ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

Off The Shelf: At church, she found her own kind of salvation

Cole hunkered in his car seat, refusing to get out of the car. Ry was strapped in his stroller next to me, waiting. I smelled a poopy. Maybe it was just bad gas. No, definitely a poopy. I fished around in my large purse for a stray diaper, my hand passing my journal, hoping it wasn't one of Ry's explosive squirt-up-the-back-of-his-diaper-onto-his-clothes-poops.

"Why don't you like church?" I asked Cole.

His face was doing the crumble thing.

"I won't be gone that long," I said, already estimating how much time I could have. How much time could I keep them at the church day care? How much time before Cole decided Mommy is never coming back?

Was Cole the only one who is aggravated by my seeming passion for church? Who else knew that once the boys were secure in the day-care room, with its free (and trustworthy) day care, mommy found a quiet place to write?

Two lovely uninterrupted hours -- three if I really pushed it. (There were early and late services, and adult learning classes offered in between.)

Writing has always been a compulsion. With a toddler and a breast-feeding infant and limited funds, I had to be creative in finding the means and time.

Although I no longer take advantage of the church, it worked for more than two years. I wrote a large chunk of my first novel (unpublished and mediocre, but necessary) while my sons were at the church day care.

When I confessed to a close friend (my best barometer in the navigation of mother guilt versus personal needs), she said, "Don't worry about it -- you're having your own kind of spiritual experience."

And she was right. I needed to write.

I didn't tell my husband because strategically it wasn't in my favor in terms of child duty negotiations -- although he was skeptical regarding my religious ardor and probably knew all along.

I was a waitress for more than a decade, working at a restaurant that catered to the wealthy. It provided ample fodder, but the constant servility to people was anguishing, and my dependence on a job I disliked fueled my already healthy dislike for the rich.

And some of my customers were members of the church -- a liberal Episcopalian place of worship, where I'd heard Jesse Jackson speak. I'd been drawn to All Saints because it had a lesbian minister. My only previous experience of Christianity was of the Orange County Rick Warren variety, and the discovery that more amenable versions existed thrilled me.

Before my writing escapes, I had made a determined effort to become Episcopalian, attending Covenant I and Covenant II classes, time-consuming and intensive. Episcopalians seemed even-keeled, well-dressed and kind, gay and straight, not afraid to think. With them, as opposed to the Christianity I'd grown up with, I was encouraged in the use of the mind.

I continued having trouble, however, crossing the Jesus-died-for-my-sins line. The church called me a "continuing seeker" and encouraged me to keep attending. But I was starting to feel uncomfortable. When I expressed my qualms to a minister, he said, "If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck," indicating that, despite my reservations and doubts, I was indeed a duck of the Episcopalian ilk.

What he didn't understand -- and what I now do -- is that I'm a writer duck.

"Wasn't that a beautiful service?" other moms would say when I picked up my kids from the church day care.

"Mm-hmm," I'd respond.

My charade went undetected, except by the day-care workers, who saw through it quickly. They were sympathetic, understanding that whatever I was doing was necessary.

I no longer belong to a church. I believe that All Saints would not condemn me for the years I pretended to attend. "Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here," I was told at every service. It was my first experience of a truly loving and inclusive church, and I think of them with gratitude.

As for my sons, I worry sometimes that they associate church with abandonment. But I also worry about everything when it comes to my kids. Once in a while, I'll half-heartedly suggest that we go to church, and they always say no. A very strong no.

When they visit their grandparents on weekends, they attend the type of church I've stayed clear of, ever since I had a choice.

The boys are ambivalent about attending Sunday school (essentially church day care) while their grandparents worship, and they only seem to perk up if given a reward. Last time, Cole got a lollipop because he answered a question right. When I asked what the question was, he said, "I don't remember, but the answer was God."

Patterson's first book, "Drift," a collection of stories, was published in June.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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