It’s Christmas Eve, 2006. I’m in Newcastle, spending Christmas with my family. In Newcastle the air is cool even in summer and it feels rich with magic, the way air can only feel in December. My mother asks me if I want to go to Mass. My grandmother wants to go, she says, and to be honest so does she. Midnight Mass is something foreign to me; something I vaguely know to be a Thing Other People Do, an idea cobbled together from our annual television screenings of Home Alone, from conversations at school with people I don’t know very well.
I have not been raised with any thought to religion, aside from a pathetic go of it the two years my military family spent in a cotton-farming town in the middle of Queensland, where the only good school was Catholic. Neither my brother nor I have been christened, and I know my parents only have been because my mother was supposed to die as a baby and the hospital had insisted, and because my father’s grandparents had been aggressively Catholic in that way only the Irish can be. Up until tonight, it has never occurred to me that either my mother or my grandmother would go to church voluntarily.
(Once, later, sitting at a Donut King reading trashy magazines with my mother, it occurred to me to ask her whether she believed in God. It seemed the sort of thing a person in their early-to-mid twenties should know about their mother. “I suppose so,” she said hesitantly. “I mean – yes, I do. I believe in something.” She thought my father believed in God, too, in his own way. “He was in his church choir when he was a boy,” she told me and I didn’t think that had anything to do with anything but figured they’d been married long enough that she had a better idea about it than I did. Many months later, in a coffee shop, I repeated this conversation to my father. He’d laughed and said my mother didn’t know what she was talking about.)
In the church in Newcastle, I feel awkward – I don’t know any of the rituals; don’t know any of the hymns. The two years of school services in that small country town were more than a decade behind me. In my teens I had sporadically attended a youth group and been subjected to the occasional sermon; it had seemed a small price to pay for pizza parties and nights at the ice skating rink with the boy I had a crush on, and I had mostly managed to tune them out.
More than awkwardness, though, in a small church in Newcastle wedged on a wooden bench between my mother and grandmother, what I feel is awe. Partaking in a ritual older than I can fathom, in a beautiful building made sacred only by communal belief, it is easy to believe in magic. Not for the first time in my life, I am struck by the feeling that the words of the bible are actually poetry.
It is a feeling I’ve always been vaguely embarrassed of. Most of my friends are staunch atheists – not the sort to wax lyrical about a book whose followers, in their minds, bring about more harm than good – and I don’t know how to express myself to those few friends who aren’t atheists for fear of sounding blasphemous. At school we were all handed pocket bibles, and I’d read mine the same way I read any book that entered my hands then, like Oliver Twist might consume gruel: devouringly. I had fallen in love with particular passages and would recite them out loud to myself in my bedroom, like a spell. Still, poetry was all it had been and all it would ever be; as magical as I feel the Lord’s word to be, I can’t give myself up to His teachings. The Ten Commandments are pretty good rules, for the most part, but you don’t need God to tell you that stealing or murdering are pretty shit things to do just in general.
Tonight, in a church in Newcastle on Christmas Eve, I feel as though I am surrounded by something bigger than myself; something that I am not a part of. I feel alone and empty.
“You are better than the demons whispering in your cheeks. You are better than the demons whispering in your cheeks. You are better.”
It’s May 2014 and I’m in a church again. It’s the sort of year where cold sores sprout on my face from the sheer stress of being alive; the sort of year where everything feels too hard. The sort of year where instead of frustration when my counsellor cancels on me I am overjoyed that today I do not have to put on pants, do not have to leave the house. Overnight, I have become the sort of person who can’t look at herself in the mirror. I need something, but I have no way of knowing what.
Tonight I am in a church. I have put on pants, and I am here in a church not to listen to the word of the Lord but instead to listen to poetry. An American poet, Derrick Brown is here for a Going Down Swinging show, but I have no idea who he is. I am here to listen to my friend and fellow Scum editor, Jess Alice. Afterwards my friends and I will go out for cheap veggie burgers and eat them by the river.
Jess performs, and she is wonderful, and then there is a man who is definitely American standing in a sort of ship. (It’s a church for seafarers, they say.) “Are you ready to set sail?” he asks. Suddenly, I am. Suddenly, I am not just in a church but in church, like all those other times in church, yearning for connection, feeling holy in a way unfamiliar to me, feeling the poetry shake the walls. Now, though, there’s no guilt attached. Nobody tries to sell me anything I am unable to buy. I allow myself to enjoy, fully, the sense of belonging that washes over my body, because tonight it is a community I belong to. Tonight the poetry is for my people, and I wish that this church was located somewhere in Newcastle, a church I could slip into come Christmas Eve, but I know that it isn’t, and I wonder why not.
“There are so many times I’m thinking of, when I’ve been in church, bored out of my mind, wishing that someone would take over, and make it fun, and make it spirited, and… I think maybe this is a kind of church… and maybe my favourite kind,” says Derrick Brown, and I do not feel alone or empty.
The feeling of holiness doesn’t dissipate as we flock out into the cold Melbourne night in search of burgers. I find myself repeating, over and over: I wish this were a place I could go every Sunday. I know that it isn’t.
It’s September, and Going Down Swinging releases a recording of the night. I download it. I instruct my beautiful friend, currently in hospital and enduring more than a person should have to, to follow suit, remembering all the nights I have spent in hospital myself: lonely, crying myself to sleep, wishing there were a kind of hospital pastor or chaplain who catered to heathens, or pagans, or poets.
I know that these words are what I could have used, then. I listen to the entire album in my kitchen, eating Pop Tarts and trying to figure out how to harness a feeling that seems to resist harnessing, inherently. I listen in bed, under the covers, playing the recording to someone over Skype, hoping that they understand what I am trying to tell them.
“I believe in magic,” Derrick Brown tells me, and so do I.
Sian Campbell is a freelance writer and one of the founding editors of Scum Mag. Find her work in Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow and Junkee.