I N THE CHURCH OF NO KNEELING my father kneels on the hard floor. It’s ten minutes before Sunday mass, sometime in the 1970s. To our left and right people are smiling, joking, gossiping, fidgeting, letting the bulletin sail to the floor, but my father occupies some past, a darker pocket of time. He leans into the back of the chair in front of him, head down, lips pressed into the crossed thumbs of his cracked hands. I’m embarrassed by him and for him. What has he done that warrants this display? Touched that secretary just above her waist, yelled at my mother for buying licorice again, wished he had a different life in a different place—say, near his childhood home in Pennsylvania—that didn’t involve any of us? Only one thing is obvious: my father wants to show us, show everyone to our right and left, that his god is no soft god. My father’s god is struggle. It never even occurs to him to get off his knees, put his arms over our shoulders, and look into our faces with interest.
A young woman with a soft face and pious eyes, like eyes on a holy card of Mary, fingerpicks a guitar too big for her body. She stands behind the lectern, flips dark hair over her bare shoulder. She leads us in a practice round before mass, teaching us a new antiphon: Like drylands searching for water… Most of us aren’t singing, just an odd voice here and there, and it isn’t quite clear to me why so many people are silent. She might as well be asking us to embarrass ourselves, to bare ourselves in public, to kiss someone, for instance, even the stranger next to us. We’d rather she’d be our surrogate. We’d rather she do the work of sending out our message. Though that voice reminds us of the world outside church—half Joni Mitchell, half Karen Carpenter—its quality has nothing to do with a broken heart, which isn’t to say it isn’t sad. The sound is pure belief, and maybe we’re frightened of belief, because belief wants us to change our lives. We’d have to leave our houses, live with the marginal, set our vanity aside. Who among us is that brave? Instead we shift and jitter and blush. We’ve neglected heaven, though we don’t see that as a problem yet. Our foreheads burn, as if we’ve been caught in the woods with our pants all the way down.
The piano lives at the center of our house in a dark room we call the hearth room. We might as well call it heart room, as it functions as the heart of the house. I can’t walk by the piano—my grandmother’s upright—without putting my hands on its keys. No one in the house is safe from my playing, but no one tells me to stop either. In this house, music is as inevitable as the weeds in the flowerbeds. Not that we’re reverent about boundaries, sonic or otherwise. It’s always noisy in the house, what with a TV on in the kitchen, another blasting in the master bedroom. Whenever I play, I’m just adding another layer of noise to a house that’s already afraid of silence and thinking.
I picture the sound I’m making as a human voice, a voice more adult than the high, uncertain one that comes out of my ten-year-old mouth. I imitate the songs I’ve learned in church, and unbroken passages come to me fully formed, as if their chord progressions are my second language. I never once think of the music I play as God music, maybe because when I’m lost in it, I close up some distance every now and then.
To name God is to be separate from God.
Do I know how bored I am? Can I say how boredom eats at me in our sealed-off house? I sit on the edge of depression, but to my mind depression is a word for adults. For older, tired people. I’m too much inside my torpor to know it as such. Our once-new neighborhood is now hard, wary. Now that the children are older, too much separates us; no group activities, no one ever goes outside. We don’t even nod hello when we wait together for the school bus. We’ve become different creatures; voices deepen, fine hairs curl above our upper lips. Hormones make us into little monsters, werewolves with secret fantasies that keep us locked up in bathrooms. We’re distant from anything that matters: animals, the horizon, wilderness, poems, trees, the ocean, people who don’t look or talk like us. It’s a recipe for young death. Survival, from one minute to the next, takes work, hard work. It’ll be the hardest work I’ll ever do in my life.
My mother must sense this. She must see it in my bowed shoulders, the dazed flatness in my eyes. She must know that boredom leads to loneliness, and loneliness starves you, and my nourishment could never be found in sports. One day at church, as mass is letting out, my mother stops to talk to the choir director, a woman who leans against the side of the organ for support. Within seconds, my mother offers my services as accompanist. Why hasn’t she talked to me about it first? Is she trying to get rid of me, the responsibility of the lump of me? And why do I just go along, as if passivity is the only language I can speak? The choir director invites me over to the organ bench, and instantly I play the communion hymn in E minor, without hesitation, lapsed beat, or mistake. Can you sight-read? she asks. I nod, biting the inside of my right cheek, pretending the answer is tougher than it is. Can you join us Tuesday night for rehearsal? I stare at my reflection in the thick lenses of her glasses. And your Sundays, she says. Are they available? The tight coils of her perm glisten in the spotlights. I don’t have a mind, and I should be worried. I can’t yet see that her request carries all the weight of a marriage proposal when it comes to the calendar—no free Tuesday nights or Sunday mornings for the foreseeable. But I say yes to her, and yes.
To play music in church is to play without risk of rejection. It’s not the same thing as playing in a nightclub or concert hall. Those performances depend on acknowledgement. They ask for it, insist on it, with each note sung and played, even if the applause that comes is pure reflex. Many musicians wouldn’t make it through their final song of the night if the prospect of applause weren’t waiting for them like a gift, hot and glittering.
How do you perform when acknowledgement is off the table, when the music isn’t about the worth of the performer, but something harder to put a value to? Does this make the artist resilient—or complacent? And who is the artist if the artist is only meant to draw others out of their fences?
No one in my high school knows a thing about my church music life, just as no one in my high school knows about my attraction to other boys. I’m pretty good at keeping that a secret, even though I also have an impulse to expose and display. I wonder what would happen if a school friend were in the congregation. What would he do with me if he saw who I really was: a person who took God too seriously, someone weird enough to put intuition over brainpower, calling his reputation into question?
Just the very notion of God: doesn’t it divide people, stir up damage, lay waste to entire parts of the world, no matter which God we’re talking about? Doesn’t it say you belong, and they don’t? As for cool, which always means more than I think it should: isn’t belief as cool as collecting china from old houses? I might as well be kissing my friend Andrés in a public space, too caught up in my desire to patrol myself.
If I’m to be serious about my music, or any art, I shouldn’t put it toward anything as problematic as God, but toward ambition, achievement: the only reliable gods. Those are the unspoken lessons that fly through the halls of my high school like sparks. After Eileen sings an original song at a concert, she talks of recording her first album with Columbia Records, no uncertainty in her voice or body language. Before Damean plays his oboe, he talks of his plan to go to Juilliard, and nowhere else; what other program could live up to his standards?
In a capella choir, the ensemble I mysteriously get accepted to after singing al-luh-loo-yuh instead of al-leh-lu-yah, we take ourselves as seriously as the great choirs of the ages. In performance, we never take our eyes off the conductor’s baton, her crazed, hyper-alert eyes. Our work is to hit all the high and low notes with exacting precision, to merge our voices with our peers’ as if we’re one lung, expanding and contracting. Our work is to cast off our sarcasm and eye-rolling humor. We’re a single unit of thought and feeling. And when we finish Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, we’re too wired to take in the wave of applause rolling toward us from the back rows, so high and dark in the hall. The parents in the audience beam, but what we’ve just done has very little to do with joy—or at least our joy. Our collaboration is too freighted. We might as well be Olympic figure skaters, our eyes scanning the board for our scores.
I lean forward, my lips almost touching the golf-ball-sized mike element, strumming an A-minor nine chord against the fifteen tones of the responsorial psalm. This church is more traditional in format than my home parish—wooden pews instead of church-in-a-half-circle—and maybe that’s why I’m compelled to try out newer, more daring songs, as if the foundation beneath my shoes needs to be tested. It’s been years since I started my life in liturgical music; I’ll be twenty soon, and I’m playing and all over the diocese now, leaving my home parish behind. Organist, guitarist, pianist, percussionist, song leader—composer too: I have so much energy I can’t restrict myself to any one role.
When I lead the congregation in song, it doesn’t even occur to me to be afraid the way I once was afraid to walk down the halls of my high school. It’s amazing to live without fear. It’s a relief to let my eyes drift from one person to the next, trying to bring them to safety if only because I need comfort back from them.
And thus it’s too simple to say it’s no longer about me; of course it is. I’m too aware that the sound coming out of my mouth is mine alone: the color of soil when I want it be cold, clear water. I’m too aware that my guitar isn’t impeccably tuned, not to mention my fingerpicking, which is limited by my lack of practice. Why can’t I do what Joni Mitchell does with that percussive slap over the strings?
This is the stuff of frustration, but I can deal with the frustration if I remember all the ways we go wrong at any point during the day. A drink spilled on clothes, a hostile glance: a structure of trying and failing that catches human life in its motion. If human life is anything, it’s a wheel—this comes to me one afternoon, after having written a song—moved along by handfuls of grease, and by a clanking that’s not always so pleasing to hear.
One Saturday evening, after the recessional hymn, I am laying my guitar in its open case when a white-haired man with a long tartan necktie approaches me at the altar. His face is open and smiling, but it isn’t a welcoming smile. It’s pulled in so many contradictory directions that I don’t know how to name it. At least one part of it says: I want to matter, and I live a life in which I don’t matter at all.
Your songs, he says, with exaggerated heaviness. They all sound the same. The same short refrain over and over and over and over.
Really? I say.
I’m sorry, he says. Somebody had to tell you.
I say something about the Kyrie, the Lamb of God, the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil: this is the night, O truly blessed night. I tell him that echoes aren’t so far from ancient church music, but the smile tells me he isn’t listening; he doesn’t want to know the facts. He doesn’t want me to be smart or strong, and there’s only one thing on his mind: Every sentence I say, even if it has an open pocketknife in it, is met with rolled eyes, or not heard at all.
I don’t think it’s about me, and then I think it’s all about me, down to the way I walk out of the chancery, the way I lift my chin, the calm with which I look out at the parishioners. Do I come across as smug, a little too much in love? Whatever it is, it isn’t any category he wants to be close to. He’s here all alone, no spouse, no children or friends urging him out the door: Come on, we’re going out to dinner. Do you want to be the last one here? Maybe when he looks at me he only sees what he hasn’t yet done and what he’ll never be able to do in his time here.
He’s trying to turn me back into the hermit I could still be if I allowed him to harvest me.
Two churches away, my father might be thumping his fist against his chest.
I’m hurt, but I don’t slink away with my head down. I simply refuse to move: You aren’t knocking me down, stranger. You who would like to stomp out a teenager. Maybe he sees the resolve on my face, my own smile that comes with its own complications.
I am going to love you and love you and love you until your disapproval burns up in its oil.
Thank you, I say, and snap off any more talk at the root.
He walks past the pastor at the back door, as if certain he’s achieved what he’s set out to do.
The church empties out. The window to my left is cracked, patched with a piece of torn masking tape. I remain in place for as long as I can, half elated (I survived him), half with the urge to start walking.
Then I feel something like a hand warming the back of my neck.
The hand rests there for a minute. The clock stops. You’re alive, sings the hand.
And then it’s gone.
To think that the music of God could fall into the tidy binary of good and bad. To think we could even know what God wants, when such a thing couldn’t be further from the scope of human imagination. Maybe we’d be embarrassed by God and for God. The things God might cheer on! Tone-deaf singing, grunts, the broken trumpets of the poor. The perfection of my high-school choir? Maybe all of that beauty would hurt God’s ears.
For many years I am silent with God, silent with anything having to do with God’s music. It’s not that I don’t love hearing it, but I find my music elsewhere, in other forms: in books, in the faces of animals. I stop picking up my guitar, my old daily habit once reflexive as prayer. It stays locked in its hard case, strings gone slack, dust between the frets. As for my keyboard, for a while I keep it out on a ready-to-assemble desk I never use. Every so often I play chords on it, but never whole songs. Logic, causality, resolution, coherence: all of that a fantasy of order and control. It isn’t the time for whole songs anyway. I can’t seem to put my mind together. I’m all over the place, and I try to tell myself it’s okay to be one piece here, another piece on the limb of the spruce outside, watching the conversation through the window of the dining room next door.
What sends me away from my love, always my first love? I could call these years the desert years, but that word implies bleakness and lack, while that landscape implies intimacy to me: an ocean without water, a great bowl of cactus fired down to the essentials. There’s no reason we should think of the garden as an orientation point; it suggests that an honest life sticks to a straight path, a story of progress and achievement, no wandering, no detour, no risk. Jesus went out into the desert and didn’t want to come back. For all of my belief, I’ve never left my childhood front yard.
I hear my music as a bleat when I want to make a song that roars.
I want to make a song that roars when God might want a song that bleats.
A mother dies, a best friend dies. A relationship of sixteen years implodes on a hot summer afternoon, beside a birdbath filmed with pollen. Deaths come in threes, says the cliché machine, but when I come to act three, I’m done, so done. One Saturday afternoon I walk to the church that I’ve walked by hundreds of times, the church in which two writer friends looked down at the song sheet one Christmas and saw my name above the antiphon of the communion hymn. A choral piece I’d composed and published in my late teens. But that’s not why I’m back, not at all. I’m not looking for signs of the former me. He’s gone. I’m back because I don’t have any other place to go, and I need to be alongside people, people who ask nothing of me other than to shake hands and say peace be with you. I need to sing, but the challenge of it undoes me; it lets me know I haven’t sung for decades, not even along with Hejira or Homogenic or any of the albums that took me by the hand toward my adult skin. My throat seizes up with each leap out of my range. I had no idea the distinct parts of my body—diaphragm, voice box—could lose their capacity to be acquainted, at ease. All I hear are the people around me, their ugly attempts to sing in unison. It’s so damn hard to sing in unison. One voice booming, the other sharp, and our timbre both grates and swallows. What does the cantor think when he looks out at my silly, tear-streaked face? What harm has come to him? Why is he trying? Can’t he see he’s never left his instrument behind?
Paul Lisicky’s sixth book is the memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World (Graywolf). He teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University–Camden and lives in Brooklyn.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.