Friday, December 09, 2005

A Cauldron of Complex Emotions Simmering on the Embers of Regret

(updated June 2006 for minor edits and an attempt to add photos that didn't work. does Blogger not allow you to add photos to old posts?)

The longer I put off posting, the harder it gets. But the harder I try to write something relevant, the harder it gets. I was interrupted in the middle of a short post announcing a brief hiatus last Friday morning, December 2nd. But I never expected that hiatus to last a full week. The whirlwind trip to Gerber, California for my aunt’s funeral was over by 7:30 Saturday evening. I was sufficiently caught up on my rest by Sunday afternoon that I was already composing a post about it that I hoped to post that night. I’m still tied to the graveyard shift for online access. I was tentatively titling the post: I Hope the Rule of Three Is Inoperative This Time, referring to that saying that bad news comes in threes, because I could not bear to face the concept of another death in the family, another funeral in such a brief span of time. My Dad’s Funeral was held October 3rd in Longview, Washington and my Mom’s twin sister’s was held in Gerber December 3rd. Enough already. We need a break. My Mom especially. I was quite worried for her last Saturday. Her sadness seemed significantly intensified and she exuded a weariness and a frailty I had not seen in the entire two months I spent with her after Dad’s funeral. I have never seen my mother as frail before. That was never a word I would have put in the same sentence as her name. Never. It was disturbing on levels I was barely able to contemplate.

But these were the things I was contemplating as I attempted to compose a post for Joystory last Sunday afternoon. I was also sorting through all the emotions involved in having just seen, greeted and briefly visited with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles and others who and played significant roles in my childhood and most of whom I had not seen for ten to twenty years.

All of this was entangled with the bindweed of emotions associated with having been raised in a tight-knit fundamentalist sect which seemed like one, very large extended family and then having that ‘family’ implode under doctrinal disputes during the decade of my twenties when a handful of Teaching Brethren--as they styled themselves--began to excommunicate one another. It was the ultimate: You’re either with me or against God ultimatum and excommunication meant that all social interaction of any kind with the offender--from attending Bible Meeting functions to sharing meals--was forbidden; and not just with the offending Brother but with his wife and children as well. After over fifty years of discouraging marriage outside the sect, families were related by blood and marriage every which way times three. By which I mean, there were often multiple links of blood and marriage tying any one family to another.

The Gerber Bible Meeting was the one my mother was raised in and where the double wedding with her twin was held. Her twin’s husband came down on a different side of the doctrinal dispute than did my Dad. Need I say more? I don’t even want to characterize their ‘sides’ as right or wrong or any other adjective like liberal or rigid etc. But I will say that it was not my Dad who discouraged fellowship between the sister’s and cousins for nearly a decade. But my Uncle did soften his stance recently. Maybe it was his wife’s bout with the cancer that helped him put his priorities into perspective. But he brought her to our family retreat in Bend, Oregon last August, the weekend of the two couple’s fiftieth anniversary. And he complied with her request to have her funeral held at the Gerber Meeting Hall. So this funeral--unlike my Dad’s which had not been held in the Longview Bible Chapel as it had been sold in 98--had much the same ambience of the old Bible Conferences held several times per year at Gerber or Red Bluff or Portland or Eugene or Boise….
Though most of the tiny town of Gerber looked very much the same as it did when I was young forty years ago--and Mom says it hasn’t changed all that much in seventy years--and I could recognize almost every other building on the street the Meet Hall stood, I did not recognize the building itself as I had never seen it before. When I was there for my Mother’s eldest brother’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 96, the lot was empty as some months before, on the eve of Thanksgiving Bible Conference, an arsonist had burned it to the ground. Inside though there were a number of familiar items for when the Longview Assembly disbanded and sold their property in 98, they sent much of their furnishing, including the piano and the pews, to Gerber. Those pews, simple hardwood benches throughout my childhood, had been built by one of my uncles and upholstered by another uncle after they had survived the arson of the Longview Chapel in the eighties.

After the graveside service in Tehama, we all returned to the Gerber Hall for a meal. Again, so much like the Bible Conferences back in the day. Or the Pot-Luck Sunday’s every Assembly held once a month. The meal and the visiting--AKA fellowship--was still going strong when the ride my sister and I depended on to return north--Phoenix for me and Longview for her--needed to the hit the road so as to get over the Siskiyou Pass before dropping temperatures made the roads risky. We left at four-thirty and I was back in Phoenix by seven-thirty. Since I awoke at ten that morning, I had spoken to more people than I had in the entire previous year. And I am including the day of my Dad’s funeral. The memories of the day combined with the memories of the past in a swirl stirred into a cauldron of complex emotions simmering on the embers of grief and regret. All of this on very little sleep since the previous Tuesday when my Mom called with the news of her twin’s passing.

That phone call came in the final hours of the NaNoWriMo challenge. Does this seem like a non sequiter? Well, adding to that cauldron mentioned above was the two months I spent in Longview. I think I mentioned in one of the posts I made during that time, how out of place I felt, how like an alien in the midst of my own family. And in the week following my Dad’s funeral, I had a series of dreams which were all set on the property of the Longview Bible Chapel. These dreams had inspired me to use the NaNoWriMo challenge to attempt to work through those intense feelings by setting my story within the culture in which I was raised. The culture of the Assemblies. This was a first for me. And it was emotionally excruciating. I spent the entire month of November actively imagining the characters and events of my novel, Brooding Instinct, evolving in the remembered settings of the various Meeting Halls I had encountered throughout my childhood, their floor plans and the landscape around them. Longview’s primarily but also Gerber’s among several others. Thus, this visit to Gerber held the quality of a dream for me and by Sunday evening the memories of it and those stimulated by it were already starting to bleed into the dream which was, Brooding Instinct, informing and enlarging and intensifying it.

I was anxious to get back to working on Brooding Instinct. Even though the NaNoWriMo challenge was done and I had come nowhere near reaching the goal, I was sufficiently engaged by my story now that it was its own reason for being. So I guess the NaNoWriMo challenge served an important purpose and I needn’t feel shame that I barely made twelve percent of the 50,000 word goal. There were extenuating circumstances, not the least of which was that I had chosen a theme that was too complex and too emotionally raw. But, last Sunday I was determined to keep on working on it. Meanwhile I was planning a post for Joystory which would update the events but stay pretty much on the surface, saving the emotional depth for Brooding Instinct. The title for it, referencing the rule of three, was kind of flippant and I may not have gone with it, but it reflects the need I was feeling then to stay somewhat detached for the time being. After all, even if one isn’t superstitious and thinks the saying that bad news comes in threes is on a par with black cats and broken mirrors and stepping on cracks, even so, just contemplating that title made me feel as though I were flipping off fate. And that was the state of my mind when the phone rang Sunday evening.

It was my sister calling from Longview. Her first words were: Joy, this is going to freak you out. She had been back in town for less than an hour and upon picking up her son at our cousin’s house she had been greeted by his excited tale of watching a fire that had burned down the place our cousin had lived when she was a little girl. My sister did not immediately understand that he was referring to the Bible Chapel. Or rather the building that had once been know as the Bible Chapel. For she had been a toddler when our cousin’s family had moved out of an apartment in the back of the building into the house next door. The new owners of the property had donated the building to the fire department for practice exercises and they had burnt the original wooden structure to the ground that day. The cement-block addition built in 77 was still standing--for now--further exercises pending before it is knocked down. On a Sunday no less. Did they know it used to be a Church? But I guess that couldn’t be allowed to matter. The stretch of Ocean Beach Highway on which the building sat is one of the busiest thoroughfares in Longview so any other day of the week this would have disrupted traffic and thus commerce too much. And don’t you know, that is the official, though unnamed, religion of America.

The building I went to Sunday School in and later taught Sunday School in, watched my Grandfather remarry in and some years later was married in myself was gone. They burned it down two days after my 27th anniversary, an anniversary that had so totaly slipped my mind that I did not remember it until I was relating this to my husband as my two sisters passed the phone back and forth taking turns discribing the scene as they stood across the street from it taking pictures with the cell phone.. This news plunged me into that cauldron and turned up the heat. For days, I could not think, let alone write, a coherent sentence. There was a time, a decade or so ago, when I was angry enough at all sides of the dispute, that I would have gleefully watched that building burn. I might have even lit the match myself, if assured no legal repercussions would ensue. That white-hot rage has since simmered down and recent events in my life had pushed me into close proximity with the people and places of my childhood and allowed me to see the people as separate from the doctrine and the love they exhibited towards one another then and now as more real and more relevant than the disputes which wrenched them apart and not, as I once believed, belied and sullied by them.

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