We Are All Immigrants

Several years ago I had the humbling honor of sharing my journey as a convert to the Orthodox Church with former my parish, a large cathedral in Washington DC. Here are some of my remarks:

Being a part of this family, and having the Orthodox Church as my spiritual home, comes at the end of a long road of hope and longing for me. For so many of you, the depth of your faith and your commitment to the Church—indeed, your experience of the grace of Jesus Christ—are closely tied to the stories of your immigrant ancestors and how they came to this country: the yia yia who was once a scared little girl crossing the Atlantic, the uncle who swept diner floors from dawn until dark and managed to squirrel away millions.

As a child growing up in a little Southern town, I was always fascinated with the stories of immigrants who came to the United States in big ships and then lived in close-knit neighborhoods where houses, churches and synagogues, and stores all were in one block, and everything, I imagined, smelled like hot sweet bread from the bakery down the street.

I realize a lot of what I just mentioned about Greeks and immigrants is cliché, and that your own family stories are entirely distinctive. But there are some elements common to all immigrant stories, that explain why they have such a powerful hold on us: the experience of losing a homeland, the need to go to a new place and to find a new way to live, the experience of pain, uncertainty, and fear about the future, and the reliance upon faith and tradition to navigate difficult times.

[Read more...]

Haunted by Phantom Limbs

One such patient, under my care, describes how he must “wake up” his phantom in the mornings: first he flexes the thigh-stump towards him, and then he slaps it sharply—“like a bay’s bottom”—several times. On the fifth or sixth slap the phantom suddenly shoots forth, rekindled, fulgurated, by the peripheral stimulus.
—Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

It is a great temptation, when a part of you has been cut away, to welcome numbness where it may be found. Perhaps what has gone missing is your leg, as with the patient Oliver Sacks describes in his fascinating book about the intersections of psyche and flesh. Perhaps it is a spouse you have buried, or a child. Maybe it’s a friendship that went awry, neither of you knowing why, only that you don’t talk any more, that the very thought of talking makes you cringe.

To have much in life, as most of us do, is almost certainly to lose some of it before we are done.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson are wrong; what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. What doesn’t kill you may cripple and embitter and alienate you. The question, I suppose, is whether you will live, or rot. [Read more...]

The Work Awaits, Part Two

Almost exactly two years ago, I made my Good Letters debut with a post titled “The Work Awaits,” in which I wrote about my vocational insecurities and obstacles, and how living out my life as a writer hasn’t felt the way I expected it to.

This sequel is long in coming, and it’s my last post as a regular contributor.

The two years that have marked my tenure here happened to coincide with one of the most difficult periods of my life. I’ve used this space to work through many of the puzzles I found myself facing at midlife.

I’ve written about my father, depression, diabetes, not being a mother, Jazzercise, John Mayer, and Peanut M&Ms. Mostly I’ve wondered: Am I doing what I’m meant to be doing, in the way I’m meant to be doing it?

And also: Is this all there is? [Read more...]

Monks, Mandalas, and Faith Healing

After the initial cleansing ceremony, they worked in silent concentration. Hour after hour they knelt in their maroon robes and yellow shawls, bent over their meticulous labor, creating designs and pictures with brightly colored sand.

They were Tibetan Buddhist monks from Dehra Dun, India, making a stop in my hometown as they toured America. They had set up in the chapel at Randolph College and spent a week creating an elaborate Medicine Buddha mandala.

From the reading I’ve done about the mandala, I understand that it is believed to represent, and take part in, a great multi-layered reality that consists of countless circles—a nucleus in a cell in an organism in an ecosystem on the earth in the solar system in the Milky Way, etc.

The word mandala itself comes from Sanskrit and means circle or completion. The purpose of a Medicine Buddha mandala is to heal by restoring completion, or wholeness. [Read more...]

To See Her More Clearly

Growing up, my siblings and I were left on our own to figure out how things worked. I learned what a condom was from the dictionary. I studied the secrets of applying lipstick and eyeshadow from Seventeen, and figured out how to ride the bus from our house to the mall. I read our dusty copy of Martha Stewart’s Christmas over and over, hoping to make those gold leaf gingerbread houses someday, somewhere.

I was desperate to learn how to live, how to make a life under the weight of the knowledge my mother tried to slough off—the missing history of her mother, the unhappiness of my parents’ marriage, the family stories she held so tightly to herself, to us.

“I don’t know how to be a mom,” she wept to me, “so I have no idea of who I am supposed to be.”

And so I tried to do things that I thought mothers were supposed to do: I cleaned house, heated frozen pizza for dinner, sorted laundry. I taught my sister how to put on makeup, and tried to keep track of my brother’s whereabouts. I wondered why my mother couldn’t learn from my example, or why she couldn’t stay home from the bar long enough to simply watch how it worked.  [Read more...]