The Appalachian Purgatorio

The Appalachian Purgatorio March 20, 2021

Friday was Saint Joseph’s Day, so I prayed to him as I walked downtown to the bank. I took out a cashier’s check for the first time in my life. I put the check in my purse loose, because I’ve never thought to buy a wallet.

I walked to the church to say “thank you” and to pray that nothing would go wrong the next day. They were tuning the organ up in the loft, as I sat in the front– key by key, pipe by pipe, one loud sharp cacophonous blare after another. Nothing sounds grander than a really good piper organ. Nothing sounds worse when it’s not what it should be, than a pipe organ does. It was pandemonium, so noisy that I couldn’t hear myself pray, which is a good way to pray on occasion.

This was the church where Rosie was baptized nine years ago, in late Advent, when I was so cloudy with PTSD that I barely knew where I was. The second to last time I ever saw my parents. That was where I nursed her in the pew while sobbing and inwardly railing at God for the rape and for stranding me here in poverty.

After I was done praying, I walked across downtown, taking the shortcuts down alleys and across gravel parking lots. Steubenville’s pavement is pockmarked and scarred; you could break an ankle if you don’t look watch your step. But I’m so used to it.

I kept a running commentary in my head as I went along: This is where we had to sit for an hour at the CAC to get assistance so the gas wouldn’t be shut off. This is where I carried Rosie down to Catholic Charities so the water wouldn’t get shut off. This is where she was so exhausted she threw a tantrum and the lady with the Rosary shouted insults at me. This is where I sat down on the asphalt on a stifling day, to rest in the shade of a brick wall, and a volunteer from The Friendship Room found me and brought me cold water.  This is where I cried. This is where I cried. This is another spot where I cried. 

The Ohio Valley is the harshest of places. There are countless stories a hundred times worse than mine. If all the tears that all the desperate people had ever cried in Steubenville were to materialize at once, I’m sure they would flood the Ohio and drown downtown, then rise up over the cliffs to engulf LaBelle and finally the university campus.

I have prayed for that to happen, as I’ve cried.

This place is hell on earth.

I went home on the bus, humming an old spiritual to myself. “This may be the last time. This may be the last time, baby. This may be the last time. May be the last time, I don’t know.”

Today was a feast day of sorts, though not a liturgical one. It’s the birthday of Fred Rogers, whose name I remember in my litanies. I once had a dream that Fred Rogers was driving me to Sunday Mass, so it felt portentous that I was going to buy a car on his birthday. Two of my friends helped: one drove us there in her van, and another rode with me on the way home so that she could help me get the two hour drive back from the dealership, since it was my first time driving my own car and I didn’t know the roads. I hadn’t driven since last October, when I finished the lessons Rosie’s godparents bought for me. A friend loaned us the money at no interest, since we’d never be able to pass a credit check. The stimulus check paid for the insurance.

It’s probably foolish to buy a car right now. We’re just a tiny bit above the poverty line; we’re still just one wrong step away from ruin every month. We still live on tips. We don’t have any savings and maybe we never will. Cars are a money pit. But this was the first chance we’ve had to own one in the fourteen years we’ve been in Steubenville, so I bought it.

I am so used to walking around Steubenville on the verge of tears, trying to catch the elusive bus that only comes once an hour. I am so used to nothing going right. The whole time I was riding with my friends to buy the car, I was in denial that this could possibly work out.

And now I have a car.

We drove back to Steubenville along the wine-dark Ohio, past the noxious smokestacks and the heaps of jet-black coal, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the most destructive chaos in the most beautiful mountains in all the world.

I’m still a little dazed.

I came here in fall of 2006, a victim of spiritual abuse though I didn’t know it at the time, loathing myself more than I can express, thinking it would be two years of graduate school and then I’d move to a big city. But I didn’t. I got married, I came down with a chronic illness, I ended up trapped here in poverty. I found myself with a blog on Patheos because a former editor liked how snarky I was on Facebook. The anniversary of my blog’s first post was almost exactly five years ago today.  I threw myself into writing because it was the only thing I knew how to do, and I work hard every day at writing. I pass around a tip jar periodically to see if anyone values my writing enough to keep my light bill paid so I can turn the computer on and write more– and people do. Every year we step a little bit closer to not poor anymore. And now I have a book out, and another one coming out in a month.

I’ve needed so much help along the way, it seems embarrassing to act as though I did this. But I have done a lot.

Here is a truth that you need to know: If you’ve been abused, if you’ve been traumatized, if you’ve been broken in some way that you used to be whole, you will fantasize about being rescued. You’ll imagine that someone is coming to be a hero and take you away from it all to a place that you can rest and heal. You believe that, not because you’re foolish, but because you’re wise. You believe that because you have a conscience and a sense of justice. It ought to be true that for every person who is in trouble, there is a hero who will rescue them and take them away to a healing place. That’s what the world is supposed to look like. You are right.

Unfortunately, the world is not as just or as wise as you are. The world is brutal. People don’t do what they ought to do. A tragic amount of the time, you will have no one to rescue you. You’ll have to do it yourself. That’s a realization that is more traumatic that I can express: you ought to be rescued, but you won’t be. The pain of that realization is so deep you could die from it. Part of you does die, inside. It dies and descends into hell and I’m not sure exactly when it rises again. But when it’s dead, the rest of you can become the hero that rescues you. And that won’t happen all at once. It won’t be poetic and it won’t usually be exciting. But bit by bit, you’ll find an opening, a way to exist. And along the way, you’ll discover that you are heroic, and you will discover heroes like you who actually will help– not the dramatic rescue you wanted, but help along the way. Someone who will give you a job. Someone who will help you fill out forms. Someone who will let you stay the night on their sofa. Someone who will teach you to drive. Someone who will drive with you to get the car. That kind of thing. You will have to be the hero, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a supporting cast.

You cannot do what you have to do without their help, but you’re the one who’s got to do it.

And then you’ll discover how courageous and powerful you are.

And then you’ll discover that it wasn’t hell, it was more like purgatory, and you came out of the fire somebody better than you were.

And then you’ll find a way to be a hero for somebody else.

It won’t be the life you meant to have, but it won’t be the life of agony you think it will be. It will be something different from both of those.

That was what I thought to myself as we drove home– home, on the bank of the wine-dark Ohio, through steam and coal and cruelty and despair. Not the place I ever thought I’d call home, but the home I’ve made in Appalachia where the mountains are more beautiful than anywhere else in the world.

And just for a moment, it seemed like Heaven.




Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy. Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.



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