A mechanism that enables a pair of wheels to rotate.
At 4’8’’, my grandmother, or paati as I called her in Tamil, was just a few inches taller than I was at age six. It was my paati, sixty-nine years old at the time, who taught me how to ride a bike. Why did she decide to teach me? Because this was something I needed to learn to do. Besides, paati was holding on, so I’d be fine.
At the end of my first driving lesson, I was sore for a full two days after. It turned out I’d been clenching every single muscle in my lower back, neck, and shoulders for the entire two hours I was behind the wheel, driving through downtown Chicago.
At age twenty-six, well past when most Americans complete this rite of passage, I enrolled in driver’s ed. I was determined to get over my fear of operating an automobile and get my U.S. driver’s license, once and for all.
Paati had an arranged marriage when she was sixteen. Her last formal year of schooling was the seventh grade. Despite the abrupt end to her education, she loved to learn so much that she would secretly read her older brothers’ math, science, history, and Tamil textbooks in the attic, when they would discard them at the end of the school year. When paati’s son was in college, she began to teach herself how to read and write in English. Paati stayed with my parents several summers ago, well into her eighties at this point, and proceeded to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in English, cover to cover because it was there to be read.
At the start of every driving lesson, I would find my heart starting to race, terror steadily rising from my knotted-up stomach and my dry mouth to my norepinephrine-flooded brain, my fight or flight response kicked into full gear. Every single time.
As a middle-schooler, about a week into summer vacation every year, I would build a paper chain that hung from my bedroom ceiling to the floor. A paper chain to countdown the days before I could go back to school and start the new school year.
Harvard Graduate School of Education (n)
I spent a year drinking from a firehose of ideas, wisdom, and inspiration, before graduating with a master’s degree in how and why people learn, fired with the idealism and drive to change the world, one student at a time.
After my thatha passed away last year, paati morphed into a completely different person. My aunts and uncles claimed it was dementia finally settling in, which led her to ask to her daughter-in-law one day, “Are the elephants going to stay for dinner? They’ve been sitting quietly in the living room all afternoon.”
I bring her the good chocolate when I visit. She hates the sugar-free chocolate-for-diabetics crap.
A few weeks before I left Bombay for college in the States, I got my Indian driver’s license. I didn’t use it again until the following summer. I bravely volunteered to drive my father and two cousins back home from the park, a five-minute drive, acknowledging that I was probably a little rusty. I didn’t account for rush hour traffic. I didn’t account for a six-lane intersection. I didn’t account for what happens when you stall a manual transmission car in the middle of a six-lane intersection during rush hour traffic.
The angry yells and indignant honks should have jolted me into action. But I froze. For the longest fifteen seconds of my life, I blocked out all sound and effectively blacked out. Accompanied by the rising panic in my father’s voice, I finally restarted the car and got us home in one piece.
I didn’t get behind the driver’s seat for another seven years, until I enrolled American driver’s ed.
It was my last driving lesson before the road test. My left turns were a mess, I couldn’t figure out how to place my three-point turns, and I failed to notice stop signs in neighborhoods we’d driven through for weeks. I noticed every mistake three seconds too late and cursed myself for being so stupid. “Stay calm, you can do this,” I told myself. It was when I started to doubt myself that I’d make mistakes and with every mistake, desperation and fear piled on top of the doubt.
It didn’t help that it was Friday evening, after a rough week at work, and my road test was twelve hours away. My instructor was not at his best either. “Can we just stop?” he finally snapped at me. “You’re not getting any better—you’re just getting worse.”
I’ve done the big milestones. I’ve graduated high school, secured an Ivy league degree, landed my first job, christened my first apartment, claimed my first promotion. I’ve moved halfway across the world, navigated the murky waters of immigration paperwork, and learned how to survive in America on my own.
Yet somehow every driving lesson felt like a step closer to a much more momentous life event.
North Carolina (n)
Paati rarely left the confines of their neighborhood in Bombay and had never dreamed that she would leave the country. When paati was in her forties, her third daughter—my aunt—was diagnosed with cancer. My aunt, who’d been living in the States with my uncle for several years by then, was admitted to the Duke University Hospital for treatment. Their son was just a toddler.
That summer, paati left India for the first time. She put her carefully collected self-taught English to use with strangers for the first time. She navigated airports and boarded planes, when until then she’d only ever been to the market down the street unaccompanied before.
I still don’t know how she did it. She says she doesn’t know how she did it either. But she did. And she was okay.
“I had to do what needed to be done,” she would later tell me. “My daughter and grandson needed me. And this was something I needed to learn to do.”
From a young age, I was told that I was a fast learner. I love savoring every “aha!” moment that follows a difficult concept that I’d unlocked for the first time.
I’ve never had to retake a test, repeat a year in school, or re-do an assignment for work because I didn’t do a good enough job the first time.
Every night after dinner, whenever I’ve visited paati or she’d come to stay with us, I’ve asked for a story. When I was younger, there were the stories of the clever crow and the greedy crocodile. As I grew older, I would stay hooked on her tales of kings and warriors and monsters slayed. In my twenties, while my cousins—all much older than me—had stopped asking for stories a decade ago, I would get out my iPhone and hit “record” before settling in for an evening of crocodiles and warriors alike.
After every driving lesson this summer, I have burst into tears.
I last saw paati in late December of last year. It had been four months since thatha passed away. She slept for twenty hours a day. She refused to shower and had to be coaxed to eat meals. That was the first time in all my life that paati wasn’t able to tell me a story.
The morning of my driver’s license road test, I resigned myself to the very likely possibility that I would be standing in the DMV line again in a month. I mean, my own instructor didn’t seem to think I was particularly competent.
When the examiner told me I passed, I didn’t believe him. “Really? Are you sure about that?” I asked him incredulously.
My paati gave me the courage to take a leap of faith, when she taught me how to ride a bike twenty years ago. She held onto the back of my bike as I started to pump the pedals and told me to keep saying out loud, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” Certain that she, literally, had my back, I whispered under my breath feverishly until I realized that paati no longer was holding on and that I was doing just fine all on my own.
Everyone says my cousin Sandhya looks just like paati did when she was younger. Same round face, same big eyes, same kind smile. I like to think I’m a Xerox copy of paati’s temperament.
The paati I’ve known my whole life may or may not return. My heart aches when she turns to my mom, after I’ve waved hello to them both over Skype, and asks, “Who was that?” But I will always cherish her for who I’ve always known her to be: my paati, my favorite person in the world.
Getting behind the wheel of a car asks me to take a leap of faith, every single time. I’m invited to have faith not in the machine, not in the rules of the road, not in the civility of other drivers on the road. Driving asks me to have faith in myself.
At some point, I’m sure I’ll stop whispering under my breath, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” But until then, I’m going to keep trying to push through the hard things in life, because she wouldn’t have it any other way.
SUNANDA VAIDHEESH is a millennial immigrant. She was born in India, grew up in Indonesia, went to college in Iowa, and has moved houses twenty-one times to date. She explores the identity politics of transnationalism in her writing and loves a good scavenger hunt. Sunanda lives in Chicago and can be found online at sunandavaidheesh.com.
I gave blood for the first time at age fifty-four. I’d wanted to give before then, but at less than one-hundred-ten pounds—the minimum weight required to donate blood—I was too scrawny.
I came from a blood-donating family; both my parents were periodic blood donors. They went about it faithfully, though without fanfare. They felt the same way about giving blood as they did about voting. It was a privilege—as well as a duty—of citizenship. When he hit his fifties, my father had to give it up. He’d faint, or come close to it, after his appointment with the needle because of his low blood pressure. My mother gave blood well into her later years. My sister and her husband both donate when the bloodmobile rolls around.
Over the years, I’d attempted to slip past Checkpoint Charlie, always to no avail. Once, in South Carolina, I even wore my steel-toed boots at the weigh-in, but the nurse—she must have worked in a prison at one time— was on to my tricks. She slapped a consolation sticker (I Tried to Give Blood Today!) on my chest and marched me back outside.
As middle age crept up on me, so did my weight. One fine day, I stood on the scale and looked down. One hundred ten. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a sign at my former church: Blood Drive Here This Thursday. 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The Methodists: “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” Open veins, too, it would seem.
When separated into its components (red blood cells, plasma, platelets, and cryoprecipitate), one pint of blood can save three lives. The goal for this church on this day was thirty pints. Or, potentially, ninety souls.
How appropriate that my first blood donation would happen at a Methodist Church. My father came from a long line of Methodists. His grandparents were Methodists in Sweden before they immigrated to Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Daddy attended a Methodist Church Camp as a boy during the Great Depression. Even his middle name was Wesley, after John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church.
My parents met at the Methodist Church in Hopewell where my mother sang soprano in the choir. I was christened there as a baby, attended before my earliest memories. I was married there when I was thirty-seven. But by the time I turned eight or ten, Mom no longer sang in the choir. She and Daddy attended only sporadically, making special appearances on Boy Scout Sunday, when Dad’s scout troop marched the flag in, or if I played my flute for a special hymn. Sometimes, not even then. By the time of their divorce when I was nineteen, my father was an absentee on the membership roles, and my mother was a self-declared atheist.
Except for a brief time in college, and despite my parents’ religious apathy, I’d gone to a Methodist church all my life, even attending as a girl when my parents had stopped. I was a pious little thing back then, though I’m not sure where it came from. I loved the hymns, the advent wreaths, the Easter cantatas. But after all those years, did I still buy the whole bit about the magic baby, forgiveness, resurrection, life after death? For that matter, did I ever?
When I lived in South Carolina in the early 1990s, I attended a tiny rural Methodist church. One Sunday in May, a young college-aged woman stood up to testify. “If a man came in this church right this minute with a gun and threatened to kill anyone who was a Christian, I would stand up and say, Jesus Christ is my risen Lord and Savior.” She continued in her heavy southern accent. “And I wouldn’t be afraid because I believe in life after death.”
Wow, I thought. I wanted to have that kind of faith. It would make things so much simpler. Maybe I just needed to try harder. Pray more. Just keep showing up. Which is how I arrived at Nelson UMC in 1996, after I married and moved to Nelson County. I liked this small church immediately. The choir seemed overjoyed to have another alto. The congregation took on meaningful projects. The men worked on Habitat houses. The women knitted prayer shawls for cancer patients. The members of the church collected school supplies, coats, mosquito nets for communities in need both near and far. Most of the congregation seemed heavily biased in favor the Virginia Tech Hokies (always a good thing in my book). I had found a new church home.
When my mother died in 2008, I took what I intended to be a temporary leave of absence from church. She’d lived two hours away in Hopewell and during her six-month illness, I traveled down there a couple of times a week. Combined with my more-than-full-time job, I was away from home a lot. Sunday had become the only day I had to relax at home with my husband, do laundry, help him with projects, maybe cook supper.
During this time, I missed seeing people in church, and I missed singing in the choir. But Nelson is a small county. I ran into folks in the grocery store, the library, the farmer’s market. “When are you coming back to church?” they’d ask. “When things settle down,” I told them. I would return to Sunday morning worship when things got less hectic.
Worship. Who was I kidding? When you sing in the choir, you don’t have time to actually worship. Right off the bat, you’re looking at the bulletin to see what hymns you’ll be singing that morning, then marking them in your hymnal. Even during the pastoral prayer, you can’t really concentrate because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to end and when it does, you’ve got to chime in with the Choral Response. Will it be the three-fold or the seven-fold Amen? You lean over to whisper to your fellow alto, trying not to make a spectacle of yourself, but because you’re sitting right up front near the altar, you’re doing just that.
There were other problems for me as well. In my mind, a lot of what came after Christ’s life, and always in the name of Christ, didn’t seem consistent with Christ’s message of acceptance, tolerance, and non-violence. In the Methodist church for example, homosexuals are welcome in the congregation, but not in the pulpit. With all the starving and homeless people in the world, why the focus on homosexuality? The Bible makes some references to it for sure, but it is even more clear on topics like adultery and killing, as in Thou Shalt Not. Methodists’ open minds, it seemed, opened only so far.
When we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War. With the Cross of Jesus, Going on Before,” I used to wonder, “Why not Marching as to Peace?” After September 11 and the wars that followed, I couldn’t sing that hymn anymore. I would stand with my hymnal in hand and not even mouth the words. I could barely stomach it when the minister read Psalm 137, ending with “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Jesus must get himself stinky drunk when he sees the twisted ways we’ve interpreted the Bible. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Were there some exception clauses that I missed along the way?
My Sunday school teachers taught me that Jesus is love. The ministers all along the way explained that when Jesus died, he became part of the Holy Trinity— the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. God is omniscient, they said, and omnipotent to boot. I thought about the on-going world condition that included genocide, poverty, and violence. If God was all-knowing and all-powerful, I reasoned, then he wasn’t all good.
I did not return to church immediately following Mom’s death in June of 2008. Dad’s Alzheimer’s had worsened, my sister and I had moved him into an assisted living facility, and I was on the road more than ever. Yet the following Christmas Eve, I attempted a re-entry.
I’d always loved the quiet excitement of the midnight service. Candles lit, poinsettias on the altar, the evergreen scent of the Advent tree. But now a large projection screen hung from behind the altar. Suddenly something like a comet swirled across the screen as though from another planet, and at the end of the tail lay a baby in a manger, as a large deep voice boomed, “And Unto You is Born This Night, in the City of David, A Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.”
“Christ in a bucket!” my mother used to swear when exasperated. Christ on a comet, I thought now. It was too much. I slipped out the back door before the end of the service and drove back through the night toward home.
Life is full of inconsistencies, but here was the real question for me. Could I worship someone or something I wasn’t sure I believed in to begin with? Christian faith. After a lifetime of looking for it, practicing it, even faking it, I had to admit it. I just didn’t have it. What I did have finally was the required poundage, and now another cross beckoned. The Red Cross.
It was raining when I arrived at the fellowship hall to donate blood. The workers were still setting up, and three or four donors were ahead of me as I filed past the greeting table manned by church volunteers. “Given before?” asked a friendly-faced man I didn’t know.
“This is my first time,” I said.
“Good!” said Dawn, a woman from the church I’d always liked. “You’re mine!” She peeled off a sticker and wrote the number 1 on it. She handed me some reading material, and I took my place in a row of seats to wait.
I looked around. This fellowship hall had been built since I’d last worshipped here. Gleaming acrylic floors replaced dull tiles. Brass chandeliers brightened the room, providing cheerful contrast to the gloom outdoors. Though they’d been stashed away for today, I could picture the folding tables and chairs that usually filled this space; could almost smell the fried chicken, garden vegetable side dishes, and vanilla-wafered banana pudding that adorned the counter during the many covered dish dinners I’d enjoyed here over the years. Now this busy place prepared to give sustenance of another kind.
Sanford Shepard, a rising senior at Nelson County High School was seated in a chair beside me, tapping away on his iPhone. He was a babe in arms when I’d first come to this church, seventeen years ago.
“How did your soccer season turn out?” I asked. His picture had been in the paper more than once that spring.
“We lost 2 to 1 in the regional semi-finals,” he said. “Lost to a Northern Virginia school though, so that’s not too bad.”
“Not bad at all,” I agreed. Little Nelson County High School had just graduated one hundred seventy seniors. The Northern Virginia school would probably graduate ten times that number. Then I asked something else that was on my mind. “Have you given blood before?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he said politely, then returned to his phone.
I was impressed. You can start donating blood when you’re sixteen years old, with a parents’ permission. Here he was, maybe seventeen, with multiple pints under his belt.
The Dalai Lama says that kindness is his religion. I’ve been giving that a try, but constant kindness is harder than it sounds. The Bible, the Buddhists, even the Boy Scouts entreat us to be pure in thought, word, and deed. As difficult as it is to constantly do good deeds, that’s the easiest one of the three. Followed by words. I curse and sometimes take the Lord’s name in vain. Even when I try not to, I slip up. If someone swerves into my lane, the first thing out of my mouth is “shit,” which may well be the last thing out of my mouth someday.
But thoughts? How is it possible to maintain integrity in thought? I’m working on it, but it seems an insurmountable task. Mostly I’m thankful that people aren’t mind readers. I remind myself that each day offers a new opportunity to make a new start. To work harder. To try to be better. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.
For me, it was one step at a time. One thought at a time, one word at a time. And in that fellowship hall, I’d joined others who were doing their good deed for the day.
After a bit, a uniformed woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, and who sounded exactly like Whitney Houston when she spoke, led me behind a small curtained enclosure for a “mini-physical.” If I passed it, I could advance to a questionnaire. If that went well, I’d “get the chair.”
I passed the physical—great temp, super blood pressure—but nearly balked at the finger prick. I hated those things worse than I hated needles. It’s practically impossible to sit calmly while someone jabs something sharp into your oh-so-sensitive fingertip. You never know exactly when they’re going to do it, so you try not to anticipate it and pull back, but you do anyway. It’s just dreadful.
I thought of my son, who needed surgery on his arm when he fell off a ladder. And of my other son, who climbs tall trees with chain saws. I thought of my nephew who recently joined the Marines at a time when the nation is at war. And of his brother, who joined the police force at a time when Virginians have never been more armed and dangerous. It is better to give than to receive.
I survived the finger prick.
I breezed through the questionnaire, which contained everything from where I’ve lived over the years (might I have been exposed to Mad Cow disease in England?) to questions about my sex life. I was escorted to a comfortable lounge chair. Whitney Houston swabbed my left arm with brown liquid, waited thirty seconds, then did it again. This time she made Van Gogh swirls until the crook of my elbow looked like an abstract painting, suitable for framing. “My artwork,” she said with a Mona Lisa smile.
I dreaded what came next, that horror of a needle. I made myself look elsewhere.
Elsewhere happened to be where young Sanford reclined, blood flowing from his athletic arm to a bag, nearly full. A boy’s blood.
All the ways young men can and do lose their blood— often in great quantities— flooded my mind. Car crashes, athletic injuries, plain old foolishness. I saw chainsaws, mortar rounds, bullets. Blood everywhere.
“We got it,” Whitney said, and I watched my own blood fill the clear tubing like tomato juice through a crazy straw.
There is no substitute for human blood, and in the U.S. and Canada, we need a lot of it; one person or another needs blood every three seconds. Patients use 43,000 donated pints each and every day. Shortages of all blood types occur during the summer, and winter holidays.
A few years ago, I dreamed about Jesus. He was the Caucasian Jesus presented to me in childhood, fair-skinned with long reddish-blond hair and beard. He was seated under a tree, beckoning small children to come unto him. I don’t remember what else happened except that when I awoke, there was no doubt in my mind—none—that Jesus Christ was the risen Lord and Savior. I had the feeling that I’d found what I’d searched for all my life. The whole deal, it was all true. I retained this assurance, and with it a feeling of joy, throughout the morning.
Then the doubts began to set in. Jesus wasn’t a white man bedecked in spotless flowing robes. He was a roaming Middle-Eastern man who bore more resemblance to Osama bin Laden than the Jesus of my girlhood. My dream must have been more of an aspiration than a visitation. Had Jesus really taken time out of his busy schedule to appeal to my skepticism? My certainty faded. Did I not have the strength to believe, or was it all in my mind? I prayed for the vision to come again, but it never did. Was it a visitation, or was it just a dream? I didn’t know. But over time, I’ve gained clarity on what it is I do believe.
I believe that there are more people who claim to have spoken directly to God than who actually have. I believe that Jesus is among those who actually have. I believe that his practice of embracing the poor, the sick, those disenfranchised by society, showed us a way to be good in the world. I believe what we do here and now is more important what comes after this life.
And what I was doing here, was giving blood. While my bag filled, I recalled so much time spent in so many hospitals. My mother’s cancer surgery, my father’s heart valve replacement, my husband’s adrenalectomy. Our sons, our friends, our families. All those operations. All that blood lost and replaced. It was always there and I rarely gave it a thought.
But I saw it now. My mother and father in a blood mobile in Hopewell. Big city people in line at collection centers. Rural people in country churches. This is my blood, shed for you.
Twenty minutes after I started, I joined other freshly bled people in the recovery area, drinking juice and chatting. Sanford was back with his phone.
I should have asked him how many pints he’s donated in his life thus far. All I knew was that I had some catching up to do. That day, I made a start.
LINDA L. CROWE lives in Nelson County, Virginia, with her husband Kevin, big-hearted dog Tem, and mean-spirited cat Mildred. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Virginia Forests Magazine, Slaughterhouse, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Full Grown People, NPR’s Open Mic, and Studio Potter.
David arrived at our house in an oversized raincoat. He’d brought a magazine for assistance; it was somewhere in the folds of that big coat. My partner Karen handed him a jelly jar, and we agreed that when he was finished he would put a candle, unlit, in the front window. Karen and I left him to his magazine and walked down the block. The day was pleasant for a Halloween in Seattle. We kicked at dry leaves heaped along the sidewalk and laughed at the strangeness of the situation, how we were waiting for David but trying not to imagine what he was doing, how none of the residents of the neighborhood could have guessed what we were waiting for.
After about fifteen minutes, the candle was in the window. As we went up the walk, I sang that Rocky Horror Picture Show song about a light in the darkness. Karen and I smiled giddily at each other, then stopped smiling so as not to spook David. I tried to act normal as we entered, not avoiding his eyes but not staring either. He was already wearing his coat. From its depths he pulled out the jar, wrapped in a washcloth to keep it warm. We thanked him. He raised his eyebrows and went out the door.
Karen and I had been together twelve years when I finally agreed to have a child. We had been moving around the country for jobs and graduate school since we met in 1985, and finally we had settled back in Seattle, my hometown, with solid jobs, mine at a community college, hers at the public health department. We bought a house. I could think of no more reasons to wait.
I’d never felt an urge to have children, but Karen always had. Still, when I agreed to try, I also agreed to carry the child because of Karen’s health complications. If anything, pregnancy and birth sounded cool to me; dealing with a toddler didn’t. I put one big condition on my agreement: I wanted a known sperm donor, not an anonymous one. He didn’t have to be actively involved in the child’s life, but I wanted to be able to show the child a picture and say, “This is your father.” I was squeamish about putting a stranger’s semen in my body, not for fear of disease—the latest testing procedures seemed reliable—but because I needed to know who I was communing with on a cellular level. I needed to know what he looked like and how he talked, what he cared about and how he treated people.
After spreading the word to our friends, Karen and I found our donor in a writer I’m calling David. He had gone to graduate school with a good friend of mine, Wendy, and wasn’t attached romantically. He was interested in helping us because neither he nor his brother had had children, and they probably never would. Although he didn’t want to parent himself, he liked the idea of his family’s genes continuing on. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was living in California now, not Seattle, but we were willing to pay for his flights up, and he liked the idea of free visits to a city he loved.
David was funny and self-deprecating, which suggested a sweet vulnerability underneath. I liked him immediately and grew to feel a brotherly fondness for him. Although we didn’t have a relationship that allowed for this, I often felt the urge to lay my head on his shoulder and nestle into him.
After discussing expectations, drawing up contracts with lawyers, having medical evaluations, and charting my ovulations for a number of months, we were ready in late-1997 for the first insemination.
David left that Halloween afternoon, and Karen and I sighed, glad to be alone. In the bedroom, I shimmied out of my pants and lay down, feet up on the wall. My doctor had given us a catheter syringe and tubing, and Karen put the syringe in the jar to suck up the semen. We both squinted at the jelly jar. It had been a long time since either of us had seen that liquid. It was oddly translucent, not milky, and there didn’t seem to be much. Karen wrinkled her nose, but I was fascinated. So much intrigue surrounding such a modest substance.
Karen was having trouble getting the semen into the syringe. “Maybe a smaller jar would be better,” she said.
Finally, she got what she could into the syringe, inserted it into the tubing, and pushed the plunger. I felt nothing, not even an ooze. And now I was supposed to wait, feet on the wall, for twenty minutes. Karen sat on the edge of the bed, keeping me company. It was exciting; it was nice. I felt engaged in something purposeful and good.
The next morning I was a wreck.
At the same time that Karen and I were trying to have a baby, I was casting around for a new writing topic and was drawn to the story of my great-great aunt, Ruby Jane Hall Thompson, a woman long dead. She was very large, which had earned her a nickname derived from the town in Idaho where she lived: “Lewiston,” as in “Here comes Lewiston.” It wasn’t a nickname she knew she had; my father told me his uncle used to call her that.
Ruby Jane was a Christian Science practitioner. At first I didn’t know what that meant, but I learned that a practitioner was a kind of faith healer. Christian Scientists, as I understand it, don’t believe that matter exists; our true reality is the spiritual. Believing in God means recognizing the false nature of the material world, including sickness and disease. Practitioners help Christian Scientists pray through their self-induced periods of sickness and back into right alignment with God.
What drew me to Ruby Jane was the idea of being related to a larger-than-life mystic, a western Idaho healer. I imagined Lewiston in the early twentieth century as a desolate, wind-swept town, and I imagined Ruby Jane there exerting her power in one of the few but classic ways available to women: as a kind of witch. My novel would be gothic, magical realist. I began to research Christian Science.
Mary Baker Eddy, it turned out, is the only American woman to have founded an influential religion. Born in 1821, she had health problems throughout her life, and in her ongoing quest for relief, she finally hit on the principles that would inform her famous book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy must have had tremendous determination, skill, and charisma to self-publish this book, teach a growing legion of followers its principles, and start the church in 1879. By 1894 she had erected the church’s first building. By 1908, when she was eighty-seven, she had started the Christian Science Monitor. Thousands of people still attend her church. On Wednesday nights, they gather to tell stories of miraculous healing.
That the church was started by a woman, and that it is peculiarly American, with its focus on optimism and boot-strapping, made it all the more fascinating. My great-great aunt Ruby Jane was born while Eddy was still alive, and the founding mother must have been a thrilling model of what a woman could be. Indeed, the church is quite female-centric; the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father-Mother.” I imagined Ruby Jane as an ancestress of power and wisdom. I would go in search of her.
When the inseminations began, I had been on Prozac for a year. After a decade of attempting to manage my many bouts of anxiety with meditation, hypnosis, exercise, and therapy, I had given in: Give me the drug. It worked, to some extent. Going on Prozac felt like finally taking an aspirin after a life-long headache; suddenly I could see more clearly and function more smoothly. As Karen and I began talking about having a baby, I researched the influence of Prozac on fetuses. Although there was a small risk of damage, many researchers said that the risk of depression was equally bad if not worse, so it was hard to say whether a woman should stop taking the drug. I decided not. Still, sometimes it didn’t seem to be helping.
The morning after insemination, I felt as if I’d mainlined fear and shame. What if the donor is infertile? What if he has HIV after all? What if I get pregnant and it feels like an alien sucking at my insides? Why do Karen and I have to share such an intimate act with a stranger? Why do I have to hold such a humiliating position against the wall? What is this body that used to be mine?
I did everything I knew to reduce the anxiety: writing down my fears, giving myself pep talks, going to yoga, working out. As usual, the tension would take days to dissipate.
Nine days later, I got my period. Maybe we mistimed my ovulation or maybe my cycle was weirdly short that month, but we were using an ovulation predictor kit and monitoring my cervical fluid, although it was often hard to read. One of the challenges of the process was predicting ovulation with enough accuracy to get David on a flight in time to be at our house during the fertility window. He hated to fly, and as the months went by and I didn’t get pregnant, his fear ballooned. He came off the plane each time sweaty and weak, which couldn’t have helped his sperm count.
In December, I made a chart of the logistics: David was arriving on Thursday. Whether the ovulation kit was positive or not, we would have to inseminate. If the kit was positive on Friday, then pregnancy was still possible. If it wasn’t yet positive Saturday, then we had wasted the month. What were we doing? Had my demand that we have a known donor doomed us to fail? Did I really want a child?
One of the terms from Christian Science that captivated me was “malicious animal magnetism.” The idea of “animal magnetism” was around in the nineteenth century, and Eddy added the word “malicious” to the phrase. It’s a way of describing evil, and in Eddy’s theology, evil always comes in the form of bad thoughts, that is, thoughts that contradict or undermine God. Therefore, people’s thoughts can be corrupted by malicious animal magnetism. In her memoir about growing up Christian Scientist, Blue Windows, Barbara Wilson calls malicious animal magnetism the “repressed madness” inevitably created by a church that focuses so relentlessly on the positive. She says Eddy was paranoid about competing healers and used the phrase to refer to their attacks on her.
The idea of evil as something tempting and animalistic somehow makes it less frightening to me; it’s not deliberate but subconscious, a feeling that sweeps one up and makes one do things. It’s the evil wrought by a scared cat, lashing and hissing from a corner. When the fear passes, the cat retracts its claws.
My anxieties seemed like a form of malicious animal magnetism. And like the Eddy cure—which was thinking right thoughts—various authors, doctors, and therapists had suggested that I write down my thoughts when I felt anxious and analyze them. So I did: It was obvious that I was afraid of having a child. But I was also afraid of not having one. And I was afraid that my anxieties about having or not having a child would hound me throughout the entire insemination process. In other words, I was anxious about anxiety. This was ridiculous. Surely it was normal for a woman embarking on a pregnancy to be afraid. I needed to accept the uncertainty of the situation and relax, let the cat retract its claws. Of course, relaxation was easier said than done. Maybe what I needed was a practitioner.
The following June, I skipped insemination to go to Boston on a Christian Science pilgrimage. I saw the Eddy monument in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I listened to a tour guide at the Mother Church talk about why she wore glasses; she wasn’t spiritually advanced enough yet not to use them. I walked through the Mapparium, the stunning, three-story, stained-glass globe made in the 1930s of over six hundred glass panels. I wondered if Ruby Jane had ever seen it.
One afternoon I sat on the outdoor patio of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, reading the copy of Science and Health I had picked up in a used bookstore. Men played chess nearby, and pigeons strutted beneath the table. According to Eddy, prayer should be silent; loud prayer excites the emotions. Prayer as it is often practiced is not that useful; it tends to make us hypocrites, as we promise God things we can’t or won’t deliver. In any case, God knows our thoughts already.
This conception of prayer sounded sensible. Prayer should be silent, like the silence I was trying to coax out of my body through yoga and meditation. I shouldn’t make promises to be less anxious, just strive to be. One of my yoga teachers said, “You don’t breathe; the world breathes you.” Replace “the world” with “God” and the phrase would mesh with Eddy’s philosophy.
Indeed, it was striking how Eddy’s ideas dovetailed with so many of those made by the books and therapists who had tried to soothe me over the years. In a book on meditation, for example, the author said that he noticed a small lump on his neck and started to worry. The lump had been there for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed it that he became afraid. In other words, his mind made him afraid, not the lump. Eddy would have concurred. She would have gone further and said the lump didn’t exist. Still, Eddy and this author shared a common solution: Stop thinking about it; think of something else.
I drank my coffee, listening to the chess players smack their timers. Maybe Ruby Jane could help me. Maybe I could conjure her when the fears threatened to overwhelm. Or when I was lying there, feet on the wall, willing the sperm to dance on up to the egg and get introduced. I didn’t have to become a Christian Scientist to recognize the value of positive thinking. Or to mentally rely on my ancestress, the faith healer.
In July, we seemed to have timed the insemination just right. My mucous was stretchy; the ovulation predictor turned a positive shade of blue; David was punctual. But I didn’t get pregnant.
In August we agreed to try one last time. By now we weren’t awkward with each other, even as Karen and I returned from our walk. David could get his part of the job done in nine minutes. We opened the front door, and I joked, “My man!” He passed over the jar.
This time, we all knew that I probably wouldn’t get pregnant with David’s sperm. We smiled tenderly at each other, hugged. We said goodbye. Karen and I went into the bedroom, and I put my heels on the wall. All weekend afterward I cried and moped. It felt as if someone had died. I was sad for us, sad for David, sad for what could have been.
On Wednesday, I got in the car and drove the five hours from Seattle to Lewiston, Idaho. The trip took me through an area of southeastern Washington called the Palouse, a surreal landscape of undulating brown hills that rippled to the horizon. Driving through them was like winding through a maze with no obvious exit. Once I had emerged from them, I confronted the Lewiston Grade.
Lewiston is at the bottom of an abrupt two thousand foot drop from the plateau of eastern Washington to a valley where the Snake and Clearwater Rivers converge. The highway built in the 1970s smoothly descends to the city, but the old highway, called the Lewiston Grade, sweeps back and forth in sixty-four curves, an engineering marvel of its time. Both my parents, who grew up in the region, remember sickening ascents and descents of the old highway, so of course I had to drive into Lewiston that way. The disconcerting series of switchbacks, a trip Ruby Jane must have taken many times, made for an atmospheric entrance to Lewiston.
After checking into my motel, I went to the public library and found Ruby Jane listed as a practitioner in a 1941 phone directory. It gave me her address, and I drove to her house, a modest, two-story structure near the cemetery. The church she attended had been abandoned for a new one in 1965, so I couldn’t see it, but I still wanted to attend a Christian Science service in Lewiston.
I entered the church that evening hesitantly, wearing a dress purchased for the occasion—I didn’t otherwise own one—and hoping not to attract too much attention. A dozen people, mostly women, were sitting in blonde pews. I took a spot in the back. The early evening sun saturated the colors in the glass panes: red, purple, and an earthy, 1960s orange-brown. On the wall hung two quotes, one from Eddy—”Divine love always has met and always will meet all human needs”—and the familiar “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
I had timed my trip to be here for the Wednesday night service, traditionally devoted to testimonies of healing. I wasn’t prepared for the coincidence of the evening’s topic: reproduction. A man sat at a card table in front of the pews and read passages from the Bible and Science and Health, passages which I later learned are chosen by the Mother Church and read at every service on that day throughout the Christian Science world.
One reading expressed the idea that children are not created from matter but from idea/mind. I listened, looking down at the place where my belly would swell if I were pregnant. If Ruby Jane were still alive, and if I had the courage to explain the inseminations to her, she would probably have said that my failures until now had been my fault, that I hadn’t believed enough. It was true that I had trouble believing I would get pregnant; it seemed fantastical that a child could coalesce out of cells swarming in my fallopian tubes. But hadn’t I done all I could, given the circumstances?
The reading went on, contending that parents must take as much or more care planning their children as they would propagating crops or breeding livestock. This language was straight out of the eugenics movement, a popular effort in the early twentieth century to “purify” the human race; it used the cover of science to mask its racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant intentions. If I had needed some prompt to help me better imagine my great-great aunt’s time, this was it. Ruby Jane had probably believed in eugenics, and she would have been horrified by my request for help with my fertility. Not only was I a lesbian, but the father-to-be was the son of immigrants. Better, she might have said, to let this opportunity pass.
I listened with growing skepticism to the testimonials that followed the readings. One woman got over a headache by reading the Statement of Being. Another said she had been praying about the recent bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. She didn’t like Muslims—Hindus were okay—but she was trying to love universally.
A third woman said her child had felt fine during the week but something strange had appeared on her face. The girl didn’t understand why she couldn’t go outside to play. The mother put her in front of the mirror and said, “Do you want people to see you like that? No? Then you will stay inside until you look the way you want people to see you.” Surely the girl had chicken pox. And surely the mother knew she was contagious but couldn’t admit it. What a twisted way to deny disease.
My romantic obsession with my great-great aunt ended right there. Ruby Jane was probably only as wise as her time and place allowed; we probably wouldn’t have liked each other. At least, we wouldn’t have agreed on much. I had come to Lewiston to learn the truth, and the truth had set me free.
My period arrived that month as usual; I would never get pregnant. I continued to work on a novel inspired by Christian Science, but it would go nowhere, even when I ran across the story of a woman, a contemporary of Eddy’s, who got pregnant when her husband was out of town and claimed Eddy was the father. A lovely twist on lesbian insemination.
Karen and I broke up a year later, for reasons unrelated to the pregnancy attempt. As I tried to understand why I had gone through insemination despite a lack of maternal urges, I came to understand that having a child with David, friend of Wendy, was a way to create an extended family, whether the members of that family were genetically related to me or not; I wanted us bound to each other, loving unconditionally, the way families are supposed to be.
When I considered the pleasures of childrearing, they weren’t what most mothers probably think of first: the cuddling, the joyful giggling, the birthday glee. Rather, I was thinking of a community of relatives and friends joined by the connections among our children. I imagined sharing coffee with other parents while our children ran in and out; imagined barbecues and croquet games and badminton; imagined roving holiday feasts. What I was remembering was the community my parents had made at a midwestern university when my father was on tenure track there. The most fun I ever had was darting through the parties of drunken academics, like the summer party where the associate dean roasted a sheep in his backyard or the winter party where the anthropologist taught me to fold wonton skins. That is, it wasn’t a child I wanted but a community, and my insistence on a known donor was related to that desire.
My obsession with Ruby Jane was related, too, to a desire for connection, one that stretched back through time and ancestry. She represented a visionary woman, someone on whom I could call for strength and clarity. But ultimately, I realized that whatever genetics we had in common, we probably didn’t have much else.
Some years after my last insemination attempt, Wendy called one June afternoon to say the baby had almost arrived. I raced to the hospital and ran into the room just a few minutes before Eva’s little head and gangly body emerged. The midwife handed Eva to Wendy’s husband, and we all smiled, breathless and awestruck. Every year thereafter, I have been invited to Eva’s birthday party. And the children run in and out, and the adults drink wine, and the party goes on well into the evening.
ALLISON GREEN is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (Ooligan), and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Calyx, The Common, and other publications. Web site: allisongreen.org.
It should be simple, purchasing a toll bridge pass. I cry when I consider it. My daughter lives on the other side of that toll bridge. In prison.
Several times I have attempted to purchase a pass online. I searched the Department of Transportation website, selected the toll bridge, but I couldn’t convince myself to click the purchase button. Buying a pass for future trips across that bridge would mean I had given up hope that she might win one of her appeals and be released.
My husband and I could have depleted four toll bridge passes by now. That would equate to twenty-four visits. Instead, we pull into the toll plaza each time and idle our SUV in the long line of brake lights. Vehicles with pre-purchased passes whiz by us, their toll fare deducted from their account by remote sensors.
In our rural county, on the opposite side of the state, we have no toll bridges. No need for multi-passes.
To visit our thirty-nine-year-old daughter, we drive six hundred miles round-trip. Those kind of distance and time constraints limit our visits to every few months. In the wintertime, our visits are further apart, with two mountain passes and treacherous snowy roads at higher elevations.
She has been there four years. Even with better weather, our visits are becoming less frequent. Visits are a double-edged sword: a reminder each time we pass through the clanging of the metal gates with the razor wire curled the length of the fencing, that this is now our daughter’s life. Visiting her in prison has become a part of our life.
My silent prayers prior to her conviction were, Dear Lord, may the highest good come from this situation. Please touch her heart with your loving goodness and keep her safe.
When she was arrested, and during the eighteen months she was out on bail, my faith in God’s goodness never wavered. I believed he would watch over her. I believed he would answer my prayers.
My belief in His goodness was answered when my daughter purchased a soft-bound red leather Bible. I was overjoyed when she showed it to me. From the amount of scriptures highlighted in yellow and bookmarked with torn scraps of paper, I could see she had been on her own journey to accept Him.
When she was convicted and sent to prison, I felt God had betrayed her and me. I questioned how I could continue to believe in his goodness when he had not answered my prayers for her safety. How could this be the highest good? I wondered if our daughter would be in prison if I had shared my beliefs vocally. If she had accepted Christ earlier, as I had as a child, would we be in this predicament now?
After receiving her sentence, she worried that our visits would lapse, and our letters would dwindle. I promised her that we wouldn’t forget her. I told her we’d visit often. I told her to not give up hope. I told her God would hear my prayers. I told her He would hear her prayers. During the past four years, I have doubted if he listened.
Time has eroded my faith in His powers. Hope is all I have left.
Visiting a few days after Christmas, my husband and I and our daughter’s daughter were waiting inside the prison lobby to check in. Behind us, a buxom Italian woman in a white peasant blouse chatted and extended kind words with everyone in her vicinity. I admire women like her who aren’t afraid to reach out to other people. Her dark hair tumbled in soft, bouncy waves to her shoulders, and her perfectly applied crimson lipstick enhanced her vibrant smile.
I used to have that type of enthusiasm for life. Since our daughter’s incarceration, I have become more and more emotionally closed in. More doubtful. More protective of my space. I prefer to observe quietly and stay under the radar when in public. I smiled at something the Italian woman said, but kept my body turned away from the conversation.
Our fourteen-year-old granddaughter stepped in front of my husband, and the top of her long brown ponytail grazed his salt and pepper beard. He tugged gently on the dangling portion and was rewarded with a smirk barely wide enough to see her braces. I placed my hand on his muscled arm as we stood in line.
When it was our turn to step up to the desk and present our IDs, I felt my usual trepidation. Would something appear on my clean record that would preclude me from visiting? Or would there be a new guard who wouldn’t recognize me? The picture on my driver’s license was three years old and barely resembled the tired sixty-year-old I was that day. My gray roots showed, and my brunette hair was chin-length and wavy instead of short and neatly wedged like when I renewed my license so long ago.
It seems a lifetime has passed since my daughter was sent to prison. I yearn for the days before her arrest, when I never questioned my faith in God’s steadfast love.
The normal guard with the kind smile was behind the desk.
The Italian woman’s presence had changed the atmosphere in the lobby; even I felt a lightness. She radiated kindness and warmth and brought smiles to the large group of holiday visitors. The lobby had the feel of friends reuniting after a long absence instead of a docile line of strangers.
We were assigned a table number for our visit and a key to a locker to leave our belongings in. We proceeded to the next station to remove our shoes and pass through the metal detector. When cleared, our hands were stamped with invisible ink, and we joined other visitors waiting at the third barricade. The guards released us, and we traversed outside to the next blockade.
Between buildings, a gentle mist of rain fell on our group as we gathered at the steel gate. It buzzed open. We moved like cattle into the next enclosure. The gate we passed through must clang shut before we were allowed passage to the next station. Shiny razor wire coiled in ringlets on the ground and double coiled on top of the fence that surrounded us.
The razor wire overwhelmed me. It’s as if my mind pretended my daughter was away at college. The razor wire jolted me back to reality.
The next double set of doors brought us closer to the visiting area. It had no razor wire. We wedged into the tight enclosure, the guards in their raised station behind tinted glass waited as the exit door behind us closed. In front of us a heavy steel door slid mechanically open. We formed another line and gave the guard our inmate’s name. Our assigned table had the number carved deeply into the top of the table, similar to the old-time school desks with the deep groove for pencils.
Our daughter is in CCU (Closed Custody Unit), the politically correct term for Maximum Security. Her unit is often the last of the groups of inmates to arrive at the visiting room. We watched as other visitors reunited with their daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers.
The Italian woman was assigned the table next to ours. When she saw her daughter, she stood and bounced with joy on her toes anxiously awaiting her daughter to clear the guard station. She rushed towards her excitedly and enveloped her with motherly hugs and happy tears.
Our daughter appeared and gave us a slight wave of greeting before she checked in with the guards. We nodded and smiled and waited. Her five-foot-four frame appeared thinner than the last time we visited. When she joined us, our quiet hugs seemed feeble compared to the Italian woman’s. I wondered if the other visitors felt the same.
Our visits follow the same routine. My husband and I sit on the opposite side of the four person table so our daughter can sit next to her daughter or her almost-adult son when he comes with us.
We asked about her new roommate. She asked, “What’s new at home?” We tried to remember something new to tell her. Our conversation felt stilted compared to the laughter and reminiscing that transpired at the Italian woman’s table.
Some days, our scheduled three-hour visits fly by. Other days, we play Yahtzee to pass the time and keep the conversation light. This was a Yahtzee day. Visits near the holidays are emotionally difficult. At home, I have tried to keep our daughter’s traditions alive; like baking and decorating Christmas sugar cookies with her daughter or preparing her kids favorite foods for their birthdays.
Her two children live with us. We celebrate milestones in their lives without her.
The guard at the raised station announced that visiting was over. We took turns hugging our daughter and joined other visitors in the exit line. Our daughter sat with the other inmates, all matching in their gray shirts and sweatpants. They would be searched before they returned to their units.
The heavy steel door opened slowly. We crowded into the tight enclosure. The Italian woman stood next to me and shared with everyone how good it was to see her daughter; that she hadn’t seen her for seven months. She dissolved into gasping sobs and tears streaked down her face.
I uncharacteristically wrapped my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head into hers and said “It’s difficult, the leaving, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “She doesn’t get out for another two years. Does it get any easier?”
I told her, “Some days are better than others.”
She smiled and with a trembling voice said, “I miss her so much.”
I tightened my hug, then released her. I prayed our conversation was over. I didn’t want her to ask the inevitable next question. Our conversation was not over.
She asked, “How long is your daughter in for?”
The agony of the answer contorted my face, and I began to cry. “Life,” I said.
Speechless, the Italian woman, wrapped me into her full bosom. The door buzzed open. She released me. Side by side, we walked towards the enclosure with the razor wire. Our group was silent as we passed through each buzzing, clanging gate. When we arrived at the original lobby, we swept our stamped hands under the black light. The invisible stamp magically appeared. We were cleared to leave.
I entered the single restroom and locked the door behind me. I splashed water on my haggard face to clear my smudged mascara. I lingered. I prayed the Italian woman had left. During previous visits, I had observed an unspoken code of ethics; no one asked about other inmate’s convictions. I was grateful it was taboo. I certainly didn’t want to talk about that, either.
My husband, our granddaughter, and I were in the parking lot walking towards our car when the Italian woman, from several cars away, waved and called out to me, “What’s your first name?”
I was stunned by her question. I preferred anonymity, but she asked with such urgency.
“Bonnie,” I yelled back and watched as my granddaughter disappeared into our car. I wanted to do the same.
The woman bellowed back, “Bonnie, I will pray for you and your daughter. I will have my prayer chain pray for you too. Never give up hope!”
Her kindness buoyed me. “Thank you.” I managed to squeak through the emotion that constricted my throat.
Maybe I have been wrong in doubting God. Maybe He had heard my prayers. Maybe the Italian woman was a sign from Him to keep my faith strong. Maybe I won’t be needing that toll bridge pass.
BONNIE S. HIRST is currently working on a book-length memoir. After a thirty-five year hiatus from writing (being a mom and grandma), she is enjoying connecting with other writers. She loves feel-good movies and stories with happy endings. When life tries to shorten her stride, she prays, cries, reads self-help books, and writes. She can often be found kayaking on a calm mountain lake. Connect with her: https://www.facebook.com/BonnieSHirst and https://www.icantquotescripture.com.
The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.
The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.
“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.
There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.
Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.
A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.
An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.
One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”
He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.
He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.
We had nothing in common.
We fell in love.
I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.
Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.
It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.
St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.
I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.
But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.
The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.
Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.
Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.
I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.
“Daddy made this for you.”
Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.
Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.
Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.
I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.
We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.
One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.
Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.
My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.
“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.
By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.
Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.
“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.
It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.
My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.
Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.
I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.
An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.
I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.
Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.
I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.
“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.
Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”
Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.
It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.
In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.
And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.
I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.
I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.
We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.
Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.
I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.
New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.
In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.
He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.
DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.
Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.
Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.
“With me?” I asked Joann.
“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”
“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.
“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.
I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.
Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—
I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.
From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.
* * *
For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.
Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.
In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.
Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.
* * *
Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.
The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”
He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”
A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”
He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.
We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.
For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.
Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.
As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.
Finally, I said, “I can’t.”
“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.
“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.
We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.
Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.
He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.
Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.
A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.
In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.
In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.
Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.
Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.
God, I loved him. He resurrected me.
But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”
In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.
You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.
Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.
Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.
Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.
It was spring by then, the season of possibility.
This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.
Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.
If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.
One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.
“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.
I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.
I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.
I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.
For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.
He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.
Before I went in, I looked back.
I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.
In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.
And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.
In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.
I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.
He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”
He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.
On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.
He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.
But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”
But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.
And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.
Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.
We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.
I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.
Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.
SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.
Like this? Want thirty more FGP essays in honest-to-Betsy book form? Order here! (Awesome holiday gift. Just saying.)
I work for a Jesuit university, which surprised everyone in my life, especially me. Upon accepting the job, my devout old Catholic aunt, who has long been worried about my rejection of religion, sent me a rosary. Friends and former coworkers laughed and speculated on how long it would take me to get fired. Others told me I’d do well, as long as I didn’t talk.
I’m an opinionated atheist. No one thought I’d last at an institution whose buildings are decorated in religious art on a campus full of statuary and crosses. I told myself I could fake it—after all, I know Catholics. My family is Catholic. I went to a Catholic high school. All I had to do was blend in to the background, and everything would be fine.
For the first few months, I was profoundly uncomfortable. People were much more open about their faith than I’d anticipated. Employees are constantly reminded of Jesuit values, and open discussions often happen about how to live those values in our jobs and our everyday lives. I waxed pathetic one evening about how long it would take my coworkers to realize that I wasn’t like them, that I wasn’t suited for that sort of environment. Sooner or later, they’d find out that I don’t believe in God, and then what? How would they react to having an atheist in their midst? I felt like an intruder. I had stepped into a world that I had consciously rejected, and now it was going to reject me. I was convinced that it was only a matter of time.
Though my husband listened patiently, he showed no mercy. He simply looked at me and said, “This is the best job you’ve ever had. Don’t screw it up.”
The best job I’ve ever had began with a Master’s degree in Literature, which led me to market research and eventually into data analysis. People often find this odd, but the purpose of studying literature is to analyze narratives: to think critically, ask a lot of questions, and be able to understand and apply a variety of concepts. It’s not so odd that my skill set easily translated from analyzing Victorian novels to analyzing large quantities of raw data.
A narrative is a narrative, whether it’s constructed of words, or numbers, or ten crosses hanging on an office wall.
The owner of the crosses was one of the first people I met, in a computer lab that he announced had once been the shower room for the original group of Jesuits who inhabited the building more than one hundred years ago. It was a strange feeling, knowing the history of that room. And my coworker is full of those sorts of tidbits and trivia. His memory is itself a vast database, one that I was advised to access as often as possible, and that I still rely on two years later.
When I walked into his office for the first time, I immediately noticed a line of crosses hanging above his office door. Crosses are hardly out of place in a Catholic school, hardly something to be startled by, yet it somehow struck me as excessive. When I asked him about them, all he said was, “I plan on covering my entire wall.”
The first time I asked why, he didn’t answer.
On a campus that’s full of crosses, the only crosses I continue to find odd and distracting are my coworker’s. Every time I’m in his office, I end up staring at them, counting them repetitively in my head, studying their ornamentation. It seems so strange, looking at crosses that are decorated with colors and flourishes, crosses that are downright cheerful. I understand that they’re symbols of faith, of hope, of forgiveness and eternal life. But I can’t get out of my head that they were also an instrument of punishment and torture, peculiar Roman contraptions upon which many suffered and died.
Several times, I asked him why he had so many. The first time I asked, he told me that it was his intention to cover the wall with them, starting from the doorway, and wrapping all around his office. I asked him why again, and he told me how carefully he spaces them apart, so that they’re equidistant. It bothers him if they’re not aligned correctly. He told me about standing up on a ladder, about feeling uncertain about his balance, about being worried that he’ll fall.
I asked him why he hangs them then, if it’s such an inconvenience, and he told me again that he wanted to cover the wall in crosses.
Though I kept asking the same question every time I visited his office, he would always act like he hadn’t heard it. He would tell me instead who gave him this cross or that cross, or repeat his intention to cover his entire wall, or even talk to me about the other random items he’s collected over the years.
That sort of technique doesn’t work well on me. Even if someone won’t answer, I typically won’t stop asking. It is my most endearing and infuriating trait—and the Jesuits’ as well.
Asking questions is one of the core values that our university encourages. This may seem strange to some, as Christians are often characterized by the godless as mindless followers taking their marching orders from a two-thousand-year-old book. That’s an unfair stereotype, as Christianity is much more nuanced and complex than simply a set of rules handed down by a judgmental God-figure. The Jesuits in particular encourage people to think and question. They’re the rebels of the Catholic faith, the original bad boys, founded in 1540 to educate, to serve, and to work for the greatest common good. In their nearly five hundred years of existence, they’ve spread to every part of the globe, leaving behind a network of universities.
One of them is nestled on ninety-one acres in North Denver, a university which is made up of three separate colleges and enrolls nearly ten thousand students per year. Many of them are online—the Jesuits have always been open to change, and our university was one of the first to offer online-only degrees. Even though practically every school followed our lead, it’s still a point of pride to know that tradition can still be cutting edge. That faith can be supported by data and technology.
That’s what I do—I work with the university data.
Data, much like the Victorian novel, is not easy to understand. Learning the complexities of the university systems was at times frustrating and made me reliant on others for questions and guidance. In my first few months, I had the frustration of a high learning curve complicating my adjustment to a work environment that encourages open religiosity. The only thing that overcame my defeatist thoughts was pure stubbornness. I figured, as long as people are willing to answer my questions, I’d keep asking them.
I still periodically visit my coworker’s office, and stare up at the beige-colored walls, compulsively counting the crosses. In fact, it’s the first thing I do, every time I’m there. The moment his attention is on his computer, my eyes are drawn upwards. There were eleven, then twelve, then thirteen. I find them hypnotic. Though I value everything that he takes the time to explain to me, I often have to struggle to pay attention to what he’s saying. I have to remind myself to listen to him, to look at the screens in front of us, to take notes and ask the right questions—the ones I’m supposed to ask, not the ones I want to ask.
Seventeen crosses in, I was beginning to feel like I understood something. The day I counted the seventeenth cross, I began to visualize our database in a way I hadn’t before. I imagine it as a series of flat planes that glow a soft blue, with a lot of moving pieces and endless loops. I see it not as if it’s something I’m constructing, but as if it’s something I’m remembering.
That was when I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t screw it up.
Except for the whole Christian thing. That still scared me.
When I first professed to my family that I didn’t believe in God and didn’t consider myself a Christian, they took it as nothing more than a passing phase. My father used to sometimes say, “If you’re raised Catholic, you’ll always be Catholic, even if you don’t go to church.” As if Catholicism was a scar I couldn’t ever get rid of, a stain that would never wash out. For years, I was sent Christmas ornaments and asked why I hadn’t put up a tree. For years, I vacillated between politeness and annoyance. I don’t need ornaments because I don’t put up a tree. I don’t put up a tree because I don’t celebrate Christmas. Even though I asked people to stop sending me Christmas-themed gifts, they continued. I realized my family didn’t take me seriously, and I resented them for it.
This continued until well after I was married, when they finally began to grudgingly accept my adulthood and admitted to themselves that my lack of religion is not something I’ll grow out of.
Atheists are no different from anyone else. We’re not the smug, self-assured people that some think we are. We have questions and doubts. We wonder why we’re here, what our purpose is. We think about life, and we think about death. We just don’t think of those things through the filter of faith or a higher power.
Getting a job at a Jesuit university has instilled in my family a sense of hope that I might be coming around, that I might once again embrace the religion I was raised in. Two years later, I can say with confidence that I am not. If anything, working for a Catholic school has only solidified the fact that I don’t believe in God. I never anticipated anything changing that.
One of the major things I dislike about religion is that it seems like it has an answer for everything. To me, faith sometimes feels like a way to manage fear. I was in a seminar recently when the speaker admitted that he turns to faith when he doesn’t like the answers science gives him. Everyone else in the room nodded and murmured in agreement. I wanted to jump up and shout, No, that’s not good enough! It cheapens your faith! Admittedly faith is something I don’t understand, but to me, it seems that faith should be about more than simply finding the most satisfying answer.
That’s why it means a lot to me to see people who are heavily steeped in a very complex religious system encouraging others to ask questions, and not settling for the first answer they’re given. It means a lot to me that our university has branded itself on this notion, on the notion that we’re not going to give you all the answers—we’re going to teach you how to find them yourself.
Early on in my employment, someone told me that it wasn’t the purpose of our university to provide people with a blueprint for their lives. He said that it was our purpose to give them the tools to create their own blueprint. He said that answers are not as important as questions, and that sometimes the act of asking the question is more profound than any answer ever could be.
The story in Genesis, one of the first things I learned as a child in Sunday school, makes sense now—knowledge is a drug. A very powerful drug. I can’t get enough of it.
Perhaps that’s what attracts me to data-related jobs. There’s something satisfying about being able to take something raw and unformed and turn it into something meaningful. But I’ve had to evolve how I understand data. Like any narrative, it has plot holes and ambiguities. It can be read and interpreted in a multitude of different ways. It’s not always interesting, and it’s not always true. It can be used for, and it can be used against. It can only answer questions that you’re willing to ask.
I’m willing to ask all sorts of questions. Being both an analyst and a writer makes me curious to an extent that I sometimes come across as intrusive. I’m like Eve, and all the archetypes that step outside of boundaries and break the rules simply because there’s something on the other side that they need to know. And I accept the consequences of this terminal curiosity.
Sometimes the consequence is that I learn things that are disturbing. I make discoveries that bother me or that leave me with more questions. Sometimes it means that I have to learn to live with dissatisfaction and ambiguity, or try to be graceful as someone dodges my questions.
Such as my coworker, who for a long time acted as if he simply didn’t hear me when I asked him why he hung up crosses. Perhaps he feels that the answer is obvious—he’s Christian, and these crosses are a symbol of his faith. Perhaps he doesn’t know the answer, but doesn’t want to admit it. Perhaps he tunes me out the same way I sometimes tune him out. Perhaps he’s making himself listen to me the same way I have to make myself listen to him, even when his answers are the only thing I want to hear.
I was in his office again recently, and couldn’t resist indulging my new favorite habit of counting his crosses as he pulled up our database on his computer. I counted them as he mumbled at his keyboard.
“You’ve got twenty-four crosses now,” I noted.
He stopped typing. “Twenty-five,” he said proudly, and pulled another one from his drawer, telling me who gave it to him. Telling me again how he wants to cover his entire wall.
I’ve evolved a lot as a person since I started in my job. I’ve learned a lot about questions and answers, about faith and facts, about knowledge and ambiguity. I’ve discovered that while I’m okay with not knowing, I’m not okay with not asking.
So I did it again. I smiled, and I asked, “Why do you want to cover the wall?”
For once, he didn’t rush into another thought, or repeat himself, or dodge my question entirely. Instead, he glanced at me and then up at the wall.
“Because there’s too much beige,” he replied.
That was the worst thing I could have imagined him saying. I chose to believe he didn’t mean it.
An act of faith, perhaps?
Persistence is one of the hallmark of the Jesuits. They’ve been controversial for nearly their entire existence. They’ve dealt with oppression and suppression, accusation and intrigue. Their commitment to social justice and liberation theology has ensured that they’ve remained in the center of many debates.
Persistence is also one of the hallmarks of the particular institution I work for. Enrollments are falling at most higher education institutions, and we’ve got the additional challenge of being a private school, which means higher tuition rates that some of our local competitors. We don’t only have to work harder, we have to work more creatively. That’s why data is important—data tells the university’s story, and by doing so, allows our leaders to revise that story when the need arises. Data people are the watchdogs, the soldiers in the tower, guarding the castle, keeping an eye on what’s going on within the walls as well as outside of them. We provide the intelligence.
I can’t imagine doing anything else. Data, and the stories it tells, will always be an integral part of what I do.
As intelligent as my coworker is, he doesn’t seem to understand the narrative he’s constructed on the wall of his office.
“People see my crosses and always say they’re surprised I’m religious, and they’re even more surprised when I tell them I’m not,” he said to me the other day.
I kept myself from laughing, but barely, remembering my own shock the first time I was in his office. “Then why do you have twenty-five crosses hanging in your office?” I asked.
“Because I like crosses,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I think they’re beautiful,” he said, giving me the shrug I’ve seen countless times before, signaling that he’s ready to move on to another topic of conversation.
This time, I didn’t let him. I was determined to understand why a symbol that so often reminded me only of the bloody end of a human life was so often construed as a thing of beauty. I take a deep breath, and I again I say, “Why?”
This time, he doesn’t ignore me. This time, his face is different. “Because,” he says, then pauses.
I watch his face change from its normal expression, one I can only describe as bored curiosity, to something astoundingly unfamiliar. And also astoundingly familiar. It’s just that I’d never seen that sort of expression on him. His face softened, the lines seeming to disappear, as his gaze shifted from me to some invisible thing behind me somewhere, something only he could see. He lingered for a moment on that word. Because.
There have only been a two times in my life that I can safely say I’ve witnessed the descriptive cliché, “and then his face lit up.” The first time was in Philadelphia, when a waiter set the most beautiful osso buco I’ve ever seen down in front of the dedicated foodie I was dining with, and I watched his entire face lift into an expression of happiness I’ve never seen before or since. The second was when I told a teammate that his arch-nemesis in an adjacent department had just given two weeks’ notice, laughing when he actually gasped in delight, like a child on Christmas morning who just discovered that he had been given the gift he’d always wanted.
The third time was that afternoon on our sleepy little campus, watching my coworker dig deep into the recesses of his faith and pull back what its greatest symbol meant to him. The because was still lingering between us, when he said, “They represent a perfection yet a cleansing, and I think that’s beautiful.”
I have no idea what that means. I’ve thought about it a lot since he said it, and I can’t even begin to fathom it. Perfection is something I don’t believe possible or desirable, and the concept of cleansing, in a religious context, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. While I can see how cleansing is a comforting thought to someone who believes in sin, it seems like an oppressive concept to someone who doesn’t.
Yet my disappointment in not understanding his response in the slightest was countered by my ability to connect with his expression. It looked something like how I’d felt the first time I read Whitman’s Song of Myself, or the day my best friend, who was almost as broke as I was, gave me the last fifty dollars in her bank account because she thought I needed it more than she did.
It was joyfully transcendental. It was lit up yet peaceful, both his eyes and his mouth smiling. The words were foreign, but I connected with his face. I know that feeling, inside and out, and I could go there with him. I could be in the moment, and I could understand what he felt without understanding why.
I can’t say that my coworker’s blissful moment of sublimity or that the Jesuit spirit I so admire moved me to re-embrace the religion of my family. I don’t want to go back to church, or celebrate Christmas. They haven’t persuaded me to believe in God, but they have done something that, for me, is even more beautiful—they’ve made me want to.
CASSANDRA MORRILLY is the pen name of a writer who was raised in rural Ohio before receiving a BA in English from Seton Hall University, followed by an MA in Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her pack of ravenous terriers. You can read more of her writing at cassandramorrilly.wordpress.com.
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.
On this day thirty-nine years ago, my mother died.
Last night I went down to the kitchen and lit a candle for her, as I’ve done for many years. Standing before the flame, I remembered her face and certain moments when her playful, girlish spirit glowed most brightly. More ambitiously, I tried to open myself to these memories, to love her and grieve for her again—to cut through the hardened skin and reach the tender place that time has buried.
As always, I fell short.
It’s a Jewish tradition to light a yahrzeit candle (the word means “time of year” in Yiddish) the evening before the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I’ve been doing this for a long time—for my mother, for my sister’s first husband, who died when he was thirty-six, and for my father. You’re supposed to light the candle at sunset, but I wait longer, until my children are asleep and my wife is watching television upstairs. Bringing the dead back to life requires solitude, silence, and concentration.
The memory I reconstructed last night was the time my mother took me skiing at Sterling Forest. I was fourteen and itching to ski a second time, after a trip organized by a local Jewish center the winter before. My mother never managed to pass her driver’s test, so we took a bus from the Port Authority, after an hour-long bus and subway trip from Queens. (This took place during the two-year period of my parents’ divorce, before she gave up her dream of a happier life and married my father again.) She didn’t dare put on skis herself; instead, she spent the day in the heated lodge. Each time I checked in, she smiled a full-to-bursting smile. She may have been glad to see her son enjoying himself—or perhaps some handsome stranger had flirted with her. She had always craved adventure and romance, and rarely got any.
Looking back, her generosity seems almost superhuman. Getting there without a car had taken hours—and then she had to spend the day inside a soggy snack bar. Yet she never complained, or even sighed. (Of course, it’s possible that I’m misremembering.)
Not even this memory, though, could break open the locked place. The trouble is, I’ve used it before. My fund of memories is limited; I’ve gone back to the same ones too many times.
The candle burned on the stove all night, and it’s still burning today. Each time I pass through the kitchen, the pale flame reminds me to pause and think of her. Each sighting is another chance to pay her the tribute she deserves.
Again and again, I fail.
My parents never belonged to a synagogue. I grew up without Hebrew school, seders, or religious belief. I find it odd therefore, and a bit absurd, to catch myself lighting yahrzeit candles.
There’s a simple explanation: when I was young, I saw my mother do this for her mother. After she died, it seemed a comforting way to honor her. For me, the custom has nothing to do with faith. Rather, it’s a way of repaying through remembrance the love I owe to those I’ve lost.
But why is it so hard? It shouldn’t be. I’m not trying to contact the spirit world, or hold a soul in my hand, or see eternity.
The answer is scar tissue. My mother died when I was nineteen and away at college. She’d had a hysterectomy the year before, and it had gone badly; she swelled and never felt right again. Still, her sudden death, alone at home while my father worked, stunned and overwhelmed us all. Those first few days, I worked to keep hold of myself, to get through the hours without breaking down in tears. Then a little granule of thought or memory would set loose an overpowering wave of grief. I hated the feeling—like a seizure, or a psychotic episode—and fought it with all my will. Holding it together: the words describe perfectly the effort to keep from falling apart.
I resisted grief just as tenaciously as I resisted other difficult emotions. My parents’ raging fights had terrified me as a child; I closed the door and shut out their voices to keep the horror from touching me.
Those waves of pain after my mother’s death battered and breached my fortifications. Each one left me more determined not to give in to the next.
Since then, I’ve built more barricades. That’s the real reason why I can’t reach the place I seek as I stare at the yahrzeit flame: the armor is too thick. I’m no more capable of voluntarily returning to that pain than I am of strangling myself with my own hands. The older I get, the less of the mourner’s feeling remains. I linger at the flame, but eventually have to accept that I’m not getting any closer. Regretfully, I leave the candle behind and go upstairs.
It’s not that I’m no longer capable of grief, only that I can’t recover the sensation in these old wounds—not by concentrated effort, anyway.
When memories come unsolicited, though, I can still surprise myself. A few days before my father’s yahrzeit this year, a speaking engagement took me to Florida, where he had lived for the last twenty-four years of his life. As my wife and son and I stepped out of the jetway, the familiar blend of heat, air-conditioning, and humidity carried me back to the many times when I’d visited and found him waiting right here at the gate, searching for my face.The emotion I’ve been seeking at the candle nearly drowned me. For my wife and son, who’d known my father only in old age, this was an ordinary arrival, free of emotion. For me, it came with a crushing reminder that my father, whose bent leg I used to slide down, will never come to meet me again.
For some, religious ritual opens the door to the spirit. Not for me. Reluctant to say words I don’t believe, I avoid ceremonies and prayers of all kinds.
That doesn’t mean I deny the spiritual altogether. There’s more to us than earning a living, running errands, and watching TV. I don’t want to lapse into sentimental hooey, but I do believe that each of us has a soul—a stew of hopes and sorrows, ideals and memories, rarely perceived except in solitude.
Once, in Central Park, I found myself alone under the trees with rain falling quietly on the leaves around me and on the umbrella above my head. That unexpected peace filled me with bliss. Though inexperienced in such matters, I recognized the state as a gentle form of what others might call religious ecstasy.
Yahrzeit candles serve as another entryway to this mysterious place. If anything can inspire meditation, it’s a small, slender flame. (Think of Georges de La Tour’s paintings, especially “The Penitent Magdalen.”) Even a whisper will upset the fragile fire; a forceful breath will put it out. As the flame consumes wax and wick, you can’t help thinking of the span of a life.
By gazing at the candle, I remove myself from the tasks that keep me busy. Although my goal is more emotional than spiritual, the effort resembles a monk’s prayer: an attempt to contact something intangible. I find it ironic, even a bit embarrassing, that I—the most irreligious person I know—should end up in so devout a pose.
If my goal is unguarded love and sorrow, then I’ve never reached it. I can admit to myself now that I no longer expect to. Even so, there’s satisfaction in simply pausing before the candle and remembering. Though sometimes the memories that come back are exactly the wrong kind—my mother sobbing because the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, my father’s vicious words when they fought, my brother-in-law shouting, “Prick!” at another driver who’d cursed him—recalling these moments brings my lost family back into the world. That’s no small achievement, after so many years.
Rather than struggle to feel what I can’t, I intend to celebrate future yahrzeits by enjoying the memories: Danny, my brother-in-law, making waves with an air mattress at Aunt Dotty’s above-ground pool until the water splashed over the side, sending cousin Gregory and me to the highest heights of boyish happiness. And my father patiently driving me wherever I asked him to on those Saturday mornings when they were divorced—to Kennedy Airport to watch planes take off, and the new McDonald’s for lunch, and one Shell station after another, so I could collect a complete set of commemorative coins of the presidents. I see now why he indulged that ridiculous desire: like my mother taking me skiing by bus, he knew their battles had left me wounded, and would have done almost anything to repair the damage.
Those pointless coins have been lost for decades. The memory is still with me, though, rich enough to yield new understanding even now.
MICHAEL LASER writes novels for adults and adolescents. His most recent book is Hidden Away, about a teenager who disappears on the morning of the SAT. For more about him and his work, visit michaellaser.com.