Hail, holy Queen. Mother, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor abandoned children of Eve. To thee do we send up our cries, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
We say the rosary at the start of every vacation, mom with the circle of beads she keeps on her keychain, dad with the wooden string that dangles from his rearview mirror. Me with my fingers, because there's a rhythm in everything. This is our rhythm: The Apostle's creed, one Our Father, three Hail Mary's, one Glory Be, then five decades of ten Hail Mary's, one Our Father, one Glory Be and Hail Holy Queen. Because religion always ends with a plea to someone. No one worships for free.
These rosaries are competitions, dad quizzing us on which intentions are next. Sundays are the Glorious Mysteries, Fridays are Sorrowful. Those days are clear, but the rest are anyone's guess, and we do. The person to guess which mystery comes next leads that decade, a game and a test, like all games seem to me. There's a winner for everything and conversely, a loser for everything, too. I think too much, too slowly. So I'm usually left wondering, or wandering, and the two seem awfully similar to me.
Adults do this. They test us on everything from how to tie our shoes to who the president is, to our multiplication tables. Every question has an answer, and behind those are the shadows of a million wrongs. A multitude of ways we can disappoint each other, if were not careful. If we're not right. The world is an endless march of rights and wrongs with one shining pillar of Yes in the middle that everyone, all of us, is always trying to climb.
It glows so bright, it frightens me. I'm terrified of ideals, because I know none of us can ever reach high enough.
"And the next decade of the Joyful Mysteries is ..." My dad's face appears in the rearview, his eyebrows raised expectantly. I stammer out my answer, but I'm wrong, and I face the window as the rhythm of our voices comforts me. The four of us rise and fall like waves cresting over the road we travel, carrying us safely toward our destination like the rhythm, the yellow lines and the ever-pacing sun combine to make one incantation.
We're living a tenuous dance between desire and deprivation. As people, we want things. We're always chasing the next best, the buzz, the burn or the escape from both. But religion taught us to savor the hunger. The world is supposed to be a barren place, a place where every pleasure is a sin and every pain is one more point on our credit line for paradise. Prayer, that staticky call to heaven, is supposed to be our one pleasure. Those chanting hours on our aching knees, with incense drifting toward the ceiling like it carried our words with it, those are supposed to be our only joy. But it never felt that way, to me.
Once, as a toddler, I fell into the crack between my bed and the wall, cradled by my blankets from reaching the floor. I awoke from a terrifying dream to find myself stuck in my first taste of limbo, immobile and frightened. I cried and cried, sure I'd be stuck there forever, as primitive visions of fire and brimstone danced through my head. It was my first taste of what hell must feel like, stuck in a place of discomfort, crying for relief to deaf ears that would never come to my rescue. My dad did come, of course. After what felt like eternity, his strong arms lifted me out and he soothed me against his chest until my tears dried against his shirt. But I never forgot my first sense of hopeless dread, and that's the image that comes to me, save us from the fires of hell.
But hell and earth, our exile, sound to me to be much the same thing. Separated from our father, who art in heaven, kept away from the safety of his arms, seem one and the same and I wonder if we aren't in hell already. If maybe we aren't praying to stay out of hell, but to get rescued from that dark place between the bed and the wall where we're all stuck, crying for our father to rescue us from evil.
Parents share with their children the joys they were denied, but in doing so, often impose their own longings on their offspring. My father was one of five children, growing up in a two- bedroom house on a treelined street where the trees were the swing sets and lawns their playgrounds. He cultivated his imagination instead of his organized athletic abilities, his interest in library books instead of camp arts and crafts. There wasn't money for much, he told my brother and me sternly, although we'd never dare complain about the luxuries afforded us. He wasn't able to go to summer camp or soccer practice, and certainly didn't get music lessons.
My brother and I were enrolled in piano lessons before we started school. The books taught us the notes by numbers. Assuming we could count to seven, we could play, the author reasoned. I remember the floppy pages and the washed-out watercolor illustrations through squinted, watering eyes because more often than not, piano practice was a punishment.
"Go practice for 15 minutes," I remember mom yelling, when I smacked my brother for stealing a toy of mine, or teased him until he smacked me back. I sat on the piano bench, crying tears of indignation, staring at the page until I wanted to tear it up with my fury. But I knew better.
"Piano lessons are a privilege," dad said, if we ever complained about sitting inside our teacher's stuffy house on a perfect summer day. It smelled like cats and stale tea, the curtains yellow with age and the cigarettes she swore she didn't smoke, although her voice creaked with nicotine. "Do you know how many kids would give their left arm to play the piano?"
"Be hard to play without it," my brother whispered. I giggled under my dad's stern gaze and just like that, fifteen more minutes of practice time for me, young lady.
Dad meant to share something he never had the chance to do himself, but his joy became our penance. Children are not, by nature, empathetic creatures. They live in the here and now,
entirely absorbed by their own wants, needs and small injustices. I remember sitting on that bench, my legs swinging inches above the pedals, with my arms crossed defiantly in front of the keys. I glared at the ivories like little rotten teeth that would tear out my fingers if I dared plunk a single note. My mother would threaten and finally, cajole, to get me to spend my practice time the way it was intended. The penalties for failing a lesson were worse, after all. But I couldn't see that far in advance; couldn't project my own sense of injustice even a week down the line.
"It's good for you. You'll see," she'd say, when I whined about hating the piano. "You'll be thankful when you're older."
But I wasn't. The second I was allowed, I stopped playing piano, abandoning it for an instrument that could torture my parents as they forced me to play: The violin. The only thing worse than a beginning violin player sawing away is a cat being slowly murdered in the living room, and most days, I think they preferred the cat.
I still can't play the piano. I know the notes and can read the score, but my fingers won't cooperate on the keys they hated so much in my childhood. And my mom was right, to some extent. I didn't see the value then, but now that I understand what my father meant, I've wasted all his good intentions.
Praying for heaven seems the same, sometimes. The priest tells us there's something better, that our reward is waiting just beyond the pearly gates. But denying ourselves the pleasures we have, in anticipation of hazy uncertainty goes against our baser instincts, and at our core, we're momentary creatures.
Lead us not into temptation, except we need no impetus to go. I think of that, every time I commit some unforgivable sin, at least once a day or more, and my mind is that petulant child, staring at a watercolor of a little girl and her dog as if her eyes can burn holes through the page. I can't see past my earthly desire to the wonders above, and if I could, I wonder if they'd be worth it. If I'd choose a bird in the hand, because the now means more to me than forever and I'd rather spend the life I've got in ecstasy than bet on one as incomprehensible as the sky.
Lizz Schumer is a writer, journalist, photographer, and artist living and working in Buffalo, N.Y . Her work often focuses on the interstices between the personal and universal experiences as manifested within our shared and individual cultural context. "Rosary" is a meditation on the effect of parents' upbringing on the way they raise their own children, including the religious inclinations and how those may be perceived by a child. Lizz's first book, Buffalo Steel came out in 2013, and her work has also appeared in Minerva Rising, Manifest-Station, Salon.com, The Cronium Review, Connotation Press, The Rampalian, LYR, Breath & Shadow, Wordgathering, XOJane and many others. She can be found online at lizzschumer.com, @eschumer on twitter, @lizzschumer on Instagram and Facebook.com/authorlizzschumer.