The quick and the dead! My decoding of this portentous sounding phrase suggested how I was to feel about Scripture. That God should judge both groups meant, from what I could tell, that the quick were in at least as much hot water as the dead (who, in the soft-hell universe of Presbyterianism, had nothing much to lose). For years I assumed that the quick were impetuous, immoral, or godless; like the "debtors" seeking forgiveness in the King James version of the Lord's Prayer, surely they had done something wrong. When I eventually discovered that quick was an archaic term for the living, I was crestfallen. Not only did this new understanding imply that we were all guiltyGod judged us every onebut it also meant my interpretation, however wrong, had been more piercing and dramatic than the truth. Far from being chastened by my error, I felt it only supported my preference for sound over content. I daydreamed my way through a few more years of obligatory religious instruction, the high point of which was my introduction to Catholic services by a friend. The mass at her church was imparted in words incomprehensible in meaning but so rich in tone and cadence that I swooned from the sound. When the time came to select a language in school, I signed up for Latin, then buried myself in its majestic declensions and conjugations for eight more years.
Later, I would learn most of what I knew about other religions from literaturefrom James Joyce and Flannery O'Connor, who revealed the torment and glory of living under the eaves of Catholicism; from Roth and Malamud, who gave me Jewishness and Judaism with an intimacy I never could have encountered in midcentury small-town Texas. I went after writers who offered mysteries instead of doctrine, who roamed in the wilds of doubt and longing. This seemed to me where God would want to live out there in the hinterlands, where faith danced and then disappeared. Out there in the war zones, for that matter, where God was surely necessary but sorely missed. All these desires and half assurances awaited me in a world opening more each day, and rarely, if ever, had I been led to them through the doors of the church itself.
So my sanctum sanctorum would remain inside those cloistered library halls, where attendance was optional and devotion absoluteat least for a time, until adolescence offered me darker venues with less predictable results. And oddly, wonderfully, toward the end of that time of single-minded ease, two books I wasn't old enough to comprehend were the ones that had the greatest hold on me. The first was a musty volume called On the Origin of Species, and I remember making the childlike association of God and monkeys as I added it to my stack. The librarian looked surprised, then somber, when I handed her the book at the checkout desk, and she waved in my mother from the car. "Gail has chosen something that may be too mature for her," she said softly; unfazed, my mother shrugged and let me take it home. On one level, the librarian was right: I was eleven, and Darwin's findings were way over my head, not likely to keep the attention of a girl who lived for war stories and smaller heartbreaks. But I suspect the woman who declared Darwin off-limits to me, her avid charge, also had more censorious concerns. It was 1962 and we were in the dead center of the Bible Belt; to the east, in Tennessee, Darwin was still banned in the public schools. Before the year was out, America would see the publication of James Baldwin's Another Country, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Had that librarian any idea what was coming, she might have headed for a fallout shelter and taken me with her.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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