I remember the first time I sang. I must have been around 2 or 3; my dad was holding me, and after Lily was born, this was a rare occurrence.
Glory to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning
Is now, and will be forever
Amen, Amen, Amen
I felt something rise in my chest, a fluttering joy swirling around my stomach, filling my lungs… at first it came out as a single syllable: ahhh—ahhh—ahhh. I followed the rise and fall of the hundreds of voices around me—mostly they belonged to the elderly, warbling in deep, quivering voices, lacking the luster of youth but beautiful in their own way—broken in, confident. My own voice was soft, unsure, a private affair entirely until we arrived at the last verse. I took a deep breath, inhaling the comforting scent of Old Spice on my dad’s starched white dress shirt. The sound felt like liquid gold pouring out of my mouth: Amen, Amen, Amen. My parents turned to me in shock and delight. A boyish grin crossed my dad’s face, little smile wrinkles visible beneath the glint of his thick glasses. “Prettyyy, Joyce!” my mom cooed.
My nylon warm-up pants and my College of Weiland lacrosse tee shirt were the coolest clothes I owned, complemented by the lump of car keys that jingled in my pocket like tiny bells. “Tell Rachel I say hi!” my mom called after me. “Ok,” I responded feebly, voice obstructed by the mechanical roar of the garage door opening. The air was damp and cold, the sky was dirty white; patches of green were mottled with opaque slush, promising spring but more akin to winter. “What am I doing? What am I doing?” I asked myself, but the question became an emotionless rhythm, pulsing in time with the blur of grimy ice, tar-filled cracks, interrupted occasionally by the jarring neon signs of strip malls rushing past the car windows. I felt calm. A force beyond my control was leading me. “Magnets,” Rachel called it.
I never dreaded Thursday nights. Practice went late, but I would shower, throw on something comfortable, and settle into one of the slender maple chairs with Pentecost red upholstery. “Why, if it isn’t my little angel,” Marjorie would greet me, pinching my cheek with a shaky hand. We faced the empty pews, the sanctuary illuminated only by the light projected against the stain glass windows. My favorite was a depiction of a winged lion with limbs outstretched, ascending to the heavens or perhaps descending on prey. It is the symbol of Mark the Evangelist, or John Mark, one of Jesus’ seven disciples. According to the Bible, John Mark carried water to the last supper. He also ran away naked when Jesus was arrested. I didn’t mind that choir practice ran so late; the chord progression of hymns was familiar, predictable; when we sang, I felt at peace— asleep, in a way, more than I was in my own bed.
Let all mortal flesh keep silent
And with fear and trembling stand
Ponder nothing earthly minded
For with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand
I wondered vaguely if Marie Curie felt anything like this in the latter half of her life—small doses of radiation building in her body, unbeknownst to her, until she was overtaken completely. She must have felt strangely early on in her experimenting, and surely she realized the culprit of her illness by the end. Rachel’s arm fell like so much mercury draped across my shoulders: somewhere between liquid and solid, distantly poisonous. “But you’re like, really pretty,” said Regina George. “Thank you…” “So you agree—you think you’re really pretty.”
There was an armoire next to Rachel’s bed. Once while I was changing, Rachel grabbed me by the waist from behind and introduced me to my own naked torso. I wrapped my arms around my chest and looked away. “Stop it, Rachel,” I muttered. “No, just look. Just look in the mirror,” Rachel insisted, prying my arms away. My hair was tousled. The skin on my face was shiny over my cheeks and forehead—I hated it, I always had. But, I realized, it was clear—finally free of the blemishes that had defined it for most of my adolescence. Rachel’s chin rested on my shoulder, a small smile on her face. We surveyed the effortless body of a 16-year-old. “You’re so pretty, Joyce.”
“Bells again! ‘Nother one!” I would beg my parents, staring helplessly at the sleek black knobs of our Sony stereo system. My mom would crouch down and press the button. The CD made a swishing sound as it returned to the start of the track. It began with the gong-like toll of the largest bell, resonating through my small body like an electric current. After a couple seconds the little bells chimed in, sprinkled carelessly like snowflakes over an ancient sheet of ice. The giant bell tolled at a rhythm, separating the mindless chirping into a coherent pattern. Then the mid-range bells entered, belting out a definitive melody against the chaos of their siblings. My breath reached shuddering peaks in time, each toll a unique, liquescent droplet—manmade, but endorsed by nature. Then the bells died down slowly, relinquishing the melody to a man’s nasally warble:
Gloria, in excelsis deo
The room came back into focus: cream walls, black stereo, two smiling figures nestled into a maroon striped couch. “’Nother one!”
“So then, for my birthday party, which was an all-girls pool party, I was like, ‘Janis, I can’t invite you, because I think you’re lesbian.’ I mean, I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party. There were gonna be girls there in their bathing suits.” “Are you even watching?” Rachel laughed. “Can you even see?” Somehow the radiation emanating from what was surely a uranium deposit in Rachel’s stomach had pulled me beneath her on the soft corduroy couch. She was still vaguely interested in the movie, her head angled toward the screen. I was unable to move myself from the most comfortable position I had even been in, instead observing a stray eyelash on the face of the girl who hinted at a definition to what I had felt my entire life—a promise that there was something more, something bigger, something beyond my control. The toll of a massive cathedral bell, demanding that meaning be given to all the inexplicable events preceding it. She looked down to meet my wide-eyed gaze, smiled, and kissed me on the forehead.
One day two words penetrated Pastor Martha’s sleep-inducing southern drawl like a pair of bullets.
“In the church, in our denomination, as in almost every mainline Protestant church these days, the arguments are intense and deep, primarily centered on the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians. The intensity is such that it is easy to think that we just need to purge the church of those folks who don’t think the way we think.
In our impatience to get to the task of weeding—in our making judgments as to what we believe is good and evil, we don’t get it—we don’t see that so very often it is hard to tell the difference between the good seed and the bad. We forget that we are only human.”
My mouth fell open partially, shocked at this mention of things unmentionable in church. I pulled the stole of my pale blue choir robe up securely over the bottom of my neck, aware of a cloudy mauve oval that was physical evidence of my identity as one of these ideologically divergent “folks.” An ambiguous plant, perhaps God would decide to spare me despite my weed-like qualities. The choir rose to sing.
Amen, Amen, Amen
I heard no bells.