Little Altar Boy

When I was a child and through my teens, there was one voice that was always there. Well, not always there, but always available when the thousand things I’m always thinking about would get thought out, when the hundreds of adjustments to be made were completed, when the tens of friends would be off friending with other people, when a handful of moments were there solemn and for the taking. The voice belonged to Karen Carpenter.

Her death made her a constant in the universe, never getting older, never doing anything newer. Never being anything that what she was at the moment I learned of her death. Always the same, always utterly knowable.

Even at Christmastime, Karen was there, whether singing cloying and cursed carols or more contemporary and nuanced personal statements about the supposedly most wonderful time of the year.

Over the years, I have outgrown the unnuanced hypocrisy of the holiday season in America, just as I have outgrown the need for the self- and soul-flagellation that attends Christianity. Jingle the Bells, Hark the Heralds, Fa the La-La-La’s if you must—and plenty of us must—but please don’t be offended by my utter neutrality towards the festivities that seem to just borrow against the next year’s good will.

Nuanced moments, times, people, events are those that stay with me; complexities and subtleties abound to be savored, studied, analyzed, observed, enjoyed, revisited, reconsidered, re-dismissed. I learn so much about my own thoughts, about my own feelings, about my own age, about my own time, by playing myself against static pieces or by letting a song play me with a fine hand.

One of the songs that appeared on the Carpenters’ Christmas album, that I still cannot forget, is called “Little Altar Boy”:

Little altar boy, I wonder could you pray for me?
Little altar boy, for I have gone astray
What must I do to be holy like you?
Little altar boy, oh, let me hear you pray

Little altar boy, I wonder could you ask your Lord
Ask him, altar boy, to take my sins away
What must I do to be holy like you?
Little altar boy, oh, let me hear you pray

Lift up your voice and send a prayer above
Help me rejoice and fill that prayer with love
Now I know my life has been all wrong
Lift my your voice and help a sinner be strong

Little altar boy, I wonder could you pray for me?
Could you tell our Lord I’m gonna change my ways today?
What must I do to be holy like you?
Little altar boy, oh, let me hear you pray
Little altar boy please let me hear you pray!

How can a man who has no need for a god-concept, no wont of cosmic cash-in at the end of life, no visceral attachment to the machinations of religious bureaucracies find anything of value in a song like this? I often ask myself that very same question. The question is yet another thing that I savor, study, analyze, observe…you get the picture. The revisitation serves to measure me. Serves to measure time. Tick! asks the question. Tock! waits for the arrival of an answer, or preferably, better questions.

This year, as my partner comes at me from the godless-left (as the Sacred States of America come at me from the moral-values-right), I ask myself again: what is it about the song—most specifically, Karen Carpenter’s rendition of the song—that refuses to stop speaking to me?

The singer of the song is regretful, wishing to make a change, wishing to become better. And asking for help. Help is being asked of an innocent, who the singer believes has a better chance of being heard, and thus the singer has a better chance at getting what she needs.

Asking for forgiveness, while most often a selfish-demand to be relieved of a past burden, can sometimes be nothing more—and nothing less—than the natural outburst proceeding from a moment of clarity, a moment of realization, a moment of self-understanding. When you can hold your own past, your own present, your own self in the palm of your own hand for even an instant, you’re floating free of everything that holds you back.

The song is a prayer, a supplication to the innocent to help them remember the realization and help them do something with the burst of insight after the moment has passed. And like any prayer, it’s a request of someone else to keep despair at bay until the singer can do it for herself.

Most of the people I know are not christian. None of my friends here in San Francisco attend church services. None vote Republican. None attempts social engineering before first attempting to engineer themselves into better people. None of them want someone else to do all the work.

All take pride in their own accomplishments while also acknowledging where they got help. All appreciate love and care and decency. All are self-described progressives or liberals. All are happy to help when they can.

Even the godless used to admit to sin. Now sin has become Sin, and is defined by Holy Proscription by the christians. Even the godless used to ask the heavens, “why me?”. Even the godless would show gratitude in moments of fatalistic benevolence. Even the godless could be able to say they were “blessed”.

So this year, at least, for me the song is about humility. The humility to admit that you don’t know something; the humility to own up to self-limiting behavior. It’s about asking for help and doing your best whether you get the help or not.

And in becoming a better person, a more decent human being, a more respecting and respectable individual, a more nuanced and fully realized soul in our ever-more-caricaturish society, share what you gained with others. Let them stand on your shoulders, because no matter what you’ve accomplished, you’ve been helped along the way as well.