What strange thoughts surface at three a.m. After my good news about the MRI, I wake to the memory of the old woman who threw water on my brother and me and a few of our childhood friends because we were playing noisily in the courtyard beneath her apartment. The other children skedaddled but Bob and I looked up in surprise at the tiny woman leaning out of her open window who looked more like a friendly grandmother than a witch. She shouted an apology and invited us to come to her apartment. Hesitantly, we climbed the stairs and knocked on her door. I don’t remember what she said. I remember how dark her apartment seemed even though it was daytime. And it was this darkness that scared me more than the old woman. She took two beautiful African violets from her kitchen window sill and gave them to us. Why on earth would my unconscious gently push her forward?
Sister Margaret, a Franciscan nun with a soft brogue, sits on the sofa next to my chair. I babble, sigh and slow down. I tell her about a small yappy dog whose vocal cords were cut to keep the creature from bothering the neighbors. I say that is how I am in church. Voiceless. Sadness eats my voice away. Margaret tells how on September 11th, during the terrorist attacks, her whole body shook. I am surprised to hear this as I have a romanticized view of genuinely good people. I imagine they wander in a bubble of bliss even during unspeakable crises.
This is my first visit to the Washington Retreat House hosted by Franciscan sisters. I had “failed” at another weekend retreat in a suburb of Maryland, given by priests of a stricter order than Franciscans. “The Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola were used for that very structured retreat. If I remember correctly, in “The Spiritual Exercises,” one often refers to oneself as a “worm.” For someone like me with self-esteem issues, all this worm talk didn’t work well so I cut lectures, sat under a huge tree and began the first draft of a play. Margaret says I needn’t participate in every scheduled event and encourages me to write. I “show up” for confession and Mass and several lectures by the retreat leader, a young priest who tells excellent jokes and gives inspiring talks. In the months that follow, I visit the retreat house several times with my laptop, toothbrush and nightshirt. I stay in a corner room on the second floor, a room that is my favorite phrase from the Catholic Mass actualized: “a place of comfort, light, and joy.” When you adopt a puppy from a shelter you are told not to let him have the run of the house right away but rather keep the little chap in one comfortable room so he isn’t immediately overwhelmed. That is the effect this little room had on my world-bruised spirit.
There was a time in my life much darker than the old woman’s apartment. I no longer believed in God. It was after my father died, I had a miscarriage, and I separated from my first husband. Accepting the two great soul-deadeners of the Seventies – the sexual revolution and recreational drugs – I lived in a way that makes my soul reverberate now. “That’s all baby-shit,” my husband comforts me, “Everyone does that stuff when they go away to college but you didn’t go away to college so you make too much of it.” Does everyone do that stuff? Am I a psychic version of medieval flagellants who couldn’t get enough back-whacking? Am I too scrupulous? I don’t think so. I simply recognize I did things when I was young that make me cringe now that I am no longer young. And I know if I had my life to live over again, when I got to this dark time I am alluding to, I’d run for the hills, with a rosary in one pocket and a book of poetry in the other.