In case you haven’t been following along, here’s Part I and Part II of an essay about our search for home, starting over, and our tragicomic earthly pilgrimage called “Everything Profound Moves Forward in Disguise.”
Here’s the final installment.
I know a grand total of two people here; Johnny, a singer-songwriter, and his wife Felicia, a nurse-practitioner (their first-grader son Soren technically makes three). Dear friends in their early 40s who I met through recovery, they also happen to be Catholic.
But that’s it. I have no other connections or ties to Tucson. Pushing 70, I’d be starting from scratch. I’d have to find a place to live. I’d have to figure out how to move. I’d have to change health insurance, car registration, libraries, grocery stores, hair salons, movie theaters, libraries. I’d have to adjust to a new climate, zeitgeist, way of life,
I’d have to find friends, fellows, people of some kind. I’m an introvert, but I also love people, long for people. It took me years in LA to learn how to balance that longing with the silence and solitude I need: not only to live, but to write.
And it would probably take me years again.
There’s all that, plus leaving for good would be wrenching. It’s not like I’m contemplating a move to some wilderness outpost, or even to a foreign country. I’d be going 500 miles, a mere seven-hour drive. But if I’m a low-level nomad, I’m also a heavy-duty nester. My apartment is filled with flowers, prayer cards, fairy lights, pottery, candles, icons, and rugs that I’ve arranged just so. How to leave the Meyer lemon trees, the rosemary bushes, the old-growth camellias, the wild fennel? How to leave the huge native California garden I’ve created, crammed with sages, buckwheats, toyons, and a Western redbud?
Say what you will, the Golden State is gloriously diverse, bountiful, sunny. It has beaches, mountains, deserts, oceans, forests plains. It boasts palm trees, rose gardens, In-N-Out burger, surfers, movie stars, artists, storytellers, and serial murderers. It’s driven by an ostensibly laid-back but unquenchable, ever-exuberant energy. There’s a reason so many millions of people have wanted to live here, move here, live here, die here. Love it or hate it, California has cachet—and LA has cachet-plus.
For thirty years, wherever my road trips have taken me, no matter how many or how few miles I’ve driven, on the way back my heart has skipped a beat at the green freeway sign: “Los Angeles,” with an arrow beneath it, pointing home.
Saturday night I walk to Vigil Mass at Santa Cruz, a church sits on the edge of the ghetto and resembles a hulking, slightly lopsided, Moorish wedding cake.
Built in the early 1920s, it’s the oldest mud-adobe structure in Arizona, and that the upkeep for such a gigantic space clearly far exceeds the parish’s means is clear.
Inside, the statues of angels and saints look to be molded from papier mâché by kindergarteners: no matter. The priest’s homily goes on way too long: no matter.
I’m a stranger here: clothes that stick out, the wrong race, vaguely unwanted in that way that aging women, traveling by themselves, are always vaguely unwanted: no matter.
Never do I feel more at home than in an “ordinary” Mass: young girls fresh from the beauty parlor, construction guys just off work, harried mothers with frail abuelitas in tow, mewling infants.
Mass for me is part of staying at my watch. Christ stayed at his watch, and the people before whom I bow are those who stayed at their watch, too: the martyrs, the saints, and the artists who laid down their lives for their work—Margot Fonteyn, van Gogh, Beethoven; Billie Holiday, Dostoevsky, Caravaggio—the dancers, painters, writers, and musicians who have shored me up all my life.
If ever you want your faith in humanity restored, in fact, attend a Mass and study the faces of the people as they return to their seats after Communion. They’re the faces of people who have just made love, or been told they’re about to have a baby.
I, too, return to my pew carrying a secret inside. “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” In order to be healed, you have first to be sick; to be wounded.
Friend to all misfits, outcasts, malcontents, neurotics and obsessives, Christ is in solidarity with every little action we take toward beauty, truth, and light. He died to encourage us not to give up, not to take the easy route, to do what’s scary for us even though it might not be scary for anyone else, to keep on going even if no-one else notices or cares.
By the time we emerge, it’s dark. The stars are shining. The courtyard is lit by pale green string lights that glow against the inky sky. Traffic roars by on 22nd Street. I carefully pick my way across the intersection, thinking of the pedestrians who must surely have been killed doing likewise.
If I myself were hit by a car, no-one but God would know that after taking the Eucharist just now, I had prayed, “O good Jesus, accept this Holy Communion as my Viaticum, as if were this day to die.” Viaticum: food for the journey.
Jean Sulivan (1913-1980), French priest, wrote a number of novels in the ‘50s and ‘60s critical of clericalism. The protagonist of The Sea Remains (1964) is a cardinal who, weary of pomp and perks, leaves Rome and then has a conversion: to humility, to love.
Even so, he doesn’t want to do away with the Church; rather, for the first time, he sees through to her mystery. The glitter is somehow both necessary and a veil: without the tawdriness, the hypocrisy, how would we recognize ourselves? Without the pomp, however risible, how would we reach for something higher: something harder?
“Parades, publicity, all the forms of propaganda and spectacle—he’d give them away to the devil if the devil would take them. But…the gospel couldn’t be delivered to the world in its pure essence. If the soul were without a body, there would no longer be a soul. A love without some degree of opaqueness would no longer be a tangible love. The Church had constructed its body, the body that was its shell, which had grown larger century by century. The fire was not blazing up because the walls were too high, the shell too thick. But perhaps the fire should not be allowed to burn with too high or bright a flame. Otherwise the crowds would come, fascinated like flies around a lamp; they would clap their hands, be overly receptive to miracles but blind to the heart of things, wanting the resurrection, of course, but certainly not the agony or the death. The Church, with its ramparts, its possessions, its works of art, the Vatican, the cardinals—none of all that existed for itself but rather so as to permit a revelation in human consciousness…In any case, it was necessary to pass through scandal and overcome the obstacles. But total purity would be yet a greater obstacle. Had I read Nietzsche? ‘Everything profound moves forward in disguise.’”
I’ve finally finished off the last of the food I brought from home—wizened tomatoes, a limp bunch of Tuscan kale—and venture out for supplies. I discover The Time Market and stock up on olive oil, mustard, cured meats, cheese, tortellini, and bread.
Then I wander the dreamy streets north of University Boulevard: old bungalows with generous yards, screened-in porches, meandering gardens. The air is clean, the air balmy, the sky deep blue with masses of shape-shifting clouds. I’ve always loved the desert, unpretentious yet mysterious, including—in fact especially—the heat. One of those annoying people who’s always cold, my bones have never fully unthawed from the 38 winters I spent in New England.
I could so live here! The median home price is $250,000. Even I, on my self-employed writer’s income, could possibly afford to buy a house here (that would be a first!)—and at the very least, rent.
“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’” mountaineer John Muir once asked an interviewer. “It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’”
In the early 90s, suffering from cancer, novelist Jennifer Lash (1938-1993) took off, alone, for the Camino de Santiago.
On Pilgrimage is her account of that journey. She’s in too much pain to walk, so she takes trains, buses, taxis. She’s uncertain whether she believes. She’s open. She’s a seeker: observant, wry, deeply sensitive to nuance, beauty, the emotional temperature of any given place.
In one sublime passage, she observes:
“While [Sister Agnes of the Taizé community and I] were standing together at the back of the basilica [of St. Michel D’Aiguilhe in Le Puy, France], there was suddenly a tremendous gust of wings. Sparrows and pigeons were continually flying around, but this gust of a bird was mighty and different. We looked up, and there, high above the narthex was the unmistakable, compelling face of a barn owl. Again and again it flew and paused, frantically crashing its white body with terrible hopelessness against the dusty windows. Every so often it would fly the whole length of the church only to soar up again into another barrier of light. I cannot describe how unbearable it was to follow the flight of that bird, knowing that we were quite incapable to give it its freedom. There were holes and spaces, if only it would see them. Each time it failed, the pause and stillness became longer, and the fearful despair of the bird felt greater.
We left for the library. We couldn’t bear to be there. Later, the whole experience haunted me. The gaze of that particular bird is so involving. I suddenly thought, what if God witnesses in every man a divine spark, which flies within us blindly, like that bird, crashing in terror, punched and pounded from wall to wall, blinded by obstacles and dust, and yet, God knows, that there is a way for natural freedom and ascending flight. What an extraordinary pain that witness would be.”
As often happens, a couple of people have emailed this morning asking for prayers. So later I walk through the Barrio saying the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.
If there’s one way I know my life has borne fruit, it consists in the people who have read my work and who write to, email or call me: housewives, monks, single fathers, nuns, hermits, women in desperately unhappy marriages, women in or out of desperately unhappy marriages who are crazy in love with a priest. Priests. People who’ve been sexually, emotionally or physically abused.
People who are pissed at the Church, pissed at their mothers, fathers, siblings, children, neighbors, boss, elected officials. People in sorrow, grief, doubt, bewilderment, rage. All of them nonetheless burning, as Christ, did for the Kingdom of God to be kindled.
I’m spouseless, childless, aging, not rich, not famous. I have no social status. My poverty is precisely what people are drawn to. They’re not threatened. They’re not afraid to approach.
As Emily Dickinson wrote to a grieving friend: “The crucifix requires no glove.”
Cesare Pavese died at 42, a suicide. Discouraged over the political situation in Italy, suffering from depression, and crushed by a brief, failed love affair with an actress, he rented a hotel room and took an overdose of barbiturates. “Death will come and she’ll have your eyes,” he wrote in one of his last poems.
My own romantic obsession almost killed me. Every minute of every day—for years—was agony. I tried everything: 12-step groups, Confession, spiritual direction, endless examinations of conscience and moral inventories.
I felt like I was being flayed. My feet broke out in a form of eczema so severe that the doctors as a last resort suggested chemo.
This was over a guy, by the way, who I never even kissed.
Even as I underwent this harrowing of my soul, I knew the experience was essentially religious. Even in my bewilderment, I “trusted” somehow. I suffered through depression, humiliation, a sense of bewilderment and betrayal and absurdity. I suffered through the sense that my work and my love were going for nothing; the fear that I was not only a failure and a reject but crazy. I suffered, of course, a broken heart.
But never for a second did I think I would have been better off had I been able to “breathe through” or “go with the flow” or “dance like no-one was watching.”
“To be sure,” Victor Frankl wrote, “man’s search for meaning and values may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely this tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health…I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis,’ i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” 
At last, after what seemed like a cruel and impossible amount of time, the obsession lifted, that particular tension dissolved, and I emerged: my personality intact, but my will and my inner equilibrium transformed.
Mine is a life practically no-one would want. I eat alone, work alone, sleep alone. But along with the ragpicker kid in the Mumbai undercity, I saw that my poverty was in a sense my wealth: my narrow, semi-mutilated existence a thing of strangeness and beauty that mattered absolutely, even if to no-one but me.
When the dust settled, I saw also that to follow Christ creates an irrevocable divide. It requires a decision—a cut—the most decisive, complete, and permanent cut of all. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said, and much as you love the world, you’re increasingly in the world but not of it. Your exile is increasingly complete.
You follow a completely different star. You can interact with any number of different and varied individuals and groups of people, but at a certain point, you have to withdraw in a way, to your Inner chamber, where all the true, hard work takes place.
I’d wanted to span two worlds. I thought I could belong exteriorly to a community that was secular, godless—creative, “fun”—and still maintain a private, inner life of Mass, contemplation and prayer. But I hadn’t been able to split myself that way. I couldn’t serve two masters.
I saw I’d always been meant for the cloister; for a vocation of prayer that naturally embraced celibacy. Not because I’m too bitter or dysfunctional for intimacy—I was married for 14 years and in many ways loved it. But marriage wasn’t my vocation. Marriage wasn’t how I was meant to bear fruit.
I kept thinking of a former nun with whom I’d stayed on my cross-country pilgrimage, a consecrated virgin who ran a place called the Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage where she rented out cabins for twenty bucks a night. “I know it sounds strange,” she’d once told me. “But one man wouldn’t be enough for me. I want all! I want Him!”
For my own part, the station of single, celibate laywoman that emerged from that long dark night suits me down to the ground. I’m doing neither more nor less than any other single person in the Church is called to do, but that I’m able to embrace celibacy with a sense of humor and a capacity for surprise—that I see it as a gift—ringsof the miraculous.
That doesn’t mean I’m euphorically happy all the time. As St. Thérèse learned by the end of her short, pain-filled life: “There are no raptures, no ecstasies: only service.”
On the other hand, I also live, on some level, in a permanent sense of stupefied wonder, of crazy joy.
I still want Don Quixote to adore Dulcinea but I also realize that to fritter away my life pining for and fantasizing about the impossible is an offense to love: ridiculous in the wrong way. My passion hasn’t diminished one iota: rather, it’s been channeled.
Pavese, God rest his soul, jumped the tracks. He took all the pills (literally) at once. He missed what was right in front of him: the slow, excruciating dismantling of the ego; the gradual, bit-by-bit severing of earthly attachments. He forgot that everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important—especially the pain.
There is only one way through this vale of tears. Minute by minute, you suffer through: wasted, half-crazed, eyes wide open, without anesthesia. You continue to stare—with a frantic intentness—outward.
The day before departure, I sit out one last time on the yellow glider, gazing out over the horizon
How can this all end?: the long shadows cast by the saguaro, the drunk guy ambling down the street playing a recorder, the UPS man yelling, “Package!” followed by a thump on the front stoop.
My addict psyche causes suffering, “but total purity would be yet a greater obstacle.” The part of me that can’t waste a morsel of food is the same part that weeps at the hummingbird’s magenta throat. The part that can obsessively fixate on a human being is the same part that’s ablaze with divine longing. The part that can’t sit still is the same part can’t wait to get out of bed each morning: that’s alive, that’s excited, that rants, rails, exults, and cracks up laughing with equal intensity.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. The poor-in-spirit, rich-in-tragicomedy pilgrimage will continue, if I have anything to say about it, up to my last tortured, gasping breath.
In Robert Bresson’s film A Man Escaped, the protagonist Fontaine is a member of the French Resistance. “Death in itself I could accept;” he observes from prison, “but I wanted my relatives to know that I had fought to the end, without relaxing or giving up.”
The next morning I wake in the dark, drink my coffee, say the Divine Office. Sweep the floor, take out the recycling and garbage, gather the towels into a pile. Kneel by the bed and say a prayer for the next person.
Into the car go the leftover food, the freshly refrozen ice packs, the snacks for the front seat, the travel mug coffee for the 3 p.m. caffeine hit.
A U-turn, a horn beep goodbye to the ‘hood (like anyone cares), and I’m out into traffic. At the entrance ramp to the freeway I make the sign of the Cross, finger my rear view mirror crucifix, and take one last look over Tucson.
Will I be back? Do I have the strength to endure more loneliness, to stare even more deeply into the abyss, to start over one more time? Am I willing to discover new ways to allow myself to be consumed; to prepare for death?
To the casual observer, a dusty Fiat; a 68-year-old woman with wild hair and her Ray-Bans askew. But look more closely!
Her lips move in a silent plea. Her heart beats to the pulse of the universe. The morning light comes over the mountains: amethyst; blood-red.
Everything profound moves forward in disguise.
 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press) 103, 105.
 In the Catholic church, a consecrated virgin is a woman who has been consecrated by the church to a life of perpetual virginity as a bride of Christ. Consecrated virgins are consecrated by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite. Consecrated virgins spend their time in prayer, works of penance and mercy, and apostolic activity, and may live either as nuns of a monastic order or “in the world” under the authority of the local bishop.