And here’s Part II:
Sometimes I think there are two types of people in the world: those who as infants securely attached to their mothers and those who, for whatever reason, didn’t.
Those of us who didn’t suffer from a built-in poverty of spirit. Not depression, necessarily, but poverty of spirit. Every morning of my life, my first thought has been: Will I make it through? Will this be the day I have a psychotic break? Collapse in the street? Punch someone in the face?
On my best day, with a (rare) good night’s sleep, money in the bank, and no-one (that I’m aware of, anyway) pissed at me, I still start at a deficit. I always assume that things will go wrong, that my best won’t be good enough, that I’ll give my all and “they” still won’t like me. My psychic home is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ sweated tears of blood the night before he died.
Also built-in for the poor in spirit is the fact that no matter how self-aware, how well-educated, observant, kind, funny, charming, and even physically attractive you may be, you will be drawn to—and yourself draw people—who are likewise poor in spirit.
For decades—most of my adult life—I tried to deny, resolve, escape that fact. I started traveling and wandering young, trying to assuage the pain. In my early 20s, for example, I hitch-hiked with a girlfriend from New Hampshire to California, stayed for a while, then took off one night without leaving a note and started hitch-hiking back, alone.
I remember with startling clarity a moment in Colorado, standing in the dark with my thumb out, when I realized that not one person in the world knew where I was. The feeling was one of indescribable peace. I didn’t want to worry the friend I’d left behind, or my parents, or anyone else: I just wanted to be alone—with God? I didn’t even believe in God in those days, that I knew of. I could think while alone? Maybe, but I don’t remember thinking any deep thoughts—I was strung out, jittery, and by that time already a full-fledged alcoholic.
Even so, way back then I saw that to travel is to enter liminal time, liminal space, a liminal dimension where I was…me but not me? An alternate me? The “real” me?
I’ve been low-key traveling ever since. Nothing fancy, nothing splashy so that anyone would want to retrace my steps. In fact, encouraging people slavishly to follow my “way,” à la Eat, Pray, Love, would nauseate me. Find your own freaking way!
Not, of course, to worry. Driving cross-country and back staying at Motel 6es, living on sardines and crackers, and going to Mass every day while suffering such severe existential torment over a romantic obsession that I broke out in boils—a little “pilgrimage” I took back in 2007—is not calculated to attract a slew of imitators.
I once gave a talk on pilgrimage to a group of well-heeled Catholic retirees, using the cross-country road trip I just described as an example. Their stares, as the tale progressed, became more and more quizzical. Finally one genteel lady raised her hand. “Why do you insist upon associating pilgrimage with pain?” she asked. “Why I went with my friends on a very nice pilgrimage to the Holy Land this past summer with Father James Martin. We stayed in lovely hotels, ate delicious meals, and sat on the banks of the Red Sea and wrote in our journals.
“Oh,” I replied. “You took the rich people’s pilgrimage!”
To descend into travel mode is to enter a kind of larval state—by which I don’t mean I sit in Tucson for five days half-asleep.
No indeed. I take a long walk each day. I visit San Xavier del Bac, aka “The White Dove of the Desert,” a Spanish Colonial Mission dating back to 1783. I drive to Saguaro National Park East and hike. I check out some of Tucson’s many historical neighborhoods: Presidio, Sam Hughes, Blenman-Elm. I walk to the Exo Roast Company in the Arts District; I have dinner with friends. I lead my Saturday writing workshop on Zoom, and on Monday I turn in my weekly arts and culture column to Angelus News, the archdiocesan newspaper of LA, like always.
Still, at least partially freed from my everyday life of list-making, errands, social obligations, and housekeeping, my mind also has room to wander.
The Airbnb features a charming front yard studded with agaves and succulents. In the morning I sit out there with my coffee, the air thick with birdsong, and pray the Divine Office. At dusk I’m out there again: gently rocking on the glider; pondering; admiring the rusted corrugated tin fence panels, the lizards, the resident black-and-white cat, the sunset.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s mother died of breast cancer when she was 4. Then, one by one, her older sisters left for cloistered convents. Finally, around the age of 12, the abandonment wound became so overwhelming that she underwent a nervous breakdown. She started having what looked like violent seizures, episodes so frightening in their intensity that her family feared she would die.
In the corner of her room stood a statue of the Blessed Virgin. She was “cured” when, one day, she saw Mary smile upon her.
In a psycho-spiritual biography called The Hidden Face, author Ida Görres describes what might have happened in that pivotal moment:
“Nevertheless, we believe that a decision must have taken place deep within her when, in the midst of her direst distress, the saving grace of the vision of Mary shone upon her. We believe that at his point Thérèse was confronted with a temptation, for all that it was hidden in the unplumbed depths of the soul. For here she was confronted with alternatives, and the second of these alternatives was the perilous one. She could accept the offered comfort, the new support and protection. That is, she could abandon her wild despair over what she had lost, could really carry out the unendurable renunciation within the core of her ego, could release the hand of [her older sister] Pauline [to whom she was codependently attached] and reach across the irrevocable gulf for the hand of the Blessed Virgin. Or—and this was the other possibility—she could cling to her despair, could hold tight to her neurosis, could maintain her protest, stubbornly persist at all costs in the sinister attempt at blackmail which this disease represented.
Such decisions take place not by deliberate processes of thought, but far below the strata of thoughts and words, by a lightning-like opening or closing of the core of being.”
Interesting word: decision. It’s derived from a root that means “to cut.”
I’m fascinated by the many literary figures who wrestled with Christianity: Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Kakfa, Camus, Simone Weil, Cesare Pavese. They couldn’t bear the hypocrisy: the monstrous gap between what followers of Christ profess to believe, and how they actually live their lives. They ranted, turned their backs, came closer, pulled away, catalogued the myriad deficiencies of the Church, its members, its hierarchy, its riches.
Still, they couldn’t get rid of the ragged figure who moved from tree to tree in the back of their minds, either.
In his old age Tolstoy tried to imitate the “simple” lives of peasants, with tragicomically disastrous results.
Kierkegaard, believing himself destined for a life of loneliness, broke off an engagement to the woman he loved; then, to forestall public lionization for what he feared would be viewed as “heroism,” pretended to be a cad, thereby both breaking his fiancée’s heart and inviting public censure for a faked dereliction of duty.
Simone Weil, the French intellectual, insisted on working in a factory (though she was incompetent, loathed the work, and made no friends), possibly suffered from anorexia, and upon volunteering as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War promptly stuck her foot in a pot of boiling oil, causing burns from which she later, weakened by lack of food, fresh air, and human intimacy, died.
Weil was famous for refusing to join the Church because she preferred to be in solidarity with the souls in hell: the patron saint of Those Who Do Things the Hard Way, a club of which I count myself a charter member.
One of the saddest moments in all of literature, to my mind, is when Don Quixote “comes to his senses” near the end of the Cervantes novel. No! I wanted to shout. Keep tilting at windmills! Keep deluding yourself that Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world!
The notion that “enlightenment” consists in 24/7 calm, in short, had never sat well with me. True, Christ curled up in the back of the boat during a storm and took a nap—but that wasn’t impassivity; it was trust. “I came to set the earth on fire,” he burst out on the way to Jerusalem, “and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49). Would anyone call that “calm?”
In Orthodoxy G.K Chesterton beautifully set forth the distinction between the soporific peace sought by the world; and the “peace” of Christ:
“Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art…No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
One night I watch a Netflix documentary about a diver in South Africa who “bonds” with a female octopus. Octopuses, as you may know, are deeply intelligent, sensitive, ingenious, playful, and can recognize individual humans. The plot is basically: the diver and the octopus come to love each other. Meanwhile, a shark cruelly bites off one of the octopus’s tentacles. She grows a new one. Then she lays a clutch of eggs, gives birth and slowly wastes away, as octopus mothers do, till the shark finishes her off.
“We must allow ourselves to be consumed,” said Mother Teresa.
Okay. But how do you get to the point where you’re willing to be consumed? How is someone drawn to Christ to begin with?
If my own experience is any indication, it helps to have a really tormented conscience; to have committed an act that’s by all rights unpardonable, unforgivable: the betrayal of a friend, the violation of a child, a lie that cost someone a job or a marriage, the taking of a life.
It helps, in other words, to have hurt another person in a way that’s so shameful you can’t just sit in a cave, and watch your thoughts float by as if on a river, and convince yourself that what you did was okay.
Another good entrée is to have suffered some truly humiliating malady: addiction, for example. You’re in thrall to the forces of darkness, and the rest of the world is just wanting you to put down the booze or needle or whatever, quit being an all-star nuisance, and shut up already.
Which, by yourself, you absolutely can’t do, no matter how smart, driven, charming, loved, or well-connected you are. Not for lack of trying—many of us die trying. Others of us are eventually graced, through absolutely no virtue of our own, with having the obsession to drink or drug removed: no questions asked, no debt incurred, welcomed back to the human table.
That happened for me in 1987: a cockeyed death and resurrection that led first to gratitude, then to the desire for a Person to thank–what other kind of God would I possibly want than a personal God?—and finally, against all odds, to Christ.
Later I learned that Flannery O’Connor had observed: “The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”
Everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important.
In one way, of course, who cares? The world managed fine before we came along; the world will continue a long, long time after we’re gone. But if the existential stakes are life and death, every decision we make, every act, is of extraordinary importance, of great moment.
In my own life, getting sober was a major decision: one that, like St. Thérèse’s, took place below the level of consciousness. I couldn’t have removed the obsession myself, and yet the removal didn’t take place without my consent. It marked a complete cut with my former life—my identity—as an active alcoholic.
My life since had been a series of other decisions, further cuts.
I had abortions: the wrong kind of choices, cuts, the aftereffects of which I’ll carry all my life.
A couple of years after getting sober, I got married: a cut with my identity as a single, promiscuous woman.
Soon after, my husband and I moved from the North Shore of Boston to LA: East Coast to West Coast, a cut with family, friends, autumn foliage, winter snow: the life I’d known for almost forty years.
In LA, I started working as a lawyer, using the degree I’d earned while drinking. I underwent a crisis of conscience and vocation. I made a decision to respond to the call of my heart to write, and cut ties with my career.
A year or so after that, I converted to Catholicism: a cut with the idea that my life was my own.
At 49, I got cancer: a loss of my identity as a healthy person: a cut with the delusion that I was immortal.
The next year my husband and I got divorced and I had the marriage annulled: my decision, a cut with my identity as a wife.
He went back to New Hampshire: I stayed in LA.
Freedom! I thought. Then the real fun began: I underwent an excruciating, years-long, dark night of the soul, centered upon an entirely unreciprocated romantic obsession.
Somehow during that time I continued to stay sober, help another alcoholic, function day-to-day, and remain faithful to my vocation. I wrote ten or twelve books. I planted a garden. But I was always trying to get out of my apartment and the city: monasteries, retreat houses, writers’ residencies. I kept trying to find a focus for my passion, my energy. I kept trying to form a sort of creative community, though that never really happened.
For three decades, it’s beginning to dawn on me, I’ve stayed in a city in which, from the beginning, I felt in exile.
Also for 30 years, I’ve stretched myself to the limit. I’ve never especially liked or felt safe driving: I drove all over the city and the state, constantly: first as an attorney to courthouses, depositions, and law libraries; later to the museums, theaters, concert halls, performance stages; the gardens, missions, parks, mountains and oceans about which I wrote.
Though an extreme introvert, I constantly called myself out: to the law offices where I worked at first, to the jails and prisons where I talked to my fellow alcoholics, to the Skid Row soup kitchen where I volunteered, to the snooty small press publisher in Beverly Hills, to docents, chefs, maestros, curators, lighthouse keepers, directors of domestic violence shelters, nuns who helped people die, and always, always, wherever I was in my neighborhood, city, or the state of California, to Mass.
I’ve stretched myself to the limit and made a home for myself. LA, in its unlikely way, has formed, sheltered, and sustained me. I’ve lived a good part of my life here, and I’ve reached an age where I can envision the end; more or less chart how that might play out. Not the day nor the hour but, assuming a slow decline, I have people around me who would probably help. The deterioration would probably take place in familiar surroundings, be as angst-free as possible under the circumstances.
Somehow, the prospect makes me shudder. Not the prospect of death: rather, the specter of stasis; equilibrium.
I love cities—I’ve lived in cities almost all adult life. But I was born and raised on the coast of New Hampshire, and at this point urban guerilladom has lost its luster. I don’t especially need night life, restaurants, galleries. I can find, or make, the culture I crave wherever I live. At this point all I really want—or so I tell myself—is a tree, a bird, the sun.
I’ve made this trip partly with the question in mind: Could my life bear fruit in a new, smaller city—like Tucson?
Is it time for another cut?