Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In which I gush, frankly. And voice confusion.

Why is it easier to write about whatever is going wrong in life?

Floating like scum on the surface of my life are a lot of complaints. Too tired, not enough time, writing goes poorly, etc etc and endless so forth. It’s easy, and shallow, and fills up the morning pages.

But it’s not even close to the deepest truth. The truth, dear reader, is that I am in love. Deliriously in love. With my little Madam. It’s so difficult for me to write about her without sounding maudlin. I’m struck dumb by her. Both TEG and I are. We say that we’re “besotted” which is exactly right, as it evokes two swains jockeying to present tributes to their fair lass. I watch the way the sunlight plays in her curly hair, the way her small hand turns the pages of her books so deftly. I'm fascinated by her beauty--she looks nothing like TEG and I, and yet, it's obvious that she's our child. I have the urge to take little nibbles of her, to consume her, to carry some essence of her inside of me again.

It amazes me that I can spend all day walking and playing with someone under two and find such pleasure in it. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of us in a store mirror, walking side by side, and I feel as though I’m expanding into some greater version of myself. I’m not such a good person that I deserve her.

And who else knows that we NEVER EVER pass a bookstore without going inside?

Not to say that it’s always perfection—she IS a toddler, after all, and has more than her share of toddler moments and tantrums. But, oh, the joy she brings to me keeps me in a haze of love for her.

Today, we went to our first toddler/mommy class. It was fascinating to watch all of the little ids negotiate such difficult (and counterintuitive) tasks as sharing, waiting. Patience. Madam struggled with these, as did all of the other children. But, once she was comfortable, I was able to step into the background and watch her labor with the slide (and triumph). I was able to see her clap and cheer for the other children who went down the slide, because, hey, slides are FUN whether you are the actor or spectator, apparently. It filled me with a feeling that I couldn’t quite name for a moment. Then it occurred to me. Hope. Being a mother is something I never thought I would be…I never thought I would WANT it, honestly. But being a mother has reintroduced me to hope. And I am so grateful.

So, like I said, maudlin. Apologies all around. But it needed to be said. I never knew I was capable of this—of this maturity, of this resourcefulness, of this pleasure. And it’s all because of her.

The other day, after yet another bookstore adventure (Madam made me go inside, I swear, I was going to go past it), I bought a few books. Feeling the need to confess, I called Jessie. She and I have a bit of a running joke that certain books will “save” us. The thing is, I DO think I believe that, at least a little bit. How else to explain that breath-catching little frission of excitement that comes over me when I see a new book that seems to promise a lesson that I’d otherwise have to wait my whole life to learn?

Not surprisingly, most of these books are writing books. And not surprisingly, they tend to lose their magic powers as soon as they enter my house and reunite with all of their writing book brethren.

I’m especially susceptible to this phenomena lately, because the novel has ground to a slow drag. I can’t seem to remember what excited me about my main character to begin with, and I’m firmly mired in the muck of the Middle.

This wonderful post likens the rewriting process to the seven stages of grief. Even though I'm still in the first draft stage, I could see the wisdom in that.

Writers, artists, lend me your tips. How do you jumpstart a stalled project?
Madam will have her speech evaluation on Friday. Wish us luck, please. I'm so nervous.


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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Rooted (a fiction)

Every Saturday my father picks up a new movie on his way home from the office.

This is not as easy as it sounds. My mother prefers psychological thrillers, while Dad likes action movies. But my Dadima likes the family dramas best, the ones where someone (or everyone) gets married at the end.

As in most things, Dadima tends to get her way.

“What a nice looking couple,” she sighed as the end credits rolled, after yet another three hours of dancing, dresses, and finally wedlock. I usually watched these movies with one eye on the screen and one on my book. It only takes about five minutes of viewing, at this point, to figure out the story. And it’s usually not as interesting as the one in my book. Dadima always wrings her hands when I say that. “How can a book compare to love, a family, a wedding?” I know she doesn’t expect an answer, perhaps because she knows she will not like mine.

“They’re actually married, you know.” One of the maids piped up as she pulled her angular body off the floor with a groan.

“As it should be.” Dadima was old fashioned; didn’t approve of actors and actresses being paired together when they weren’t really married. The maids grinned and giggled as they wandered back to the kitchen to finish their cleanup.

“Ah, what a lovely wedding that must have been,” said Mummy, surprising me. She normally didn’t care about such things. The movie must have affected even her tonight.

I know the wedding must have been like every other wedding, from the beginning of our time. The sacred fire, the seven cirles, the bride and groom walking solemnly, her bowed from the weight of her jewelry and modesty, a corner of his shirt tied to her sari. Joined.

But I do remember that star couple’s wedding. The streets around their wedding tent, only about ten minutes from our home, were thronging with people, shoulder to shoulder. Waiting for a glimpse of one or the other. I wasn’t one of them that day, but I have walked past their building. It's one of the tallest in our area of the city, white and straining past the smog towards the clearer air. They are a rare couple—both famous and equally as successful, with the wife still working after marriage.

They don’t spend much time in their penthouse nest; they are always working, traveling all over the world. Soaring above even as they claim that they are forever rooted to India.

Secretly, I admire them.

Dadima sat in her special chair, darning a pillowcase. It didn’t matter how often Mummy told her that we didn’t need her to do that, that we could just get new ones. Dadima said she couldn’t properly enjoy the movie without some bit of work for her hands to do. She put one hand on the top of my head. It felt heavy against my hair. “You shouldn’t read in this light, Ambika beta. You’ll spoil your eyes.”

Mummy yawned and got up too, her chuni dragging on the ground. “I’m too tired tonight.” As she walked past me, she patted my cheek and then did the same to the oversized graduation picture of my brother, who is off studying in America now. He has on his most studious face. The kind of face that a family can hang its fortune on.

This is the official version of my brother, rooted solid to the wall of home.

I have a picture of him in my room as well, just a snapshot, really, stuck into the corner of the mirror. Of him and his new friend, the impossibly named “Shakti” (hippie parents, says Sunil with a laugh). She has marigold hair on top of a skinny white neck. They are both laughing, shoulders touching. Compared to them, my face looks brown and ordinary, serious. Even when I smile, there's something tight and frowning there.

"Smile more, beta, be happy! You're so young!" says Dadima. "I loved your hair long," Mummy sighs. "I don't know about jeans for girls so much," Daddy says. And the maids say nothing, but I can feel them thinking.

Mummy frowns at the snap and says sometimes a boy needs to sow his wild oats. I wonder about those oats. Are they just blowing around, like dust? Or do they grow roots somewhere, against their will? But she just shakes her head sadly, brown hairs escaping from their tight bun to wiggle their agreement.

In the morning, after chai, Dadima says, “You’ll come to the temple with me today, to do puja?” But it’s not a question. It never is.

She holds onto my elbow as we weave ourselves through the moving pockets of space in the street. Her white sari flutters like quiet in the full-throated, dusty noise. People rush from the lane into the road, and back. They know exactly where they are going. Their feet and their ancestors' feet helped trample the soil into city. They belong, as much a part of this as trees in the jungle.

Our favorite rick driver is waiting at the corner. The rickshaw putters and purrs like a well-loved pet. “Ah, Dadiji, I’ve been waiting!” he says in mock reproach as we climb in. A blare of filmi music starts along with the rick. Another love song. He turns it off with a hasty apology as we go.

Cows walk placidly past us as we rock and jostle our way down the lane. They belong to the temple, cared for by the priests. They roam with the complacency of well-loved things, always knowing the way home, pulled there by invisible strings and the promise of food.

The temple is quiet for this time of day; just us and a few other aunties around Mummy’s age. While Dadima prays, I watch the curls of incense smoke swirl upwards towards the painted roof, before sinking back into the ground, pregnant with everyone’s prayers.

The gods and goddesses look poised for motion. Arrested midstep. I wonder if they prefer to sit here, waiting and watching, instead of rushing about everywhere. Perhaps they've had enough of our hectic life. Or, perhaps, being divine, they can do both.

I stand in front of Saraswati for a moment—always my favorite goddess. Only she knows about the fat envelope waiting for me at home, from Sunil. An application to attend Boston University. And a postcard showing a tree, carved up with all sorts of letters and sayings. The postcard says only, “To be rooted is to submit.” But I don’t know if I agree with that. The carvings don’t change the basic nature of the tree. It still stands above what was done to it. It didn’t submit to anyone.

Dadima creeps up next to me, slipping her hand in mine. A slender hand, bones and veins standing up in delicate relief. A hand that reminds me both of a bird’s claw and the branch it lands on.

“I’m ready to go,” she whispers. I nod, my mouth suddenly full of incense smoke and half-thoughts.

Back at home, later, I steal up to our rooftop garden—really more of a perch, with a few straggly plants and dusty flowers. But I never come up here for the greenery. No, the lure is the old fashioned swing, the swing where I love to sit and read, each sway easing me deeper into daydreams. But today I can’t concentrate on anything but the envelope in my hand, my brother’s jagged black writing. At the poor, proud tree.

You can’t see its roots. I wonder how far down they go.

Downstairs Dadima and Mummy and the maids are preparing dinner, chopping onions, simmering sauces, throwing fragment cumin seeds that pop into a pan already sizzling with oil. I should be down there, too, helping them.

But I’m not.

Instead, I am up here, watching the dying sun kiss the muggy air, licking the clouds from underneath. Saffron and marigold. From here, I can make out the star couple’s penthouse. It’s hard to imagine them in there. In my mind, they are always modern and free. Moving. Free to leave, and to return.

I move back and forth, back and forth, but always stay in place.

I swing, higher. The swing rocks but does not topple. It’s firmly rooted. The breeze threatens the papers on my lap.

But I do not allow them to fly away.
To sink into more roots, go here.


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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Finding Water check in, week 7 and 8

This is going to be short, most likely, as I seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere in this book and I’m now hopelessly behind.

It is probably a sign of my own state of mind lately that I found J.C.’s voice a little less morose this week. I have a bit of my own sadness licking around the edges of my life. Madam and I have not been getting along, and while I try to look at her tantrums as weather events, it’s been hard. It’s hard to be screamed at so many times a day by a child I love so much, knowing that she’s frustrated at her inability to really communicate with me, and not being able to help. The worry about her lack of words is beginning to hang in my apartment like low clouds. TEG thinks we should wait until she’s two to get her screened. I’d like to do it now. I think we’re both afraid of what we might find.

So, yes, tantrums and screaming here in Chez OHT. Help.

My morning pages (and I missed 4 days of them last week) are even boring to me lately. I completely relate to J.C.’s problems with self-pity, i.e. poor me, poor me, pour me a drink. When I’m unbalanced, not getting enough sleep, and not writing (more on that later) all of my most shadowy traits come forth. And leading the dysfunctional parade? Self-pity.

I’m working on it. Or rather, I would be working on it, if I knew how.

Today, I bought a book (have I mentioned my love for $1 used books?) about modern women writers. In the section on Anne Tyler, she mentions that she keeps photography books around her living room, in order to replenish her well. These days, artist dates are nonexistent. So, I’m looking for different ways to take mental trips. This sounds like a good plan. Normally, I fill myself up with words, glorious wonderful words, but I find myself longing for no-thought, for image. For something that lifts me out of myself.

Or I could just watch Zee TV and get a vicarious hit of India. I’ve wanted to write about India so many times here, but somehow the words never flow. Perhaps because my experience of India is intensely visual ecstatic visions—brilliant colors and whirling dancing to a bhangra beat that seems like my heart beating outside my body. Watching the mobile faces that stream by, unending humanity fluttering by in kurta pajamas, A melodic sea of words that I don’t always understand, leaving me free to imagine conversation and slang and histories.

See? That doesn’t even begin to describe it. Luckily, Maddy and Jessie do a much better job.

And that’s why I am loving the Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai wedding coverage—because it’s all taking place in neighborhoods where I have lived and walked, laughing with TEG’s cousins. Areas where I’ve sat, shaded from the sun, and had a veg sandwich and a mango juice. Areas where I’ve driven, late in the night, after a dissipated evening drinking coffee at one of the five star hotel restaurants and philosophizing while I shivered in the too-strong air conditioning.

So, all this to say that I didn’t really do much with these chapters. I may go back and try some of the divining rods. I have been writing letters to God in my morning pages lately. Slowly, slowly, I am trying to reconnect myself to my faith. I know it’s in there somewhere.

(Ed note: Blogger isn't letting me post a picture of the happy (and lovely) couple, so you can see them here.)


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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Secret Identity

(Ed. Note: This was inspired by Kate's amazing post.)

Being a stay at home mother can push the rest of you into the underground. The rest of me, what I used to consider the real me, becomes a secret identity.

It all starts when you are pregnant. Your body drowns in its new layers, one flowing over the other like sap. Oh, I loved it—I swung that big belly arund like a calling card—smiling shyly at the other pregnant women I encountered, and all of the mothers too. I was going to be a part of this vast sisterhood soon! Finally, I had figured out a way to wear my innermost experience for all to see.

Alas, it doesn’t last. Soon, the baby is born, and soon (well, sort of) your body goes back to some facsimile of itself. And you become invisible, a long shadow behind the main attraction, the star. The baby, of course. It happens. You expect it.

There are days I glory in my secret identity, smile knowingly at the most hardcore punk kid I see. Discomfiting her, because who am I? A woman neither young nor old. A mother. Completely normal-seeming. But my smile whispers something to her. I still feel like you, inside. I still feel 17 years old and rebellious and imaginative and artistic and promising! But of course, she can’t see that, and she walks on by.

My secret is safe.

But there are other days, oh, so many days, when all I want is to be seen. When I want the world to morph into a benign funhouse mirror that shows me as I would like to be—wiser, smarter, more creative, more attractive. More. Those are the days that I haunt my blog like a stalker, hugging my comments to myself, keeping obsessive tabs. Looking with an envious eye at sister bloggers who get more attention, more acclaim. More. I want this to remain a secret—even to myself. I want to be able to pretend innocence. But I cannot.

My secret is not safe.

And there are other days, when someone asks me what I do for a living and I hesitate before I answer, Oh, I stay home with my daughter. And I can read the translation of that on his face, Oh, she does nothing. She is nothing. His eyes glaze over, and just like that, I’ve been dismissed. I wonder if I should pull out some erudite fact, perhaps drop the name of a place I used to work. By then, he’s gone, convinced that he’s managed to get away from someone who has nothing to say beyond potty training and sleep deprivation. Convinced that he’d have more to stay to someone with a little more, you know, depth.

On those days, the past feels like a country I’ve never visited. Was it really me who went to college, who graduated? Was it really me who went to work every morning, who brought home a paycheck, who wore heels and dress pants and silk?

I’m not sure.

Some days the writing comes hard, or not at all, and it feels like I’m a secret to myself again. Like I’m pretending, the way I pretended to be a fairy secret agent ballerina Greek Goddess Queen. On those days I peel and peel myself, trying to find my identity. Sometimes, it works. And sometimes, I feel like I have nothing left to say beyond potty training and sleep deprivation.

I don't want my secrets to be safe anymore. I don't want to let other people push me into myself so that I can fit in their box of "stay at home mother" and be unseen.

I want my identity to gleam in the light. So that my Madam, her own identity still a secret being held by the future, can see me, all of the innermost me, and learn.

For more deep secret identities, go here.

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Wanted: One Muse

It appears that my inlaws made off with my muse—perhaps luring her away with promises of a lovely sari. She’s always been a bit vain, that one.

Or maybe she’s off in a corner, sulking after being all-but-ignored this week. I didn’t think it would happen. I allow myself to dream the same dream whenever relatives come by—that I’ll have time to myself, time to write without the fire at my back of knowing that, at any moment, Madam might need me.

It never works out that way.

My inlaws are nice enough people—stereotypically Indian in their love of elaborate meals (seriously, I sent TEG a text message at 10am one of the first mornings saying simply “three dishes made already”) and loathing of the snowy weather. They prowled around my too-small apartment, alternately playing with Madam and bemoaning the cold. Thank goodness I had the foresight to hook up Zee TV, thus allowing them to follow all of their favorite (albeit cheesy) Indian soap operas without a break in the action.

They are also stereotypically Indian in their deep grained distrust of a need of “privacy.” If I were to ease myself into another room for a moment, say, to sneak a quick peek at my manuscript, inevitably a relative would troop in, asking if “everything was fine? Are you hungry?”

So. Not so much with the writing at all this week. It always amazes me how quickly it can all be snuffed out, how fragile and tentative this new writing-self of mine is. One week can feel like I’m teetering on the brink of that old void of wordlessness where I lived for so long.

I hate that.

My imagination is an old jalopy, rusting by the side of the road. Fly droppings caking on the blistering paint. I try to kick start it, using my favorite methods. Beloved comfort reading, blogs, Sunday Scribblings.


So back to the comfort reading I go. Did you all know there is an annotated version of Anne of Green Gables? If you are a fan (and you MUST be. No, really.) go check it out.

Finding the Anne books was like seeing myself in print for the first time. Not the workaday, commonplace self. None of the surface details match—I don’t have red hair (although I’ve always longed for it), I’m not an orphan (thank heavens). But…Anne reflected something essential in me—celebrated all those parts of me which usually met with an eyeroll from my more Marilla-like parents—the nonstop talking (and the allusions to books I’d never read and words I’d never heard spoken), the naming of things all around me.

I always found Anne’s rapturous pleasure in the beauty all around her inspirational. I knew just how she felt. Sure, she spoke of Lombardies and birch paths and Lakes of Shining Waters instead of faces streaming past on a busy city street, music trailing behind cars like a perpetual parade. She didn’t see the houses clustered on top of each other the way I did, the jagged skyline jutting into the sky, those buildings and their shadows surrounding me like benevolent mountains.

But it was beautiful to me, probably because it was all I knew. I don’t think you have to teach children to love their surroundings, to see them as beautiful. I think, alas, that too often people learn to be ashamed of them as adults.

While in college, I mentioned to a friend how much I loved the energy of Harvard Square, because it echoed something of the place where I’d grown up. She replied, disdainfully, that she thought Harvard Square was a slum.

Anne looked at her small town of Avonlea and saw beauty. I looked at my big so-called slum and saw the same.

Something I need to remember today, when it’s my mind that is the slum, sullen and unwilling to give me the soul food I need.

And so I sit, and wait for Myrtle, my muse, to return, perhaps draped in clouds of red sari glory and brimming with stories to tell.


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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A breath of celebration

Writing in my morning pages this morning was an exercise of me wrestling uncomfortably with novel issues of form and point of view and those damned myths which haunt me but REFUSE to get into their rightful spaces...

Then I took a breath, stopped and stared at the passionate squiggle of my words on the page. One question after another--all reminding me that I am a beginner, that I am confused, that not-knowing can be damned unpleasant.

But last year, when I started this blog, the big questions were COULD I write? WAS I ever going to be a writer? Now, the questions have shifted to specifics--about craft, about characters and themes, and scheduling and time and tired fingers. Somewhere along the way, the distant, misty goal became a daily, present reality. Frustrating, but like with the Madam, SO much better than what came before that I can barely contain it.

The earlier questions about WILL I? CAN I? have been answered. I will, and I can, and I AM.


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Monday, April 02, 2007

Finding Water, Check in, Week 6

I had to take Madam to the doctor today because of something called "Nursemaid's Elbow". We were playing around and then I heard a small sickening little "crack, crack" followed by her wailing. I thought maybe it was just like when you crack your knuckles or something, but grew concerned when nursing, Wonder Pets, nothing could stop her crying. And every movement seemed to be causing her pain.

It snapped back into place by itself right before we got to the doctor. She's fine now, thank goodness. I'm the one feeling a little weak-kneed. I could have broken my adored little Madam's arm.

So, this is my public service announcement. If you are playing rough with an under-three year old, please do not yank on his/her arm.

Onward to the check in...
About four years ago, my eldest sister (Lawyer Sister, aka the Happy Pagan) and I went to Omega to attend a workshop with Julia Cameron. Upon the end of the workshop, my sister commented, “I don’t know. I liked it, but I guess I thought creative people would be happier. More together, somehow.”

Her words drifted back into my mind this week, after reading another difficult chapter of Finding Water. J.C. was obviously going through something of a depression while writing this, and I find myself both comforted by the fact that she could still produce something while in that state, and feeling like I want to flee her. Which is my long way of explaining that I didn’t really do many of the exercises in this chapter, since I only skimmed it once.

One of things I DID do, and in fact do all of the time, was re-read a favorite children’s book—my Artist’s Date. While growing up, this book, and the others in this series, were fantasies for me. I had forgotten how very much I wanted to perform as a kid—to be outstanding in such a physical way. I think its because acting, dancing, singing, painting are so OBVIOUSLY themselves. Whereas writing…well, you could be doing your homework, writing a letter, typing “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” again and again. The other arts have legitimacy in my dramatic family that writing doesn’t quite command.

I think that’s why I love to blog—it’s my type of performance art!

A quote that caught my eye is “Remember that too much information can dampen the imagination.” I certainly remember this when I’m trying to tell Madam something specific about trees and flowers. I’ve always been a city girl, but I feel the need to know more about nature. Maybe another children’s book is the remedy for this as well.

This week I’ve felt a little inhibited on the page. Still writing in drips and drabs, adding to the novel ever so slowly. I long for one big breakout day, when the words flow over the dam of me, when it feels like I’m on the right track. In part, this might be because I am reading a few writing books while I write. While I think the books have wonderful, necessary information (especially this one), my brain just freezes up when I read them. When I write, I start to think “Is this enough conflict? Should I put the reversal in here? And what about the epiphany? Is it being foreshadowed? Is this what the book means by tension? What about description? Are my people just floating in space? Is this scene ratcheting up the stakes?” And then I just grind to a halt. And the thing is…all of those questions are valid, but when I read about all that, the words all turn into vapor.

So I sneak away and cheat on my novel with the short little pieces (like the one below for SS) and feel happy again. But always, the nagging feelings that I don’t REALLY know how to write a novel. How to learn? The books are helpful, but not helping.

I think I need to spend this week reading more novels. Any suggestions? First person, with a bit of a complicated structure, perhaps referencing a well-known story, myth, fairy tale, or religious theme?

MP: seven out of seven, but I did cut them short (2 pages) on Saturday. Madam was fussy.

Artists date: see above.

Walk: As always, slowly and with the Madam. Once my inlaws come next week (pray for me), maybe I’ll be able to go out for walks by MYSELF while she stays with them.

Yeah, right.

So, since the TEG contingent will be here all of the next week, I might not be able to check in. Have a wonderful, and productive, week!


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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: Deepest, Darkest (a fiction)

“Of course you are coming with us to church.” Dad said in his most reasonably threatening voice. He was walking around my room, briskly snapping the shades open, already dressed in a crisp white shirt and black pants that reminded me with a start that he was still a handsome man. Of course, what he is forgetting is that I’m in college now, just home for the weekend, well outside his usual jurisdiction.

“Screw that.” I mutter and bury my face into my pillow like the archetypal teenager I’m always trying to be.

“Ooh, Sonia said a bad word!” said my little brother, who came to his archetypal little-annoying-brotherness naturally. He was hopping around the room with one leg of his dress pants on and one leg off. His dress shirt and vest made an interesting juxtaposition with his Underoos.

My two other sisters, Cecila and Carolina, are chasing him around and trying to get their own dresses on at the same time. My mother had a weakness for fancy names. It’s why my poor brother is named Simon Bolivar. Yeah, no one ever calls him that.

It looked like I was the last to know about this little excursion.

“We haven’t gone in over a year. Why start now?” I sat up in bed. Obviously, a long leisurely morning wake up was not going to happen for me today. And I really needed it too. Last night had been a Marty party, which meant hours of cheap beer and intense talk about the Ultimate meaning, the Ultimate responsibility for everything. The death of God. It all made me tired. God and I were through, true, but that didn’t mean I wanted Him dead. That was an opinion I usually kept to myself though. It had been hard enough to convince Marty and his friends that I was no longer That Good Catholic Girl.

My father was still bustling around the room, helping my brother settle into his pants, tossing instructions over his shoulders to my sisters. “Nothing too revealing! And no makeup! This isn’t a dancing party, you know.”

“What the heck is a ‘dancing party’?” Cici wanted to know. “Don’t people always dance at parties?”

“Not necessarily.” I replied, thinking of the party just last night. “Sometimes people just, you know, talk—explore ideas. Learn stuff.”

She made a face. “Sounds boring. Like school.” I ruffled her hair. “Some of us like school.” That’s why I had chosen one four states away, after all. I loved school.

“OK, everyone ready?” Dad asked, his voice trailing off from the kitchen where he was, no doubt, having another cup of resuscitating coffee. I could use a cup myself, but I knew better than to ask him about that. “Sonia, I said NOW.”

We hadn’t gone to church since the funeral. Not all together like this. Every now and again, older tias would come by and swoop the kids together and go. They knew better than to ask him to come along. And by then, I was already at school.

But I recognized that tone. That “I am the final authority” voice. And I was too tired to argue with that. So I pulled on my clothes from last night, still scattered around the room. Black leather skirt, black tights, black boots, black oversized t-shirt.

When he saw me come out of the bedroom, he scowled, but said nothing.

We lived close to St. Theresa's—about three blocks away. Carolina and Cici buzzed around me, talking about school and boys with rushed words that expected me to disappear before the end of the story. Simon held my hand, and I felt unsteady. Miscast. Not for the first time, I wondered if Daddy felt the same way—like he was playing a role with no script, and a director who liked to point and laugh.

The church loomed over us quickly enough. They’d done some renovating—slapped a new coat of paint on it. Walking in, I felt like a scab crossing a picket line. Like I was sneaking in.

I saw so much they had changed. It wasn't the slightly shabby, Gothic style church I remembered. Everything was brighter, more modern, golden woods and endless rows of stained glass to catch any errant ray of sunshine. Daddy led me proudly to one of those windows and said, “Look, this one is in honor of your mother.” I squinted at the sign below. In memory of… and a long list of names. One of those was Sara Lopez. My mother.

“So, basically, a piece of St. Jude’s foot is in memory of my mother?” I asked and immediately wished I hadn’t. Already I was wishing I hadn’t come. She seemed to be everywhere here—in the rows of swaying candle flames. In the bustle of the entering crowd. There was too much of her here.

I know when I say “church music” you are probably thinking maybe an organ, or a piano, and some dour faced matron singing soprano. But that was so not our church. Next to the altar area was a bandstand, with a piano, drum kit, electric guitar, bongos, and room for a full choir. I could see them all setting up, shouting greetings to each other while the musicians warmed up. I remembered seeing her up there too.

The church grew packed. Easter Sunday. I don’t know how I could have forgotten. The mass of people pressed against me, people I knew and people I didn’t. People who looked at me, and then looked away. I didn’t want to imagine what they remembered.

“So, it’s still like a fashion show.” I whispered to Carolina. “Look at everyone checking everyone else out! It’s so hypocritical.”

Carolina looked at me strangely. “I think it’s pretty. Like a party for God.” Her eyes, so like Mom’s, shut me up.

And then the drums banged and the guitar wailed and people began to sing. My little brother and sisters swayed and jumped to the music, the way I used to. The sound was crushing me down, pushing me back, singling me out. It was one long sustained aria of joy, filling everything, stealing the air. I didn’t belong here anymore. Maybe I never had. I had to get out.

I stumbled past them all, staggering out the wide doors into the cool, empty foyer.

I wondered if they had changed it—the small alcove where I used to go with Mom, and then by myself when she couldn’t move anymore. But no, there it was, the deepest, darkest corner of the church. A stone dug out, carved into the wall. A shrine to the Blessed Mother. I always liked it because it was apart from everything else. Private. The one place the sun couldn't really reach. The air was thick was dust motes from the clouds of incense and the smell of burning wax.

Back when I was religious, I used it as a type of wailing wall, scribbling down fervent prayers and stuffing them into the crevices of the rock wall. My finger traced along one of the sides, wondering, and I actually found the crumpled paper within it. I knew what it said. What they all said. Please don’t let her die.

And then Dad came out. “I knew you would be here. She said this was your place. Both of you.”

We stood there side by side, quiet, but I could hear the crescendo of the music crashing just on the other side of the door.

“I shouldn't have gone away to school. I’m sorry I wasn’t here.” I said. The words that had been aching inside my brain for so long, finally said. He put his arm around me. “Please. She called family in like ten states and four countries when you got into that fancy school. She would have killed you!” I wanted to say so much, I couldn’t say anything. So I just nodded.

After a few moments, Dad said, “I wonder if it’s easier for them, the other kids. They don’t have to push her so down deep the way we do. They can just be." He paused, as if waiting for my response. When none came, he continued. "I don’t know what I am looking for here either, m’hija. Maybe that’s the only way to look.” He kissed my forehead and went back into the main church.

I leaned my head against the coolness of the jagged rock and remembered my mother. Remembered her encouraging me to come here even when she couldn’t. To stay soft, and open. “You’re gonna need more than just Dad and the family, Sonia. Your faith is big. And I want you to stay like that. But you need to remember that deepest doesn’t have to mean darkest. If all you see is darkness when you go deep, then you have to go still deeper. Because the inside, Soni, the deepest inside of you is joy.”

“I don’t know that, Mommy.” I answered her now, in a whisper. “I don’t know if I can look there without you.”

The hymn ended with a triumphant burst, and then raucous applause. I peaked through the glass door at my family, at the back of their heads. I imagined their faces. Carolina with Mom’s mouth and eyes, exactly, and Cici with Mom’s face, and widow’s peak. And Simon with her hair color, like burning Champagne. Like my own.

And Dad, trying to build something new from the outside in.

I looked at the paper, now warm from my sweat, ink smeared on my palm. Please don’t let her die. That had been my prayer, and it still was.

Inside, the congregation chanted, one incantation in many voices, praying words I still knew so well. I took a deep breath, and pushed the door open, allowing the rough music to welcome me back like seawater.
To go deeply into darkness, go here.


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