Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Brush With Eternal Damnation: A Fib-Free Mini-Memoir

Tired of discovering that a memoir you read and enjoyed and perhaps were inspired by is more fiction than fact? Me, too. And so I've decided to try my hand at the genre. Here, then, is a fib-free mini-memoir... on fibbing. It is the harrowing story of an untruth that quickly grew into such a pack of heinous lies that my very soul was dangling, Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an-Angry-God-style, above the fiery pit of hell.

I was nine years old.

Here's the situation. I had been in training for several weeks to make my First Confession with my third-grade class at St. Luke's school in Lakewood, Ohio. First Confessions are a watershed event in every Catholic's life, and the nuns had been running us hard: making sure we had memorized the Act of Contrition, suggesting potential sins to confess (mainly lies and disobedience; impure thoughts and acts came a few years later), and warning us, above all else, to make sure we didn't make a Bad Confession.

A Bad Confession is one in which you knowingly lie, omit mentioning a sin, or confess your sins but aren't really and truly cross-your-heart sorry. A Bad Confession is a sin that transcends the rather pedestrian venial sins of, say, kicking your sister or making faces at your parents' backs. It is, in fact, a Mortal sin. If one dies with an unconfessed and, therefore, unforgiven Mortal sin on one's soul, the afterlife options available are extremely limited. Heaven is out of the question. Purgatory is reserved for those doing time for venial sins. Limbo only accommodates unbaptized babies. One option is left: the place Sister Jerome spelled with double hockey sticks.

About a week before I was scheduled to make my First Confession, one of my brown-nosing older brothers announced to my mother that he was going to confession and, oh, too bad Jimmy can't go because he hasn't made his First Confession yet. Now, if you're the near-middle child in a family of seven boys and two girls, you may have a teeny tiny propensity toward competitiveness. I recognized a challenge when I heard it. I immediately spoke up and said that I had, in fact, already made my First Confession (Venial Sin #1: Lie) and that I would go with him. I believe I also called him a butt-face (Venial Sin #2: Uncharitable name-calling).

I went in the confessional, got on my knees, and when the Priest slid back the screen separating my crew-cut head from his, said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my last confession." I then proceeded to tell him that I had lied five times and was disobedient five times. The priest assigned me my penance--five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys--and sent me on my (still sinful) way.

If you're keeping track, the tally at that point was more than a few venial sins and, thanks to ensuring that my First Confession was a Bad Confession, one whopping, ticket-to-hell Mortal sin.

I tried to rectify the situation a week later, when I made my official "First Confession" with my class. But when I said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it's been one week since my last confession," the priest stopped me. "Isn't this your First Confession?" he asked.

Having a priest actually ask you questions while you're kneeling in a dark confessional at the age of nine is terrifying beyond words. I started to explain that a week earlier I had lied to my older brother about making my First Confession when the priest stopped me. "Then you should just confess a lie," he said. He had misunderstood. I knew that. God knew that. My duty at that point was to set him straight, to explain the situation more clearly so that I could make a good confession and be free of the black spot of damnation that had been staining my soul for a week. But all I said was, "Yes, Father."

The tally now: A mountain of venial sins and TWO bad confessions. The next possible opportunity for me to expunge my soul would be in a week. It was the longest week of my life. On my way home from school, I was especially careful when crossing the street. At home, I couldn't tease my sister, much less hit her. Any slip up--uttering a swear word, for example, or even the thought of uttering a swear word--and I was doomed.

And so it was with great relief that I was able to make it into the confessional alive the following week. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my First Confession." So far so good. I saw the silhouette of the priest's head nod encouragingly. I decided to get to the really bad news first. "I have made two Bad Confessions," I said. The priest stopped me. "Didn't you just say you made your First Confession a week ago? How could you have made two Bad Confessions?"

This was like having the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost yelling at me as one. But there was no way I was leaving that dark and dank confessional with three Mortal sins weighing down my soul, so I started at the beginning. After awhile, the priest held his hand up. "Son, I can tell you are truly sorry for all your sins, and in Jesus's name, I forgive you of your sins. I repeat: all of them." I'm not sure, but I think I heard him chuckling as I closed the door to the confessional, free at last.

I hope this serves as a lesson to any memoirist tempted by the riches of this world to travel along the dangerous path of exaggeration and fabrication. It is not worth it. Honest to God.

Memoir update: My brother is still a butt-face.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reading for the Writing

It happened again today. A friend mentioned the title of a novel I'd read recently.

"Did you enjoy it?" he asked.
"Very much," I replied. And I had.
"What's it about?" he asked.

And that's when it happened. Even though I had read the book less than two months ago, I wasn't able to provide much more information other than the uninteresting and unhelpful fact that I'd enjoyed it. Plot? I might have been able to scare up a sentence or two. Names of the main characters? Gone. 

Certainly every novel needs a plot, with interesting characters developed in memorable ways. When it all works together well, it's like a wonderful symphonic piece. But what I remember most about reading a good novel is the experience of it: the author's word choice, the variety a rhythm of the sentences, the emotional impact evoked from what is written and, importantly, left unwritten.

Do you suffer from forgot-the-plot syndrome?