A Gospel of Skin: God at the Laundromat
I first saw Salvation Mountain on Tumblr through someone else’s 35mm lens. It’s a 50-year-old installation of hay and plaster, forming a structure of caverns and stairwells with a large wooden cross at the top. In the middle of California’s desert, it stands out against the sky in bright colors, patterns, and hand-painted letterings of the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16. In the dead center, it reads simply, “God is love.”
I was familiar with every Bible verse inscribed into the project and the sinner’s prayer language nestled into the red heart. Through the dreamy haze of film photographs, the place felt almost childlike, as if borrowed from vacation bible school. And yet in the stillness of the desert, it was also accompanied by rotting cars, some stripped of their exteriors, and the eeriness of miles and miles of the surrounding landscape. I, as an existentially distressed teenager, loved that it was hopeful and also made me sad. I found it incredible that it could do both.
In that stage of adolescence, corners of my being resonated with the dilapidated automobiles contrasted by brightly painted sand. I was mostly ok during the day but when the sky got dark, it felt like my spirit did too. I would crumble onto the floor of my bedroom, crying, and my dad would sit close next to me. There were lots of things I didn’t feel brave enough to share, like how I wasn’t sure if I still believed in God, or more accurately, wasn’t sure if God still believed in me. How if I closed my eyes and couldn’t hear anyone speaking to me, I wasn’t sure I really existed at all. So I would just tell my dad, “I’m trying as hard as I can. I don’t know how I could possibly try harder.” And he would be with me, even though I could never quite finish the line to say, “Trying to believe like you need me to.” So I liked the pictures of the mountain like there was a place for belief to coexist alongside emptiness.
It would be nine years before I would get to visit Salvation Mountain. When I did, it reminded me of my grandfather’s property, another plot of land covered in decaying possessions because he was a child of the Great Depression. In my grandfather’s yard, there is no intentionality like that of an art installation. Instead, it’s the passivity of accumulation without refinement. Instead of bright, colorful paint, everything is muted by the particular film of dust and element that inevitably layers with time. Old vehicles, television sets, books, trucks, empty bottles, and cans, filled bottles and cans, toilets ripped from their bathrooms, knick-knacks, lawn gnomes, tires, radios, umbrellas, magazines, unopened appeals for Y2K prevention measures, and opened appeals for Y2K prevention measures all find a home on his property.
I would’ve never heard him use a word like “trauma” to explain why his yard was full of crystallized trash, like a time capsule of all his past lives. I think he would’ve said it was practical like he might use the old tools and appliances again someday. I’m a product of a generation 60 years younger and I’d use the word psychological: some unexamined impulse to keep every part of himself that ever amounted to safety. As a student, he’d actually hoped to study psychology. He would’ve read about things like that. But a professor warned him that it wasn’t a good path for people of faith so he changed his mind and stuck to his Bible.
For the time we overlapped on this earth, I mainly knew him as a man who collected old things and stuck to his Bible. But even for all his love of old things and scripture, he wouldn’t have resonated with a place like Salvation Mountain. The Mountain is trash and holy words, but with lots of paint and art mixed in. Salvation Mountain and my grandfather’s yard are two different types of keeping, two different aesthetics to salvaging old things. Why do they feel so the same to me? The same in their attempt to hold onto the good, to cling to it, even as it turns landscapes into junkyards. Both have a beauty; both run the risk of losing track of which things are worth keeping. Because surely, in the span of a full human life, there are some things you need to keep and some you must subject to revision. When my grandfather died, his family was left with the task of weighing each piece and deciding its fate. And if it falls to me to measure all the pieces and deem some of it sacred and some of it waste, then I still have a hard time understanding the logic that sorts it all out.
I only understand feeling or longing, like the room in Salvation Mountain full of relics, photographs, and letters from loved ones that visitors left behind. It keeps the things people have released, and the walls make a dome like a little desert chapel. It felt sacred, it felt like longing unfulfilled, and it functioned like a room of offering. It made me want to take communion. Even on the days when I don’t know what I believe, I want to be taking communion in a church service next to my dad.
I want it like, my hands perched with my palms up, an offering, but held softly so the tips of my fingers start to curl in. I want a priest to scoop them up in hers and close her hands around mine to shape my form into a prayer. I want them opened only to take of the bread and wine, and if it’s the cracker and the juice, that’ll only make it feel more familiar. I want to hear the minister say, “take this in remembrance of me,” my eyes shut tight, remembering. And when I trace back over the memory, thinking about the pieces kept, lost, and in question, I am still shaking on my bedroom floor, my dad holding me. “I don’t know how I possibly could have tried harder.”
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