Living here, I get these urges. Urges that aren’t good for my health. Urges that have nothing to do with trying to make the world a better place. Urges that could easily get me stomped or transformed from a socialist into a flattened slab of roadkill. Urges for what would be the equivalent of pissing into a black hole.
Sometimes I realize, afterward, that giving in to the urge would have been the right thing to do—in those cases when the person on the receiving end isn’t in control of anything that could be used as a lethal weapon. One such time was when I took Heather for an acupuncture appointment at an office in town. When we got there we saw that the acupuncturist didn’t use the traditional needles, but some wand that used electricity to zap the acupuncture points. After a procedure that cost seventy dollars and took just a couple of minutes, he went on how Heather—and me, as well—should come back for weekly treatments. That was when I noticed, on the wall behind him, a document stating that his medical training came from a place called Life University. It was one of those instances when I should have given in to my urges and said to him, “Life University? Your training came from a place named after a fucking cereal. And you’re saying we should come back here? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Other times, it’s definitely in my best interest that I practice some measure of self control. That’s why when I see one of those jacked-up pickup trucks with a Confederate Flag flying from the back stopped at a red light, I don’t walk up to the driver, point to the flag, and—using my best approximation of a Southern accent—declare, “That’s a real good thing you did. That’s a real good thing.”
Despite the fact that many people who flaunt their support for the lost cause of the South would completely miss my sarcasm, it would still be an incredibly risky thing to try. And besides, what would be the point? It’s not like I’m going to enlighten anyone just like that. Enlightenment, as I’ve learned over the years, is a process that takes time. Nevertheless, I get these urges, and these urges are what remind me of Peaksville, Ohio.
I’ve never been to Peaksville. In fact, Peaksville is an entirely made up place. But in a lot of ways, Peaksville reminds me of Front Royal.
Peaksville, one may recall, was the name of a town in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Titled “It’s a Good Life,” the episode featured Billy Mumy—who, a few years later, would play Will Robinson in Lost in Space, the role for which he is most famous—as Anthony Fremont, a boy living in a small country town. The odd thing with Anthony, though, was that if you didn’t praise him lavishly for every single thing he did, made, or said, he would kill you instantly just using his will power. And, whether Anthony had just killed a group of dogs who were annoyed him with their barking or decapitated his neighbor by turning him into a jack-in-the-box, the proper response was to say, “It’s a good thing you did, Anthony. It’s a real good thing.”
I must have been only seven or eight when I first saw this episode of the Twilight Zone. Anthony was, certainly, a very frightening character—but what also struck me about him was how much he seemed like God—or at least the way God was often presented by the Catholic church and Catholic grade school I attended. I imagine that my making the connection between God and Anthony Fremont was what planted the seeds that led to my becoming what is sometimes referred to as “a fallen Catholic.”
Now, there are at least a hundred different ways to fall. Whether you’re falling for a ruse, falling in love, falling from grace, falling into money or falling in some other way, you’re experiencing a change in elevation, a change in status for good or bad that should be leaving you breathless or dizzy or devastated. Falling in love is the good kind of fall. When I fell from the Catholic church it was, for me, that good kind of fall. In fact, it didn’t feel like a fall at all. On the contrary, it felt like I had been lifted up, freed from a heavy burden I’d carried with me since I was a child.
Similarly, moving to the Shenandoah Valley, away from any big city, seemed like that good kind of fall. It seemed like a nice, new beginning—which it was, at first. But now I look on it as the other kind of fall. The kind of fall that takes you by surprise and finds you mumbling to yourself, Man, I really fucked up.
As for my fall from Catholicism, I always knew it would happen. In fact, I looked forward to it. I knew that when I was no longer a child who had to go to church, that I wouldn’t. It didn’t necessarily mean that I would no longer be a believer of some sort—although, now, after my fall, there is quite a lot having to do with the church that I don’t believe in, as well as a lot that I no longer fear.
For example, I’m no longer afraid that in not going to church I’m committing what’s known as a mortal sin. Which isn’t to say that I’m not committing a mortal sin in the eyes of the church—the sort of sin which, if you die without going to confession to be absolved of it, will send you straight to fucking hell—it’s just that I’m no longer afraid of it.
It seems strange to me how going to hell used to be among my biggest fears when I was a child growing up during the cold war—but that wasn’t the first thing I came to be afraid of. The first thing to catch my attention was the bomb—the possibility that those pale, godless people in Russia would drop a bomb on us all was never far from my mind. It was a fear that found its way to me before I even went to school and which was reinforced there when one of the nuns told my class that if the Russians were to enter our classroom they’d ask us if we believed in God. Our answer to them, she said, would have to be Yes—because we had to stand up for our faith—even though saying Yes meant that the Russians would then kill us. (Yeah, there’s nothing like using fear as a learning tool with a first grader.)
Next was “waterhead disease,” a condition that inspired a fear I had for a number of my childhood years after my brother had shown me a photo in a medical book of a boy with an enlarged head. We just looked at the picture, without attempting to decipher its difficult (for us) medical terminology. Somehow we got the idea that what happened with “waterhead disease” was that when you got it, the water you drank, instead of going into your stomach, would rise through the back of your neck and go straight into your skull, resulting in that frighteningly enlarged head. Finally, there was my fear of mortal sin—and even though it was last in my trio of fear, that didn’t mean it was a lesser fear. That just meant that it was third in my batting order of fears.
So, when I prayed (and, like a lot of Catholic children, I really did pray) it went something like, “God please don’t let them drop the bomb. And don’t let me get that waterhead disease. And please don’t let me die with a mortal sin.”
It seemed to work. Because throughout those cold war years, no one ever dropped a bomb on us. And, I never got waterhead disease—when I drank water, it travelled through my body in the right direction. As for not dying with a mortal sin on my soul, well, I survived the 60s—although I was too young to get into much of the sometimes delightful trouble that decade had to offer—and by the time the 70s came along I’d stopped going to church, which meant that every Sunday I was doing something horrible: I was committing a mortal sin.
Most of my young life, I had been around Catholics. These were the people I knew well and with whom I was the most comfortable. As for the idea that Catholics were the only people who were going to go to heaven—well, I always suspected that that was a crock of shit.
It’s not that all the Catholics I knew felt this way—most of the Catholics I knew well accepted their faith as being just one approach toward the concept of God. But there were others whom I suspected may have had more a radical set of beliefs, such as the woman at the church rectory where I worked during high school who always had to append any statement with the words, “God willing.” If I were to say, “See you tomorrow, Miss S____,” she’d promptly reply, “Yes, God willing.” Even if I were to just idly comment, “The weather’s supposed to be nice, tomorrow,” she’d add, “Yes, God willing.”
I’m no cheerleading, positive psychology type, but I’d always wondered is this really the best way to go about your fucking life? It was attitudes like hers that made me think that an unwavering focus on God’s powers—especially his ability to, on a whim, zap you into oblivion like an electroacupuncturist on meth—wasn’t the healthiest way to live. Of course, she didn’t believe that oblivion was what waited for her on the other side, but for me it was something I was never quite sure about. Even before I was in grade school, the idea of life after death—especially when it involved pearly gates, stately palaces in the sky, and these weird creatures who were half human-half bird (angels always creeped me out)—seemed a little too convenient for me.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized if God is the sort of being who’s going to zap me for not praising him or her—in other words, for not feeding his or her black hole of an ego—then maybe God isn’t the sort of being I should be praising. Maybe God is precisely the sort of being I should be rebelling against, as one would some sort of tyrant.
Oddly enough, it seems that the further one moves away from the city, the prevailing vision of God becomes less that of a peaceful being and more that of a warrior—God as soldier driving back the enemy, casting out the non-believers. You see evidence of this attitude on bumper stickers, in church advertisements, and in the display of Left Behind videos at the local Cracker Barrel. It’s a fundamentalist vision that , not surprisingly, leads some Christians to the practice of imprecatory prayer, where they pray, for example, that God will kill President Obama, who they believe is either a Muslim, an illegal alien, or any number of other things. For those assholes who couldn’t be quite as open about their vile hatred, there is the Facebook group whose position is “DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.”
Now, there are Christians and people of other faiths here who are conscientious—and who realize that when you are truly confident in your faith you don’t need to thrust it upon anyone else like some slimy used car dealer. These are also the people who understand what compassion is and that faith is an area where a diversity of approaches is a good thing.
Unfortunately, here, most of the time it’s the idiotic vision of God as tyrant that seems most visible and conservative, right-wing churches that attract the most followers—the kind of follower whose truck sports a bumper sticker proclaiming, “This is My Peace Symbol” next to an image of a rifle scope. This guy believes in a God who won’t save your soul unless you bow down before him and declare him to be the biggest of all deals. A God who’ll zap you if you don’t applaud him for his role in the horrible tragedies that occur around the world—after all, God works in mysterious ways. A God who acts like Anthony Fremont in that episode of the Twilight Zone.
It’s not everyone, but there are a lot of people here who, on seeing that you’re new to town, assume that you’re looking for a church like theirs. I’m hopeful—and perhaps this is an indication that I still do have some kind of faith—that it’s a minority who believe in using imprecatory prayer. Still, more often than not—whether it’s conservative Catholic or some other Christian denomination—the church where they want invite you is a church where you can participate in the prayer that goes, “It’s a good thing you did. A real good thing.”
As for me, what I most often feel like saying here is something along the lines of “Danger, Will Robinson.”
Except that in this case I’m Will Robinson, here with my family in some strange, unknown part of the universe. And I’m telling myself, every time I go anywhere, every time I step out the door, “Be careful.”
Because there’s something about Front Royal that reminds me of Peaksville. Because for me, living here, I’m well aware that at any moment I may do or say precisely the wrong thing. And one day, as in Arizona, I may not even have to do or say anything before they ask me for my papers. Before they ask me if I believe in God.
And when they ask I’ll say, confidently, “Yes.” But I doubt that at this point I’ll have the self control to refrain from adding, “I do believe in God. I just don’t believe in your God.”