Thursday, December 01, 2011

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

First and foremost, I have FINISHED MY REWRITES ON THE BOOK! Not only that, but I DID NOT BREAK MY STREAK AND MADE MY DEADLINE! Yes, it’s a geeky thing to be proud of, but when your entire childhood was a never-ending version of the same academic song, “Quinn has no self-discipline and doesn’t budget her time well,” it’s nice to be able to define myself as The One Who Makes Deadlines, Often With Hours to Spare. I have one more pass at the book, after the copy-editor cleans it up, but I can say that while it might be a better book, it’s very nearly the best book I could write.

Enough of that, back to my being an idiot. When last we left me, I was the supervisor of a nest of altar-attendants at church, the competent parent/supervisor I was supposed to be learning from not able to make it that Sunday. The Sunday in question was All Souls Day, the only day of the year our church uses incense, a troubling thought for an asthmatic like me.

I arrived at church and headed towards the attendant holding-pen, which has a better name but I don’t know it. As a matter of fact, there are special names for lots of things in church and I usually don’t know them. This rarely affects me. The attendants milled around the pen, getting into their robes and eating donuts. I stood there and tried to look quietly authoritative. Bryan, the usual primary supervisor, arrived to drop off his daughter before his meeting. He caught my eye and smilingly said, “It’ll be fine,” which leads me to think my “calmly authoritative” look was neither. Josh the Youth Minister arrived and rubbed his hands together. “Welcome and thanks for attending the hardest service of the year,” he announced. The what now? I flashed a look at Bryan, who mouthed the word “Sorry” and vanished.

All Souls Day, I came to learn, occupies its own place in the church. There are different walking patterns, different music and different accessories (I think I just blasphemed). Josh slowly walked the Senior Attendant Rebecca and me through what to expect. Here’s an embarrassing secret about me which hasn’t come up before on the blog; I can’t take directions. Rather, I can’t take long directions. If I am lost and I pull over and ask someone how to get to where I need to go, I pray the instructions will be “Get on this freeway, the one right here. Go two exits. Get off. You will see the building from the offramp.” Anything more complicated and I start to drift. I don’t mean to, I’m focusing with all of my being, but by Step #5, I’m wondering if the new Vanity Fair will be there when I get home. I nod vigorously, I thank my benefactor, and then I drive the three steps I remember, stop and ask someone again. So you know how excited I was to find out All Souls Day has no fewer than twenty prompts, many of which involve words I had never heard before in my life.

“At the end of the Flarg, you’ll take the first attendants to the Gleef, have them stand before the Harb and wait for the choir to finish the second Deus Yart and then have them sit down again. But don’t let them sit before the Draknog.”

I nodded and hoped I could pull over halfway down the aisle and ask another person. I looked to Rebecca, who has been an attendant for two years; she had the bored, slightly removed expression of a frequent-flyer listening to the flight-attendant explaining how to fasten a seat-belt. This bode well; all I had to do was follow Rebecca and I wouldn’t be smote. Josh said, “And, of course, the thurifer. Oh, here she is.”

I sensed the smoke before I saw it. A sweet-faced teenage girl, a girl I’ve seen sitting braiding the hair of some younger girls, walked in carrying a teardrop-shaped smoldering thing. The smell wasn’t actually unpleasant to me, but my bronchi begged to differ. I lunged from the room and took a puff of my inhaler. Josh brought all the kids together for a quick prayer before the service. I prayed to not screw anything up noticeably, thanked God for the product Albuterol, and rounded up my charges, keeping a wide berth from the thurifer. The last thing Josh did was press a printed list of the prompts into my hand and remind me to “...make sure to get them out in front of the choir during the processional. Throw them if you have to.” His tone led me to understand I had been told this at least twice already but that it had come in during the Drifting and Thinking about Magazines at Home time. I nodded. All attendants must be before the choir. Got it.

The procession was somber and silent; no music this week. I watched as Rebecca grouped her attendants in subsets of twos and threes in ways which seemed obvious but only after she did it. My throat seized up a second before I smelled smoke. I looked behind me to see the thurifer-girl was trying to get where she was supposed to be, which was exactly where I was. I moved as far I could from her, which wasn’t very far, what with about forty people waiting in a room meant to hold fifteen. Rebecca looked at the thurifer-girl and whispered, “No, you go after the altos, stand over there,” pointing to next to me. I inched away again and tried to remember how often I could use my inhaler. Slowly, the group processed. Thurifer-girl distractedly, as another person might jiggle her leg, waved her thurifer. My brain informed me I was about to break the respectful silence with a loud hacking cough, possibly involving phlegm. Quickly, I raced outside, gulped some non-sanctified air and raced for the door leading to the apse.

The service passed in a haze for me. First of all, there was the constant moving of attendants, pushing this child and that towards what I could only hope was Gleef or the Harb. Second, I was mildly hypoxic from the smoke and so ramped up on Albuterol that all I wanted to do was unzip my skin and run around the room, which means I wasn’t exactly focused on details. And then there was thurifer-girl. If for some reason this child ever chooses to go hiking in the Angeles National Forest and gets lost, if she happens to be carrying her thurifer, I will find her in a matter of minutes. I couldn't stop finding her. To get some fresh air, I’d dart out the side-door, or down a back hallway, or into the closet where they keep the crosses and there she’d be, freshening her smoke. I’d look panicked, grab my inhaler and lunge away from her, heading exactly in the opposite direction, only to find thurifer-girl standing there as well, looking apologetic. It seemed I was privileged to witness a genuine miracle, the multiplying of the thurifer-girls.

Standing outside, huddled against the wall, I glanced at my prompt-sheet and saw that the procession was to come next. The list indicated there would be attendants, then the choir, then some attendants. I raced back in just in time to see Rebecca take her half of the attendants from the Communion table to walk in front of the choir, who were marching off to form the processional through the entire church. Thurifer-girl passed by me and headed to the front. I waited alertly to put my half of the attendants, who had been sitting in the apse, in. Rebecca caught my eye and subtly mouthed “What are you doing?”

What am I doing? I’m possibly contracting emphysema and waiting to be useful. She tipped her head discreetly towards her group and I understood the prompt-paper was wrong. This was the part Josh had been talking about, about getting your attendants in front of the choir, by catapult if necessary. I grabbed the first of my attendants and tried to weave her through the choir towards the rest of the attendants, but it would have been as likely to pass these kids through a wall. The choir would not be separated, they moved as a single entity. I shrugged in panic at Rebecca, who managed the tiniest, most Christian sigh and eye-roll I’ve ever seen. She discreetly put her hand toward me; stay where you are. I sensed her feeling was I’d do less harm there.

Imagine you’re in a church. Imagine the minister and everyone is walking around the aisles, leaving you with an empty church to contemplate, a metaphor for the sense of finality and loss which death brings. So empty up there. Not a single person.

No, wait. There’s Quinn and four pre-teenage girls, staring in horror at the congregants.

The four girls were Daughter, Daughter’s best friend (whose mother is the Rector’s secretary), the daughter of Bryan, who usually does this job and Bryan’s niece. The service lasts only an hour, but I’m pretty sure we were up there alone for at least six weeks. Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground in a penitent way. Sometimes, I’d catch someone’s eye and sort of wiggle the prompt-paper in my hand, hoping it would indicate that the fault lay not with me but with the paper. Sometimes I’d just grip my Albuterol and take a small pleasure in these moments when the thurifer-girl wasn’t an inch away from me.

Eventually, everyone came back. We were no longer alone; Rebecca sat next to me, although I’m pretty certain she had inched to the far side of my seat. Thurifer-girl walked past us, swinging the smoke. She looked at me sympathetically. I waved my inhaler at her in a communal way. We all had our tools.

All Souls Day is meant to be a reminder of frailty, of limits. There are certain inevitabilities we might as well recognize: we’re mortal; some of have rotten lungs; getting distracted during the hearing of instructions means you miss things. But then we are encouraged to leave our sorrow in church and go forth with the dualism that while some day we will all die, today, right now we are alive and that should make life all the sweeter. Likewise, some day-probably very soon-I’ll be an idiot again. The odds are good this will be in front of a large group of people and maybe also God, but that just makes any moment I’m not humiliating myself in public so much more exquisite. Some days we can do no more than hope tomorrow will be better and take about three showers to remove the thurifer-smell from our hair.

Now, go in peace. And mind the Harb.


Anonymous WPD said...

I loved your description of how you felt after all that albuterol. It does make you feel like you've had 5 pots of coffee.

3:55 PM  
Blogger BigKat Flower said...

Love the description..reminded me of my many years choking thru services in the choir not knowing I was asthmatic... is that why my heart races after puffing? sheesh I thought I as careening toward menopause.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...

This reminds me of the time at the Hollywood Bowl when you killed me, then Mitch killed you, and we had to lie there through the fireworks and kettle drums, and as soon as it ended you bolted for backstage. Where was your Albuterol then?

5:20 PM  
Anonymous ɹǝƃƃolquǝʞoʇ said...

That Harb will get you every time!

4:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is maybe the most wonderful piece you have ever written. I loved it! I howled! Even as I admired the excellence of the writing. Go, you!

And also, I just turned in my line edits/final revision, too. So I salute you in solidarity with this cupcake I am about to eat in celebration! :)

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Ellen Potter said...

Congrats on the rewrite! Can't wait to read it when it's done. I've been thoroughly enjoying your blogs.

9:28 AM  
Blogger StevenIre said...

You can checkout any time you like but you can never leave. Oh, and then a hubcap rolls by…

My childhood church was a system of pressure and valves to insure the orderly flow of people. The pressure was the adherents’ desire for the host and the ushers were the valves. Now, some people are the eyes of the church. Others are given as the ears and still others as the hands and feet. It is not good to be the spit-take of the church especially during the taking of the bread and wine. Such was the case with me as I tried to let someone slowly make their way to the isle. The pressure built behind me, people poured out and struck me in the back moving around me and trying corporately to expectorate me far from the building area. I was never asked to be an usher again.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous DebBeausoleil said...

I do that drifting and thinking about magazines at home thing, too. As I'm directionally challenged, it would help if I paid more attention when directions are being given. It's like they are talking gibberish! Glad you made it out your ordeal without more difficulty than you had.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, we are kindred asthmatic souls. I wheezed my way through my ENTIRE wedding reception with 250 guests, all of whom wanted to dance with the bride, me, who was turning shades of blue after realizing only AFTER I drank the wine at our wedding mass that I was allergic to sulfites. That was the pre-knowing about Benadryl days. I now carry the Epi Pen to go with it. Maybe someday I'll get my wedding do over without all the wheezing and what not!

3:30 PM  
Blogger Cate said...

"I sensed the smoke before I saw it" - lookie what you did there. You can't tell me that was accidental: it's too perfect! (Thurifers wave a ...)

From a fellow Episcopalian mom.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Lydia said...

Congratulations on the rewrite! I look forward to reading your book. And I thoroughly enjoyed your church volunteer "adventure"!

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Paula said...

HaHaHa! You have an AMAZING gift. I saw every word!

10:49 PM  

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