by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
28) First Flight
I’ve discovered I can fly! I am flying now. After a lifetime of fear, it turns out that none of my inadequacies matter. I soar over and under the backs of clouds.
The New C. of C. convened. The shop was packed. I wavered, cold and numb, on a ledge. The crowd below blurred to a pattern of colors; their voices rose, then fell silent. I took a breath, my mind shut down—and I jumped. But instead of plummeting, I floated. My hands fluttered and words spun from my mouth in fanciful loops.
I’m not sure how long I spoke or what I said. But it seemed natural, or no, supernatural. As if the reason I was born really was to say what I said! Who would have guessed? Well, Carlos.
Carlos guessed against the odds. I mean, what could be more unlikely? Coax me from the boat and I’ll walk on water. Toss me off a cliff and I’ll sprout wings. Shove me in front of the microphone and I’ll sway the masses. It was only a guess, though.
When I finished speaking, Carlos was astonished, overjoyed, waiting behind the swinging doors. He slapped my cheeks and pounded my back. We leaped together, trying not to shout or laugh, tears streaming down both our faces.
Then Maggie slipped in with us, and when Stephanie joined, we danced in a circle. Embracing in the kitchen, the four of us mouthed the words: “We did it, we did it, we did it!”
But I especially did it! I went out there and talked for two straight hours about how unsavory the old master-slave forms of worship seem in modern context. About the dangers inherent in spiritual ambition, which can set us running on roads that no longer connect with anything. How we are taught routines that thousands of years ago may have evoked an experience of God, but which—since we have done nothing new with them, nothing to make them our own—no longer apply.
“If you currently practice a formal religion,” I said, “chances are, no matter how fervent your feelings, you end up just going through the motions. Be honest. Who’s familiar with genuine spiritual uplift?”
No one answered.
“Okay, no one. Though some of you,” I shouted, “may think you do. A shiver, a moment of déjà vu; a trembling desire that out of the darkness of your soul a flowering of hope might bloom? Isn’t that—” I claimed as undeniable, “as close as we ever come? The stray tear for no reason? The frisson of joy or fear that cuts through the static?”
“These are indicators,” I said. “But nothing more. Shadows of shadows. And those of you who’ve renounced the cheesiness of modern life? Who’re leery of manufactured sentiment? Sick unto death of cartoon evangelists, commercials and news segments, this week’s recorded idiocy? You know who you are. Are you here?”
Silence. But nothing fazed me. Nothing. More silence. I raised a palm, stopped, and whistled softly, opening my eyes wide, casting pale lightning throughout the room.
“This is not a rhetorical question,” I said. “I’m asking you about wonderment. Some of us are prone to visitations, even though we’re all-too-familiar, as subjects and witnesses, to pain and suffering. Be brave,” I said, lovely ripples running over my body, the swell of my flesh buoying me along.
“We’re bereft of faith because the forms are old. They no longer refer to us. And yet,” I said, “there is a world apart from this. We still believe in Omniscience and Omnipotence. We still even worship It. Or we would if we could figure out how to do so without groveling.”
“It’s something we do to our bosses, for money, for job security. But treating God with the same smarmy self-abasement we use with the district manager seems gross, don’t you think?
We need new forms if we’re going to talk about God; if we’re going to give glory to God.” Spreading my arms, I said, “How lost are we? We need to pray that purity will come to us. An untarnishable song, a perfect logic.”
Scanning the patchwork of colors, I dallied among the subtle but intoxicating ether. Buoyed by the wonderful expanse of my body under the great fluid white gown Carlos had talked me into wearing, my head back, hair on end, I said that in much older cultures than ours, people take solace in visits from the apparitions of their ancestors.
“But haven’t we all experienced momentary dislocations, flickering existential confusions of life everlasting. Haven’t we?” I thundered. “Haven’t we all?” But when they begin to adopt Western culture, they no longer receive such visits, experiencing instead headaches and back aches, ulcers and colitis. Voices, visions, unaccountable aches and pains are manifestations of the same thing. What the manifestations mean—spectral ancestors or migraine headaches—is impossible to fathom. “But haven’t we all experienced momentary dislocations, flickering existential confusions of life everlasting. Haven’t we?” I thundered. “Haven’t we all?”
Evidently we had: the room erupted; the crowd cheered, their hands clapping, feet stamping as I surged here and there.
“What we need,” I said, “what the doctors, the patients, all of us need are new forms!”
I alighted back on the platform, the rippling white gown settling against my damp skin. Applause rang out and I closed my eyes against pinpoints of sweat. With everyone still cheering, I dove through the swinging doors, straight into Carlos’s arms.
A hundred times a day I pat my pockets for credentials that don’t exist. The ground beneath me rushes up. The audience: Wait a minute! Can you believe I’m now calling them the audience? The whole point was that each person—not just me but each person—was supposed to go to the mike and say what it is that matters most. Remember? That was the primary goal!
But two minutes into my spiel, the audience became my followers. And in less than no time, I succumbed to their applause. I looked out on what seemed like an ocean of people swaying to the sound of my voice and waving their arms.
In my mind, lavender-colored fog swirled at my feet; a profusion of lighters illuminated the darkness. And miracle never ending, tomorrow night (we’ve decided to go for Wednesdays and Saturdays) I’m scheduled to give—and to get—more of the same! Which is not to say I’ve forgotten the original idea. It’s just that, if I believe Stephanie, a hundred-some people were so spellbound that with no prompting, they tucked tens and twenties into her hands as she squeezed through the haphazard aisles of chairs. Whether they saw this as the unasked-for price of admission or a contribution to the cause, no one knows, but they did press upon her sixteen hundred and forty-five dollars!
After the crowd filed out in an excited hush, Maggie and Stephanie and Carlos and I stood still for a while in the suddenly quiet, suddenly empty shop. Maggie swept the floor. Stephanie aligned the tables. Carlos locked the doors. I shut off the lights. We drifted upstairs, drank wine and listened to Tibetan bowl music. Stephanie, as usual, couldn’t stand to ignore the obvious. She wriggled big wads of bills out of her jeans pockets.
“Here,” she said, “let’s talk about this.” Swearing to stick a needle in her eye, she said “my followers” had taken it upon themselves to press money on her.
“We need to put the money into a special account,” Carlos said. “I know you don’t want to call it a religion, Malcolm. But it needs a name. For the bank. For the I.R.S.”
“What do you have in mind, Carlos?”
“It’s your call, Malcolm. You’re the prophet.”
“I’m supposed to pull it out of a hat?”
“Nothing elaborate. But come up with something now.”
“Like what? Jehovah’s Heretics? Malcolm’s Meek Seekers?”
“For the I.R.S.,” Carlos said. “Make it believable. Nothing cute.”
“What do you say,” Maggie asked, “Why not ‘Religion Without Rules’?”
Carlos said, “That’s good. RWR. That should do.”
Why not? Religion Without Rules sort of disavows real religion. No rules, no hierarchy, even if I’m the mouthpiece. That’s that—no worries. Still, Carlos satisfied looked even more nefarious than Carlos plotting.
Among Stephanie, Maggie, and Carlos, there were three bundles of money, three canvas pouches. And despite my exultation, I couldn’t look at Carlos without suspecting him of arranging special folds of fabric inside his vest. Any second I expected the scene in front of my eyes to change into a million little birds fluttering off in a million directions at once.