Church has never really been my scene. At least not “Church” of the Tuck In Your Shirt, Be Quiet, Now Kneel Now Stand Now Sit Now Kneel variety. Not that I’m against sharing wine and bread as a way to pass the time on a Sunday afternoon, you understand, but I’m gonna want a lot more than one sip, and probably some cheese.
It’s not like I didn’t give it a chance. I rode my bike to church like six Sundays straight when I was in college. Mostly because I had the major hots for Father Greg. He’s handsome and there’s donuts? Try and stop me. Like every other gay boy who ever saw The Thorn Birds, I even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. Of living in Rome and talking in Latin; of sharing an ivy-shaded stone dormitory with other mild-mannered, bespectacled youths. Well, you know, mild-mannered until lights out, when they would naturally drop their black robes to the floor in a puddle and let the moonlight trickle down the ridges and pool in the curves of their milk-fed, muscled bodies. Farm-raised bodies from across the world, in every hue of brown, of gold, of pert-bottomed pink… It was Passion that drew me to the priesthood alright, but not one for going to church.
I certainly believe in the Wonders of the Universe, and have seen too many blossoming cherry trees, spewing volcanoes, and giggling babies not to believe that a Creative Force is hard at work in the world. I’ve just never been convinced that the best way to glorify this Force and to celebrate these Wonders was to gather inside a boring old building once a week and struggle to stay awake through Reverend Lovejoy’s lecture on Constancy, sweet constancy.
Not that all churches are boring, of course. Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia, while not the most interesting of his Barcelona buildings, is certainly eye-catching, and La Sainte-Chapelle is widely renowned as one of the jewels of Paris (if one of her fakes, seeing as how it’s mostly glass…). And then, of course, there’s Powell’s City of Books.
OK, technically Powell’s is more of a “bookstore” than a church, but visiting it is the closest I know how to come to having a religious experience indoors. And it’s church-like. It has high ceilings and lots of windows, anyway, and they usually ask you for money. Or maybe it’s more about the sense of community. Of coming together with your (rhetorical, if you don’t live in Portland) neighbors to exalt and worship. Words, in this case; faithful readers gather to celebrate and to learn at the feet of countless writers who have been assembled to share and to teach.
When we went to church growing up, there was usually only one way to do It right. It was the Catholic Way or the Highway, and if you didn’t want to end up in Hell with all your Jewish friends, you’d do as you were told (and feel guilty about it, too!). But at Powell’s, there are no rules (except about standing in line to buy your books). There are no limits around how ideas are expressed. Writers talk about love in ancient Persian poetry and in dishy celebrity tell-alls; about fear in books about Guatemala’s Disappeared and right-wing American politics. There are stories about self-discovery in the Travel section as well as in Gay and Lesbian Fiction, explorations of beauty in Nature, Art, Fashion, and Self Help. Some ideas are brand new and hard-bound, others well-worn and widely shared, but the sheer volume of books is itself wildly inspirational. This many people have such belief in the stories inside and around them that they put pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard, or quill to parchment, or tape-recorded voice to opportunistic biographer — and poured them out, damn the consequences. In a way that I’ve never felt any god’s presence inside any church, I do feel the passion, the courage, the insane ravings of the storyteller in the air in Powell’s.
I can’t pass up an opportunity to go there. I never know when I’m going to get to Portland again, for one thing. And of course I love to buy books as much as I love to stand around and look at them, we’ll give wanton capitalism its little plug here. But the real tug — the reason I yearn to be in this bookstore to the extent that I’ll go out in the pouring down rain in a pair of flip flops with holes in the soles — is it’s the one place — physical place, I mean; my friends and my partner give me this on a regular basis because they are wonderful, but I mean a place that someone used a shovel and got all sweaty trying to build — where I consistently hear the Universe whisper in my ear, You can do this.
And as mild-mannered, bespectacled youths go, I’d take a pudge-bellied peruser of the purple room at Powell’s over the captain of the Vatican water polo team any day. There’s that.