An Excerpt from “This Word Is Church”
by Harmony Button
One Sunday morning, my brother and I woke up early and, while our parents were still asleep, we changed all the clocks in the house an hour forward.
“Oh well,” we said, when the adults came downstairs. “I guess we’ve missed church today. There should be scrambled eggs and Smurfs instead.”
By the time they figured it out, we really had missed the service.
This move became known as “pulling a church” or “churching it.” My wary, clever mother learned to ask if I was “churching one over” on her.
I tried, but unfortunately, it never worked again — not for the dentist, not for the doctor’s, and definitely not for church.
Church: it is an odd little word. It starts out sounding like a chapel, like a Roman arch, all vaulted up with flying buttresses. It is a place of worship, a space to rendezvous your best self with your worst. Say it several times: churchchurchchurch. It chirps like a hedgerow of sparrows. It chatters and tuts like an irked chipmunk, hunkering acorns for the fall. It is the sound of best intentions bundled up in base anxiety: church will get you out of bed, make you brush your teeth, and then kick your sorry butt into the world with only some bus money and a sack lunch to protect you. Church is stoic, and it doesn’t suffer fools. It sandwiches the ‘ch’ of white lace Sunday stockings with the ‘urrr’ of grunts and burps and unexpected body functions. Church is made of solid shoes that are both ugly and uncomfortable, but your mother thought they might match your new purse.
Still, there is something to “church.” It lingers in the air, like the hollow kiss of full wine glasses when you toast. Church stays after the service and picks up lint and cough-drop wrappers off the floor. Church likes rainy days when droplets run down the stained glass, but church is always too busy for brunch.
I understand: my mother was often like this. While everybody else filed out to the parking lot in their click-clickity shoes, my mother disappeared into back rooms and offices to count donation packages or arrange the details of the Welcome Dinner for the Bosnian refugees. I wasn’t always patient at the time, but in retrospect, I realize that I always liked church best when the people had all gone, when I had eaten most of the leftover sleeve of Saltene crackers that Mr. Bolinger the usher would hand out to all the kids after the service. There was something comfortably rumpled about the space, like God had put on a good show and now he was back stage, shaking out his hair and wiping off eyeliner.
At first church was just arts & crafts and story time. And then, all the sudden, there was this super-cool young pastor. Her name was Ruth and I wished my parents had named me Ruth — it rhymed with Truth, but it was softer, like a reminder of a true thing we already knew, but had forgotten. Ruth was short, with hair that didn’t always stay in the right shape, and freckles. She wore colorful scarves over her robes and she was not so (so so so so) boring as the other guy.
The guy’s name was Zane. Zzzzzzane. Listening to his sermons was like breathing through the lint trap on the drier.
But Ruth — ! Ruth was friendly and comfortable and didn’t seem anxious or serious almost all the time, unlike so many adults. She had two little kids who tumbled around like a couple of puppies but she never seemed worried that they might chew something or pee on the floor. Ruth talked about love and community, and she made me feel hungry for something I didn’t quite know how to eat. It was not necessarily a good feeling — it was like when the blood starts coming back into your foot after you’ve been sitting on it: it’s a relief, but it also makes you realize how uncomfortable you’ve been, and for how long, and transition is always awkward and painful, especially when you know the worst is yet to come — kind of like turning twelve and knowing that you’re really in for it because adolescence is going to kick your ass.
One time, when I was, I dunno, maybe eleven or twelve, Ruth caught me lying under the Christmas tree in the sanctuary when I should have been in Sunday School making popsicle-stick ornaments with the other kids. When she found me, I thought I was going to get in trouble and my throat got all thick like I was about to cry, and Ruth asked me what was wrong, which made me unable to say anything because then I would cry for sure.
I was a child of the lake effect: I was full of partly-cloudy, brilliant sun-on-snow, and weather systems so intense, they’d knock the power out for the whole township. I was a child of ice storms and deep snows, but I never liked it when adults witnessed my precipitation. I liked to fake the doppler, toss a big sunshine on the blue screen and hide behind a book to weather out the storm.
Ruth didn’t send me back to Sunday school class. Instead, she crawled under the tree with me and we lay on our backs and watched how the lights made patterns on the walls, on the wooden pews, on the high arch of the ceiling. Some snow melt leaked out of my face and ran down into my ear canal. It was a weird feeling in my ear, like being underwater.
I can’t remember why Ruth left our church. I just remember her leaving.
Read the rest of this essay at Paper Tape Magazine (and thanks to the magazine for sharing with us.)
Harmony Button is a contributing editor at Paper Tape Magazine and by day, she is the English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. Her work has appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Chicago Quarterly, Southwestern American Lit, Cobalt, Drafthorse, and Ithaca Lit. Find links to other works at harmonybutton.wordpress.com
Church image is from here.