I wear an anchor pendant. Unhoused neighbors, in uncanny encounters, recognize it as a sign of faith, at times, and indicate it when they ask for donations. There is a subtle lift to being recognized for what I am despite not being sure what composes me, or how to express it — the nebulous, shifting bounds of this spirituality. When a classmate inquired about the anchor’s meaning, I knew it was time to revisit reflections from the first two summers after I graduated from Michigan State…
My father had decamped. In the wake of my grandfather’s death, I rushed into his space to become man-of-the-house. I literally filled grandpa’s shoes: laced their tiny riggings, sailed through fields and woods of (now) grandma’s farm. I never ‘filled his shoes’ in the idiomatic sense because my mother needed none other than her departed father; a son was not enough. I could never channel grandpa’s voice but the impetus to speak his words hung limp on those shoes, while they dangled from my feet, as I swayed on the wooden seat of an old swing and looked into the sky: empty but for the merest wisps.
That day was so sunny, so filled with light, that shapes lingered on my retinas, like watercolor paintings on my closed eyelids. Faithful, faith-filled meditations tinted those weeks. To describe myself as strictly ‘Christian’ (now) would mislead readers but many ‘spiritual soundings’ in my life emerge from fragments embedded during my nominally Christian past. I had counseled at church camp, that summer, and afterward I meditated on a Pauline list of virtues called “fruits of the spirit”: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, & Self-Control. Far from sea, and an hour from a Great Lake, I shut my eyes and submerged in the trough of scents between gentle swells of hill. Love became the ubiquitous fragrance of sun-warmed hay, Joy the whiff of fabric softener from between the buttons of my shirt, and then Peace… (swaying…)
…like a pencil rubbing of a sunken ship’s bell, the archetype of an anchor bloomed in diffuse shades. I rubbed gently against ‘Peace’. Its impression came into focus and resolved into the hooking flukes, long shank, and cross-like stock of a sea-anchor. Swinging (swaying) at the ends two rusted chains, I closed my eyes and imagined sinking, sinking (swaying) to the sandy bottom: Peace. I was dating a lady who graduated from an obscure, Christian school called “Hope College” and their logo is an anchor. My youthful brain twisted the apparition into a kind of endorsement for that relationship, for an idea of ‘Hope’ that included her. It was more endearing than foolish: I wanted to build a foundation in Michigan with her. I wanted to be a man like my grandfather was or like I imagined my father should have been; swimming (swaying) between their dual-departures, I seized an idea of myself as strong.
I think too seldom about our red-flag ‘invitation’ from the Muskegon park authorities. She and I went to the beach, there, besieged by high-winds and semi-dangerous waves flung against the shore by Lake Michigan. In the chaos, once feeble eddies surged. Undercurrents, feelings, all manner of things that are stifled under the scrutiny of the sun were uncoiled like giant pythons. Despite more ‘suitable’ and dapper attempts to be attractive, when last I succeeded at romance it was as a half-naked, half-bearded outdoorsman following a woman into The Seething Lake. She wanted to swim. We were up to our wastes in cold, sloshing, foamy water as we laughed and charged through the surf. The rocking of the lake bent our knees, made us falter and fall — laughing. As we went deeper, she held onto me as the waves pawed at us (swaying) and I dug my feet into the sand, hard, to keep her from being washed away. I was an anchor. She held me tight. So tight.
But she was a fair-weather companion. Her behavior and god changed as the surf rose. Her Faith foundations were made from perfect, yet impossible, blocks. I am made of glacial till, myself, like the almost-round (but-never-quite-so) fieldstones unearthed by grandpa’s disc-plow each spring. I could not be so hewn, could not have perfect edges, and it did not matter to her the strength of my material, only that my life had shaped me imperfectly. Wave after wave filled my mental shadow-box with shards of calamity: another dying grandfather, a breached apartment, more family afflicted with cancer, and the unsteady employment many faced in the recession. In the midst of such frustration, Western Christian culture’s heavenward rhetoric could not buoy me, nor salvage our romance. The god I was trying so hard to love and trust became a nasty side-effect from a drug that never worked. This god was made of sugar-pill, cheap-ass, self-help books that my ex-girlfriend read — where was the real god? Was there ever one? The universe should have issued a recall.
I often remember the day she left my neighborhood for the last time, the scene so sublime. Her green Jeep crested my hill in Grand Rapids Michigan engulfed by the setting sun, like a canoe disappearing into a golden mist just before the waterfall; I never saw her again. I sprayed those books with old mosquito repellent and lit them like a ritual sacrifice. In the ashes of depression, I found a stillness.
The anchor I saw was Peace, not Hope. Peace is meant to nestle into my hull — my deepest self — and be ballast against the gales, a rocking mantra in heavy seas. Peace can plunge deep into the unknown of my self, into my darkest depths, and find a foundation. It needs no buoy. Peace has never been an absence of conflict any more than an anchor is a charm against storms. Importantly, Peace and anchors require some degree of learning. I would do well to tie a line from my anchor to the next fruit in the series: patience.
It would be a year before I saw an anchor again. In the intervening months, however, I was visited by The Mystery.