My mother lost her faith in God when I was so young. During her personal crisis, she announced we would no longer be going to church on Sunday mornings, and I felt like I won the lottery, not knowing she would take us on her search for a new spiritual home to every denomination within a fifteen-mile radius of our small brick house.
Years later I would discover why my mother left the Catholic Church, but at the time I thought it was because the young priest newly- assigned to our parish was repeatedly drunk during mass and, maybe it was the rumor he had gotten Mrs. Blythe pregnant. I thought I was finally free on Sunday to catch frogs and run through the woods looking for wildflowers.
But instead I pedaled miles and miles after school in my green banana seat bicycle following my brother on his bike down Hartford Road on his spiritual quest – in brisk winter weather without bike lights we pedaled, because my brother decided he wanted to be an altar boy at the same time my mother decided to leave the church behind.
And I thought of all the miles by brother pedaled trying to hold onto my mother’s faith for all of us. I followed him just about anywhere then – even to a church that meant nothing to me.
And for a while on Sundays my mother took us on her search for a new place to worship – the Presbyterian church where the organ was out of tune, the Episcopal Church where everyone was very old and finally to the Quaker meeting, where families sat on old wooden benches in silence in simple clothing, their spines straight, staring at their hands.
Inside the Quaker meeting hall, there were no images of Jesus suffering or Mary crying or stained glass or ornate gold or candles. There was nobody shoving a long handled wooden basket under your chin asking for money.
And that Quaker Silence – the complete lack of prayer sounds or organs or angels singing made me and my brothers swallow our laughter, which was painful to hold, like a wild small bird in our throat wanting to fly.
And while our laughter was being swallowed, while we sat for what felt like an hour in silence, an old man stood up and spoke. He said, I want to thank Mabel for baking the cupcakes last week, they were really good.
And then he sat back down.
And that’s when all three of us lost our shit. We laughed so hard we spit on our knees. My mother reached over and smacked us on the back of our necks, then dragged us outside by our ears, where even she started to laugh with us on the wet grass.
Years later I brought my mother an ice cold glass of Lipton tea when she was gardening and pulling weeds. She sat up, as if broken from a trance and smiled at me, then squinted into the blazing Jersey sun.
And she said – this is where I found him, finally.
God. He was in my garden all along. And then she went back to weeding and pushing bulbs into the cool earth.
There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of my mother at peace, the earth under her fingernails, wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her gardening glove. Or her magnificent gardens that people drove miles and miles to admire and photograph.
Often I think of the old Quaker man so many years ago who got up and announced his gratitude out loud to everyone.
Maybe your spiritual home is a crowded bus or an altar, or a beautiful hike up the mountain, a field of wildflowers or wading in the middle of a stream. Maybe it’s in the warmth of a church.
And maybe part of your spiritual practice is continuing to have gratitude for those who do for you – whether they bake you cupcakes or send an email or someone shows up to watch your kids when you are sick.
Showing up for each other and showing our gratitude is its own kind of spiritual practice.
My mother continued to garden until she couldn’t, and my brother was a devout atheist for years and years after he grew up, then went back to school to study theology after his first wife died.
Sometimes I can still feel the wind in our faces, the cars rushing by us, and our legs furiously pumping together, as if both of us are still pedaling furiously toward God.