Imagine

“What do you want to share with us today, Deborah?”

The question made Deborah uneasy, because, in truth, she had only shown up to the Authenticity Circle out of duty. She founded it, after all, but recent attendance had been less than stellar.

Today there were only six people, three men and three women, seated on pillows in a circle on the Church Universal’s pristine white floor. The square Church building stood within earshot of the Pacific but you couldn’t actually see it, once inside, only hear its murmur.

Los Angeles’ oceanside bustle surrounded it and it was the idea, or so Marcus had told her, that you were able to feel at peace inside while still aware of everyday duties and the larger world.

The Pyramids, too, had been placed to reflect the stars, but still close enough to the Nile so you didn’t forget your earthly roots.

“Deborah?”

The facilitator was a kind-faced man in his late forties—John Morgansonn, if she recalled correctly. He had big glasses and was already balding significantly. He could have played the perfect therapist in any movie, because of his quiet unassuming demeanor. And now he was looking directly at her. So were the others.

“Well ….” Deborah cleared her throat. “I don’t know where to start …”

“Start with the beginning.” John put on his kindest smile. The others smiled, too. “We are here to listen to each other’s truths, free of any judgment or bias—human or spiritual. That is one of the core values of the Church Universal.”

Deborah nodded with some hesitation, glancing at the youngest member, a pale-faced short-haired woman at least 10 years younger than her own daughter. She wore a black t-shirt with a blazing red flowery labyrinth of celtic knots printed on its chest. 

If Joan of Arc had lived to become 29, maybe she would have looked like that woman. And if she had gone on to to become a hermit gamer, shunning any kind of sunlight.

At least it was nice of John to reiterate the first point on the Circle’s website FAQ for the young newcomer’s benefit. Nobody read that site anyway. (Deborah had talked to Marcus about getting it spiffed up, but he had a lot on his plate. A lot.)

Everybody looked at Deborah expectantly.

She braced herself.

“This is not about me, actually … “ Deborah licked her lips. “But a good friend of mine is ah, seeing the president of a board that reviews applications for scholarships. And, she, uh, has this daughter—no, it’s her son, actually …” She stopped to stroke her hair away from her brow, several times, like there was an insect that had to be banished.

Deborah looked at the facilitator again. “John, is this okay?— I mean, it’s not about me … ”

John’s kind smile was even broader now. “It is more than okay!” He looked at the four others. “What you see here is actually Deborah trying to be authentic on behalf of her friend.” He looked at her again and his eyes gleamed. “Isn’t that right, Deborah?”

“Uh, yes, well … my friend’s son is not really eligible for the scholarship. He is from her first marriage, by the way. But he really needs it, and so she has … well, you know … talked to him … the president of the board, I mean.”

A thin man, whom Deborah thought was called Ralph, raised his hand.

John nodded at him. 

“I just wanted to say …” Ralph started “ … that I know how it feels to need a scholarship.” He coughed. “Not that the Church’s Give Way grant is a scholarship, but still … I applied for it, and those 100,000 dollars could change everything for me. I could build my watercolor shop …”

Ralph was always eager to share his truth for longer, but John gently guided him back to the Circle’s process. “That is very honest of you, Ralph. I know a great many of you have applied for the Church’s Give Way grant to Renew Your Life, and …” he blinked against the afternoon sunlight coming through the Church’s skylight “ … in a way, it must be very personal to admit, that you have a difficult financial situation. I applaud you for it.”

Now it was Ralph’s turn to smile broadly. It looked like his thin face was about to crack. 

“However,” John continued and held up a finger, pointing at no one in particular “ … now we must hear Deborah’s truth, so she can feel comfortable sharing it without interruption. Will you go on, Deborah?”

Ralph’s smile vanished instantly and the rest of his body seemed to become even more diminutive right there. A big colored woman beside him patted him gently on the bag. That was Muriel all right. You could not say anything wrong in her world …

Deborah didn’t look at Ralph.

She knew he was probably on the spectrum, like her grandson, and had had a hard time all this life getting a job. Like her daughter.

“Well …” Deb cleared her throat again. And then again. “Well … my friend confided in me, asking if I thought she did the right thing. Taking advantage of her relationship, I mean, when there were others who wouldn’t get the scholarship then, even though they … applied.”

Deborah searched for the next words while she was studying the floor. It was still pristine white but she thought there might be swirls of gray in the vague outlines that denoted where each tile had been laid.

“What you are saying is—she cheated.”

Joan of Arc’s voice snapped at her like a whip crack. The perfect acoustics were one of the Church’s most significant qualities.

The little woman leaned forward and looked straight at Deb. “Your friend cheated because she was banging the guy who hands out the money. So now her son gets ahead while someone else gets nothing. Someone who has the right—”

John held up a warning hand.

It was still held in a friendly way, and it was clear he made a good effort to show just that. “Tut—you are new here, so you can be forgiven for not remembering, but our core value is non-judgment.”

“I read the rules,” Joan interrupted, “but apparently her friend—” she nodded at Deborah “—doesn’t.”

“It’s not about that,” John explained patiently. “It’s about hearing each others’ authentic truths—”

“—My authentic truth is that I think that friend is cheating,” Joan interrupted again.

The others moved uncomfortably on their pillows.

Even Muriel.

“That, uh, that was my point,” Deborah folded her hands. “But she broke the rules with the best of intentions. Her son is, ah, a recovered drug addict and really needs that education.”

“So do the other applicants,” Joan shot back. “Who write real applications.”

“Okay,” John started, “okay, why don’t we try to see this from another perspective? In the end, everyone deep down believes they are doing the right thing.”

He opened his hands in front of him as if he was holding a big invisible globe, and looked directly at Joan. “You have to imagine that about everyone in the world … and usually there are good reasons for what they do, good and bad, yes, but not just bad. So if we can understand fully all aspects of people’s motivations and situation we can come closer to the truth that—”

“I try to think like that with my daughter,” Muriel added before John was quite finished. She smiled knowingly at the elderly man to her side. He just nodded, arms crossed.

Joan of Arc had her arms crossed, too.

“You can say what you want, man. Sometimes there is only one perspective.”

“That’s … not entirely correct.” John breathed in deeply, through his bulbous nose. “If you want to I can borrow you a copy of Quantum Mind, Quantum Body. In it, our founder, Grand Director Marcus Chen, argues that there is always another perspective and that no perspective is entirely true unless the observers of that situation or event agree for it to be so.”

Joan frowned. “So what if I was, like, raped?”

She shook her head as in disbelief of her own words. “Or if my dad beat the crap out of me when I was little? Could you have another perspective on that—other than it was pure fucking evil?”

John’s upper lip twitched slightly. “Ah … yes, there is always another perspective. Not necessarily one you would agree with but still … a valid perspective.”

Everyone sat very still now.

Joan looked at them all, in turn, like a surgeon looking for tumors.

Then she stood up. “Fuck this Scientology bullshit.” She looked accusingly at Ralph. “And thanks a lot for dragging me here. You said this was safe. That people were allowed to be themselves!”

She marched out.

Ralph looked like he was going to shrink to nothingness and John’s face flushed visibly.

It was Muriel who saved the day. “It was my fault. She appeared like such a nice kid when I vouched for her.”

“I think she may be mad a my sister,” Ralph tried. “They had an argument last night because she was stood up …”

“I think this Circle is probably not for her.” The final member, who had so far remained silent, looked around as if he had just been sent to clear everything up. Oliviera was a  Latino man a little older than her husband, perhaps in his early seventies. Deborah usually liked him.

“Yes, thank you, Oliviera,” John said. “I think we should close the session for today.” He wiped his brow with a handkerchief. The California July heat was kept away by the air-conditioning but he was visibly sweating.

Deborah stood up. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come by today. But my … daughter was seeing Marcus, at the HQ. And there wasn’t much traffic. I thought—”

John came over to Deborah, and put a hand on her shoulder. “You did nothing wrong, Deborah. And give our Director my sincerest regards, when you see him, okay?”

Deborah nodded and looked down. “I had better get going. I promised to cook for everyone tonight.” She smiled sheepishly.

Ralph had finished his disappearing act but Muriel and Oliviera were beaming at her. “You go on home, honey,” Muriel said and clasped her hands together with the enthusiasm of a gospel singer. “You go home and have a good family dinner and forget about this.”

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DEBORAH, 11 JULY 2015, LATE AFTERNOON

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Cover photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

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