(This was originally published on 20 April 2004)
Certain songs have become to me, at certain times in my life, like anthems. Know what I mean? Like a song was written just for me at that exact time in my life, expressing just what I was feeling or going through, giving voice to things I hadn't quite put into words yet myself.
Recently I went through a period where These Days by Nico seemed to match my circumstances perfectly. Before that, things weren't all that much better, and Gordon Lightfoot's In the Early Mornin' Rain was the one that seemed closest to what was going on inside me.
But let me take you back a few years before that. It was a time in my life when nothing was as it first appeared. Everything was changing for me. All the things I once took for granted were now being questioned, and the world I had been living in for several years was beginning to crumble. It was the beginning of my break with fundamentalist, conservative Christianity. And the words that summed up the process for me were from the song MacArthur Park. If you know it, you'll also probably be of the opinion that the lyrics are crass, confusing and fairly artless. Actually, I totally agree. What's more, it was made a hit by a guy who, frankly, couldn't sing a damn note (the late actor Richard Harris). Still, something in the chorus totally resonated with me:
MacArthur Park is melting in the dark,
All the sweet, green icing flowing down.
Someone left the cake out in the rain.
I don't think that I can take it,
'Cause it took so long to bake it,
And I'll never have that recipe again,
Don't ask me what MacArthur Park is or was, because I don't have a clue. Don't ask me either why the "park" metaphor suddenly becomes a "cake" metaphor, because I don't know about that either. All I know is that at that period in my life I couldn't have put it any better myself: The icing was falling off the cake for me, and I'd spent so long baking it, I was shit-scared I wasn't going to put it all back together again.
Put in plainer terms, I had grown up in a certain type of charismatic, fundamentalist Christianity, it had become my life, and now everything that seemed so real and unquestionable was starting to lookfalse. Let me throw in another metaphor: Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall, and it didn't look like even all the King's horses and all the King's men had a hope in hell of putting him back together again. I was scared. I was feeling like a stranger in a foreign land. I'd spent so many years learning the recipe and baking the cake, and it looked like it was all going down the pan with no hope of retrieval. (Forgive the mixed metaphors. I'm on a roll here.)
Some of you identify with that feeling, perhaps. The journey away from fundamentalism has been a scary one, and maybe the most terrifying thing is that after so long putting that world together bit by bit, you've lost the recipe and can't find it again. Well, here's what I want to say to anyone who's scared they lost the recipe and aren't going to get it back: That's the whole point. For years they told us there was a recipe. For years Christianity was presented to us in the form of strategies and technologies for spiritual success: Do this, do that, jump up and down and through the hoop, and you'll be acceptable. For a long time someone convinced us that there was a formula we had to follow, a long list of ingredients and instructions we had to get right to build our perfect, holy and acceptable-to-God religious world.
For a long time, even after I had given up on fundamentalism and conservative Christianity for good, I still had this feeling that I had to get the recipe right. I mean, I had got rid of this and that belief, dispatched of this and that doctrine, and for a while I had this worry that I needed an alternative to replace them. Now I think, Hold it there: Who says I have to have the recipe figured out? Who says I can't just say, "Don't know"? Who said I had to have everything sussed?
I know it's painful moving on. It's not easy, even when we know it's the right thing to do, to leave behind things we gave our life to. And it's a scary path, that's for sure. But it's a while since the icing melted on my religious cake now, and I have a peace about where I am, a peace I doubted I would have when I was watching all that sweet, green icing flowing down and wondering how I was ever going to get it back. And if things started to change again, I doubt it would be that same scary process, because the path I'm on now is an adventure in faith, where no turn the road might take is worth being scared of.
I think I've probably said more than I wanted to say, and probably not in as articulate a manner as I wanted to say it. (There's always the "edit" button for anal-retentives like me.) I just wanted to give hope to anyone whose cake is melting at the moment. No one decreed you needed a recipe -- that fiction was part of your old world. Don't sweat it.