By age nine I knew everything about God. My church was the only true one and my family among its truest followers. I knew what it takes to enter heaven. I lugged my red leather, red-letter edition King James Bible to school each day. I witnessed to my classmates on the bus and at recess. It was up to me to save the world. Absolute certainty is a heavy burden.
Knowing everything kept me from knowing myself. Because I knew I was one of the elect, I knew my persistent attraction to men didn’t mean anything important. I was as saved as saved can be. Therefore I couldn’t be gay.
Knowing everything kept me from knowing life. I very nearly killed myself rather than embrace my sexuality. After a second averted suicide attempt I turned to a priest friend for help. He suggested I did not have to know everything, that I could make room for Mystery. This was a new concept for me. It saved my life.
Today I make plenty of room for doubt and not knowing. This is a source of power in my life. It is also in direct opposition to the model set by my current spiritual director.
Albert is white. His eyes are beady, blue and intense. Reminiscent of a colleague of mine with a wen, he has a big knobby growth centered on his forehead. Albert is much shorter than I, but his temper towers above us both.
This aspect of his personality doesn’t win him many friends. My husband says Albert is mean-spirited and rude, an ingrate. I say he has presence. My husband calls Albert self-centered, cantankerous and loud. I call him teacher and friend.
I spent many years of my life hiding my feelings and hiding from my feelings. Albert, on the other hand, takes a very direct approach. I can read his mood just by looking at him. When he’s up, he’s up. When he’s down, he’s angry. In fact, the lower his head sinks the more angry he is. When he’s feeling especially proud of himself (quite often the case), he stretches his neck as far as he can—a considerable distance—and holds his head high.
If we are all delusional to some extent, Albert’s delusion is that he is a late-born Napoleon. He sees himself as much bigger, much more powerful, much more important than he really is. He believes himself the center of all attention. He thinks he knows everything. And that everything is about him.
People sometimes wonder what I see in him. That’s easy. I sometimes see myself.
I met Albert about a year and a half after my husband and I bought a farmhouse nestled in 18 wooded acres in rural Indiana. We’d been evicted from our small-town apartment after word got out a gay couple was living there. We began an earnest search for a place of our own. We wanted it to be soul-nurturing, in the country, and affordable. It took us 18 months to find the place. And about that much longer to add a dozen chickens and two geese. We named the latter King James and Prince Albert.
Hatchery catalogs tout white Chinese as the breed of domestic geese with the most personality. What they don’t say is that personality is mostly obnoxious. Albert lost no time in demonstrating that he is more than willing to bite the hand that feeds him, or any part of the anatomy that’s handy. In this he makes a wonderful watchdog. His sense of personal space is vast and he honks loudly when anyone or anything infringes upon it. A car driving slowly by is enough to set him off.
Chasing cars is in fact his passion. I imagine he loves the ego thrill that comes of a 20-pound goose besting a two-ton mechanical beast. As I back out of the driveway he lowers his head and charges the car. As it retreats before his onslaught he gets an adrenaline rush. Victorious, he stretches to full height, then beyond. He stands on tiptoe and flaps his wings. It is a proud moment. Napoleon at Austerlitz all over again.
Albert insists upon getting his own way, and is difficult to live with when he does not. He cannot comprehend why I sometimes thwart his wishes. He assumes he knows everything about me. In the world according to Albert, I live only to serve him and to wait on him wing and foot. Each time I step outside it is to attend to his whims.
He has somehow worked out why it is I provide him food, drink and shelter. It has to do with him being the center of my universe. When I don’t comply fast enough or when I turn my back on him, he is more than entitled to his pound of flesh.
After he raised bruises on a visitor’s leg, Albert found his freedom curtailed by a newly built, rustic picket fence. It’s become his goal to find, push and poke as many holes in it as possible. Every day he does picket duty, snaking his long neck into every likely looking place he might be able to effect his escape. More often than I like he finds one.
He wriggled through some hole the Monday morning I was late for a dental appointment. As I backed down the drive, I saw Albert following in hot pursuit. I jumped out of the car, caught him and carefully held his beak closed as I carried him over to his side of the fence. Before I got back in the car he was after me again. I was in a rush. I didn’t have time to find and mend a hole in the fence. I carted him back again and made a run for the car. As I pulled out onto the road Albert was coming at me, full tilt.
I yanked the car over to the roadside, leapt out, slammed the door and charged him. I met one surprised goose half-way, grabbed him and without regard to my physical safety ran him back and locked him in the dog kennel for the day. I turned again to the car. It wasn’t there. I hadn’t set the emergency brake. The car had rolled down the steep embankment, nose-first. “I’m going to be late,” I told the receptionist when she answered the phone. “Our goose just put my car in the ditch.”
There is power in living life as Albert does. I ignore it at my peril.
Here in the Bible belt, I often run into earnest well-meaning people who make what I now think are outrageous claims, especially about matters of spirit. “This is who God is,” one told me the other day. “And this and this and this are ways God works. If you want to be saved, you must do this and this and certainly not that.”
When a person goes on like this, I hear echoes of my past. And of Albert.
That goose has been in our keeping since he was a day old. He knows no other world but the one my husband and I provide him. He receives his food, water, shelter and care compliments of us. We set boundaries for him. We protect him.
Albert is a cantankerous fowl creature, willing and able to bite the hand that feeds him, to act the part of the silly goose. He chases cars, for pete’s sake. And I love him for it. He puffs up with self-importance and struts about like a know-it-all. His temper is as big as Texas. He models for me my own goose nature, that part of me that will turn and bite me in the butt if I go unaware.
For Albert to act like he knows everything—or if not everything, a great deal, anyway—about my husband and me seems the height of folly (and not altogether out of character for him).
What of substance can Albert know about the prerogatives and predilections of a human being? How can he with his goose mind pretend to know the mind of his gods? Yet he lives untroubled by doubt, absolutely certain he is in the know.
Perhaps he and I are more alike than I care to admit. When it comes to the universe and matters of spirit, I have a goose mind, too. And I appear just as much the silly goose when I pretend to know how and why it all works. Or how it doesn’t work. Far better, far more authentic for me to stand on tiptoe, fling wide my arms, embrace Mystery and trumpet the one truth of which I am absolutely certain, “I don’t know.”
This essay appeared in White Crane, No. 67, Winter 2005/2006