Finding My Way to Trust

Grownup lessons from a classic children’s book.

by Amy Wallace
Photograph: Illustration by David Cowles

I was a precocious girl, armed with the vast vocabulary of an only child who spent much of her time around adults. But while I could have told you from very early on that it was Karl Marx who said “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” my ignorance about religion was a soft spot with me. Why was I left out of this thing called faith?
So I improvised. Every night, I recited an incantation I’d invented to protect me and my motley crew of stuffed animals. “All year, every year,” I would whisper, imagining my words wrapping like a safety blanket around the plush residents of my twin bed. (I don’t remember if I coined that phrase before or after my mother, her boyfriend and I climbed over that same twin bed to escape out the window from a knife-wielding drunk who’d shown up at one of their parties).
On Easter Sunday, although I had no idea what the day represented, I held egg hunts in our yard, hiding treasures for myself. At Christmastime, I stopped lamenting that we didn’t have stockings to hang from the chimney with care. Instead, at age 12, I bought red felt and rickrack and ribbon, got out my mother’s ancient Singer sewing machine and sewed up six of them (three for those who lived under our roof, three more for hoped-for guests).
Even then, like Harold, I was determined to fill my empty page.

"After he had sailed long enough, Harold made land without much trouble."
We moved around. I went to high school in Ohio, in California and in Massachusetts. If I had to identify a single recurring theme of my upbringing, it would be my yearning for community. I always wanted more people at the dinner table. I wanted to feel I was part of something bigger, that I belonged. I hungered to believe things would be all right, but I was nagged by the idea that unless I was ever-vigilant, they wouldn’t be.
I fell in love for the first time when I was a college junior. Peter was an enthusiastic student of gnosticism, the esoteric religious movement that teaches that humans have a divine spark trapped in a material world created by an imperfect deity. I can’t say that Peter’s interest in mysticism was all that won me over, but the curiosity that fueled it and the confidence with which he pursued it were irresistible. He believed in something beyond himself. I loved that.
I may have been godless, but I didn’t want the men I dated to be too.

"So he left the path for a shortcut across a field. And the moon went with him."
After graduation, I was lucky enough to win a coveted one-year apprenticeship with New York Times columnist James Reston. Halfway through my year, as was the custom, I began looking for my replacement. That’s when I met Jim. He was whip-smart and a fierce believer in the power of the printed word. But his heart was never fuller than when he was in the woods. When we first started dating, I asked him if he believed in God. He told me he foundGod in nature: on a ski slope, on a remote hiking trail, anywhere the silence was broken only by wind through pine needles. That was a deity I could understand.
Five years after Jim replaced me as Reston’s assistant, we got married. For reasons of proximity, not theology, the ceremony was held in a Presbyterian church. Jim had been raised Episcopalian. We’d chosen this church, with its lavender stained glass windows and white clapboard steeple, because it was next door to a bed-and- breakfast that my mother and stepfather had opened in northern Marin. (Yes, my mother had finally married her boyfriend.)
When I walked down the aisle, my father on one arm, my stepfather on the other, I felt utterly joyful, certain that I was feeling one of the most powerful forms of devotion: true love. With Jim, I felt sure I belonged.
After the ceremony, the guests gathered under a tent overlooking a golden field dotted with dark green oak trees and grazing sheep. A rock and roll band played from the back of a flatbed trailer. It seemed that every person who loved each of us was there, eating grilled oysters and toasting the vows we’d just exchanged—to love, cherish, honor and forgive—with Champagne.
In my mind, the bride wore purple.

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