Cutting Away the Noise

Fifteen years ago, there was no end to the noise. It took a cutting to get me to silence.

I worked twelve-hour days and longer in an aircraft hangar on a flight line of hundreds of helicopters with the cacophony of auxiliary power units, the collision of metal, and rotor blades beating the air outside, sounds so loud earplugs and noise-canceling helmets were required.

After my shift I would climb into my car and turn on the radio, classic rock or country at a moderately high volume, and drive home to my condo. There I turned on CNN while making something simple for dinner. I watched the thirty-minute circuit and then left it on for company.

Other noise and other stories ensured I didn’t go too far into my own deadening loneliness. I found silence terrifying, though I didn’t see it that way then. I liked motion, and noise, and doing things. I talked a lot. That’s where I saw and added value, where my sense of self worth lay. [Read more...]

Holy Water

One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.”
–St. Bernadette

My daughter just finished a week at our local Catholic school’s day camp. She came home with a crèche she made from a shoebox, a St. Brigid’s cross of pipe cleaners, and a plastic bottle of holy water, blessed by the deacon.

“It’s not from Lourdes,” the catechist told us, apologetically. For Catholics, the spring at Lourdes—dug by the bare hands of St. Bernadette at the urging of Our Lady— is the champagne of holy water. I think the batch my daughter brought home actually came from the water fountain in the school hallway. I was sitting out there with my toddler when the volunteers filled the plastic basin.

My own elementary school was named for Our Lady of Lourdes, and Mary was our patron and mascot to the point of insanity. My memories of religious education consist almost entirely of stories of Marian apparitions and miracles. Even slumber party games of Bloody Mary conjured images of a glowing lady in a cave, whispering secrets. One of my best friends had an actual glow-in-the-dark Mary I made her hide in a drawer when I slept over. [Read more...]

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...]


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