The Faith That Keeps Me
Sometimes I need to question what it means to “keep the faith”. Faith in what, exactly? Or whom?
For me it can manifest as sentimentality for a tumultuous time long gone: I was touched to the bone back then for one astonishing, extended moment, felt so connected to the people who were there, and to something so much larger than me or any of us, that I unwittingly became eternally loyal that instant, for nothing seemed more meaningful to me.
But over time I’ve often felt like the one who stayed at the party, or carried the flag, or a torch for a lover, long after everyone else had gone, or had abandoned the cause, or the bed.
But I didn’t mind. I was staying true to the truth I’ve tried to live my life by. What else is there to do, really?
Besides, it makes me feel just a wee bit superior, so I suppose that’s one thing I get out of it.
And there were times I’ve broken the faith, like with friends. And sometimes I’ve stayed true even when the cause seemed to abandon truth, like when the Left stubbornly holds to a position that defies logic. And I’ve stayed true when logic would dictate I stop hoarding all that sixties memorabilia, or my mom’s obtuse poetry (one day I’ll understand what she meant, won’t I?) or my dad’s chaotic paintings.
But I’ve erred on the side of fire tending because it lights the landscape and keeps me warm. And I know if I let that flame go out, it’ll dim my vision, and my ideals, and I’ll lose my moral compass in the process. The trajectory of my whole life’s purpose, and that of my tribe’s, has always been towards freedom, egalitarianism, a society whose bottom line is generosity rather than profit. I still truly believe we’re all actually here to lower the heavens, as well as to place the first human being on earth. To help each other help each other. And this too is the faith I try to keep.
But sometimes I’ve been the one left holding the bag. Like at the Six Day, named after the length of this retreat put on by the est folks back in the eighties. By the end, I feel moved and connected to everyone there, so when they ask us to commit to bringing guests to the follow-up event the next week, I’m one of the many in the group of 75 who raise their hand.
That next week, I stroll excitedly into the room with my two guests in tow, to find…the speaker. And that’s all. No one else has shown up. I don’t know if I’m feeling more proud or like a fool. Maybe both – a proud fool.
But sometimes it’s worth it. Like with my friend and classmate Pam Motley, a single mom with a spirit like a tigress but who could purr like a kitten. Sharp, big-hearted, and a therapist-in-training like myself, we became lovers for a while with the death of my first marriage.
Years later, she calls to inform me, with a note of defeat in her voice, “I have…Alzheimer’s.”
But not simply Alzheimer’s — a rare and barely understood strain that the doctors tell her will quickly ravage her body along with her mind. And she’s all of 52.
So I visit her at her East 89th Street apartment, and she is still very much with it, but we know what is coming. When I leave I say, almost as a parting pleasantry, “I’ll come again.” She thanks me.
Several months later, we haven’t spoken, and my words begin to haunt me. I finally bring myself to call her house. Her nurse affirms she is still with us. I’m not sure I’m happy to hear it. She can’t come to the phone, her nurse says. If I visit, she might know I’m there, but won’t be able to respond.
I can’t do this, I tell myself. But then I tell myself, fuck it.
I arrive to find Pam’s home rearranged to accommodate her demise. Her world has been reduced to her bed, upon which she repeatedly shakes and quivers. Her hollowed-out eyes serve as two peepholes through which a seemingly lost and frightened child keeps scanning the room.
We, or rather I, make small talk for what seems like the longest time, and with a hemorrhaging sense of futility and heaviness. I know I won’t be able to take this much longer. Finally, almost out of frustration, I say the only thing left to say.
“I still love you, Pam.”
And at this she turns her head to me and exclaims, “Oh!” and squeezes my hand, and comes back a moment, before falling away again.
Yeah — sometimes it’s worth keeping the faith.
David Crosby wrote a song once, way back in the day, called “Almost Cut My Hair”.
“But I didn’t, and I wonder why
I decided to let my freak flag fly.
I feel like I owe it to someone.”
And while these days, when I say I got my hair cut, I’m more accurately referring to the singular than the plural, whenever I’m tempted to discard more of the past, or to not call an old friend for his or her birthday, or not contribute money to a worthy but seemingly hopeless cause, or not commemorate Bicycle Day, or not give the thumbs up to the statue in the harbor when I cross the bridge, I usually find myself instead keeping the faith.
I feel like I owe it to someone.