Ladies with powdered cheeks and lined lips smiled and greeted us as we entered, and a white-haired gent handed us a bulletin, and we took our seats in a bright airy sanctuary where all the proceedings at the front were projected on a large video screen above the altar. There were many welcomes and affirmative handshakes, and children in turquoise robes made a joyful noise as they entered singing and waving palm fronds. A pastor with the demeanor of a neighborly insurance salesman talked of God’s love in a broken world, and I hoped to hear one of the old traditional hymns but the choir sang contemporary
Christian music. I would have never even been in here but I was visiting my friend and it was important to her.
“It was what they call a blended service,” she explained afterwards, somewhat apologetically.
For a moment I thought she said a “blander service”, which it certainly was. I would also say it was bleached and benign. And to give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was even blessed, and certainly a positive force for many, but I have felt blessedness with
greater certainty in the church of the outdoors. I was glad I went, though. It cured me of the misguided notion that I might really find some greater connection to God through the community of a church. For many years I drove to churches on Sunday mornings, and I would sit at the back and at the edges, trying to be inconspicuous, testing the waters, seeking a house of worship where I felt I belonged. Now I remembered why I stopped.
I thought of a certain sandstone cave from which I can see the sea and the contours of the hills, upon whose walls are still visible the fading red spirals and sunbursts painted by those who came here long ago and where the windblown sand that covers the ground is as cool and soft as talcum powder. I thought of the time I stood with friends beneath the sycamores in the canyon when the sparkling percussive music of the universe encircled us, the sound of rain on leaves. Remember that? It was a sound like whispers and rustling rising to applause, a sound like tambourines and laughter, a sound that quenched a thirst we didn’t know we had. It was sudden and secret and it quickly passed, but we knew we had been blessed.
I have known churches.
But back to Florida, which is where I had gone to visit my friend who asked me to accompany her to this other kind of church with its affirmative handshakes and instructive readings and contemporary Christian music. Back to
Florida, where the moment I stepped outside from the airport in the middle of the night, the humid air covered me with its sloppy kisses and the warm breeze brought back a rush of unwelcome memories.
Back to Florida, where a group of black-skinned men stood at the curb by their taxicabs laughing and talking in musical island accents, and one of them of them drove me to my hotel and I slipped into the room where my friend was asleep and lay in the dark remembering other times when I was here.
My friend and I settle at a table by the pool the next day trying to establish a private corner in which to talk. Our view is dominated by a big-bellied man whose bathing trunks are sitting well below the crack of his ass, but it’s a benign form of visual pollution until he approaches what we have naively begun to think of as our table, sets down a bottle of cheap
champagne, and begins to chat. He has a loud voice and a personality that is somehow both affable and aggressive. He tells us he has been living in Lynchburg but is looking to buy a place here in Palm Beach to retire in.
“I’m a New Yorker,” he tells us. “We go to Florida. It’s what we do. We retire in Florida.”
As though on cue, his real estate agent approaches, a woman with bleached blonde hair, skin suntanned to the texture of jerky, and a cigarette between her lips.The guy pours
her champagne and offers some to us. We decline.
“I refuse to die in Lynchburg,” he continues. “I’d rather die here in a storm than up there in nice weather.”
Another woman comes by, and another guy, and more champagne is poured, and cigarette smoke is curling around our faces, and the volume is escalating, and finally my friend and I retreat in defeat, unable to hold our claim to the corner that was ours.
It’s okay. Our best conversation happens unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, and I hate that it is precipitated by her waking up in pain, but that’s the truth of it. It’s the tumor at the base of her spine. She doesn’t like to take the medication unless she really needs it, but by the time she really needs it, the pain has gotten fully entrenched. I switch on the lamp on the nightstand between our beds and a small circle of light envelops us and we talk.
Did I tell you that we have known each other for over forty years? It makes us sound like old ladies, but we were in junior high when we first met, and to be honest, we didn’t even like each other back then. We met again in college, and that’s when our friendship really
began.I’ll tell you the whole story one day, with all its twists and turns, including the long stretches when we lost touch, always reconnecting, whether by chance or intent. Some friends walk together for a part of the journey, but some friends bear witness to the
overall trajectories of one another’s lives.With us, it’s been the latter.
And now we are in a hotel room in Florida in the hours before dawn remembering who we were and grateful for who we have become. But my friend is in pain and there is nothing I can do.
“I hate to see you suffering like this,” I tell her.
“Suffering? This isn’t suffering,” she says.
There are so many things I haven’t told you about this friend. She is a pastor, a calling she heard and followed during one of the long periods during which we were far apart and seldom in contact, and she used to work in a hospice center. She has seen people writhing in agony that drugs could not assuage, crawled next to them in bed and held them. Her own pain is manageable: the medication is kicking in, her face relaxes, and she begins to unfold like a blossom in the pool of warm light. She has borne this cancer for years beyond what doctors allotted her. She tells people it’s a God thing.
We eat almonds and cheese and slices of pear. We talk about our husbands, who are such good men. We talk about how much we love the thrift stores in this part of Florida where those fancy ladies who have moved here from New York deposit their designer castoffs,
though maybe not so much now, with the economy as it is, and we talk about the things that need fixing and the values that were slipping and how hard our fathers worked.We talk about what we believe and what life has taught us. Then she reads to me from a book the perfect thing to say when someone asks you how you are doing: Aqui en la lucha. Here in the fight.
It is and ever was an unfair struggle. And certainly it is up to each of us to alleviate some small share of the world’s collective misery. But at the same time is it not gracious to accept happiness when it is offered? And are we paying attention? Have we learned from our mistakes? Did we ever imagine it would all go by so fast?
The thread of this conversation began to unspool forty years ago. We pick it up every now and then and continue it with the same fervor we always had. It’s a wondrous thing, really, how we update, and question, and confirm.
And we’re still here. Here in the light.
By now we are sleepy, and a tropical breeze is ruffling the blinds and the decades of our lives and our beds are like little white boats in the Florida room lit with lamplight and blessings and my heart is filled with thanks like a prayer in a church.