Oct/Nov 2005 Salon

Dispatches 12-14 (Presence)

by Stanley Jenkins

And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid".

Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water". He said, 'Come.' So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
    Matthew 14: 25-32


There is a storm coming on over Lake Michigan tonight. It's a beaut. We watched it first on the Weather Channel and then later on the deck as lightening illuminated nothing and thunder scared the dog. Across the lake is Wisconsin--from whence the storm comes--Manitowoc, to be specific--a place where I lived once as a small child.

In Manitowoc there was a drawbridge. There were glass bricks embedded in the sidewalk along factory walls. They made stuff there that was made out of aluminum. In Manitowoc.

Back then we lived in a house that is gone now. We lived upstairs. Downstairs was an apartment where the lady my mom had a fight with lived. It was a spectacular fight. You should have seen it. There were histrionics. There were borrowed appliances returned and left on the stairs as an act of aggression and girlish renunciation.

On the third floor in the attic, in the house in Manitowoc, the local community theater group stored its costumes. We were not allowed up there, but all those disguises lay above us like promises of something good.

In Manitowoc I got bit by a dog. Across the lake. I was scared but more upset that I had to go to bed early and miss the special episode of Batman, in which promos promised scenes of Batgirl on her Batcycle. (Funny what you remember. I half believe that entire meanings can be illuminated by the disappointment of missing Batgirl on her Batcycle while fingers throbbed and there was the memory of teeth and blood). I went to Kindergarten at McKinley Elementary School. In the afternoons. Mrs. Zelcoff was my teacher.

After we moved they tore down the house.

But tonight we are not in Manitowoc. We are across the lake in Michigan. Ludington to be specific. I remember standing on a beach as a child in Manitowoc--mother painting water colors and sister and me running fast in PF Fliers--looking out across the water and trying to make sense of the fact that beyond my sight was a place called Michigan. Tonight, looking out across the water--me and Ms. Mary vigilant like ladies and gents with irrevocable responsibilities--beyond my sight there is a place called Wisconsin. It doesn't make any more sense today than it did thirty five years ago. But here we are.

We are here. In Michigan. We are here because we are not at home. We are on vacation. Back in New York, a place where we are irrevocably responsible, there are places that don't exist anymore as well. I'm thinking of one in particular. Ms. Mary and I called it the Nothing Store. We have names for all the corner stores in our neighborhood. The Nothing Store was the Nothing Store because they seemed to have almost nothing by way of stock. Dusty baby formula and cat food. Aspirin and condoms. They were located right in front of a bus stop there on Grand Ave.

The Nothing Store was run by a Vietnamese family. The daughter always worked Sunday afternoons. Sometimes after preaching I would stop by to get one of those meal replacement drinks because I was too jazzed to eat and she would be studying for her regents on the store counter. In the background there would be Buddhist chants playing on a tinny radio.

The Nothing Store is gone. For awhile in its place there was a Korean store that announced on their awning that they sold handbags. That's gone now too. I think currently it's a place that deals with shipping from Central or South America. I'm not really sure.

I'm still mad that the Nothing Store is gone.

We are here. The storm seems to have subsided. It's quiet now except for the lake. The lake does not know that I am here in Michigan tonight in my forties, any more than it knew me at five in Manitowoc. It has business of it's own.


Every person of faith knows that sometimes God goes away. Or better. Because it amounts to the same thing. That sometimes you just don't feel it anymore. Bottom line, for whatever reason, sometimes you are left alone. People write songs about it. Sixteenth century Spanish saints write poems about it. Yes sir. Your family is there. Your friends are there. Everything that gives you roots and a context. It's all there. But you are alone.

You fake it though. Because that's what you do. But that's not really it either. You get patient--cunning. You wait. And in the meantime, you still gotta get up in the morning and tie your shoes. You move and breath and have your being "as if", because that is what there is to do. And every breath taken, involuntary or not, is an act. Something you do. But you are alone. Yes sir. Like a man kiting checks. Like a son slaying a father just by being the future. There is something immoral in faith; something impure.

And then God is there. Again.

Memory is the art of patience. It's the hunger for God turned inwards. It's the practice of being alone. And in time, memory itself, becomes a way of knowing God in his absence. But you never fully get over the need for Presence. The need for the continual awareness of Presence. Although, if you are lucky, you get better at not taking it too seriously.

It's like this. We walk on water or not at all. The foundation that holds our weight is not there. But here's the thing, we walk. Yeah. We walk. Like St. Peter stepping out of the boat, chasing ghosts. Like Cain with his mark. We walk. Yeah. Just like the fella says, "God is precisely that which we do not mean when we say 'God.'"

And in that, for all us whiskey priests and broke down prophets--all us sin-sick souls and lone pilgrims, forever on our way home to some home forever cut off by flaming swords and the sheer fact of gravity--is the mystery of hope--and the power to take the next step.


In about a month, I will turn forty two--an uninteresting milestone. An off-year in terms of birthdays. Still, I sense my life walking beside me. Or sometimes towards me. It is slower than I would like--and less graceful. I would like my life to move like Gene Kelly in "Singing in the Rain," or Jimmy Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." My life does not move that way. It moves with the rhythm of the halt. Jacob with his dislocated hip.

There is a dignity though. In my life. If I may say so. A stubbornness that is not reduced to pigheadedness. And a grace that is altogether practicable. In my life that walks beside me and sometimes towards me. A practicable grace.

There is another storm coming on across Lake Michigan tonight. And though I am frightened, tonight it is clear that, despite the faces in the lightening, there is really only one legitimate haunting. Don't be deceived, the ancestors don't really want to bind you and drown you as if you were some panicked swimmer in shallow midwestern lakes--vines tangling legs sucking you down down down. No sir. The ancestors are witnesses. They light the way. And besides, there is no such thing as ghosts.

It is our life that haunts us. Coming in across the lake. Walking just like Charlie Chaplin. Just as bold as you please.


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