I TOTALED THE Subaru on this road, which can be treacherous in winter, but I still drive this stretch. It’s the back way to town, over the mountain. I firmly believe I won’t wipe out again. I have faith. At the crest of the hill, where the road levels out, you pass a large farmhouse that was made into a retreat for Greek Orthodox priests. Occasionally you’ll see one of the priests, a few of whom look a lot like Cat Stevens circa Tea for the Tillerman, walking along the road. Their whole setup is a peaceful sight—fields, valleys, mountains, some scattered sheep. I can understand why they chose that spot to do whatever it is they’re doing.
A little further along, there’s a guy who stands on the side of the road and makes a strange motion with his hand. I’ve been seeing him for ten years, and I’ve never been able to figure out what he’s asking for. I’ve tried waving, but he just looks confused. He’s a grown man but has the manner and movements of a child. Is the gesture obscene? Is he pantomiming a handjob? It’s possible, but I can’t quite tell. It’s always the same—I drive by him and he does the thing with his hand, sort of shaking it back and forth, and he looks me in the eye through the windshield and I just keep going. There’s a touch of desperation in his eyes but not quite enough to make me stop.
One night my daughter describes for me the monologues she has in her head while she’s trying to fall asleep, which are like prayers. She talks to a sort of holy trinity of old men—her two dead grandfathers and God. The way she explains it, they’re seated on white leather couches, and on a coffee table is a crystal ball, where the words of her thoughts appear like bubbles of text. She talks about her day, asks them to help sick family members, and even on occasion, I think, discusses her crushes on ten-year-old boys at school, asking for advice. It’s become a ritual for her. She’s never gotten any instruction on the part of her parents to pray—she has come to this on her own—and the fact that God appears as the usual old-man-with-beard has come from general societal influence. She’s only been in churches for weddings and funerals. For argument’s sake, I tell her that God could be a woman or a spirit or even just a feeling, a searching feeling. I tell her God could be love itself. But it doesn’t matter what I say. This is her business, this is her natural leaning toward some sort of faith.
My own introduction to God began in a Methodist church in a beat-up neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The original church burned up one night from arson, and in its place stood a hastily erected building that had all the spiritual mystery of a DMV. On the main level was the sanctuary, where the Sunday service took place. The music and the sermons didn’t move me, but at least there was the chance to space out, to daydream during the proceedings. As long as I could let my thoughts float up to the vaulted ceiling I was okay. It was a good place to think, and thinking, in that space, felt close enough to prayer. Still, I kept wanting there to be more. I wanted to feel something deep and unmistakable. As a sort of test, I’d stare at the cross on the wall above the choir stand, burning the image into my sight and then moving my eyes to the white of the wall next to it. If a copy of the image appeared perfectly intact, then there was a God, then somebody was trying to tell me something.
Downstairs, in the basement, was the real problem. That’s where Sunday school took place. The kids were corralled according to age in one of three classrooms. It was school all right—there were worksheets and quizzes and class discussions and lots of lessons on how to behave. The scaffolding behind all this instruction felt shaky to me, and that scaffolding was Daryl, the teacher. After all, we were getting everything from Daryl’s point of view.
Daryl was particularly up in arms one Sunday morning because he had just heard a song on the radio called “Torn Between Two Lovers,” and that song was wrong, that song was spreading a bad message. “Torn between two lovers,” went the lyrics, “feeling like a fool / Loving both of you is breaking all the rules.” You couldn’t be with more than one person romantically, he explained, and the song was condoning that kind of behavior just by showing that it could happen. Well, I didn’t really understand the fuss. It seemed to me that someone could easily get confused and find themselves in a situation like that. On other Sundays there were other examples, other life lessons, and again it seemed that too much was left unforgiven.
I didn’t mind getting some tips on being a better person. I had a bad temper back then, I stole Easter candy from my siblings, I told lies from time to time. Once, in a rage, I cut off all the hair on my Jenny Lind Swedish opera singer doll, which showed a lack of self-control. But it seemed pretty obvious to me that good people could sometimes be bad, and that bad people could often be good. And I didn’t like the lines that Daryl was drawing in the sand.
The idea that anyone could find faith or grace, no matter what they did wrong, no matter what bad thoughts they had in their head, seemed to me to make the most sense. Or even that people could want and ask for the wrong thing and not be punished for it: that was more what I wanted to hear.
Decades later, I found one of the best depictions I’ve ever encountered of this idea in Andre Dubus’s short story “A Father’s Story.” Luke Ripley is the main character, a man who lives a quiet, solitary life ordered by routine and ritual and a strong religious faith. He has regular conversations with God. “Lately I have taken to arguing with Him,” he says, making it clear that he can argue with God in a way that he can’t argue with his priest. His relationship with God, after all, is more intimate. But the central event of the story moves him to talk to God in a way he never has before, and to ask for something he shouldn’t. His daughter has committed a hit-and-run, and confessed it to her father, and he keeps her secret. He can’t bear the thought of his daughter facing trouble without his protection. He talks to God, trying to explain a father’s need to do that for a daughter. “You never had a daughter,” he says. It was something God wouldn’t understand but that he could.
What he does for his daughter is wrong but he still has faith. He hangs on to his rituals but admits to his weaknesses, even suggesting that God is weak. It’s radical in its message; it’s deep in the ways I was looking for as a kid in church.
I don’t know what happened to Daryl the Sunday-school teacher, but I have a feeling he wouldn’t think Dubus’s story was sending the right message. We’d argue about it. We’d end up on different sides of the same story. And in the end, we’d probably both still have faith. Sometimes that’s all there is. Faith that you’ll find the right words. Faith you’ll make it through. Faith that someone is being straight with you. Faith you can give that back to them.
Late afternoon in December. Here is one of the Greeks ambling along the side of the road, walking his German Shepherd. I feel rude and clumsy barreling through in my car, afraid I’m going to ruin his moment, but he smiles and waves, and that dog looks like the luckiest dog in the world. The two of them, man and beast, are exactly where they need to be.
Further along, here’s the guy moving his hand back and forth, standing in his usual spot. And suddenly it dawns on me, it becomes perfectly clear: He’s asking for a cigarette. I don’t know why it took me ten years to figure this out. Maybe dusk brought something out in starker relief. His index and middle finger are forming a V, as though holding an imaginary cigarette, and he’s shaking his hand as though to say, Here, put it right here. I can’t help him out with that, but maybe someday somebody will. He’ll keep standing out here in the cold, as the light is going down, to perform this ritual. Whether it makes any sense or not. Clearly he has faith that one of these days, on this lightly traveled road, someone is going to stop and give him a smoke.