Table of Contents


John Wesley. I was so lucky to grow up in the Methodist Church. Since it was the early 1950s in the rural/small town south I was bound to grow up in some church, and Leela decreed it be Methodism. Brilliant. John Wesley may have been some kind of firebrand in his time, but the First Methodist Church in Marianna Florida was like nothing so much as oatmeal: bland and harmless. I don't know how my parents' families ended up Methodists, but they did have protestant roots. The Cassadys by whatever spelling hail from County Fermanagh in protestant Northern Ireland. The one word we all knew about my mom's ancestors was Huguenot: the Vermillions of Missouri's French Bottoms came fleeing genocide for their heretical beliefs in Catholic France. I got mildly traumatized by the miserable fantasy of hell so many Christians are crazy about (and because of), but I can hardly complain. It probably came from a preacher at a tent revival I got dragged to. I don't think I ever heard a fire and brimstone sermon from the pulpit of any Methodist church I was ever in, praise the lord.

Child abuse. Making me go to a dreary tent revival was the closest my parents ever got. I have no cause to complain. Vacation bible school, on the other hand, was a hoot. I looked forward to it. All I can remember is craft projects and some singing. Singing was always the best part of church. I was a dedicated alto until my voice broke and I could sing bass, sorta. My favorite craft project was stained glass windows. Poster board with cutouts for jewel tone cellophane. I was channeling El Greco: windows tall and skinny enough to grace a Gothic cathedral. I never saw any of that art for another twenty years.

Nickel cokes. I didn't make any progress with love by going to the First Methodist Church, unless you count growing up. At that age I made all my spiritual progress out in nature. As for church, well, I enjoyed children's choir, and there was a nickel coke machine in the fellowship hall with its low ceiling and shiny worn linoleum floor. I once saw it opened up getting refilled. Its innards were dominated by a hexagonal grid, a beehive of coke that you turned with a lever to make the next coke available. Nickel cokes in the old style small bottles all scratched up on the outside from decades of use, thousands of refills, tasted way better than any other kind of coke. Almost as good as Double-Cola, or even Pepsi. I was never a Coca-Cola fan. I like my sweet treats good and sweet.

Methodist gothic. The First Methodist Church was a place of wonder and mystery. I found a secret passage that led from the Sunday school building to behind the pulpit. I got into the passage through a door in the back of a closet. I think it was a way for the choir to sneak to their pews behind the preacher without going through the sanctuary. The passage was dusty and neglected. Seems the choir didn't go that way anymore. Walking through it made me think that people must've been shorter back then. I found another secret passage: steep stairs, covered in dust, leading down to the dirt floor under the sanctuary. I saw fire-blackened wooden pillars down there still holding up the church. I wondered, did they get burned in the Battle of Marianna? Nah, the Episcopal church was the one that got burned in that battle. It got so hot it melted the lead-lined ceiling. The burned pillars remain a mystery. I got to do more urban spelunking in my schoolhouse in Asheville.

Declaration of independence. When I was 14, we moved to Nairobi and started attending a Methodist church there. In our family church on Sunday morning had always been a done deal: you went to church unless you were sick. I summoned my courage and made my announcement: I'm not going to church anymore, and I'm not wearing underwear. Then I waited for the explosion. They said OK, sure. I think they figured that was the kind of teenage rebellion they could live with. If only my other much deeper declaration of independence had been so easy to come by. But come to think of it, in both cases the only thing holding me back was my thinking.

The Angel. My first declaration of independence freed me up to start considering spiritual matters more seriously just as my second freed me up to begin serious work toward making progress. Soon after that I found myself gobstruck and humbled in the face of Rilke's First Duino Elegy, contemplating the Angel: Every angel is terrifying. But I wasn't terrified, I was moved, thrilled, enlarged. My second declaration put me on the path to getting enlarged in the Shakespearian sense.