"Hell? I'll give you hell," my father once roared at my brother when he spied my sisters and I on our knees in the living room on the edge of accepting Jesus into our hearts. My father got in a few noisy thwaks with the flour-bin cap before my brother bounded out the side door, shielding his head with his Bible like he was protecting his hairdo from wet weather.
I thought I could go back to finding solace in TV reruns and fantasizing about being one of the 500 dead fiancees of the Cartwright brothers, but no such luck. This time there we were, my sisters and I, on our knees, having gotten pretty far down the road to redemption, and my father figured he had to debrief us by breaking out the big illustrated Children's Bible, the one in which Satan was permanently sunburned and Jesus looked like a honey-haired underwear model. Regardless of the beatings and the bellowing and the downright banishment of my brother's beliefs, my father didn't disapprove of Bible thumping in general. He disapproved of my brother's Bible thumping in particular because my father didn't want his grade-school daughters getting a God habit that would require him to drive us places like church and whatnot, which would've cut into his bar time at the local tavern.
"You got all the God you need right here in this book," my father told us, tapping the Children's Bible with the same thick finger he always used to flick us in the head when we bothered him. So there we had to stay, on our knees, while my father read random passages in his imitation James Earl Jones voice until my mother, the one true atheist in the family, saved us by handing him an opened Budweiser.
I was grateful. I don't like being on my knees. I remember accidentally ending up at some marathon Mass in England once, lured there by my best friend Laura, who was studying with me in the same Oxford college program that year. She told me we were just going to look at the interior of the cathedral because she was shocked I'd never seen one. I followed her inside like a bovine and suddenly we were filed into a pew and pinned all around by worshippers. Then the priest glided in all cloaked in sparkly curtains like a parade float with a pointy hat, and before I knew it we were spending the next 5,000 years doing knee-bends while the priest bellowed in some language only Beowulf could understand. "Fuck the hell out of you," I hissed at Laura as we herded ourselves out of the cathedral afterward. She laughed in response. "Don't you feel redeemed?"
Not really. It was a spring day in England, uncharacteristically warm, and the afternoon had been wasted while I'd been trapped under a dome of stained glass. This made me late meeting other friends at a pub, so I took a shortcut through a meadow that, I swear, the week prior had been little more than a field of mud. In that time, though, it had bloomed to a level of luster that rivaled paradise. And I didn't even see it at first. I was too busy blindly hurrying, as if there was actually a point to my arrival at wherever I was expected, when something caught my eye.
Is that a damn pony? I chuckled. Oh, my god, there was a pony grazing not 10 yards away. The sight was simultaneously so sophomoric and so beautiful that I geared myself to laugh again, but when I opened my mouth a sob came out instead. A sob so deep it must have started somewhere in the back of my unsaved soul and gathered momentum over the years until it finally burst free, bringing every thread that made up the cynical mess of my life together right then, just for a second, to reveal the unfathomable beauty of the world. And for that second I knew I was young, and I knew neither would last, not the beauty before me nor the beauty within me, and suddenly I felt so fraught with longing right then, and overwhelmed at having survived the complete car wreck of my life in order to be here, in this meadow in the middle of Oxford where ponies roam in the glow of a rare British sunset. It utterly defeated me, or it redeemed me, it doesn't matter, as both occasions are marked by falling to your knees.