Suppose I start with a tree. It’s an old tree, tagged with neighborhood graffiti, wide as a linebacker. It’s where we met to sing hymns and pray before heading out into the night to find homeless people and sex workers, tell them Jesus died for their sins, and hand them a baggie with a sandwich and a bottle of water. Suppose I tell you that while the others prayed, some in tongues, I had a vision: a boy sat on a fence and dangled his feet.
“We’ve got to pray for those on the fence,” I declared to the group of gathered missionaries, brimming with false confidence. “For those who haven’t decided, who aren’t certain.” The missionaries were a suburban cohort of charismatic Christians who believed that they (we) were sent to save the neighborhood. I admired their enthusiasm, I aspired to it. But I wasn’t comfortable with what we were there to do, had never been comfortable with it. I felt my discomfort was a kind of spiritual failure. I was the only one among us who lived close by, and even as I spoke I wanted to cover my face. Instead, I chided myself, You shouldn’t be ashamed of the Gospel.
I could tell you how, after we spread out into the neighborhood armed with Bibles and cheap snacks, we came upon an actual boy sitting on an actual fence. I could tell you that later I bristled but said nothing when the other missionaries referred to the transgender women lined up outside the dance club as “he” instead of “she.”
A few years before this I had fallen in love with God, had followed this God from one life into another. That love was a feeling so searing I thought it would never end. It was not my love that ended, but the object of that love. My idea of who or what God is became complicated even further by the night that began at the tree.
I want to tell you about that tree, about its liminal space, the spirit that swirled around it like weather on a mountain. It required nothing, declared nothing. I’ve had to learn new language for the kind of spirit that requires nothing. I’m still learning it. I know many of the specifics of what we believed were wrong. I was wrong. The idea that what we were doing was helping anyone—this was wrong. But the tree, like a witness to my folly, is still there. Every time I drive past it on my way to the coffee shop or the grocery store, it stands without shame. I duck like a cop in an unmarked car.
Liminal means transitional. During the liminal stage of a religious ritual, a baptism, for example, the participant stands at a threshold—between her previous way of structuring and understanding her identity and a new way. Celtic Christians called this a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth meet, however briefly, leaving no one unchanged.
My born-again moment coincided with America’s. I was born, the first time, a few months before Time magazine declared “The Year of the Evangelical,” as Jimmy Carter, the nation’s first born-again Christian to win a presidential election, took office. My parents weren’t interested in religion. They’d abandoned the strict Catholicism and too-loose Judaism of their respective childhoods, so I was an outsider looking in on bat mitzvahs and confirmations, on Good Friday and Shabbos. I wanted a place of my own.
When I was twenty-five, I first found my way into a church. It was on the Upper East Side, a few blocks from my mother’s apartment. It was a place with almost no language at all. I came for the cool, blue silence. I flipped through the hymnals and prayer books on weekday afternoons. I sat in that church and sang quietly to myself, and, alone with God, I was happy.
Just over a year later, in the weeks leading up to September 11, 2001, the language of the supernatural finally entered my vocabulary. I announced my conversion to Christianity through language, by using my ear for music to mimic the patois of evangelicalism. “Redemption,” “salvation,” “atonement”—these words helped me pass with the Christians I met in New York, and then with the Southern congregations I eventually made my home among.
The tree where the missionaries and I gathered to pray that night in March is flanked by a fast-food restaurant and a group home for abused and neglected homeless teens. It stands at the center of Montrose, Houston’s quickly gentrifying historic gay neighborhood. Teenage girls gathered beside the tree that night, every night, and passed joints and cell phones between them. They tossed their ironed black hair, jiggled baby strollers. They would not invite Jesus into their hearts. They would not repent and be saved. The missionaries had tried and tried again, eventually regarding them with cool indifference. The tree looked as though it would outlive us all, saved or otherwise. What had it seen? An overturned garbage bin rested under the canopy of its leaves. A malt liquor bottle, filled with urine, delicately balanced against its varicose roots.
When I was fifteen I developed a crush on a girl named Amy, and after we met at a weeklong summer drama camp, she invited me home to her mother’s house in a leafy suburb outside Buffalo, New York. There, I followed Amy around for another week, a week of passing joints under the moon on a park bench, of drinking pink wine coolers, of grafting my affection for Amy onto her friend Matt (I was always grafting my affection). We barely touched—we held hands, or rather fingers, loosely, one night while the three of us watched a David Lynch movie on Matt’s father’s VCR. I wouldn’t have used the word love then, but that’s what grew in me over the five days I spent with Matt. On the sixth day, Matt died in a car crash.
Many months later, Amy gave me a silver pendant, a circle with an oak tree cut out of its center, a tree in relief.
Many months later, Amy gave me a silver pendant, a circle with an oak tree cut out of its center, a tree in relief. She called it a tree of life. I wore my pendant every day, its branches and trunk animated by the pale flesh of my chest. I wore it to remember Matt, though I couldn’t explain with precision how the two were connected. I did understand, though, that I’d touched the adult world of disaster and survived, but perhaps wouldn’t always be so lucky. I rubbed the pendant between my thumb and forefinger while riding in a car, high on dirt weed; while I took the SATs; while my brother and mother screamed at each other in the tiny kitchen of our apartment. While my boyfriend, gnarly with tattoos and barely eighteen, broke up with me on my birthday. I can’t say the tree brought me luck or changed anything, but it had a kind of weight.
The sex workers I met on the streets of Houston—five total—grew up in churches, the sons and daughters of preachers. I don’t know what this means except that we spoke the same language, the language of faith—or we could, if we chose to. The night of the tree we met Claire. She was tall with flawless skin and expertly drawn eyeliner—its single dark line winged out against her false lashes. Claire passed us on the sidewalk and languidly identified our group for what we were. “Can I pray for you?” I asked.
“Oh, honey,” she said, stopping. “Yes.”
Every few minutes a teenage boy emerged from a dark stand of trees across the street and casually looked us over, then resumed his stroll to the gas station on the corner and back. I leaned toward Claire’s ear: I will fear no evil for my God is with me, I sang. Claire told me that her daddy was a preacher in a little country church. She loved to sing in church, she said, and got a faraway look remembering that part of her life. I tried to imagine the other part, the part that had brought her here. After a few seconds of listening, she joined her contralto to my soprano and we formed a perfect third. We could hear the notes we were singing and the space between them, like the sound of a violinist bowing two strings at once. I will fear no evil, we sang, for my God is with me.
“There are some things you can only believe singing,” a teacher of mine once said.
That was Friday. Monday, I went back to my job at the Presbyterian church. I was an executive assistant, making copies and sitting in meetings where my opinion—as someone who was more zealous, more evangelical—was more or less tolerated. But I was thrilled for the job, for the sense of meaningfulness it gave my life. The first time I’d walked into the church, I saw the blood-red carpet and the Communion table, and its banner that read do this in remembrance of me, and I thought instantly of Matt. I knew the me referred to Jesus, to the speech he gave his friends as they celebrated Passover together for the last time. But seeing it that day brought back my dead friend, and other grief, and instead of asking me to forget, as I felt so often was being asked of me, it asked me to remember.
A discussion of death is central to any discussion of Christianity. Without it there can be no resurrection. Maybe this is why I chose Christianity above other religions, a few of which I gave real consideration. It didn’t ask me to bury my dead; it brought them back to life. Matt had made a passing reference to Jesus a few weeks before he died, a reference his born-again mother mentioned at his wake, and later, in the heat of my evangelicalism, it became a sign to me that he had accepted Jesus as Savior and was surely in Heaven where I would see him again. This sort of thing calmed me down. Christianity made meaning of death, it let me hang around death, talk about death. Sing about death. It had a formula for turning death into language that could be learned, chanted, and—that most demanding of all verbs—believed.
I’d been working at the Presbyterian church a year or more when I decided to join the missionaries on the streets of Houston. This activity was strictly extracurricular; most of my coworkers (by virtue of their Calvinist theology, which allows for God, and God alone, to perform conversions) didn’t go in for street evangelism. They found it gauche.
But there was a group of us on the fringe at the Presbyterian church who fretted over the lost souls of our friends and family members. We had all read the Left Behind books, a religious pulp fiction series about the Apocalypse that amped up our fear, that fed into the scare politics of the day, that bled into our dreams.
“He’s a seeker,” I would say of someone, maybe my brother, who was voraciously studying Islam at that time. “God is good, all the time,” my friend would answer. “Trust in Him!” These phrases stood in for meaning, like a body double. I felt hidden and protected by them. But soon, as the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged, I began to hear these phrases used like evangelical dog whistles by conservative politicians. I tried to distance myself from evangelicalism then, but the phrases reminded me that I hadn’t yet distanced myself enough. The language kept me tied to it. The language had beaten back the darkness, and then it became the darkness itself. After some years of this, I couldn’t say the words anymore. I went mute. I could only sing, like I’d sung with Claire.
A witness tree, according to conservationists, is a tree that has survived a great battle. Some witness trees mark property; they stand at the edges of protected land. In the case of the trees of the American South, some still stand that survived the Civil War, but many more have survived other wars, of racial violence and police brutality. Though men and women are no longer publically hung from poplar trees, those wars still rage. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” Billie Holiday sang in 1939, “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”
In his memoir of the Bosnian war, British journalist Anthony Loyd writes of an American soldier from Mississippi who refused to go into the forest at Srebrenica in 1996, a year after the genocide of eight thousand Muslim men and boys there, because he heard voices among the rustling oak leaves.
Under the whispering oaks in Houston, the missionaries ignored who the transgender women knew themselves to be, and instead called out the gender they believed God had given them. They went into a neighborhood and denied the existence of the women who lived there, instead insisting on some other sort of existence for them, one that adhered to misguided religious ideas of what makes a person acceptable, ideas that denied who that person actually is. The willful denial of others’ selves and the political force it was attached to—this was a kind of genocide. The trees have witnessed all of it. And they’re talking. Always talking. Mournfully lowing in the swampy air.
Maybe religious faith imposes on the world a kind of interlocking modality, like Ikea furniture. It renders the perplexities and conundrums of the human condition manageable. A priest friend of mine told me that once, at a wedding, he was stalked by the drunk brother of the bride, who was mad at God and wanted a fight. “Life is going to get hard,” the priest told him, “and you’ll need something to cling to.” I needed something to cling to. But the capricious nature of God, as I got to know God, made clinging difficult. God becomes more complex as you descend deeper into God. The year that followed the night at the tree, the year I fell out of love with God, I entered what St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, called “the dark night of the soul.” Jungian psychologists call it “psychic death.” God became tangled in my darkness. It felt as though I’d outgrown God, or parts of God. The words, the language, no longer fit. The terms and conditions under which I’d agreed to the religion had changed, because I’d changed, the world had changed.
My friend Cheryl is an energy healer and, seeing that I was in some pain, she offered me a free session. She works at a homeopathic center near my house and has a growing list of clients who pay handsomely for the opportunity to lie under her hands. Cheryl invited me to lie down on a chiropractor’s table and gave me small vials of liquid marked fear and stress.
“We believe that everything has a frequency,” she said.
She took note of how I responded to each vial, then put the information into a computer, which turned out a number, which Cheryl could somehow interpret.
Cheryl asked me what I would like to be free of. What grief, what heartbreak? She could cure me of it, she said. She called it a clearing.
“Some people still have pain in limbs that have been amputated,” she explained. “Their brains are still sending signals to the missing appendage, trying to correct the frequency. It’s called a ghost limb.”
I’d continued to send my love to the shadowy absence I’d previously called God. That absence had heft, weight, and presence. It demanded its own blood supply. But I was unsure about Cheryl’s offer. I trembled slightly, like a child being parted from a security blanket.
I’ve learned that trees feel ghost limbs too, but they’re able to correct the loss of limbs, though conditions must be just right. Adventitious buds form after a stem is wounded, to begin the process of replacing lost branches. Trees are, in effect, the only living things with the power of resurrection. Saint John the Evangelist wrote, “God cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes.”
Not long after the night at the tree, I started counseling at a therapy center tucked behind an arbor. I walked past the trickling fountain and entered the building; its tidy waiting area was freshly painted and furnished. A plaque hung above the receptionist’s window. The center had recently been renovated, it said, and the renovation project was called the Tree of Life.
My therapist, after five minutes of listening to me talk, said “You have losses that you haven’t grieved yet. And you can’t lump them together.” The person I was when I left New York, she said, was gone. That person deserved to be mourned, I suppose.
I have often thought of that live oak tree in Montrose as my witness, waving to me from a life I’ve left. Though I was a street preacher before the night that began at the tree, the night we met Claire, I was never a street preacher again. I had sung the songs and said the words and believed that they were good, but after the tree, my language changed. The way I understood the power of language, the power of pronouns, changed. The way I thought about people who lived outside of my subculture changed. The tree knew who I was and who I was becoming: someone between worlds. Someone moving away from the fixed, from certainty, and slowly toward—toward what, I’m not sure. The tree is still talking. I lean in to listen.