Twenty-two years ago, God talked to me in my attic apartment.
I never expected to write that sentence, much less expose myself to the sorts of thoughts some of you are thinking right now. Trust me, I’m with you. I get it.
But I’m doing this because just the other day my nine year old son said to me, “Mommy, don’t God and heaven sound like fairytales we tell ourselves to feel better about death?”
And so I am writing this. I view these essays almost like letters to my children (letters read by lots of random strangers everywhere, and I thank you for that). I wanted this story to be here, whenever he’s ready to read it.
I was my son. Some of my earliest memories are of me torturing my poor mother with questions. But how is God there? Who made him? I don’t understand, he’s just there? And how did he make all of this? I wouldn’t be surprised if the poor woman’s hands shake from the mere memories of those years, her trying to read me stories in my children’s bible, me not buying it.
Santa was another story. I had no trouble believing in him because he showed up at the mall every year. I saw him. I sat on his lap. I asked for things. I got them.
What this God I never saw promised — eternal life, salvation — didn’t stand a chance against the chubby, red suited man who brought me Baby Alive.
My sister and I went to a Methodist Sunday school growing up. It had been a conscious decision on the part of our parents who had been raised a uniquely strict and stifling version of primitive Baptist. In my eyes,theirs was a church of ‘No’ and ‘Hell.’ No pants on women, no make-up, no dancing, no TV’s or telephones — no fun. If you did any of these things, you were absolutely 100% headed for Hell. My first grade self thought this was crazy. What kind of God thought I could climb trees in a skirt? What kind of God didn’t like Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch?
My parents got thrown out of their church when I was little, when a member paid a surprise visit to our house and saw the TV in our basement (they didn’t see my father’s beers in the refrigerator nor did they know my parents hosted some of the wildest dance parties in our neighborhood).
I was still drawn to church, one in particular, Saint Ignatius, less than a mile from our house. Catholicism was the Nancy Drew of religions to me, cloaked in mystery, hidden behind a haze of smoky incense and words sung in latin. I was envious of my Catholic neighbors who shuffled off to midnight Mass in their Christmas coats, the children sleepy and the adults buzzed on wine and bourbon eggnog. When I got older, I went to that midnight Mass, my head leaned back against the pew, listening to music that made my chest expand, that made me feel closer to God or whatever it was that was beyond everything.
By the time I went away to college, I quietly decided I was agnostic. Atheist sounded too final. Too sad. It was easy to put aside my diminished faith because soon after, I began my TV career and fortunately, it demanded all of me. I was happy. I was working my dream job!
Then, I lost my mind.
I was at my second job in television. I lived in a cozy attic apartment at the top of a massive English tudor, and one morning I woke up and realized I had lost something very important.
But I had no idea what it was I had lost.
As a rational person, I knew it was nutty that I was so panicked over losing something without knowing what the something was. For two weeks, I ransacked my apartment. I tore everything out of my closet and my dresser, searching every corner. I did the same thing with my kitchen and my bathroom. I even lifted up my cream couches to check if it was underneath them.
I was so very frightened by my behavior, certain I needed medication, or worse, that I might need to be sent away.
And I was crying. Like, all the time. I remember one day when I was searching, removing everything from the trunk of my gold Toyota Corolla, the owner (my landlord) of the house walked out. He innocently asked what I was doing. It was like he’d caught me robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. I stumbled and stammered and said something about looking for something, my face burning with embarrassment and shame over my non answer.
I finally gave up searching. It wasn’t there. Whatever it was.
The night I quit looking, I had a dream. I was sitting at an unusual dark wood desk, ornately carved, with a chair to match. All the issues in my life were dropping from the ceiling onto the desk in the form of glittering gold balls that were labeled. I remember one said ‘your job,’ another ‘your family,’ another ‘your life.’ In the dream, with the landing of each ball, it became more difficult to breathe until I reached the point I felt I was suffocating. Suddenly, all the balls rose off the table, high above my head, allowing me to breathe again. And then a voice said, “I’m with you.” I opened my eyes and I was sitting upright in my bed.
‘That’s God,‘ I thought. I thought it the same way I might look at a pencil and think, ‘That’s a pencil.’ It was that obvious. That evident. It was 3:14 a.m. and God had just talked to me in my bedroom. I remember I was smiling, feeling the most loved I’d ever felt, a love so intensely euphoric I would not have guessed it existed. I had never felt it before and have never felt it since.
I fell back asleep, but by the next morning, I had brushed it off as a dream. Nothing more. Of course that wasn’t God, it was just further proof I was coming unhinged.
I kept crying — at the station, in my apartment, in my car. My once normal, once sensible life was falling apart. My closest friend at work (who didn’t know exactly what was wrong with me because I couldn’t tell anyone) suggested I talk to her friend, Joe. I realized at some point that this Joe was a priest.
“Oh no, I don’t think so,” I had said to her, like an alcoholic who is gently asked if they’d like to go to a meeting. “I don’t need a priest. That’s like the last thing I need.”
She told me he had been a brilliant judge, that he had given up his career on the bench to become a priest. Something about his story appealed to me, legitimized him in my eyes. A judge is logical, analytical, rational. To me, priests were none of those things. Maybe we could have a good, factual conversation about what the hell was happening to me. I was finally at the point that I was willing to accept help from someone, and this Joe sounded as good as any other shrink or counselor whose couch I might wind up on.
I walked in the church on a Saturday morning at five minutes ’til nine, weaving my way back to the church offices where a receptionist told me Father Joe would be right out.
Then he was opening his door and I was standing, him reaching out to shake my hand. I walked into his office and froze. There it was, maybe eight feet from me. I started to cry. Not the silent sort of tears that dainty women cry. No, I was gasping and muttering nonsense as big, fat, hot tears rolled down my cheeks.
When I could speak, I lifted my hand and pointed. “That’s the desk. That’s the desk in a dream I had.” Which sent me into another round of wailing. I could not believe that damn desk from that damn dream with the gold labeled balls was here in this room.
I did not feel elation when I saw the desk. I was not relieved that some set of bizarre dots had just been connected, nor did I think, ‘It’s a prayer answered! It’s a miracle!’ All my life, I had barely cracked the window for God, and suddenly, instead of opening the window, the entire side of my house had been peeled away, allowing everything I had kept out to come rushing in.
I calmed down enough to sit, to tell Father Joe about my lost something, my dream, my God in my bedroom, and now here, with the damn desk.
Father Joe said God had tapped me on the shoulder, that he had never received such a tap, even though he had given up a career to become a priest. I remember him saying to me that day 22 years ago, “Many people never experience what you have. Now it’s up to you, how you’re going to answer that tap.”
A year later I converted to Catholicism.
I would like to tell you that all of my doubts left after that day in Father Joe’s office. They didn’t. Occasionally they’re there, trailing me as I attempt to live a life of faith.
Sometimes I think atheists have it easy, having closed the door on God. With all the terrible things that happen in the world, I don’t understand why an omnipotent being wouldn’t intervene. We can talk free will and deep theology and you can quote bible passages, but it will never make sense to me.
But the older I get, the more I think that’s how it’s meant to be. That it’s arrogant to think it all begins and ends with me. That it’s even more arrogant to think I have all the answers. In my own life, this sort of thinking has prevented me from fully appreciating some of the more amazing moments and miracles that have happened to me.
Like the dreamy, creamy filling in a Twinkie or a Ho Ho, I think the good stuff, the holy and sacred stuff, is on the inside. Of us. We gotta go inward to get to it, either through prayer or meditation or just sitting still (without a phone in your hand). Most of us don’t spend much time going inward. Why would we, when there are so many awesome things we can be out buying, when Facebook and Instagram are waiting for us to post a picture of that next meal we’re eating, when there are kids to fret over, mortgages to make, bosses to impress. Why would anyone go in, when we can all STAY OUT?
Because I’m convinced that going in is how we get out. Period.
So when my son wonders if it’s a fairytale, I’m not going to bury him in biblical passages that may only further confuse him or make him feel guilty for questioning. I’m going to let him know it’s okay not to get it. That I don’t always get it. That we may not ever fully get it in this lifetime.
I’ve told my story to very few people. I’ve found they will either be amazed, or will not believe it, meaning they will think ‘She had a hard time, she had a dream, she saw a desk — she made it all mean something’.
As the founding member of the ‘Just The Facts Ma’am Band,’ I wish it were that easy.
I confessed to a friend years ago that I still struggled with faith. I felt guilty because the ‘God tap’ hadn’t cured me of all doubt. This friend of mine has enough faith to power a small city.
“Don’t feel bad about it,” she told me. “That’s just your relationship with God.”
What I heard her say was that I had a relationship.
I’d never seen it that way.
So maybe it’s imperfect. Maybe it’s me who snipes, “But how is that possible and why did you let that happen and if you’re really all knowing why didn’t you know this?”
And despite all of that, maybe it was God who told me in the middle of the night I wasn’t alone, who decided it was time to connect the dots with dark wood desks and good men named Joe.
I think we got a thing.
Me and God.