Sunday, March 31, 2013


John Lennon wakes us every morning on Tom's cell:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

When I was young, I was horrified by those words. Imagining there was no heaven (or hell) was equal to denying God. To me, imagining was on the same footing as believing. I more or less believed all of my pretend life. I knew intellectually that that wasn't the case, but I felt in my heartests of hearts it was all true. I knew my stuffed animals were soulless, but I sensed the fear they would have when the world came to an end and they hurtled towards the sun. I specifically remember this picture from a dream: the earth, now bereft of its people (or at least of true believers), with nothing to keep it in existence anymore, racing towards the swirling black red golden red black of the sun. The added terror was that I was along with them, because I was yet to be "saved." An error quickly mended one sultry summer night with my mother and brothers as witnesses.

I laugh now at the fact that I felt it was an "error" on my part that I was yet to be saved. The three-year-old me was to blame for my lack of salvation. I couldn't even tie my own shoes and already I felt the weight of worldly sin on my shoulders.

I laugh now at my misunderstanding of Lennon's words. I was paying attention to the words that offended me rather than the words that explained the previous ones:

Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

What I don't laugh at is my ignorance of those words. It took me a long time to truly understand this idea: pretend as if there is nothing to reward or punish us and act accordingly. Be good for no reason other than to be good.

As with most things, I came to this realization slowly and painfully. I thought I knew everything about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, until I lived there and experienced life on both sides. I thought needle exchanges were just an open door for further drug addiction until I saw how they saved people's lives. I thought gay people were evil and that gay marriage would destroy the world until I knew some gay men and women and saw that none were more evil than the straight person next to them and if they wanted to get married, the world would not end any sooner. 

I don't feel I was a horrible person before I changed my mind. I don't even think I was a stupid person. I just hadn't met those people yet. I had no idea about their lives--as they had no idea about mine.

When I was getting my ESL training, we were assigned to teach our classmates a simple skill and to use "show rather than tell" as our pedagogy. I decided to teach my class one of my favorite hymns: "What is this place." It wasn't because I felt I needed to save their souls--in fact, one of the reasons why I chose that hymn over others is that the lyrics are fairly innocuous--I wanted to simply share my love of music:

What is this place, where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor.
Walls and a roof, sheltering people,
Windows for light, an open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives
When we are gathered here,
And know our God is near.

Later, towards the end of the program, one of the teachers confided in me that he had assumed I was a crazy evangelical because of that lesson. "But," he said, grinning, "You've turned out to be the coolest Christian I've ever met."

I don't recall even mentioning anything about my faith during those five weeks after my lesson. Through no machinations of my own, I had become a sample to one person of the fact that all faith people are not alike. I doubt he's suddenly become a Christian, but his perspective changed, and I think there is more hope in a person's change in perspective than in a person's conversion.

One of the few advantages a fiction writer has over others is that they are encouraged to be someone they're not. I can be a tiger-who-once-was-a-girl-who-once-kissed-another-girl. I can be a young man freeing a truckload of cattle in a strip-mall parking lot. I can be an elderly woman chasing after a head of blond hair through a fairground. When you're used to shedding your skin for someone else's, you see the world differently. 

I think everybody should give themselves permission to do this. When we're young, a tree becomes a sod house, a stuffed turtle we refuse to let go of in a garage sale has personal quirks. We all can do it. We all can pretend.

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