This morning, for Palm Sunday, I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister. The segment is also on You Tube. Click here to see the video.
Although I was raised by a card carrying atheist mother and an agnostic father, I always loved Palm Sunday. I loved the pale green palms. I loved the story. I loved the donkey. Maybe it was the pagan origins that drew me in. Even as an adult, Palm Sunday held its appeal. Still, I thought that religion had nothing to do with me. And over the years, I came to think that I had dodged a bullet. Still, I wanted to believe in something — maybe I wanted to believe in myself more.
A few years ago, I experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of coming to this church. My first thought was that “they don’t own it.” ‘They’ being the Christian right and ‘it’ being religion. Last year when I read the Bible — I was actually surprised to see how little anti-gay material is in it, except for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and some rules in Leviticus — that also include not eating shellfish or wearing garments made of linen and wool.
As a second generation feminist coming of age in the seventies, I lived by the motto that rules were made to be broken. As a creative writer, it is not unusual for me to view the world through my characters. When I heard that the theme for worship this month was Brokenness and Resilience I thought of my maternal grandfather, Joseph.
His brokenness and resilience is something that has been passed down to me. He was a Merchant Marine, a lover of opera (he was Anglo not Italian), an alcoholic and a batterer to his wife (my grandmother) and his daughters (my mother and my aunt). I developed my own theory about him and when I told my gay male friends about him, they gave me knowing nods.
I am going to read an excerpt from my novel Catwalk which is set in the late 1920s in the Prohibition era. Joseph, the protagonist, is a gay man and is also the son of a Baptist deacon. My grandfather, Joseph, was raised in Biloxi, Mississippi. The fictive Joseph is in love with his boyhood friend Vince, who he was separated from and who he pines for. Joseph, my grandfather, abandoned my mother (and the rest of her family) when she was seven. I never met him. I always wanted to know more about him — even if I had to make it up.
I’ve been working on this novel for ten years and when I was in the revision process, I noticed that it was full of religion. I realized then that religion has always been with me — as a fact and as a fiction. Palm Sunday, which Rita will tell us more about, was my pathway to religion. Religion fueled Joseph’s demons. But in this section where Joseph falls asleep under the stars on the beach of the Mississippi Sound — religion enters his subconscious in a good way.
Joseph lay down on the sand and curled into a fetal position. It was a hot summer night. He shut his eyes and listened to waves wash over pebbles. He fell asleep and dreamed that he was standing in the cemetery with a shovel, digging into the sand. A familiar voice called to him. It was deep and pleasant. But it was distant. The voice brought back everything that he had ever loved. They had been boys together, sitting next to each other in church, swimming through the waves to a deserted isle where they could pretend they were shipwrecked sailors. Vince was a part of him. His voice brought everything back — Vince being bullied when he was a boy — the scar that was left on his cheek when Joseph had defended him. The two of them becoming fast friends, boys growing to men. He remembered the first time they had made love. Memories of sea foam. Their shared experience of being fathers was part of their love, too. Vince was at his happiest when he had become a father, twice over. Joseph had been happy for him. He had almost been as happy when his own children were born.
Vince called to him in a deep, melodious voice that was separate from Joseph but part of him, too. The voice was louder with every shovel full of sand that Joseph dug up and flung over his shoulder. He dug faster and faster – but still the voice was far away. Eventually the hole he dug was so deep that he could no longer reach the bottom. Joseph saw translucent arms reaching toward him from the hole.
Suddenly the apparition became filled with blinding light. As Joseph stared into the light, he saw that it was a tall figure with wings the span of an Albatross.
It was Vince disguised as an angel — like one of the angels who came to visit Lot in Sodom. There were two angels that visited Lot. Joseph could be the other angel. The neighboring men from the town had knocked on Lot’s door, saying that they wanted to “know” the angels. But in Joseph’s version, the angels would leave together — hand in hand.
They would fly to a land in the clouds where two men could love each other. Their love was bright and true. Their love was so strong that it would change everything — including a world that denied they existed.
Joseph cast down his shovel and dove into the hole. When he reached the brilliant angel that was Vince, he fell right through him. He realized then that the dazzling light was fire. Yet the flames did not burn or scorch him. The fire cleansed him.
The Bible said that Godly fire would consume the wicked, but not the righteous.
His love for Vince was as pure as the fire of God, and Vince returned it. Together, they would spread the gospel of love.