Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On childhood faith: Remembering Ash Wednesday

It’s Fat Tuesday. A day of worldwide gluttony and pursuit of pleasure before Ash Wednesday and the season of lent. Growing up in a very diverse neighborhood in SoCal, many of my friends at school were of Mexican heritage, which also meant Catholic. They went to catechism. They came to school every year on Ash Wednesday with a smudge on their forehead, a secret symbol for an exclusive club. Until my mother went through her revival of religion when I was in high school, my family worshipped the TV and observed nothing but commercialism at Christmas and Easter.

In those days we were simply protestant. Shortly after my parents split up, my mother dragged us to a church within walking distance of our apartment in Pomona. A small, A-shaped sanctuary housed the Gospel Tabernacle. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a Pentecostal church of roof-raising proportions. Prior to attending the Gospel Tabernacle, I’d only been to church once. I was about five and all I remember was a man standing in front talking, talking, talking, my mother trying to listen, my two sisters and I fidgeting on the hard wooden pews. My Daddy picked us up afterward and I asked him why he didn’t come with us. He said, “Oh, I don’t believe in that Mickey Mouse stuff.”

That church certainly wasn’t Disneyland, not that I’d ever been, even though we could see the Disneyland fireworks every summer night from the front yard of our house in Santa Ana. Still, I wondered what Mickey Mouse had to do with church. So when the music and the singing began at the Gospel Tabernacle, the voices would cry out across the room like animated voices from a Saturday afternoon cartoon. Rounds of “hal=le-luuuuuuuu-jahs” lifted over the singing, while “Praise you, Jeeeee-sus” filled the space in between songs. Gospel Tabernacle wasn’t a placid Mickey Mouse church like the one in Santa Ana, it was a wild ride through the jungles of joy where Tarzan was expected to show at any time.

Yes. Tarzan. I really didn’t know what Tarzan had to do with church, but surely as my name was Carolyn, I heard it loud and clear over the top of the praise fest, “The king is coming! Tar-zaaaaaan is coming!” I looked around, expecting to see a wild man in a leopard loincloth swing before the faces of the faithful. When Tarzan never appeared, I chalked it up to another cartoon fantasy, as if the lady who called out for Tarzan preferred a wild human god to a talking mouse.

Years later, at a roof-rocking church in Laguna Beach, I heard about the swinging king coming again. It wasn’t Tarzan. It was Hosanna: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

So anyway. We stopped going to the Gospel Tabernacle after only a few weeks and didn’t go to church again for years afterwards. I listened to my Catholic friends talk about catechism as if it were a secret club and I wished for an invitation that never came. They bragged about the fancy white dresses they wore for their first communion and primped up the fanciness when they made their confirmation. On Fat Tuesday they feasted on ham sandwiches and Hostess chocolate cupcakes, because they knew there’d be no meat for 40 days and they were giving up chocolate for lent. They would go to mass on Wednesday morning before school to receive the secret mark of the sacred.

When I was nine, I asked my mom if we could go to mass in the morning before school to get ashed. Her eyes shot forth in horror like I’d just asked if I could go to school naked.

“We are not Catholic,” she said. “That’s all hocus pocus stuff.”

I took my faith into my own hands that year, showing up in Mrs. Vargas’s fourth grade class with a great big smudge across my forehead. Several of my friends remarked that they didn’t know I was Catholic and they didn’t see me at mass that morning. I told them I went to a different parish with my dad—a boldfaced lie. In truth, I had my own private mass on the way to school. I reached into the barbeque grill beside our front door for a fingertip of ash and smeared it on my forehead.

I spent the day feeling like an insider, one of the Smudged for Jesus crowd. Knowing I couldn’t give up chocolate, I gave up TV for lent and expected to observe it. As the day wore on, I became oblivious to the smudge on my forehead. Upon returning home, my mom looked at me with wary eyes and asked what was on my face.

“Oh this?” I said, running my finger across the smudge on my forehead. “It’s my ashes.”

My mom's face went hard. “I told you we are not Catholic. Where did you get that?”

“Not in church. It’s from the barbeque. I put it on myself.”

My mom threw her pointing finger toward the bathroom. “Get in there and wash your face this minute.”

I slumped off to the bathroom and stared at myself, just as I had in the bathroom mirror at school. I licked my finger and wiped the smudge around until it faded into my skin. It was no longer visible, but I knew it was still there. My ash Wednesday was a rebellious act of faith and it was mine alone.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Okay then, the 25 random things

Back in early January, the "25 Random Things About Me" was "16 Random Things." Like a game of virtual telephone tag, the list grew from 16 to 25. I've been tagged a few more times since the meme morphed to 25, so rather than rehash more random things, I will add 9 more to my previous list of 16.

Nine new random things:

1. I am an expert secret keeper. For some reason people confide things in me; things I would rather not know, but often it's just because they need to talk about it. Athough I am not always the best listener--I frequently interrupt with questions and comments--I never let it past my lips again.

2. In stressful settings, I tend to blurt out my opinions with emphatic pitch that is often misconstrued as harsh. If I've done this to you, it's not about you. It's about me and a fault I'm working to overcome.

3. We have a pet cemetary in the wayback of our property. Graves include one bunny, three dogs, three cats, a rooster, a hen, and a lizard. I love animals and would have a pet rescue if I could afford it.

4. In third grade I swiped some matches from our babysitter and took off with my best friend Stewart Crump to see if it fires were really *that* easy to start. We holed up in the babysitter's garage and flicked match after match, but couldn't get the place to burn. I got called home and dang, wouldn't you know that while I was home, Stewart got the garage to burn.

5. More about fire. When I was young we were so poor we used to drive up to the baseline of the mountains to watch the annual forest fires in the nearby mountains. Cheap entertainment.

6. More cheap entertainment. Back in the days when we were poor, gas was cheap. When there was nothing else to do we would hop in the car and go for a ride. Oh yeah. Loved it when we parked in a motel parking lot outside Disneyland to watch the fireworks.

7. I am fiercely protective of my mornings. I get up early to write for the first three hours. This is typically my fiction writing time and my family knows to give me a wide berth. I love them for it. After writing time is over, I'll all about my work in the travel and motivation business.

8. My father died in 1989, my mother died in 2003, my younger sister died in 1990. I miss each one of them more than ever. Time changes grief, but it never goes away.

9. I love people. As a journalist and travel consultant, I meet amazing people all over the world. I am tagging a zillion people in this note from other countries. We are a global village.

The original list of 16 Random Things

1. I was born in East LA and have lived within a 50 mile radius of my birthplace for all but three years of my life, when I lived in Iwakuni, Japan during 1987-1990.

2. I ate my first oyster from a half-shell only a month ago, at a restaurant in Ventura, California called The Watermark.

3. My first grade teacher tied me to my chair because I wiggled, squirmed, and "visited with my neighbor" too much. I think I had A.D.D. before it was an official disorder. Despite this awkward incident, she was my favorite teacher for many years.

4. I hated math growing up because of the repetition. I mean, I got it the first time (1+1=2, 2+2=4), so why did we have to do pages and pages of silly math problems? I eventually turned off my brain when the teach said to pull out the math books.

5. I wanted to marry a Beatle when I was a little girl--Paul, the cute one, of course. I still get tingly when I see pictures of him with his peg-legged pants and that funny shaped guitar he used to play. Now that I'm older, I get tingly when I listen to John's lyrics.

6. I fell in love with Shakespeare because my English teacher, Mr. Mann, taught the bard with literary romance and passion. I can hear him introduce our first play, "MacBeth," saying how he envied us that we would be hearing Shakespeare for the first time.

7. I wanted to be a stewardess back in the day when it was still a politically correct term. Back in that day, however, there were height requirements. I was too short.

8. Also back in the day, I was editor of my HS yearbook. My travel careers advisor read a poem I'd written and told me, "Why do you want to be a stewardess? You should be a writer." Wish I could find him and say thank you.

9. Pertinent to numbers 7 and 8, I did become a writer and now travel the world writing about beautiful places, friendly faces, and lasting traces.

10. The pinnacle of my life was the birth of my first child. Then the birth of my second. My children are now old enough to teach me things.

11. I've loved every era of my kids' lives, from breastfeeding to packing them up and dropping them off at university.

12. My daughty is scary smart, headed for a PhD in English Lit, and my son has a photographic memory and is looking to be a Naval officer.

13. Both of my kids friended me on Facebook of their own choice. Many of their friends have as well. This pleases me.

14. I wrote my first novel when I was 43. It's still not published and I hit the mid-century mark last year with a second yet-unpublished novel behind me.

15. My husby helps with housework, thinks I'm a great cook, keeps my car washed, and generally indulges my whims. He looks really good in a flight suit, too. I think I'll keep him.

16. Did I say I love animals? In addition to my two doglets, Tank (a Jack Russell) and Buck (a beagador), I have a pet chicken named Rosie who roams my backyard and pecks on the backdoor windows, plus three more hens in a coop in the wayback of our property.