Sometimes certain times of your life just return to you, and in a moment you're overwhelmed by the feeling and the mood of that moment so long ago when you felt and thought very differently to the way you do now.
For me that happened when I was walking around in the streets of Fortitude Valley, near Brisbane city. Every now and then I would stop and wait for a traffic light to change, and at one of the lights, the pavement was covered with tiny yellow flowers shed from a tree above my head by the balmy river breeze.
And even though I'm now half a world and an entire personality away from that teenager who saw so many things, so long ago, I still paused for a moment, recalling the last Assembly I went to.
Of course, that last one was much too small to call a Convention - there were only about 600 people there, give or take a couple of hundred. The Society held it on a farm in the rural South of Johannesburg, close enough to the city for most of the Publishers to come to the gathering, but far enough away that they wouldn't have to pay an exorbitant fee to rent the facility. This fact only became evident to me much later in my life, because on the day I went to the Assembly, I was entirely incapable of thinking of the Society in a bad or negative light, although I might add that that Assembly really contributed to my exit.
When you remember this way, absolutely everything comes rushing back to you, the sponge between your ears momentarily delivering a crisp, knee-weakening sensation of being there and at once not being there. It's a 5-dimensional experience, something that happens to me woefully unoften.
For me, the sensation that was always associated with almost any gathering of Witnesses was one of wanting to run as far away as I could.
My shoes, cheap black leather ones that I threw away years ago and would probably not even give a second glance in a shoe-store today, had been polished to a gleam the previous night. It's hard work, polishing shoes properly. My Mom always checked that my shoes shone before we left for any meeting. I can still remember the way the shoe lacquer smelt, and how bloody difficult it was to rub the inevitable black marks off your hands and wrists afterwards.
I stepped gingerly through the grassy, bumpy lawn that surrounded the facility (I call it a facility in the same manner that you might call a Nazi concentration camp a facility), passing between cars.
Eerily, although there were literally hundreds of cars sweating out the various odours of their owners on the lawn, not one of them had a radio playing, nor was their any form of music coming from even one of them. It was like the afternoon of the living dead, a recurring dream that I had when I was younger, before I broke the mental lattices tying me to the Watchtower and to the greatest sin of all, the sin of imprisoning the mind with bonds of literature and guilt. That dream was a peach, an absolute, visceral sensation-nightmare, the feeling of being completely and utterly alone. In it I would walk around in the midst of evident human habitation, houses, cars, bicycles, on what should've been a busy street, but nobody would be there.
When I saw Vanilla Sky, I nearly had to leave the cinema at the beginning of the movie. That was exactly the way my dream was, although I was nowhere near as good-looking as Tom Cruise.
That was what it was like to walk amongst all those cars, to see people in so many of them, but to hear no music. Such things were frowned upon at Assemblies and other gatherings. I have a great love of music - I need to be constantly surrounded by it, and I can still remember my parents turning off the car's radio as we approached the Assembly hall.
It was really, really hot. Although the same day would've been absolutely unbearable had it been the same temperature in the place I stay now, thanks to Johannesburg's combination of altitude and low humidity, it was just manageable. And manage it the Brothers did - they had no choice.
You hear horror stories of people passing out and dying from heat exhaustion at Conventions, and you know that every time nobody gets sued, because the people who subjected the deceased to that incredible, enormous heat are untouchable.
So we sat there, thousands of kilometers away from the tiny group of men who planned and executed it all, reading through the literature they commissioned, listening to Brothers (and only Brothers) leading us through that same literature by hand, as if we were tiny little children with a Dr. Seuss book. To this day, being treated like that still rankles me, and it really affected me back then. My body betrayed my inner torment, my eyes gradually closing, trying to hide from the assault of whiter-than-white paper that reflected the African sun with absurd strength, my fingernails sneaking underneath the edges of the pages, trying to turn them, trying to destroy the paper that I pretended held the key to eternal life.
It was a betrayal, my hands revealing my true feelings, but it was not a betrayal of myself - it was a betrayal of those more faithful than I, for I was the one who had never truly experienced Jehovah's glory, felt His hand in my life, and for much too long I considered this to be a personal flaw, perhaps a mental disease of some sort. I was truly without religion, merely going through the motions.
But logic shatters all emotion - logic is what comes after emotion.
That said, emotion is far older, wiser, and stronger than any emotion. It is the blind wisdom that only the body and heart can read, that has created the human species and still forces our rampant, absurd pattern of growth, even as we watch ourselves suffocating, raping, and destroying our world, literally defecating in our crib. Emotion was designed for simpler times, when life was a lot less complicated, and language is much the same. In the words of Terry Pratchett, it is hard to describe truly complex concepts in a language originally intended to tell the other monkeys were the ripe fruit was.
You will understand when I mean when you stand in front of the Smithsonian Museum's giant pendulum, a teardrop of hollow metal taller than a man and thrice as wide, and let it drop away from you, into the bowl-shaped hollow in the floor. Stand absolutely still. You know, physics knows, any high-school kid will know that the pendulum cannot touch you - but almost nobody alive has the mental strength not to shy away from that enormous object when it comes swinging back.
And that's what religion looks like from the outside, to me, at least.
Everyone has a religion. Everyone worships something, be it Jehovah or Britney Spears. We're very worshipful creatures, beings of fashion and habit, and our worship isn't a binary quantity - we worship in degrees. We faithfully worship food, taking time and effort each day to create and eat it, savouring it when it's good, mourning it when it's not. We worship the people we are attracted to and that we love.
God is like that, but God to me is that ultimate abstraction, the person you love so much that you cannot even really conceptualize their shape or form, and thus must invent clever words to describe why He's not there to see and touch. The way I look at the whole thing, God is merely the end-fulfillment of our wish to be saved, to be rescued by a father or mother figure who can tell us that everything's going to be OK, and who will fix the massive stuffup we've made of our world.
With all these heavy thoughts on my mind, I attended that last Assembly. Nobody was baptized - there was nobody ready to be baptized. I'd been baptized a year before, leaving the water slightly puzzled as to why I hadn't had a religious experience. I'd really expected more, rather than some friendly-but-brusk guy with incredibly hairy arms pushing my head under the water, an unpleasant experience for anyone who's ever been held under the water for several minutes by the might of the Indian Ocean.
Perhaps I realized then that this most important, crucial sacriment was just that - a sacriment, and nothing more.
My testosterone levels were at their highest level in my entire life, and it really showed. Every time any woman walked past, my eyes felt glued to the arch of their back, to the motion of their hair, and so on. Before I was old enough to understand that this was really a beautiful, natural interaction, a bunch of old men, some dead for thousands of years, were vigorously telling me that this was wrong, that it was sinful, that the urges God had given me were not to be obeyed.
Tell that to the various testosterone receptors and the finely-tuned, ancient behaviours they induced in me. Friends, nature never lies.
I'll admit, women and women alone, that fairer sex that I absolutely adore with my heart and soul, were partially responsible for me exiting the Organization. Let me tell you a little story about what happened after I left, before I complete my ranting and raving about how truly shite that last Assembly was.
I'd freshly exited, was barely two weeks out - I left with a bang, quite literally. I'd never had so much sex in my entire life, and now there were no more ancient nomads looking over my shoulder and telling me in very fine, highly intrepreted and biased detail what I should and shouldn't be doing with my twanger, so I was literally having a ball. (That has to be one of the dumbest things I've ever written...please forgive me )
I felt like the disciple who had the scaled removed from his eyes and could see again. The Society was a pair of very dark sunglasses, and I'd removed them, and now I could really see all of the colour in life. Nothing was muted anymore - and I fit into this world, the real world, not the fantasy construction that Witnesses pretend is the real world, like a hand into a kid glove.
Then, on one of the last few days remaining of the school year, I was standing outside, just after the last bell, waiting for one of my friends to cross the schoolyard.
A girl came striding up to me. I won't repeat her name here. She was gorgeous - I'd had a crush on her for absolutely ages. Of course, today my tastes are slightly different, and I wouldn't even give her a second glance. In retrospect, she was the shallowest, meanest woman I've ever known, and believe me, I've known more than a few like that.
Since South African schools require you to wear a jacket, tie, shirt, and gray pants, for guys and girls, she really stood out like a sore thumb - she was attending a nearby college, which meant she could wear whatever she pleased, and that day it had pleased her to wear a short skirt, big black boots, and several hair extensions, muted enough not to cause an outcry from the Older Sisters in the Congregation.
Having publically disassociated myself, I was considerably surprised when she came and stood in front of me, confronting me with a scowl on her face and her hands on her hips.
"What did you tell the Elders about me? What'd you say to them?" she hissed.
Aghast, I said nothing. She continued screaming at me, literally screaming, attracting quite a bit of attention. A small circle of people had begun forming around us, and I didn't know what to say. All I could do was cling onto my schoolbag for dear life. She continued to catalogue, in order, what a miserable person I was to have busted her for things which I now consider perfectly natural and which were none of my business even back then, how really, really nasty it had been to tell the Elders what she got up to after-hours, and how God was going to kick my ass real soon, any day now, and that I was going to die a horrible, fiery, possibly parakeet-related death, and be added to God's big old Armageddon scoreboard.
It seemed that she had gotten the back of the hand from certain people because of what I'd told the Elders. I'd really been so scared and confused during my disassociation hearing that I hadn't known what I was saying - I just wanted it to end, but the Elders would've never let me get away from there if I hadn't dished up some prime dirt on other younger members of the Congregation (of which there were precious few), so I did, and boy, when I got going, I didn't stop.
But how could I have explained all that to her? She had no idea. And besides, this was my revenge. Even as a Witness, I'd been an outcast, in a place and time where she could've been my friend, which was all I wanted from her. But she had shunned me, and in so doing, she had forced her friend to shun me too, resulting in my pool of friendly, non-deathbound women being reduced from a handful to...zero. So I'd had more than a little bit of malice towards her.
Of course, we grow older, and we learn more about ourselves, and I wouldn't have done the same thing today. But those were different times, and I was young and pretty damn stupid.
Diatribe finished, she walked away in a huff, giving me all sorts of dark and meaningful looks as she did so. She was so pissed off that the hairs on the back of her neck were almost standing up!
Relieved, I eased back against the wall, glad that she was gone. Christ, I didn't need that kind of excitement in my life (and I still don't).
Then, her two Neanderthal friends emerged from the crowd. This was something that was pretty scary to me back then. They were both more than a foot taller than me. These guys were massive, and of course, Miss Poisonous Glare had indoctrinated them quite thoroughly in the religion of potential nudity in return for dirty little favours.
Before I knew what to do, the largest of the two reached out a fist and punched me, a round-house blow, like a boxer. He should've known better - I might look like a fader, but I'm as tough as beef jerky. I withstood a lot of beatings before I even knew that he existed.
When he saw that I wasn't going down, he backed away a little, not because he was scared of me, but because he was worried about all of the people who had started to gather around me. My lip was bleeding, and my mouth filled with the acrid copper taste of blood. And then he said:
"Don't mess with XXXXXXX again."
Or something like that. I don't really care what he said - it was absolutely inconsequential. He had made his point long before he had opened his mouth.
So the two Neanderthals left, and I urgently sought to quell my bleeding using the sleeve of my blazer, which was already grubby anyway.
And then, the most bizarre thing happened.
Guys who had formerly shoved me around and tried to trip me up and who had generally lightly molested me in previous years began to cluster around me. These people weren't my friends. My lip was bleeding like a mofo, but I grinned through it all. One of them, someone who was definitely not on my side the day before, said:
"Hey, if those guys come back, just call us. We'll sort them out."
This was one of the most amazing things that had ever happened to me. I still don't know why they suddenly banded together to say that they were with me, on my side, but it felt good. Of course, getting punched at school is never nice, and I was extremely embarrassed and suddenly a few fistfuls of tissue paper short of being able to talk again, but it still felt good. These Worldly people were standing up for me! Maybe they felt sorry for me, I don't know. I don't care. It just felt good, to belong.
All of those Meetings and Conventions and Assemblies, without exception, are just one long blur to me, now. To me, I remember as much about them as your average person remembers about their 4th year of life. Little fractions of memory sometimes come through, but I think that my mind, using the wisdom of emotion, has plowed them under and recycled the storage space they occupy with something more useful, like Christina Aguilera music videos or computer language specifications.
Sometimes I lie in the darkness, late at night, and think of how narrowly I missed a future dominated by that unending, soul-eating blur. That monstrous, pulsating creature composed of guilt and 14-point Helvetia font doctrines. And meetings, oh, the endless, endless meetings. They were like being imprisoned for life, without the possibility of parole. You were expected to attend every one. Even after Armageddon, it was said, there would be meetings. Meetings, stretching into infinity, and through it all, nobody protested. Oh, a few people's voices rose and sounded jubilant in those lax, comfortable conversations we would have at the end of bookstudies, when you could almost pretend you were just visiting someone's house, even though you were all dressed up and had a bagful of mental popcorn in the shape of a book or brochure on your lap.
That's what all of that literature was - mental popcorn. Not nutritious, not sustaining, and too much of it would make me sick to the stomach. It was actually an auto-immune reaction of my frontal lobe, the headaches and migraines that would ensue after the Watchtower Study, when I would sometimes answer, and towards the end, not at all. I was didn't bother anymore.
One answer per Watchtower Study, or possibly two. Hey, we missed your answer at the Study today. Yeah, those people had an amazing memory. I'd like to speak to you privately. The Elders feel that you?re becoming too self-effacing in your comments, in your phrasing. You should lighten up a bit, and not quote a Scripture every single answer. I can still remember the voices now, filled with concern for me, this wayward teenager who only wanted to be free.
Very few people will understand why one of the nicest feelings I remember as a Witness was the feeling of leaving a Convention or Assembly, the feeling of release, of gentle, inner peace. It was like the feeling you get after you?ve made love with someone who really knows what they?re doing, that cuddly inner sensation. Everyone in the car going home would be genuinely happy, but it wasn?t because of what we?d heard at the Assembly.
It was because we were a family, and for the first time during the day, we were free again.