Sunday Worship

After raining very early this morning, and then turning clear for a while, it has evolved into the kind of cool, cloudy afternoon where you just want to curl up on the couch in the living room with your wife and drink too much strong coffee and read the Sunday paper. It is mid-October. The air is fragrant with pine, afloat with colored oak and maple leaves falling to the ground like open palms.

But I am sitting alone in the living room with my third cup of coffee. My wife, Judy, has migrated into the yard with eleven of her new friends, men and women. I can see them standing in a circle on the soft, damp grass, holding hands, and chanting in the ancient Chippewa language– although none of them were born Chippewa, ancient or otherwise; although the ancient Chippewa never set foot within a thousand miles of our yard.

Still, they have proclaimed themselves members of “The Tribe”– whatever that signifies– and they have gathered behind our tasteful and expensive Greek revival home to participate in an Indian sweat lodge ceremony, something Judy refers to as “a ritual of cleansing and prayer.”

Basically, they will spend three or four hours blessing every object of the natural world they can think of: rivers, stones, trees, fungi, bobcats, paramecium. In a few minutes they will take off their clothes and disappear into the sweat lodge itself, a makeshift structure approximately the size of a four-man dome tent, built of alder saplings, and covered with old blankets. They have dug a hole through the sod and earth in the center of the lodge, where they will pile volcanic stones that have been baking in a ritual fire since early this morning. Then they’ll seal the flap of the lodge from the inside and sprinkle water on the hot stones, filling the enclosure with steam and driving the temperature up until it is uncomfortable enough to suit everyone.

During the course of the ceremony, one or another of the Tribe members will occasionally emerge from the lodge for a drink of cold water from the hose, or to fetch more volcanic stones from the fire. I’ve watched them before through the French doors in the living room, from out on the deck, from the upstairs balcony adjacent to the master suite, as they stumble almost drunkenly across the yard, their eyes adjusting to the light. But they never notice me. They are absorbed in their ritual in a way I can barely comprehend, in a way that I envy, while I wander around the house in slacks and a golf shirt, looking out at them from different rooms.

Judy once explained to me that throughout history, Native Americans have taken part in the sweat lodge ceremony to purify themselves before embarking upon vision quests– which often involve running through the woods alone, without food, for several days, until they hallucinate medicine dreams that instruct them in how to live. But the folks huddled together in the moist heat of the sweat lodge in my immaculately gardened yard are not Native Americans. They are middle class white people who sell insurance, or work on cars, or– like my wife– teach at the local college. I’ve wondered many times whether some medicine dream urged them to pursue such careers; perhaps they’ve sought out the sweat lodge in my back yard to check on this, to make certain they didn’t misinterpret some sign which might have propelled them toward more dramatic lives.

Later this afternoon, when they have devolved into a purer state of griminess and dehydration, they will crawl out of the lodge and rinse themselves off with that same hose that I use to water my putting green. Judy will emerge first from behind the door flap– an old blanket we once packed off with our children to summer camp. She will stretch and unbend her beautifully muscled figure as steam mists off her skin in the cool air. Out there, they call Judy “Moonlit Silverfox”. Here in the living room I call myself He-Who-Drinks-Coffee-Alone.

With the ritual completed, they will spend a good deal of time exchanging moist embraces until everyone has hugged everyone else. Twelve people, one hundred and forty-four embraces– a perfect number, Judy once told me.

I said, “If there’s twelve people and they each embrace everyone else, they’re only embracing eleven other people. So there’s really only one hundred and thirty-two embraces. Which is fine if one hundred and thirty-two is a pretty good number, too.” I mentioned this with out malice, simply because it occurred to me.

Judy hesitated. She was “working on not being defensive” with me. She said, “We always embrace ourselves, too.”

At one time in my life, I might have been open to such irrepressibly dreamy belief. The Tribe is exactly the sort of thing Judy and I might have gone in for together when we first met at Berkeley back in the mid seventies.

Judy wanted to be a short story writer, then. I wanted to be a painter– at least I wanted to want to be a painter.

We used to sit on the carpeted floor of my apartment drinking apple wine and having conversations like this:

“What do you think is the single thing that encompasses all other things?” I would ask, maybe a little stoned.

“Do you mean spiritually, or what?” Judy would ask, her eyes like the green lights on Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby.
“You can interpret it any way you want,” I’d say, not really certain what I meant. Happy just to be drinking wine on the floor with this lovely, sun-browned California girl.

“Art,” Judy would earnestly respond. By “art” she meant ART– music, pottery, writing, painting, basketry. Then she would say that she thought maybe ART was some sort of philosophical dome that covered every other subject, encompassed every emotion and idea like the glass over a terrarium. And I would say yes, exactly, that the visible world existed as a tiny vegetable ecosystem growing in sandy soil and decorated with toy benches and colored stones.

We used a lot of analogies back in the seventies.

Still, we were quite certain that if we simply believed in something– art or Buddhism or anything– with all our energy and passion, the whole universe would become knowable. Age-old secrets would reveal themselves. Wind chimes would ring and our days would assume a pure, Zen-like quality. Our every action would express the aesthetic purity of drinking cool spring water from a ceramic cup.

When we were seniors at the University we began living together in an old barn that the landlord– a farmer turned developer– had converted into an apartment and studio. That huge, drafty place enhanced our own images of ourselves. We owned two dogs, then: Yin and Yang, a black Lab and a golden retriever. We tried to train them to chase each other’s tails in an infinite circle, but their comprehension of philosophy disappointed us. They preferred to curl into crescents and sleep in corners, where the shag carpeting wasn’t so well worn.

That whole year, Judy wrote furiously, working on a collection of short stories for her thesis. She practically assaulted the manual Smith-Corona that she’d insisted upon when her parents wanted to buy her an electric typewriter; she’d claimed that electricity alienated her from her work.

Judy’s stories seethed with rebellion. Many of her characters grew up in nameless Bay Area suburbs, enjoying all the advantages money could provide but ultimately rejecting traditional material values to pursue lives of the spirit in the Arizona desert, or to backpack through Africa and the Middle East. Although Judy’s plots were banal and predictable she wrote beautifully, with great, deep feeling. When she read her rough drafts to me in bed, the descriptions left me breathless.

I spent much of that year wishing I was Jackson Pollack. I wanted to ricochet uncontrollably around the studio, blind with passion. I wanted to drive a beat-up old car too fast after drinking whiskey in a workingman’s tavern. I wanted to sport an expression of twisted ecstasy and throw paint at my canvas with a tenacious and transcendent brilliance that would leave me exhausted.

Mostly, though, I sat on an old wooden barstool, smoking cigarettes and trying to believe that before you broke through to such emotion, you had face the kind of vast emptiness I felt inside.

One Sunday morning, in the winter, I climbed out of bed early and crept into the studio while Judy slept. Through the windows I watched the hills around me gathering light. When she found me an hour later– her hair wet and slick from the shower, a cup of hot coffee balanced in one hand– I was tapping clumsily on her typewriter, a cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth.

“Are you writing me a story?” she asked, looking over my shoulder.

“Not exactly.”

She leaned closer, until she could read the letterhead. Her damp skin smelled clean and fresh as a grapefruit.

“Stanford Law School,” she said out loud.

“It can’t hurt to have something to fall back on,” I said, smoke filling my eyes.

At times over these rapidly accruing years, Judy and I both believed in the same thing simultaneously. For a while we took up running: three or four evenings a week we’d jog through the neighborhood at dinnertime, when the light was soft, and barbecues perfumed the air. Or we’d wake early on Sunday mornings, dress ourselves in nylon shorts and funny T-shirts, and drive out into the country someplace we’d never been. Then we’d just start running, eight or ten or twelve miles on a good day, slowly, so it had a chance to sink into us. So it had a chance to change us. We ran to stay healthy, but we also ran with the implicit hope that it might take us someplace together: the kind of place you don’t even know you’re moving toward until you arrive there.

When we talked during these runs it was like free associating. We spoke in clipped sentences, in images, in a language that only we understood.

Judy might point to an old graying farmhouse set off in the trees and say, “Barn out back?”

And I knew she was thinking of that first apartment in Berkeley.

“Cows and horses,” I might reply, and she’d smile at my gentle cynicism, understanding that I meant animals, and not artists, were supposed to live in barns.

Sometimes, lost in the rhythm of our movements, I wouldn’t even listen to Judy’s words. It was enough to hear her breathless voice close to me in the cool mornings, to hear that same raspiness she speaks with when we make love.

The Indians first appeared about six months ago, in the late spring, just as the garden bloomed and the whole yard exploded with color and scent: yellow columbines, red skyrockets, purple phlox and fireweed.

A week earlier, Judy had attended her first sweat lodge in the cluttered yard of a hippie feminist anthropology professor she knew from the college. Judy claimed to have experienced some sort of breakthrough or insight or revelation– I can’t remember the world she used– in the steamy heat, an experience she felt helpless to describe in purely rational terms. She wanted to give something back to the folks who’d been there with her. So she invited the entire group to hold a ceremony in our yard.

“Couldn’t you have just sent a note?” I asked. We were sitting in Lucite chairs on the flagstone deck off the kitchen, drinking juice and waiting for her guests to arrive. I wanted no part of it. I guarded our Sundays jealously. It was our day together: to ride bicycles or re-paper the guest room. Or to do nothing at all.

“I think you’d like these people if you put aside your preconceptions,” Judy said. “They’re very real.” But I had no intention of putting aside my preconceptions. Even before I met them I knew I wanted the Indians gone.

At around nine thirty– half an hour before we expected any Indians at all– a noisy vehicle slowed in front of the house, sped up again, and then coasted the length of our driveway in reverse. It’s back window was patchworked with bumper stickers: SAVE OUR PLANET; U.S. OUT OF EL SALVADOR; PAGAN ON BOARD. A mild panic rose up in me as five over-aged hippies– specters from a PBS documentary– strode coolly and barefooted across the lawn.

“You know, I’d been wondering where all the Volkswagen vans had gone to,” I said.

She ignored me, and went out to greet her people.

Later that first week, when Judy informed me that The Tribe would return the next Sunday for another sweat lodge, I told her that was fine because I wouldn’t be home anyway.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’ve joined a church.”

She looked at me with a level of disdain unbefitting a recently enlightened being. “What church?”

I thought fast. “The Church of Single Digits Over Par,” I said.

“You’re taking up golf again?”

I nodded solemnly. I pressed my hands together in the manner of a high priest and spoke with an accent like Ghandi’s. “To worship in the Church of Single Digits Over Par,” I explained, “does not require specific beliefs. You need only believe in infinite possibilities, personal resurrection, the potential to control your own destiny through faith.”

Judy got up from the couch and began walking into the other room.

“I’ve created a slogan,” I called after her. “In the Church of Single Digits Over Par,” I shouted, “we have no dogma.” I considered this for a moment and then added, “Only doglegs.”

She returned from the kitchen ten minutes later, when she’d had ample time to convince herself that anger was impure. “You’re not being fair,” Judy told me. “Just because you don’t believe in anything is no reason to belittle what I’ve found. I need to believe in something. It imparts meaning to my life.”

“Why do you need it?” I asked. “You’ve gotten along perfectly well for years without believing in anything.”

She stared at me with an expression intended to convey deep compassion and understanding, although it seemed to convey the suppressed emotions of someone who might start winging crockery at any moment.

“Everyone believes in something,” Judy said calmly. “What do you believe in, Jim?” She looked at me with those eyes that I’ve loved so much for so many years.

I reflected on that for a long moment. I stroked my chin with one hand. “I believe I’ll have some more coffee,” I said.

It began as my own private joke, and as a way to escape the self-righteousness of the believers who congregated in my yard each Sunday. But I enjoyed the golf so much that after a month I joined a local country club.

Now, following an entire summer of this, I have truly ritualized my Sundays. I practice my religion by waking early, when gauzy patches of fog hang above the sidewalks and the tips of the grass glisten with clear globes of dew. I dress in the weak light while Judy sleeps. I drive cautiously through the streets of our neighborhood to where the wide, green swaths of the fairways gather coolness and moisture. Hardly anyone has ventured out yet, and on some mornings, when the sun shines in a certain way, the colors of water and trees and sky shimmer like an impressionist painting.

In the parking lot of my club, the deep thudding of car trunks, the scrape of spikes on asphalt, are like the notes of a spiritual. They remind me of what lies ahead, of what could happen today. And I begin to believe.

After hitting a small bucket at the practice range I meet the rest of my foursome on the putting green. We shake hands and grin like boys about to embark upon some illicit adventure. We know how silly it is to be here, and yet how important.

Early this morning, on the first tee, the air tingled with cold, and mist hugged the ground, and a light drizzle fell from the sky. I squeezed and shook my fingers to increase circulation and then pulled the driver from my golf bag. I gripped its leather handle, trying to transcend all thoughts, to simply believe that I was capable of goodness. My backswing felt smooth and strong, and that first contact– the rich thwok of club against ball– imparted an indescribable ecstasy. I watched the ball’s sudden orbit, admired its trajectory, anticipated the soft landing and the lazy roll along the fairway.

Then the others hit their first shots. Each week we barely exchange pleasantries on the first couple of holes. We walk along quietly, with a self-absorption that doesn’t uncoil until we’ve all warmed up and connected on a few good ones. Still, there is a sort of communion in our silence, something close to being of a single mind.

This morning my second shot required a full seven iron into a green ringed with traps and bordered on the left by a gurgling stream. I caught a little too much grass at the point of contact and peeled an oblong divot out of the turf like opening a zipper. The ball faded slightly to the right and landed in deeper grass along the fringe of the green. Not a terrible shot. But how could I have done better? I confessed to dropping my left shoulder and warned myself against such an obvious temptation. I determined to make amends by executing a great chip shot.

My shoes left cushiony prints on the soft grass as I walked up toward my ball. The day promised to grow warmer and lighter, and my spirits rose and I felt the first bonds of connection. I watched as one of the other men played his shot from behind an oak tree. He swung cleanly and the ball rose off the club face straight and true.

Before setting up my third shot I envisioned it perfectly in my head. I pictured the wedge lifting the ball out of that tangle of grass. I saw the high arc, the way my Titleist would land short, on the top of a downslope, and then break toward the hole. I saw all this in my head and then I made it happen. My ball stopped two feet from the hole, and when it was my turn I putted with confidence and made my four. Putting is the purest test of faith that I know of: you can only accomplish what you believe yourself capable of.

I finished with a seventy-six today– four strokes over par. A fine round, without mistakes. The sky cleared to a deep blue and the leaves on the maples were red and yellow. The air tasted crisp as a Chardonnay. By the time we finished lunch I felt cleansed, reborn. I drove home whistling and didn’t experience a moment of discord until I saw the cars parked all the way down my driveway to the street.

It is nearly evening when they emerge from the lodge, finish hugging and hosing off, and gather out on the back deck to eat. I can see and hear them through the upstairs bedroom window. I am watching a golf match on television and reflecting on my own game this morning. The air has begun cooling again, the light is washed out. You can practically feel the planet pivoting toward winter.

They have brought clay bowls filled with rice salad and tabouli, pickled cucumbers and zucchini loaves. I change into a pair of jeans to “break bread with them”, as Judy now refers to eating. But when I arrive downstairs, thinking I’ll look inconspicuously casual, I notice that my own jeans are dark and stiff. Everyone else’s jeans are of a blue so faded they are barely a memory of blue, almost white.

I also wear a pair of tennis shoes without socks. The Indians wear sandals, or walk around barefoot. They sit on the damp grass. I am thankful that they have at least put their clothes back on.

After collecting small piles of food on my plate and muttering occasional words of greeting, I retreat to the stone wall that borders both the deck and the lawn, and sit down to eat. A moment later an anorexic young man of about thirty walks up and stands directly in front of me. He holds a plate with a single cherry tomato and a knife and fork.

I nod my acknowledgment. I stuff something into my mouth that I think is tofu, although I’m not certain I’ve ever actually seen tofu. The silence between us grows awkward, though of course I’m aware that the discomfort results from my own impure self-consciousness and ego attachment. Even knowing this, I feel compelled to speak.

“I’m Jim. Judy’s husband,” I say, not expecting my words to affect him in any way.

After another long pause he runs one skinny hand through his long hair. “I am Two Birds,” he finally says.

“You are two birds,” I repeat.

“Yes. Two Birds.” Then he steps forward and hugs me. He rests his head on my shoulder for what seems like quite a long time, and I smile vacantly in case anyone is watching.

But nobody notices. The rest of them move like ghosts, like shadows, like helpless waifs, carrying their plates across the deck and the lawn. They appear exhilarated. They stare off with the shiny beneficence of the truly misguided. I have seen these people before, I think to myself: at airports, handing out flowers.

A few moments later I hear my wife’s voice penetrating the haze of wonderment and serenity that has descended upon my yard. I gently remove Two Birds’ head from my shoulder and walk toward the voice. Judy is standing at the edge of my putting green– not far from the humped dome of the sweat lodge– and talking to a tall man with a wild beard and a pony tail. They are looking into each other’s faces but their features are practically indiscernible in the fading light. Nearby, at their feet, a dozen white golf balls lie in the grass like the eggs of some strange bird. Also an old pitching wedge that I’ve forgotten to bring inside.

I stop on the edge of the deck twenty feet away and eavesdrop as Judy explains to the man that her husband, Jim, tries to see golf as a kind of religion. They both stare at the putting green. She speaks without a trace of sarcasm or judgment. She is earnestly trying to describe me to someone who is unlikely to comprehend the man that Moonlit Silverfox is married to. She speaks of me with love in her voice.

He is young, and I can tell by the way his T-shirt clings to him that his back undulates with muscle. He stands very close to Judy, looking down at her as she speaks. He nods his head quite a lot, as if to prove how deeply he understands.

While I am listening in, feeling my wife’s protective love, he bends to retrieve the pitching wedge from the grass. With the toe of his sandal he draws a ball toward him, and then glances at the little flag stick I’ve placed in a hole on the putting green, thirty yards from where they stand.

His backswing is slow and graceful, full of wrist flex, and he barely looks away from Judy as he brings the club face down to meet the ball. I feel the nostalgia of clean contact. The ball leaps up with exaggerated loft and lands four feet from the pin. But topspin carries it forward until it hits the stick with a metallic ping and drops into the hole.

When I look back in amazement he is still talking intensely with my wife, still nodding his head to show her that he appreciates what she is saying. That he hears her. That he knows where she is coming from. Then he hands the club to Judy, who has never exhibited even the slightest interest in the game of golf.

He toes another ball so that it sits up in the grass. Judy draws the club face back and then chops at the ball, but still manages to follow through nicely. This ball, too, arcs beautifully, drops close to the pin, and rolls into the hole. They never interrupt the pattern of their conversation.

And I know right then, as she hands the club back– I know without having to see them knock in the rest of the balls lying at their feet– that I have witnessed a quiet kind of miracle. A breakthrough. An insight. A revelation. Something I feel helpless to describe in purely rational terms. I understand during this moment, as he separates another golf ball out with his toe and lines up to hit it, that there are aspects of the game that I have never even considered. I am amazed by how very much I have to learn.

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