On this Easter Sunday, I’m thinking of the small country church I attended when I was a small boy. The Berryville Church of Christ sat on a gravel road just south of the crossroads where my grandmother lived cattycorner from the general store. There wasn’t much to Berryville: that store, two churches, a defunct school, and a handful of houses. The Church of Christ was a white clapboard building with a brick chimney, windows along its sides, and the door through which we entered each Sunday, intent on salvation.
I’m over sixty years beyond the time I’m recalling, but I still remember the heat from the coal stove those winters, and the smell of the snow and cold on the fake fur collars of the women’s coats, and the jangle of buckles on the men’s overshoes. In the summer months, the windows were open and, if we were lucky, a breeze came through, cooling us after rattling the leaves on the maples and oaks outside. If there wasn’t a breath to be found, the women took up the cardboard fans advertising the Ingram Funeral Home in nearby West Salem, and they sat there in their modest cotton print dresses, fanning their faces. I can still feel the stir of air about my face as I nestled in close to my mother.
She wished a religious life for me, and I’m still sorry I couldn’t give that to her. It’s been a number of years since I’ve gone to church on a regular basis. I won’t go into all the reasons why—let’s just say the church and I have a disagreement of beliefs—but still on Sundays, and especially on Easter, I have a nagging feeling there’s somewhere I’m supposed to be. I remember that church with fondness because for me, and I’m sure for my mother, it was a place of peace, a sanctuary from a home too often filled with my father’s temper. We were safe in that clapboard church those winter days when the snow piled up outside and the wind rattled the window panes, and those drowsy summer days when those windows were propped up with the sawed off ends of broomsticks and the birds sang, and inside the church the people sang, and the tissue-thin pages of Bibles turned, and men prayed, and the preacher invited the weary to come home.
It’s here where I find myself caught between two impulses. The desire for a spiritual life lived outside the constraints of the church bumps up against the memory of what it felt like to be a part of that family, the one my mother so desperately wanted me to accept. We are all at least two people always. I’m the boy who loved that church, and I’m the man who has turned away from it, but can’t, for whatever reasons, completely forget it. There are moments like today when the boy and the man co-exist, and that’s the place from which all good writing comes—those moments where the various parts of ourselves, or our characters, run into one another and everything gets complicated.
We should never let nostalgia romanticize the past. Instead, the recall of facts should be a conduit to the complexities that require a closer examination. The question of why should always drive the short story, the essay, the novel, the poem. We write to more fully understand, but first we have to identify the mysterious and the unresolved. Where are your, or your characters, points of conflict and contradiction? Press into them and let that pressure bring something of value up to light and air.