I never know from year to year whether Easter's grand story will lodge in my heart or stay trapped in the cool channels of my mind. My faith is as fickle as a cat. It comes and goes as it pleases. And sometimes, it seems to sit across the room and watch me, tail flicking.

I grew up Southern Baptist and was "saved" at 9. Easter was a big event. But it didn't seem like much of a miracle to me. I was too young to know what "dead and gone" meant. I didn't yet know grief's terrible yearning.

I was also too new in the world to separate one wonder from another. Jesus died and rose from the dead. It was a fact. Everybody knew that. TV pictures travel through the air. Wood floats. Airplanes fly.

I don't know exactly when that easy faith left me, but it did.

Last year, I attended Easter services at a Presbyterian church in Denton, Texas. I wore a silk dress and didn't need a coat because North Texas had been beautiful--lush and warm for a month. A friend I'll call "David" was with me. David is in his 80s, and he suffers from a mysterious spasm that causes him to jerk abruptly, as though he has just been startled awake from a bad dream. In crowds, the jerks are likely to come more often.

We were packed into the pews like pencils in a box. It was stuffy, and the jerks had a bad hold on David.

"We are gathered on this joyous day," the preacher said. Jerk. Jerk. Jerk.

"To celebrate the salvation of the world." Jerk, jerk.

David's knees would bang into the pew before us, and his backbone would jar the pew under us. The force of those jolts set the two pews to shaking until both rows of heads were rocking back and forth pretty much in time with David's.

A few kids turned around, but their mothers frowned and slapped their shoulders until they stopped looking.

Even if David could have walked--which didn't seem likely, given his condition at that moment--we couldn't have gotten out of that packed church. So we sat there, all dressed up, jerking back and forth, feeling miserable and trying to act as though nothing was happening.

Meanwhile, the preacher was going on about Jesus and the miracle. I looked around at everybody with their faces raised toward the pulpit and thought, "Is it possible that these people really believe this hooey? I know I sure don't." Jerk. Jerk.

It was a lonely moment for David and me. To be so estranged from everyone around you feels like a little death. When I am that faithless, I never expect to believe again.

And then I do. Not that day maybe. But some other.

Faith is always a surprise. You show up on the big Sunday, expecting warmth and awe, maybe a little fervor. And you get--nothing. Another day, you're all smug and disinterested, and here it comes, knocking you down and hauling you home to Jesus.

That's how it was one Sunday a few years ago in a little storefront church with a stained carpet and a floor that shook every time the preacher moved. He held a big Bible that was so well-thumbed the pages were crinkled, and he preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ with every breath.

I thought, "Jeez Louise, can't he come up with something more relevant than that?"

But the congregation was nodding and amen-ing, and one tough-looking little blonde seemed as if she were about to cry.

When it came time for the testimonies, the song leader told how he'd been a homeless crack addict. A skinny guy got up to say he'd almost killed himself a year before, and now he was a warrior for Jesus. The little blonde's face was beet red as she hustled up to the preacher's side.

"The devil's been after me. He got me twice," she said, her voice fading so low it almost couldn't be heard. She gave some details, and it was clear even from this short telling that her life was a tangled mess.

The little blonde needed big magic. She needed powerful stuff. She needed a miracle strong enough to beat death, strong enough to beat crack, strong enough to beat poverty. She needed the Resurrection. Nothing else would be enough.

I didn't expect it, but her pain pierced my heart, and my smart-aleck thoughts vanished. Faith had worked its way with me. I was back from orbit, right there among 'em, humbled now, a believer.

So, can I bring myself to believe this Easter? No. Not by will. Some people say only grace will do it. I must not have enough of that. But this year, circumstances may be conspiring for me to have a burst of Easter faith.

In Brookfield, Wis., where I now live, the temperature is a balmy 32 degrees with a wind chill that's got to be subzero. We didn't see the sun today. The daffodils' heads drooped. Dirty clumps of snow littered the low places. Fifteen minutes into my daily dog walk, I turned back, my hands so frozen they ached.

I'm in a new town, farther north than ever in my life. Spring is nothing but a rumor. The world is cold and dark.

But you can feel it coming. It's rising from the earth--foretold, unstoppable. This long winter will not grip us forever. The spring, the light, the Messiah will triumph.

It can all seem pretty darn convincing when you need it. This year, I may be able to believe.

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