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Being Good

A chapel in the woods.

3 months ago things ended with a woman; her name is Margaret. She said:

“I don't think I'm necessarily a good person.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, “and no, you're probably not. Me neither.”

“I don't even know if I'm trying to be one.”

“We'll see, I guess.”

A few days later we went our ways, with all the familiar bitterness. I found myself living a 45-minute drive out of Philadelphia, with my friend Mike, helping him on jobs. He told me where to hammer, where to drill, how to grout and caulk, explained his theory of bathrooms. I lugged heavy boards.

His books on eastern religions lulled me to sleep; I found comfort there, even though I think that, in the West, the quest for enlightenment has been transformed into a hippie-competitive goal, like making a million dollars or getting your album released. Americans will only take the middle path if it gets them there faster.

Each morning I woke up to Mike's alarm clock, 7:30, to drive with him to work; in the evening I invented songs into his old 4-track, tape hiss almost as loud as my voice, and he played a bad guitar. We congratulated one another on our musical craft, and talked about starting a bar band, even though we knew we sounded like crap. I found a book called Food and Life and learned that you don't need to eat much at all, if you live in a gentle way. I began to keep better company with vegetables.

Mike is a serious Christian, the flannel-and-beards kind. He's got 6 years on me; I met him when he was badly into drugs, and he tells me I'm the only person he still knows from his old life, when he was “living wrong.” I wasn't using anything then, and I would listen to him expound his acid-improvised version of Christian faith, hear him tell how his brain was chartered by the universe and how Christ was in our sandwiches. I once brought him down from some truly nasty 'shrooms-with-PCP thing he'd been sold; he kept talking about leaping out a window, or something equally dumb. “You saved my life,” he said. “I remember that, Ray.”

“I just listened,” I said. “I was a mess myself.”

“No, that night--”

“I was just sitting there,” I said.

“That was the last time I ever got that messed up,” he said.

“Well, good. Good.”

He lived in an old house that was falling down at the edges. The few carpenters I've met all live in these houses, bought cheap and with great intentions. No one wants to come home to their work, so instead of putting on a new roof or shoring up the sagging deck, he'd built a tiny chapel on the hill above his house, and he asked me one afternoon if I wanted to see it.

I went up the steep hill behind him. He wore tan corduroy work pants, spattered with paint. He owned 6 acres behind the house, plenty of trees and a small spring coming out a rock, but no water. I had to use my hands to keep balance. I thought of Margaret, right then. She would like this story, scooting around the woods.

“I forgot about your leg,” Mike said.

“It's fine,” I said.

Finally we reached it and I found that I was missing Margaret terribly, thinking about her round face, her soft chin and clear voice. I looked at the chapel, the same size as the Unabomber's cabin, but made of sawed logs, and with stained glass windows on the sides and back. He pulled the door open and we ducked to enter.

There were two chairs, with hymnals on the seats, no room to stand, and a tiny altar and baptismal font. Behind the altar was another window, clear, opened onto trees, with a crucifix etched into the glass. A picture of Christ hung on the small door, which Mike closed behind us. We sat down, and put the hymnals in our laps.

“I did the stained glass myself,” he said. Pure abstract shapes, triangles intersecting, green, yellow, gold, red. The walls were painted white.

“This is beautiful,” I said. “I'd come up here all the time.”

“Thank you.” He paused. “I used to. I dreamed about it until I built it. But I stopped coming a few months ago. I haven't been here in a while, really. I'm glad it's holding up.”

“With a little stove, you could live here,” I said.

“You could, almost,” he said. “I did think of it. Ray, you could come up here if you wanted. If you needed to get out of it for a while. It's a hiding place.”

“I might stay for a night,” I said, “before I leave. It would be good to see what I came up with.” I flipped open the hymn book. “Nearer my God. We used to sing that at school. At chapel.”

“We can sing it if you want.” Hoping.

“No, it's....”

“I understand. I like to sing them sometimes, but my voice is so rough.” We stood in quiet for a few moments. I forgot that I was any place at all. “I think we could go down and get some dinner,” Mike said. He shifted in his seat. “I like to say a prayer before I leave.” I nodded, encouraging him.

I wondered if Mike'd shown this chapel to any girlfriends. I'm sure it was on his mind when he built the place, hauling the wood up, imagining how a woman who saw this would understand how much he was filled with love and understanding. The chapel would cut through his shy, plain looks. One kind of woman would see Mike's chapel, built with his hands in the middle of the woods, and look into his gentle face, below his cropped, thinning hair, and swoon.

I closed my eyes, tilted my head down. I believe in nothing, but I flash back to Churchgoing every now and then; I don't begrudge myself the familiar warmth of the words, nor do I question Mike's devotion. We know what's best for ourselves. In his scratchy, quiet voice, he said:

Lord, Ray is suffering in life because he has lost a close relationship with a woman named Margaret. Please help him to heal his heart, for I know it hurts, and help him to find the right path going forward, to keep him strong.

We pray for Margaret, because there is such pain when people must leave each another. I'm sure she is searching in her own heart and I ask you to bring her your peace and consolation.

Lord, thank you for bringing Ray to me for this long visit. He is a good worker and the work goes faster with him on the job. I have been able to accept three jobs that I could not do alone because of his presence, and we have been able to share in the proceeds that you saw fit to provide us. I am so grateful for that.

I don't have anything to ask for for myself today. When I think where I was when I first met Ray, and how he was an agent of your compassion, how he helped me out of the bad place I was in, I know that you have a plan for me, and I am uncovering it every day.

Please watch over Ray, Lord. He doesn't have the same kind of faith as I do, and I understand that. I ask that you find a way to come to Ray that will be right for him, for he is seeking wisdom.

Lord, thank you for blessing this chapel with your presence, and for giving me a friend who will share in your worship.

Amen

I was breathing hard as he spoke, for some reason, and then began crying, in silence. Mike, about to speak after he said the “Amen,” saw my face, and stared down at the floor, at the rough wood he'd nailed together. Streaming colors of stained glass blurred and twisted. He stayed still while I sat the weeping through. He looked up and I nodded at him. He opened the tiny door and led me out, down to the house.


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