This is secret stuff I’m going to tell you now, things I’ve never admitted to anyone. Not that there’s anything lurid here. Actually, I tried to think of some lurid memories, but I was only ten years old. The best I could come up with was my habit of going into the coat closet, closing the door, and fumbling around in the dark to steal nickels and dimes from my mother’s purse so I could buy baseball cards. I took a quarter once, but spent the rest of the week terrified that she’d notice. Quarters were big and more easily missed. Also, twenty-five cents was a lot of money. It equaled my weekly allowance, and for that I had to wash the car and run to the store every time my parents needed a loaf of bread. So maybe swiping some pocket change wasn’t exactly lurid, but it was still a little shocking. Especially for a boy who was planning on sainthood.
By the end of my first decade I had already worked my way past the notion of becoming my father. He was a man of strong and simple principles whose life was weighed down by physical ailments, some brought on by his own self-destructive behaviors, especially smoking. I learned a lot from my father, but didn’t want to be him.
I eventually rejected my goal of becoming Superman, too, after realizing that his ability to lift trucks and see through buildings came with its own limitations. For one thing, he was constantly having to hold back his powers; otherwise, he’d break a chair every time he sat down or set someone on fire just by staring at them. But most of all, there was the Kryptonite problem. For something that came from an exploding planet light years away, there were inexplicably large supplies of it on Earth. With even moderate exposure to trace levels of Kryptonite, Superman could get his butt kicked by anybody — even my father, who was lugging around portable oxygen tanks and a fifty-year, two-pack-a-day habit.
What I needed was a role model who could transcend physical and emotional weakness. But did such a person exist? To be human meant to be flawed. And if you were flawed today, you were probably going to be flawed tomorrow, and next week. Each of us was born with a soul, I learned. I pictured my soul as a white, shiny, oval-shaped thing that was inside of me, like a porcelain fixture hovering somewhere between my stomach and liver. Each time I committed a sin, I imagined the porcelain becoming stained; the worse the sin, the larger and darker the stain.
And that was the problem.
I saw people going to Confession, then shuffling home to do things that would just mess up their souls all over again. They seemed to spend their entire lives caught in this routine. Why did they keep making the same mistakes? Were they just slow learners? Or did they like kneeling in a dark booth every Saturday and admitting their heinous transgressions to a man half their age? People were forever breaking the commandments, sinning like mad, and just generally screwing up. It all seemed so inevitable and bleak, and I wanted no part of it. I yearned for a way out of the vicious cycles of life.
Then they taught us about the saints. Not infallible in the God-like sense, but much better than ordinary people, saints had apparently figured out ways to break free of the day-to-day nonsense. Of course they were amply rewarded for their efforts, mostly by being tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered, beheaded, disemboweled, or burned at the stake.
That was for me! For as long as I could remember people were marveling to my mother about how good I was. “He’s so quiet!” they would say. “And so good!” The combination was not lost on me. Quiet and good, I inferred, were two different words for the same idea. It was clear that I needed to shut my trap.
However, being quiet and good weren’t enough for true sainthood. There seemed to be a certain level of persecution that was also required. Could I endure torture? Being burned at the stake sounded like the worst fate I could imagine until I found out what it meant to be disemboweled. Many of the saints were killed for being too good. Others were falsely accused. I began to fantasize about being wrongly blamed for something, punished for a crime I didn’t commit. It was a chance to be stoic, to rise above, to be better than human — a chance to be too good. When our teacher demanded that the class tell her who had thrown the paper airplane when her back was turned, no one said a word; I was tempted to own up, even though I wasn’t the culprit.
I’d always had favorite baseball players, cartoons, and comic book heroes. Now I had a favorite saint: Stephen, a first-century Jew who was relentlessly vocal in his rejection of Old Testament law in favor of the emerging Christian doctrine. Tired of his preaching, a crowd drove Stephen from the city and stoned him to death, making him the first martyr. According to the stories we read in school, Stephen welcomed his pain without complaint, and fell into quiet prayer and contemplation. I could see him in my mind, standing alone and serene, while the other men threw the rocks. I used to wonder how they could have killed him like that. It seemed you’d have to throw rocks for a long time before you could kill somebody, and you’d have to throw them really hard. I’d look at the picture in my religion book, and none of those guys exactly looked like Sandy Koufax.
Years later, I learned that stoning sometimes involved having the victim lie down and then piling heavy rocks onto his chest. The rocks would be placed one at a time until their weight prevented the person from breathing. That must be how they did it. Stephen probably helped them gather the rocks, then treated them all to lunch before the actual stoning. He was quiet and good.
But was I capable of such strength? I certainly believed I deserved to suffer, and wanted to do so, especially in the service of others. I imagined standing trial for a crime, being convicted and sentenced, and then accepting whatever punishment might be imposed by these mere mortals. God would know that I was innocent, and would later reward my courage.
In real life, though, I was still hiding in the closet, feeling around in the dark for coins in my mother’s pocketbook and trying to mimic the blind newsstand vendor on the Avenue who could tell a nickel from a penny without hesitation. And I was hiding in the confession booth, too, feeling around in the dark for sins I couldn’t remember, trying to distinguish between major and minor ones, attempting to present a believably balanced assortment for the priest to forgive. Was I really cleansing my soul of its stains? Could I truly guarantee my entrance into Heaven by saying a few prayers of penance? And what about the fact that I was essentially making up the sins I was confessing? If lying itself was evil, the result of breaking one of God’s commandments, into what category did lying in Confession fit? I worried that I had created a new level of sin, something completely unforgivable — maybe something even God had failed to anticipate. Telling a lie in Confession was like being on trial for a murder I didn’t commit, and then, right before hearing the verdict, stabbing the judge to death.
And there was the altar boy thing. I had been roped into joining, lured by promises of a trip to Yankee Stadium, and by the pleadings of the priest, who insisted that without me they wouldn’t have enough boys to serve Mass. Most especially, they needed someone to volunteer for the earliest services, the ones that would have me getting out of bed at an unnatural hour, dressing myself, walking the four blocks to church, and changing into my holy garments — all without waking up everyone else in the house, and without tripping in the dark and cracking my head open on the sidewalk. As if to add one more cruel twist, the Mass was in Latin, a spooky language that was half-spoken and half-chanted, and would require me to study for eight long months of my young life. Then as soon as I finished learning the Latin Mass, the Pope changed it to English. I was really ticked off but just kept quiet about it and suffered in silence, because really, where do you go with a complaint like that?
I spent the rest of my childhood and much of my adult life battling the voices in my head. They have criticized ruthlessly, sentencing me to an insatiable sense of obligation, shame, failure, and guilt. I have never been good enough or done enough. Even the very idea that I could exceed my father’s reach, embody super powers, or live a life of saintly goodness was, in itself, worthy of punishment. Who did I think I was?
No, I couldn’t wait to grow up. And maybe I’m still waiting. But here’s what I’ve finally figured out. My father was a human being, at once flawed and admirable, who did his best. Superman was a fictional character who couldn’t possibly function in the real world. And Saint Stephen, if he existed, gave up his life too easily to people who would kill him for less than justifiable reasons. The truth is, I now confess to you, I’m one of those mere mortals. I’ve made more mistakes and committed more sins than I want to remember. If I have a soul, it’s been stained beyond recognition. But hiding those facts in a dark closet does nothing to promote growth. And so I’m slowly learning to let people in, trusting that they’ll prefer the reality they can see, rather than the illusions I once chased.
I have no more role models. But I know plenty of other mere mortals who possess traits that I try to emulate. And although I’ll never let go of obligation, I’m doing my best to walk away from shame and failure. Even the guilt is beginning to fade. I only wish I had told my mother about the stolen nickels and dimes, instead of that priest. Her forgiveness would have meant much more, and may have started me sooner on this road to accepting my own humanity.
The original artwork for four of the five cartoons in this post, as in most of the posts on this blog, were drawn by Ron Leishman. In many cases, I have manipulated the images to fit my needs, but the true brilliance is Ron’s. Visit his website to see what I mean.