Many years ago when I was a boy, I began to wonder about God. My mom said she believed and I guess she did. But it was half-assed by most standards. Our church attendance was sporadic. My prayers all involved me asking for things that came from Kmart or maybe Kiddie City. The thing I thought most, whenever I thought of a supreme being, was being watched.
He is watching my every move, I’d tell myself. And yet, in times of trouble or in times of need, it wasn’t like he sent some solid assistance my way or anything. If I went down on my BMX bike in a skid of loose gravel and glass bits and cigarette butts and dog piss, no rescuer came rushing out of the town ether to help me up, gauze the gash. It was as if I was being watched by an all-seeing eye who basically either kind of enjoyed watching his creations getting banged up by life, or he just plain didn’t give a country fart what the hell happened to us.
Maybe he watched me because he was trying simply to decide if he wanted to kill me or not.
Whatever the reason, from a young age, I began to wonder. Life came at me hard and fast. Nothing was ever easy. Born into absolutely nothing but a pair of dirty sneakers and some cold slaps of up-the-block pizza, I soon found out that being alive wasn’t always some kind of big blessing like people like to pretend it is.
People always seemed dumb to me. Like, not that smart and also sort of gross.
The more I sat in the pews at church on occasion, or in the bleachers at the football game, or the more I stood standing up at the deli waiting for my cheesesteak to be ready on hot summer days in the early 1980’s — when all I really stood for was: riding my bike fast down the 9th Ave. hill and not dying/ eating shit food that tasted good/ baseball cards/ playing baseball/ whacking off in the bathroom when my mom was at work/ listening to Springsteen and Mellencamp and Genesis and Hank Williams Jr/ and sleeping in my bunk bed beneath my brother, who was better than me on the guitar but who could not beat me with his fists: the purest, most genuine reasons for living anyone could ever muster up: the more I began to feel down in my bones that everything was kind of hogwash.
And that almost everyone in my town, and in all the towns down the road that I had seen so far in my 13 years, they were all super fucked up in the head.
It never ends if you let it.
The church. The god. The nation state. The government. The loot. The laws. The crimes. The lessons. The voices. The system. The opposition. Them. Us. You. It. Look at them all. One filter after another that started coming down onto your opening scene the precise moment you were born. Your new fresh eyes saw a pure and natural thing called life for a split second there. You recognized it as light and oxygen and motion and instantly you fell in love with the idea of staying here/ of sticking around if at all possible to experience the sensations of being alive. Alive, you wanted, in a world in which you will remain but for an instant, comparatively, before you vanish, ultimately, into some unknowable ether that operates beyond the very filters that also blocked out the one true sun for your Mom and Dad on their very first days as well.
It never ends, I say to myself.
It never ends, I’m telling you.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
— Douglas Adams
For a couple of years I was an acolyte at my church where I grew up. Being an acolyte in the Protestant Church was pretty much the same as being an altar boy in the Catholic Church as far as I can tell. Except no one ever tried to rub their old grey nuts on me in the name of Jesus.
Aside from that it was the old drill. Walk down the aisle like you are important. Go left when the pastor goes right. Light the candles in order the way you were told. Blah, blah, blah. I fucking hated it. I guess I was doing it for my mom, but I don’t know why.
I think a lot of people end up all smeared in religion because they feel like they have to do it for their parents. From the very beginning, of course, God People want to convince their own kids that God is real and God is wonderful and God will help you and one day you will die and God will bring you to his paradise and he will let you reunite with all the people you want to reunite with and that will be that.
You will live on forever in the kingdom of eternal joy.
All because… I don’t know… what?
Because your parents said so? Because your parents know what’s up?
I used to sit up there in the special pews raised above the rest of the congregation and I would look down and see the people sitting out there and I would wonder how soon it was after they were born that their own folks had started talking so much God to them.
I would see Mrs. Heffentreyer, the sweetest elderly lady, always smiling, always watching the pastor with such interest and I would always wonder why she was so convinced that this bald, serious man with a long sharp nose and a tight condescending air about him was her direct pipeline to Heaven. It was too easy, too convenient in a way, as much cancelation of mystery as any freshly dead old woman could ever hope to discover. Special Angel, that was the promise. Do what I tell you and you will be one of God’s Special Angels. Alongside pretty much everyone else who had ever lived and died.
In my bed at night, I would sometimes pray and I would feel nice about it too. I’d talk to God and ask him to make me like Superman (Christopher Reeve before the wheelchair). Sometimes if my brother wasn’t in bed yet, I would say these prayers out loud in my McDonald’s cheeseburger breath. Tiny raw onion cloudlettes popping at my lips/ the taste of those beautiful thin pickles on the wind rising up from my guts.
God, I would say, gently, so he knew I was asking for something but also so that he understood that I wasn’t one of these conmen like everyone else. I was aware that I wasn’t the only one trying to get in on that hot praying action and so I was hungry to let God know that I was good for my end of the bargain.
God, if you turn me into, like, a Superman guy, I will never call my mom a fat shit behind her back ever again.
That was the level of bargaining I was throwing down. In exchange for not talking ultra trash on my own mother, a crime which could arguably be grounds for Hell, I was only asking for an array of superpowers to be zapped into my porky boy boobs body. Then, once the deal was done, I wouldn’t have to say anything nasty about my mom whenever I was pissed at her for whatever stupid reason I could come up with, because I could FLY RIGHT TROUGH THE LIVING ROOM WALL anytime I wanted to.
In the middle of watching Real People, if she was like, ‘No, Serge, you don’t need another bowl of Heavenly Hash! It’s almost time for bed!, then I could be like: Oh yeah?! Well, how about this right here, Mom?! And then I could just soar up through the ceiling and then right through the upstairs bedroom ceiling and then up through the attic ceiling and out into the Sunday evening sky, plaster and dust raining down onto her sitting there in her nightgown in the only recliner we had/ the grey one with the fake wood shifter bar that could take you back into Recline Nation.
I mean, that’s kind of all of it for me. The prayer thing. I know. I know that’s weird. I know you are supposed to pray for good things to happen to other people and all. Like sick people, you could try to get them better. But then again, why would God even care about you asking for that, you know? I was always wondering about these little holes in the stories that everyone was being told. They add up, and kind of quickly if you think about it.
Superman powers. Heal the unwell. Take so-and-so’s brother-in-law’s skull and smash it the fuck to smithereens on the curb outside the tap room because that dirty SOB owes me $1000 and he’s still out there gambling on football and winning and never paying me back. Peace on Earth. A bike for Christmas. I want that dark haired nightshift chick at 7-11 to jump my meat.
Make my mom see again?
Help me get into community college?
Stop this guy from raping me every damn night?
Praying began to smell like burning toast to me a long, long time ago.
I just did it because everyone else was doing it.
I just did it because what did I have to lose?
I never became Superman.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I became the opposite.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.