[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Faith Studies
My earliest memory from church was not my baptism. It didn’t even take place within the rows and rows of hardwood pews. No, we were out in the lobby. The adults were congregating, talking, grabbing hands, stuffing cream-filled donuts into their prayer-hungry mouths. I was searching, searching through the lines and lines of pant legs and the occasional kid tugging at their parent’s sleeve. When can we leave? The unsaid words. This is boring, Daddy.
The kids were tired of the adults telling them how beautiful, how handsome they were, how much they’d grown. My patience was wearing thin.
And then I spotted him, caught sight of his lower half through the rows and rows of pant-legged adults. I recognized the way his jeans fell over his old grass-stained tennis shoes.
I lunged, wrapped my limbs around the knee to hem part of the fraying jeans. Tight. I wasn’t going to lose him again.
I heard a man yelp in surprise. The sound was directly above my head. I glanced up against the glare of fluorescent lights and gleaming adults.
The man wasn’t my father.
At a fifth-grade lunch table, we were discussing religion.Half a lunch table, if you wish to be more accurate. Half a table empty, if you’re the glass-half-full type. And even less if you discount my listening in and whispering into my best friend’s ear.
Half a lunch table, if you wish to be more accurate. Half a table empty, if you’re the glass-half-full type. And even less if you discount my listening in and whispering into my best friend’s ear.We were making the boy across from us very angry.
We were making the boy across from us very angry.
“My mom says-”
We cut him off. This was a question of philosophy, the way the individual viewed the world. Parents weren’t involved.
I told my friend to say that.
She repeated my words, like the repetition of all my funny jokes, of all my sarcastic comments. How can you believe in God?
We caused quite a riot. The boy must’ve called us names, must’ve gone home to his mother, who reassured him of his faith.
My friend’s parents were both atheists. Neither of mine were.
My dad’s ex-fiancé would laugh derisively whenever she heard the words “religion”, “prayer”, or “God.” When people told her, “I’ll pray for you,” she would smile and thank them. And then, when they went away, she would laugh.
“Isn’t it wonderful,” she would say. “Isn’t it wonderful that people can believe in such dog shit?”
I knew she was familiar, could spot dog shit when she saw it. Horse shit. Goat shit. Cat shit. Chicken shit. She could identify all degrees of shit. She even had so much of her own. It crowded our yard, toppling over flower pots, spilling in plastic piles onto the gravel driveway, coating the small house in layers and layers of animal fur.
She never swept. Insisted I do the cleaning.
“It’s time to get out the hose,” she would say. “Time to break out the bleach and spend hours and hours in the broiling sun spraying down my plastic shit that I never actually intend to use.”
At least, that’s what I heard. It’s dirty again. No wonder, it’s been sitting out in the sun and rain since last Saturday. Guess what? It was clean last Saturday.
But something about hours and hours after school days, after cross country practices, in the beat-down sun, moving piles and piles of horse crap in sometimes-toppling wheelbarrows. It just got to me. It opened my lungs to the fresh, to the nearly shit-free country air. Breathed in deep:
I want to stand up, I want to let go
You know, you know, you don’t, you don’t
I want to shine on in the hearts of men
I want to make it from the back of my broken hand
The Killers’ song blared in my head, opened itself up to the miles and miles of neighboring corn fields. I want to shine on in the hearts of men. I felt it in my heart, mangled and swilled the lyrics out loud when she wasn’t looking.
I want to shine on in the hearts of men.
My sister is taking a class on religious belief at Grinnell College. She wants to know why people believe in God, why they spend so much time worshipping Him or some such approximation. During an assigned interview, she asked:
“Why do you believe in God?”
This was the hook. Then, when the subject delved in, she would ask:
“Why?”…(wait for an answer).
“Why?”…(wait for an answer).
“Why?”…(wait for an answer).
The repetition was exhausting, but it had the proper effect. Delve deeper into the topic. Try not to offend anyone. The atheist author of the book the class was based on was condescending.
The subject explained her beliefs by standing up, sitting back down without hesitation:
“I have faith that this chair will still be here when I sit down,” she said. “It’s the same thing as my faith in God.”
My sister remained unconvinced:
“God is not a chair. You have direct sensory input that tells you that that chair is there, that it will still be there when you sit back down. You have prior experiences with that chair and with other chairs that qualify your belief that that chair will support you.”
The lady smiled. She had missed the point.
“You see, there is no difference. So many people believe in God, He has to be real.”
And so many people believed that slavery was okay. And so many people believed that the world was flat. And so many people believe in racism. And so many believed in Hitler. And so many believe in war. And so many…
And so many awful things.
It seems my sister may have offended the lady.
I was at my mother’s grave the other day. The granite was beautiful. The stone in the shape of a palette and brush. The flowers we had planted had been mowed over. The shells we had collected in Cape Cod and in San Francisco had been thrown off the sturdy edge. But the words still read clear, etched on the eastern side:
Elliko Shimosato Shutt
June 9,1961- July 11, 2003
Leaves behind daughters, Alitza and Isabelle Shutt
and husband, Damon Shutt
And on the side facing the West, a passage from the Bible:
…I’m going away to make a place for you…
I can trace it back to thirteen years ago, the day I started doubting God.
It was at my mother’s funeral that I looked into the glassy coffin, that I saw her pristine face. She was beautiful. She was at peace. She was in Heaven. She was with God.
She was stuffed.
She was motionless.
She was fake.
God has his reasons.
I’ve made a habit of lying, to say that I didn’t know what was going on on that day. But, the truth is, I did know.
I knew that she was gone.
She had dispersed. Her molecules had split, her soul had separated into infinitely many tiny pieces, finding its way through space, zigzagging through the seventh dimension, rebounding off walls and plastic pottery. Caressing the mourners, fertilizing the universe.
Adding nutrients to the soil beneath her grave.
My dad came up to me that day. He kneeled beside me and brought my five-year-old hand up to my five-year-old heart. He held it there. Gentle.
“She’s still with you in here,” he said. “She’ll always be in your heart.”
So that’s what I think every time I miss her. Every time I consider What if? Every time I pull out the photo album and the two-page baby journal and I gaze at glossy sheets and snapshot memories. I love you, I think.
And I place my hand over my heart.
Isabelle Shutt is a student in Iowa City, Iowa. Her work has appeared in The City High Review.