Blessed Saturday and the Anti-Apocalypse

It has been said that the fundamental weakness of journalism is its tendency to distort reality by focusing exclusively on those precious few things which actually do happen, as opposed to all the zillions of things that do not. This tends to result, often, in a skewed social conception of just how often Big Things (think murders, floods, lottery hauls and disasters of great magnitude) actually occur.
Mostly, really, life is a whole lot of nothing much. If you stop and think about it, for most of us, sensation and intrigue come in pitifully short shrift. The measure of our days is mostly pacing and puttering and watch gazing and laundry folding. It’s tuna sandwiches and static cling and half-smiles and letters that get lost in the mail.
Not today! Today, May 21, 2011, Nothing took its rightful place in the annals of public memory. Today, the Anti-Event To End All Anti-Events enjoyed its moment in the sun.
As a journalist myself, I am tempted to ask: how does one report on the failure of the world to end, as predicted by a noisy and (arguably) fringy contingent of the Christian population and as ridiculed by just about everyone else, including those who fully subscribe to the inevitability of an Apocalypse, well, someday.
Judging by the output of my news-reporting brethren across the globe, you toss out a few puns, or you compose high-minded commentary that is the journalistic equivalent of an indulgent chuckle, a you-must-be-joking shoulder punch.
But that’s a boring question anyway.
Much more interesting: how does one conduct oneself in the face of a looming oblivion?
I’ve often said that if through some improbable turn of events I was able to know in advance that I had an hour to live, I’d buy a pack of cigarettes and a big ol’ plastic tub of deli macaroni and cheese (because they are both SO BAD BY WHICH I MEAN SO GOOD, and because out of a desire to prolong my life and shrink my ass I’ve sworn off these two principle vices) and I’d park my butt on a curb somewhere I’d smoke and I’d eat and that’d be about it.
But in truth, my trial-run apocalypse went more like this:
After dreaming all night of flying and skydiving, I awoke late, at my grandmother’s house, and went for a run. I ate a bowl of Reese’s Puffs. I filled a prescription at Fred Meyers and drank a bottle of fermented tea. I bought a tumbler.
As the morning passed, I found myself pondering a bumper sticker slogan that had enjoyed brief and widespread prominence in the early ‘90s: “Jesus is coming – look busy.”
It seemed like solid advice. And what better place to feign spiritual busy-ness than within the hallowed walls of a church? It’s been more than a decade since I’ve counted myself among the faithful. (And it was a Spectacular Departure, let me tell you. But not here. Somewhere else, I promise.) I do, however, recognize that choosing to accept or reject the premise of God constitutes a wager of a kind, perhaps the biggest wager any of us will ever make, depending how the cards fall.
And, like any gambler, I recognize the wisdom in hedging bets, so when my grandma invited me to go with her to church today, I did.
To be precise, it wasn’t a mass we attended, but rather a funeral, accompanied by a mass. It was for a relative I hadn’t known well, a woman named Lovey. She’d been a cousin of mine, but only by the loose and generous terms that tend to link up all Middle Eastern people who do their living and their dying in close proximity to each other.
The last time I’d seen her was the fall of 1993, when my grandmother and I went to her house for dinner. She served us pot roast, I recalled, of which I’d eaten four helpings. I hadn’t particularly wanted the last two of these, but Lovey, legendary for her hospitality, wouldn’t stop offering and insisting, and it seemed indecorous to refuse.
“Bless her heart,” she’d murmured admiringly to my grandmother as I shoveled down the final agonizing bite. “Just bless her heart.”
When it became clear that she was going to die, Lovey had requested a “traditional funeral,” which at our family’s Maronite Catholic church translated to heaping helpings of Arabic and Aramaic, long intervals of standing and chanting, and a glut of burning frankincense that, when lit, hits the back of the throat with all the choke and kick of a finely ground chili powder tossed to open flame.
I shifted in my cowboy boots and considered the iconography around me as the afternoon wore on. I imagined the stained glass windows quivering and then shattering as the saints stepped from the oversized tableaux hanging behind the altar to take the hands of the faithful and lead them in a winding parade upward. I knew the chances of me being offered a place in that heaven-bound train was scant, but perhaps my mere presence in a church would spare me a painful smiting. All things being equal, it had to at least count for something! I mean, I could have been at a bus stop or a strip club or a casino or something, right? If Jesus was, indeed, on his way, no way was I getting caught somewhere remotely sleazy.
After mass, we congregated in the church’s drafty basement for a traditional Lebanese wake – lots of cheek pinching and eating, gallons of watery coffee tempered with instant creamer. More prayers and supplications, then out with the platters of grape leaves and tabouli as stoop-shouldered patriarchs worked the crowd.
Shivering in that old hall, I supped on a plate of hummus and baba ganoush and considered how I might best spend my (perhaps) last three hours of existence. The mere thought exhausted me. I felt crabby and tired, as I often do after funerals.
So I rounded up the members of our motley carpool, I steered my grandmother’s Buick back to her house and I laid down in my mother’s bed for a nap.
When evening fell, I arose and drank a Diet Coke out on the back porch. The air smelled nothing short of glory-filled, so sweet and luscious I wanted to eat it, fill my insides with it. I gulped it like a starving man. In the park beyond, a baseball game was in full swing. I watched two kindergarteners chase each other around one of those old-fashioned giant Gatorade dispenser thingys. I eyed the horizon warily as a few teenagers passing by cracked jokes about UFOs. I pondered choices I’d made, and would make. And I sensed, instinctively, on faith if you’ll indulge me, that they’d been the right ones.
At 6 p.m., a breeze kicked up. I stood and went back inside. I looked at my grandmother, who sat dozing on the flowered davenport, still dressed entirely in black. A woman of great faith who could surely count herself among the chosen if the appointed hour ever came. I would not be joining her, and we both knew it, but whatever would or would not happen in the seconds and eternities to come, we were still here, together, right now.
“I’m hungry,” I announced.
She rubbed her eyes.
“How about Elmer’s? Do waffles sound good?” she asked.
I nodded and picked up the car keys off the counter.
Waffles sounded good indeed. Blessedly, blessedly so.