catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 21 :: 2011.11.25 — 2011.12.08


The electric razor

Across twenty years and four states, I have been married in a Lutheran church, served as a lay counselor in a Quaker church, entrusted my first-born to a Methodist church nursery, and taught Sunday School in a United Church of Christ.  With countless others, I have served coffee, acted as liturgist and usher, trained as a peace activist, attended meetings, and volunteered in programs for the homeless.  I have addressed issues of women in ministry, gays in worship and social justice.

These memories rise to the surface when I think about church — a complex matrix of feelings and associations.  But, for me, another experience lurks beneath these associations, a creaky reptilian memory that hides beneath the rock.

In 1980, I was thirteen.  One late August evening, my ten-year-old brother and I were invited to a “special movie night” at our neighbors’ church.  We knew enough to expect a religious, preachy film, but we still expected a fun night out.  We had accompanied our neighbors to their church many times when we were younger, for Wednesday story times, songs, crafts and snacks.

Our family didn’t attend the Catholic church anymore.  Our parents had taken to sleeping in and reading the paper on Sundays, looking as happy and relaxed as I had ever seen them.  I had taken First Communion when I was seven; memorably, in the midst of practicing prayers and lining up, I had forgotten to go the bathroom before the Mass.  My long skirt hid the fact that, as we stood around the altar, waiting for the priest to finish reading in his strange, loud voice, I peed, just a little bit, on holy ground.

But at thirteen I was finally past that kind of helplessness and embarrassment.  I was entering eighth grade in a week, my last year of junior high.  Puberty had slowly and painfully pulled me from my childhood, but I was finally settling into my new shape: my hips had learned how to navigate doorways and table corners without bumps and bruises.  My father, who had been living two hours away while finishing his graduate degree, would be coming home for good at the end of the school year.  I felt sure that my friends, and maybe even boys, would notice my new-grown self.

At the church, a film projector and screen were set up among the sanctuary smells of carpet and wooden pews.  The “special movie” was A Thief in the Night, the 1972 film by Russell S. Doughton Jr., about the second coming of Christ.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s, many churches of an evangelical and conservative flavor screened this film, encouraging congregants to invite guests — friends and co-workers who might be “unsaved.”

When the lights went out, my neighbor and her friends clustered together, giggling, and my brother was too far away to reach.  The movie began.  I was thrown into a 69-minute long silent panic as Patty, the protagonist, awoke to look for her husband, and found only his electric razor buzzing in the sink.  The film went on to portray a world government crackdown, the so-called mark of the beast, and the lone woman Patty chased to her death on a railroad trestle — but none of it shook me more than that moment, the untended razor. 

At the end of the film, Patty awakens to find it was only a dream.  She looks eagerly for her husband to tell him she will convert — only to find the horrible, still-buzzing razor is in the sink after all.

As the lights came back on, I could tell with one look that my brother was destroyed and trying to hide it. Yet the faces of the others all looked normal, as if they’d been watching the weather report.  We walked out blinking into the still-light summer night.  The new school clothes I’d worn so proudly felt far too hot.  The neighbor girl ran off to play with her friends, and a young man asked me how I’d liked the movie.  I just stared at him.  At another time I’d have thought he was cute.

For years after that August night, my brother and I would lie in our beds at night, separated by a wall, and replay in our minds the images of the electric razor, the desperate scream, the panicked run through the house and the streets, searching for a loved one.  Our main concern was for our parents, now unchurched for all practical purposes, and not receptive of our attempts to convert them.  It was my mother that I envisioned — screaming and running, helpless and lost.  When I was near her, the idea seemed ridiculous.  She was a nurse, a practical woman of science, and in her presence I knew that people did not just disappear.  But at night I was alone and surrounded by a dark countryside full of people who believed that though people hadn’t disappeared yet, they would.

My eighth-grade year was not all that I hoped. I could never quite regain that pre-movie confidence.  I would be ostracized by friends; school bored me to the point that I wanted to destroy things; I was plagued by another wave of puberty’s changes.  I would skip school to stay home and watch soap operas, and would sometimes stop bathing altogether.  At the end of the year, my father announced that he didn’t want to rejoin our family, and my parents’ divorce began.

For ten years I did not attend church regularly.  At times I would physically shake at the questions of faith and religion; the idea of a community devoted to these matters was more than I could handle.  But eventually the loneliness of being an outsider wore on me.  I resolved to face these questions and join a church. 

My church-going adult life has been an important step for me, and every church I’ve attended was an instrument of a loving and healing God.  But for now, I seek my community on a different level — often with writers, my husband and children, often in one-on-one meetings instead of large gatherings, often in silence.  A gentle and subtle faith weaves its way into all aspects of my life, not just hitting a high point on Sunday.  I am part of a small local community which sums itself up in Charles Williams’ words:

There was no pledge or initiation, no standard asked by others….  In all matters the compulsion is interior…. It is a spirit which will work within everything we do, and will reject nothing of our ordinary life…. It is the birth and life of love, of Christ, here and now.

Whereas I lay in bed as a child worrying about the second coming, the other night my eight-year-old son asked, just before sleep, “God made everything, but who made God?”

I lay near him in the dark, quiet and smiling, not quite sure what to say but happy to let the question hang a moment.  It was the fitting response, for my son had his own answer that came from no church I’d ever attended.

“I think it was the fairies.”

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