Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

by Carly Gelsinger


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Carly Gelsinger is an awkward and lonely thirteen-year-old when she stumbles into Pine Canyon Assemblies of God, the cracked stucco church on the outskirts of her remote small town. She assimilates, despite her apprehensions, because she is desperate to belong. Soon, she is on fire for God. She speaks in tongues, slays demons, and follows her abusive pastor’s every word―and it’s not until her life is burnt to the ground that she finds the courage to leave.

Raw and illuminating,Once You Go In is a coming-of-age tale about the beauty and danger of absolute faith, and the stories people tell themselves to avoid their deepest fears.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631524295
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Carly Gelsinger lives in California with her husband and two daughters. She holds a master’s in journalism and runs a small business helping people write their stories. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt


I used to get drunk on the Holy Spirit, but that was a long time ago.

If Pastor Frank could see what I was getting drunk on now, he'd probably try to lay hands on me to pray the demons away. I thought of this as I ran my fingers over the surface of the long mahogany bar, taking in its nicks and bumps. I finished off my vodka and cranberry juice and laughed at something my friends said. To our left, strings of white lights sparkled over an exposed brick wall. A Katy Perry song blared over the bar's speakers, and a group of girls in furry boots and leggings were swaying and singing along behind us. On these Friday nights, deep into Boston's autumn, a tavern was the warmest and most festive place to be.

My friend Allie handed me a gin and tonic. I lapped up the top of the drink so it wouldn't spill. The taste instantly took me back to the pine needles I chewed as a child after I'd read of their high vitamin C content in a nature book.

"This tastes like a Douglas fir," I said.

"Have you not had gin before?" my friend Bea asked, squinting one eye at me.

"No, I have," I lied. I'm twenty-three years old. I should know what gin tastes like.

"Well cheers then," Bea said, pushing up her plastic-rimmed glasses. Bea was a gin-loving filmmaker, lesbian, and Red Sox fan who always had a camera strapped around her shoulders.

"To surviving another week," Allie said. She leaned across me to clink glasses with Bea. Allie was a sharp-witted blonde whom I bonded with on our first day of grad school over our penchant for Richard Nixon documentaries.

"To another weekend," I said, carefully clinking my glass up to both of theirs. When the gin hit my stomach, I felt warmth like a cozy fireplace spreading through my body. After spending my life trying to fit in, I had finally found people who were as nerdy as me, and all of a sudden, I didn't have to cloak myself to belong — mostly. There was one thing I did cloak, one Big Thing. My friends knew nothing of who I used to be — how I lived for mission trips and miracles, fasting and prophecy. I tried not to think about those times at all. My friends were at the bar to blow off academic steam. I came to forget. Sometimes the haze over those fiery Jesus days was so thick I could trick myself into believing they had never happened. But other times, I could feel the ashes buried deep in my soul, permeating everything.

I was an amateur drinker, really. Two years before, I'd had my first drink a month after my twenty-first birthday — a capful of Malibu Rum in a tumbler of pineapple juice, served by my "rebellious friend" from Christian college. I didn't even finish it because I was afraid of getting drunk. It didn't take me long after to learn that flooding my brain with booze was the easiest way to drown the memories.

The room was getting fuzzy, but I didn't stop. I ordered a basket of wings and a Long Island iced tea — another drink I'd heard of but never tried. Bea and Allie dug into the chicken, dipping the wings in ranch and buffalo sauces, while I gulped down my drink.

You were going to change the world, a voice popped into my head.

I leaned forward on my barstool and stared at my empty glass, where the reflection of tiny white lights spun in figure eights. I closed my eyes and rested my cheek on the cold bar.

But look at you now.

In the swirling darkness, Bea and Allie's faces faded, and a silver-haired man appeared, pacing at a pulpit and yelling. A woman sat behind him at a piano, her fingers cascading up and down the keys in a fluid motion. I heard a deep voice over the phone. God has incredible plans for you. I smelled mildewed carpet; my face pressed down on it. Yes, Lord. Yes, Jesus. Yes, Lord. Hot tears ran down my face.

"I'm backslidden," I blurted, without lifting my head from the bar.

My armpits were damp with sweat.

"You're back-what?" Bea asked. "Carly, are you crying?"

"I used to be chosen. Consecrated. On fire," I said, pulling up my head and putting my mouth around the straw to suck up the melted ice. "But look where I am now."

"Well, I am glad you're here," Allie said, tipsy and generous. "Let's put some quarters in the jukebox. This bar could use a little Bruce Springsteen."

"I have to confess something, you guys," I continued. "I still like Jesus. Does that make me a crazy freak?"

"No, it doesn't make you a crazy freak," Bea said, then flagged the bartender to bring me a glass of ice water and then held it up to my mouth. "Drink this, hun."

"She okay?" the bartender asked.

"I think so," Allie said.

I took a long sip of water, and my stomach lurched.

"Let's get more Long Islands," I said, slurring my words.

"Drink the water first," Allie said. "Then we'll get more."

"And eat something. Here," Bea said, shoving a chicken wing under my nose. I bit off a piece of meat and chewed it. My mouth felt rubbery.

"They were wrong. They were so wrong about everything," I said.

"Who is they, hun?" Bea asked.

"All of them. All of them," I said.

I fought back my gag reflex and drank some more water.

"Can't I have my Jesus and still believe you should be able to get married if you want to?" I asked Bea. "Because they say I can't."

Before I could get an answer, I dropped my tumbler, rupturing liquid with hundreds of glass shards all over the concrete floor. In a feeble attempt to clean up the mess, I grabbed a flimsy napkin and bent over. I lost my balance and hit the ground on my back. As I flailed around trying to stand, my stomach knotted up. A vile eruption of gin and rum and vodka and fried chicken flew from my throat, pieces of it landing on my sweater, Bea's shoes, and the barstool's legs.

"Oh, shit," Allie said. "Are you okay?"

"No more of them," I said, flat on my back and soaking in a puddle of brown vomit, a pile of broken glass next to me. "I can't do it. No more of them. Just Jesus. They can't take Jesus away from me."

"Get her out of here," the bartender yelled, as a bouncer came through with a giant push mop. The bouncer bent over and got in my face.

"Just Jesus," I said again.

"Okay, Jesus Girl, if you don't get the hell out of here in the next ten seconds, we'll call the cops," he said. He turned to Bea and Allie. "Get her gone. Now." My friends pulled me up, pushed my arms through the gray pea coat I had draped over my barstool, and each took a side of my limp body, carrying me out of the tavern and into the freezing New England night.

I gave my heart to Jesus at a Baptist Vacation Bible School when I was seven years old. In exchange, I was given a stuffed bunny, hand-stitched by one of the elderly church ladies. It was made with quilter's fabric, white with little green shamrocks. I put the bunny on a shelf overlooking my twin bed, where it watched me with its button eyes, making sure I was good day and night. Some would say this is when I found God, but I know otherwise.

I grew up in Pine Canyon, a northern California town tucked in the crevasses of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By the time I was born in the 1980s, Pine Canyon had a population of about six hundred, its apex reached more than a hundred years before. Its bustling railroad-and-gold days long forgotten, Pine Canyon had tapered to families partial to a quiet mountain life. And quiet it was. Surrounded by red dirt, ponderosa pines, and two wild rushing rivers, Pine Canyon boasted more saloons than stoplights (four to none). Downtown was one block of brick-façade buildings, an Amtrak stop, an old movie theater, restaurants that could never stay open, and an antiquered caboose permanently parked outside the bank. A visit to town meant running into any number of people we knew, such as Wayne the Honest Mechanic, or Craig the Crooked Mechanic, or Bud the Honest-but-Alcoholic Mechanic. Besides mechanics, we might see Bill the Gold Miner and George the Greek talking outside the Railhead Saloon, or Dick the Cal-Trans Worker renting a movie from Pick-A-Flick Video, or Corinne the Artist, working on a chalk mural on the sidewalk outside the caboose. On more rare occasions, we could see Ice-Pick Ron, who had served time in prison for stabbing someone with — what else? — an ice pick. Or Peacock Bill, or Myrtle the Librarian, who was cranky because she had shingles, or Arnold and Ardith the Antiques Collectors and owners of the Mexican Villa where Mom had waited tables when she was pregnant with me. I belonged to these people before I could talk. To them, I was Tom the Painter's Daughter, a title I was proud of.

In the darkness of winter mornings, Dad would stoke the fire in our wood-burning stove before he left for work. I would wake to the shree-shree-shree of an old newspaper being torn into strips and the low roar of the fire, and I would burrow deeper under my covers, the ashy smell of the stove and its slow, creeping warmth lulling me in for more dreaming. As I slept, Dad pulled on his white carpenter pants every day, stained with whatever color he'd been rolling or spraying that week, and started his old blue Dodge van with the round headlights that I thought looked like stupefied eyes.

I would wake up a few hours later, and set about my day of exploring my parents' twelve forested acres and the nearby pond where I swung from ropes into mucky water and hunted for frogs with five legs. Often my younger brother, Paul, and I did these things instead of doing our schoolwork, and our teacher — Mom — allowed it because she believed childhoods should be long and free. Often, when I mention my homeschooling background, people think I come from one of those big families in matching jumpers who aren't taught science. We were different, I am quick to explain. We were the kind of homeschoolers who took a five-week trip to Baja California during the school year in an old RV. We studied Mexican history by visiting Oaxaca Indian villages and Spanish missions; we studied biology by snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez at low tide.

But the majority of my childhood memories are at home. We lived six miles northeast of town in a trailer — or something of a 1970s modular home — one that existed on the property when Mom bought it before she had children. Anytime my parents had a few extra dollars, it went into renovating the tin-roofed barn behind the trailer that they planned to someday turn into our rustic dream home. We called it the Barn, as in, "When we move to the Barn, we'll have room for a piano." In the meantime, they made the trailer homey with a wraparound deck covered with potted flowers and a porch swing that looked out to the canyon. I couldn't tell the difference between our house and our friends' houses until I was about ten years old and I realized most other families' front doors weren't made of aluminum. When I pointed this out to Mom, she said that the inside part of our house isn't much, but the outside part is vast with rivers and trees and meadows, and what matters more?

We spent most of our days in the outside part of our house, barefooted on the banks of the American River. I would be reading a torn copy of Anne of Green Gables. Dad would be ten yards upstream, panning for gold, while my brother waved a piece of driftwood in the air in an imaginary sword fight. Sometimes we would fish, and I always felt something profound, perhaps spiritual, in the tension of my rod when I hooked something — a rainbow trout, or more often, a clump of ragweed. I would eat the lunch Mom packed me that morning, and use the napkin she wrote a love note on as a bookmark. I'm not sure anyone can wipe their face with a handwritten note from their mother.

Most Sunday mornings were spent on a bench with Dad in downtown Pine Canyon. This ritual began when I was so small Dad had to lift me to drop the coins in the newspaper dispenser for his weekly paper. When Paul was old enough to see what he was missing, he wanted to come too. I reluctantly shared Dad on these mornings.

Dad always got a Dr. Pepper, and Paul and I always got purple Squeezits, a sugary "juice" in a squeezable plastic bottle. I never was allowed Squeezits on Mom's watch, so these were special times. Dad would utter this high-pitched whistle lacking any melody, like the sound you make when you blow into a shell, as he flipped through the paper always in this order: front page, sports, comics. Toss the lifestyle section. We would wait for the train, always signaled by one long horn. Paul wore his conductor's hat and jumped up and down at its arrival. I would stare into the sleeper cars of the Amtrak and hope someday I could be as fancy as the people sleeping on the train.

Until somebody told me years later, I didn't know I was supposed to be in church on Sundays. I didn't know that people were driving by us, dressed in their Sunday best, probably thinking about how we kids needed saving. I didn't know that Sunday mornings were meant for anything other than watching the trains go by with Dad.

I decided when I was very young that my father was my hero, so even the night Mom screamed and dug her fingers into a Christmas casserole and flung pieces at him when he came home drunk again, I couldn't muster anger for him. I hid in my bedroom as the fight went on — scream, splat, scream, splat — reading the yellowed pages of my book by dim lamp. Dad later came to kiss me goodnight, pieces of egg and canned Ortega chilies still stuck to his red flannel shirt. I could smell beer on his breath as his prickly cheek brushed my forehead. I didn't kiss him back because I had to teach him a lesson, not because I didn't want to.

When Dad moved out a few months later, I realized my world was as fragile as those dragonflies with missing wings we saw at the pond. I tried to be strong for Paul, who understood even less than I did. One night, we watched Star Wars. Paul wept the entire movie and begged Mom to let us visit Dad. We piled in the car and drove to the river cabin Dad lived at, but when we got there, Mom said Dad was too drunk to be near us. She took us to get personal pizzas instead.

The day Dad came back, I was petting our Labrador on the deck. He crept up behind me with a take-and-bake pizza in his arms.

"I'm sorry," he said. Dad wasn't one of those men who never cried, but usually he tried to wipe his tears. This time, he let them fall from his face and down the cracks of the wooden deck he built by hand. "I'm going to change," he said, tears splatting on the wood. "I'm home" — splat. "I'm going to be a Dad again" — splat. I believed him, because that's what six-year-old girls do for their fathers. Lucky for me, he told the truth.

A few years later on that same deck, which had been painted over twice and had many boards replaced, the four of us sat around a weathered table in a game of Rummy. The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour played in the background on my brother's gray Sony compact disc player he got for Christmas that year, which weighed as much as a watermelon.

The Beatles were in the background of everything we did, playing on that stereo. Paul and I were on a mission to collect every song the Beatles ever made. We took turns using our allowance for the cause.

We sang "All You Need is Love" as the sun set behind the wall of pine trees next to us, and something filled our voices, something found in John Lennon's ripe-peach voice, so soft yet prickly, and the most honest voice I'd ever heard. We sang with weight behind our smiles. My heart bubbled over with the sense that love filled our lungs, and that love was bigger than the canyon surrounding us.

Perhaps for these reasons, I had an inexplicable draw to be near God from a young age. Maybe that's what led me to Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church, or maybe it was something less spiritual, less fateful. Maybe it was simply because I biked by it on a day I wished I had more friends.

Occasionally, if Mom had an appointment in the big city, she would drop Paul and me off in Pine Canyon with our bikes and packed lunches. We would ride to the library and lean our bikes outside the entrance without locking them, and spend a couple hours reading on scratchy mustard yellow armchairs. The library was usually empty, except for the one guy who came in every morning to do the crossword puzzle. Most kids our age were in school.


Excerpted from "Once You Go In"
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Copyright © 2018 Carly Gelsinger.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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