The Gift of the Father

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”

—Psalm 68:5

Now, my mother was not a widow, but I was most definitely fatherless. I learned young the painful ways that little girls without dads are defenseless. My sisters and I prayed early and often for a father, the way our church told us we should, because we were unworthy beings, the product of our mother’s sin. I felt the absence, the lack of protection, keenly as a little girl. But I was always a kid with a healthy ego, so I chose myself a father – and naturally, I chose the biggest baddest Daddy around. Sometimes, now that I’ve become almost the extreme opposite of who I was raised to be, remembering that feeling – of loving God on that deep, intimate level – is like remembering a movie I saw a long time ago. Almost fictional, definitely blurry and only half-recalled. But I did love Him. He was my dad. And this is the story of what it was like to lose Him – the only father I had even known. (It’s also the story of how I became a Buddhist because of Ricky Martin. Yes, of “Livin la Vida Loca” fame. Did you not know he was Buddhist?)

Since I was blessed with the ego of a natural-­born performer, the notion of having a built­-in, all-the-­time audience appealed to my basic nature. No need for imaginary friends when there was God, the one who loved me as much as I loved Him, and always more. There was always someone to talk to, the most confessional of relationships. I could tell Him my deepest darkest secrets. He already knew my heart, after all.

And God spoke back. Often it was a flash of insight for a question I had long pondered and brought to the Lord. Sometimes it was just a sense that someone who cared was listening. My feelings and experiences were not belittled or shamed, with Him I wasn’t just being dramatic or talking too much. It felt like I was being witnessed, that I was important enough to be seen. It brought me a sense of peace in an often chaotic mind. And to make me feel even more special, God would give me words for other people. Someone, usually an acquaintance but not a near friend, would suddenly come into focus. In the middle of church service, or while walking through the parking lot before or after, I would see them and others would just fade into the background. I’d know something about them. I’d have something I felt I had to say to them, and I couldn’t forget it or ignore it. I felt flushed and embarrassed when I approached them with a “Um, hi, this is really weird but I have to tell you something…” I’d have answers, even when I didn’t know what the question was, about love or friendship, illnesses or careers. Their reactions made it clear I had hit the mark. And the more I allowed the word of God to pour through me, the more he made himself available to me. We were close. I was a chosen one, a prophet, a daddy’s girl.

My senior year of high school, an acquaintance shot himself. At first, I was angry about the suicide, but then a slide happened in my brain. Something I always held at bay twisted and broke in my head. Stuck in a dark spiral of suicidal ideation, there was no room for empathic connection with others. I needed my father. I needed light shone into the deepest darkest corners of my heart, my head. Someone I could cry to and be held without question. And that was when God went silent. There was no peace to be found in my brain. I didn’t have any special insight, an God-given gift. I was just another angst-ridden teenager that didn’t matter much. I wasn’t special. Not enough for God to save, anyway. I’d threaten suicide and His silence was like a smirk, daring me.

Somehow, I held onto the hope I would hear from him again. I graduated as Vice President of the Bible Club, desperately clinging to a faith that became more tenuous the deeper the depressive episode became. Personal relationships, when they end, often leave one alone and scrabbling in the dark to make some sense of one’s identity, sense of place, and feelings of abandonment and loss. How much more so when the personal relationship that has ended is with an idea of God that has become an almost tangible thing, ­a placeholder for an absent father, yes, but even more, a heartbreakingly familiar companion who suddenly goes silent?

Six months later, I had stayed alive long enough to get into college. God was still ghosting me. I had left the church and rushed headlong into rebellious behavior: watching TV and movies, listening to secular music, and cursing. I moved to Seattle and went to art school and earnestly tried to lose my virginity. I harbored lustful thoughts for Ricky Martin (an affinity for gay men that only ripens with time) and learned to pretend I was not shocked by the openly gay couples holding hands in the streets. I ate Taco Bell a lot. I bought a tarot deck and started to learn about astrology and sex. I was alone and suddenly a grownup with rent to pay and also a broken heart. I looked for tools that helped me understand the ways we are all connected and the ways we are all searching.

I tried Buddhism because I was terrified. I tried Buddhism because I heard Ricky Martin had recently converted and the new friend who told me about being Buddhist kept mentioning being happy. I wanted to be happy. And in the middle of the terrifying swirl of change in those first months as an adult on my own, I tried to quiet my brain by chanting, “Nam myoho renge kyo.” Instantly, the chatter died down. Peace. That familiar sense of belonging, here, in this life, right now, descended to quiet my brain. Not because someone listened and responded, but because I was already a part of a great Listening and a great Response.

Buddhism made sense to my rational brain, and as a child of a philosopher, I was naturally drawn to the rational thought it was based on: every cause has an effect. I felt less helpless because my life depended on me, on what I could do and the choices I made. I was freed from anyone’s plan for me but my own. Shit, I had to make a plan! Without the restrictions of another being’s rules for me, my life and thus my hope began to blossom. I wanted to be the best person I could be because I could choose to, not because I was expected to. And I got to decide what my best self looked like. The thing is: God still talks to me. Those insistent tugs at my soul, words or insight that pops suddenly into my mouth for a friend or acquaintance. I am still a prophet. It’s an empathic magic I’ve been gifted with this lifetime when I am willing to listen with compassion.

I am still here with a twisted, broken something in my brain. I am still, too often, hopeless. I am still working on being my best self. Buddhist philosophy is a tether, a sometimes fatalistic acceptance that I am stuck with my karma until I change it. I may as well find a way to enjoy it. I may as well strive for happiness, my own and others. I may as well create a life I can be proud of. While I am still here.

An award-winning writer and performer, Amber Flame is also a singer for multiple musical projects. Flame’s original work has been published and recorded in many diverse arenas, including Def Jam Poetry, Winter Tangerine, The Dialogist, Split This Rock, Jack Straw, Black Heart Magazine, Redivider, Sundress Publications, and more. Flame works at an independent media company, This Week in Blackness, as well as a teaching artist for various theater companies and co-produces the Oakland Slam. She performs regularly on musical, burlesque, and literary stages. She is committed as an activist and organizer for a diverse number of theatrical, cabaret, queer, and POC communities. Amber Flame is one magic trick away from growing her unicorn horn.

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