My new book, Religion is Numbered, is nearing completion. Here is a chapter from it:
Olive turned to look at me and started giggling. The sunshine fell on her white hair and pink-lipsticked smile as I wheeled an office chair outside to her hatchback car. On the chair was perched a sizeable box.
“I knew you’d know how to get that heavy box to my car,” Olive said. “It’s full of books.”
An octogenarian, Olive radiated appreciation. When she told me she wanted to get rid of some stuff in her house, I offered to help.
We’d only known one another about three years. She started coming to the Kennewick Church after her husband died, and though polar opposite to me in demeanor, we hit it off from the start. Olive was prim and proper. She wore expensive, tailored dresses and sat upright with her legs together and feet perched in modest high heels.
I was still a tomboy. I wore the cleanest clothes I could find in the morning, aiming mainly for the clothing not decorated with children snot or ketchup. I sat in a constant state of readiness to turn into either instant monkey bars or a cradle for any child.
It took me a few months to realize Olive was of the brand that didn’t age while maturing, like Bill. She didn’t treat me as if she felt obligated to keep me on the straight and narrow.
Our personalities blended to bring out the best in one another. The girls, school-aged now, and I would invite her to the house for lunch, using it as an opportunity to practice cooking and eating with manners. We’d set the table formally and just before Olive arrived, we exchanged our work clothes for the nicest outfits we had. Olive, true to form, came dressed to the nines.
The luncheon conversation lacked gushy pretense. Without talking down to Leah, Olive asked, “What subject are you studying in school now?”
“The ocean,” Leah said through her shyness.
“I’ve seen parts of the ocean before. It’s very big. One time, Everett and I took a trip to Fiji, an Island in the South Pacific Ocean and we saw a turtle that was 70-years-old,” said Olive. “Have you seen a turtle before?”
“Yes, once at Aunt Denise’s. We have chickens,” said Leah.
“Oh my, do your chickens lay eggs?”
“Yes,” said Leah, more secure with her own input.
“Do you cook and eat the eggs?” asked Olive.
“Mom cooks mostly, we eat the eggs. See that,” Leah said as she pointed to a bowl full of egg salad on the table. “I mashed the boiled eggs for that. I used a fork.”
As if she was dining on a culinary delight, Olive exclaimed, “I just ate some of the egg salad. It’s delicious.” Eyeing Carly, she continued, “I can see you both help your mother.”
Olive’s sight zoomed in for a close-up of Carly and she asked, “So, Carly what book are you reading now?”
“Beauty and the Beast,” Carly joined in.
“Beauty and the Beast. Let’s see, does that have a scary beast in it?” said Olive.
“It’s scary at first, but it turns nice when Belle isn’t a-scared of it,” explained Carly.
“I sure like the blue dress you are wearing,” said Olive.
“This is a good time to say thank you,” I said quietly to Carly.
Carly’s eyes stirred with comprehension. She looked at Olive and said, “Thank you.”
A little more silence allowed Carly to gain pluck. She pointed and said, “I put the pickles in that bowl.”
“Well, could you please pass me the pickles? I think I shall like to try one,” said Olive as the conversation ambled from pickles, to building forts, to feeding Shep the dog. I watched time wrinkle until I could no longer see a senior citizen and two children, but a room full of wholesomeness, newness, and wisdom—intermixing as one.
Only when I was alone with Olive did she speak about herself. Olive told me she learned how to weld metals, work in a factory, and build ships during World War II, when all the men had gone to Europe to fight.
After the war, Olive married Everett, who introduced her to religion #212. The two of them had one daughter, Jacqueline. Olive told me, “After Jacqueline grew up and was living on her own, Everett stopped attending church. He couldn’t tolerate the pettiness that distorted the religion.”
She was raised in church #5,444 and explained, “The model of a punishing God was instilled in me. It was a menacing way to live. When I learned about a loving, healing God through #212, the liberation was unforgettable. It made it easier for me to overlook the pettiness in church.”
On the day when we cleaned stuff out of her house, we finished the job and sat down at the kitchen table to rest and talk.
“What do you think about this ‘spiritual but not religious’ trend?” I asked her.
Olive smiled before confirming what I’d been concluding, “The trend is not very original. The people who identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious, will soon be forming communities and battling the same turmoil that plagues religious organizations today. We are social creatures. And, sadly we are human beings susceptible to repeating our mistakes.”
She offered me a sugar cookie and cup of coffee.
“No thanks,” I said.
While she got up to get a cookie and cup of hot coffee for herself, Olive said, “Cheryl, you are too young to know, but many of the churches were once lively. It’s what we did. People attended church. It’s what we knew. Circumstances have altered that experience.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as she sat down at the table.
“During my era it was the availability of the automobile. Once we started moving our physical bodies in cars, it affected how our minds moved. When stores began opening on Sundays, we questioned our beliefs and superstitions and discovered God wasn’t going to strike us down for shopping on Sunday. We realized we could find God anywhere, not just in church.”
“But, you kept going to church,” I quizzed.
“Yes, and you will too for the same reason. Church can be a positive structure in our week, but there is more we need to do, otherwise we become ambivalent and church dies,” Olive said.
I made a mental note to look up the word “ambivalent” in the dictionary when I got home. “Keep talking,” I said.
“When I switched religions, I left behind some beliefs, but I also carried with me other beliefs that I didn’t know I had,” said Olive as she smoothed her short white hair around the back of her right ear with her fingers. “Church #212 today is a virtual ghost town, surrounded by residues of a once flourishing community, now abandoned because the natural resources of spiritual creativity and intellect are neglected.”
Silence. Her knowledge was a blur in my mind, but I caught a few details.
“It’s like people who migrate from one country to another. They want to flee poverty, conflict, or injustice, but they still have to deal with those components in some form or another because they really exist in the human mind,” said Olive.
“How do we get rid of the negative components and get the spiritual creativity back?” I asked.
“You aren’t the only one wondering that,” said Olive. “Even many medical professionals want inspired thinking. They know people are more than bodies of chemicals. Everett’s doctor was one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“One weekend, I ran out of pain pills for Everett,” explained Olive. “He hadn’t needed the pills regularly so I lost track of how many were in the bottle. It was evening and Everett asked for a pill. Because he wasn’t his normal self near the end of his life and anything out of the ordinary would easily upset him, I told him I had more pills in the kitchen. I went to the kitchen where he lost sight of me and got a slice of white bread. I ripped a piece out the middle and rolled it up real tight, into the size of a pill and gave it to him with a glass of water. He swallowed the ball of bread and felt better within ten minutes.”
I smiled, having nothing to say.
“I told Everett’s doctor the next day, and the doctor agreed I did the best thing under the circumstances. He admitted that placebos have power at times. He wished he knew how the human mind and its beliefs worked so he could give people bread rather than some of the drugs that are basically poison,” said Olive. “But I think it was love from divine Mind, not my human mind, that gave relief to Everett.”
“I kinda see what you mean,” I said, and turned the subject to “How’s Jacqueline?”
“She’s doing well. Cheryl, I think I need to sell this house and move to California to live closer to her,” Olive said. “That’s why I’m cleaning.”
“I bet Jacqueline would like that,” I said, knowing I’d miss Olive terribly if she moved.
“Moving sounds arduous; however I know it can be done,” said Olive. “There’s nothing new about moving.”
Olive did move within the year. She taught me that timeless ideas exist forever. Olive reaffirmed that new ideas aren’t really new.
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” —Ecclesiastes 1:9