Little Houses

For Peter and Jackie Cooley, who live in one.

“So what do you know about East Pines?” I directed the question about a nearby neighborhood to an acquaintance whom I know solely as a friend on Facebook, a local historian who has written widely on the postwar country music scene in Prince George’s County and the “haunted boy of Cottage City,” who was the inspiration for The Exorcist.

“Not much,” he typed back. “You could check the Prince George’s archives.”

It was a response that was both a surprise and not. A surprise that even an expert on these old inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods knew nothing about this particular one, and at the same time, a confirmation of the neighborhood’s generally unassuming quality—it is a place that appears as though it is used to being forgotten.

East Pines has not, however, been forgotten by me, and my thinking about the place has recently begun to border on mild obsession, the subject of lunchtime Google searches trying to track real estate values and whether or not there’s still an active homeowner’s association. Sometimes after dropping the children off at school, I will make an unexpected turn onto East Pine Drive, and for a few quite moments, wander its eerily quiet, meandering lanes. [Read more...]

The Preacher’s Kid Returns

My sister my brother and I are right now, from three separate states, trying to put together a reception for our parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.  In addition to the normal stress these things bring, we are feeling a dark ambivalence about the whole affair. It’s not the celebration itself that gives us pause. It’s where we are compelled to hold it.

We will be going back to the church of our childhood.

I think of the movie Junebug, in which our hapless protagonist, simply home for a visit, is called out to sing a hymn for everyone. The fact that we are the preacher’s kids, and expected to be involved every time we return is only part of the problem. That would be easy enough to deal with if there weren’t so many conflicted emotions going on under the surface.

We will go of course. And we will stand and sing. Church members will smile at us, tell us it’s good to see us, and wonder why the last time they saw us was seven years ago, at dad’s retirement from the pastorate there.

There are two related reasons. We were part of this family of hundreds of people who met three times a week, none of whom we knew intimately.

Dad took this church when I was one, my sister was three, and our little brother was just an infant. He stayed at that same ministry until his retirement, thirty-eight years later—something anyone familiar with fundamentalist Baptists knows is quite a feat. [Read more...]

We Are All Immigrants

Several years ago I had the humbling honor of sharing my journey as a convert to the Orthodox Church with former my parish, a large cathedral in Washington DC. Here are some of my remarks:

Being a part of this family, and having the Orthodox Church as my spiritual home, comes at the end of a long road of hope and longing for me. For so many of you, the depth of your faith and your commitment to the Church—indeed, your experience of the grace of Jesus Christ—are closely tied to the stories of your immigrant ancestors and how they came to this country: the yia yia who was once a scared little girl crossing the Atlantic, the uncle who swept diner floors from dawn until dark and managed to squirrel away millions.

As a child growing up in a little Southern town, I was always fascinated with the stories of immigrants who came to the United States in big ships and then lived in close-knit neighborhoods where houses, churches and synagogues, and stores all were in one block, and everything, I imagined, smelled like hot sweet bread from the bakery down the street.

I realize a lot of what I just mentioned about Greeks and immigrants is cliché, and that your own family stories are entirely distinctive. But there are some elements common to all immigrant stories, that explain why they have such a powerful hold on us: the experience of losing a homeland, the need to go to a new place and to find a new way to live, the experience of pain, uncertainty, and fear about the future, and the reliance upon faith and tradition to navigate difficult times.

[Read more...]

A Story About Beauty

I have my father’s hands
I have my mother’s tongue
I look for redemption in everyone

—Over the Rhine

This is a story about beauty, about living in the ruins of something you could never name, but which came to you like an inheritance, like skin or hair or freckles, unbidden, immovable. My hair was a tangle of red from the moment I was born, and with that came everything else.

I was born into a circuit, into a grid of roads that stretched from eastern Indiana to western Illinois. You could live anywhere in the square of Route 30, Sauk Trail, Harlem and 394 and not realize how fenced in you were. The south suburbs of Chicago were a fence, a locked door, a vast overhang of muddled ambitions that fooled me, my siblings, and my parents to think that we could leave whenever we wanted.

My father served drinks and sold weed to keep occupied, to blur the sharp edges of boredom and restlessness that had followed him his whole life. And my mother just tried to move along, tried to do what she could with what lingered in the back of her mind—a dead father, a mother who disappeared when she was ten, her first husband’s thick red fists. [Read more...]

The Armchair Astronaut Packs for Mars

This post is adapted from my manuscript, The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind, currently searching for a publisher.

In my mind, I can still hear the girls on the playground at recess chanting, “Girls go to Mars to get more candy bars, and boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.”

As a third grader, I was insulted. As an adult, it occurs to me that the girls who spoke them were immune to irony. Their use of the phrase “more stupider” was evidence that these playground provocateurs had probably journeyed to Jupiter on more than one occasion themselves.

If my dad ever heard the same words at recess, they were powerless to prevent him from staring at the punishing planet through the eyepiece of his telescope. Dad has always been an armchair astronaut. [Read more...]


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