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The Artifact

I cautiously pick up the well-worn Bible. It’s been years since I opened it, but I used to carry it around with me quite a lot. In those days I attended an evangelical college and we often had our Bibles––in class, chapel services, during talks with friends. The hardback cover is still a little sticky from so much handling. The pages are falling out in sections. I feel my throat constrict, as though I’ve encountered a beloved one to whom I no longer speak after a falling out long ago. 

As I turn it over, the book splays where the binding is broken. Psalm 119. It was a favorite of mine, so there’s a lot of underlining. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light for my path” jumps out at me, which feels a little creepy.  Now that I am here, I also enter the mystical mindset from when I lived these pages. It’s a way of thinking that privileges causality, not coincidence. My eyes were supposed to fall on this particular Psalm. This verse is a message meant for me. It is an admonition.

And in this moment I am suddenly a young girl again, bedside, saying goodnight prayers on my knees, Bible in hand. I keep falling asleep and then determinedly rousing myself. I open the Bible to look for a verse to revive my drowsy self. My eyes alight on Psalm 127:2: “It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late to eat the bread of sorrows; for so he giveth his beloved sleep.” I am so relieved to get this kindly assurance in real time from my heavenly father. I close my Bible and crawl into bed where I quickly fall into blissful, guilt-free sleep. 

Now I examine this Bible as a historian might, the historian in fact that I am. Only in this instance, the line between artifact and personal effect is blurred. The passage of time and my archival research skills assert their objectivity, but the experiential pull of this relic is great; every notation, underlining, and sign of wear is not just evidence, but living memory.

Even so, I persist in this exhumation of a past life, my very own. My early years are so foreign to me now, but recollection is easily triggered and emotionally intense. A small piece of paper falls out and I recognize on it the handwriting of the man I married at 22 and divorced at 32: 

“Thanks for being such a good wife. I appreciate you a lot even when I don’t show it. Thanks also for all you do to help things go better. I do love you. Hubby

I John 5:14-15.”

In spite of its surface benignity, the note seems conspicuously gendered in tone to me now. Was I a good wife? What did those words mean to him? To me? Why did he sign off as “Hubby?” I never called him that; it would have seemed silly to me. I am sure he would have liked me to. In this context it seems such a cheerful allusion to his biblical role as “leader” of our home. My adopting this nickname would signal an uncomplicated acceptance of his rightful place atop the family hierarchy. 

The note suggests we’ve had a fight. “I do love you,” he says, as though there were reason for me to doubt it. The repetitive comments of appreciation seem intended to assuage some frustration he senses in me. The missive has no date, but when I look up the Bible verses in I John, I see they are heavily underlined, and dated to the first year of our marriage when I was just out of college and still using this Bible. I cannot recall the specifics of the argument, but my memory of the time, from a relational standpoint, is vivid. This year in which I transitioned from college and living at home with my parents to being the wife of this man was traumatic. I had never experienced so much conflict, such intransigence in another human being. I began to despair, to know I had made a terrible, childish, and irrevocable mistake in accepting his surprise offer of marriage. 

 “?How far do you want to go with Jesus?”

The words I’ve written on the Bible’s title page are a little jarring. They seem an accusation more than a question, despite the framing question marks. And the double entendre, though unintentional I am sure, now seems apt. The hundreds of emotionally wrought services I experienced that culminated with people “coming to Jesus,” to the shared moans of other worshippers, suggests an orgiastic frenzy to me now. I first recognized the climax-driven, Aristotelian arc of services when I studied theatre history as a graduate student. Mapping this arc as I read the same ancient Greek plays from which Aristotle derived his dramatic theory, I couldn’t help but notice how familiar the ecstatic state of Dionysus-worshipping maenads seemed. The parallels were so salient to me that for years I couldn’t think of Christ incarnate without also imagining the Greek god of wine and sex. This, no doubt, was the very kind of thing my father meant, as I began my doctoral studies, when he warned me about the dangers of too much education.

I feel myself being pulled into a sad remembered place, one I am not ready to visit, so I focus once again on the Jesus question. I wonder what prompted me to record this stray bit of self-interrogation here, right beneath the words “Holy Bible.” More than likely it’s a quote from some otherwise mundane preacher, hastily jotted down in surprise as the sermon improved or unexpectedly struck some chord in me. Judging by the official “Notes” section in the Bible, crammed with outlines and extensive quotes, I had high expectations of some sermons–the ones carefully registered by date, speaker, occasion and location –“fall revival, College Church,” and so on. Curious, I scrutinize these more detailed entries. I find myself more surprised by the wisdom of some speakers than I am the audacity, much expected, of others. In either case, sage or brash, the most unnerving thing about this assorted record is the insistent tone that binds it all together. Page after page, note by note, regardless of topic–to a person these speakers are selling certainty. Of course, that’s often the way of speeches, and perhaps especially the good ones. But to be so sure when purporting to speak for god himself. Oh, the hubris. 

I work my way methodically through the whole book, looking for other clues, small indications of my relationship to this formative text. A highlighted verse here, a date there, a random question mark. Each finding reminds me that I loved these ancient words as much for their beauty as for any truths they held, fraught as this admixture became to me. When I arrive at the last two pages, just inside the back cover, my eyes sting with sudden recognition. Taken together, some final scribblings on these spaces capture so succinctly my life till then–and the one that lay ahead. On the left page I’ve copied down strained platitudes of a speaker I haven’t bothered to identify: 

“He will never give us more pain than is absolutely necessary.”

“It is for your good or He would never have permitted it.”

Other simplistic notions, banal at best, too often soul-crushing, fill the rest of the page.

But there on the right, inside the back cover, are passages I’ve carefully inscribed in bright, sky-blue ink. These are not the stuff of sermons, but the affirmations of my newly discovered heroes—Constantin Stanislavski, Sofya Giatsintova and others—long dead now, but brilliant and wonderful artists and teachers of theatre whose words hint at the new dreams I have for myself. There are no fully developed themes in this azure space; only my gleanings of insights here and there, collected from one text or another so different from the one I hold in my hands. Each quotation seems prophetic in its way, by what it intimates or simply by its presence on this material record of my earliest fears, prayers, and hopes for my journey ahead. How moved I am to find that this relic comprising how once upon a time I perceived the world and my place in it rightly holds a sacred space for these voices too. 

Alexander Pushkin, whose words come first and are writ larger than the rest, gracefully bridges the awkward gap between adamant sermons and artful musings, between reckonings and yearnings:  

“The words were flowing as if being born not by timid memory but by the heart.”

I gingerly close this artifact, this broken book. I am ready to embark on the long journey. One of place, time, and things remembered. One whose touchstone was, and is again, a first clear glimpse of sky.

Angela J. Latham is a theatre artist who lives in the Midwest and teaches theatre history and costume design to undergraduates. She is also writing a play and a memoir.