Varsity Jesus: 1984-85

Chapter I. To borrow the hymnist’s words: I once was found but now I’m lost.

I recommit my life to Christ early in the fall semester of my sophomore year at college. Soon thereafter I join a campus Christian organization, where, for the sake of forsaking something, I forsake the music I love for the Christian substitutes recommended all around: Leon Patillo. Petra and Petra, Petra again. Sandy Patty. The Imperials. The reconstituted Al Green. Carmen. God help me, Dino.  

Try! I’m urged, and I try, but the music goes down dry as diet food.

But it isn’t just the music. As time goes by that semester, I ring more and more like a false note. But I try. I join hands and pray aloud at cafeteria table. I sing at Bible studies. I knock at neighborhood doors on humid fall evenings, jumpy as a pop gun in the close air of those dark front porches, steps approaching from some hallway.

This is mostly how I remember the group and me then: we talk about Jesus as brightly as we talk about Magnum P.I., and should either hunky gentleman have appeared bodily among us—car horns honking, campus bells ringing in a confusion of chimes—we would have been found ready. Eager! Me too in a manner of speaking. The one there on the edge of the picture, trying.

Chapter II. Mixed blood. My father and his family come from Michigan. My mother and hers from Fitzgerald, Georgia.

From the deep South, the deepest. Boiled peanuts. Bouquet of sulphur in the air. Rolled-up shirt sleeves. Chinaberry trees in the sandy gray soil around the service station. Fitzgerald GA is rural country, two hours west of Savannah, two or so south of Milledgeville. I come from cracker stock.

“Sport, you only half Yankee," my step-grandfather reminds me on my family’s yearly visits.

It is a revival of this blood that I will feel first when I discover Flannery O’Connor in a Contemporary American Lit class the spring semester of my junior year. And what a difference a year will have made. By that spring I will have rarely been to church. By then I will have rarely opened my Bible. I will have rarely prayed. By then I will have shared, not the Romans Road, but a two-bedroom apartment with a lothario tennis player from the Canary Islands, around whose gynecological erudition I tried not to seem transgressed.

Chapter III. It’s March, 1985. After my year of being on fire for the Lord, I’m now in ashes.

I part ways with the campus Christian org, and the time I once devoted to small group meetings and afterglow gatherings I now devote to school. Never a reader before, now I stare into books like someone staring after sparks.  

Now I read eating my lunch.

Now I read in bed.

Now I read lying on a camelback couch in the airy ballroom of the Student Union.

Now I read sitting against a net post before tennis practice.

Now I read alone at the laundromat, my clothes in the dryer, leaping like the healed.

And now I read on Saturday nights on the highest floor of our four-story library in the remotest corner I can find, where, as it turns out, God only knows where to find me. Hard books. Harder books. It is in this corner of the library that I read Wise Blood, the book that hits me hardest, the axe that releases a frozen sea in me, as Kafka believed the best books do.

“I reckon you think you been redeemed,” Hazel Motes says to Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock in the novel’s opening scene.

Motes will ring true with me for the rest of my life. Whose wild and ragged Jesus moves from tree to tree in the back of the mind, motioning to turn around and come off into the dark, where you can’t be sure of the footing, where you might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.

“I reckon you think you been redeemed,” Motes repeats to Mrs. Hitchcock.


Bird Report

Three crows in the tops of three tall trees in the woods on the east side of my property. A fourth crow arrives and joins the first in the tree where that crow landed. The branches of the trees are tinsel from the ice that remains from a winter storm. The woods twinkle trippily in the sun. The crows are stoned with the beauty but remain aloof—like a motorcycle gang that’s paused at a scenic overlook.