From The Cloister Walk
Let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten your labors. You should sing as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. (St. Augustine)
A dark plaid, deep reds and browns. My favorite dress. Soft cotton, no scratchy lace. Buster Brown shoes. An occasion; my mother has set my hair in rags overnight and in the morning she lets me brush out the curls. Then we go to a department store in downtown Washington, DC, where along with other children, I have tea and cookies with the Easter Bunny. I have the photograph to prove it.
I love singing in the cherub choir at the First Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia. In the picture I pose before the altar, hands pressed together, eyes closed tight as if I am praying hard. But I am thinking about the way I look, in the starched white collar and big black bow tie, my arms like angel wings in voluminous pale blue sleeves.
Much is made of new things. The electric stove, on which I promptly burned the palm of my right hand. The television. There’s a story on television that I like very much, because it is the same story I hear at Sunday school. I love Jesus; I love to sing about him. But now the story changes; something new, as dark as the clouds behind Jesus’s face. He is nailed to a cross; he is going to die. I have never seen a movie in which someone dies, and I do not like it. Especially Jesus. How can I sing about him any more, if he dies? I run into the kitchen, where my grandmother Norris is cleaning a fish. I am in tears. It is Good Friday, she tells me, good because it’s the day Jesus died, because he died to take away my sins. I don’t know what this means; I am transfixed by the fish’s eye. Something is wrong here, very wrong. I go to my room, climb inside my wardrobe, and shut the door. I am going to stay there a long time. I am not going to come out, ever. The grown-ups have gone crazy, or they’ve lied to me, they’ve kept it hidden, what a terrible world this is, where Jesus dies.
We each have a purse and matching hat. White gloves, socks with lace cuffs. Crinolines under stiff cotton skirts that make us feel important. Patent leather Mary Janes. My two little sisters and I pose for a photograph before leaving the church. We stand by the station wagon. “Robin’s egg blue,” my mother had called it. I like to think of the car as an egg, my family hatching through the doors. For my youngest sister, it is her first purse. It distracts her. She swings it back and forth, hitting us on the knees. Quit it, we say. Shush. Stand still for the picture.
Sunrise at Punchbowl cemetery. My father’s band is here, the 7th Fleet Navy Band, and also the church choir he directs in downtown Honolulu. That’s why I’m here, to sing in the choir. It feels odd to be singing so early, to be up before the sun. It is hard to imagine all this death; I have not lost anyone to death, except the collie we named Lady. Her death seemed so large, I felt the need to do something. I set my toy ironing board up in the back yard and covered it with one of mom’s old tablecloths. Death was hungry, and I couldn’t do enough. Not just dog biscuits and Lady’s collar, but some of my things, my favorite marbles, and a Golden book – Scuffy the Tugboat – and a copper bracelet that I bought with my allowance on vacation the summer before; it all went on the makeshift altar. I couldn’t do enough. Death was empty, and I tried to fill it.
I remember one morning when our neighbor came over as we were eating breakfast, still in her nightgown, her thin hair in rollers, gray at the roots. Out of breath, she said, Harry’s collapsed, and my father ran next door and called the ambulance and missed a whole morning of work. After school that day, a new phrase, “dead on arrival.”
I remember the front page of the newspaper on that day the plane crashed in Rio de Janeiro with members of the U.S. Navy Band on board. Everyone died. My father’s face turned ash-white; he looked old, not like my dad any more. He had known all the people on that plane. He cried, and my mother cried. She told me that if we had stayed in Washington, my father would have been on that plane and he would be dead. I could not imagine this.
The men’s voices drone, I am sleepy and hungry. The soldiers’ white crosses are beautiful in the morning light. Such a peaceful place, such terrible deaths, and so many. Easter Sunrise Service.
Spring break, spent with friends from college. My favorite was at Montauk, walking in cold sand, watching the sun come up. Easter is a blank space on the calendar, and I barely remember the Easters of my childhood. Once, though, my mother and I are visiting her parents in Lemmon, and we go to church on Easter Sunday with my grandmother. I grumble over having to dress up and deliberately sing flat on the hymns, until my mother jabs me with her elbow.
After college, Manhattan, my first apartment. My roommate and I furnish it mostly with hand-me-downs from her family’s home on Long Island. The necessity of buying things – even salt and pepper shakers, or a small Oriental carpet – terrifies me. It seems risky, this pretense to adulthood. One Thursday night in spring, my roommate brings home some mescaline, a gift from another Julliard student. I am not much for drugs, except for a little pot, but I agree to take it with her on Friday night after work. For a time, it is a giddy high, and pleasant; from our little balcony we watch the lights change along West End Avenue and are unaccountably amused. But then she says something that seems sharp to me, and I’m afraid to reply. The clouds rolling in from the west, along the Hudson River, come too fast. They roil, coiling like snakes about to strike. As if they would tell me something, but in a language I don’t know.
I can’t look at her face, or my own face in the mirror. I can’t sleep; thoughts come too quickly, one one another. If I were a machine, I’d be a ticker-tape printing. I wonder if I am a ticker-tape; if everything about me, everything I thought I knew, is false. My life a pretense, an evasion – thoughts tick away, too fast – me as I want to be, not as I am. I get up, turn on a light, but don’t dare go outside. I sit at the card table we use for meals. I sit, holding on. I know that if I let go, even once, I will go to the balcony and jump to my death. I don’t know why this should be so, but it is so. I sit for hours.
When it grows light outside, I get up and go to the bathroom, clinging to the walls, still afraid to let go. I imagine that I am on a space walk, and my tether must not break. I am afraid to wake my roommate, afraid that she’ll be angry. I lie down in bed but am afraid to sleep. Later, she wakes up and wonders if she should take me to a hospital. No, I say. She cuts a grapefruit and hands half of it to me. I begin to cry, because I think she hates me, but now she wants to feed me. Not like the Jimmy Cagney movie, I say, where he grinds the grapefruit into a woman’s face, and I am crying. It’s a bad trip, she says. And I say, I guess so, and for the rest of the day she mothers me, watching me and feeding me and not going out, because she’s afraid to leave me alone. All that Saturday, we watch old movies. She makes popcorn and hot chocolate. We watch Kirk Douglas in Ulysses, which I think is the story of Jesus.
On Sunday I am better, but still shaky. You have to pull yourself together, she tells me. You can do it. We had planned to walk to a friend’s apartment, a horn player who lives with a woman named Barbara, a Rockette. As frightened as I am, I am not going to pass up the chance to meet a Rockette. The windows of the building across the street from her apartment are blind eyes that spark with malice; watching us, and mocking. It is difficult to be with people; the words they use, everything they do, has too much meaning; inside the poem of their lives. I can’t keep track of my own. I want to sleep. I am a graceless guest. I spill half a plate of food on the floor. No matter, she says. Barbara is a cheerful woman, and a good cook. She fills my plate again and says something that makes me smile for the first time in days. Happy Easter, she says. On Monday I am afraid to put on a pair of shoes. I stare at the shoes in my closet and am afraid of them all. I have to force myself to get dressed and take the bus to work. It is weeks before I can ride the subway without an offhand temptation to throw myself on the tracks. I write to a friend, “I think I need to live better, but I have to do things step by step. It is the journey of the embryo.”
I am working for the South Dakota Arts Council in a junior high school. An irrepressible seventh-grade boy who has for days been writing passionate poems about motorcycles and TransAms says to me during last period on Friday afternoon: “This is the best week we ever had in school. You’re here. At noon on Tuesday in the gym we had a guy from the L.A. Lakers. And on Thursday some convicts from the State Pen came to talk to us. And next week we’re off, for Easter.”
One bright Sunday morning, my husband and I are awakened by a knock on our bedroom door. It’s a small town, and sometimes we wake to find a friend sound asleep on the living room sofa, having wandered in after the bars closed. but it’s unusual for anyone to be knocking on our bedroom door. “Dave? Kathleen?” We recognize the voice, a cowboy friend, and we reply, sleepily, “Just a minute,” as we untangle bedsheets and pull on bathrobes.
He’s standing in our kitchen, a half-empty bottle of Canadian whiskey in one hand, a plastic bucket in the other. He says, “We had some yearling bulls that we had to cut to go to grass, and I thought, I sure would hate to see these big nuts go to waste. I cleaned ’em up; they’re ready to cook.” Our friends love my husband’s cooking, but this is the first time he’s been asked to prepare rocky mountain oysters for breakfast.
David decides to stir-fry them in the wok. I pour whiskey into three glasses and toast some of my home-made bread. There’s buffalo berry jam that my grandmother made, the last jar we have. “Hey, it’s Easter,” I say, “let’s celebrate,” and we have ourselves a feast.
It’s Palm Sunday at the abbey. The monks have invited their guests to join them in the procession into church. Four girls, their catechism teachers, and myself. It’s a rag-tag procession, and the children wave their palms self-consciously. No matter. It will have to do. The hour is on us.
At Mass I stand alongside the youngest girl. She stares at the celebrant as if at a flame, her eyes wander around the great candy box of a church, its pretty angels and painted vines, lilies spinning around the Christ Child. She seems to be too young for first communion, but she’s careful to do what everyone else does, which is mostly standing still.
Yet we move, and change. Her life crosses mine, and there is no name for it. The quantum effect. Communion. At about her age I refused to believe that Jesus dies; I wonder if I believe it yet. I wonder what she knows of death, if she, too, will run from pain, to a dark beyond telling, if she will find God there, for the touching and tasting.
The girl stares at her hands where bread has fallen as if from Heaven, and looks around wildly, face aflame. “Do I eat this?” she wonders, half-aloud. “Yes,” I whisper. “Yes.”
It’s been a rough winter. Medical, financial, emotional disaster that somehow we’ve come through. After weeks on the road as an artist-in-schools, I feel ready for a Holy Week, my first experience of the Roman Catholic Easter liturgy. My husband is at home, writing; he’ll be better off, he says, knowing that I’m here. My “I-survived-Catholic-school-and-won’t-go-near-a-Mass-ever-again” husband thinks I’m where I belong. He may be right.
Good Friday is stark, solemn, final. But on Holy Saturday the world seems expectant again. I’m delighted to find that the long story-telling session of the Vigil contains some of my favorite images from childhood – the parting of the Red Sea, and passage through the desert, following a fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.
The Vigil moves us through the night. I try to keep in mind what one monk has said to me, about not letting the self-voice take all the room inside me. Somewhere, Thomas Merton says that “simplicity is completely absorbed in listening to what it hears,” and for much of the night, I am a simple-minded listener.
Another monk, a liturgist, has suggested that I sit in the choir loft so that I have a good view of everything. Two monks join me there, and as there are three bells, they say, and only two of them, would I take one bell at the Gloria? In the chilly tower, they give me the rope for the smallest bell, which is probably the only one I can handle. “Be careful not to tip it,” one monk says, demonstrating. It is hard to see; his black habit merges with the shadows. There is no electricity in the bell tower, only the light of the full moon.
We return at the close of the Vigil, near midnight, and ring the bells for a long time. Through the frosty glass I can make out the lights of cars on the Interstate in the distance; I wonder if they can hear the racket we’re making, if someone is wondering what the bells are for.
Afterwards, the abbot invites me to the Easter party – beer, popcorn, candy, and good conversation until one in the morning. True celebration; maybe these people can enjoy Easter because they also observe Lent well enough to be happy to see it go. I have such a good time that I spend the rest of the night dreaming it all over again. This time there’s a monk at the party I’ve never seen before, and when I introduce myself, I’m surprised to see that he’s wearing gold vestments. He seems amused to meet me, amused also at my confusion. “Oh, I’m here all the time,” he says, waving his right hand as if this is of no consequence. “You just don’t see me.”
I wake refreshed, truly glad for the first time in months. At a late breakfast, the monks grumble over a full-page spread on the monastery in the local paper. “They make it look like we’re spiritual all the time,” one says. “Next time they come, we should make them take a picture of our pool table.” “I could always have them help me check the pregnant cows,” says the farm manager.
There is much teasing of one monk who’s been misquoted, so that he seems to be denying the Resurrection; the theologians of the monastery busy themselves with determining exactly which heresy is implicit in his remark. The reporter has also garbled the monastery schedule, so that it sounds as if the monks sleep all day and go to church all night. “Whatever,” says the liturgy director, glancing at his watch.