The moments of contemplation were rare; grabbing them when the opportunity would present itself in the helter-skelter of the my twenties, the din of the previous evening still fresh as the waning bits of alcohol was absorbed within my body. This was a challenge and for one who had only learned of reflection only through the impressions of childhood the effort was great but clumsy at best. My father, who jettisoned from modern life after divorcing my mother, voyaged to the Benedictine monastery, St. Vincent located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania-home of Rolling Rock beer and summer camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had expressed to me several times in my worrisome childhood, as I was fraught with anxiety and trepidation, that his two years there were the happiest times in his life. Fatherhood obligations, led him away from the hidden and quiet secrets of the contemplative life and most likely, the stress of contemporary life led to continued mental isolation whose manifestations suggested something far darker.
Living by proxy through books, music and magazines, I envisioned myself as a traveler in a world that was populated by barriers that clouded the simple view. Jenny would recoil when I slunk deeper into silence, as if the sensitivity that brought her closer to me, would bend so far under the weight of mental oppression that there was no other choice but to retreat into silence. A fondness for classical music was a refuge, especially upon hearing Pergolesi’s “Stabet Mater” when I was nineteen, it was also a happy coincidence that the copy I had purchased was on Hungaroton Records, performed by the Hungarian Radio and Television Chorus. In some way, the soft epic reinforced the mysterious relationship I had silently offered to my father, unbeknownst to him. I retreated to books on Catholicism, “City of God” by Saint Augustine, “The Lives of the Saints” and of course the New Testament. All the while, I ingested biographies both political and musical in nature, fanzines, newspapers, The New York Review of Books and of course, Spin magazine. Concocting an intellectual brew that was filled with pop culture and a sense of both entitlement and utter waste, was an odd way to find simplicity.
Holy Name church, sat just a few doors down from two of my houses, one on Adams street, I shared with the two feminists who helped nurse me back to mental health through humor, long talks and the an openness I had only encountered a few times. The second home was on Patterson, just two buildings away from the large church. I started attending mass twice a week, shuffling to 5:30 mass on Wed. afternoons after working the afternoon shift at Used Kids. For a campus church, Holy Name was not the norm, there were no long-haired glad-handers here, parts of the mass consisted of Latin, there were no “rock-and-roll” styled guitar songs, proclaiming the happiness of Christ. Much more sober than anything around, the hymns were sung a-capella and tended to be slow, as if the way to salvation consisted of miniscule movements of breath rather than the frantic pace of the ringing strings of caustic guitars. The congregation was older, and at times barely existed, just a few slow moving gray-hairs and myself, huddled alone in the back pew as I resisted the urge to leave and grab a drink to wash away the sins of anxiety and the persecution of unknowing. Tall columns lined the chapel, built of marble and thick chunks of stone; this was a building for the stern who quietly bellowed for safety.
Used Kids opened at ten am, and in the late eighties, early nineties, there was nary a person who would come in before eleven, perhaps the UPS driver delivering a box of untold secrets of longing and sexual urges, driven into the grooves of vinyl with names such as Beat Happening, the Vaselines, Bette Serveert and Yo La Tengo. But this was all; the person who opened the shop had the place to himself until eleven. This was a time for meditation, record store style, which meant an hour of coffee, an open front door and the warm grooves of whatever record we used to commune with our inner thoughts. The playlist at this hour, for myself consisted of either classical (Dvorak, or the choral music of Shultz or Byrd), Townes Van Zandt (usually “Flyin’ Shoes), Van Morrison (“Into the Music”, “Enlightenment” and “Avalon Sunset”), Phil Ochs and Gram Parsons. The search was ever-present. Sipping the bitter coffee of Buckeye Donuts, and slowly pricing out records in silence was our way of carrying water, chopping wood and washing dishes.
Most people, who knew me, were aware of the tendency that I had towards some sort of spiritual life, although it was odd that I gravitated towards the orthodoxy of Catholicism. Jerry was always respectful of my choice, and although we never really spoke of spiritual matters he was conscious enough to know my mass schedule, at times volunteering to meet me later, after mass. Jenny was at times dismissive of the yearning I had for quiet, as if the barrage of noise in her head could not comprehend, and was, in fact threatened by the fact that I had an itch that only the quiet could scratch. With the exception of Dan Dow, who was utterly dismissive of my proclivities towards the Catholic church, it was as if he wanted to punish me for some idea of a God that had been foisted upon him, all of my friends were extremely considerate of my pursuit of something that had no name or shape. It should be noted that Dan, was appreciative on the importance of early morning record listening, a feeling of calm brought out by a needle and electricity, he seemed to know that the way to peace is found at times through the application and communion of caffeine and brit-pop.
Next to the vast stone entrance of the church was a small walkway that led through a wrought-iron fence, around a statue of Christ, arms extended outwards, welcoming the repentant sinner and then into a small side chapel with five rows of pews. There, underneath the shiny polished wooden beams, I would sit in silence waiting for some sort of answer. I sat here when the hangovers were too bold and the alcohol dripped out of my pores as if I were a pungent flower, emanating the sweetest yet sickliest odor known. Listening through the small door that led into the main chapel, hoping that I could catch redemption through osmosis although, I only wanted to hear nothing. Not the drumming of my thoughts, not the fear of being alone or worse yet, the fear of acceptance. I would cobble together a prayer, feeling the awkwardness of solitary unskilled appeal. Leaving, under the guise of sheepishness and clumsy guilt, I would slink away as if I were a gawky lover who had left his partner unfulfilled. “Nothing is good enough” I would think about myself.
Today, my daughter asked me about God, and who God was and how do people believe in God. Trying to explain this to a five year old is more difficult than one would think, I said that I didn’t know and I gave up trying to find out long ago. When I gave up the booze, I decided that I would no longer allow myself to be stomped into submission by an idea that there was a mystery that could only be found through prayer. I explained to her that I thought, we should try to be helpful to those who are suffering, easing the lives of others and that in this way we will find our own answers. She asked what other people believed, carefully plucking the words from a stream of muddy thoughts, deliberating choosing the words that she could only understand. “Try to just be a good person.” I believe now, that God is an action and that is all.
Tags: alcoholism, Anyway Records, Beat Happening, Bela Koe-Krompecher, Bette Serveert, children and religion, Columbus Ohio, dan dow, gaunt, God, Holy Name Church, Jenny Mae, Jerry Wick, Latrobe, lonliness, Ohio, prayer, used kids