Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Seven

On a Sunday afternoon about a week after her lunch with Laura, Diana walked up to St. John Bosco and met up with her fellow catechumens in the church parking lot. It was cold, and overcast, but by the time she arrived almost everyone was already there, standing beside their cars. A few were holding paper cups filled with coffee while the others had their hands jammed into their various pockets. She saw Susan talking with Keith, of all people, and went over to share the burden with her.

Martha and Father Adamowicz came out of the parish hall just as the John and Anne turned their Ford Taurus into the lot, the last to arrive. Martha held up the key to the van, attached to a red and white pom-pom the size of a cantaloupe, and cheered to the team waiting for her.

“The van will seat twelve, including the driver, which should be about half of us, according to the count I made last Sunday. Now who drives a big SUV with lots of extra room?”

The question was directed at everyone with a glimmer of inquisitional irony, people now being generally conditioned for guilt (or a conscience, if you like) when it comes to their cars. People smiled at the fun of it all, though Keith actually took a brief look around to see who else might be volunteering. Charley cleared his throat and said, “Well, yeah, I’ve got room for five after myself.”

With the way now cleared, Keith then stepped up and said, “I can have the same number, maybe more if a couple can sit in the far back.”

Charley took John and Anne, as well as John’s sponsor, a friend from business school who hadn’t made it to a single Sunday thus far. Svetlana followed them with her teenage son after her, a remarkably quiet, well-mannered young man who’d graduated from St Bosco’s primary school three years before and, judging from the bored look in his eyes, seemed to find it not the least bit strange to have been tapped as a sort of godfather for his own mother. Diana was standing right beside Keith. Certainly no one else was moving toward him or his white Explorer. As much as she didn’t care for his company, the seemingly random situation of everyone in the lot dictated what arrangement would follow in the cars, and so she followed him with Susan as the rest of the group stepped toward the van with Martha and Father Adamowicz.

She realized she was being petty. It was a short ride after all – the cathedral was less than ten minutes away, and she could certainly stand that. But why was Keith so off-putting? She and Susan had actually talked about him before; for Susan, one way of figuring out where Diana stood was to find out how she compared herself to others – a manner which Diana found uncomfortably close to gossip and not especially revealing about herself. Still, she found herself more impressed than not with Susan’s good humor, which included a fairly realistic take on some of her fellow travelers, in the church and out. Diana noticed a brief look of surprise on her face when she followed Keith. Not that Keith would have noticed; he turned quickly towards the truck (was that embarrassment?), and the Explorer chirped twice as he walked around to the driver’s side. Susan was closest to the back door and naturally turned there, which left the front passenger seat for Diana. She would actually have been more comfortable in the back with Susan, but she could hardly make Keith their chauffer, and so climbed into her seat. As Keith turned on the ignition loud music came on at once, giving everyone a start. When he didn’t turn it down himself, Diana didn’t bother asking while reaching down to do it herself.

“Nice truck,” said Susan.

“Comes in handy,” said Keith.

“For what?” said Diana, automatically. Its size was pretty impressive, but for Diana this was hardly a good thing. She glanced around the interior, which seemed more on the order of a mobile home than a car, certainly for someone who’d been driving a Volkswagen Bug. The dashboard looked big enough to seat four or five customers, which was about right, given the size of the seats – themselves bigger and cushier than the sofa she kept in her apartment. What’s it all for?

“Snowboarding,” said Keith, when she asked him. “I took it up a couple years ago and thought the four wheel drive would come in handy. Haven’t used it yet.”

He gave out a little laugh when he finished, perhaps amused at his own impracticality. “Yeah, it’s a real guzzler. I should probably unload it. The truth is that I’d always wanted to be a truck driver growing up, and this is about as close as I’ll get.”

Diana tried to imagine Keith in a grease-stained baseball cap eating slim jims at the helm of an 18 wheeler and almost laughed out loud. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if you needed a special license fer this here rig,” she said, letting the last few words slide out in the drawl that made her so popular behind the bar.

Susan let out a snort in the back seat and said, “Har!”

“Maybe we should all make an outing to the slopes some weekend. There’s a chapel up near Steven’s Pass…”

“You mean the whole group?” asked Diana, incredulously.

“I think Jim and Sarah might find it a little difficult,” said Susan.

“Well, people could hang out in the lodge,” said Keith, less sure of himself.

“Looks like we’re here,” said Susan.

“Good thing we carpooled,” said Diana, surveying a sea of cars.

A mass of cars, really, now moving along at a glacial pace. From which a river of people was steadily streaming from various parking lots, spilling over sidewalks and into the streets, making progress even more difficult for more cars and more people – around trees, around garbage cans and newspaper stands and any other object in its way, pushing up the hill and up the steps of the cathedral, peaceably, steadily, and relentlessly. Were there really so many converts? Even culling the mass of bodies by a third to account for sponsors and family members, it was still a lot of people. A lot of people making what was arguably the biggest decision in their life. A lot of people with marriages ahead of them, some of them certainly with an ugly history behind them, just as in the St. Bosco contingent. A lot of people, period, bringing to mind even bigger demonstrations within the life of the church: one of those World Youth days, or the papal audiences at St. Peter’s in Rome.

‘Better get used to it,’ she thought to herself. ‘It’s a big tent.’

But then she asked herself, ‘Why should I get used to it?’ Why should she participate in an event that ran so much against her nature? She’d been to school assemblies, rock concerts and football games before, finding them tiresome at best and usually much worse, for the simple fact of the matter was that she didn’t like crowds. Of course concerts are all about entertainment, which she enjoyed, and the stakes are considerably lower. A religious ceremony is different, at least in terms of personal investment, but the psychological mechanisms in each are at least similar, and not very subtle at that. A kind of mass hypnotism seemed to be at work even as everyone was still gathering together. Even the most introspective individual can’t avoid it entirely. Everybody remains a little withdrawn, while noticing what they can of the events that surround them. And yet nobody can think of everything, not even what has brought them to such a time and such a place. Inside the church robed leaders moved about with purpose from place to place, speaking with some of the laity before the ritual actually got underway – occasionally taking in the crowd coming through the doors but for the most part ignoring it – trusting that it was ready to act in its predictable way, short of someone yelling “Bomb!” or “Fire!”. Which of course everyone has at one time or another considered doing. If only just to differentiate one’s self from the crowd.

Perhaps it was because of her recent lunch with Laura, but to Diana the entire crowd was beginning to feel like an exercise in conformity. She recalled some of the bad press given to the new pope, and her mind went back to photographs she’d seen of the Nuremburg rallies. The images came to her without effort, provoked by the sight of the gathering crowd. Why? Why think of this? ‘There’s just no getting used to this,’ she thought to herself.

Rather than push the thoughts from her mind, she gave more attention to them. The Nuremburg rallies are certainly a disturbing image to think of in church, though doubtless there had been Catholics attending Hitler’s rallies who had also attended mass. And it’s probably fair to say that mindless attention at mass can help condition a person for mindless attention at other large scale gatherings, although it should hardly need to be added that a certain degree of mindless attention is part of any group, religious or otherwise – or that proper attention paid during mass might be the very thing to help stir one’s self out of the complacency that leads to complicity in tyranny. Doubtless, many church leaders in Nazi Germany gave sermons that didn’t speak strongly to the evil occuring up around them.

But why should all this occur to Diana, and of all times, why at this time? Already uncomfortable in a crowd, Diana then compounded her anxiety by imagining the worst possible image she could think of. It wasn’t just the recent election of Pope Benedict. The reason thoughts of Hitler’s rallies came to mind has everything to do with what had shaped into one of the religious and political controversies currently popular: that Catholics didn’t do enough for Jews during the Holocaust, that anti-semitism began with the church, that Catholics are by nature anti-semitic. This had been in the news a lot lately, and of course Diana often had the news on the television at work. Some of this is worthy of discussion, but a lot of it, quite frankly, is not. And Diana wasn’t even having a discussion at that moment, not even with herself. She was just reworking some of the guilt she’d had while watching a news segment devoted to the church in Germany during World War Two. That Diana should have all this weighing on her conscience at this particular time made it difficult to be an enthusiastic participant in the ceremony at hand. As if she hadn’t asked it enough already, she kept asking herself throughout the rite: Do you really want to become Catholic?

She had entered the Cathedral through a pair of enormous double doors at the front. The amount of light inside the church balanced that of the dusk falling outside, and she found this somewhat calming. In the tremendous space indoors the crowd seemed even larger than it had in the streets outside. While taking it all in she saw Martha about fifteen feet in front of her, motioning to the group with an outstretched arm that made it look as if she were throwing a Frisbee. Underneath the vaulted ceiling far overhead, the group from St. John Bosco stepped into a pew on the left, one by one. Staring up at the ceiling for a moment, she realized that all of St. John Bosco would probably fit inside the cathedral. Then, thinking back to a trip she’d taken to Italy some years before, she realized that all of the cathedral would probably fit inside St. Peter’s in Rome – a Catholic version of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.

With everyone seated, the pews were so crowded that there wasn’t room for Martha, who then decided to stand at the end like a sentry. Father Adamowicz went in search of one of his friends. There were naturally quite a number of nuns to be seen all around – more than Diana had seen in one place before, except during that trip she’d taken to Rome years ago, or perhaps while watching a program on TV. As a non-Catholic growing up in Seattle she had hardly ever seen nuns, at least in habits, not being as visible a presence in the Northwest as they were in Europe, or even on the East Coast. It was different to see them in person. It was a little daunting.

The culture of Seattle must have been a change for Father Adamowicz, who’d emigrated from Poland, where the church was such a significant factor in the politics of the country. Of course there had been Archbishop Hunthausen some years before, but what little she knew of Adamowicz’s politics was quite different than those of the Archbishop. She saw him up at the center of the church a few steps down from the altar, speaking with the current archbishop, himself something of a change from the days of social activism on the part of Archbishop Hunthausen in years past.

Everyone was speaking as they waited for the rite to begin, more crowd than congregation and with all the noise one would expect at a Sonics game during the warm up. Which was fine with Diana. She was seated between Jim and Keith, hearing both of them speak and listening to neither. She took a long look around the interior of the cathedral, trying to like it. Clean, certainly, and nice, but also a little bland, neutralized in some way. She found herself searching for something to look at, and what statues there were looked lonely as they gazed over the crowd, outnumbered by all the living beings below.

She went back to watching people and thought of more solemn ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Would she ever be married? She was aware that she would die some day, and she tried to think of her life as an obituary writer might sum it up. And then all these other people, each with a personal history as complex as her own, just as thick with details that would never make it to the final version. Everyone here was making a decision based on some of these details, more or less as mysterious and inexplicable as her own. All these lives intersected here, and then of course the same ceremony was taking place in cities all over the globe. It was an utterly unfathomable complexity.

“Really something, isn’t it?”

Keith had turned towards her, having evidently worn out the person on his right. She tried to think of him as she thought of the customers at the bar. Didn’t work.

“Yeah. I feel like I’m at the edge of an ocean.”

“Like you’re about to take a long voyage.”

She laughed. “I didn’t say that…”

“Well that’s how I think of it. Like I’m starting out on a long journey.”

She paused for a long moment, not knowing what to say. Why hadn’t the ceremony started yet?

“I think I know what you mean. What’s that saying?, ‘All roads lead to where you are.’”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” he said eagerly.

“Now I’m not so sure what it means. You’ll be happy to explain, of course.”

They both laughed.

“You’re right about that … it’s a mystical thing, I think …” But then Keith had also caught on to her being quiet, and began looking around at the crowd as well.

“It is like an ocean,” he added, after a long pause.

She picked up a dog-eared missal from the rack on the back of the pew in front of her and began thumbing through the pages to find something to read. She flipped right past that day’s reading and found herself at the very back of the book, where the Nicene Creed was printed. She looked it over carefully and even worked on her memorization of it. She had it down pretty well. As she went over it thought about how Keith had been able to rattle the whole thing off at one of the first Sunday meetings. She really hadn’t liked him at first, but here she was now, actually enjoying their exchange as well as any she had across the bar at work. She put the missal back in the rack and looked up as the last people taking their seats.

After an opening hymn the ritual began with a reading from the gospels. Soon the actual procession began as people stood up by rows and walked towards the altar, the very image of time, passing.

After a little more of this time had passed it was Diana’s turn (behind Keith and ahead of Jim) to follow the procession up to the front and write her name down in the book of the Elect. When she stood up she stole a quick glance at the ceiling overhead, as if to check and see whether her own church really would fit inside. It probably would. She thought of two realms: at this time, in this place, but also somewhere else, as if it had already happened, or would be repeated. She turned into the aisle and lost that thought. A murmur of conversation had settled under the tones of the organ, and currents of people trickled slowly up and down the aisles, while heads continued bobbing here and there in the pews. All was the gentle movement of calm waters. It was indeed an ocean.


  1. Rufus McCain says

    I like the glacier/river/ocean imagery here.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Fabulous picture on the title link, too.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    I’m impressed with the revisions you’ve done. However: I wonder if the main weakness of BN isn’t simply an excess of exposition. It would be painful, but it might be an interesting experiment to strip the thing down to the bare bones of description and dialogue, get rid of the omniscient narrative voice and let the characters’ words and actions arise in a more opaque fog of seductive mysteriousness. (Just ignore me if you’re sick of me trying to fix the novel for you.) I think it’s publishable as is, but I also feel there’s something — a feng shui sort of thing — blocking the inherent mojo of it from flowing forth as powerfully as it might. And maybe it’s a matter of the old admonition of showing versus telling. Maybe you could publish two versions, the long version (with exposition) and the short version (bare bones, with the omniscient narrator tied up and gagged and only able to utter a telling grunt from time to time).

  4. Quin Finnegan says

    Thanks, as always, for any comments. Regarding the exposition – maybe so. At some points (later, in the essayistic chapters) I actually try to parody the whole idea of 3P omniscience, which probably came up because of some sense of what you’re saying. So I take your point.

    No, I’m not sick of the comments. After putting down 120,000 words, a few hundred here and there are welcome, no matter what they are.

  5. I'm having trouble following. Is this some kind of confirmation?

    Now, while having a beer, can I say that I'm afraid I thought while reading that a Catholic novel might have a limited appeal, unless you approach the subject obliquely, that it feels a bit like being in a church service where the vicar starts playing the guitar.

    But, I'm enjoying reading.

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