The Watch

photo by Jamie Sutter

When I was six years old, family was two dads and a mom who was always at work. One dad shared my last name but I didn’t know what he looked like. The other loved me dearly, was mean when he drank too much (if I could count more than six cans out of the cardboard container in the fridge), and was hilarious. Every year for my birthday and Christmas I asked to be adopted because that would mean I would have the same last name as mom and dad. Home was a double wide in a trailer park in Arizona.

When I was eleven, home was a house in Illinois on the south end of town by the river. Family was a new step-dad who was a violent drunk, two new brothers in and out of the house (spending the rest of their time in juvie or rehabs), and a lot of strangers my mom knew as brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. They’d all grown up together in this small town, but we moved here when I was eight and I never stopped feeling like an outsider.

At fifteen, home was a nightmare of violence and depression and drugs and noise. But I found a new family – I became a Christian. I was welcomed into homes where parents were caring and involved and kids shared their lives with the other people living in their homes. I found out there was a God who called Himself my Father and that this was a very different kind of deal than I had with the men I knew by that title. I was “spiritually adopted” by a slew of new moms and dads. I was loved.

At twenty-one, a sharp turn in the teaching of my home church led me to the hardest decision of my life at that time. I emancipated myself from my family. The pastor who had told me I was like a daughter to him informed me he could no longer offer counsel since I was no longer “one of his flock.” The church split, a divorce that left all the children limping like soldiers carrying shrapnel in their spirits. I was homeless, without a family and without a place to lay my head.

That summer I found myself in two deserts. Internally I wasn’t sure I was still a Christian. I had been told that my questions and struggles with the teachings of my church were of the devil, that the Holy Spirit would never lead me to those kinds of thoughts. But to deny them would be to check my brain at the door of faith and I just couldn’t do so with any kind of integrity. I still believed that Jesus loved me, and that the Bible was true, and I hoped this was enough to keep me on the fringes of His Kingdom. But there was no place for me in His Church; I was a wanderer in the wilderness.

The other desert was an old pig farm in the middle of Nowhere, IL. A music festival was held there every year. I’d been baptized there when I was sixteen, and had gone a few years later with a friend’s church. I was on the organization’s mailing list and got the schedule every fall. I realized this time that they had seminars in addition to music and arts. Scanning the titles I It was scandalous; they would be talking about all the things that got me kicked out of church! They had an entire tent devoted to issues of gender and sexuality. The environment. Politics and war. They were heathens like me!! So I packed up and headed out to spend my birthday week in a dirt field under a heavy blanket of a hundred degree humidity.

Over the next decade my liturgical year would revolve around the high days of Cornerstone. I grew up as a Christian walking those rock strewn pathways, learning how to eat for my body and not my emotions, finding that physicality and sexuality are integral to humanness but not at all the same things, believing that rhythms exist within me and that I can tap into those. I discovered people and sounds and thoughts and beliefs and ways of living that were scary and liberating and beautiful and life-giving. Any confidence I have as a writer was first stirred by the encouragement of the presenters in those tents. If I understand anything about being a woman of equality and contribution and intellect in the Church, I have women and men presenting those seminars to thank. Madison Greene, to this day my favorite band, gave me permission to remain a Christian when every Christian I knew had written me off. I found my soul there; I found my family. The smell of muddy hay mingled with brewing coffee, the stifling head and body odor of the merch tents, the power of an acoustic guitar sending its sound through crisp evening air, the faces and embraces and voices I only got to encounter for a few precious days every summer – these things were home to me.

When I turned thirty or thirty-one I decided not to go to Cornerstone for a year. I worried that I was refusing to grow up or something existential like that, so for several years I didn’t go. There was this weird ache in my chest whenever I realized it was coming up or going on, but I tried my best to dismiss.

Then the news hit Facebook. 2012 would be their last year. The fest had become a drain on JPUSA’s finances and their year-long ministries to the poor in Chicago were suffering. With the world of self-recording and internet promotion changing the scene of music so rapidly there was less of a need for a place fringe-Christian musicians could go for exposure. So they would be closing the gates after the fest, selling the property and investing themselves more fully in what God is doing in their community back home. I won’t lie, I cried for months. I vacillated all spring about whether or not I would go. It really felt too painful, and I didn’t want to deal with all the emotion it was stirring up. At the same time I know too well that regret is the most painful thing of all. At the very last minute (like literally the day before the fest was ending) I asked a friend if she’d want to go with me. She’d never been and I thought sharing the place and stories with a friend a la tour guide might make it easier. Almost to my disappointment she was in fact free, so the next day we loaded up in the car wearing hippie skirts and bandanas and hit the road.

So much was different. Main stage was gone. My old camp site was barren, and you could see the food courts from the footpath. They were down a merch tent, and my favorite coffee vendor was MIA. But the dust was the same, the smell and the heat and the crazy looking people were all there. It was bloody hot, one of the worst ever, which helped me refrain from romanticizing too much. I showed her all the spots: where I was baptized, where I met Denison Witmer, where Mad Greene camped with us, where I was forced to do early morning yoga, where my ex had once broken my heart, where a dear friendship ended, where I found my voice as a writer. The Gallery/Cornerstone Magazine/a-dozen-other-names tent was still where I left it, and one of the last shows of the evening was Josh Garrels. I remember hearing him play outside the coffee tent, and the first time he was on that same stage. He’s become a phenomenal musician and has a great career and I got to see the whole thing from its beginnings. My friend doesn’t usually dig live music, but she says she enjoyed that show. The tent was packed, and that familiar Cornerstone energy picked up and filled the place. It was an amazing show, everything I could have wanted it to be. I saw the only encore ever allowed at Cornerstone, and he sang of bread and wine and community.

They were going to set a Viking ship on fire in the lake as a memorial later that night, but we didn’t go (the YouTube video is awesome though). I wanted to end on a high note, so after Garrels’ show we left. I was fine until we started down that long, pitted road out of the farm. Then the floodgates burst and I cried all the way to Canton. I’d left home for the last time. My family was scattered across the globe, and I would never see most of them again. I could never go back to walk those paths, or sit on that beach where I had been immersed in the waters of baptism, never worship over that murky water, never stay up until dawn talking to a stranger about the depths of our souls over a campfire. Home was gone.

I’d had the image of a pocket watch or clock floating in my head for a while as a tattoo idea. Initially it was hanging from the branch an owl was perching on. I never knew what time it should be set to, or why I wanted it so badly.

With no thought to that vague tattoo idea, I bought a pocket watch necklace in the merch tent before we left. I even considered stopping the time as a way to memorialize the moment. I decided the pocket watch tattoo should be its own design when the right time finally hit me: 7:07. That Garrels show, the last day of Cornerstone, was July 7th, 2012. I thought about the watch having a broken face to represent the end of the thing. But the people who created Cornerstone, who built my home, had said they hoped that the spirit of Cornerstone would go on. That those of us who were part of by this community of acceptance and freedom and grace and creativity of the place would carry those things back to our cities and churches and homes. So I chose to keep the face unmarred, to let the continuous form remind me that I’ve been charged with a duty. I’m to create that same space for the people I know looking for a home, looking for family. I hope I’ve learned well, that I soaked all that grace up enough to allow it to spill over. I hope to incarnate just a fraction of what the thing was to me. I feel so unworthy of the task. But I’d rather fail again and again at helping others find a home than allow all the beauty and of Cornerstone to have ended on 7/07.

1 Comment

  1. May 2, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    […] I found Cornerstone. For many people, this was just a Christian music festival in Middle-of-Nowhere, Illinois that […]

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