Menu

Essay

The following excerpt is from The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray, published this spring by Harmony Books, a division of Random House. © 2007 by Lindsey Crittenden.

THE SUN was relentless, unrepentant, glaring through the side window of my little Honda as it lurched through commuter-clotted Friday traffic. It was a hot September afternoon, Indian summer, and I was on my way to the All Saints’ parish retreat, in Healdsburg. I’d been going to church for three years now, but this was my first parish retreat. Parish retreat: I kept seeing the phrase itself cut from bright-colored construction paper and displayed with photos of happy parishioners enjoying wholesome fun. The kind of thing that once would have given me the willies. Now, though, I was a regular member of All Saints’ Episcopal Church—a confirmed member, back in the flock after years of doubt and wandering, a prodigal daughter welcomed with friendliness, warmth, and utterly surprising (to me) spiritual succor. I hadn’t expected to feel so at home in church. I was such a worrier, such a thinker—surely all my doubts and rebuttals would get in the way. And yet I’d found that the church, and the people who met every Sunday on Waller Street, welcomed questions and even doubts.

Good thing. I had plenty of them, I thought as I poked along at fifteen miles per hour in the fast lane through Santa Rosa. And, as much as I was looking forward to the fellowship and fare of the retreat (this being Sonoma County, and these being Episcopalians, we’d indulge in rich cheeses, organic produce, and plenty of wine), I wanted some answers.

The perennial good girl, I’d always been slightly in awe of authority figures. When I was nine years old and brought home a C in math, my father—usually a pushover of a parent—peered at me through his horn-rims and announced, “There’s no excuse for carelessness.” I worried about doing the right thing. I argued with myself and anyone who would listen about just what that right thing might be. As the ultimate authority figure, surely God knew what it was—and surely, if I asked nicely, God would tell me.

Especially about my nephew.

I’d first met Dylan nine years earlier, when he was eight months old. I’d been so angry at his parents (my brother and his wife, who were both using drugs at the time) and at my own parents (who kept giving my brother money and—in Mom’s words—hoping for the best) that I hadn’t even sent a gift. The baby himself was little more than an idea to me, the latest chapter in what felt like an ongoing soap opera and had so shut me down that I could barely mention the words “my family” without going numb.

And then I held him. He grabbed the beads I wore around my neck and didn’t let go. I have a picture from that night, and in it we stare at each other, foreheads touching: You. We had no way of knowing, of course, what would come. And yet in our stare and stance, we seem to sense how, in a reduction as clean and elegant as algebra, the others will fall away. Solve for X. He and I: the only ones left.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I would have to grapple with the role that I should play. And in doing so, learn something about trusting God. I wouldn’t get any definitive answers that weekend in Healdsburg. But I would begin to see a new way of looking for them.

§

“We’ll take care of your son,” my mother told my brother on his deathbed. And she and my father did, becoming my nephew’s legal guardian when he was five. He’d lived with them since shortly after the night he’d grabbed my beads, so for him legality did little to change what he knew: Daddy was dead, Mommy showed up for birthdays and Christmases, and Grandma and Grandpa were in charge. When Dylan was a toddler beginning to speak, my mother had asked if I wanted to be called Aunt Lindsey. No, I said: the word aunt sounded too schoolmarmish, a mantle I wasn’t ready to wear, I suppose because I was still finding it difficult to accept my brother the drug user as a father. And yet I adored my nephew. My role was too complex—and, sometimes, too confused—to be limited to a word like aunt. I was also his big sister, his surrogate mom, his third parent, his confidante, his playmate.

As a single woman, I took vacations with my parents and Dylan while my friends went hiking in Yosemite or traveled to Europe with their significant others. Around the resort pool, Dylan played with other kids in the shallow end, kids whose moms sat next to me and confided their parenting issues. It was all very chummy until Dylan called for me by my first name. Then the other adults, and their kids, looked at me as if I’d suddenly been unmasked. Who was this “Lindsey”?

Our situation put me on weird middle ground. My parents and I huddled to confer on the appropriate consequences after Dylan took out a rowboat without permission or told a fib. But then I’d find myself in the back seat, next to a little boy who kicked my feet and shared my M&Ms as, up front, Dad drove and Mom knitted. And when I heard Dylan say, “I won’t do it another time, I promise,” I heard my brother all over again, squirming out of yet another consequence.

I had accommodations of my own on those vacations, but one night as I walked back to my dark room, I glanced at the lighted window of the room I’d just left: Dylan all cozy in his PJs, crawling into bed under Mom and Dad’s supervision. On the floor lay his still-damp swimsuit. Get him to pick it up, I whispered, torn over where I belonged.

I’d always taken family duty seriously, helping out my parents, sharing some of the responsibility of caring for my nephew. And feeling compelled to make sure Mom and Dad didn’t repeat the mistakes they’d made with my brother and me. Mistakes of benign omission more than anything, but mistakes that had led me to believe that if we weren’t all very careful, we would lose Dylan the way we lost my brother. Not to drugs, but to the oversight of not doing enough. Not being vigilant. Yet being vigilant, I knew, would make a wreck of me—not to mention what it could do to him.

Dylan spent every Tuesday night at my apartment. I took him to Monterey, where I found a motel out by the airport rather than the Cannery Row hotel Dad offered to spring for, and to Disneyland, where I said no to soft drinks and let him choose one souvenir for ten dollars at the gift shop. But at my parents’ house, my role was less defined, my authority made moot and unnecessary. I felt an uneasy echo watching my parents act like parents to a child, especially since this time I was watching as a thirty-five-year-old woman old enough to be a parent myself.

When my parents got home from two weeks’ vacation during which Dylan had stayed with me, Mom announced, “He’s never in as good a shape as when he’s been with you.” And one Sunday evening, she reported with a kind of amazement that Dylan had brought his dinner plate to the sink, saying, “This is what I do at Lindsey’s.”

“Go have fun,” my mother said once. “You’re lucky you can.”

When, one afternoon during my search for an apartment in dot-com San Francisco, I mentioned the high prices, Mom said, “Your father will help. Just get a two-bedroom so Dylan can move in with you.” And then, before I could respond, “I’m kidding, you know.”

My father was more circumspect. He understood the weight of family burden, having left his own unhappy past in Oregon to make a life for himself in San Francisco where, he later told me, “Things were happening in 1955.” He’d never looked back. When I talked to Dad about feeling responsible for Dylan, Dad would look serious: “You have your own life, honey. Dylan is not your responsibility.”

But wasn’t Dylan part of my life, just as Blake had been when he was lying and stealing and doing drugs and I was off in New York hearing about it every week on the phone? (My mother would begin her calls with “the latest on your brother” and then, with an ease of transition that always amazed me, ask, “So what’s new and exciting with you?” And if I said, as I often did, as much out of spite as honesty, “Nothing,” she’d respond as though I’d let her down.) And didn’t my nephew bring me, a single woman in her late thirties, joy and intimacy?

I wanted children of my own someday, but I might not have them. I dated, but there was no one serious in the picture. I was nearing forty. In the meantime, here was this sweet boy with his bell-like laugh and love of the Beatles, Beethoven, and fried rice. I lived alone, I taught part-time, I worked on my novel and magazine articles. I needed to be able to go away for weekends with friends, for month-long writing retreats. I didn’t want to be tied down even to a cat.

The more I debated, the less clear I felt.

A few months before the parish retreat, Dylan had been in a car accident. His babysitter, unlicensed, had taken Dad’s car out to go to McDonald’s and driven into a tree. When I showed up, he was staring expressionless at cartoons from the couch, his face badly bruised from the air bag. “We’ve brought him ice cream, but all he wants to do is watch TV,” my mother whispered to me in the doorway. “He hasn’t said a word.”

I sat next to him and within a half hour, Dylan had told me the whole story of the collision. That wasn’t vigilance; that came naturally.

One day when he was cranky because his mother had stood him up, I’d shown him how to do cannonballs in the deep end. I’d watched his face emerge, dripping and grinning, the hurt temporarily soothed by the release of plunging into water.

“I can talk to you,” he said one Tuesday night after I tucked him into bed on my futon, leaving the light and his favorite Bach cello suites on low.

Someone, it seemed, was sending a message. And now Mom and Dad were looking into boarding school. The prospect—for fifth grade!—seemed downright Dickensian, although I had to admit the brochures did look nice: Our family, dropped out in tasteful type from four-color photos of autumnal New England, nurturing-looking teachers deep in discussion with eager-faced boys and girls. Dylan himself was keen on the idea, seeing it as an adventure in instant siblinghood. And my parents, in their late sixties, devoted as they were to Dylan, needed reprieve from the demands and necessities of day-to-day child rearing.

But boarding school, I wondered as I took the Healdsburg exit off the freeway. Was it an opportunity or my last chance at parenthood? And even if I took Dylan in to live with me, did that mean doing so was the right decision?

I’d get an answer this weekend—from prayer, from my priest, in a flash of light from God. I had to. Wasn’t that part of the reason I was going? Wasn’t that part of the reason to belong to church? Part of the reason to believe?

§

The first time Dylan had joined me in a church, he’d been four. The next day, he lifted his sandwich bread overhead and broke it in two. He’d seen the fuss being made and wanted part of it. Until he understood what the bread and wine signified, though, I didn’t think he should partake of communion. And I wasn’t sure he should be drinking wine in the first place, even a small sip. Now that I was attending Sunday services regularly, I wanted to bring Dylan along. What did Kenneth, the priest at All Saints’, think?

“Anyone with the desire to take communion understands enough,” he told me.

I considered this. Wasn’t the blurb on the bulletin about “all those who desire to be closer to God are welcome at the table” one of the reasons I felt at home in the Episcopal Church? And then Kenneth quoted from Jesus about the little children coming to him. I saw the point, just as I saw how my own concern about doing the right thing often got in the way.

One Sunday morning at All Saints’, Dylan tapped my arm. He tapped again, more urgently, then tugged on my sleeve. I peered out from my hands, pressed against my face the way I’d seen my mother do at St. Stephen’s all those years before.

“Lindsey,” he whispered, loudly.

“Shh.”

“Why are you crying?”

I’d watched my mother disappear when I sat by her side. Was that what Dylan saw in me now?

I turned to him. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “They’re good tears.”

I cry a lot in church. Not because of any particular passage in the lessons or reference in the sermons (although that can happen, too) as much as the upwelling I feel within its walls. I can’t define it narrowly as joy or bliss or sorrow or love or gratitude—it is somehow all emotion, unmistakable in its power and complexity. It feels beyond label, an organic experience of being, a pure acknowledgement of life. The presence of God—and I was glad, that morning as many since, to share it with my nephew.

And yet, despite that release, I rarely prayed in church. I stood with everyone else during the prayers of the people and spoke the words of the Nicene Creed, the words that had given me such pause during my first visit to All Souls’ in Berkeley. A beautiful and real power always washes over me as I sit in the congregation, whether the church is full of people or sparsely attended, and as I line up to take communion. Back in the pew, I put my face in my hands and listen to the priests repeat “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven” over and over at the altar rail. It feels holy, yes, and it sustains me. But the prayer that transports me out of my body and changed my life? In those days, I’d rarely experienced that in church.

I had in nature. So the next afternoon, I sat on a bench beneath a grape arbor and asked God to help me figure out the right thing to do. It was the second day of the retreat, a time so far full of laughter and happy voices. Distracted by my burden of family worry, I’d felt a bit odd-man-out. Now a fat bee buzzed my shoulder, and thick woody cords of wisteria twisted through the arbor, tangling with vines hung with bitter grapes. Limp leaves cast green upon the pebbled path, a green so saturated it might have been pureed grass.

“Something out of a Merchant-Ivory production, isn’t it?” I asked as Kenneth sat down next to me. “You know, the shady bower, perfect for secrets.”

He gave a slight chuckle, and I felt silly, caught at making light of the very thing I longed for: huddled confidences and revelation. And pretentious, for dropping literary allusions. Just steps away, inside the ranch house, the rest of the All Saints’ group chatted and laughed, but out here I felt the pressure of incipient confession. Now was my chance—if I made a good case, he might help me.

I explained the boarding school prospect.

Kenneth nodded. “It’s hard to feel responsible when you have no control. Your parents are his guardians. You can still be involved in the decision, perhaps by researching schools that seem especially good, or by planning things for you and Dylan to continue doing together.”

This made sense, but it didn’t really address the knot I felt, the nagging feeling that—however I adored Dylan—I’d never be free. I loved my family, but I often chafed at the good-girl role I found myself in, even after all these years.

“You know,” I said, “the truth is, I feel stuck. Everything is so fraught in San Francisco. Even the view outside my window. Especially the view outside my window.” I gave what I hoped was a wry, insouciant smile. I didn’t want to be a downer, what my mother would have termed “too heavy.” But my reference had been oblique. Kenneth had no way of knowing what the view meant to me. Angel Island. Marin Headlands. The Golden Gate Bridge. A gorgeous view, of course, but a laden one. Staring out the window didn’t just mean seeing water and hills and a world-famous landmark, but confronting the landscape I’d grown up in and the bridge my brother had climbed when he was sixteen.

Kenneth didn’t know all that. He didn’t smile, either. He just watched me, his gaze piercing and concerned as his jaw clenched and unclenched as though reacting to too-cold ice cream. Such scrutiny made me uncomfortable, so I felt relieved when he glanced at his watch. “I need to get back inside,” he said, “but I do have a suggestion.”

Sweet relief! He was going to tell me the right thing to do.

“You might try praying the prayer of Dame Julian, the one we use with the rosary on Tuesday nights.”

I’d been to the Tuesday evening service. I’d passed an Anglican rosary through my fingers while reciting “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well….” I had no problem with the words. Attributed to Dame Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century anchoress, the words are lovely. They just didn’t seem to fit the bill.

“You may find that helps.” He pressed my hand between his own damp palms. “I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

I nodded, blinking, as he walked off. That was it?

Clearly, I decided as the chapel bell rang to mark the hour, I was not spiritually evolved enough. Julian, after all, had lived through the plague, seeing many of her townspeople and family wiped out. Those words that seemed so meager to me had been enough for her. What kind of devotee was I? Was I as selfish as all that? I needed to start from scratch with this whole prayer thing. I’d been at it all wrong. Dread draped its lead apron over my shoulders.

I recalled a gospel passage that had always stymied me: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laded,” Jesus says in the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “and I will give you rest. For my burden is light and my yoke is easy.”

I love the open-endedness of the Episcopal Church and its embrace of what the post-communion prayer refers to as “these holy mysteries,” but I crave the details. Just how, exactly, do you put down a heavy load and pick up an easy yoke when both are figures of speech? How do you tell one from the other? Scripture is all over the place on family obligation, so I couldn’t find a clear answer there. And then there was the whole notion of each of us having a cross to bear. If it’s a real cross—that is, a burden—then how can it be easy and light? After all, there was nothing light and easy about the Passion.

Okay, I told myself, you’re over-thinking. I felt doomed to be the perennial outsider, left to peer in from the cold at the true believers basking in cozy assurance.

I stood up from the bench and walked past the ranch house, ducking beneath the windows so I wouldn’t be seen playing hooky. I headed out the gate at the edge of the parking lot and up the trail through the dry hills. I walked a mile with my head down, watching for rattlesnakes, and stopped at the top of a rise to catch my breath.

I’d become familiar with the New Zealand Prayer Book’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, arrived at by translating the English prayer book into Maori and then back again into English. In that way, the request to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us becomes, For the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. This made a lot more sense than thinking of No Trespassing signs that I’d once ignored without peril on short-cuts home from school in sixth grade.

I imagined a bundle at my feet, lumpy and awkward. I didn’t want to toss away my family, but maybe I could ditch the burden of feeling so tortured and responsible? I looked around to make sure no one could see, and then I bent to pick up my imaginary bundle.

“Here.” The sound of my voice was lost in the hot air on top of that hillside. I spoke louder. “Here!” I tossed it down the hill, past the oaks and toward the narrow ribbon of the Russian River, where it would wind among the vineyards and redwoods on its way out to sea. Take it away.

Okay, I thought. That miraculous release should be coming along any minute now.

I lifted my face to the sun, to the relentless blue sky, empty of softening cloud or haze. I closed my eyes and felt the sun’s warmth on my body. A breeze stirred the dry grass.

I love you.

I opened my eyes. The voice had been clear—not particularly loud, but unmistakably precise. I turned around. Dry grass, a circle of oak trees, a path down toward the road. No one.

I drank syrup once. At a party in high school, after smoking pot with my friends, I made my way into the kitchen, where I rummaged the cupboards until I found a bottle of Log Cabin. I poured a tablespoon of the stuff, lifted it like cough medicine to my lips, drank. A girl from English class gave me a dirty look, but I didn’t care. The syrup was just what I’d craved, and more: sweet and thick and viscous against my parched throat, it spread throughout my chest. At last. I’d once heard a priest compare God’s love to a shaft of sunlight. I felt it now as syrup. Every tension in my body released. I felt as though I might slide into the dry warm earth.

Then the sensation vanished, and I was terrified.

§

Back home from the retreat, I took Kenneth’s advice. I’d been introduced to the Anglican rosary by an All Saints’ parishioner who made them from pretty beads, rose quartz and cobalt glass and light-as-a-feather bone. I liked the neat division of beads into seven days, four cruciform beads, one invitatory bead, one crucifix, and all the meaning those numbers signified. (With thirty-three beads—another symbolic number, that of Jesus’ age when he was crucified—the Anglican rosary is shorter than the Roman Catholic one, and it doesn’t have a prescribed script.)

Now I made my own rosary from beads I bought on Haight Street, and I sent away for a pamphlet, Praying the Anglican Rosary. I ran through the rosary every morning, repeating Dame Julian’s prayer but also creating my own by the simple repetition of any three phrases. Sometimes I borrowed from a psalm, sometimes I said what came to mind. The wind in the trees, I offered up one morning ninety-nine times, until my breath and the wind felt one.

I could start praying the rosary as soon as my coffee was ready, and after three rounds, I knew I had finished. Sometimes it seemed I’d never get through, and, other days, my thumb would bump into the last bead with the shock of a time warp. Already? I didn’t have to set a timer or peer at the clock across the room. With the rosary, I literally had something to hold onto. All my needs—for a prop, for a script, for a time limit—were answered by the primal, basic action of moving beads in my hand. Some days I carried my rosary with me, tucked in my pocket, where the very touch of the beads felt like prayer enough. Other times I prayed the rosary as I drove, moving the beads in one hand while steering with the other.

The desire for prayer had always felt urgent and pure. Unlike the compulsion to get it right, which came from somewhere else—the scolding voice of my kindergarten teacher, perhaps, or my own fear that if I didn’t play by the rules, I’d be tossed out of the game. As I held the smooth glass beads in my fingers, I saw once again: There is no single right way to pray.

I began to untangle should from want—and to understand want for the first time, not only as selfishness or desire but as yearning. That day in Healdsburg, I’d longed for succor but didn’t know how to be honest, to come right out and ask for it. I couldn’t expect Kenneth to read my thoughts, even though he was a priest. And God? The opening Collect of the Eucharist on Sunday was prayed to a God to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid.” But even God waits, it seems, for us to articulate what God sees all along. God can’t show us what we cannot yet see. I’d wanted an answer, a prescription, and instead Kenneth had gripped my hand. That was my answer. Maybe my feelings weren’t such a downer. Up on that hillside, I had been completely honest. I had believed myself alone there, and God had reminded me that I wasn’t.

I got the message. Again. Prayer worked when I told the truth. Not when I was trying to impress or be a good girl but when I was myself. I didn’t know exactly how all manner of thing would be well, but maybe I didn’t need to. In the time it took to say the words eighty-four times, all manner of thing was well. Suspended in prayer, I had no other obligation than to breathe and move the beads through my fingers. And when I surfaced into my day, I began to see—and believe—that there is more than one right thing to do. And maybe I was already doing some of them.

Come to think of it, Dylan had never shown any confusion about my role in his life. He made his acceptance clear one day in the post office when he was about six. I was paying for stamps when he reached for a candy cane from a cup on the counter, then paused.

“Go ahead, honey,” the postal worker said, “if it’s okay with your mom.”

“She’s not my mom.”

“Oh!” The woman looked at him, at his steady blue eyes, his nonplussed straightforward gaze. Her smile flickered in embarrassment or alarm, and then relaxed as he turned away from the counter, candy in hand, announcing, “She’s Lindsey.”

§

I called Kenneth to thank him for our talk and to tell him it had helped, although not at first in the way I’d wanted. This was easier to say over the phone than it would have been in person. We chatted a bit, and I found myself telling him about the voice on the hillside, the voice that had said “I love you” and filled me with bliss, if only for a second.

“It scared me,” I said. “It felt like God’s voice. It had to be, right? But how can a God of love fill me with fear? How can an unambiguous statement of love make me so scared?”

“Oh, my dear girl,” he said. “How can it not?”


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest