I’ve been following a “read the bible in a year” plan from Zoe Church in Los Angeles, a church that I started following on line during Covid, because that’s where my daughter, (who invited me to church in 2013 when I was so broken and then gave me the “God Songs” CD that I took on SHLEP with me), goes. They’re all young people there and I was certainly the oldest one in the place when my daughter invited me along in 2014. She has invited me to church several times in the past nine years, and I think this might be her calling, she apparently does this regularly. I found the worship quite inspiring, (if not a bit too loud), and as I gazed around the room at these youthful faces, the future of our planet, I thought, “There’s hope for this world after all. These Jesus loving kids can change the world.”
Anyway, I’ve been following this daily SOAP study plan since late last year. The pattern is to read from the Old Testament, then sometimes a psalm or proverb and then my favorite part, something from the New Testament. I haven’t really studied the Old Testament, except for a Beth Moore study on David. All the bloody battles, sacrificing innocent animals, sprinkling of blood, stoning people as punishment, plus the tolerance of bigamy and slavery, upsets me and reminds me of my Catholic roots, where shame played a big role in keeping us in line and fearing God meant actually being terrified of Him.
I’ve learned that these folks in the Old Testament were constantly building altars to the Lord, as reminders to them and their descendants, how God had invaded their personal life, how he’d saved them or spoke to them. I started thinking about what my altars would be, God has been so evident in my life the past 8 years since I was baptized, and I thought that I should build some altars too. I thought of piling stones around the perimeter of my property, a place that I’m sure God led me to and that I call “God’s Place”. I certainly have enough rocks here to do so, but I realized that even with a tractor, I’m just not capable of moving that many rocks and boulders, nor fitting them together properly. So, while not a stone mason, I am an artist. I’ll do this in the form of art, and this realization really set me on fire in the studio, something that I’ve been lacking lately.
I compiled a list of 18 altars for my life so far, although as I’m working on the pieces, I’m coming up with more to add. I am first sketching them with pastels, and since making up scenes is new to me as I’ve always worked from photos or real life, I’m finding it challenging. I google images, print some out and take photos of myself and then cut and paste them together to work from for the pastels. Then I’m painting them with acryllics on boards, (primed pieces of masonite board that I cut down from 8’x4′ sheets that I got at Home Depot), similar to the 12×12 studies that I did in the trailer while on SHLEP, except these are twice as big, 24×24.
I haven’t used my acryllics since SHLEP, and as I started these, I remembered how difficult transitioning to acryllics had been for me back then, since I’d previously only used oils. Acryllics dry almost immediately so I have to work much faster. Mixing colors is a bit different too, for instance the acryllic white is more transparent, and sometimes the color changes as it dries. But I’m plowing ahead and learning as I go. Learning is brain stimulating, helping ward off dementia I’ve heard, and besides, it’s fun. My plan is to finish this part of the series; 18 pastels and 18 acryllics, and then I’ll choose the most successful ones and do them over on much bigger canvases with oils. I’ll add them all here as I finish them.
There’s a story behind every one, which appear below after the images.
PS) There’s a few altars that involve my child, who asked me not to share the stories or images on the internet. I pray that one day he will see that inspiring those without hope, outweighs his desire for privacy.
I Need a Sign
In late 2016, a new friend, Marcy, called me and asked, “You wanna go visit Tehachapi for the weekend?” I’d never heard of it but said yes. We drove two hours north, passed through the guarded gatehouse, turned left and climbed Cumberland. As we crested it, we could see the entire valley bowl below us. It looked idyllic, with large tracts of land divied up into horse pastures, dotted with barns that were bigger than their accompanying homes. I got goose bumps and thought that God wanted me to move here.
We stayed in a tiny room with bunk beds in someone’s barn, a place that Marcy had found on VRBO. While there, the owner took us to see the local wild horse herd, run by a friendly caretaker and her husband. The herd was over 100 and they were all black, probably feral Morgans that had run off from a breeder that was one of the first white settlers here. She said that the next time we came, we should bring our horses and ride, that there’s over 50 miles of equestrian trails there. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven and said, “Well I could use a month long retreat to work on my book.”
I returned in February, when despite it raining or snowing most days and dipping down to 17 degrees, something I had experienced since I’d moved to California in 2000, I fell in love with the place. I looked on Zillow at properties and contacted a realtor, who told me of a ranch listing that wasn’t on the market yet. Marcy visited during my stay and accompanied me to check it out. While Marcy raved about the house having no stairs and a great kitchen and views from every room, I focused on the land and horse facilities. I had wanted land to let my horses run free for years now, I wanted to be able to look out the window and see them being free to live like horses are meant to, and there was 23 flat unspoiled meadow here, all I had to do was fence it. Later in the month, I rode Dreamy over to the back of the property and asked God for a sign, that I was a newbie and didn’t hear his voice clearly yet, that I needed something really obvious. A lavendar colored bird landed on a tall blade of grass right by Dreamy’s nose, and sang the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard and I got goose bumps. I bought the place with the inheritance that my awesome, generous dad left me and five months later, moved in. Waking that first morning and looking out the window I knew that I’d been blessed beyond my wildest dreams and I said, “This is surely God’s Place.”
I didn’t used to believe in miracles. I’d learned in Catechism that Jesus had performed miracles, but that was thousands of years ago. So when someone said it was miracle that such and such good thing had happened, I was skeptical and wrote them off as religious fanatics, it had just been good luck or good medical experts or a coincidence. Everything I learned about God was in Catechism and I don’t really remember much of it, except being very afraid of nuns, priests and God’s wrath and that practically anything you did you should feel guilty about. I’d been carrying some serious shame ever since I was 16, and I walked away from religion. I thought that God probably still existed, but I avoided thinking about these things, since I knew that he was going to just send me to hell eventually anyway. In my 30’s I went to Narcotics Anonymous for my cocaine addiction, and I struggled what to do with all the “higher power” things that showed up in the steps.
By the time I was 35, I’d gotten my life somewhat together and had become quite successful in the printing business, where I met a guy and we got engaged. Two weeks before the wedding, I was diagnosed with cancer and told I needed a hysterectomy. The doctor told me this over the phone, he actually said, “It’ carcinoma insitu.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Cancer, it’s got to come out.” I said, “What does?” He said, “Your uterus.” I said, “I’m getting married in two weeks” I promptly dropped the phone without saying good-bye and I ran into my woods, screaming “NO!” over and over and then dropping to my knees into a bed of dead leaves, something that I’d never done that before and was kind of shocked by, and I begged God to be able to have children, that i was so sorry, please forgive me. I then made a deal with Him, that I would raise my children in the Catholic church if he helped me out with this cancer problem.
We spent our honeymoon in the Palace Hotel, that was now called Trump Hotel, he was gobbling up prestigious NYC buildings then. But this wasn’t a vacation type honeymoon, which we did get around to doing eventually. I was busy getting second opinions, five before I was done when I saw Dr Barber, a Christian oncologist GYN in NYC who my mom insisted that I go to. Unlike all the others, he didn’t think my condition was life threatening yet, he told me to postpone the sugery for now and to get pregnant as soon as possible, which I did. I became a mom, three times over, a few years between each of them, and then I had the surgery. Dr Barber was correct, my cancer didn’t spread and I didn’t die. I called my three perfect babies, miracle babies, because Dr Barber told me that they were.
I Hear you
I woke one morning in great distress, life had really sucker punched me again. I was experiencing what they call chronic grief. As I lay there in this now familiar state of dispair, not having any hope, even though I knew I should, because I was a Christian, through my crying, I heard the audible words, “I hear you.” Clear as a bell. There was no tv, stereo or phone playing, I lived too far from neighbors to hear them, I lived alone on 23 acres with my animals, none of whom could talk, and I froze in the realization that I’d just heard God’s voice, something that I’d never really believed happened to anyone except thousands of years ago in the bible. And I was filled with Hope, I so needed this.
I took Dad to Christian Family Church a couple times but he wasn’t into it, saying that he thought Pastor Steve looked like a hippie and that churches prey on dying people to get a bequest in their wills. I was disappointed that he didn’t find some comfort in going to church, but it was very different than a Catholic Mass, so I understood. He continued battling his cancer but said he wasn’t going to do any heroics like fly to South America for a new treatment. I was beginning to think that chemo was possibly heroic but didn’t express that to him.
I prayed constantly while driving, walking on the beach and in bed. I listened to Christian Rock with earphones in my ears all day long. Then I took a baptism class. I didn’t talk to anyone about what I’d learned and what I was planning to do; it was too personal and private to me. I wanted to be washed of my lifetime of sins. I wanted to feel freedom. I wanted my shackling chains shattered. I was totally devoted to following Jesus and this was a declaration to God that I was 100% devoted to Him. I’d be born again. I’d get a do-over. I knew without any doubt that God had brought me through those awful years I’d lived with Bob; I couldn’t have survived if He hadn’t. He had a big plan for me and I was going to do it, whatever it was. I promised Him.
After service one day, Steve walked a group of about 20 of us, along with their family members, across the street to a church member’s pool. I didn’t talk to anyone else; I just watched as they huddled with their loved ones on the patio. Steve walked down the steps into the pool and shivered. “Chilly,” he pronounced. I’d never witnessed this type of baptism before. I watched as a long-haired young man covered in tattoos was baptized. Then a buxom woman in a skimpy bathing suit top was baptized, with her young child and boyfriend watching and cheering when she came back up to them.
When my turn came, I stepped into the cold water and stood alongside Steve. He asked me, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”
I said, “Yes, I do.”
He told me to hold onto his arm and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He leaned me backwards and I held my breath as I went under water.
I remembered getting dunked playing Crazy School with Dad. He played the role of a deranged swim instructor that dunked his students when they least expected it. Our entire neighborhood loved playing Crazy School, “Again, again!” we’d shout.
As I surfaced I physically felt a darkness leave my body and dissipate. I felt freed from the crippling shame that had dragged me down and made me feel worthless for so long. I was a child of God and He loved me just the way I was.
It was much more profound and powerful than I’d anticipated. I felt like I was glowing and, as I walked back to my truck, I thought it must be visible to others. I was on the right path now, the path that I had been asking God to show me for so long. I didn’t know where that path would take me or what was going to happen along the way, but He was by my side now and guiding my feet; he was going to take care of me forever and I’d see him face to face in Heaven one day.
I felt safe. I knew I wasn’t perfect. I’d fail again, but I’d try harder not to and God would forgive me. I thought about the sixty years I’d wasted and how much nicer life could have been if I’d found out the truth about God’s forgiveness and love when I was younger.
(an excerpt from SHLEP: Finding Healing on Horseback in the Lower 48 by me, this scene if from Florida)
Later that day Dave and Susan brought me along to their Bible study class. There were about 20 people seated around the tables arranged in a giant square, taking up the entire room. They were studying Revelation, which I knew nothing about. This was in the Bible? I’d never learned any of this in catechism, was I just a poor student? I tried to follow along with what they were talking about. I thought I’d like to read this alone when I could concentrate better, but I’d found the Bible very hard to understand. I needed an interpreter; didn’t the priest do that?
When the meeting ended, we all wandered out to the main hall for coffee and donuts. Susan introduced
me to her pastor. He softly put his hand on my upper arm and showed us into his office, I guess for privacy?
He asked me where I was from, how long I’d been away from home, was I new to having faith?
“Well, new to me, sort of. I was raised Catholic and God was all about fear and guilt back then.”
“Ahh, yes, I was raised Catholic as well. So true, such a shame.”
That was shocking.
“Your study on Revelation was interesting, I don’t know much about the Bible, I just got baptized last month.”
He hugged me like a child and patted my back. I was surprised and didn’t know how to react so I didn’t move.
He pulled back and looked me eye to eye. I felt vulnerable. He said, “Welcome.”
Welcome, like not just a formal thing someone says when you show up somewhere. I shivered. I felt it, deep in my soul. And it felt so safe and good.
(an excerpt from SHLEP: Finding Healing on Horseback in the Lower 48 by me, this scene is from Kansas)