It was winter. It had been raining for two weeks straight. I was depressed.
“You are having an existential crisis,” said a friend. “Go to church.”
Now, I hadn’t been to church in a very long time. The last time I can remember going was the day my son was baptized and he cried the entire time so we never went back again. I’m not sure where I stand on God. If I had to describe the nature of my faith, it’s based on hope that there’s an afterlife, hope that I see everybody I love who has predeceased me when I get there, and hope that those predeceased loved ones were not watching me as I bumbled through the indignities and humiliations of everyday life. Occasionally, I imagined my sitcom of a life as viewed from up above. A crazed woman worrying about ridiculous things like exactly who in her household has been googling jugs, and praying that the purpose of the googled jugs was not for preteen arousal. Fifteen minutes later the crazed woman remembers it was she who googled jugs because she was looking for attractive vessels to store lemonade and milk. But the real reason I liked to go to church was because of the ritual: the incense and hymns and mothball-smelling coats, which never failed to trigger the feeling that I was part of something bigger than myself.
Because I was in need of awakening on a grand scale, I corralled some friends and my family to attend a special choral service at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. This particular service was supposed to be very popular so we got there an hour early to insure we would get a good seat. The Cathedral did not disappoint. It had indoor and outdoor labyrinths, a Keith Haring triptych altarpiece, and Ghiberti Doors, exact replicas of the bronze doors in the Duomo in Florence.
There were eight of us so I saved half of a twenty-foot long pew, draping it with scarves and coats. We went outside to walk the labyrinth while waiting for the service to begin and when I returned from my walk to check on our seats there was a woman occupying the other half of the pew. I sat down right next to her, worried I had miscalculated and that there wouldn’t be enough space for my group.
“You’re sitting on my coat,” she hissed at me.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s there for a reason. I’m saving seats for my family,” she said, pulling the coat out from underneath me and pressing her thigh against mine.
“So am I,” I said. “In fact I’ve been here for an hour saving seats.”
“Well, so have I,” she said.
This was a lie and we both knew it. I was there first.
“Three quarters of an hour,” she qualified, looking at her watch. “I got here right after you.”
The organist began warming up. My family and friends came and piled into the pew. The woman’s family piled into her side of the pew. I was completely squished, as was all hopes for my awakening because I spent the next forty-five minutes engaged in a thigh war with this woman—she, pressing her thigh aggressively against me, and me trying to pretend I didn’t notice this woman pressing her thigh aggressively against mine. Trapped, I glanced around the cathedral. Everybody looked so happy. Nobody but me appeared to be in a battle for space. I prayed my dead loved ones were not looking down at me, witnessing this pathetic little scene, but most likely they were. Cathedrals were probably a big draw—lots of delicious misbehaving.
The time came for us to sing along with the choir. I loved to sing and I actually sang fairly well. Usually people who heard me sing said something along the lines of “Why, I never knew you could sing,” which I chose to translate as “What an amazing and original singer you are!”
I stood eagerly. Finally some breathing room! The woman next to me stood and much to my dismay and horror, virtually identical soprano voices issued forth from our mouths. I was stunned. How could this have happened? How could we sound so alike? We both sang louder, trying to distinguish ourselves, pull away from each other, but our voices were indistinguishable.
Suddenly the truth struck me. We were the same. Both of us confident that we were the ones being wronged; both of us having come to the cathedral hoping for an awakening that seemed out of reach now that each of us had the very bad luck to be seated next to a woman who had so clearly miscalculated her group’s seating needs.
And if we were indeed the same, I had to begrudgingly ask myself did I have it wrong? Could it be I was the aggressive thigh pusher and not she?
We are living in slippery times. In the past months there has been no shortage of collective, often catastrophic slipperiness in the world: Caribbean tectonic plates slip, the value of the dollar slips, civil rights slip—one year same sex couples can be married, the next year they cannot. Then there is the slippage that hits a little too close to home: a good friend’s marriage dissolves, my husband is laid-off from his job; somebody is drinking a little too much. And yet? It is precisely this slipperiness, be it mundane or heartbreaking, be it of our own making, or something completely out of our control, that has the potential to wake us up and deliver us back into our lives.
In Grace Cathedral, winter light poured through the stained glass windows, orange and lemon-hued. The air smelled of ritual, of incense and mothballs. Some people sang. Some people texted. The woman next to me blew her nose with a crumpled up tissue. I found some room in my pew and slid over, and for the last five minutes of the service I was part of the tribe.