On Hearing Every Story as a Lesson
I spent a weekend without talking, being someone else at a convent
Every year my birthday seems worse than the year before. This year, we actually kept score: In my house we kept a running, mostly-good-natured verbal tally of the things that went wrong around my birthday. Of course there were no tragedies, just small, standalone oddities: the slight insanities of family members, unusually bizarre exchanges at work, people’s sudden and strange behavior around me, which I would recount to my family and my daughter would answer with, “Well, it IS almost your birthday.”
If I were to choose the paramount terrible birthday moment, I would probably offer the image of myself, crouched on a stranger’s cold front porch clutching a shivering, shit-covered puppy to my chest and crying while what sounded like a 100-pound-baby screamed from inside the house. (Spoiler: I did not get the puppy. Someday I will get the puppy, and the puppy I did not get that day, on my birthday, will remain a part of the larger story: the story of the puppy we worked so hard to find, and to love.) Now, from a distance, I can see this and I am grateful. That day, crying on a strange porch with a filthy baby animal in my arms, my universe felt like it was being torn apart.
My mom had already given me my birthday present. The week before, we had set out into a blizzard, aimed for a Franciscan convent about an hour away from where we live. The roads were bad and it got dark early, but we made our way slowly, on slick, wind-whipped roads. The headlights illuminated the snow in front of us, the sky was the same color as the ground around us, and to pass the time I tried to convince my mom that this road was some sort of Miyazakian segue into the underworld. She countered with C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, and for a while we amused each other with what we thought this Other reality would be, what it would do, how we would interact with it.
We thought we were being funny and clever, but as we drove through Oldenburg, Indiana (population 674) looking for the spires of the Franciscan convent, we realized that what we were imagining together had more or less come true. This was an Other reality, one completely foreign to us, and—viewed through the snow illuminated by the streetlights—probably magic.
We pulled into the convent’s retreat center, separate from the church itself, and were greeted by a tiny and smiling woman. She let us in, she showed us around. The retreat center was three floors of rooms that used to belong to the sisters before they had all moved into the convent itself. Each room was almost identical: cinder block walls, single beds, a sink, a mirror, a closet, a single window. There were stairs, but the sister led us from floor to floor with the aid of an ancient, sea foam green elevator with flickering lights and creaking cables.
She showed us the kitchen, a room as simple as any of the others we had seen, but with a gleaming, automated coffee machine in the center. She was so proud of and grateful for this coffee machine. She grinned and showed me with pointed arthritic fingers how to operate it, how to coax dozens of specialized drinks out of the humming electric machine. She made herself some hot chocolate as an example, and took my mom and me to our room.
Everything about the building was simple, functional, and old. Our sheets were worn but freshly ironed. The blankets were small and thin, but they were thoughtfully placed everywhere, on the backs of chairs, draped over the arms of couches, in almost every cabinet I opened. There were soft chairs arranged in small circles around tables of books and tables in nearly every available space: places to stop, to sit, to think, to talk. In contrast with the cinder block walls and the cemetery just outside the windows, these small comforts did feel luxurious, and important. The place felt whole and large; bigger than the building that contained it.
I spent almost my entire first night in the library, the sister had led me through the dark, long room, and ended with their selection of feminist and mystic texts, which she pointed out to me and winked. So this is how I came to spend an evening, while a blizzard swirled around me, in the dark, silent library of a convent reading about the shadow-feminine and Jungian mother-archetypes. It was one of the most quietly exhilarating nights I have ever had.
My mom and I had signed up for a silent, private retreat. The idea was that we would spend a quiet weekend at the convent reading, writing, thinking. We had free run of everything, could take our meals with the sisters (or not), we had a full weekend to be free of any obligation. The silence did not last long, because the sisters treated us like a miracle: We had come to them in the storm, a mother and daughter. To them we seemed impossibly young, and they doted on us and told us stories.
I am still not sure how, but in the beginning I was introduced to everyone as “Shirley.” The sisters fussed over me, asked how I felt, if I needed anything, told me the history of everything in the room. I missed my chance to correct them, and they were so sweet and friendly that after a while I just couldn’t bear to. At lunch on our first full day at the convent, sitting at a table full of beaming sisters, another approached and I had to introduce myself as “Shirley,” so as not to let the others down. I’m not going to lie, it felt pretty good. I was more than ready to spend the weekend being someone else.
Every sister I met made me guess how old she was. Grinning and gleeful, each time they would tell me how much older they were than what I had guessed. They told me stories about when they were novices, the traveling they had done, the sisters they had studied under. Some of them had grown up in Oldenburg, had gone to the high school attached to the convent.
One sister took me to the chapel she was sitting in at 16 years old, when she received the call to serve. I spent a lot of time in that chapel; it was small, all blue and cream and gold, with swans in the stained glass windows and an angel who looked like Frida Kahlo on the ceiling.
It was hot and sometimes filled with the hissing and banging of the radiators that lined the walls. The pews were dark and the corners were dark and shadowy. On Sunday, when all the sisters were at mass, I could hear them singing far off, somewhere else in the convent, while I sat in this hot, tiny, beautiful chapel. I looked at Frida on the ceiling and listened to the sisters sing and was struck by what mothers all these childless, unmarried women were. Mother-archetypes, straight out of Jungian psychology.
The sisters’ stories were not quite like mine. The stories I save and share are adventures of some sort: things I’ve done wrong, wrong things that have been done to me, dangerous situations that have ended hilariously (I hope). One sister sat me down and told me a story about the sink in her room. The story was that her drain was slow; that was the whole thing. But she smiled at me, as she explained that she was worried that her slow drain might be indicative of a larger problem that might eventually lead to a problem for someone else (or even worse: everyone else). She smiled and touched my hand lightly with hers and said to me, with an air of self-deprecation, “I can’t imagine ever not having the time to just wait for the sink to drain.”
I had taken books, music, and journals. I had given myself assignments, things to think about. I wanted to solve things. I wanted to solve the issue of humility for myself, the issue of faith. I wanted to think about my own shadows and unknown parts, to reconcile them with my mother-ness, with my love for everything. I wanted to learn how to apply the kindness I try so hard to give to the world to myself, as well (and I wanted to know why this is such a hard thing to do).
The morning of the day we left, as I was sitting in that blue and cream and gold chapel with Frida Kahlo on the ceiling, I thought about all the sweet and kind mother-women around me and scrawled onto a scrap piece of paper, ‘I don’t know if I’m trying to get empty or full.’ Everywhere I looked in the convent, I saw an acceptance of that shadow, a comfort with that unknown. From the dark library full of religious, subversive, feminist, and mystic books, to the snake wound around the feet of the statue of Mary who stood at the entrance of the building where we slept. I kept being reminded of these lines, from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita:
Do any actions you must do,
since action is better than inaction;
even the existence of your body
depends on necessary actions.
The whole world becomes a slave
to its own activity, Arjuna;
if you want to be truly free,
perform all actions as worship (3.8-9)
Maybe that’s a secret, a trick, a hack. Maybe that feeling of being “truly free” is what happens when you acknowledge the dark and the shadows; you recognize the hidden and the unknown and the unknowable and not only love in spite of them, but also love them as well. Perform all actions as worship. View all actions as sacred. Receive every story as a lesson. The light creates the shadows, but the shadows soften the edge of the light, they define it, they give the objects in the light more definition, more meaning, more context.
I’ve been in that hazy medication purgatory for weeks; waiting for my body to adjust to new chemicals, for my brain to learn how to work around new dosages, for myself to feel like myself again. It’s taking longer than usual and I’m just trying to be as kind to myself and honest with the people around me as possible. I’m lucky that so many people in my life understand that this me is not quite me. The two feet of snow and the subzero temperature and the frozen roads and the simple inability to leave the house have turned the current round. I am fighting with my depression into a smoking ant, positioned under a giant magnifying glass, held under a cruel and intense light.
Right now I am stuck in a place where even I can’t predict my reactions to things. My synapses are all mixed up; it’s like someone put all my emotional reactions in a bag and every time there is a Change I pull one out and act on it blindly. My boss has a question for me? Ok, here’s some sobbing and wailing about how I have no control over my life anymore. My dog wants to be scratched? Well, here is me in a state of full panic, wondering about the precise moment when other beings’ need for your time and affection and attention become parasitic, frowning about it like it’s some kind of math problem I could solve if I just had the right tools.
When I pull back, when I view these things and my feelings and worries from a distance; when I think about how I always have bad birthdays and how sometimes my kids are overstimulating and how sometimes strangers are mean for no reason; when I think of the definition these small, unpleasant moments give to the light of the examples of love and joy and awe that I witness—if I was very lucky—experience, I feel whole. I feel like a mother, a woman, a person who should spend more time focusing on the larger picture of the world, a person who needs to be more open to the lessons in stories and small moments, a person who can’t imagine ever not having the time to just wait for the sink to drain. Sometimes, even if it is just a trick of the light, I can feel open and grateful for everything, even the shadows. For the shadows and the stories which, when I can be open to what they want to show me, are everywhere.