I couldn’t help but follow her the first time I met her. Her floral print dress, with the little sweater overtop. Her slightly graying hair pulled back in a loose bun, held in place by some askew bobby pins. Her rectangular glasses covering half of her small face. She was the only one that went outside that day, and I found that compelling.
We were being hosted in an artist’s home, a small gathering of women, there to create art journal pages and share them with one another. After a short opening to give us some direction for our time together, we were invited to find some space in the home to play with art supplies and create an art journal page.
This was when I noticed Miss Martha who made her way through the home studio and out the backdoor to have a seat alone in the colorful chairs on the deck. I decided to follow her.
“Hi, do you mind if I join you? It’s so nice to be outside.”
She looked up at me and just smiled, a thin smile that looked as though she was remembering something her mother told her once about being nice to others. Then she went back to her business which involved pulling an altoid tin out of her colorful purse. She opened it carefully and laid it beside her. Then she lit a cigarette and proceeded to flick the ashes into the tin betweens drags. I knew why she was outside now.
I found her mysterious, eccentric, maybe even a little scandalous.
Later, during the time that we shared our creations as a group, the facilitator mentioned that Miss Martha was partly deaf, and so to talk to her we were going to need to speak loud. To which I replied in an extra loud voice, “I would really like to hear what Miss Martha has to share.”
I was not disappointed. Martha went on to read a poem she had written, the only line which I can remember being “flaunt that magic,” which she recited in a scratchy low enticing voice. It was breathtaking really, and only managed to feed my infatuation.
Later, at the end of our time together, I introduced myself to her.
“Hi Martha, I’m Mandy,” I said in an awkwardly loud voice because I wasn’t sure how high the volume of my voice had to be in order for a half-deaf person to hear. “I loved your poem.”
“Oh, why hello Dahling. What land do you come from? Are you a stripper?”
I sucked in wind. I blushed. I tossed my head back and laughed with the thrill of her words.
“I, well…no, no I am not.”
“I don’t mean to be offensive, it’s just there is this look about you.”
“Trust me Martha, I didn’t take it offensively.”
We exchanged cards as she continued talking about compasses and finding your way and getting rings, like a tree.
Just before I walked out the door, she grabbed my arm and in a half-whisper said, “I would love to buy you lunch some time. Call me.”
“Oh, I would LOVE that too. I will. I will!”
For two months, or gosh, was it three? The words “Lunch date with Miss Martha” remained on my list of How to Love on Me. It was sandwiched between buy new panties and purchase the Where the Wild Things Are movie soundtrack. Finally just last week, I managed to meet up with her for a secret rendezvous over brunch.
We talked about a number of different subjects. Homeschooling vs. public education, parenting, science, politics, art, religious fundamentalists, homosexuality. Eventually at some point in the conversation she mentioned that she was a Christian. Honestly, it surprised me. And though I tried not to show my surprise outwardly; inwardly I was embarrassed, maybe even disappointed.
I tried to pinpoint how my limited knowledge about her had made me draw the assumption she couldn’t be a Christian. Was it because she swore or smoked or asked me if I was a stripper? Was it because she used the words ‘flaunt’ and ‘magic’ together in a sentence? Was it because she was a democrat, loved gays, was pro-choice? Was it because she seemed free and gritty and uninhibited?
I think she picked up on my surprise because she said, “I’m not a good one Honey. I’m a damn bad one most of the time, but I am a Christian.”
I pressed her on it a little further, asking her questions. She didn’t miss a beat, very willing to answer each and everyone without feeling threatened or insecure.
“When I was 16 I told my mom, ‘Those people at church are hypocrites. All of them. I hate it there, and I don’t want to ever go back.’ And the amazing part, as I think of it now, is that she never questioned me. She said ‘Okay,’ and dropped it. She never nagged me about it.”
She told me a little later in the conversation,”I miss the hymns. I’ve thought about checking out this church called Church of the Open Arms. They have a congregation with quite a few gay people. I think I would like a church like that.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely,” I said, and scribbled down the name in the margin of my art journal, while considering my own need for Open Arms. Christianity left a bad taste in my mouth, even though I too, at the very stripped back version of my faith, still consider myself one.
Maybe one of these days I will go with her to church, I thought. Maybe I’ll sing hymns with Martha and I’ll pick up another piece of the spiritual puzzle I am missing. I love to find Christians who don’t make me twitch.
“When it comes down to talking about my beliefs to people, I don’t ever hide it. I try to be very clear and up front that I am a Christian. I’m not ashamed about it. Several of my friends are atheists who can’t understand why I believe it. I tell them I can’t explain it. It’s faith. That’s it.”
After listening to me speak about my spiritual journey over the past couple years Miss Martha encourages me that my faith is intact, despite my searching, wandering, wondering heart. She tells me my journey to figure out what I believe is so healthy. She tells me it’s giving me rings, like a tree.
Suddenly this Christianity that at times seems so stale and uninteresting and frozen to me, it starts to melt, and the cold drips of water feel refreshing to my skin. Perhaps I could love it if Martha loves it. Perhaps there are still things for me in a religion that threatens to feel like the fossilized dinosaur bones of a previous Mandy. Perhaps I haven’t given up all hope.
After all, it just takes a little faith. As little as the sesame seeds that balanced on Miss Martha’s lip as we ate bagels for brunch. A little faith. That’s it. And my faith, why, my faith has been to the dark place and back, to a place of empty silence and back, to the questioning it all, finding very little answers and hoping anyway. I might not look much like a Christian, but my faith is intact, and I have ring upon ring upon life-living ring to show for it.