April 2, 2011

Leopards and Caramelized Priests: Ridin’ With the Homies

Long ago and far away—last week—I was in my Monday night class at church. I always come straight from work and I always bring my knitting. Two projects: one tiny and one bigger project. If I need to be discreet, depending on the seriousness of topics in class, I will knit on my socks, for example. No need for a pattern or large, clicking needles, I reason. If I can knit freely, like during announcements, I get out the afghan. (I really prefer the afghan nights because no one seems to have ever been able to figure out how to turn the heat on in the church and I like to lay it over my legs.)

Truth is, whatever I am working on, I just listen and focus better if I am knitting. My concern is not really about what I will or will not learn, it is about being a distraction to others or offensive to that nights’ speaker.

Because the class is one that is open to the public, people can drop in from other churches or just out of curiosity can come in to check it out from the community. This can make for very interesting and lively discussions. It can also be a recipe for hilarious happenings—at least to me.

Rhonda, one of my old friends, always meets me at the class after work. She comes from another dental office here in town, I come from mine. We both come tired and starving and begin the evening by bellying up to the 8 foot, faux mahogany banquet table that is laden with sugary, fatty snacks and weak church coffee provided by some hardworking ladies from the church hospitality group.

We give thanks for their efforts with each maple frosted sandwich cookie and bag of Doritos we stack carefully to make the most of tiny Chinette dessert plates. When we can no longer balance anymore cholesterol and corn syrup bombs, we mince carefully and slowly, weaving in and out of a small, milling crowd, now and again readjusting the angles of our hands so as not to spill our treasures. We take our seats at the meeting table.

The class is arranged in a square shape. There are 8 bare tables matching the one with the goodies buffet.  They are put together so that the evening’s speaker can stand up front behind two tables, positioned end to end, and participants can sit at the remaining six tables forming a U around the two at the front. People sit around this U and try to arrange themselves so that everyone can see.

We sit not in front or back, but on the side of the U. There is a nice woman to my left, she could block my view as she is about my size, but I tell myself it should work this time. I just want to sit.

Everyone settles in and as our speaker for the night gets up, I try to determine what level of discretionary knitting I will be doing. Rhonda sees my hesitation and pokes me. She leans into me and whispers, “Don’t you know how many women in this church do this sort of thing? It’s totally fine!!”  I watch the speaker for a moment, looking for some sort of cue.

Our speaker this evening is our deacon. He is a 50-something man with a gentle expression. He is very educated and very keen. His knowledge is vast and anytime he speaks, well, people listen.

It’s always so riveting—it brings my mind back to Sunday school when I was a child. I loved the stories of Moses and the Isrealites dearly. Once when I was about 9 or 10 years old, the topic in that class was their 40 years in the desert. I listened so intently that I sat with my mouth gaping, unwitting. 

 After several minutes of this, drool began to string out of my mouth and onto the heavily lacquered wooden table about 7 of us were sitting around. I had been so engrossed that I didn’t even notice until a pool was already forming. One of my friends saw it before me and giggled, looking back at me from her more forward position at the table. I jerked up, quickly slurped and wiped my mouth, then the table, and probably both with my sleeve.

I don’t want any of that tonight, so I listen for a moment, thinking. The topic is Jesus in the desert for 40 days. I cringe at the number alone, again recalling grade school humiliation. Ok, knitting it will have to be. Socks. If I am busy, at least there can be no drooling. I do what Rhonda had advised and get out my socks. I stick an extra bamboo, double pointed needle tightly into my French braid, so as not to lose it since I planned on using 4, not 5 tonight.

Deacon begins with a prayer and I look around the room as we all stand, then sit. There are the usual people I know in varying ages and dress, and then there are some new ones I don’t. There are also two whom I have seen in the past—they sort of wander in and out of class. When they are there, they are the sort of people who speak to no one socially, but have lots to say during class, interrupting often and loudly. Sometimes what they have to say has nothing to do with the teachings. I wonder if they are perhaps just lonely, odd people.

The first is a woman. She has been to class about three times. I wonder why she comes. She is always so convinced of her own opinions that I am not sure why she comes to a class that is supposed to be instructive. She argues now and again with deacon and does not back down. We always have to move on by just changing the subject.

She is probably about 60, but looks much younger than her years. She is very small in frame and is dressed very well in a close fitting black skirt and button up blouse—the top button is undone. She has shared in the past that she loves talk radio, and will sometimes quote things she hears there. Her voice is somewhat gravelly, like maybe she once was a smoker, but is now in the process of healing from an old habit. She sits on a solitary chair out the square, straight and prim, hands neatly folded. Once I sit down, I can no longer see her very well, except for her frosted, coiffed short-haired wig that is just tall enough to peek over the head of the person blocking my view of her.

I then turn my attention to the other semi-stranger. This one is a man with short hair that stands up as though it had been in a hat all day and then mussed in an attempt to hide the fact. There are two shades of grey. No one would fake that, I muse. He has small eyes behind wireless rimmed, round spectacles. He is overweight, but leaves on his very bulky nylon coat so it is hard to see his figure. As he sits down, he sinks his chin into his neck, creating several chins. He slouches deeply into the chair. At least he is at the table.

When he speaks, he uses an incredibly slow, deliberate cadence. It is as though he wants to be sure everyone hears it all. He clearly has spent a lot of time devising his comments. His voice is nasally, but baritone.  I know this well, even though he hasn’t been in class much because it leaves quite an impression on me. I look over at Rhonda.

We both smile—she is looking around, too. Are we thinking the same thing? I settle into knitting and Rhonda gets out a note pad for us both. We scribble notes down as ideas come so as not to forget any remarks we would like to interject—that is, given a chance.

Deacon begins and we talk about the parallels between the temptations of Christ in the desert and the people he meets following that experience. This takes about 30 minutes and I am surprised at the lack of comments so far—the woman sits in the corner, seems like she is listening tonight. The grey man slouches deeper into the chair. Will he fall off? Is he sleeping?

Then we begin the topic of the woman at the well. Deacon speaks of her being a Samaritan and how she is an outcast, being a woman married 5 times. In her culture, this was not accepted and she came to get water alone. Jesus was a Jew and for him to speak openly to her—especially alone—was possibly a great risk to his reputation. As we got into the story, I sort of noticed Deacon glancing at my knitting every once in a while. I moved a little behind the woman to my left.  She was closer to the front. I hoped he just was concerned that I would distract people.

I kept watching the two semi-strangers.

Rhonda sat straight as she always does, pen poised in her right hand, ready to write.

Then the comments started.

Suddenly, as if she had prepared a speech, the tiny wig lady launched into a little speech. Jesus was afraid to speak to no one. After all, he affiliated himself with prostitutes. She quoted several scriptures to back her information up. “And,” she went on as if this was the coup d’état, “he EVEN was not scared of touching leperds.” She breathed, relaxing triumphantly. What?

Long silence. The leperd woman read this as triumph.

I looked at Rhonda and whispered, “Lepers? Leopards? Leperds?” Other people were mouthing the same conversation to one another.

“Yeah, she said ‘Leperds.” She wrote it down. Stealth, I thought. Knit knit knit….where were those cookies?

Deacon forgave quickly her grammatical error and went on to speak more about the concept of loving the unlovable.

The man from the back undid his accordion of chins, “Uh, Deacon I know this might be off the subject a little, but I didn’t ever hear nothing about those caramelized preachers before. What does that mean? Caramelized?”

Deacon paused for a moment.  Everyone giggled. A group of Carmelite priests had come to visit the church recently. He realized what the man meant and patiently explained that they were a religious order. They were the priests you might hear of traveling as opposed to being the sort who stay and work in one parish.  The man seemed satisfied.

Rhonda wrote down, “caramelized.” Me: knit knit knit…..deacon glanced at me. I was crunching up an empty chip bag in my hand, now orange from the bag’s contents. I had started giggling about the notes we were taking. I had written back, “That’s why they stick together…” Rhonda scribbled, “It’s also the reason they wear brown.” I licked my fingers. I smacked a little more loudly than one is usually allowed in polite company.

Deacon went on to talk about the disciples traveling around with Jesus and how they were behind him when he was at the well with the Samaritan woman. They came up later.

More questions came, varied in content and the story was really getting broken up. Rhonda and I were whispering now, I wasn’t even listening anymore, but my mouth and fingers were flying.

The woman in front of me started to look back at us. She was still diagonally situated between me and the front of the room. I wasn’t the problem anyway, was I?

Jorge, one of the youngest members of our little eclectic group was to my extreme left, down the table. I could not see him. He always has the best comments, insightful and seasoned beyond his years. He has wild, wooly hair and smart, dark eyes. He is a gentle soul. As deacon was trying to regain control in a room that he usually commanded, Jorge raised his hand (… which he always does. I think it is because of his still-close proximity to school age).

Deacon, looking relieved, hoping for a solid comment, said, “Jorge!”

Jorge said contemplatively, “So, let me get this straight.” Yes, Jorge, get us back on the path, I thought.

Knit knit knit…crunch, swallow…what did I think I was doing, watching a movie?

He went on, “So, Jesus was just ridin’ with his homies and then there was this woman he wasn’t supposed to talk to ….”

That was it. The dam broke. Rhonda and I began writing all sorts of sentences all over the paper …
“Jesus rides with his homies, the Caramelized priests.”
“Caramelized priests make better riders ‘cause they stick to the seat.”
“Leperds like to eat caramel …”

On and on this went. Glance from deacon….

I went back to knitting.  Sigh. These weird people! Where do they come from? I am shaking my head in disbelief.

Deacon’s glance had turned into a gaze. “Is there something you would like to share?”

I choked a little on the first chip from a new bag of Lay’s I had opened. “No,” I rasped.

I sank down mentally. No more notes. I glanced at the woman to my left. I size her up after she looks away from me—she also had been staring at me.

Sigh … next week, I decided, I would have to sit behind someone bigger.

After reading this story, ask yourself some questions. I’ll give you some suggestions; talk amongst yourselves:

  1. In the class, who is there to really listen and learn?
  2. Who are the disruptive participants? Is one a standout?
  3. Who is judging whom? Anyone deserve it? Anyone not?
  4. Did the writer include these questions stemming from an unnatural need to be liked, trying to make the story mean something in the case someone would be offended?
  5. Does the narrator have good intentions?
  6. What are the parallels between grade school and adulthood? What do they mean?
  7. What is the significance of the number 40?
  8. What is the airspeed velocity of an African swallow travelling across the Atlantic from England to America if it is carrying a coconut? Use the space below to work your answer. Neatness counts. No calculators.

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