’s memory was not as sharp as it used to be. . .) She was a pudgy little girl with long, curly, reddish-blonde hair that looked like a rat’s nest most of the time. Or so her mother always said. There was a constant battle when it had to be combed in the mornings, and more than once her mother had begged her father to let her get it cut. Yet, despite the daily struggle, he always had said no.
And so it was the mass of unruly red hair that had caused her the greatest worry about going to camp. Her mother could barely get a brush through it, let alone a comb. How ever was she going to take care of it herself? She doubted much there would even be mirrors in cabins with bunk beds. Bunk beds! Oh yes! She’d been worried about THAT, too! Having a great fear of heights, she just knew it would be her luck to be stuck in a top bunk! Thankfully her parents had taken care of that by requesting a bottom bed on her application. But the hair! Now THAT was a whole other story!
Then, to her great surprise and delight, as they were packing her suitcase the night before, her mother had given her a gift. It was a beautiful pink plastic dresser set, with a brush, a comb, and a hand mirror. It was very fine for a young girl of 10 (or was it 9). She was so proud of them when she brought them out of her suitcase as she sat on her bottom bunk. None of the other girls’ mothers would have given them such a gift! (Except, maybe, for the girl who slept in the bed above her and was terribly homesick already. That girl’s mother always tucked her in at night and rubbed her feet before kissing her on the forehead. Her own mother wasn’t like that. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time her mother had even hugged her.)
A breeze was finally stirring as the woman, lost in remembering, rested her cheek on her folded arms.
It had taken but one morning for her to realize that, as fine as they were, the brush and comb wouldn’t be much help. She couldn’t begin to drag the comb through her hair. She stared around the room as the other girls poked about, talking and getting dressed. Quietly she had slipped out with her treasures and hurried up to the clubhouse where the showers and the toilets were. In front of the big mirror that ran along the row of sinks, she tried and tried to pull the comb through the thick long hair. Then she tried the brush. THAT was a mistake, for the hair wrapped itself around the brush and stuck good and tight! No matter how hard she pulled, it would not come out! What was she to do? She couldn’t go back to the cabin like that. She knew she’d die of embarrassment.
Just then the door opened, and one of the camp counselors came in.
Despite the cool night air, the woman could still feel the humiliation as it crept slowly up her cheeks! Turning from the window, she slipped softly out of the room, pulling the bedroom door closed behind her. In the bathroom, she blew her runny nose, a sure sign that spring was on its way. Dropping the tissue in the white wicker trash can, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. At nearly 58, no coppery red rat’s nest graced her head these days! What there was left of her hair was thin and fine, and dishwater blonde that barely hid the streaks of gray. She had no problem getting a comb through it now. There was barely enough to tangle in a brush!
She switched off the light and wandered into the living room. It was cooler there. Settling herself on the couch, she reached over and turned on the lamp, then took her book from the table where she’d left it when she’d gone to bed. But several minutes later, it still lay unopened in her lap, her thoughts once again back in the lush green Ohio woods. Yes, the woman remembered that first morning at camp, those hot cheeks, and feeling ugly and stupid and fat. But then SHE walked in.
She seemed so grown up (though thinking about it now, the woman realized the counselors couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20 themselves). She was slim and bubbly with long brown hair worn in a ponytail then wrapped and pinned into a neat little bun like Audrey Hepburn’s. They called her Cha-Cha, and all the girls were mesmerized by her. She could sing, she could dance, she was everything every one of them wanted to be. And now here she stood in the door staring at the wild child with the brush stuck in her hair!
Had she laughed (the woman knew), that would have been the end of her church camp experience. She would have pitched such a fit that they’d have had to call her parents to come for her. But Cha-Cha didn’t laugh. She had smiled, called the child by name, and with a patience born of Job, had managed not only to untangle the brush, but tame the great red mass . . . something her own mother seldom had the patience to do. And then Cha-cha had done something quite unexpected. She pulled the bobby pins out of her hair, her ponytail falling long across her shoulders, and removed her elastic band. She gathered up the young girl’s hair in a tight handful and wrapped the elastic around the bundle. Next, she twisted the ponytail and wound it round and round the elastic and pinned it all in place.
The woman smiled remembering. She had hardly recognized herself when she looked in the mirror. She thought she looked older somehow, and “arranged”, not like the free-spirited sprite who ran all over the neighborhood, frizzy hair trailing after her in a blaze of messy, crimson glory. She had smiled at Cha-Cha’s reflection in the mirror then, and knew it was going to be a really good week. But that’s actually where the trouble began, the trouble that made her want to talk to Him!
She didn’t know how long she’d sat there reflecting, but finally the woman put her book back on the table and turned out the light. She didn’t want to read. She was beginning to feel drowsy. She would just go back to bed. Quietly she opened and closed the bedroom door and laid down next to the man who was finally settled in a restful slumber, his breath soft and steady. She turned on her side and stared out the open window. Not surprisingly, her thoughts returned to the camp and the bunkhouse, and the very first time she “imagined” He was there.
The week had rushed by too quickly, filled with crafts, and hiking, badminton, campfires, and sing-a-longs. For five days she had been able to manage her own hair by leaving it pinned up at night and sleeping very carefully so not to make it come undone. In the mornings she would rush back to the clubhouse where she could take it down and still comb and rearrange it easily. Of course it HAD been a week since it had been washed. She’d just have to put up with the itching for another couple days. But on Friday morning she was tired and had lagged behind the other girls. One by one they had hurried off from the cabin to the dinning hall for breakfast, leaving her to catch up.
Not wanting to take the time to traipse all the way to the clubhouse and back, she sat on the edge of the bed and rested the handle of the mirror between her knees so she could see what she was doing. With the bobby pins stuck in her mouth, she quickly bundled her hair and pinned it in place. She was getting good at this! Wouldn’t her mother be surprised that she could take care of her own hair now!
And then it happened. Without thinking, she let her knees spread apart, and the new pink mirror slipped right down between her legs, between the slatted floor boards of the cabin, and into the crawl space underneath — just out of reach. Before she could react, her cabin counselor (whose name the woman could never remember) returned to herd the straggler to breakfast. On the verge of tears, she had gone with her, too afraid — though of what she couldn’t have said — of telling her about the mirror and asking for her help. Her appetite gone (which was surprising for a girl of her size), she told the counselor she wasn’t feeling well, and asked to be excused from the games and the craft. When at last the counselor who had walked with her the hundred or so yards to the cabin had left her situated there to go help supervise the other kids, she fell to her knees and tried in vain to lift the mirror with the comb and what other things she found. She thought if she could just lift it far enough to get her fingers on it, she could pull it up.
All day she tried, between sporadic visits from the counselor to see how she was feeling, but with no success. Finally giving up, she just knelt there and cried. It was a gift from her mother! How would she tell her? Then suddenly it occurred to her, she could ask for help! But not from the counselors. That would have been too embarrassing. No, not from them, but from Him! She was, after all, at church camp. Surely He would be there, wouldn’t He?
And so she prayed. And then she cried. And then she prayed some more, in small sobs and short, simple sentences. But as the day wore on and her desperation grew, her cries turned to wailing, and the tenor of her prayers changed, too. They went from asking, to bargaining, to pleading . . . then finally to nothing at all. But He WAS there. She could sense His presence all around her in the woods, in the cabin. “Why,” she cried, “won’’t you help me?”
Looking back now, the woman fidgeting on the bed wasn’t sure what she had expected. Still a child, no matter if 9 or 10, and still possessed of some sense of “magical” thinking, perhaps she had thought God would raise the mirror up as they said in church He had raised Himself up at Easter. She knew better now. Knew that any prayer had been doomed to go unanswered. At least without the help of an adult, which, for some reason, she was not able to seek. And to this day the woman could feel the stirrings of anger down in her soul and wondered if the child that was herself had felt He was saying she wasn’t good enough, or pretty enough to warrant having such a fine mirror. She knew from having children of her own that young minds often made totally wrong assumptions. Had that experience colored her own ability to accept herself for who she was . . . still?
The woman let the memories finish their course.
The little girl on the cabin floor had finally grown quiet. And in the same way the despair had turned to hope with the first prayer, the hope had bled away and turned first to anger — “If you’re really there, then why don’t you help me! You’re not real! You’re just a story in a book!”— and then finally to self-doubt — “It’s just me. I’m not good enough. He doesn’t love me like He loves the other kids.”
That night during the last campfire, the pastor had come to talk to them about Him, about how much He loved them all, and how He had died for each of them. She could still remember the pastor’s words. “If you had been the only person on earth, He still would have died for you. He loves you this much,” he said, holding his arms wide. At the end there was what they called an altar call, when anyone could go and kneel at the foot of a big rustic cross that stood tall and weathered and splintered from years of sun and snow, and “give their hearts to Jesus.” And like so many others, her friends from church went forward — Bobby Rhoden, Roger and Debby Mattix and Vickie, whose last name the woman no longer remembered.
But not her! She didn’t go! Whether because of the anger she still felt, or because she believed she wasn’t good enough, she couldn’t have understood at that tender age. But she did know that her anger grew to include her friends. “They’re so dumb! They don’t know Him! They’ll find out sooner or later that He isn’t kind and He isn’t even real!” And then as quickly as they had come, the warring emotions had gone, and she was left feeling less, somehow, than what she ought to be. And the woods were filled with the presence of Him. A presence that lingered at the foot of the cross, and crept between the lines of Kum-bah-yah. And kids around her returned to their seats brushing away tears as the song went on and on. She had brushed away tears, too, but they were for the mirror she’d leave behind, not for the God who did not find her important enough to help her get it back.
And thus began the child’s . . . the woman’s life-long journey, her struggle to make herself good enough for God, or maybe just to find Him . . .
The woman lay on the bed, still at last, eyes finally heavy with sleep. She opened them one last time to look at the clock on the dresser — 1:45 a.m. — and then she began to talk to the God she wasn’t sure was even there, but the words faded slowly from her mind as a song began to echo gently in her heart, “Someone’s praying, Lord, Kum-bah-yah…”
*Not original pictures.