Charmed Circles: Becoming a Believer
What I did get was owing to my mother's Southern upbringing in a tiny Georgia town called Statesboro, about 60 miles west of Savannah. There were two religions practiced in Statesboro: traditional and occult. We would go to the Presbyterian church, where my aunt Ruth McDougald played the organ. The people who worked for us went to the black Baptist church across town. But it was what went on after church that we all really believed in: a combination Afrocentric–Scottish Highlands form of religion involving astrology, palm reading, psychic phenomena, ghosts, voodoo, hexes, Ouija boards, talismans, and amulets.
I remember once talking to a friend who asked me how I could possibly believe all that nonsense. I asked her how she could believe all the nonsense in the Bible; she was shocked speechless.
My husband, Ben, is a traditional, non-churchgoing New England Episcopalian. But when we got married, he was horrified to actually hear me say that I was an atheist and implored me not to announce it in public. In those days it was a dirty word. It's only slightly more acceptable today.
Then our son, Quinn, was born. He was born with a hole in his heart.
When he was 3 months old and dying of heart failure, the doctors decided to try to close the hole. He weighed only 8 pounds. He had about a 50-50 chance of living. Chaplains and social workers kept coming by the day of the operation to ask if I "needed" anything. I brusquely told them no. That evening, before his surgery, I went down to the hospital chapel. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. But I didn't know what else to do, either. I sat there for a long time in the quiet. Maybe I was waiting for God to appear and comfort me. Finally I said, "Please, God, don't let Quinn die." Nothing happened. I didn't feel anything. No sense of comfort, no feeling of being embraced, no relief at putting it in God's hands. Despondent, I got up and left. I felt sort of embarrassed. I never told Ben about it. Later he told me he had been walking that day past St. Matthew's Cathedral and stopped in and prayed for Quinn. I didn't try praying again.
Quinn had nonstop medical and learning problems from then on. Some were life threatening. We practically lived at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. He went to special schools and still didn't do very well. He had problems making friends. He was even diagnosed by one therapist as being hopelessly retarded; she went so far as to reserve a space for him at an institution. His school and Children's Hospital doctors disagreed and he stayed where he was, but it was clear his problems were more severe than those of most of his peers at the school. Still I didn't pray.
For years I'd gone to a spa in California for a week in May. One year, when Quinn was about 10, they told me they were having a candlelit walking ceremony that evening for the labyrinth they'd just built. It sounded too New Age for me, but they kept saying how walking the labyrinth had changed people's lives, so I went. The labyrinth was on a hill above the spa in a grove of graceful live oak trees. There were about 20 of us, with candles around the trees and music. I didn't have an epiphany, but I did find it a surprisingly pleasant experience. The next day I kept feeling a pull toward the labyrinth, which I shrugged off. The following day, I went up there alone. We'd been told to concentrate on something important to us, so naturally I concentrated on Quinn. I entered the labyrinth and walked very deliberately toward the center, holding an image in mind of a normal, healthy Quinn at the beach. When I got to the rosette, I sat down in a yoga position and opened myself up for whatever experience I might have. Again, I lost track of time. The California fog lifted; the rays of the sun warmed my back. I was soothed by the slight breeze caressing my hair.