“Whatever Gets You to God”

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

 

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

Artist Date 112: Whatever Gets You to God

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

 

Artist Date 32: In Between Dates. Some Things You Just “Know.”

2013-07-28 13.50.19I’m standing on the corner of 4th and Main in Royal Oak, Michigan.

I had breakfast with my old boss, Bill, a couple of hours ago.  We met at the restaurant he owns, where I used to work.  I was employee number seven.  Or maybe it was six? Nine?  We’re not exactly sure.  We decide seven sounds about right.

I haven’t seen him since my divorce.  Since he met DD.  We wax nostalgic about the early days.  Toast that came out 20 minutes after the eggs.  The decision to hire a cleaning service because I didn’t want to scrub the toilets.  The handsome photographer upstairs.

I spent years in this city.  As a teenager – thrifting and hanging out at Patti Smith – not the musician, the other one.  At her clothing store – talking, listening to music, wanting to be a grown up.

After college, I moved here and lived in an upstairs flat with my friend Mona and her two cats.  I worked at a weekly newspaper, waited tables on the weekends, and drank my tip money.

I haven’t been here in a number of years.  And alone, probably never.  It seems the perfect destination for Artist Date 32.  That’s what I had in my head when I planned my trip “home” a few weeks ago.  Except I didn’t make much time for alone.  I never do.

I just left coffee with my 17-year-old niece.  I found her waiting for me on a concrete planter outside of Caribou – which wasn’t Caribou when I was 17.  I remember “punk rock” kids getting dropped off here and walking down the street to meet their friends – as if their parents had not just dropped them off.

I tell my niece I used to hang out here 26 years ago.  She’s floored.  As she is when I tell her what 17 was like in my house.  That it wasn’t so different.  That I too felt grown up in so many ways, but still a kid in others.  How I just wanted to go – to New York..but Royal Oak would do.  And how sometimes I wanted to stay – in my bedroom with the blue shag carpet…forever.

Mostly, we agree that 17 is hard.

I’m due to meet Danny in a half hour.  We met at a Jewish retreat the summer before we entered high school.  He was funky and quirky and a good dancer – like me.  Perhaps he too felt like a black, drag queen trapped in a small Jewish body.

A half hour isn’t really long enough for an Artist Date, but I decide it’s kind of like exercise – a little bit is better than none.  I let go of all the “why didn’t you plan for your Artist Date” chatter and spend the next 30 minutes absorbing this place I used to call mine.  The clock is now ticking.

2013-07-28 13.47.12There used to be a bank here, just south of this corner.  I made out with Joe A. in my maroon Chevy Corsica, parked right in front of it.  He moved to Tucson not long after.

I see a guy sitting on the patio at Tom’s Oyster Bar.  He has the shiniest black hair I’ve ever seen.  Beautiful, with waves.  He looks like Joe’s musical partner – who I also made out with.  But later.  A couple of years later.  Just before I moved to San Francisco.  I cannot remember his name.  He looks up at me.  We smile at one another and he returns to his book.  I do not know if it is him.

So much has changed.  And yet, a lot is still the same.  The independent stores that serve as anchors –Haberman Fabrics.  Incognito.  Noir Leather.  I once bought an erotica book here and popped it in my lover’s bag before he headed out of town, with a dirty letter I penned tucked inside.

Bright Ideas – a modern, cool, functional interiors store.  It’s been here as long as I can remember.

I walk in and my head quiets.  I am sucked in by what is in front of me rather than what is in me, in my head –Joe A., his partner, my niece.

2013-07-28 13.54.46Detroit drink coasters.  Symbols of my childhood.  Drink Faygo Orange.  Better Made Potato Chips.  The iconic scrawl of Sanders – hot fudge and ice cream shops, and Vernors – better and spicier than any ginger ale you can imagine.  It used to be used medicinally.  Quintessentially Detroit.  All of it.  I am smiling.

There are tiny bud vases in a variety of colors, thrown on a potter’s wheel.  They began as a fundraising activity and blossomed into a business.  I think about my own somewhat disappointing foray into throwing.  Disappointing because I had expectations.  I thought I’d be good.  Immediately.  Because I worked with clay when I was 17.  Because I have no patience.

The vases are made in Seattle.  I am wistful.

There are low-slung couches with chrome and clean lines.  My nearly 5 foot 3-inch body sits comfortably in these.  At home my feet dangle off of the pricey futon.  I bought it because I had a notion that I would sleep on it and my bedroom would be my massage studio.  That’s not what happened.

I wonder if I can fit one in my hatch.

2013-07-28 13.47.28There are pillows with birds painted neon pink and green and blue.  An orange flower is growing out of another.  Several are felted, with messages “seemingly” just for me: “Let’s Make Out.”  “Happily Ever After.”  “Think Big.”  “Breathe.”

Yes. Yes. Yes and Yes.

2013-07-28 13.48.32There are yellow, leather “Star Trek” chairs.  Body hugging, with matching ottomans.  On the wall are grey circles with the letters S,M,L.  Like the three bears in Goldilocks.  I wonder which one will be just right for me.  In chairs.  In all things.

I look at my watch.  It’s time to meet Danny.  I feel surprisingly and strangely refreshed having taken these 20 minutes alone.  A little lighter.  A little clearer.  Time apart.

I find Danny down the street and throw my arms around him.  He is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and shoots me a big smile – a cross between a 5-year-old’s pure joy and “I am up to no good.”

I tell him I’m hungry and he takes me to Astoria Bakery – formerly Cinderella’s Attic, one of my early thrifting haunts.  He orders a walnut roll.  I get a cookie laced with honey and a flirtation of anise.  His is better.

We catch up on our lives post-divorce.  He is a year ahead of me in the process.  He tells me about his kids.  About dating.  I tell him about not dating.  About my inability to compartmentalize.  My wish that I could.

I do not tell him about my Artist Dates.  I am not sure why.   I figure he already knows.  In the same way that I already know.  It’s just like that sometimes.  With some people.  In some places.  Like here, right now, with him.