“Would it not be impossible for us to avoid evangelizing if the Gospel is in our skin, our hands, our hearts, and our heads? We are indeed obliged to say why we are trying to be what we want to be, and trying not to be what we don’t want to be…Clearly we have to make our presence in the world a casual, fragile presence, a presence that is constantly ready for new departures, or which plunges down roots without knowing from day to day how long they will remain there. This happens because we know that God alone calls, gives faith, and saves, that none of us have any real authority….It is possible that no one will respond to this call…ever. We could get a mouthful of failure.”
Lent is interesting this year, mainly because, three weeks in, I’m realizing I’m kind of in Lent all the time.
I’m almost always hungry, for starters, mostly because I am in some teeny sense homeless! I eat two meals a day in my car. Breakfast is barley, almonds and raisins out of a Tupperware container, and lunch comes out of the plastic bag I lug everywhere I go that contains rice cakes, almonds, prunes or dried figs and a jagged hunk of hard cheese.
It’s been like that since late November when my landlord and property manager came to my door one afternoon, announced “The guys are coming tomorrow to do a little work on the apartment upstairs. One week, maybe two.”
March 28 and “the guys” (three to four pickup trucks each day, four to five guys tramping past my door from 7:20 am on, making inner quiet or work of any kind impossible) are still there, six days a week, 8 to 4, with absolutely no end in sight. Soon going into the fifth month. Bandsaws, hammering, drilling, stomping, dragging, pounding.
Believe me, I have let it be known, in several ways, at various times, that the construction interferes with the “quiet enjoyment” (legal term) I’m supposedly allowed to expect as a tenant. In return for the rent I pay each month. Which last time I checked is supposed to cover 24 hours a day, not just 16.
The last such time was when I foolishly neglected to run around like a chicken with my head cut off in the morning–which is, or used to be, the best, my favorite time of day, my time for prayer, my time to gather myself–in order to pray anyway, however badly, do household chores, take a shower, make my bed, warm up my barley, pack up a tea, lunch, a cold drink, my laptop, mouse and cord, phone and whatever I’m working on in order to be out of the house at 8 a.m., prepared to be gone until 4.
Oh wait, actually I had done all that but on the day in question I had to come home on some errand and outside the door to the hallway sounded like an airplane runway. Deafening, grinding noise. The hallway! For God’s SAKE! So I called the property manager and said, “WTF!!!” except I didn’t use the initials. I said, “This is insane!” I said, “I have to leave my f-ing apartment every f-ing day from 8 to 4. 1 I can’t sleep, I can’t work, I can’t rest, I can’t have anyone over, I can’t take a nap. WHEN IS THIS GOING TO END!!!???”
He told me to call the landlord. So I did, and I was like Lazarus at the gate, covered in sores, begging for a drop of water. I said in so many words, This is wrong legally, morally and humanly. You’re entitled to do reasonable improvements on your property but five months is not reasonable. I said please for the love of God take pity on me. I said I’m a 66-year old woman and you’re putting me out of my own home for 8 hours a day. He couldn’t have cared less of course (though he was also courteous and patient and let me not forget to mention the very nice movie theater and bookstore gift certificates he gave me several months ago).
And when I went to look up my “rights” (again), I found that in Pasadena anyway (which has no rent control laws) I really don’t have any. The landlord (who is also a lawyer) actually does not need to give you notice that he’s planning to do construction on the place, does not need to give an end date, does not have to (though he or she could certainly opt to) reduce your rent. In fact, though I’ve put probably 4 grand and countless hours of labor and love into creating a beautiful back garden (which both improves his property and allows him to charge higher rents), he has raised my rent (as he’s allowed to by law) both years I’ve lived here and I expect will do so again at any minute.
Such is the life of a renter, or this renter. And though I know landlords and homeowners have many nightmare tales from their p.o.v., I mention this at all because really I have never once since I started writing had a quiet, consistently “safe” place to work. And I am coming to see either that’s because 1) due to my blocks, limitations, and neuroses, I am truly incompetent to secure the same for myself 2) it’s “supposed” to be that way, or 3) both.
Which in turn I mention because–it is really the conceit of my life that given the many freedoms I enjoy, that I’m unencumbered if that’s the word by spouse and/or children, and that I have worked since the age of 13, I at the very least “deserve,” and if I don’t deserve should be able to wrangle, a small space to live that is not a source of incessant conflict and dread.
But apparently that is not to be. Yes, I could move–with all the trauma, upheaval, expense and more loss of rest, rest and quiet that entails. And I am 1000% sure that wherever I moved they would the next day decide to tear down the apartment complex beside me and erect a new one (this happened to me, twice, during my tenure in Koreatown), or trim every tree within a half mile radius with chainsaws (this has happened a number of times where I live now), or re-do the sewer up and down the street (that happened at my last apartment, a city job that took the better part of a year).
This morning the whole of Mass was overshadowed by the sound of a leaf blower.
We think we can engineer our happiness and peace but we can’t. No matter how many political “freedoms” we’re granted, no matter how many man-made “rights,” no matter how technologically advanced. There is no peace but in Christ. There is no “progress” but toward love in Christ. The breakdowns we see around us on every level–politically, ecologically, financially, personally; the breakdown of the family, the rage, the public vitriol, the private loneliness and angst are the predictable and inevitable manifestations of the spiritual bankruptcy that comes from trying to go the human condition alone.
I mean it’s bad enough when you’re NOT trying to go it alone!
So back to Lent. Hungry, tired, lonely, arid, angry, frustrated. Don’t want to burden my friends, for they’ve heard it all before. I’m trying to fast from candy–how’s that for pathetic? I mean from a bunch of other things, too: swearing, bad-mouthing, complaining, criticizing, offering unsolicited advice, jumping to conclusions, talking too much. Doing a bad job at all. Why is that any time I decide to watch my swearing I begin cursing like a stevedore? But what really hurts is the candy! I swear I’m a much nicer person, or find it easier to be a nice person, on 3 or 4 daily Swizzlers and maybe a couple of Andes mints.
Bright spots: 5-year-old neighbor Lev. Who knows right where the candy drawer is and toddled up the stairs to my apartment the other day clutching two grimy quarters and a baggie of Cheese Puffs to offer in exchange for his own handful of loot. Would NOT take the quarters back.
Mass of course and the good news is that since it behooves me to be out of the apt by 8 anyway, I have made it to the 8:15 at St. Andrew’s just about every day. Homeless man there (how hard is it for HIM?) in whose pew I can anonymously drop some cash when he’s in line for Communion.
The Pasadena public library from where (Central Branch) I write this.
Huntington Gardens, an oasis, a sanctuary. Thank you.
My own garden, which I’m kind of mad at because I don’t want to leave it and it is a labor of love that I do in some sense for the world and that therefore keeps me there, tethered to a place that hurts me and causes me to suffer.
My legs, my lungs, my eyes. my ears.
My car, often the only place where I can hope for any silence or peace. I can’t describe the number of moments these past months I have found myself pulled over by the side of the road or in some parking lot, eating out of my bag of “snacks” like a feral animal, fitfully praying a Rosary, nearly weeping with gratitude at a moment of warmth from the sun or a snatch of birdsong or just a moment where I’m not racing to get from one place to another or meet a deadline or reply to an email or answer a phone call from someone in need. Waiting for 4 o’clock so I can go home.
I had such a moment this morning as I sat eating my barley and waiting for the St. Andrew’s Pastoral Center to open because I wanted to request a Mass intention for the repose of the soul of my cousin Dickie. The young woman at the counter had such a beautiful smile and was so kind. Also I picked up a prayer card for St. Joseph Labre who apparently voluntarily became a kind of semi-crazy street person and gave up money, friends and home for the love of his brothers and sisters.
“Yeah but I don’t WANT to give up my home,” I told God, back in my car.
“We are all rather blessed in our deprivations, if we allow ourselves to be,” said Flannery O’Connor.
10 Replies to “A MOUTHFUL OF FAILURE”
Oh Flannery! Do you always have to be right!
Maybe this is a good time to tell you how much I love your blog. I don't think I could have made it through that many months of upheaval. I pray it ends soon.
You'll be in my prayers. This sounds just awful!! I too love your blog.
oh bless you all, thank you! "Just for today, I will try to live through this day only. I can do for twelve hours what would appall me if I thought I had to keep it up for a lifetime"..(I write from the library). I had news last week of a friend who'd gone in for a routine hysterectomy. A "little error" occurred whereby the surgeon nicked her small intestine, an infection ensued, and she is now in the cardiac intensive care unit and intubated, with a "better than 50-50 chance" of surviving. This from her husband. That helped quite a bit to put my own situation in perspective.
Up with Lent!
This season of upset, interruption and noise! I pray that it is followed by a season of stillness, peace, and that cool, dark hush of the indoors on a hot summer afternoon. I was taking deep breaths while I read your post. I'm in a season of teenage daughters. From minute to minute there is chatter, slammed doors, mean comments, hugs, glares, shouting, and that awful, storm cloud energy of the emotionally tyrannical. I relate to your desperate quest for space and just some damn peace. I find it when my girls are at their Dad's house. Here's to Friday (for me) and an end to construction (for you.)
Heather, this is your BEST column in some time (in my humble opinion)! I do like your descriptions of fine art, and books and flowers, yes, but you are at your best when you on just a bit of a rant, heavily spiced with humor and, in the end, honesty. All the externals are gone and we are left with you and your spirited efforts to remain a follower of Jesus in our modern, helter-skelter world, which officially does not recognize the need for serenity, let alone the necessity for prayer. We need you to say these things form time to time.
I just tuned in after 3 weeks in the Phoenix area, including some time south of Tuscon, where the quiet desert and the hazy, purple sunrises set my soul on fire again. So I know what you are talking about.
May you find serenity – now!
This piece is writing at its finest.
Oh thank you for letting me know I am not alone! I'm so encouraged by your solidarity that I just posted another kind of coda piece about Schopenhauer's take on noise…Beethoven said, "In heaven, I shall hear." Yes! We shall hear silence, and music…and yes, I do think we do each other a disservice by pretending that "faith" makes for a life of floating through above it all…it makes for a life of being seen by the world as a loser…but take heart! For His kingdom is not of this world…
Heather, I am a landlord— small time—only one modest but charming rental house, nevertheless I would be thrilled to have a tenant like you who actually improves and cares about the property. I think next time you move you need to advertise yourself. There are actually some landlords who are looking for people just like you. You are in a niche market but it there are some great landlords out there. The point is a finding great fit, a win win. I am very fortunate and blessed to have had many wonderful tenants but I'm very picky. Try Sabbaticalhomes.com next time. It caters to academics and scholars.
Shadowfax, thank you so much! I had actually thought of how I could market myself as a tenant–the garden I have created out of an abandoned lot/appliance dump I must say is pretty stunning, not to mention the untold hours I have happily spent grooming, cleaning, watering and beautifying the rest of the property. And wherever I've lived, I have always tried to be a "community" member and make the place nice for all–maybe I can visualize an ideal landlord and he or she can be visualizing me…had not known of sabbatical homes, which is wonderful (though temporary housing)–I will check it out more fully and pass on to friends. Craigslist does have a section where prospective tenants can describe themselves and what they're looking for. I have some travel coming up and am a bit traumatized at the moment, but am definitely poised to move in the coming months and I think the main thing is to cultivate an expansive feeling about the whole thing–what great adventure awaits? What new neighbors can I serve? I'm so glad to hear that you have had lovely tenants. You landlords clearly have your own set of risks, hopes, desires etc. Eastertide blessings and thanks again–