So, I recently read The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, it’s about the folks who colonized New England in the 1630s. They were a bunch of well-meaning, but often destructive, ultra-religious book nerds. Their book of choice, the Bible. They were mostly Puritans. You work hard, go to church, read your Bible, you go to Heaven, that’s the gist of Puritanism. Some, however, were Calvinists. Calvinists make Puritans look like a bunch of happy-go-lucky, easy going, fey spirits.
Calvinists believed that before you’re even concieved, before your soul even enters your tiny new body, God has already decided whether you’re going to Heaven or to Hell. There’s no finding Jesus and getting saved, death-bed repentance doesn’t mean anything, God had it all figured out and He wouldn’t change His mind. So, why be good and study your Bible more rigorously than any Puritan, why be flawlessly pious if God has possibly already written you in His Going to Hell book? Well, they believed that people who “seemed” like good people, read the Bible, went to church fervently, raised kids to be pious, those people had souls that displayed all the signs of goodness and were PROBABLY scheduled for Heaven. Folks who were lazy, who couldn’t quote the Bible chapter and verse, who stole firewood during a hard winter, they behaved so because they got a Hell-bound soul. So, you ended up with a bunch of uneasy, sometimes terrified religious zealots desperately trying to “look” good.
One woman in town was particularly terrified. She was depressed a lot, didn’t like raising lots of kids, or practically living at church. She didn’t feel “good,” but tried really hard to conform. She was so scared of the not knowing which soul she was given. She couldn’t sleep, was nervous all the time. She asked the church for help, guidance, but the Calvinist Church wasn’t exactly a loving church. She didn’t find any help at church, or anywhere else. She probably suffered from mental illness, probably needed therapy and loving support from family and friends, but in the 1630s, mental illness wasn’t mental illness, it was that you had the Devil in you. You were evil. She felt evil, but wasn’t certain. She wanted to be certain, she wanted to know whether or not she was damned, just so she could finally sleep at night. To that end, she took her youngest child, a baby, and she threw it down a well. That settled things for her, she finally knew what kind of soul God gave her and that she was absolutely, without a single doubt, damned. She actually felt a bizarre peace.
I don’t want to throw any babies down any wells, I actually love babies. Whenever I see a baby out and about, I always end up transfixed, I watch their little hands, their little eyes, searching, learning. I always think about how that baby could grow up to cure cancer, or write some spectacular novel, or hit liquor and heroin really hard and be dead by thirty, or whatever. Babies are possibility, they’re the essence of potential. Not being a Calvinist, I also see that baby’s soul as perfectly clean, I don’t believe in that born sinful stuff, Jesus got screwed over so babies don’t have to worry about that. I always look at some baby and think about how they’re not all fucked up yet, unlike me they’re completely perfect. So, yeah, no killing babies to figure out what kind of soul God gave me.
Still, I’d like some certainty about some things. Where am I going after I die? I say that first, but it’s actually pretty low on my Worry List. I just don’t want to die, I want to avoid the dying. I died once, it didn’t stick, I don’t want to go again. Sometimes I get really dark and want to go vertically open my wrists, but that’s more about not wanting to feel sad than actually wanting to die. It’s also different when dying is this circumstance that’s forced on you. If you’re accidentally drowning in pineapple juice (that’s what killed me) or the hose on your vent breaks while you’re trying to buy a four hundred dollar Tumi bag, the absolute last thing you want to do is die. You beg God not to let you go, you beg to be with one certain person one more time. You’re all, “I’ll be good, really, I promise.” At least, this is how I am.
I worry about the when and how of my dying, mostly the when. I’d really like to know the when, then I could quit worrying about whether or not I have enough time to make up for the bad things I’ve done, enough time to have what I want. and feel happy. I worry I’m going to go out like Kurt and Elliott, sad and fucked up. I don’t want my story to end that way, the way it is right now.
That’s what I worry about most, running out of time, I’m constantly aware of time. I feel time, like it’s something tangible, rushing over my skin. I feel this constant sense of urgency, especially now, because I know I’m not where I want to be, and I know I’m one breath closer to to not breathing with every breath I take. I wonder if I have enough time to find my way to someplace bright. I’d like to know because living with the mindset that every day could be my last day is actually really exhausting.
I wonder how many of those Tony Robbins, motivational, “Live like there’s no tomorrow” types, I wonder how many of them actually walk that talk. Living like that, really believing the words, it’s not easy to carry. When you want something, you want it like there’s a gun to your head, like, at any second that trigger could get pulled and you won’t ever get to that kiss, that I love you, that waking up somewhere beautiful until you quit waking up. People don’t understand why spending time together is so important to you, because your clock feels so much faster than theirs. For other people there’s always tomorrow for walking under stars or curling up in bed to watch some movie about a talking fox, and to you, both experiences are more important than winning a million dollars. Loss hurts more because you don’t believe that chances are unlimited, in your head, chances are like a pack of used bar matches, you only get so many lights. Sometimes it all get so heavy that you look for ways to stop thinking, to stop wanting, just for a few hours. Liquor bottles and drug needles do that trick, but they’re exactly that, a trick. They just make it so the clock disappears behind a curtain, but just like any magician’s assistant, the clock always comes back.
Once you actually know about these things, once you stop seeing the end of your time as some kind of fiction, well, there’s no not knowing them. A bunch of Nirvana songs end up making perfect sense. Like that Calvinist woman, lack of certainty makes peace hard to find. Such is true in my experience anyhow, but like I said, I’ll never toss a baby down a well for answers to questions that’ll probably come when I don’t answers anymore.5 comments
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