An essay on traveling to Ethiopia to meet my son for the first time in the latest issue of Anchor Magazine: http://stillharbor.org/anchormagazine/2017/6/1/salam-ethiopia
Originally published in The Sun (Issue 496), April 2017.
(& an Apology to a Boy)
“Andrew” was 26 and back at recovery meetings after a relapse. I was just shy of 31 and sober seven years. Andrew was part of a small group of friends I’d met in Saint Paul, Minnesota, after moving there six months earlier to be baptized in the Catholic Church.
I’d made a vow when I moved to stay single (and sex-free) for at least a year. I was easily swayed, so one of my rules was never to have a man alone in my apartment.
It was snowing like crazy when we left the recovery clubhouse after the 10 o’clock candlelight meeting. Andrew begged to come over. Just a cup of tea, he laughed. I have my vow, I said. I know—come on, he laughed again. We were friends and it might be nice. One cup of tea, why not?
Summit Avenue was illuminated by the snow. My place was just a couple blocks away in one of those beautiful, old brick buildings on Grand Avenue. The Mississippi River was a 15-minute walk further west and the house where F. Scott. Fitzgerald reworked This Side of Paradise—due east.
Andrew and I stamped the snow off our boots and climbed the stairs to my small apartment. I loved this place. It was the second time I’d ever lived alone and the first time I could manage the rent on my own. I drew the living room shades and put on water for tea while Andrew inspected my makeshift bookcase.
“You’ve got the coolest books,” he said, running his fingers down their spines. Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Richard Bach’s Illusions, and various others about the health benefits of yoga and meditation (which I didn’t actually practice).
“Autobiography of a Yogi changed my life,” I said, coming back into the living room.
“I’ve always wanted to read it,” said Andrew. “Maybe I could borrow it sometime.”
“Did you know there are Hindu saints who could walk on water like Jesus?”
“Let’s make love.”
“What?” I laughed.
“Let me kiss you.”
“I can’t,” I said. I knew if I kissed him I wouldn’t be able to stop.
“Let me spend the night, I could just hold you.”
“If I let you in my bedroom, I’ll never get you out,” I laughed again.
“What about here—on the floor?”
I heard the water boiling and the electric kettle clicked off.
“All right, but just for a little bit,” I said, still determined to keep my vow.
I gathered blankets off the inflatable camping mattress in my bedroom. I hadn’t bothered buying a real mattress since I wasn’t intending to stay in Saint Paul long.
We arranged the blankets on the floor and Andrew pulled me into his arms.
“We don’t have to make love, but I could…”
“Touch you and…,” he paused. “I’ll keep my clothes on.”
“But I can’t give you any more…”
Andrew worked off my shirt, jeans, and underwear like a Zen Buddhist monk immersed in the practice of Hitsuzendo (Japanese calligraphy). I’d never been in this position before—without any pressure for a certain reciprocity. And if one could ever truly be loved through the body, I felt loved.
We held each other for a long time afterward. I pulled on my underwear, jeans, and shirt and Andrew helped me up.
“It’s really late,” I said.
“It’d be better if…”
“I understand,” Andrew said and began to move toward the door. “I guess I’ll see you at the meeting tomorrow, then.”
“Wait,” I said and went over to the bookcase and found Autobiography of a Yogi. “You forgot this.”
“Hey, thanks,” Andrew smiled and took the book.
“See you tomorrow,” I said.
I quietly shut the door, went to the kitchen and put on water for tea. I poured the hot water into my cup and imagined Andrew gliding home through the freshly fallen snow like one of those Hindu saints gliding across water. “Thank you, Andrew,” I whispered and took a sip of tea.
I lost touch with Andrew shortly before leaving Saint Paul the following fall. We never really talked about what happened that night and over the years, I’ve thought of him off and on and sometimes searched for him, without luck.
In recovery circles, it’s suggested that those with longer sobriety not get romantically or sexually involved with newcomers or those struggling to stay sober (the same reasons for not getting involved with someone who’s married).
I wasn’t thinking about that or about how my actions might have caused harm. The experience is a powerful reminder that even when we think we’re on the path, we may not be, but that our mistakes still remain some of our greatest teachers.
Originally published in elephant journal on January 6, 2017.
Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring.
Vladimir Nabokov, Mary
“Chaste, poor, and obedient,” repeated Sister Helena as we left the monastery and turned onto Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe.
“Your habit—” I said, pulling my rolling suitcase behind.
“Pardon?” asked Sister Helena, gathering a loose wisp of hair back up under her headscarf.
“Your habit is such a beautiful blue,” I said. Blue as Lake Michigan in a certain light.
“Our habit is a sign of our consecration as Brides of Christ and the blue is for the Virgin Mary,” she said.
“And your sandals—” I said, thinking of Moses throwing off his sandals and speaking to God.
“My sandals?” Sister Helena looked confused.
“Yes,” I said and all I could think about was how beautiful Sister Helena looked in her white headscarf, pale blue habit, and brown leather sandals. I’ll look beautiful, too, I thought. I’ll trade my bad hair days for a headscarf, my t-shirts and jeans for a habit, and my running shoes for sandals. I’ll be a beautiful Bride of Christ, like Sister Helena, like the Virgin Mary.
“Et voilà! We’re here,” said Sister Helena, stopping in front of an old wrought iron door just a few buildings down from the monastery. I’d never seen a door like it, not in the upper Midwest anyway. The dark metalwork spread out Medusa-like in a symmetrical pattern of flowers and horns of plenty rising up above the head of an angry-looking lion and two griffins. Beatrice’s griffin times two, I thought, from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“Let me help you with your bags,” Sister Helena said.
“Pardon?” I asked, still daydreaming about Beatrice and the angry-looking lion.
“Let me help you with one of your bags.”
“Thank you,” I said and began to untangle the heavy athletic bag from the top of my rolling suitcase. Sister Helena threw the bag over her shoulder and unlocked the door. I followed her inside and up a curving wooden staircase. The stairs were worn in the middle like grass flattened in fields where white-tailed deer had bedded overnight.
“You’ll be living here with five other nuns,” said Sister Helena. She opened the apartment door and we entered a dark hallway. “We maintain silence as much as possible, following our Rule of Life which says, ‘silence is the road to communion as well as its fruit.’”
“I’m quiet by nature,” I said. And shy, though my shyness was much worse when I was younger.
“The toilet’s here,” Sister Helena continued, “but no flushing after 10 o’clock—the pipes are loud—it will wake the sisters.”
Okay, I thought, who flushes after 10 o’clock anyway?
“And the bath is this way,” said Sister Helena, hurrying down the hallway.
We reached the far end of the hallway and stepped into the bathroom and were suddenly awash in sunlight and a sweet smell I’d later recognize as savon de Marseille or Marseille soap.
“Please be conscientious when bathing. There’s not a lot of hot water,” said Sister Helena, glancing toward a deep enamel tub.
“All right,” I said and caught my reflection in the small mirror above the sink. I looked tired, jet-lagged maybe, and my hair, cut short like a boy’s, was a mess. I’d always kept my hair long, except for a pixie cut at eight and a shaved head, trying to be punk rock, at eighteen. I’d had it cut this time just after moving to Saint Paul, Minnesota, a year and a half ago to be baptized in the Catholic Church and start a new life.
“And your cell is here,” said Sister Helena leaving the bathroom and turning to her right.
“My cell?” “Your room,” she laughed.
My room was small, with a single bed and a desk near the window. An icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus hung on the wall above the bed. Mary looked tired, jet-lagged maybe, and Jesus, serene. Sister Helena dropped my heavy athletic bag on the floor. I parked my rolling suitcase next to the bed.
“Our community is especially consecrated to the Virgin Mary,” Sister Helena said, looking up at the icon.
“I try to pray the Rosary every day,” I said. I wasn’t going to mention my struggles with the Virgin Mary or with women in general, though. Maybe it was all the years of stealing boyfriends, husbands, and brothers. I’d never meant to hurt anyone, it just seemed to happen, and always with regret afterward.
“Excellent and before I forget, here are your apartment keys.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking the keys.
“You must be tired.”
“Yes,” I laughed. “I think the jet lag’s finally catching up with me.”
“Why don’t you rest and I’ll meet you downstairs at 12:15 for Midday Prayer.”
“Okay,” I said, “and Sister Helena—”
“Thank you for everything.”
“We’re glad you’re here and hope your time of discernment with us will be a fruitful one,” Sister Helena smiled, then disappeared down the dimly lit hallway in a swish of pale blue.
I quietly shut the door, went to the window and finding no screens like back home, opened it and leaned out. I’d spent hours studying my Paris map and knew the monastery wasn’t far from the River Seine, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and further, the Luxembourg Gardens where Ernest Hemingway, with a small notebook and two pencils in his shirt pocket, used to cut through to Gertrude Stein’s apartment on Rue de Fleurus. I felt the faint tremor of a metro train passing underground. I looked at my watch. It was exactly 11 o’clock. I took a deep breath. Paris, here I am.
I kicked off my running shoes and as a way to set anchor, began unpacking. Almost empty Evian bottle, two six packs of candy bars, camera, notebook, aspirin, laminated Paris map, money belt, alarm clock, hot pink Hello Kitty stash box, package of cheap Miraculous Medals, and colored pencils. And, there were my books: Knopf Guide: Paris, signed with love from my ex-stepfather, The Poetry of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, French pocket dictionary, and my New Jerusalem Bible, all of which I stacked in a neat pile on the desk near the window.
I went back to digging until I found a big, green, button-down men’s shirt. It was Jason’s shirt, the kind of shirt my father used to wear. “Take this to France with you,” Jason had said, “and remember me.” I took Jason’s shirt without hesitation, like an intercessor accepting a prayer request. I’d gone to confession a few days later and my penance from the priest had been to pray the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and to promise to go and sin no more.
“Jason, I miss the idea of you,” I said out loud, “but that was then and this is now.”
I pulled Jason’s shirt around me, set my alarm, and crawled into bed. Jason’s shirt would be an anchor to the memory of the girl I used to be. The girl I used to be. I was determined to be faithful now, chaste, poor and obedient, a consecrated Bride of Christ, set apart and holy, like Sister Helena, like the Virgin Mary. I closed my eyes and fell asleep and slept without dreaming, maybe like Eve had slept before she’d sprung from Adam’s rib.
Memoir opening (working title “Beautiful”) with photograph of monastery bedroom, originally published in slightly different form in Hippocampus, June 2016.
In Min’s garden, where the asparagus
grows tall as cornstalk in late summer,
my brother’s cat sits,
between asparagus and rose bush,
sits and waits in Min’s garden.
The year Min’s husband died a dove came,
white and flightless, crippled somehow.
Her husband’s dove, survived him,
perhaps even was him,
between asparagus and rose bush,
sits and waits in Min’s garden.
Originally published in Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.