A Private Matter

Katy Carl

“There’s a woman downstairs who wants to talk to Penny, but Penny isn’t here. Do you have time to sit down with her?”

Jim peered into the cubicle where I sat scrolling through e-mails and the morning news bulletins. Two weeks away from the end of my newspaper internship, I had grown fond of what our grizzled cop reporter termed “butt journalism”—- hooking up to the internet and telephone and letting the information come to you. Field interviews remained a thrill, but increasingly I liked a story you didn’t have to leave your chair to complete. [Read more…]

The Moral and Legal Obligations of Catholic Judges

Frank-Paul Sampino

On Thursday, August 26, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Richard C. Casey issued a ruling striking down the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Legally speaking, it was an unremarkable and entirely expected result. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in Stenberg v. Carhart that a similar Nebraska state ban was unconstitutional. But Judge Casey’s opinion attracted attention for different reasons – not least of which is that he is a devout Catholic. [Read more…]

The Dying Would Walk in Circles

Rachelle Rea

I grew up hearing over and over again the same few stories about her. She died young—those three words end every tale. She possessed a French beauty that the family says I inherited. Although the three black and white photographs that hang on our living room wall make me wonder about the latter, the former remains forever set in stone in a New York cemetery. Beneath that stone lies the first Rachelle, the great-grandmother I never knew, the one who lost the fight with tuberculosis.

I thought of her last summer, but not while in that New York cemetery. Instead, I sat in a bus ambling down a Costa Rican mountain road. I stared down at a building that sprawled across half the valley. Crumbling golden stone refused to gleam in a futile protest to the sunless day. Square gaps in the stone resembled a checkerboard and echoed of long-gone windows. I leaned past the friend beside me as we jolted over the road paved decades ago, my eyes straining for a better look out the window—my first glimpse of the sanatorium.

For years, I dreamed of going on my first mission trip, of exercising daring, of leaving home and tacking brave onto my identity. I never dreamed of going to a sanatorium. Yet that afternoon forever linked the two experiences, because after spending a week in a small village, my mission team packed up our bus, journeyed halfway down the mountain, and parked in that valley. We needed to travel two more hours to arrive at the capital city, but we decided to stop anyway. Surely we could find some fun in the abandoned edifice turned tourist
attraction. Surely.

I expected it to smell. I know that hospital scent, and I expected it to greet me when I climbed down from the bus. To my surprise, the century in which the sanatorium had remained closed had treated it well—only the scent of rain that descended from the clouds hung in the air.

We discovered the doctor’s house first. I zipped up my sweater as we approached the smaller building tucked beside the main one. Plopped at the foot of the mountain that kept back the sunrise and sped up the sunset, the three-story residence of the doctor who founded the sanatorium boasted one immediate draw: an exterior staircase of twisted black metal that appeared to lead to the roof. Three of us ventured to climb it. Three of us retraced our steps when we realized it led nowhere. I followed the others into the yawning doorway, but the plain walls and empty window casings failed to interest me. I wanted to see the roof.

Finally, I found the crumbling staircase that led me there. A gray sky stood as backdrop for the majesty of the mountain, as green and lush as July demands. Although the sanatorium’s valley boasted no trees, from the doctor’s roof, I saw towering trunks burdened with emerald branches. What a beautiful view for such an ugly place marked by death. What did the doctor believe when he founded this place—that the hope he could offer would outweigh the morbid statistics? Did he ever wonder if he would die here, too?

I failed to notice all my American friends leaving. Finally, the Costa Rican pastor who travelled with us called out to me in slow Spanish so I could understand—“Senorita, senorita”—and I broke free from my reverie. I spun, pouring the thought I couldn’t voice past our language divide into my smile. “Isn’t it glorious?”

By the answering grin he gave me, he got the message.

I laughed off the worried looks of the others when we rejoined the group just in time to follow the waving tour guide into the sanatorium. Immediately, I rued my empty sweater pockets. I had no pen or paper with which to capture the thoughts arching across my mind. For a nineteenth-century building, it loomed expansive on the inside, open, airy. Three of us could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the long hallway, though I eliminated that option because I held back, too busy observing to measure the width or even the distance of the hall.

My friends kept a better eye on me; when my sneakers snuck too close to the edge of the winding stairway that lacked banisters, the man at my side yanked me to safety with a warning look. I just grinned at him.

As we passed room after room, the fictional potential I had sought to assign to the nebulous doctor cemented into something more solid. These rooms were not just rooms, these once were places where patients, people, coughed and wheezed and weakened. My fingers reached out to rotted-away doorframes. Someone once grasped this wood to steady themselves. I leaned my face over the planks of a room I wasn’t to enter lest I fall through the rotten wood. Someone once walked on that forbidden floor.

A writer could spend days in such a place. A writer whose great-grandmother came to Ellis Island from France in 1911, married an Irish steelworker, raised two boys to toddlerhood, succumbed to tuberculosis, and never knew her inkhearted namesake could spend years in such a place. I studied each scrap of yellow wallpaper left behind by the patients and each streak of graffiti left by less-respectful visitors—all of it rang with secrets and stories lost in time. I only half-listened to the translations our team leader gave of the tour guide’s speeches. I cared little for what he could tell me of the history of the place. I wanted to know the history of the people, but still they felt fictional, nebulous.

While we walked, the clouds parted. In the center of the sanatorium, the hallway broke in half to reveal, open to the sunlight, a round slab of stone with a faded design in the middle. Sunshine wafted over us as I heard the translation of what the tour guide said then. “The dying would walk in circles. Right here. For hours.”

I shuffled out and stayed to the side. No one ventured into the center of the circle. I squinted in the sun to see the tour guide’s face, to confirm he told the truth. His bearded frown bore an honest sadness. The tuberculosis patients who came here, he said, the ones still well enough to leave their beds, would come out to this open space where the sun shone down on their white gowns and pale faces. And they would walk in circles.
I could see them. Faces lifted to the sunlight that the mountain tried to block out, thin clothing clinging to emaciated forms, shaky breathing becoming a chorus. They came from all over the world to get well in this place where the air supposedly imbues weak lungs with strength. Some did—some came, got well, went home, and lived lives. But many more—many, many more—came, got worse, never left, and died.

I noticed a difference in the long walk down the hall in the second half of the sanatorium. The wallpaper, the graffiti, the holes in the floor looked much the same, but the potential that piqued the storyteller in me on the doctor’s balcony hardened into a longing for a time machine. Whereas at first, I marveled at what I could make up, now I wanted to travel back in time and gather the stories scattered in the rain-tinged air of this place like so many scraps of wallpaper on the wind. The fiction no longer outshone the devastatingly real.

They walked in circles in the only place they could feel the sunlight. They must have known that the walk stretched out in front of them, futile, in vain. No amount of walking could get them out, but they didn’t care. They walked anyways. They kept walking even though footstep after footstep only took them around the same old circle. Even on the threshold of death. There seems something so very human about clinging to the last vestiges of life, about straggling into a sunlit circle.

To leave, to step from the sanatorium into the courtyard, we had to duck down steep stairs and traverse a dark tunnel. I refused to go until someone turned around and took my hand. Cowardly, I know. I wonder, what kind of courage must the first Rachelle have possessed, as she watched herself waste away before either of her boys turned five, as she prepared herself to say goodbye? I caved to cowardice when it came to getting out of the sanatorium through a dark tunnel. They clung to courage when it came to never getting out and facing the darkness we all must face.

Maybe, I thought, brave is not so much leaving home for the unknown. Maybe brave is realizing that we must—and our reaction after we realize that truth.

I want to die walking, too.

Degrees of Cool Part II (or, post-Christian)

Quick recap: we were just talking (in Part I) about some recent works of art that deal with the complexities of faith in ways that were honest AND commercially/critically successful, which begs the question: what the heck? There can be a bit of an expectation among Christian artists to not be taken seriously because of untrendy inclinations to things like, you know, absolute truth and all that. I know I’ve met quite a few writers who expect major backlash to the themes in their work – a backlash that, though sometimes exaggerated, still sometimes seems very, very real.

Then, on a generous tangent, the topic turned to nature and how pop culture opinions about it changed over the past three hundred years: until industrialization, nature was widely seen as a force to wage war against rather than the soft, gentle, rejuvenating force of spiritual revival that the Romantics later painted it to be. What was the change? People, because of mass urbanization, stopped needing to fight nature to survive – and so could start appreciating it for what it had to offer their newly urban selves.

Same thing with cultural relationships: Native populations in North America were painted as savages until they were conquered – only afterwards could they be perceived by the White-European-descended culture as misunderstood recipients of undeserved tragedy.*

And looking back at war propaganda will provide lots of other examples of demonizing the folks who are seen as the threats de jour.


Remember this guy?

An equally ridiculous example is the campy Catholic monarch who plays foil to England’s queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In everything from the maliciously chanting monks to his reluctance to step fully from the shadows, King Philip is presented as little more than a goblin against which Cate Blanchett will say something awesome while basking in a meticulously engineered morning glow. I’m not even joking – you can pretty much all but hear him croaking in the background. Not that Catholics are immune to this kind of simplifying criticism.

Because we're not.

Because we’re not.

When cultures and worldviews are in conflict it’s pretty easy for “debate” to amount to a round of “let’s see who can yell the loudest [with funny memes!],” and for a while in the mid-twentieth century there was some pretty hefty anti-Christian sentiment in the pop-culture and intellectual spheres. I don’t want to say there were no influential voices of faith (there were definitely the Waughs and O’Connors among plenty of others), but the fabric of cultural modernism was kinda set against Christianity in a couple of ways, for a few different reasons.

The modernists, to simplify, were finding the older Victorian and Georgian ways of life too stuffy, petty and ultimately restrictive for the full expression of the breadth and soul of human dignity, and so were searching for another way to live. Enter institutional experimentation (in lifestyle, literature, sexuality, whatevs). One of the problems of the time was that Christianity was often overwhelmingly tied up in the public consciousness (of the English-speaking world, anyways) with notions of cleanliness and respectability rather than the earthy, dirty work of redemption; this “respectable” Christianity wasn’t much more than a hollow shell, a culture dressing up its manners and pretensions in a spiritual tuxedo in order to gain a bit of extra legitimacy. The moderns saw clearly enough to call out the bluff. But not far enough to realize Christianity was a baby thrown out with the bathwater.

A personal suspicion of mine is that each major cultural movement, nearing the end of its shelf-life, eventually ends up mass-producing parodies of their trademark rebellion – leading everyone else to quickly get annoyed with them and paving way for the Next Big Thing. Chesterton constantly complained about the inconsistent groups of would-be anarchists who didn’t seem to have either the conviction or courage of the bolder revolutionaries and anti-monarchists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

While real anarchism was then percieved as a genuine threat, Chesterton found the guys still hanging around in his day, threatening dynamite and all, to be impostors of that original, dangerous challenge to civilization (or something). But then-popular ideas of revolution were watered-down, mass-marketed and picked up by folks genuinely looking for something to fight for, and so were maybe more interested in the fight than in the cause behind it. Cue said Chestertonian eye-rolling. And in that vein, the ideological lovechildren of the pre-and-inter-war moderns would have to wait until the marches of the sixties to fully bloom in this sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under the impression that there were a lot of core groups in the hippie/flower-child movements who were genuinely convicted about peace, love and sexual expression as a means of achieving freedom and dignity and such. But I’m also pretty sure there were lots of folks who jumped on the wagon cause it felt good, provided an easy feeling of cultural righteousness and got them on TV. Cue the quick decline of hippies from force-to-be-reckoned-with to day-time sitcom parodies.

“Whoa….you know…man?”

Cue postmodernism. After the moderns were done fighting/tearing down the old systems so the new, truer morality (not that they’d use the word) could take root, their children quickly realized no new order was forthcoming. Older systems of making sense of the world seemed outdated, refuted and irrelevant, making the search for meaning itself become suspect. Enter Pynchon, Delilo and Vonnegut with their constant (and often painfully humanizing) struggles against the seeming meaninglessness of the world at large. Or, less intensely, enter punk with its global-scale sense of scepticism (ie, flipping the bird) towards any kind of meaning in hand-me-down worldviews. Or, thirty to forty years after the heyday of literary postmodernism in the 70’s/80’s, enter the mass-produced bearers of uncritical irony, detachment and cultural skepticism: hipsterdom.**


Postmoderns, meet your destiny.

So here we are at the tail end of a number of massive, twentieth-century cultural movements trying to break free from a stuffy, Victorian set of manners perceived to be “Christian” in nature. While the conflict was going on, Christians were seen as the epitome of uncool. But now, as modernism is declawed by postmodernism, which is in turn deflated by irony-for-irony’s-sake (not to mention our persistent habit of searching for meaning in situations anyway), we might be far enough removed from the image of the “evil authoritarian Churchman(/marm)” that people may be able to start appreciating the nuances/subtleties of the struggle of faith. It’s not as threatening, and therefore palatable.*****

One one hand, some can interpret this as confirmation that we are pretty much living in a post-Christian world where the influence of Christendom is a distant memory of the past. Some can lament the lack of Christian influence in public affairs, government, the arts and popular media. Some might groan about having to compete for attention along with all the other paradigms in the intellectual marketplace.

Or we can acknowledge that there’s a great moment of opportunity here – less and less people are growing up with the knee-jerk anti-Christian tendencies common to Christian cultures (the most powerful anti-Catholic ballads in the Anglosphere, for example, come from Ireland), and so people across the board (Christian and otherwise) are able to look at each other from the cultural divide not as entrenched soldiers, but as mutual inhabitants of a strange world who, maybe, have something to teach each other.

Maybe Christian artists have the duty now of creating art not so much for use in a cultural battlefield as a way of being true to the Good, True and Beautiful they personally experience in something they call Christ. At the moment, the degree of being cool might well depend on the depth of our self-expression as artists of such. And that means being true to the doubt, loneliness and frustrations of faith as well as to the high-points – as “The Antenna,” “Noah” and “Modern Vampires of the City” (ugh) seem to imply, people may be more willing to listen if you speak just as much about the shit as the sunshine.


*Interestingly enough, though, in almost every single popular movie about Aboriginal populations (or their obvious stand-ins), they are nearly always saved by a white man.

**When I decided on this title I totally promised myself that the essay would have nothing to do with hipsters***

***That was a total lie****

****After finishing this article, I found out someone already beat me to the punch and came to the same conclusions in a fantastic 2009 article called “The Death of the Hipster

*****There are a couple ways that people can go about this – non-threatening can be interpreted as “humbled” in the sense that the one preaching has to grow ears to listen. But it can also be interpreted as “compromised” – though, in my opinion, there is no justification for substituting the lived, visceral experience of faith for something watered-down for the sake of being user-friendly or non-threatening. That was the problem with Victorian pseudo-religion which, in the end, tried to sanitize the blood and feces of faith into a perfumed couple-about town – which was part of the reason why the moderns rebelled****** at all. Who really wants to set off the whole cycle again?

******And, really, wouldn’t you? It’s good to remember that things (especially revolutions) started with a whole heck of a lotta good intentions that, if not honoured, will come back to bite us all in the collective ass.


Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.

Day Trip to Sublice

Mark De Cristo

It was our last day teaching in Frankfurt. We had been there for two weeks, working the intensive English courses for newly hired German employees, eight teaching hours a day, five days a week. Too much, most teachers would say, and rightly so. But we needed the money, so we agreed, took the company car, and made the trek each morning from Berlin to the frontier with Poland, heading back again in the evening. [Read more…]

Sanctification: A Comedy of Error

Br. Bruno M. Shah

I. Playing A Part

During the first days at the seminary, the Master of Students gathers the newly arrived to discover what practical talents are available for the community’s benefit. (We blithely refer to the house’s chores as “privileges.”) Each of our sixty men has some share in the work of home—maintenance—this brother is handy with electrical equipment, that brother has a background in carpentry, this brother is literate in computers, et cetera. Well, this brother claimed that he could cut hair. And for an order that vows evangelical poverty, getting haircuts for free is what philosophers call a “useful good.” [Read more…]

Many Faces, One God: Many Languages, One Prayer

John Rogers


Some years ago, I volunteered at the San Miguel school where for the past ten years the LaSallian Brothers have run a low-cost middle school in the center of Chicago’s most violent area, giving Latino children from low-income families the opportunity to receive a quality education. San Miguel is run out of an ancient parish building, all brick walls and tile floors. Classrooms are cavernous and musty, ripe with the scent of old chalk and cleaning agents. Windows dimmed with years of dust and grit overlook the school’s tiny parking lot, which is framed by a rusty chain-link fence. The dilapidated building sat unused for years until the Brothers moved in, and as time has passed, art classes have brightened it with murals and paintings. One such work of art is a ten-foot image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted in vibrant blues, greens, and yellows, watching lovingly over the main stairwell. [Read more…]

Half Cadence

Beth Malone

Imagine a hundred ten-year-olds crammed into the back temp building, the one that felt like Vietnam in summer and Siberia when it snowed, the one stuffed in the far left corner of the elementary school campus, beyond earshot. There is only one teacher between these kids and chaos, a curly-haired guy who is not easily disturbed by copious spit on the floor or the obscene noises boys make in their armpits when they’re bored. He stands at the front of the room and raises this dainty white stick, which means that you’re supposed to get your fingers onto the right keys, or what you hope are the right keys. And then he waves the stick—hugely, as though lifting a whale with a fishing rod—and the building practically quakes in the ensuing noise. Kids squeak on clarinets or turn blue in the face behind a tuba. The boys in the back act out a scene from Star Wars with their drumsticks. There is a constant rustling sound that had nothing to do with page fifteen of “Essential Elements,” which has everyone attempting a sluggish version of Hot Cross Buns.

This was my elementary school band. I sat in the front row and played flute, which I chose because I was able to make a noise on it the first time I tried—which not many people could do—and because it weighed a lot less than my older brother’s trumpet. The fact that I chose the flute said a lot of other things about me. Flutists tend to be a certain type of person, the type that doesn’t mind sitting right under the director’s nose, right where the audience can see every movement you make. Flutists are the ones who can be counted on to sit quietly and count diligently during their measures of rest, although they don’t get a lot of those. Or if they do, they feel the piece has somehow cheated them, because they learn very quickly they’re supposed to have the melody. Flutists are melody-addicts; they’re used to the parts that shove you right up in the spotlight to show off.
I had a private teacher once who rightfully said that no one likes the sound of a flute up close—it’s too shrill, too loud, too audacious and pushy and fierce. At least when it’s played right. Beginner flute players will often get a breathy sound, the sound you might get when you blow over the top of a glass bottle. This isn’t the correct way to play. The air leaving your lips shouldn’t be a stream but a laser. You push each note to the point where it hits a fifth too high, and then you back down the tiniest amount, you let off the intensity like a millimeter, and that’s how you play the note right. You play each note like it’s just about to break.

I didn’t know these things when I began to play. Still, I was a studious musician, shy and eager and uncertain every time I placed my fingers on the keys. I tapped my toes the way the director taught me and bit my lip in between notes. He was always trying to get us to look up and listen around. We were supposed to see the dance of his baton through the air; we were supposed to hear the others around us in their parts, noticing that the French horns had the melody there, so our long notes didn’t matter as much, so maybe we should back off the volume a little.

I never, as they say, got my nose out of my music stand. I was terribly concerned with my own part, that I should play it right, that I shouldn’t make any mistakes. This was always one of my main concerns as a child—making mistakes. I felt like I was always making so many, and each one felt like a bruise to the ribs, and I wished for just one day when I didn’t make any—not a single, solitary mistake on one perfect day when I would be a perfect person.

Everything was out of tune, the melody barely discernible. We didn’t notice. We were just kids, and played everything as loudly as we could.
A few years later, though, I really get into music. When you really get into music, it starts filtering over into all the other parts of your life. Like anywhere you go, you can’t stop humming Mozart. (Every serious flutist is obsessed with Mozart; The Magic Flute feeds right into our pretensions.) You wear t-shirts with musical jokes printed on them (“Baby Got Bach”). In high school, you sit in your physics class holding a pencil as you would your instrument, running over that hard lick at the end of the Shostakovich symphony again and again while you pretend to pay attention. The teacher—pasty, sweating, insect-voiced—clutches his coffee mug and drones on about something you don’t recognize at the time. If you had, maybe you would have cared. He’s talking about a different music.

Physicists call it the Symphony of the Universe. Think of the atom. No, think of the smallness of the atom. Think of how, if you stacked up a million atoms, you would have something about as thick as a sheet of paper. Now think of scraping a proton off that atom. Drop the proton into this machine that’s designed like a racetrack. You put it in there with a few other protons, and you get ready to play nuclear roller derby. You flip the machine on. The protons fly around at dazzling speeds and eventually collide, and when they do, they explode into pieces too small to believe in, almost. They have names like mythical creatures: fermions and bosons, leptons and quarks. And when you press your ear to those pieces, you find that they are singing to you.

So the singing pieces, they are singing on a string. Humming along on this vibrating string and at all these different tones. All the strings are the same; it’s only the frequency that changes. The frequency is what makes the thing what it is. Each piece sings its nature out to you. You change the frequency and you change its nature.

Every larger object also has a frequency, a tone. A tree or a stone or a door or a person. It’s not some mystical baloney; it’s measurable. It’s been videotaped. It’s why a string makes a certain pitch when it’s plucked. It’s why a bridge can start to wave like ribbon if the right tone hits it.

When you combine tones, you get harmonies. When you combine them right, I guess. If you combine them right you get harmonies. A song is made up of harmonies, chord progressions. Some progressions leave you satisfied; others don’t. Like in some songs, if you stay on the fifth chord at the end instead of relaxing back to the first chord, it will set your teeth on edge. That’s called a half cadence, a song that refuses to bring you home. The music builds up and builds up until you ache to hear that first chord again—the one from a distant memory—but then the whole thing just hangs there without any resolution.

Those are sad songs.
I had a choice between two high schools, and I picked the one with the better band. The director there had a statewide reputation. People who liked him said he was a genius, that he could squeeze the best out of those kids, that he could put them in a press and close the lid and turn up the heat, and then they would play, and the music would come out as though from Mount Olympus.

People who didn’t like him called him a Nazi.

I both loved and hated that director. He was like the father who was too busy to notice his kid turning back flips to get his attention. He had his favorites—even now, I remember their names—his golden students who would always play first chair and get the solos during marching season. Then there were the rest of us, desperately doing our song and dance in the background, begging him to turn around and shoot a smile our way.

That was when I got lost in something different. Not music. Ambition. When you play in an ensemble, you compete for the best chair, for the best orchestra. Everybody wants to play the solo. I wanted to play the solo more than all the others, so after three years I played them, because I was the best.

Except I wasn’t, because there was always somebody better. In something as subjective as the arts, there’s a great deal of fluidity in the hustle for position. Chair try-outs take place multiple times a year. In between those for your regular orchestra, there are honor bands, and solo competitions, and recitals. All of these are judged and measured. If you were lucky, the judge would give you feedback.

One judge told me I was good at rhythm. (I liked rhythms, the mathematical precision of them, the way you were either definitely right or definitely wrong, no guesswork involved.) Another judge said I had a nice tone, which made me glad. I liked a dark tone; I wanted it to leave the taste of thick black coffee on your tongue.

I was worst at pitch and phrasing. Pitch because I never learned to listen to others, to adjust, to lose myself in someone else’s sound. I listened to myself and marked my errors and hit the run faster next time. I couldn’t tell you anyone else’s part. Phrasing was hard because when I was younger I was asthmatic and struggled to breathe. I struggled to breathe all the time, but especially when I was putting everything I had into the music, what I thought was the music. I never had enough. I was always gasping by the end.

This kind of fire lights fast and burns out. It’s spectacular, like a firework, and then it fizzles into darkness and there’s nothing. There’s always someone, somewhere, better than you. If you love the music, you don’t mind, you keep playing anyway. If you love ambition, you won’t.

One day after I graduated, I put my flute down and didn’t pick it up again for ten years.
GlyphThe thing is, the universe as we know it is too small to carry this theory of a symphonic universe around on its back. Like all those laws of nature—that when an apple drops from a tree it will fall to earth, that when electrons run in circles they gain magnetic power—they’re too big to fit inside a measly four dimensions. Four dimensions can only juggle so many forces. You need a lot more to make the math work; you need at least eleven.

To wrap your head around it, you can imagine a two-dimensional world, where paper people live. When you put your finger on the paper, the paper people experience it two-dimensionally, like a circle. But you, in your three-dimensional world, can pop your finger off the paper and place it down elsewhere. To the paper people, it seems you’ve magically transported—for a time, you were nowhere—because you were in the third dimension. Which explains things like how a person could be eating dinner in Emmaus one moment and scaring the crap out of everyone in Jerusalem the next. If he knew about all the other dimensions. If he had access to them all.

My daughter is the one who is bringing me back to music. This child who sang before she could talk, who danced before she could walk. When she was a baby, I needed only to put on the music and she’d stop crying. It was as though I’d found the frequency of her body, and the waves of music would come and reverberate inside of her, and then she would begin to resonate with peace. So I pulled out my flute for her, and it felt like visiting my childhood home, the way it felt so familiar, only I had changed.

After ten years, the music doesn’t sound the same. Not the same as before. I miss things like key signatures and hit flat notes. My fingers refuse to move like they used to; they have grown brittle, they feel like dried twigs, and no matter how hard I try I can’t hit that lick of Shostakovich. The muscles of my mouth have atrophied and tap out after 20 or 30 minutes. It makes me sad. I feel like I have fallen.

But I play, because my daughter loves it when I play. This time I want the tone to sound like bells. I want it to taste like honey. My daughter sings along, her voice climbing up the octaves to mimic me.

She’s so much like me, it’s scary. The tones of her. The way she will hesitate before putting her foot out the door. The way, in a crowd, she huddles inside of herself, silently watching. The way she doesn’t want to try anything—walking, talking, loving someone—unless she knows she will succeed. That last is scary for me.

The great fear of parents everywhere is that the music will one day go out of their children. The way one day it went out for you. The way it goes out, sort of, for everyone.

GlyphSo the tiniest bits of you—the bits that give you mass and energy and being—they are music. Just music.

This is the best way I have of understanding the Incarnation of Christ: When Jesus came, all the particles inside him resonated a different tone than ours—a holy tone, the one that made his nature that of God’s. He was holding the universe together—all eleven dimensions of it—with a song. He had a way of speaking into the deepest parts of a person and giving something a little tug, and then their tones would change, too. That’s how water became wine, how sickness became health, how death became life. The pieces started singing a different song.

When you come to Jesus, or rather, when he comes to you, he comes to live maybe not so much in the “heart” that people talk about, but in the spaces of fermions and bosons. In the things that sing out your nature. This is where he makes his home. This is where he begins to change things, bringing you back to the melody you were made to resonate.

Sometimes it feels like you are just fumbling around, trying different notes, the melody is just on the tip of your tongue, and How does it go again? Because those strings in you remember. They remember the first chords, the song they were made to sing.

But here is what you should know. When you finally come back—after such a very long time, after you have tried other things and found them wanting, after you have admitted to your fear and your pride and your penchant for discontentment, after you have swallowed your doubts and your hang-ups, after you realize you really have nothing left to lose—the music will not sound the same. Not the same as before, in some memory that is not your memory. It will not sound the way it sounded in the story of a garden and a tree, before the first broken chord.

This time around, you can hear creation groaning in its decay, and the horn-like lament of pain, and the sharp staccato of suffering, and the timpani rolling sound of your body as it nudges ever closer to death. Listen to the song of the universe; listen to the chords. We are on the fifth one, the half cadence waiting to resolve.

Be quiet, my darling, you must listen now.

Because beneath it all, you can still hear the melody, that first one, the one that never changed. It will balloon to mountains on every side of you. It will whirl so fast, so hot, so bright, you can’t catch hold and you won’t even try. It will shove you back in your chair and tell you to sit down! just sit down! It will swallow you up and leave you for dead on a different shore.

Then, after you spit the salt from your mouth and rub the sand from your cheek, you will peer out and see the swelling of the wave, which is coming to carry you home.

The Sacrament

Heather King

I say Mother. And my thoughts are of you, oh, House.
House of the lovely dark summers of my childhood.
—O.V. de Milosz (1877-1939)

Let’s put it like this: my mother goes her own way. She once went twenty-nine years without seeing a doctor. She braves New England winters in a beige rayon windbreaker and a pair of Rich’s Discount sneakers. She rinses out plastic garbage bags, hangs them out on the line, and “re-purposes” them.

Mom plods, I’m a hummingbird; Mom minimizes, I exaggerate; Mom keeps stoic silence, I emote. One year, along with her birthday check, I sent a poem by (the at this point admittedly way over-exposed) Rumi, which ran in part:

Bring a hundred sacks of gold and God will say, ‘Bring the heart.’

And if you bring a dead heart carried like a coffin on your shoulders, God will say, ‘Oh, cheat! is this a graveyard? Bring the live heart! Bring the live heart!’ . . .

“Did you like the poem?” I asked shyly next time I called. “No,” Mom replied.

Everything with Mom is played down, minimized, euphemized. A stroke is a “spell,” a gangrenous ulcer a “spot,” a person in the psych ward after a suicide attempt “feels low.” When my father was dying in 1999, we all came home and sat vigil for a week, hanging around his chair saying all the sappy things we’d always been too embarrassed to say when he was well: “You’re the best father in the world.” “I love you.” One day, as things looked truly dire, I realized Mom hadn’t had her turn. “Let’s clear out and give Mom some time to say goodbye,” I told the others, my voice trembling. “Go ahead, Mom,” we urged. “Take as long as you want.”

My little sister Meredith and I went out to the breezeway and huddled together, sobbing. “What could she be saying to him?” we wondered. “Forty-eight years together . . . oh my God, it’s so sad. . . .” Two minutes later Mom appeared, dry-eyed, at the door. “So,” she said, briskly tying an apron around her waist, “what does everyone want for supper?”

Mom’s way is to spend as little, use as little, and take up as little space as possible. Within weeks of my father’s death, she gave away all his belongings, sold the family homestead, and bought a condo the next town over, at the far end of a complex that backed right up to the woods. Since moving to L.A. in 1990, I’d fly home once a year, usually in summer, staying first at the old place, then for the last few years, here at the condo. A stand of old evergreens casts the living room in perpetual shadow (this was fine with Mom: she’s always hot; I’m always cold), and inside, the place is as still and spare as a mausoleum.

She’s always been so self-sufficient that even I, the alarmist, had been slow to acknowledge that Mom’s memory was failing. Her handwriting was increasingly wavery, her memory increasingly sketchy. “That place where people like to go” turned out to mean Las Vegas. “That business with Nita” transpired to be Nita’s funeral. I found myself talking loudly to her over the phone, the way you do to people who don’t speak English. “Taxes,” I’d almost yell, or “yogurt,” filling in the words she could no longer find herself.

One of the reasons I’d moved to the West Coast had been to put thousands of miles between me and the place where I was raised: not because there was anything wrong with the place I’d been raised, or the sainted people who’d raised me: I was simply too weak to flourish there. The wounds would have been forever fresh; my longing to see the rest of the world, if thwarted, would have crushed me. I’d always felt guilty, torn, as if I were shirking responsibility, never more so than now, as she began to fail in earnest. True to form, she was steadfastly refusing to admit anything and refusing all help, but clearly she wouldn’t be able to manage on her own much longer. As the executor of her estate, the caretaker of her money, and the oldest of her six biological kids—my older brother, Allen, and older sister, Jeanne, from my father’s first marriage, made us eight—I felt compelled to go home and see if there was anything I could do. Also, when and if she moved, there would no longer be a physical “home” to be sent out from or go back to. Especially living so far away, “home” was a vital, urgent image.

So in the early fall of 2007, spurred by an almost atavistic urge, I started out from L.A. on a cross-country road trip. In fact, to myself I styled the trip a pilgrimage of sorts, ordered by my attendance at daily Mass. Outwardly, nothing special: featureless freeways, Motel 6-es, unremarkable churches—but a church doesn’t need to be remarkable. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “Mass could be said out of a suitcase in a furnace room, and the sacrifice would be the same.” The most ordinary Mass is a re-enactment of the most stupendous event the world has known. And my ordinary road trip signified a blind, almost frantic urge to transcend my puny limitations: to do something hard for my mother that she would not understand or even know about, for which I would not be recognized or thanked. For once in my life, I would try to be the competent, self-sacrificing daughter my mother had always deserved.

Finding a church that offered Mass each day was more difficult than I’d expected. Some days I drove 500, 600 miles at a stretch. The trip was difficult for other reasons. I was 57 years old, divorced, childless. A sense that my life was not bearing fruit had gouged deeper the abandonment wound I’d suffered since childhood. But why? I kept wondering. Why such an intense sense I’d been abandoned, when as the oldest of the kids my father had had with my mother I’d gotten, if anything, more than my share of attention, validation, love?

I stopped frequently along the way, to visit with friends, to stay at monasteries and retreat houses: San Antonio, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Spencer, West Virginia. I reached New Hampshire three weeks later, in the middle of an August heat wave. At Seabrook, the first town over the state line, I pulled into the Welcome Center, collapsed into a bathroom stall, and cried. I drove the remaining back-roads stretch in the fugue state of mingled excitement and dread with which I always approached home, intensified out of all proportion by the 3500-mile buildup.

Mom was upstairs when I arrived, which gave me time to case the joint. The shades were drawn to a precise six inches above the windowsill. The table was bare save for a salt-and-pepper set placed neatly on a plastic Old Man of the Mountain placemat. The fridge held a block of Velveeta cheese and a half-head of browning iceberg lettuce. Stashed among the “good” china was a lone can of Planters peanuts (three-quarters empty, so I’d feel too guilty to eat any myself) to ration out for good behavior, for having deprived herself, for a treat.

And then there She was, coming down the stairs. Mom. My mother. Patient, slow, steady, though not as steady as she used to be. Her hair snow white now, in a straight bob, parted on the side. Blue cotton pants, neatly pressed, her shrunken legs lost in the folds. A cotton blouse, also neatly ironed. A vest she liked, beige with red and blue flowers down the front. Now that I’d done my big ritual of driving thousands of miles and made it “home,” possibly for the last time—because surely she was going to have to move, soon, into “assisted living” or “senior retirement,” places which, up till now, had remained shadowy netherworlds in our collective unconscious—I considered doing something totally weird, like breaking down in hysterical sobs, falling to my knees, and wailing, “Mom, would you hold me for a minute?”

Instead, she greeted me as if I’d blown in from next door, rebuffed my proffered embrace—“Don’t, my hair’s wet”—and over lunch, gave me instructions for her funeral. No flowers (people might have to spend money). No cortège to the gravesite, just family (people might have to waste time). No eulogy, just a simple service (people might have to think of something nice to say about her). Cremation, naturally: why waste money on a casket?

All my life, I’d sensed a secret grief in my mother I’d wanted to ease but couldn’t; a gap between us that no amount of straining on my part could bridge. I couldn’t remember my mother ever touching me, or caressing me, or telling me I was pretty. I knew as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west that she loved me, but when it came to expressing feelings, she was like a blank wall that afforded no purchase.

Mom “did” for the other person in a way that made it almost impossible to do anything for her. She was no annoying faux martyr; she just habitually made things easier for you, and if it was at her expense, so be it. She insisted I have her room that night, for example, which I truly appreciated, but I kept thinking of her in the smaller guest bed; plus, not a breath of air stirred; trying to sleep, I felt as if I were choking. The blinds were drawn, the sliding glass doors wedged shut with a wooden dowel, the screens behind them patched with hundreds of pieces of browning scotch tape where Honey had clawed.

Honey was an indoor cat who desperately wished to be an outdoor cat. Every time I opened the front door she was there like a shot, trying to escape, and she spent the rest of her days gazing hungrily out at the birds and shredding the screens.

I knew just how she felt. I’d spent half my adolescence looking out at the sky through my bedroom window, and the other half sneaking down to the beach looking for booze, drugs, and sex.

Mass the next morning was at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, where all my childhood lapsed-Catholic friends had attended school and, by their lights, been ruined for all time. For my own part, as a convert I related to the protagonist in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: “I realized, on some level, that whatever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was one—and it wasn’t cool or funny.”

The atmosphere in the sanctuary seemed slightly strange, a little subdued; after I minute I figured out why: everyone was white. I was used to attending Mass among squalling Hispanic babies, Filipino clans, three generations of Koreans, so to look across the sanctuary and see the guy who used to work at Aubuchon’s Hardware, or my high-school biology teacher, or the sister of a half-remembered grade-school friend was jarring, as if heaven had intersected with earth in a whole weird new way.

Afterward, I drove to the beach, parked at Rye on the Rocks, where the surfers hang out, and set out on foot for the fish houses in North Hampton. Beach plums, goldenrod, the horizon and marshes in mist. Yarrow and hydrangeas. The overheard New England accents—baath for bath, gahden for garden. A girl sitting with her back against a rock, looking out at the waves. Gulls wheeling overhead, their feathers the color of ash.

My older half-sister Jeanne lived in the adjacent town of Portsmouth, and she wasn’t doing well. The lung cancer with which she’d been diagnosed a few years ago and metastasized to her bones, and I’d offered to take her and Mom out to lunch—or to drive anyway: I loved using Mom’s credit card when I was home.

When I returned from my walk all seemed well–Mom was nicely dressed in a green and blue pleated skirt and pretty white sweater–except that she was wandering around looking for her comb. She had one comb, an ancient yellow plastic comb I swear we all remembered from high school, and she was constantly losing it. I finally found it sitting on the window ledge at the bottom of the stairs.

After that, she started walking around with one hand trying to hold back a hank of hair—she had long white hair that was no longer all that kempt and looked eerie and ghostlike—saying, “Where’s my . . . my . . . my . . .?”

“Bobby pin?” She has this one bobby pin with a little fake pale pink jewel at the crook of it.

“Yeah,” she replied, and started scrounging around in the drawer where she keeps her pens and Elmer’s glue and stamps.

“Mom, if it’s anywhere, it’s gonna be upstairs, not with your office supplies.” After I found the bobby pin, she “misplaced” her glasses, and after I found her glasses, we had to search for her wallet. She’d given up on a purse and taken to toting around a dingy turquoise nylon “wallet” in one hand and her keys in the other. Every once in a while she’d look up and ask, “What day is it now?”

The day was humid, the light gloomy, and by the time we set out for Jeanne’s, the sky had opened and begun pouring down warm rain. Jeanne and her brother Allen were my late father’s children from his first marriage, a subject that to this day, though we’d all grown up together in the same house, my entire family still studiously skirted. Until the previous year in fact, when Jeanne’s son, Rick, had thrown a “Celebration of Life” party for Jeanne, none of us six kids from my father’s marriage with my mother had ever laid eyes on Marjorie, Dad’s first wife.

I’d always felt deeply the failure of my father’s first marriage, Jeanne and Skip’s loss of their “real” mother, the fact that when my own mother was fourteen, her father had left one day for work and never returned. But feeling deeply doesn’t translate into action. Why couldn’t I have ever done something: consoled us, healed us, saved us? Then again, why did I think that was my job?

At this late stage of the game, I was still looking for a parent. Instead, glancing over at Mom, shrunk down like an aged doll in the passenger seat, I realized I was poised to become a parent myself.

Jeanne was staying at her son Rick’s place in Portsmouth along with her daughter-in-law Tracy and a houseful of fashionconscious teenage girls. “Hi dahlin,” Jeanne greeted me. She moved stiffly, and though she’d clearly not stinted on the pain meds that morning, insisted on driving us to the restaurant in her van. So we maneuvered Mom into the back and proceeded at breakneck speed down Lafayette Road, the fuzz-buster loudly bleating, to Lamie’s Tavern in Hampton. Jeanne’s response to the “scarcity mentality” of our childhood had been to over-spend, over-shop, and become basically one of the most generous people I knew. Year after year, she’d worked double shifts, then taken Rick, Tracy, and the grandkids to Disneyland. She was notorious for buying Christmas presents for all seven of her siblings; I, on the other hand, was usually either too broke, too strung out on booze and drugs, or too fearful to buy anything back: exchanging presents was too much intimacy, too much of an inroad upon relationships that experience had shown very well might not sustain. When I’d had cancer myself, she’d sent me a card, often accompanied by a stuffed animal or a scented candle or bath salts, every day for a month.

Everyone who knew Jeanne knew that the love of her life was a guy she’d dated decades ago, forever referred to as “Steve the Drummer.” To his everlasting credit, he’d shown up at her Celebration of Life party, and over chowder now at Lamie’s, I asked her about him now.

“Broke my haaht,” she said, taking a swill from her “vodker” tonic, then with a little secret smile added: “The bastid.”

Beside me, Mom sipped at her onion soup: her spoon hand trembling, the other clutching the threadbare turquoise wallet.

For comic relief, I made the rounds of family and friends. At the pier in Portsmouth, my commercial fisherman brother Geordie showed me his new boat, then said of a crewmate, “He’s a good guy but he can also be such a pain in the ass that you want to gouge out his eyes and behead him.”
My friends Marynia and Richie live in Exeter with their two teenage daughters and Richie’s brother Larry. Larry has Down Syndrome, is deeply religious, and, he informed me over ginger ales on the back deck, prayed constantly. “For what, Larry?” I asked, thinking World peace? Your benefactors Richie and Marynia? “Th— . . . th— . . . ,” he stammered, “that the girls will pick up the bathroom.”

Then there was dinner with my ex-husband Tim. “Do you even remember being married?” I asked him.

He rolled his eyes—we’d spent sixteen years together—and made a sawing motion over his wrists.

Every time I brought up the subject of Mom’s failing memory or health or living situation, she came out fighting, doddering about looking for her comb until I raised the possibility of, say, hiring someone to “look in” a few days a week, at which point her mind suddenly snapped into adamantine focus. “For heaven’s sake,” she’d say, “I’m not ready for that,” or if she was really pissed, “I do not wish anyone to look in on me,” in the exact same tone Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener might have said, “I would prefer not to.” During the course of my visit, three separate neighbors and several of her friends took me aside and asked, “What are you going to do about your mother?” Clearly, almost as soon as I returned to L.A. I was going to have to turn around, fly back again, and spend some real time trying to square things away. This was a symbolic trip—a bird flying north not for the winter but for summer, something hard but not practical. Hard but not practical was my specialty.

The whole visit, an indescribable stench that Mom obviously couldn’t smell hung over the condo. It wasn’t the cat box: Mom could stretch a buck-ninety-nine bag of kitty litter farther than anyone I know, but she was also fastidious to a fault. The kitchen was so clean you could have performed surgery in it, and before going to bed each night she’d lay a section of fresh newspaper over the top of the wastebasket to ward off ants.

My next-to-last day the source of the odor was revealed to be a bag of thoroughly rotted potatoes, which were in the shoe closet in a plastic bucket with about an inch of rancid brown water in the bottom. How long had they been sitting there? Why had no one closer by noticed? I’d been holding together pretty well but that was when I snapped. “Things can’t go on like this, Mom!” I told her. “You don’t know what day it is. You don’t remember your kids’ names. You shouldn’t be driving.”

Immediately I felt terrible and offered to make her a chicken sandwich. Ever mindful of waste, “Let’s split one,” she said.

“Sorry I got upset, Mom,” I said, as I laid her meager half on one of the green melamine plates off which we’d been eating for the last fifty years. Before we sat down, I even went so far as to put my arms around her. I could feel the bones in her back. “I’m just afraid.”

“I’ll be okay,” she replied, but I couldn’t see how.

Should I give up my life in L.A.? Should I move back to New Hampshire, with its frigid, suicide-evoking winters? Would I have to live in Mom’s condo, way back under the dark trees, and feed her, give her a bath, change her diapers? Maybe I’d get used to my new assignment, maybe I’d come to enjoy spending time with Mom, the afternoon sun slanting in through the windows, reliving the childhood in which I’d always felt something had gone wrong I couldn’t remember, in the presence of the very person whose unworked-through sorrows had trickled down to me. Maybe we could listen to Beethoven’s late quartets together. Maybe I could fill the refrigerator with decent food, strew things around, talk loudly to my friends—swearing and cracking jokes—on the phone.

Maybe I could thank her for what she gave me: something to fight against, to struggle with. A distaste for social lies and the wrong kind of small talk. A love for music and books and silence.

The next night, I watched her make her laborious way up the cellar stairs with a pile of freshly folded laundry: each step, stopping to drag up first her right foot, then the left. Knowing she’d wave me off if I offered to help, my brain began to run in its usual rut: Why does she do this to herself? Why not get help, why not move to a place with no stairs, why not live a different life? And suddenly, I thought, Who the hell are you to purport to know one single thing about another’s life? For all I knew, my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was saving some other sick person from dragging his or her foot; for all I knew my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was keeping me alive.

I went to bed knowing this could very well be the last night the two of us ever slept together under her roof. Honey clawed the screen; the trees soughed; every ion of the summer night—so familiar, so beloved: the summer nights of my childhood that smelled of pine and hay and the sea—was charged with the construct of “home.”

I’d spent a lifetime constructing a false way of relating to people: saying yes when I meant no; being what I thought the other wanted me to be, then resenting the person; tamping down the holy longing of my heart, all out of terror of being abandoned. I’d spent a lifetime trying not to blame—the fault was mine; no wonder my mother hadn’t shown more warmth, I’d been an alcoholic: a nuisance, a bother; I should have had more compassion for her childhood—but you can observe without blaming. You can see what happened and mourn for you and your mother.

And I could also see that my mother had set herself an impossible, noble task: to be selfless and self-renunciating when she’d never had a foundation of abundance or nurturing or sanity from her own childhood. She was like the widow who’d given her last two mites; she’d given more than any “rich” person because she’d given from her poverty. Someday things would be made right. I could hear Mom puttering to the bathroom, bumping into things, calling for Honey.

I’d become a writer because of my mother.

They were right this very second. They were right now.

The next morning I drank a last cup of weak Maxwell House, ate a last bowl of generic Wheaties, stripped the uncomfortable bed Mom had sacrificed for me.

She came to the door to see me off as—faithfully, steadfastly—she had all my life. As we hugged goodbye, I felt the same tension I had all my life.

I gripped my keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

The words didn’t come easily. She spoke as if a bone were lodged in her throat.

“Love you.”

When she died all the light would go out of the world.

I bit the inside of my mouth till I drew blood. So I wouldn’t cry.

I left it at this—for once, for her: “Thanks for everything, Mom. Love you, too.”

Refiner’s Fire

Shannon Berry


In the Old Testament, fire was a purifying element. The sacrifices were burnt because the Jews believed that their sins were transferred to the animal on the altar, and the burning devoured these sins and sent the aroma of repentance to the God above. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul takes this idea a step further, adapts it to fit Christianity and says that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices, making our very lives offerings to God, making our lives blazing, constant, purifying fires. Fires that burn, spark, and glow. Fires within. This same fire urged Teresa of Avila to reform her religious order, which had fallen into laziness and wealth. It drove her to sit for hours praying whether she felt anything or not. It’s a fire that isn’t extinguished unless we kill it, heaping buckets of lukewarm water on the blaze. [Read more…]