O n a hazy afternoon in late May 1986, I wait, as I wait every weekday afternoon in a parking lot in Branford, Connecticut, for my son to be dismissed from school. While I wait, I listen to Ceci, another mother new to the school, whose son is in my son’s class. She is telling me about her car.
From Oklahoma originally, Ceci is wearing men’s jeans and a seersucker blouse and stands with her weight evenly distributed on dirty athletic shoes. She has a square face and sharp, pretty features and the dry, powdery skin of a blonde with chronic eczema. She squints in the glare, glancing up at me occasionally, scratching one dry cheek surreptitiously with pale, well-groomed nails.
As she talks, still about her car, school lets out and children stream from a low red building nearby. I see our sons, hers and mine, heading for a stand of tall pines near the road. “Tree base, tree base!” they holler as they run, dropping their backpacks in the grass and hauling themselves up into the lower branches.
Around us, other mothers are leaving with their children, and the exhaust from their cars fills the parking lot. Aware of the fumes and the burning in my veins, I find it hard to pay attention to Ceci, who is making awkward jokes that I miss and then try to laugh at.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
“It’s just my legs,” I say evasively. I’ve tried to tell her, a little, about my chemical allergies and the systemic inflammation they trigger, but there are limits with everyone. I feel alone, and am struck, as always, by how it’s almost harder involving nice people, because they try to understand, and it’s difficult to disappoint them.
“Well, let’s sit in the car!”
The truth is, I need badly to lie down, but I’m not prepared to go into that. Her car, a small gray sports car that she purchased recently, is immaculate on the outside but crammed with paraphernalia inside. So we sit in my old Volvo, which is fine with me, because it saves me explaining that I can’t sit in her car, because of the new plastics and formaldehyde.
But in my car, too, the chemical fabric softener in her laundry soap overwhelms me in the small space. I bear it as long as I can, and then, when the pain of the phlebitis in my legs is too much, I make some excuse, I look out the window in the direction of the boys.
“Are they all right?”
I get out abruptly, shutting the door, and she follows.
The boys are still in the trees by the road. Her son is much higher in the branches than mine, and is dropping something down on my son that I can’t see. I watch for a minute, a little nervous about David, who is a big, clumsy boy who once sank his teeth in Ross’s arm.
“Ross! David!” I call. “Time to go!”
“Not yet!” they bawl. “Not yet, we’re not done!”
“All right!” I call back helplessly. “But just a few more minutes!”
So we settle down to wait a little longer, myself and this person I am making uncomfortable, I can tell, but what are my choices? I feel the feeling that has become so familiar to me in this life: the feeling of spending time with people I have little in common with, struggling to connect with them and failing, and then falling back further into myself.
Around us, in the Connecticut countryside, summer has arrived in everything but name. All the maples have leafed and the last crab apple and cherry blossoms have blown away. Only an occasional dogwood, here and there, breaks the green monotony of the wood. The beautiful, devastating pollen is going, and what is coming is the heat, the humidity, and the pollution of a Connecticut summer. A wave of nostalgia passes over me for summers in Maine, so strong my eyes actually blur as David runs up, panting and lisping—“Can we, Mom, can we . . . you promithed!”—and Ross runs up, too, echoing what David is asking. They want to go to the beach. All three turn and look at me.
Shouts from the boys; a faint smile from Ceci.
The beach is five minutes away, and I can lie down on the sand. I’ll have less time to rest at home, before making dinner, but the ocean always helps me, and crying, too, even for a minute, temporarily weakens the power of the illness.
“Ross, the windows—!” We’re following their car onto the road, and Ross, understanding, quickly rolls down the back windows so the overly sweet scent of the laundry soap streams out behind us. Ahead of us, the little gray car hugs the curves and shoots through the intersections. Ross sings to himself and I can smell, on the cooling air that I reach out my hand to touch, the fast-approaching promise of the sea.
I was better at the beach, after I waded in the cold water with my pants hiked up above my knees and then lay on my back on the sand with my eyes closed in the sun, with the salt drying on my shins and the subtle, alive feeling in my body that the ocean always stirred up in me. Somewhere overhead a flag was snapping, and I could hear the boys in the distance, running along the seawall that was built along the shore, startling the gulls so they wheeled off, protesting. And Ceci was sitting cross-legged next to me, saying very little. She had a stick, I remember, and kept poking it in the sand, so it made a rough, granular sound near my ear.
Of course, she must have said something—something specific, I mean—because I remember I was curious, and pressed her. But the truth is, I have no memory of her talking. What I remember instead is something like an ellipsis, and almost a reluctance on her part to put whatever it was into words. It was as if she had a secret, the way she shook her head and laughed quietly to herself, a secret she still couldn’t quite believe. “She’s funny,” she said at one point, and then clammed up again. I remember she said that.
But what else did I know about this thing I was about to do? And why did I agree to go at all, when I went almost nowhere at night in those days, because my back and legs were especially vulnerable then, and I spent virtually every evening on my living room floor, reading on my back with my feet on a chair?
She must have used the word “healing.” And she probably told me that Grace sang. Beyond that, I was in the dark, which is another way of saying that my fears weren’t triggered. I don’t think she even mentioned Jesus, or used words like “born again” or “charismatic” that might have meant something to me and frightened me away. My impression was that I would be going to a show, or a performance of some kind, that I could watch from a distance. And I gathered that whatever happened, happened in a high school auditorium. So my issues about churches—and because Grace was a woman, probably my issues about my father, too—were neatly circumvented. And my other fears as well, of anything real in religion, or too incarnational, like statues or bleeding hearts, or too emotional, like people lifting up their hands and praising, as I had seen them do once on a television show—really, it is astonishing how ignorant I was of everything that wasn’t Episcopalian—all of these other fears were circumvented, too.
At home, when I asked my husband if he would drive me so I wouldn’t have to ride in Ceci’s car, the same suspension of disbelief I was experiencing seemed to be affecting him, as well. So with almost no questions or discussion at all, he drove me, with Ross, to a high school in Milford on Friday night. And Ceci was there with her son and her son’s father, a tall, painfully thin man whose ingratiating manners alarmed me.
T he auditorium was wide, with orange and yellow plastic seats on little stems, like egg cups. There was music playing somewhere, and the curtain billowed across the stage as people moved behind it. We didn’t sit with Ceci and her family, perhaps because there were no seats next to them, but more likely because I wanted to sit on an aisle, so I could escape. The auditorium was half filled by this point with people whose appearance and conversation didn’t reassure me. I remember a heavy, tattooed man sitting alone with his chin on his chest, and a loud Puerto Rican family crowding in behind us. And there were other, official-looking people roaming around with programs—men in red blazers and women wearing black dresses—and the men had crests on their blazers that said Grace ’N Vessels of Christ.
A little before eight o’clock, the curtain rolled back and there was a band on the stage, a big white cross, and plastic flowers on the floor near the speakers. A dark-haired man in a black suit started talking, and urged us to our feet. He spoke for a minute and prayed, and then he began playing his guitar in a strong, steady rhythm, and everyone began clapping and singing along with him and gesturing with their hands toward the ceiling.
By now, a few phrases and sentences were separating out in my brain. “Grace is here to lift up Jesus Christ. She isn’t here to lift herself up,” and so on. I was feeling dazed and confused. It was after eight and we’d been singing for a while, one simple song after another, and still Grace hadn’t appeared. Where was she? I tried to get Ceci’s attention, but she wasn’t concerned with me now, or if she was, she wasn’t showing it. Her eyes were closed, and I wondered if she was praying.
Finally, in the middle of a song, Grace came out, striding onto the stage in a floor-length gown, with one fist in the air and a mike in her other hand, and a flower pinned on one side of her shoulder-length, glossy black hair. She was singing as she entered and reaching upward, and the energy in the room went up, following her lead. She finished the song, in a vivid voice, and then sang something else. I was intrigued for a time, watching her tilt her head and talk to God and then joke around with the audience. But after a while, when nothing happened, I tired of it. What was the point? My leg veins were really hurting, and it must have been nine-thirty, way past Ross’s bedtime. I had had no idea the evening went on so long. Finally, my husband and I agreed that he would take Ross home, and I would come home with Ceci later. But after they left, I panicked. Why had I stayed? This was simply too much for me: all the perfume and plastic, the late hour, and the uncomfortable seats. I sat alone by the aisle in the rear of the auditorium and fought back tears. I was a fool. Why had I come? What was the matter with me?
Then Grace initiated the call to salvation.
By this point, I was in a very dark place—despair turning into resentment. I listened with one ear to the spiel that was all about giving your life to Jesus. It was a stark, unadorned message, almost crude in its simplicity, with little human eloquence. It presented a choice, heaven or hell, and it reeked of platitudes. I couldn’t believe people were responding and going forward, but they were—many people. What was the matter with them? Then Grace was quiet for a minute on stage, while the people milled down and the ushers, or Vessels as they were called, herded them in like sheep.
Then Grace lifted her head, cocked it, and looked in my direction.
“There’s someone up here,” she said, “who needs to come down. God is speaking to you.”
And as she said this, I suddenly felt it—the energy, like what I felt at the beach after swimming in the ocean, but stronger. A curious, tingling sensation, like electricity. It ran down my arms and into my hands, and it lifted me out of my seat, as if someone had reached for me warmly, and I responded. I found myself in the aisle, and I was going forward.
Could I have turned back? I suppose that I could have. I remember feeling dismayed and conflicted for a moment, but I bent my head and went forward anyway, reasoning with myself that it would help me to stand up for a minute and move around.
Down front, pressed on all sides by the crowd, I cried as Grace led us in the sinner’s prayer. Where did they come from, those tears of contrition that completely surprised me as I blurted out that I was sorry? Then, after we asked Jesus to come into our hearts and forgive us, she sang a song: “Pray Until the Power of the Lord Comes Down.” “Don’t be afraid!” the chorus went, and the words struck me with a strange force that I remembered for a long time afterward. Then Grace began praying for individuals, leaning forward and calling things out, sometimes pointing from the stage, and the crowd surged forward, following her movements with great longing and excitement. Some people staggered backward when she prayed for them, and one woman actually fell down, creating a whirlpool in our midst, and again the crowd surged like water around these developments.
I n fact, it was a relatively uneventful service, as Grace’s services went, but I didn’t know that then. I watched how her eyes traveled over us, looking at us and yet not looking at us, and then moving on. She was an extraordinarily bright presence close up, but also remote, following a script that the rest of us couldn’t read. It was a little unnerving, realizing that you couldn’t attract her attention in ordinary ways. I was keenly aware, watching her, that it made no difference to her how much education any of us had, or whether we were old or young, or what sort of clothes we wore. It didn’t even seem to matter how sick anyone was. There were people in wheelchairs, I noticed, who didn’t receive prayer. And there was one woman, directly in front of the stage, who tried to get Grace to pray for her husband, who had cancer, but Grace prayed for her instead, and she fell down, and only afterward did Grace place her finger on the husband’s forehead, but not as if her heart were in it.
It was as if she were somewhere else, in another world, where ordinary ideas and inclinations weren’t in charge, and the rest of us—many of us, at least—couldn’t follow. I remember Grace praying for an older woman who suffered from headaches, who immediately afterward complained about something else, and Grace simply moved away, smiling.
Later, when we had returned to our seats, Grace came to a man who was sitting behind me in a wheelchair, and he muttered resentfully that he couldn’t get up, that he hadn’t walked in years, and his family confirmed this breathlessly. But Grace got him to his feet anyway, with his hand on her arm. And then he did walk, by himself, down the aisle and back, with trembling excitement on his shrunken legs, his gray face gleaming with sweat and his unexercised middle quivering.
It was a breathtaking moment, rich with mystery and contradiction. But later, after Grace left him, with a sweep of her gown, and the service moved on, I heard his family arguing with him about whether he needed to take his wheelchair to the bathroom. They were insisting he didn’t, but he was struggling with fear, sitting in the orange chair next to his wheelchair with a bewildered expression on his face, staring at his legs and then at Grace in the distance.
And I was no different. Something had happened to me, something subtle but profound, but I couldn’t hold onto it, not even long enough to sit patiently through the service. I remember complaining bitterly to Ceci toward the end, after they had started the blessing line, when it turned out that our rows would be among the last to be led down for prayer.
Finally, around eleven o’clock, it was my turn. I was ushered into the row of people standing in front of the stage, stepping over fallen bodies to get there, and Grace was moving back and forth, praying for the people who were still standing, and the band was pounding away, and suddenly she was walking past me, without even looking at me. Her head was bent forward and her eyes were shut tight, and she just gestured at me as she passed, and I shrieked and fell down. I just tumbled down and then scrambled to my feet, embarrassed. I saw Ceci’s tall husband, lying absolutely still a few feet from me, and then I saw Ceci go down, as if someone had kicked her feet out from underneath her. I fled back to my seat, grabbed my coat, and waited for the others outside. It had rained during the service and all the pavements were wet. I waited for about twenty minutes, they came out, and we drove home in Ceci’s tiny car with her husband folded up good-naturedly in the back seat. They were playing a tape of Grace singing: “God of Miracles.” We were quiet. Even six-year-old David was quiet.
The next day I felt physically worse but subtly calmer. Responding to my husband’s questions, and Ceci’s, I said curtly that “it was interesting” but “I didn’t need to do that again.” As the week went by, however, I began to wonder if I had spoken too soon. There was something in my heart that was different, that mystified me. It was subtle but unmistakable, like a countervailing force, right in my heart, that pushed back whenever I felt pushed by anger or impatience. It was uncanny. Then there were the songs, playing over in my head like an unconscious prayer: God of Miracles, Lift Jesus Higher, Pray Until the Power of the Lord Comes Down (Don’t be afraid!). Increasingly, my thoughts turned back to the previous Friday, and ahead to the next Saturday, when Ceci said Grace would be in Danbury.
Now, Danbury was almost an hour and a half away. I hadn’t traveled that far at night in years. But a pressure was building in me—an increasingly powerful conviction that I had to go. I struggled with this all week and finally asked Ceci if she would take me, and she agreed. And then Friday night, I couldn’t sleep, not at all. All night I lay awake, caught in a battle that was hammering me from two sides—“I have to go!” “But how can I, if I can’t sleep?”—a crisis that only ended at five in the morning when I decided, defiantly, that I would go no matter what. And then I slept until seven, when my son woke me to make his breakfast.
It rained all that day but stopped around the time Ceci picked me up, at supper time, and we drove past New Haven and up through Derby and Shelton. The sky was gray but moving, like the river rushing alongside. As on the drive home from Milford, I was uncharacteristically calm, able to tolerate the car and untroubled by Ceci herself, who kept clearing her throat nervously and scolding other drivers. When we arrived in Danbury, it turned out that the service had been moved to an Elks Lodge auditorium: a middle-sized, old-fashioned room with a low wooden floor, rows of folding chairs, and high, closed windows. I went into the bathroom, and a pert young woman who was changing her baby handed me a diaper to hold and said brightly, “Time for a change!” I smiled back. I smiled at everyone that night, feeling relaxed and more a part of things than the week before.
Around eight, Grace came out and things got underway. The music, the clapping. It was hot, and Ceci was growling on my right, but I didn’t mind. I was even enjoying the music more than the week before: the novel charism of praise. We sang for a long time, and then one of the Vessels gave a eulogy for a local girl who had died, and Grace did the call to salvation early, and many teenaged friends of the girl went forward with the rest. After she talked with these teenagers and prayed for them as a group, Grace dispersed them and came wandering down the center aisle, trailing the cord of her microphone. I felt suddenly nervous, sitting between Ceci and an elderly woman, but Grace passed our aisle and talked to a row further down.
“There’s someone in here with ear trouble,” she said, and continued, when no one came forward, “You’re very deaf in your left ear.” Finally, a man stood up, a little puzzled, and said that he did have ear trouble, but right then it felt fine.
Grace then backed up slowly, row by row, and stood near us.
“Someone in here,” she said, “has arthritis in their hands.”
Ceci poked me. “That’s you,” she whispered, and it was true, the inflammation in my hands had been bad all spring, and I had even mentioned it to Ceci on the drive up. I looked at my hands, and the gnarled hands of the old woman next to me, and I didn’t respond.
“Arthritis in your hands,” Grace repeated, crooking her finger at me and nodding.
Panicked, I looked away, down the row to my right, but feeling cornered, I stood up, smiled weakly, and moved out into the aisle, where one of the “catchers”—a tall, strapping man in a blue suit—positioned me efficiently, while Grace moved away to find someone else.
It was at this point that I became aware of my hands. I was holding them in front of me, about waist high, and the palms were turned up, don’t ask me why. More to the point, they were quietly vibrating, as if they had been struck with a tuning fork.
I stared at them for a minute and listened to the quiet hum they gave off. I looked up, and saw Grace walking back toward me from the front of the room.
“My hands are vibrating,” I said softly, and she stopped a few yards from me and smiled a strange smile.
What she said then, I don’t remember exactly. Something about that arthritis being gone, in the name of Jesus. And then she lifted her right arm and flung it at me, on a line, and I felt the wind hit me with hurricane force, square in my chest, and I fell back, with the same curious cry as the week before. And then I was on the floor, on my back, and the catcher was moving away, and for a second I thought, OK. Same as last time, nothing to worry about, I know what this is like.
And then it really began.
It just came into me with a roar, and clamped onto me, like a thousand volts, or like one of those machines they use to start someone’s heart on the operating table. It clamped onto both sides of my face, and over my thyroid, and gripped my arms down into my hands that were still hovering over my waist and vibrating. But I was vibrating in many other places, too, by this point, and I couldn’t breathe right because my diaphragm was really tight where this power was pouring into me, and my stomach was quaking, up and down.
And the noise! It started quietly, in my hands, but built, in a matter of seconds, to a deafening roar, as loud as the garbage trucks in the morning in New Haven. It was as if suddenly the volume was turned up, way up, on something that maybe was there all the time but tuned so low ordinarily that I didn’t notice it at all.
I couldn’t believe it, it was so intense. It was absolutely outside my experience, and the thing was, it didn’t stop. And I couldn’t get up. Whatever it was, it sat on my chest and pressed me to the floor. I moved my hands a little. I laughed incredulously. After a while, I pulled my knees up because my tailbone was uncomfortable on the hard wooden floor. And still it went on and on. Eventually, all I could think was, Please come back, and send some of this into my legs!
But she didn’t come back. I had seen enough to know that she often did, to elicit a testimony to share with the audience, but in my case she didn’t. I kept expecting her to, and wanting her to, so I could ask her about what was happening and try to describe it out loud. But she was off preaching and praying, and she never did come back to my part of the room. So I was left alone with this power, in a naked, bewildering way. In my whole life, I had only had encounters with other people, and suddenly it was as if I were alone with God, or his Spirit, and frankly, I had no idea how to respond. I remember the name Lazarus flashing into my mind, and the incredible thought: This is a power that could raise the dead. Is it any wonder I was almost afraid, and reaching back toward the familiar, even as I felt better than I had ever felt in my life—absolutely alive and filled with an indescribable energy and delight?
Then, after a while, the power did move into my legs, down the insides of my thighs to my feet.
And I just lay there, and opened and closed my eyes, and quaked, and laughed helplessly, and even talked a little with the woman sitting next to me, on the end of the aisle, who held her hand out over me while she sang along with Grace. At one point, she folded my hands together and laid them down over my heart, and I asked her, as she did this, if she couldn’t feel it.
“Can’t you hear this?” I asked in disbelief as she shook her head and smiled.
The other thing I realized, as time went by, was that whenever I closed my eyes, there was a huge black sun filling my vision, surrounded by a red corona of fire.
When I was finally able to lift up my head and sit dizzily for a few minutes, and then crawl to my seat, Ceci told me she had timed me, and I had been on the floor for fifty-five minutes.
I n the days that followed, I was as fragile and as sensitive as a newborn. I told my husband what had happened, waking him in the middle of the night, but I was shy of other people and almost loath to talk to them. I was wary even of being near certain people at first, for fear they would upset me and the precious equilibrium I was carrying inside me, that I kept examining hesitantly, with a tentative, incredulous hand. I remember my husband talking with his mother on the telephone and starting to tell her what had happened to me, and I shouted at him from the other room and then bolted outside, where I stood in the backyard, trembling.
Just like a newborn, my eyes were opening on a new world, but the old world was still there, which made the transition a curious and challenging thing. I remember opening the newspaper and thinking, This is not in the news. And just that realization, by itself, was enough to set me wondering for hours: the realization that the world was going on in its usual way, while this other thing was out there, all but hidden, but hidden in plain sight, and free, and so familiar to some people they all but took it for granted.
I realized, of course, that there were probably people who went to services like Grace’s and came away unmoved. Anything was possible. But I was also convinced that there must be people like me: thirty-four years old and educated, not uninterested in religion or unversed in theology, and yet absolutely without a clue, in my whole demystified life, that there was a God who did such things in the world. A God not only real but approachable, and not only approachable but forthcoming—coming to meet me, on his own initiative, in a totally gratuitous, unlooked-for way.
I thought a great deal in those days about what I knew about love, before. I thought about my childhood, and how hard it had been for me, growing up in the shadow of my parents’ contentious marriage, to believe in a love that was simply available, unconditionally, without price or recrimination, because my father’s love was available to me only if I asked for nothing, and it cost me, too, as if I had chosen sides, my mother’s more nurturing love.
And now I was confronted with something completely different. Now I was grappling with an entirely new experience of love, one that flooded me in the wake of Grace’s “word of knowledge,” which is Saint Paul’s term for her insight into my situation and my pain. I can testify, from experience, that a word of knowledge can amount to a gift of faith: a conviction, in the heart, of the reality of the unseen God. Because when Grace told me that I had arthritis, and the Spirit fluttered into my hands and then seized me in a death grip the ferocity of which was only exceeded by its benefits, I knew that He knew, and it made all the difference in my life. It opened a door for me that no one has ever been able to shut. Behold, says the God of Revelation, I set before you an open door. And the fact that my hands were not the first, or even the second thing I would have chosen to mend in myself only increased my curiosity to know this God, whose aims I no longer doubted coincided with mine, but whose ways were clearly his own.
So my old idea of God, especially any idea of his remoteness or indifference, was blown away by the wind of the Spirit. And in the aftermath, in the clearing, I was groping toward this new thing: a God with open hands, and a face that was like the face of a mother to a newborn, a mother whose breasts are full and who needs to feed her child, if only to relieve her own suffering, as much as the child needs to be fed by her.
So we came together, this God and myself, in a storm of mutuality and great joy.
Meanwhile, I was trying to pray at home, trying to seek that face for myself, but I was under no illusions about my need for help. So when they announced, at the end of the Danbury service, that Grace would be in the Bronx the next weekend, in a tiny church in a basement, I was undeterred. I suggested to Ceci that we go, and when she fretted about parking, I said naively, Well, we would pray! So we did, and we parked directly in front of the church the next Friday, in a space that opened up as we arrived.
It was so crowded inside that we couldn’t even get down the stairs. For two hours, we sat in the windowless stairwell with other people who were craning their necks to listen—mostly black women in pink dresses, with sprayed hair and strong perfume. It was hot—unbelievably hot. I sat there dripping and smiling, joking around with Ceci and waiting for the prayer line, when we squeezed down, one by one, into the basement underneath, where huge fans were turning and the music was deafening and Grace was almost too bright to look at, in a pink dress on a lime green carpet.
But when she prayed for me finally, and I fell backward gently, I didn’t feel anything as I lay on the floor. I had come so far, and there was nothing! I lay there for a minute and considered this, and then I began to pray, very intently. I had my first real conversation with God that night—if a one-sided one!—with people tripping over me and even falling on me where I lay on the floor, while I told God that I needed more of what he gave me before. I told him I needed more than just a jump-start. It amuses me, in retrospect, to think how little I deferred to him at that point. I was like a child—I was a child—in my simplicity and boldness, finally understanding what was available, and asking, with great earnestness. Like Jacob with the angel, I wrestled with God that night and as much as said to him, I will not let you go until you bless me. I will not get up, or leave this room, if I have to lie here all night, until you come to me again and show me that searing love.
And then Grace passed me on her way across the room, and pointed at me, and there it was: kindling suddenly in my hands, and then spreading rapidly over the rest of me, like a consuming fire.
T he following Saturday afternoon the service was in Tarrytown, New York, where my son’s favorite author, Washington Irving, once lived. A child with a large memory and an unusual appetite for words, Ross, at seven, knew “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” almost by heart. So when I discovered that Irving’s house, called Sunnyside, was open to the public, we decided to make a day of it, which meant that my husband and son would be attending the service with me.
I was a little uneasy about this, though my husband seemed blithe enough and reasonably curious. We drove over in the morning, on a hot summer day, and ate lunch in a graveyard, on a high, narrow hillside north of town. It was a wonderful place, just like what you would imagine Sleepy Hollow to be, with grassy knolls plunging into deep ravines so precipitously you could actually touch the tops of tall trees that grew on the slopes farther down. It was a landscape of sharp contrasts, like an allegory, with bright light and shadows, high ridges and plummeting falls. Enormous trees towered over our heads, and the narrow dirt road wound crazily past tilted headstones. Later, at the service, in a dilapidated Music Hall in the center of town, I was uncomfortable in the beginning, sitting next to my husband and hearing what was being said as if with his ears, when suddenly Grace stopped in the middle of a song and said sharply, “Forget about that person sitting next to you. They’re in God’s territory now!” And I laughed and let go, and after a few hours in that company everything else—the graveyard, and my worries, and my husband’s judgments and concerns—seemed as far away as Rip Van Winkle’s youth.
But it was earlier, at Sunnyside, that I began to understand how much I had already changed. We went to Sunnyside in the morning, the miniature-feeling home of Washington Irving that sits on a flat piece of land by the river. It is a beautifully preserved little house, with tiny moldering rooms you can peer into from behind maroon velvet ropes. There was a tour, which we were required to take, and a guide in correct costume, who was sanctimonious and insecure and so painfully attached to his routines that, when people asked him questions he couldn’t answer, he was curt, and even rude. He responded coldly to me, I remember, when I asked him something at the wrong time. But instead of feeling hurt and angry, as I might have done in the past, I felt instead this strange affection for him welling up in my heart. I stood with the other people in the cramped, stuffy hallways that would have triggered a raft of symptoms in me in the past, and listened to him recite, and realized how much I liked him, and felt utterly tranquil and content.
Afterward, in the old-fashioned kitchen downstairs, as we waited quietly for the guide to make his way down, one of the men in the group picked up a piece of kindling from a pile by the stove and said something humorous to the man standing next to him—something about the contemporary character of the kindling, which was probably scrap from a lumberyard nearby. And the guide came in as he said this, and heard him, and heard the other man laugh, and I saw the guide’s face fall as the illusion was broken. And again, I felt this powerful tenderness toward the man, to a point where I wanted to reach out and touch him with my hand. I wanted to assure him that everything was well.
And then I understood why my hands were what God spoke to first. In that moment, I experienced my hands as if they were my immune system that mediates between myself and everything else. Since Grace first prayed for me, my hands were changed—strangely still, and yet subtly alive—so I held and used them differently. I prayed with them now, and lifted them in praise, and sometimes reached out with them to the world that had seemed so against me for so long, but that looked different to me now: fragile and full of fear, and greatly in need of love.
When the tour ended, I shook the guide’s hand and thanked him warmly, and then I walked out onto the graveled drive and stood in the sun. I stood on the glittering stones of the yard and looked up at a cherry tree that was growing against the light and saw the sunlight burning in the red fruit. And I closed my eyes and felt what it means to be called out of darkness. I felt the light, brimming up in my soul, and I knew what it means to be called into the light by the One who made us, and remakes us, if we wish it, in his own image.
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.