It is, in my experience, impossible to meditate on a paper cut.
When something hurts, it hurts, and that’s actually just life in the goddamn moment.
What do you do when you get a paper cut and it really hurts? You curse. I mean, I spent years trying not to curse, because kids. Plus, cursing is negative and profane. But you know what? I think it helps me to curse. I decided to go with what works and I made one of my New Year’s Resolutions “curse readily.” When it hurts, I just let it out now. I don’t keep my curses bottled up inside.
“Mommy’s hair is gone because she has cancer,” Winnie, age five, informed me.
She was at my house to play one Saturday morning. “Do you miss her hair?” I asked.
She nodded, tearing up. “Girls are supposed to have hair,” she explained. Her big blue eyes widened for emphasis.
“Mommy’s hair will grow back,” I said. My friends were counseled to talk about the periods Mommy wouldn’t feel well from chemo treatments as brown days. “Mommy’s having a brown day,” I said, as if Winnie hadn’t noticed.
Brown days. Brown crayons. Breaking crayons.
I hugged her. Winnie wanted to be included by the bigger girls, who did not want to play with her; she wanted to get seconds to get thirds to get hugs to get reassurance that everything and everyone will be all right. She wanted to ban brown days forever, to break every single brown crayon.
When he first called from the hospital waiting room about his wife M’s breast cancer diagnosis, still without stages or numbers or treatment plans, it loomed instantly, amorphous and unknown, like a threatening storm cloud. “Out of the blue” is an odd phrase, and yet it worked, except I remember that day was cloudy. Stunning bad news doesn’t fall from gray skies. Stunning bad news fit the foreboding scene, though. Dampening clouds pressed in with a stranglehold. I couldn’t promise any damn thing, obviously. I listened. I hurt with him. To love friends sometimes means to hurt with them, and to hold onto that hurt.
My feet gripped the hilly sidewalk. I sent her a text. M texted back, seriously WTF right? That became the mantra: WTF. It was the correct mantra.
What I really wonder though is what helps, what really helps. You get into big-ticket problems and everyone tells you what you should do. Cancer is about as big as it gets. Everyone has an opinion about meditation or drugs or environment or the messed up way we don’t care for ourselves and really? You are in brown days with kids who need play dates. You are neither an environmental warrior nor a sudden yogi.
Anyway, other things seem (maybe are) smaller. Hangnails. Stubbed toes. Paper cuts. Splinters. Knotted neck muscles.
Things I’ve cursed in recent years include but are not limited to cancer:
High school administrators
The sham our country calls health insurance
Political arguments on Facebook
Snow and winter
Staff development days
January crowds at the gym
Other health crises
Poor administrators of all stripes,
And laundry—I have cursed laundry, which isn’t really what I curse when I curse laundry. Laundry is shorthand, metaphor. What I curse is how burdensome the freight of everyday responsibilities can feel. Sometimes, what’s most crushing is the place where the mundane and looming converge—and I often happen upon it with a laundry basket between my arms. I know the angle my arms need to bend to carry that sucker as well as I knew how to hold my babies through interminable nights.
Laundry is also why I sprained my ankle on a snow day. Because we were stuck inside the first and second days post-winter break, I tackled the laundry in the bottom of the hamper, the long neglected, overdue, already outgrown laundry. That’s when I tumbled. My breath was gone; my ankle flipped—searing pain in one nanosecond. I was twisted on the inside, and I screamed. I knew I was in trouble. Three days with ice and ibuprofen and elevation and longer in an ace bandage, which I MacGyvered with a pair of red tights I plan never to wear again—not that I’d worn them for.
In the midst of so many bigger things I cursed myself for freaking out about my stupid sprained ankle. I laughed at Lisa Kudrow’s absurdity in Web Therapy and felt only slightly less pathetic as a human. Fuck the sprained ankle. Fuck cancer. Fuck the big things. Fuck my family for freaking out about me lying down for three short days.
At the time I’d been doing yoga for about two years. I waited a few weeks to return to yoga class. Even after I could walk and work out, it turned out that my ankle hurt the most during yoga class—during the warrior poses and anything that had me sit with the top of my feet on the floor, which is to say my ankle hurt during yoga class, a lot. Ostensibly, the ankle is why I stopped.
It wasn’t just that, though. After those three days to elevate and ice my ankle nonstop, I realized that simply to sit with everything felt terrible. Take the ankle pain away from the yoga equation, it still felt terrible to be there with all that silence and stillness. However good it was for me, however much I should sit with what was hard, I felt terrible in that pristine space. So, I stopped.
I still wonder sometimes whether yoga or meditation would help more than cursing. I drew the conclusion that for now, cursing works better for me, and I haven’t wanted to take a yoga class since.
When things are hard, rather than fight, go with the bad—ride the current because you can’t swim against it—but when things are easy, go with the good. The hard stuff showed me this. If I’ve changed my tack, it’s that I aim for comfort a little more, challenge a little less. I like peanut butter and I like carrots. I always have. Like Frances of Bread and Jam For before she began to eat everything, I appreciate that comfort foods exist because we take comfort in the beloved.
A year later, M and I still curse over text. Now, we just complain about the husbands and the kids.
My mother burned all her appointment books. It was a ritual, something she did at the end of every year; she would sit with the book—usually a spiral-bound week-by-week one with a nature photo on the left side and the dates on the right—and she’d look through all the appointments and commitments she’d had, taking the time to reflect on the things she’d done over the previous year. Then she’d burn it. I don’t know how or where she did that—in the bathtub, out in back of her house—but I suppose I do know why.
My mother wasn’t at home in time.
What I mean is that she struggled with time. My mother struggled with the present moment, for example, because it was generally a disappointment, characterized as it usually was by isolation, too much work, and not enough money. The future, on the other hand, was promising but often hinged on improbable things, like a windfall from who knows where. The future never seemed to arrive, or at least not the promising one she was hoping for; instead it just turned into a series of disappointing present moments. And the past—the past was worst of all.
My mother didn’t like to think about the past, let alone talk about it, and, on those rare occasions that she did talk about it, you got the sense that you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions—sometimes she said so explicitly—and you weren’t supposed to bring it up again later. “Anyway,” she would say, when she wanted to change the subject to something more comfortable. This was the psychological counterpart to the annual appointment book ritual: One’s personal history sometimes surfaced, but it was best to turn those memories to ash afterward.
And so my mother was homeless in time, disconnected from past, present, and future—or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, when my mother died in 2013—in November, a month she hated for its darkness—my sister and I weren’t expecting her to have left behind a tell-all memoir. There were memories in the form of photos—old photos of our childhood, for starters, and, from more recent years, some very beautiful nature photos that she’d taken herself—but we figured what little she may have written down about herself would be long gone.
We certainly weren’t expecting to find, among her things, a folder labeled “Poetry.” But that’s what my sister did find, one day when she was looking through things; she was looking to see if there was anything in there that I might want to keep as a remembrance.
I’d been having trouble imagining anything I’d want to keep. I wasn’t sure there was any object, any thing, that was going to mean much to me. What can an object mean? Your mother’s gone and, in the face of that, the things—all the things—are actually nothing. But then Karla found this folder.
The folder—a regular manila one—held a bunch of poems on pages and partial pages torn out of newspapers and magazines and a couple printed out from the web. Wislawa Szymborska, Jorge Luis Borges, Rosanna Warren, Yehuda Amichai, Richard Wilbur, Anna Akhmatova, others. There was even one poem—“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy—that I’d given to her, because it meant something to me at a time when things were dark for me, and I thought it would mean something to her, too. Apparently it did. She had plenty of her own dark times, of course. It struck me, too, that there weren’t any of my poems in that folder. I think my poems would have changed the collection, made it something it wasn’t supposed to be.
What really arrested me, though, were the ones that were in her handwriting—the ones she’d written. My mother wrote poetry. And I’d had no idea.
Think about that: I’m a poet myself; my mother had been watching me write poetry since I was a kid, had been listening to me talk about it for years. Meanwhile, here she was, writing her own poems—and she never shared them with me. Never brought them into any of those conversations about poetry. She never even told me they existed.
They say you often learn new things about people after they’re gone; you keep getting to know them. It’s true.
When I got the folder, I read all the poems with feverish attention—the ones by other people and, especially, the ones by her. I read hers many times. I wrote about them in my journal. I typed them up so I could (almost) feel what it was like to write them myself, letter by letter, word by word. I savored and inhabited them.
And for sure I recognized the woman who did the writing. There’s sadness there, for one thing. She writes:
the wind finds its way
through every crack in this
my body like a
massive ink blot
I know this woman. Honestly, I know those feelings. Sometimes the wind does find its way in.
And there’s my mother’s familiar desire to relocate to a particular kind of future—pleasant, better, and out of reach, though in these poems not necessarily impossible:
think I would feel better
if I could sit under a tree and
look at the mountain….
I’d wait for peace
to come down the mountain—
Anything green would be welcome,
a patch of grass would do.
I am waiting for spring
in its own good time
But it’s not all yearning, my mother’s poetry. There’s something else there that I didn’t expect. She wrote about nature, mostly, and moments of stillness—and what she did is she froze these things in place. She looked right at the present moment, in other words, and held on to it.
For now the pond is still.
Even the frogs are quiet.
clouds on the
Even when the moment was complicated, she held on to it:
Gloriosa daisies and
Long shadows on
the aching beauty of
Even when the moment was hard, she held on to it, and sometimes transformed it:
there’s a slight
feeling of melancholy but
there is a sweetness to it.
Most surprising, sometimes she actually wanted to keep the past with her:
trying to remember
There’s one pair of poems that especially move me. They’re both about the same moment where she was outdoors and a rabbit hopped out from beneath a hedge. Something about this touched my mother profoundly. She wrote about it in a beautiful eleven-line poem. Then, on the next page of her notebook, unwilling to turn from the instant—needing, in fact, to go further into it—she wrote the experience over again, this time in twenty-nine even more attentive lines.
Right, I thought. This is what we do as poets, I thought. We see something and we can’t bear the idea of losing it, so we write about what we’re seeing in order just to hold it. Richard Wilbur’s blackberries; Rosanna Warren’s mother between the bed rails; Thomas Hardy’s blast-beruffled thrush. We’re the people who don’t let go.
And my mother was one of us.
For my mother, any given present moment was tough, if she stepped back to take it all in. Things generally hadn’t turned out the way she expected; she was living alone, working too hard, post-dating checks, eventually ailing, watching November come in with its shorter and shorter days. The big picture was sometimes understandably hard for her to look at.
But what if the focus was smaller? Closer?
In these poems I met a woman who made peace with time, a woman who managed to split minutes and seconds into instants tiny enough for her to embrace them—tiny enough to allow her to be at home. I didn’t really know this woman when she was alive. I have to say I’m upset about that; there’s a loss there, beyond the original loss of losing the mother I did know.
But I’m glad she didn’t burn these poems. I’m glad that I’m starting to know her now—starting to know a woman who over and over again did make herself a home, who was able to make it out of what she had at hand.
I am sitting, just
sitting and aware
and wide awake
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved (Tebot Bach) and the short story collection Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House). Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
We’re driving to my cousin’s wedding in Atlantic City. We’re on a tight schedule. We spin past the bare-branched sycamores. The ground is dotted with patches of snow. The wind lashes against our rickety Honda.
Ben says he’s too hot in his coat. Peter says he’s too cold. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.” We’re getting closer. I begin to smell the waves of the bay.
Then Peter throws up.
We pull over, strip him down. He cries, his bare legs shaking in the cold. We toss his dirty clothes in a plastic grocery bag, find some clean clothes, mop up the vomit with baby wipes.
“Okay,” I say to my husband. “We’ll get there right when the ceremony starts. You’ll drop me off. I’ll change into my dress. I won’t miss it.”
We keep driving. Now the ocean is clearer, on the edge of the parkway. I inhale it. I, who hate to travel, inhale the ocean and its expanse, its freedom.
Finally, we arrive at the hotel. Bright lights, gold fountains, Roman god pseudo-sculpture. I was naïve; I expected a simple hotel. It’s like we’ve entered an amusement park.
Dizzy circles through the parking garage. My stomach in my throat. My mother texts me: “It’s okay. She won’t notice if you miss the ceremony.”
A parking spot, finally. I toss all our “fancy” clothes in a garbage bag to change into along the way.
We enter Caesar’s Atlantic City. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke and misery. The blinking lights of the slot machines. The room begins to spin.
I say to my husband, “Here, watch the children.” I take out my dress and tights, my good bra. I hand him the garbage bag with the children’s clothes, and run inside the ladies room.
I change inside a stall, my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. I tie up my messy hair, smear on some lipstick.
My husband has changed Peter into his button-down shirt and necktie. He hands me the garbage bag and Peter, then wanders off with Ben to change.
This. This is when I begin to fall apart.
Peter wants nothing more than to climb on all the slot machines. Peter will not stay in my arms. He twists away with all his two-year-old might. I try to carry him, the garbage bag of clothes, and my winter coat. And I cannot. I cannot do it.
My cellphone is low on charge. I have no idea which direction my husband has gone. I am completely lost, alone, with a screaming toddler who is half-covered in vomit.
I can’t hold onto all of it anymore. I can’t stop the panic from boiling over, from my belly, to my throat, to my eyes.
And then I’m not in my life anymore. It is 1983, and I am alone with my mother in the airport. The stench of cigarette smoke in our hair. Is it from the airport, or from the cigarettes my father has been smoking?
My father is gone. He left just as the snow began to fall in life-size, enormous chunks. Just as the baby started to blossom in my mother. Winter and spring colliding.
We are utterly alone in that airport. We do not know where he is, only that we are following him. The airport tilts as the planes rise up into the sky.
The airport was the room between the worlds. But not a room. A cavern. A chamber. An expanse of white that stretched beyond where I could see. There were no exits, no escapes, no way home.
The only way to out was to get on a plane.
We watched the planes through the window—a giant wall of glass. The planes were larger than life. They were dinosaurs: standing still, then suddenly running, lifting their clobbering tails up into the air.
The airport smelled of gasoline, cigarettes, and diaper cream.
It was 1984, and my sister was a newborn, snuggled against my mother. But her presence was slight, muted. She was young enough to sleep quietly in my mother’s arms. She closed her eyes and ignored it all.
My mother and I walked up and down the corridors. We were marbles being rolled up and down and around the tunnels, gates, entrances. We were being rolled by the great hand of my father. He reached for us across the continent. He didn’t want us with him, but he beckoned us nonetheless.
He made us want to find him. He made us look for him in each man’s face we saw streaming past.
Had he shaved his mustache yet? Was it just growing in?
I looked for my father, though I knew he wasn’t there.
I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go with my mother. I wanted to run away.
I stood at the top of the escalator, and my mother stood below. “Take me home,” I said.
My mother had no words. And now I see my sister for sure, my mother holding her, running up the escalator as it’s moving. There is no way to stop it from moving. My sister, the suitcase, the tickets—everything in her arms but me. It is clear that she can’t carry me as well, that I must will myself up the escalator.
And I do. I follow her. I get on the plane. I begin the endless journey of looking for my father.
I have been trying to piece it together, the origins of my anxiety—why my mind so easily jumps to the worst-case scenario.
I have had to untrain myself from assuming that any time my children get sick that they are going to die. I have to shut out the thought that any time I don’t hear from my husband for a few hours that he’s in grave danger. It is their lives—the ones whom I hold most dearly—that are at stake.
I have some theories. The loss of my father is one. But I didn’t completely lose him. He didn’t die. He just left. As a child, it was a loss that felt like death, but I still saw him often enough over the years. I could still find him, wrap him up in a bear hug.
I think the feeling of doom runs deeper, back to my ancestors, back through my DNA.
The dead babies, the boat, the planes, the entrances, the exits. Portals into the world, and out.
My grandmother slid the box out from under her bed. It was a beautiful brown box, old, faded around the edges, but nicely preserved. Maybe she was going to show me one of her hats, or try to give me another of her soft patent-leather shoes. (We had the same tiny feet, size 5).
She opened it up to reveal a small dress. Light pink, with a lacy, embroidered neckline. It was flattened and neatly laid, like something you would see on display at a museum. Small enough to lie flat in the box—a dress for a very young girl. You could almost see her lying quietly there.
I thought it was perhaps one of my mother’s childhood dresses, or one of my grandmother’s from when she was a girl.
“This is the dress of the girl who died,” my grandmother said. She drew out the word “died.” She had this way of being completely serious, but with an airy, dramatic flair.
Then she told the story. I only heard it that one time and was too scared to ask about again.
Her parents and their daughter were immigrating to America from Kiev, Russia. The boat was dirty, disgusting, people piled on top of one another, nowhere to sleep, living in squalor. There was very little food. Everyone ate rice, she said.
The little girl never made it to America.
My grandmother didn’t know how she died. And I was too shocked to ask.
“They named me Nachama, which means comfort, because I was her replacement,” she said.
But no one ever called her that. Her name was Emma.
She was Emma, my grandmother. But now I knew she was born after trauma, after the deepest loss imaginable. It would haunt her, and me, for the rest of our lives.
We moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old. We were chasing my father up and down the west coast. But there was also a restlessness on my mother’s part that propelled us from house to house—a search for the key to happiness.
I never felt that I had a home. Home was intangible, something reserved for daydreams.
And real dreams, too. I have always dreamt about the houses. I dream that I can go back to a home of mine, one that we left, and is still there, preserved as it was.
I dream of the apartment with the walk-in closet that I turned into a room for myself. I’d make stacks of toy money and play bank, or I’d take in all the books in our house and play library. I remember playing with my charm necklace, hiding the parts behind the coats. I think I tried to sleep in there, curl up into a little ball behind my mother’s boots. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t rest.
I dream of the apartment where I did have my own room. The twin windows that faced the mint tree. I’d crack the window open and inhale. My room with the full size bed in the center, the faded pink blanket, boom box on the bureau. When the earthquake began, first the windows rattled, then the radio switched itself off, then the lights. I walked out of my room as my mom and sister were coming out of the kitchen. We watched the chandelier sway, slowly, calmly, as though nothing momentous and devastating was happening.
And last night, I dreamt about the apartment I lived in longest. I knew it would enter my dreams soon enough—the apartment we left last summer. Both of my children were born there. I became a mother in those narrow rooms. Last night, in the dream, I stood in the living room, its soft brown carpet under my bare feet. The carpet felt wet, like soil that had been newly watered. A breeze was coming in. Ben’s stamp collection was lying open on the floor. The couch was gone, but the piano was there—the keyboard open, the keys whiter and brighter than I remember them.
I couldn’t say goodbye to that apartment. The last time we went, to get an ice cream sandwich my older son had left in the freezer (I kid you not), I didn’t want to go in. Because I hate endings. I hate last times. Especially when it comes to houses.
If I never have to move again, I will be eternally grateful. But I know we will move again someday. We rent our new home, and I have a deep desire to own a house someday.
If I own a house, it’s like I will never have to leave. I can grow old there. I can die there. I can sink into it. Get comfortable. A small square of earth that is entirely my own.
Then there was the story my grandmother never told me: the story of the other baby, her baby, the first one. I don’t think they ever named him.
In those days, you didn’t talk about stillbirth. The doctor told them to grieve briefly, then try right away for another baby.
That’s one of the few details I know. That, and the cord wrapped around his neck.
In my mind, the cord is blue, the room is blue, the baby blue. Gray and blue swirling together, enveloping the room in a dense fog.
I wonder if they ever saw him.
Did they hold him? Could they bear it?
Their second son, Raphael, the angel, was born a year later, as the doctor recommended.
But where did the grief go?
You never saw my grandmother in grief, only in fear. Her sister gone, this baby, too. Life so fragile, so temporary.
My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day. She’d sit in the rocking chair next to the aqua-blue telephone.
Did he die as he entered the world, as he journeyed out of her body? Or did he die inside her?
My son Ben was born that way, with the cord around his neck. The midwife told me to stop pushing for second; then she deftly hooked her finger under the cord, and slipped it off him. He came crashing out of me, alive and screaming.
I don’t know what happened with my grandmother’s baby, but sometimes I imagine that I could save him—unloop that cord, set him free, stamp out the panic that passed from my grandmother’s body, into my mother’s, into me.
I started walking when I was eighteen. I was coming out of one of the toughest times of my life: the first time I’d experienced a period of panic attacks.
It started the summer I turned sixteen.
I used to spend the summer with my father in California. That summer was brutal. I missed my boyfriend (who would later become my husband), and I was starting to assert myself in new ways—typical of the teenage years. I began to criticize my father and my stepmom. Harshly. I wasn’t pulling any punches. It got nasty, fast. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle me. I couldn’t handle them. And I felt trapped.
After that summer, I developed an intense fear of flying (obvious connection there—flying meant visiting my father). And, devastated by my abandonment, my father cut off all communication with me for a year. In that year, my phobias increased. Things I’d never been afraid of before became tinged with the most incredible, raw terror I’d ever felt.
I was afraid of all modes of transportation, really. Cars, taxis, the school bus. There had been a shooting on the Long Island Railroad, and I was sure it would happen again, to me. I was deathly afraid of mass shootings. I’d get nervous in crowded places. The diner. The mall. Thank God school shootings weren’t rampant at the time—I’m sure I would have been too scared to go to school.
I gained a lot of weight. I’d always been a normal weight—curvy as I became pubescent, but always in a normal range. I gained at least twenty pounds then. I ate to cushion my frightened body. I ate to silence my racing heart.
Somehow—I’m not really sure how—I started to come out of the panic. I decided to see a therapist. She wasn’t great, but just the act of going was good for me. And I started walking, both to lose the weight, and also because I found it amazingly freeing. It seemed to wash the anxiety out of my body. And I liked being out of my house. I liked the fresh air. I liked the endorphins. I liked being able, at last, to think clearly. I liked slicing through the world at my own pace. I liked looking at the perfect houses, with the perfect families inside (or so I imagined).
All these years later, I still walk almost every day. Sometimes with a baby strapped to my chest, or a toddler in a stroller. And on weekends, entirely alone.
Since this past summer, I have added some running to my routine. I’m not sure why. I had been having dreams about running. It seemed absurd to me at first. But the dreams were like magic, like I was gliding through space.
When we moved to the new house last summer, we noticed several white beings swooping across the trees out in the distance, over the pond.
Later, we realized: egrets.
And then the four of us—even the baby—would wait until night came (it came late then, in summer) and wait for them at the window. It was magic. Pure and simple. These great, graceful birds, with wings that were quiet, long breaths.
As the earth cooled, the egrets retreated. Where did they go? No one asked. We moved deeper into the everyday. School started. The days got shorter and darker.
But I have thought over the months, where did they go? You always hear that birds go south. But really—where? Or do some die? I guess that’s what I really want to know.
I am obsessed with beings—people—coming and going. The way they wander in and out of lives. And how they get there.
My grandmother would always ask: How did you get here? By foot? Car? Train? She was interested in modes of transportation—fixated on the travel routes of the ones she loved. She wanted to make sure you would arrive at your destination in one piece. “Call when you get there,” she’d say.
The formation of birds as they migrate—of course it takes our breath away. The unspoken communication, the way their bodies seem to magnetize to each other. Don’t we all just want to know where to go? And with whom to travel? What comfort there. What grace.
Ben wants to get a new camera with a zoom lens so that we can photograph the egrets this summer to preserve the magic. We know it’s temporary. We want to capture it.
Just a week ago, the pond was covered in snow, and under the snow—ice. Now it’s melted, and the ducks swim smoothly through it. On the way home from a walk today, Peter and I heard them quacking.
Yes, spring. Which leads to summer. And all the birds opening their wings, returning home.
We missed the ceremony.
After we were all dressed, we rushed through the hotel, past restaurants and gift shops, up escalators, around corners—everything sharply glittering. We found signs for the reception (there were many) and took the final elevator up to the very top of the building.
The elevator opened onto the wedding. The reception was in full swing. I saw the bride first, my cousin, towering over me in heels, her burnt-red hair, endlessly flowing shimmer-white dress trailing behind her. She was rosy-cheeked, in a just-married daze, and thrilled that we made it.
No guilt. No worries. No fear. We made it.
An enormous picture window overlooked the ocean. It was twilight, and the grays and blues from outside drifted into the wedding hall, bathing everyone in a warm, ethereal light.
I began to breathe.
I scanned the room for my family. There they were, my mother and sister, sitting on a leather loveseat together, plates of hors d’oeurves balanced on their laps. My mother and sister—strange and beautiful to see them here, in this otherworldly place, a place none of us had ever been before, and would probably never return.
For a while I just watched them, and time seemed to melt away. Then I looked at my two sons, who had quickly situated themselves in front of the window, cheek to cheek, watching seagulls sweep across the sea.
My husband appeared beside me, put his arms around my shoulders, asked me if I was feeling better, and walked me down the aisle toward the ones I loved.
WENDY WISNER is the author of two books of poems. Her essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, The Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website www.wendywisner.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
On a gray January Monday in 2008, Diego Alcazar—back from the dead despite being tossed from Hangman’s Bridge by brooding Jason Morgan—kidnapped slutty, sneaky Samantha McCall and winsome Nurse Elizabeth Weber. Then he gunned the car, drove the women out to the samebridge where he had nearly met his own maker, and smashed through a guardrail. The car dangled over some unnamed river outside Port Charles, New York.
The scene was only made possible, I learned during a special SoapNet exclusive later that evening, due to revolutionary green screen technology, which finally allows soap characters to leave their hospital beds, nurses’ stations, and posh boudoirs and then hit the great outdoors. And I have to admit: the bridge scene was spectacular. Water rushing, car creaking and careening, twisted steel scraping the concrete—I clung to our green faux suede sofa, simply transfixed, right up until the commercial for Yaz, a revolutionary new birth control pill that I am now officially too old to take.
Nurse Elizabeth escaped just before the car, with slutty Sam still locked in the trunk, plunged off the bridge into the water. Holy shit! I yelled to my six-month old son, Cyrus, who, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, was not supposed to be in the presence of television before the age of two. Instead, in its 2001 Policy Statement titled “Children, Adolescents, and Television,” the AAP suggests that parents should “encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” Fair enough. I decided to go for talking.
They killed Sam! I began our conversation. Cyrus mouthed his orange binky with some disgust before turning back to the task at hand: trying to lick the blue plastic dangle-toy on his exersaucer. I figured it wasn’t my fault if he didn’t want to talk back.
Earlier in the fall, Cyrus was only six weeks old and I was still trying to nurse him, so I couldn’t leave the house without giving the general public a size 42-DD dose of a woman’s right to breastfeed. I was thirty-nine and already into my second marriage. Recently tenured, I had earned my first sabbatical leave from the small liberal arts college where I taught, the kind of college where students are likely to study abroad in exotic places. At least, they seem exotic to me. (I once crossed the Canadian border at the International Peace Garden on a trip to North Dakota.) The resident xenophobe by comparison, I have listened with envy to my students’ stories of intestinal discomfort in Shanghai and New Delhi, quaking at the very idea of such flexibility, such openness to change.
Many of my colleagues, too, travel internationally, finding ways to take their families on sabbatical trips overseas, blithely asking their children to pick up and leave relationships, soccer teams, Play Stations. These colleagues—mostly men, many of whom have stay-at-home partners—view their everyday lives as escapable, as malleable and impermanent. Mortgage payments need to be made, certainly, but houses can always be rented out for a semester or two.
When colleagues learned that I wouldn’t be traveling at all during my sabbatical, they worried that I’d be isolated at home. But I would have all the company I needed: the new baby, his or her preschool-aged brother, and their Pokemon playing idol, the second-grader, who would entertain us daily just as soon as he came home from school. Most importantly, thanks to my friends at General Hospital, I would enjoy genuine camaraderie. I did not share this particular insight with my fellow faculty members.
I only allowed myself to watch GH when my five-year old, Ellet, attended Little Saints Preschool on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when Ellet stayed home with me, I sacrificed my General Hospital time in the name of motherhood. I made that sacrifice from mid-September until Halloween, when Nikolas Cassadine, finally reunited with the love of his life, Emily Quartermaine (now played by gorgeous, dull Natalia Livingston, instead of the fabulous Amber Tamblyn, who originated the role back in 1995 before she became Joan of Arcadia on CBS), announced an impending Black and White Ball, which would take place on Spoon Island, home of the creepy Cassadine mansion. This wasn’t going to be just any black tie soap opera party. I knew that nearly every major character on the show would attend. That’s because General Hospital creates special events to bring the whole cast together twice a year: during the sweeps weeks of October and February.
My beloved ABC friends would drape themselves in the most stunning formal gowns and tuxedos for the Black and White Ball. They’d sparkle with jewels. The spectacle of it, I thought. That October I couldn’t wear anything but the pink and white nursing shirt my friend Tina gave me, which I coordinated with some attractive size 2XX pedal pushers from Target, the same ones that I wore the night my water broke.
I just couldn’t help myself. Preschooler in the room or not, if the party started on a Tuesday, we would watch on a Tuesday. I had to attend the ball.
That’s how my five-year–old found himself a mesmerized guest of the Cassadines at their Black and White Ball. Ellet wore full Batman regalia at the time—he often dressed then either as Batman or Darth Vader—so he fit right in. He plopped his caped crusader self right next to me on the sofa and watched the entire first hour of October sweeps, enchanted by the cloak and dagger drama of it all. “Why are they dressed up? What are they eating? Is it a party? Will they open presents?” I beamed at him.
“Who’s that girl, Mommy?” he asked as Emily first entered the room.
“That’s Emily,” I told him. “Not the real Emily, of course, since Amber Tamblyn left. It’s just Natalia Livingston.” I made sure to respond accurately.
“Oh,” he said.
Unfortunately, this new sweeps plotline revolved around a series of strangulations that took place at the Black and White Ball that first night. My son was delighted. Between the kissing and the killing, he thought that this was a pretty good show.
I’ll admit it. I loved having Ellet beside me that first Tuesday we watched GH together. “You’re such good company,” I told him. I let him watch again on Thursday. But when he stepped off the afternoon preschool bus at 3:10 on Friday, ran to the front porch, threw down his backpack, and asked me what he missed on General Hospital while he was at school, I knew we had a problem.
Let the innocent among you cast the first stone.
My son remained captivated throughout November, as Port Charles citizens tried to identify the crazed maniac who had stalked them on Spoon Island that Halloween. Ellet watched through Christmas and New Year’s as well. But by February, I noticed that Ellet’s baby brother Cyrus—now five months old—was also watching GH.
I tried to get Cyrus to nap from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. each day, but sometimes he just wasn’t sleepy, and so, as the National Academy of Pediatrics suggests, I’d let him play with blocks on my lap, or I’d read him books during the commercials. I hoped we weren’t doing any permanent damage.
I first watched General Hospital as a teenager in the 1980s. Each day I rushed home from my suburban high school at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time. Clad in size 14 Pretty Plus blue jeans from Sears—how I wished I could fit into the Levis that everybody else wore!—and a preppy pink sweater with a whale on it, clutching a full sleeve of Chips Ahoy and a can of Faygo diet root beer, I tuned in, turned on, and checked out. Because I did so, it mattered a little less each day that my sometimes belligerent, occasionally drunk younger brother counted the cookies I ate every afternoon, humiliating me at dinner each night by announcing how many were missing. It mattered a little less that my mother’s still undiagnosed bundle of mental illnesses overpowered us like a tsunami, leaving my brother and me drowning in her unpredictable behaviors, doubting our own instincts, never sure if what we witnessed was real or imagined.
I gratefully escaped to college, where I scheduled my classes whenever possible for the hours prior to 3:00 p.m., the show’s East Coast airtime. When I accepted my first high school teaching job, I sometimes took sick days to catch up on my grading and my viewing. And when I returned to graduate school to earn my masters degree, I watched whenever my class and work schedules allowed.
I completed qualifying exams for the Ph.D. in 1996, and that’s when I tuned in religiously. For two years, as I wrote my dissertation, General Hospital seemed to provide a little bit of comfort while I fought a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome. No matter how many professors complimented my work, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I didn’t belong in a Ph.D. program. There had been a mistake—surely the fellowship I received in my first year was intended for someone else. I wasn’t intellectually strong enough to survive. I couldn’t trust my own instincts as a writer or a researcher; I always sought approval from my professors before I could commit ideas to paper. The prospect of writing a dissertation nearly crippled me.
The worst part about graduate school was the fact that I couldn’t predict where I would end up in the long run. Even if I miraculously finished my dissertation, would I get a job? Soon I spent more time worrying about my future than the present. Only television offered me relief. I wasn’t alone in this habit. Most of my women friends in graduate school watched an enormous amount of television. The Eighteenth-Century British Literature specialist watched Felicity. A poet raised in an uber-religious household devoured Will and Grace. Creative writers and linguists and medievalists alike adored Ally McBeal. But theirs were weekly diversions. Mine was the only daily devotion. Watching General Hospital became sacrament.
In the fall of 1999, I sent sixty-five job applications, suffered through sixteen humiliating job interviews at the annual Modern Language Association Convention, often sitting on beds in some department chair’s hotel room, and then gratefully accepted the one job offer I received from a small college in southern Minnesota. I quit watching General Hospital cold turkey. Hung up on the idea that real professors didn’t watch soap operas, and stunned by the new demands on my time, I traded afternoon delight with ABC for curriculum committee meetings and conferences with students. But in fall of 2007, I underwent tenure review and applied for my first sabbatical leave, a full year devoted to research, writing, and new course development.
Newly tenured and about to give birth to my third child, I needed the comfort of something familiar and dependable as I faced staying home with the new baby (not to mention a preschooler and a second grader). I had no idea how I’d behave. Would I don an apron and bake cookies? I don’t own an apron. Would I find myself utterly fascinated by my children’s development, and thus inspired to write? Would I feel trapped by my circumstances and lack of mobility? Would I act out? Who would my children become? Who would I become? My whole life felt like a Friday afternoon General Hospital cliffhanger. I figured I might as well tune in and find out.
Contrary to what sociologists might assume, I’ve never turned to daytime television in order to escape to someplace new. New places frighten me. Instead, I use daytime television to return to someplace familiar, a place where people always behave in predictable ways. In Port Charles, New York, doctors always seduce nurses. Nurses always get pregnant out of wedlock before finding true love with good-hearted gangsters (apparently Port Charles has some sort of gangster pipeline from New York City). These gangsters always prove to be twice the men the doctors ever were. Gangster-Nurse weddings always end in fistfights as doctors experience post-break-up regrets.
That fall, surrounded by burp rags, I needed desperately to be able to simply turn on the television and slip back into Port Charles. I figured it would be like returning from hiatus. Once I turned that television on, it wouldn’t really matter how much time had passed since I last watched the show.
But now I lived in Minnesota on Central Time, where the show comes on at 2:00 p.m. and people eat lunch at 11:30 a.m., an hour clearly better suited to blintzes than burgers. It wasn’t quite as easy to slip back in to life in Port Charles as I’d hoped. But I was determined to succeed. I took deep breaths each time a new mouth spoke the words of a beloved character; I didn’t even flinch when characters returned from the dead. I wasn’t bent out of shape when I found that Noah Drake—remember Rick Springfield when he played dreamy Dr. Drake back in the ’80s?—now had a son named Patrick, who was already a grown-up brain surgeon. Patrick was in love with Robin Scorpio, one of my favorite pre-teen characters back in the ’90s; thank god Robin was still played by Kimberly McCullough, who left the show briefly about the same time I went to grad school. Apparently, Robin, who contracted H.I.V. from her true love, Stone, just before his heartbreaking death, and then hooked up with Jason Morgan (the same Jason who threw Alcazar off Hangman’s Bridge), was already an experienced surgeon.
Bobbie Spencer, the prostitute-turned-nurse who once dated Dr. Noah Drake, was now in her late fifties and crammed into her nurse’s uniform in a most unfortunate way. Some new soap hunk played Lucky Spencer, son of Luke and Laura. A posse of new teen characters—Maxie, Georgie, Dylan, all descendents of GH regulars from the 1980s, wiggled their shapely young asses across the screen daily. A new token African American character, a wise, tough-yet-tender woman named Epiphany, now ruled the nurse’s station. Epiphany had a sidekick, an orderly named Cassius, played briefly in cameo by Billy Dee Williams. Yes, that Billy Dee Williams.
No, really. It was mind-boggling, but since I have a Ph.D. I caught on quick.
I knew I could catch my show on SoapNet each night at 9:00 p.m., after Cyrus and Ellet went to sleep, enabling them to retain their innocence just a bit longer. But I have never watched General Hospital at any time of day but the afternoon. I have always wanted—needed—to watch it with the rest of the stay-at-home mothers, the homebound and the elderly, the night shift workers, and the teachers staying home sick. I needed to watch it with the dissertating female graduate students in emotional crisis. I needed to watch it with the overweight high school girls, the ones with snarky brothers and anxiety-ridden mothers and no athletic team practice to keep them late after school. I needed that viewing experience to signify that I am part of something bigger than myself, a community of viewers who also need their worlds to stand still—even if only for an hour—each day.
When I go to Port Charles, I am removed from my own setting and transported to a place where characters behave in blessedly predictable ways, year after year. Time itself doesn’t stand still at General Hospital. But the master narratives remain the same, and those archetypal characters—the winsome nurses, lecherous doctors, and good-hearted gangsters—behave just as they ought to behave, just as I expect them to behave, just as I need them to behave, forever, no matter where ABC’s green screen technology takes them.
We humans learn from both fantasy and imitation. Let’s say a young, unmarried GH nurse discovers her unexpected pregnancy. I can study her response. When that plucky nurse bounces back a few months later (pregnancies are always shortened on GH) as a sexy single mom, I learn that we need not drown in our respective pools of misery, no matter how deep they might seem at first. Watching General Hospital helps me to draw a frame around my own life, to see where its parameters lie. Daytime television shows all of us, thanks in part to that green screen technology, where the edges are in our lives. Just how much philandering is permissible before someone is redefined as a cheater? How many times can a role be recast—how often can a character literally remake her self—before the essence of that character’s identity is lost?
I tune in not because I fear change but because I fear my own unpredictability in the face of change. There’s a difference. Even change can be predictable. It’s predictable that ABC will recast the roles played initially by children, for instance, substituting picture-perfect teenaged actresses for gangly eleven-year old ones. Soap opera children always grow up too fast. But those soap opera children follow well-mapped paths: they will either be doctors or gangsters, nurses or prostitutes, and they will die of car crashes or failed surgeries.
My children don’t yet know what the future holds for them. I don’t know what the future holds for them. And I don’t know how I’ll behave as they begin to make their own choices. I only know that the children of Port Charles will grow up as their beautiful parents fade gracefully into the background; I know that child actors will become featured players, their flawless faces illuminated in the green glow.
REBECCA FREMO teaches English at Gustavus Adolphus College. Her essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Water~Stone Review, Lake Region Review, Tidal Basin Review, Poetica, Red River Review, and Naugatuck River Review. Her chapbook of poems, Chasing Northern Lights, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. A Virginia native, she now lives in St. Peter, Minnesota, with her husband and three sons.
 As I revise this essay, it is now 2014, and I am on my second sabbatical from the college. Because I am a working mother of three, it’s taken me seven years to move through the revision process on this essay.
 That’s because the phenomenally talented Jonathan Jackson, nominated as Outstanding Younger Actor at the Daytime Emmy’s in 1996 and 1997, before winning the award himself in both 1998 and 1999, had moved on to prime time pastures. You can catch Jonathon Jackson now, in 2015, on ABC’s splashy nighttime soap, Nashville, which I watch faithfully each Wednesday night at 9:00 PM.
St. Petersburg, which my relatives still sometimes call Leningrad, is a city of water—canals, islands, the massive Neva River. Neva, sweeping to the Gulf of Finland, is an illusory barrier, giving the impression that the city is water-locked. In reality, the metro clicks out easily to a network of islands that comprise the rushing circulatory system of a huge city. These islands are hardly remote, but just far enough by metro that most tourists pass them over.
A few years ago, during a two-week trip attending a writing seminar and visiting my relatives, I took the metro out of St. Petersburg’s tourist-choked center to one of the islands. I was looking for a church. Any church, as long as tour groups hadn’t discovered it, and its Orthodox services fed the sense of mystery that an atheist like me requires from religion.
I can’t always explain this need. A fascination with faith doesn’t seem to mark most other atheists I know. And the older I get, the more grounded I feel in the lack of it. Yet something still draws me—a yearning that is both wordless and slightly annoying, probably as old as human consciousness. I don’t know whether I want to simply comprehend faith or, a more daunting thought, to find it. A place of safety, to shed my burdens.
Russia is my lodestar in this search, the country of my father and his honest, humanist parents, who had themselves chosen atheism over their severe ultra-religious existences in Orthodox Jewish villages. They left the ghettoes for Leningrad to build the new communist dream, where all that mattered were your hands and your brain. As they faced repeated defeats in their attempts to qualify as engineers—thrown back for their Jewish blood or bourgeois history rather than lack of skill—they realized Lenin’s dream was another illusion. By the time they’d survived Stalin’s purges, their noble-hearted humanism was all that was left for them.
Those grandparents would be both amused by and sympathetic to my attraction to the haughty self-righteousness of the Russian Orthodox Church. But the streets of the city they made home seemed to have given them a self-assurance I lack, and it is there, in the adopted home of my atheist grandparents, that I seek a religious conversion.
During the midsummer White Nights celebrations, when the midnight sun left a rosy light on the streets, I walked through the islands seeking a native’s church, where babushkas spent afternoons murmuring to their saints and inappropriately dressed tourists were scowled at.
On the island of Vasilievsky, I found one. A courtyard with battered grass hid an old Byzantine church from the noisy main thoroughfare.
My aching feet and struggling lungs drove me from the hot, humid street and polluted air through an entrance in the stone fencing. Prepared for Orthodox churches (and those barb-tongued babushkas), I was wearing a long skirt and had a scarf tucked into my purse. Before touching the entrance steps, I tied the scarf over my hair and assembled an expression of humility and languid determination—the Russian expression.
Inside, scaffolding for restoration work covered half of the dome over the comparatively small main floor of the nave. The public part of a Russian cathedral, no matter how decorated, always feels like a waiting room. There are no pews. Even the most gnarled grandmother must greet her God standing. Icons of saints hover about the room on stands or the walls, waiting for their tribute of thin prayer candles. The real work of the church goes on constantly, unseen behind elaborately constructed doors, surrounded with icons of Jesus and Mary and all the saints—the iconostasis. Together, the sanctuary and the icons maintain the mystery of the divine.
It is the nature of Russian Orthodox churches to be unwelcoming. The practice is founded on a sacred belief in its own superiority. The country club of religions. Its very stony-faced exclusivity is what draws me to Russian Orthodoxy. Wildly private, I always found the Presbyterian churches of my upbringing intrusive. I shrank from talking about God or Jesus, or about being saved. The Orthodox Church is its opposite, intensely private itself. Nobody here cares about my personal salvation. In this church, I must find my own way. Russians already believe themselves to be, after the Jews, the second of God’s chosen people. They don’t need my faith.
Chanting hummed behind the doors in the sanctuary. Hidden behind the iconostasis, unaccompanied by piano or organ, the choir’s reverberations hit my shoes through the stone floor in waves. I had forgotten, until this moment, that Russian churches never have any other music than this lyrical, unseen choir. The incomprehensible Old Church Slavonic—to my ears, Slavonic’s only similarity to Russian is its musical quality—orchestrates the priests’ black-swathed activities throughout the day as if helping them weave spells. Which, in a sense, they are.
The spells always work on me. There is something about an Orthodox service that creeps into the locked, lonely places of my heart, the ones that cry for understanding, for protection and salvation—or maybe for enlightenment and guidance. The service is so impersonal it seems to promise answers that other religions struggle with on a too-human level. Its remoteness breeds awe, even in an unbeliever.
Far from St. Petersburg’s tourist routes, this cathedral was nearly empty. Four middle-aged men and one old woman stood scattered around the room, as if their prayers would fill an abundance of personal space. As I adjusted myself against the back wall, barely out of the entryway, a young man in jeans hurried from the entrance straight to one of the icons in the center of the room. He bowed, kissed it, crossed himself. And stood. And waited.
The priests finally came out of their divine seclusion. Wrapped completely in floor-length black, with long beards, they walked in a group of three—one leading, the other two assisting—to swing a long, egg-shaped incense burner at each of the several icons propped on stands around the room. I’d seen churches in this country where the very murals on the walls were covered in icons from floor to domed ceiling.
The priests’ robes brushed the floor in time with their resonant singing. Realizing they were approaching the icon to my left, I back-stepped into the entryway, fearful of being found out even as a tourist, if not as a nonbeliever.
As the chanted service rang through the nave, the five worshippers crossed themselves continuously; they knelt to touch their foreheads to the floor. The old woman, her knees swollen under a plain dress and thick tights, made the “little reverence,” as it’s translated from Church Slavonic, dipping from the waist. It’s a pattern I couldn’t comprehend and couldn’t possibly imitate. So I bowed my head reverently.
In Western Christian churches, the visitor hides herself in the pews—a welcome trespasser who can usually follow the pray-stand-sit routine. But she is also prey to the curious and the missionary, a guest who has to make conversation after the service. Here, I was in an open space, with no hard bench to guard me, but also no inquisitiveness to guard myself from.
My ignorance was obvious: I didn’t belong here, but I bent my neck in solidarity and hoped that, for once, the service would lift me away from myself, as promised. I worked at it, remembering the words of one Anthony, Bishop of Smolensk: “Stand in church silently, peacefully, quietly, as for example, the candles lit by you stand before the icons … So should you also stand, striving with hearts aflame with love and prayer toward God.” My flame flickered as I shifted my feet and tried not to be seen. The music coming from behind the iconostasis plucked at locks in my soul, swelled a lonely “why?” (or maybe it’s a “please” or a “help”) that I am always aware of but rarely acknowledge.
Sometimes I tell myself this is simply the human condition; this “why” or “please” or “help” is examining nothing more than the meaning of life. Other times I think I’m fudging, that what I really want is comfort, for some acknowledgement that the invisible wounds of my childhood and the pains of the world have some meaning. But defining my yearning for faith is like trying to bottle the sense of the unanswerable that makes faith so effective for millions. What is this thing I’m looking for? The lonely places of my heart are a mystery to me; they engender too many questions. I give them these church services in hopes that answers will unfold.
This time, I didn’t have a chance. Just as my eyes began to prick with tears, a priest hurried up to me, speaking so rapidly that my mediocre Russian failed to comprehend. He waved a hand around the entryway, and I realized that it, too, was covered in icons and needed to be blessed with incense. My unorthodox person was not welcome during the sacred ceremony. I opened my eyes wide, face red and apologetic from embarrassment. Wait! I wanted to tell him. I was just about to feel something!
But he hustled me to the dusty gift shop behind the entrance, where I could stare at religious books and icon reproductions for sale until those of faith were safe from my presence. Under a wash of shame, the groping for belief slipped away. When the service ended, my heavy feet turned to the hot streets.
From childhood on, I have always been told that atheism is a willful choice to reject God—a choice to say there is no god, no deity—and agnosticism is simply the empiricist’s way of saying that there could be a god but we don’t know one way or the other. I never questioned the assertion that atheism was an act of will rather than a type of faith in its own right. But I could accept neither atheism nor faith without analysis of my motives. I dug around in feelings, memories, and reactions and found … nothing. Except myself. It surprised me.
It never occurred to me to choose not to believe. Who would choose such a thing? Only the most self-confident and satisfied person would choose to live like this—knowing that every decision and action, every mistake, is on your own shoulders only. It is a crushing responsibility: I walk bent under the weight of my own life, the weight of my choices, but worse, the weight of my accountability to humankind. If I want to change the world, the smallness and impotence I feel is terrifying next to those who believe God, or a god, is on their side.
Atheism was never a choice for me. It is knowledge. I know not that there is no God—my training in mathematics assures me that you cannot prove a negative—but that I assuredly do not believe in a god. This is a different kind of knowledge. I know I love the wilderness. I know I do not like eggplant. I know I do not believe in God. I cannot be agnostic, hedging my bets.
In seeking to discover why I have no faith, I found it was just as inexplicable as its opposite. I have no faith because it is not there.
There is an incident I’ve never spoken of to anyone: the time when atheism scurried away, and I thought faith in something had finally come to bring relief, to lift that weight off my shoulders.
When my son was born, he was very weak. Taken out seven weeks early because I had come down with a rare, nearly fatal pregnancy-related condition, he was breathing through lungs as underdeveloped and fragile as soap bubbles. Over a two-week period, the doctors had to insert tubes into his tiny, scrawny chest to drain pockets of air that threatened the viability of those delicate lungs.
The day they called my husband and me at home to tell us that John needed a second air tube, and that he was ill enough they might need to move him to a tertiary care center, my reality ground itself into little pieces. I could do nothing for an hour but huddle on the floor and sob as I hadn’t done since I was a small child. I was so scared.
That same morning, I had woken up suddenly, just after seven, certain I’d heard John’s voice calling to me. Crying for me. I felt that he was in pain and needed me. It was only later I found out that I’d heard him, a forty-five-minute drive away, at the same minute they’d cut his chest and inserted the tube. I knew because, of course, they wrote down the times of all procedures, and I had checked the clock when I’d woken up (to see if it was time to drag out the breast pump), two hours before they called us at home. That is the part I’ve never told anyone, except my husband, who forgot it in the days that followed.
A friend asked me, about three months later, if John being so ill had given me some faith in God. She’s a religious person. She can’t imagine living without God, or, especially, without prayer. I told her the truth: I’d looked for faith during that time, and afterwards, and still found nothing. I think I searched deeply. I tried. But the experience didn’t send me away with faith; it sent me away with doubt. There are things in this world that I could not explain.
Was it a religious experience? A spiritual one? A trick of the imagination? A tidbit of Jung’s collective unconscious willing hope into my dreams? An aspect of physics and quantum particles we have yet to discover? I have no idea. All I could tell myself, and my friend, is that I still didn’t believe in God. Maybe atheism has become my own personal god, because it returned, after fear and glowing, new-motherhood happiness had faded, and life shifted back to its normal rhythms. When I fidgeted impatiently while attending church for a friend’s baptism, I knew my chance for faith was lost.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell postulated that belief in God echoed Christians’ desire for safety, “a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.” Ever since I became a mother, I have wondered if it’s more like a desire to get back to the mythical safety of our mothers’ arms, where we believed the world was a good place, and it loved us.
C.S. Lewis is said to have been a famous atheist, always engaged in debates about faith with devout Christian J.R.R. Tolkien. Then one day he went for a walk to the zoo. “When I left,” he said, “I did not believe that Christ was the Son of God. And when I got back, I did.” So simple. Maybe faith has a eureka moment like the greatest discoveries of science and mathematics. I do not believe. If one day faith should come to me, then I would believe.
I don’t find atheism fun. It’s a pest. It daily reminds me that I am alone in this yawning universe. Scrabbling for answers in the rich incense and enveloping music of Russian Orthodox churches gives hope that someday I can attain the eureka moment. Until then, I ride the coattails of others’ convictions, hitch my prayers onto those of people who believe they work.
The next day I left Vasilievsky Island and returned to the center of St. Petersburg. I walked to the Kazan Cathedral. Closed for decades during Soviet times, Kazan now sweeps its arms around Nevsky Prospect and attracts thousands of tourists. The crowds move you up the main steps, past youths swilling liter-bottles of cheap Baikal beer as you keep a tight hand on your purse.
I crept from the entrance to a blackened wall. Close up, the wall was revealed as the icon of the Holy Spirit, so faded that the only intimation of its subject was a man’s faint outline, arm outreached, and a glimmer, above, of a white dove. The dove presumably represented the Spirit entering the soul of the sinner. A candelabra in front of the icon held the skinny, toothbrush-length candles sold in Orthodox churches all over Russia. One was burnt out. I lifted it, appropriating the prayer of another, and touched its tip to a neighboring flame. Like feeling for a tooth that wasn’t there, I probed my thoughts for pricks of hope and faith. Why couldn’t they enter my own heart as simply as the icon brought light to the aching sinner?
Today, in my morning hurry, I had forgotten to bring a headscarf and was not wearing a skirt. The oversight denied me even the simplest form of acceptance. It set me in a blank world with the other tourists, ignored and despised by the faithful, the Russian women with their covered hair, humming their love for and obedience to God.
The Kazan Cathedral was built, I am told, to house the icon of Mary, Mother of God, which was set above a raised floor to the right of the nave. She represented mercy and the preservation and unity of Russia. Hard silver encased her face, and she looked down upon the line of repentants who waited for a chance to pour out their prayers, kiss her frame, and come away renewed, hopeful, humble.
Watching them, I wished I had the courage to approach, to ask for faith. I played with the idea that I had simply walked away from God for a while, that maybe He—She, it—would welcome me back to safety if I only proclaimed my desire. I hovered near Mary’s line of the devout, wondering. Here, I told myself, is my central problem. The courage to ask for faith requires an act of faith in itself.
A man stepped forward to the silver clad Mary, crossed himself, kissed her frame, and touched his forehead to her, shivering in his reverence. How I envied him.
ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and journals, and been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. Her essay “Competence Lost,” forthcoming in February from The Jabberwock Review, addresses these themes. She can be reached through her website, antoniamalchik.com.