A Low, Quiet Calm

The following is an excerpt from Tracy McKay’s new book, The Burning Point. For the next three days, you can purchase the Kindle edition of The Burning Point for the surreally low price of $3.99–just because we love you. Don’t miss out on this phenomenal deal from BCC Press.

The_Burning_Point_Cover_for_KindleMy search for God started early, much to the bemusement of my multi-generational atheist family. My childhood was idyllic, just south of San Francisco on old orchard land. My hippie parents and I had happy, carefree days tending our chickens, picking fruit from our trees, and making jam. We even had a goat before having a goat was fashionable.  My memories are tinged with happiness and the scent of freshly tilled soil, the tang of salt spray on my lips, and the tingling feeling of sunlight breaking through thick banks of fog.

Family and friends were always close. My mother’s sister and her family lived down the road, and my grandmother was only a few minutes beyond. Doors were always unlocked, and I spent as much time with friends and extended family as I did in my own home. It was a good and happy upbringing in a good and happy home.

And yet, even at a young age, I felt something missing. No one else seemed to notice, but it was like a tiny pebble in my shoe that only I could feel. Keenly, I didn’t have the words or frames of reference to give it voice—I only knew there was a space inside of me where something important belonged.

I recall being in first grade and studying the nativity that my mother would put out at Christmas. It was a family heirloom, and my mother would set it out as a nod to tradition. She loved Christmas, and that was good enough. I was mesmerized by the little statues. That little ceramic Jesus was the recipient of the first prayers of my life. Without understanding why, I pulled my child-sized rocking chair up to the shelf where the crèche was placed, and I started to cry. Quietly, I poured out my heart to the tiny glass figure. I was fearful of being discovered doing something so oddly unfamiliar, but so compelling. I could not stop myself. It felt like someone was listening.

As a young teen, I tagged along with a friend and her mother to a bookstore, and I purchased my first Bible with my babysitting money. I picked a green leather volume with the words of Jesus in red, and my friend would go over passages from the New Testament with me, showing me how to highlight words I liked with a yellow pencil. At home, I kept my Bible shoved behind other books on the crammed bookshelves in my room and hoped my mom wouldn’t notice. Most kids hid Judy Blume novels—I hid the Bible.

As I grew, so did my yearning for answers. My parents allowed me room to explore religion, even though they didn’t share my need. I would go to any church with anyone who would take me. I attended synagogue, the Kingdom Hall, Catholic Mass in Latin, Hebrew school, a Charismatic Christian church, the old Lutheran A-frame down the street, the small chapel across from my elementary school, a Sikh service with a classmate, and Mormon services with another friend. I was searching.

As my idyllic family life began to unravel, my parents divorced, leaving me floating and on my own before I was quite ready. I continued to search for faith, for God. I searched in secret places and places regular and simple. There was not a church or school of thought I wasn’t willing to consider, but still I wandered, unsatisfied, searching. What I was looking for was that feeling I had from that little Christmas Jesus. I was looking for someone who was listening for me.

I made some mistakes. It took fifteen years of being mad at a silent God I wasn’t sure was even real before the answers came pouring down on my parched spirit.

The birth of Jeffrey finally caused my vague, sputtering faith to burst into vivid flame. When he slid from my exhausted body with that final great push and they set his slippery newborn body on my beating heart, I knew God was real. Years of searching fell away as I looked in awe and wonder at my first child, and I knew, I knew with all my heart, that there was a God and that he was right there with me. I sobbed—in exhaustion, and for my son—but also for answers to lifelong questions. In every picture of Jeffrey’s birth, my face is bathed in tears. Only I knew how long those complicated tears had been waiting to fall.

After that awakening—a birth for both Jeffrey and for me—I found myself seeking a church in earnest again. I wanted my child, and my future children, to have a foundation of faith. I wanted them to know God as part of the weft and weave of their daily life, to know Him as a cornerstone and not feel the void I had longed to fill. I understood I could not really provide that for my children, and that their paths were their own to walk, yet I wanted to at least give them some literacy, some familiarity with liturgy and holiness in different forms.

I went church shopping each week. One Sunday, purely because I liked the building—which is really peculiar in retrospect—I went to a local LDS church in our neighborhood. I knew very little about it except that Mormons had a reputation for being nice, and I had a vague recollection from my childhood co-op days that they stored bulk food. I sat alone in the back with squirmy Jeffrey on my lap and left immediately after the service. But something stuck with me. It was an odd service, where people from the congregation gave little sermons themselves, speaking of their beliefs, and everyone was invited to come to the podium if they wanted to speak. I was intrigued by the parade of young people talking about God with knowledge and confidence and obvious love. At that service, the vocabulary and vernacular were unfamiliar, but I left with a feeling of perplexed curiosity.

The next Sunday, with the slight, shy defensiveness of someone on new ground, I announced to David that I was going to church again. He glanced up from the couch, nodded, and smiled his encouragement, before going back to watching the baseball game. He was happy with his faith but was supportive of my searching. I gathered Jeffrey and headed back to the curious building. Two months later, still incognito in the back, I approached the missionaries after the services, and asked what I needed to do to be baptized.

*

When the life I knew fell apart, and I found myself a single mother of three children starting college in my mid-30s, it was my faith that sustained my family.

I was mulling over heading into another round of finals and the impending holidays when the phone rang. It was Nancy, inviting me and the kids to join them that evening for a family dinner and a walk around the lake to look at holiday lights. It sounded lovely. My spirit was buoyant all day. School was going well, and that might have been part of the bubbles of happiness—there was no pressing homework at hand, so I could relax. I found myself stepping outside of myself for moments just to observe the many miracles in my life.

One of the miracles of modernity was the connection I was able to achieve to the outside world despite my humble circumstances. Writing and blogging openly about what life was like allowed me to make incredible connections. Friends around my kitchen table helped me be a better person. At school I took part in heated and passionate discussions with intellectual classmates, and I was grateful that I got to keep company and learn from so many inspiring, smart people. These interactions helped me look beyond where I was and imagine where I could be.

My children were happy, and that amazed me, too. They rolled into the house after school, each one a boisterous ball of noisy, giggling energy. Abby inhabited both her brothers’ world and her own. She still got one-on-one time with me while her brothers were at school; this was when Darth Vader retreated and the crayons and tea-pots came out. I was delighted with the way that she straddled the worlds and owned them both.

It was a long-standing policy of mine to have an open door. I loved when people stopped by. I loved seeing happy faces at my kitchen door—no one used the front door at Little House. My kitchen would never be spotless, but anyone who wanted to sit around my Craigslist oak table and chat was welcome. Only the day before, a friend I hadn’t seen in ages had stopped by for help with a project. We fixed it up, and her baby fell asleep in Abby’s lap while we talked. It was precious, unplanned, and beautiful.

David was doing better about showing up for his visitations, and he was staying sober and working through the twelve steps. It was still very hard to be in the same room together—the air was heavy with things we just couldn’t bear to brush against, but we had settled into a simple routine. I realized that the loose ends between us would never be fully cut. There would always be raveling strings blowing in the wind, and as they unwound, they knotted together in new ways, becoming nests of their own. Despite the divorce being legal and final, there was no such thing as “final” when you have three children you both love. It was more a matter of what new relationship would be knitted from the old strings.

I was content for the first time since my life had fallen to pieces. I wondered if maybe those tiny moments of pause—when you notice your place, notice your heartbeat—were what make up the body of who you actually are. I don’t know. I only know this moment.

It was time to gather the coats and boots and get ready for our walk around the lake. One last hurrah before I had to disappear down the rabbit hole of studying for finals. Once finals were over I would think about Christmas.

A few weeks earlier I had searched eBay for nativity sets. In a few simple searches, I had found an exact replica of the crèche my mother had when I was a child. There was the tiny little ceramic Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the straw-covered stable with the cow and donkey, while Joseph and Mary knelt. My heart pounded in my chest. There it was. The same one. With the last of my birthday money I had squirreled away, I bought myself a Christmas present.

Buy the Kindle version of The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope for the next three days (July 14, 15, and 16) only,

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    So, so good.

  2. Bro. B. says:

    Just got the book. Looking forward to starting it.

  3. MDearest says:

    My copy arrived yesterday, looking forward to a weekend of reading, and the spoilers are wonderful.

  4. One of the best books I have ever read. Tracy, your writing and thinking are breathtaking. Thank you for sharing yourself.
    As a former very orthodox Mormon who no longer attends and who is mostly agnostic your book gives me a little bit of hope that there is a god who knows me.

  5. Other Bridget says:

    Tracy, I stayed up until one o’clock this morning to finish your book. Thank you for sharing your story!

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