Before I was a younger man, when thoughts of girls, and freedom and fast cars hadn’t yet entered my mind, I remember the first time I was truly afraid. Fear, not unlike love, has a permeating quality. If you’ve ever seen a street light shine through the ice covered branches of an old oak tree, you’ll know that the light radiates out spherically and shines on every side of every branch nearest to it. When you look through those old branches you see the roundness of the light, and the branches seem to bend toward it. If love were a light, and we, our lives, our actions, bend toward it, shine in the cold, then fear is the other side, the shadow love casts, a cold and darkened place.
Some weeks before, I’d been in church, Sunday school, and they were showing this video depicting the rapture, or the aftermath really. For those unfamiliar with the rapture, allow me to paint a portrait. This is that time, for Christian believers, when the Savior returns, the second coming of the Christ. On this day, or so the Christians hope, the, “dead in Christ” will rise. They, along with living believers, will be spirited away, off to live in many mansions, to tend cattle on a thousand hills, on the other side of death, but not dying, living forever more. For those Christians that believe in the rapture, (and not all do) this day will be the most important to come, barring none. These believers place their faith entirely in the idea that their acceptance of Christ has secured them place among the departing on that day, or the dying before. My parents were, at that time, among this kind of believers, and I was a ten year old boy. So it happened that we in Sunday school were being shown a video of what would happen after the rapture. I remember there was a bridge with cars wrecked all across it, presumably because many of them were emptied instantly. Then there were other scenes of chaos, garbage burning in the streets, riots, police trying to calm it all down. Eventually there came a man, a political figure, who offered this great new way forward. At his direction people were instructed to get a tattoo on either their hand or forehead, without which they would neither be able to buy or sell goods. This, of course, represented the Bible’s “mark of the beast.” Shocking as all this was, what came next was even more so, and became the seed of so much fear since. It was made clear that the rapture occurred so that Christians could escape the awful stuff to come, and that those left behind were pretty much screwed. The only way to heaven after the rapture was to refuse this mark of the beast. Refusal though meant starvation and isolation, or, worse yet, and more likely, execution. They rounded up the new believers, skinny from lack of nourishment, those who refused the mark, and marched them one by one to a guillotine. The movie didn’t show the heads rolling, instead a bloody basket, sticky hair peeking out the top. I wasn’t scared yet, but I would be.
My dad had brought home this miniature pincher he found on a job site. She was copper colored so we called her Penny, and she barked like many small dogs, at everything. One night my parents went, as they often did, to adult fellowship, the monthly gathering of churchgoers to munch on carrots and read verses. I was left alone with Penny. She barked and growled out the window a lot. I tried to ignore her; I played my nintendo, or read books, or ate ice cream out of the bucket. She would stand up on the back of the couch, yapping at the dark, and I thought back to that video, and the rapture, and how every Sunday they asked who wanted to be saved. I started watching the clock, 8:30, my bed time, 9:30, when parents usually went to bed, 10:45, and I was sick. I was certain. The rapture had occurred, and I was left behind. I was gonna lose my head, and Penny was a broken record.
So, they made it home, I can’t remember where I was, locked in my room I think. I never told them how afraid I was, but one of the next few Sundays I signed up. I marched down between the pews, and said the Lord’s prayer. The congregation cheered, and soon I was baptized, everything was swell. Seeds of real fear had been sown, but hadn’t yet found fertile ground.
Some years went by and I didn’t think much of the whole salvation experience. I learned a bunch of Bible verses, and how to pray, but I wasn’t an evangelist per se. My folks were though, steady as ever, and always on the search for the deeper truths, wherever they were being taught. This search of theirs took us eventually from the church we’d been attending and along a chain of several others. Eventually we found ourselves packing up and moving onto a community, a Christian commune, outside a little back water town in Missouri. I was twelve then, and I’d been homeschooled for a while by that time. I had a few friends, but none very close. Moving to that first commune was nice; there were a couple boys my age, and we played basketball every day, rain or shine. My parents’ search for truth though wouldn’t allow us to stay long; after a year we were moving to an even more backwoods area, in Arkansas, where another, more fundamental group of believers lived together. We spent two years on that commune, and only left because I wasn’t fitting in, to put it mildly. This place was different. There was a strict system of rules. No room to question, only room for obedience. No playing games, or even throwing balls. There was a hierarchy of control, respect was demanded. I had some good times on the farm there; I learned to speak Spanish, and to play guitar, made a few friends, but there were bad times.
Came a day when the hierarchy made it clear I wouldn’t be accepted as I was. I tried to lobby that I’d been baptized, that I was one of them, but they didn’t buy it, and told me as much. Said that what ever prayer I’d prayed before hadn’t worked, and that my salvation wasn’t genuine. It didn’t take long for my thoughts to wander to the guillotine.
Looking back now, and considering the severity of the environment, I might have been wise to restrain myself from scribbling an expletive on the chalkboard in the schoolhouse, but I didn’t. I vented my frustrations there in front of a single other person, a girl, who I, at the time, believed to be more or less a compatriot in suffering, and who I admired with a kind of simple youthful love. What followed was a maelstrom of silence, a public shunning, I became the wolf among sheep. She had told her friends, who told the others, who told their parents, who told the elders. One particular afternoon I could feel the tension that had been building in the air for a week prior reaching an ominous thickness. Because this was a fairly patriarchal collective, the men, myself at fourteen just barely included, were headed that day up into the woods to fall trees and split firewood. Both my parents had been called into one of the oh-so-mysterious elder’s meetings; this only served to amplify the tension. The path we took to make firewood coursed right in front of the house where my parents and the elders were, and I remember holding tight to a treasured pair of new leather work gloves as we passed. I’d just begun to think my day wouldn’t be so bad after all when from behind I heard the call of a man, let’s just call him Leonard, and in calling he sounded like the wolf, and I felt like the sheep.
The next hour was spent in a fairly new but smallish modular home living room; circled around me were the twelve elders along with my parents. As I recall that time I’m reminded of movies depicting the Spanish inquisition, where seemingly inconsequential acts are treated with the utmost severity. I was told that by writing this word —“shit”, for the record— on the chalkboard I had not only defiled the single poor witness’s “virgin ears,” but every subsequent set that had to hear her story, and that she and other young residents of the commune were in some way or another severely traumatized by the whole ordeal. Now, in order to corroborate the virgin ears element of their narrative, the elders explained, with veins bulging both in neck and forehead, that the young people of the community had even gone so far as to search all of the many dictionaries on the commune for the word. On this point I was fairly certain they were wrong. I happened to know that most every teenager living on the premises was rebelling in their own way. This rebellion usually took the form of sneaking a listen to country music radio, or acquiring (by some miracle) and using spitting tobacco. The use of expletives though, shit included, was something that all of them did, that was a fact. Be all that as it may, at least most of an hour had expired with me in the elder’s meeting, and I was cried out, and beyond the fear of what might occur. The elder’s too were probably mostly tired of railing on me, but my rebuttal to the virgin ears argument wasn’t well received to say the least.
This was the moment where the proverbial pot, boiled over. My mother, God bless her and her brainwashed fervor, fairly well drug me out of the house, and over to a picnic bench. My dad, a little behind, was taking off his belt as he lumbered all 6’8” our way. He handed that old scourge of my youth into her trembling hands, and the show was on… She was spanking, and I was screaming with that half-a-man voice I then had, and he yelled, then they traded places, and the elders peered out the cheap modular home windows. Others, especially Leonard, and his brother Art, looked on approvingly, almost licking their lips, arms crossed like a coach on the sidelines, from the deck of the house. Of course my young mind was more or less occupied with trying to avoid/absorb the blows my back and buttocks were being dealt, but I estimate this went on for around twenty minutes. My parents were losing steam and going hoarse from the yelling, so, like good elders, the brothers Art and Leonard decided it was their time to shine, as leaders of the commune and all. I remember it like yesterday, like they heard some voice from on high at the same time, when they jumped down off the porch in sync, and while running our direction jerked their belts off in unison.
Let me fill in the scene here a little. Where we were physically wasn’t a completely isolated place. In all actuality it was basically the heart of the whole compound, a space on the property maybe twice or three times as big as most suburban back yards, situated between four of the eight or so houses spread around the property. The property itself was quite large, around 400 acres, in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the road. No one could hear me cry, no one that is, who might have stopped any of it. There were plenty then who heard me cry, twelve families in all lived there, stacked in all the rooms, in all the houses, and I’m sure my wailing echoed across the field and into the dairy where we all worked. I’m sure the babies in their cribs were crying to, sympathetically. This was a public affair.
So the brothers set in on me, and the four of them, my parents now reinvigorated by the two new recruits, didn’t let up for another three quarter hour. After it all, I was more than willing to admit that my salvation mustn’t have been genuine, and to pray the Lord’s prayer with my mother, who, having just been so vicious, was tender now. In the weeks that followed I could neither sit nor sleep on my back, so covered with bruises I was, and as I looked on at the congregation gathered on the pond banks, I happily said and waved goodbye, as the old man went under. Turns out, happily saying goodbye was a bit too much, and in the end it was seen as further proof that even that salvation wasn’t genuine, that I, Brett Townsend, was beyond saving, at the tender age of fifteen.
As I was informed that we would be leaving the commune, my parents made no attempts at hiding the fact that it was my fault that they, had to venture back out into the sinful world. They must have had a flash of guilt or responsibility or a lapse in the brainwash, because they told me then that they had considered just sending me off, and staying themselves behind, but they didn’t. Why they didn’t I’ll never know, but we packed up what little of our belonging we could still lay claim to, and headed north, back to Missouri. I’ll never forget what Art told me as we prepared to leave, the congregation all around, mourning our passage, as if we were dead already, “We hereby turn your body over to the Devil for the destruction of the flesh, that, in the end, your soul might be saved.”
It might come as some or no surprise at all that not a year later, at the age of sixteen, I was living on my own in a dorm on a liberal arts college campus. It might also not surprise you that my second night on that campus was spent in the back seat of a car, with a girl and a bottle of Malibu rum. (Neither of which I’d ever tried, both of which I liked.) I spent many tear filled nights coasting my bike across that well manicured campus, swinging far away, and then back again, to and from extremes, pleasure, and guilt for pleasure. And this could have been the whole story since really except I’ve mostly passed on through the experimental phase of pleasure. Today I’m grateful that so many of the pleasures I tried didn’t, in the end, please. I’ve wandered hither and yon, here and there across the world, developed an appetite for drug and drink and dame, sated that appetite, felt it again. I’ve conquered many demons for sure, and never let others in, but fear, and guilt, they have remained.
Now I’ve been married, (to my second wife) for approaching eight years, we have two beautiful, amazing, inspiring, wonderful little boys, but I’m still afraid. I have a good job, that is engaging and interesting and exciting, that pays well. I am finally approaching the end of my undergraduate studies, and with good grades, but I’m still afraid. And why not? There is, after all, so much to be afraid of. Earthquakes, and floods, and thieves in the night; heart attacks, and strokes, and car wrecks; wars, and rumors of wars, the collapse of the economy, the collapse of the West, the Rise of the East; these are among the things I fear. This isn’t a conscious fear, at least not all the time. This fear is like a ringing in the ear, as long as you can stay busy, adding enough surface noise, you don’t hear it. The moment you sit still though, that very moment, it is the loudest sound you’ve ever heard, a thousand jet planes taking off.
The fear I feel is like a veil that descends quickly over my face, and weighs heavy on my brow, transforming what has so often been a happy countenance into a scowl. I’ll recognize it, the tension in my forehead, the pressure on my eyes, and try to relax, and try not to worry, and in trying I’ll worry all the more. This is my life right now, these are my days, senselessly worried about nothing at all, and everything too, without the peace I have at times known, and longing for it so.
This is the great divide, between where I know I could be, a place of rest and bliss, and this place here, dark and alone. Having analyzed these feelings for years I haven’t come to any firm conclusion about its source. I’ve determined though that it was planted and nourished at least in part by the events I have described, and others. There’s a constant concern that perhaps they were right, that hell is a real place, that the fire is waiting for me. I have developed an outlook on spirituality that I can manage, that makes sense to me, and it doesn’t include a burning pit, but I worry just the same. I worry that my boys might have to endure a youth without their father, that some sort of divine justice will be executed upon me, and they will never really know how deeply I love them both.
Hope, I suppose, as cliche as it must sound, is the only thing that keeps me pressing onward, through the darkness. Hope is not so distant a cousin to love, and love is that light shining out upon those old oak trees. Love is why I wake early, and bed down late, love is why I persist in believing there is a way across the divide, and hope is believing I can make the crossing. These two, love and hope, are the only wise endeavors I have known, and they serve me in so much as I serve them. They two are the foundation upon which I can conceive a future worth pursuing, and with which I will bury a past and present so full of fear
© 2016 Brett Townsend