|First Church of Christ Scientist, Boston|
Sunday, January 27, 2019
“The material world simply doesn’t exist, Norman,” Aunt Mayme was telling Whitie (whose given name was Norman). “Illness is an illusion.” And I could already see Whitie’s neck going red with irritation. He was a decorated World War II vet. He knew damn well that the physical world existed. He had low-crawled over a major portion of it in Europe just a decade or so earlier.
“Everything we perceive is an illusion,” Mayme went on. “Just millions of atoms arranged in this way or that. Us, this table, that tree out there, all just the same atoms that can be arranged any way God wishes.”
Wasn’t that the truth, though? He had surely seen some guys get their atoms rearranged during the war. Atomized to the point that you couldn’t tell them from the rubble they were splattered on. But then again, he didn’t figure that was what Mayme was talking about. She was talking about clean, little, non-violent-world atoms, a happy, homogenous, Christian world, a church-bulletin-cover world, with sunny blue skies and puffy white clouds, where you could arrange your atoms any way you wanted them.
Whitie gazed out the window at a tree, as if trying hard but failing to see the atoms. “It’s all about the spirit,” she said. “Through our spirit and the power of prayer, we can arrange our atoms to be sick or to be well, to hurt or to feel happiness. It’s all up to us. All we have to do is give in and believe!”
He wished he could. Believe in the most malleable of atoms. Believe in the intrinsic good. Believe in a world without fear and pain, in a happy, church-bulletin-cover world like the one Mayme was evoking. He wished he could make the pain and sadness go away, but he couldn’t. It had him in its grasp and he couldn’t seem to see his way clear to break free. He could only wrestle with it day in and day out, until another manic high suddenly came his way. He seemed to have no control over it. He didn’t possess it. It possessed him.
Whitie was going through some stuff right then. Hard stuff. Bad stuff. He’d had his first complete mental breakdown three years before and he’d been struggling ever since. Now it was physical as well. He’d had his back operated on but it hadn’t seemed to help much, at least not what was ailing him now, which was sciatica—quickly becoming chronic sciatica.
Usually, at this juncture, Whitie’s bullshit meter would have been tripped and he would have gone off like a scatter gun on whomever was telling him these things. But this was his aging aunt, his father’s sister, and he was biting his tongue out of respect for those facts.
Aunt Mayme was a Christian Scientist. When that had happened, no one seemed to know for sure. The family faith was Methodism. But Mayme hadn’t been around this area much. Chicago, Sarasota, Blowing Bluffs, Honolulu, Phoenix, she got around, and most of the places she wandered to tended to be interesting and high-end.
Of late, she was flying higher than ever before. In what was clearly a December romance, she had met and married Al Taft, a Cleveland millionaire who, we were told, had made his money in construction. He was, we were also told, somehow loosely related to the famed Taft political family of Ohio, whose most renowned representative was President William Howard Taft.
Mayme was already “older” at the time, and Al was “even older”. But they seemed happy together and Al gave Mayme the access to a higher society that she had always seemed to crave. When she was younger, she had wanted to be a singer. Maybe that hadn’t worked out, but from her silver fox fur coat to her fancy jewelry and expensive shoes, Aunt Mayme was a class act for those times. Still, among our family she was considered a bit of a loon, an assessment encouraged by the attitudes of her two older brothers, my grandfather, Murel Newland, and my Great-Uncle Dale. They seemed to share a contradictory attitude of awe and respect yet subtle mockery when it came to Mayme.
Mayme’s own immediate family lived in Chicago and they all seemed to be quite well off. We saw them so seldom that I could never keep straight which were family and which were in-laws, but every once in a while they would all come down to Wapakoneta, where we lived, to see Grandma Numbers—their and our grandmother and great-grandmother and Murel, Dale and Mayme’s mother. When they did, we’d have a rare family reunion, and the only two that I remember were held at the family restaurant, the Teddy Bear, which my father, Whitie, owned with two of his brothers, Red and Chuck.
It seemed exciting to me, in those pre-teen days, just to meet long-lost cousins, let alone people from the big city. Chicago was only five hours from Wapakoneta by car, but it might as well have been a million miles away. They all seemed so sophisticated to me, especially our distant cousin, Linda Vogt, who was my older sister Darla’s age and seemed like a teen-aged movie star to me. A sort of Hayley Mills, come to visit my world. She and Darla were, in fact, almost exactly child star Hayley Mills’ age. Linda and my sister were in a phase in which girls liked to go off alone together to whisper and giggle, but I would try to tag along anyway, even at the risk of having my sister slam the door to her room in my face behind them.
“So if you can just arrange your atoms any damn way you want and never be sick,” Whitie was doggedly saying now, “what about death? Why die, if we’re just atoms that can be rearranged to be healthy?”
“Death doesn’t exist either,” Mayme posited. “It’s a matter of transformation, Norman. Think of it as stepping from one room into another. That’s all it is.”
Whitie briefly considered this, but I could tell he wasn’t buying it, and so could Aunt Mayme.
“Listen, Norman,” she said. “I once was in a car accident. It was so bad that my automobile was destroyed. And I broke the steering wheel in two with my ribcage. Some people who lived nearby where it happened carried me inside and laid me on their couch, and then they called an ambulance. They were sure I was dying.
“I asked if I could use their phone and they brought it over to me. I had them dial for me, and called my Christian Science reader. I was crying and trying to tell her what had happened. But she told me to get hold of myself. There was nothing wrong with me, she told me. In my heart I knew that, she said. She told me to concentrate, to see myself well, to tell myself that nothing had happened, that my body was mine and Christ’s and that together we could cure anything. It was all just atoms that could be rearranged.
“You can believe me or not, Norman,” Mayme said, “but I told the people to cancel the ambulance and I got up off that couch and walked out of that house cured.”
This was, perhaps, the most outrageous story Aunt Mayme had ever told us, but not the only one. I could recall having heard about her talking the cavities out of her teeth and about no longer needing glasses to see.
“Yeah, right,” Whitie had scoffed when she was gone that time. “That’s why she goes, ‘Why, hello! How are you...’” and here Whitie squinted and moved forward mime-like with hands flat against the air in front of him, feeling his way with the caution of a kid playing blind man’s bluff, and then finished the quote, “‘...Norman?’ She’s blind as a goddamn bat, I tell ya.”
This time, once she’d gone, Whitie said, “Christ, I’m glad she doesn’t come to town any oftener than she does or she’d drive me nuts. I’d like to see her go out there and give that goddamn sugar maple a swift kick and see how rearranged those atoms in her big toe would feel. They’d be rearranged all right, that’s for sure!”
He ranted on: “She sounds just like goddamn Clyde Berry.” Dr. Berry was our family physician. “Always telling me my pain is ‘psychosomatic’. I’d like him to have the pain I’ve got in my back and then come and tell me how goddamn psychosomatic it is. I’ll bet he’d change his tune then!”
But I was no longer listening. I was thinking about what Aunt Mayme had said. Why would she lie about that accident—or about her cavities, for that matter? Maybe there was something to this Christian Science thing. Hadn’t Jesus said, “Physician, heal thyself?” Or was it somebody else who’d said that?
Anyway, my mother must have been listening too. And she was so desperate for Whitie to get well that she was willing to try almost anything. So after that visit from Aunt Mayme, new books started showing up in our library—The Power of Positive Thinking, by the highly mediatic Ohio-born preacher Norman Vincent Peale and Mary Baker Eddy’s seminal Science and Health among them.
As for myself, I decided to start that very day to think of myself as indestructible, as capable of warding off any and all diseases, as practically immune to sickness and death.
It was comforting to think that I could heal anything that befell me, that I could simply will myself not to be sick, ever again.
It lasted until I caught the Asian flu later that year.