Sunday, December 05, 2010

Interested In Becoming A Catholic?

Here's the second part of Girl On Fire. Thanks for the sweet words on the first half. I'm behind in that end of the semester way on everything so thanks for the patience on things like returning emails, book orders, and matters of a dark nature. Ha! Information on the new chapbook is forthcoming -- I'm taking pictures of Baby Grouchie reading through the poems as he is wont to do. The full collection will be out soon as well so as soon as that's ready, I'll let you guys know. Thanks as always for reading! Happy Sunday . . .

Girl On Fire

I wanted to kill myself, but I couldn't decide what to wear read another student near the end of the semester. I thought about Kelly saying the rosary and felt relieved that someone was praying during class. Seven of my students had been institutionalized at one point in their lives and much of workshop included lively debate about what and what was not standard procedure for mental hospitals in the eighties, the decade most of the students had done their tours of duty. The class contrasted sharply with the RCIA classes I took from Deacon John every Wednesday night in the rectory basement where my fellow initiates debated the finer points of annulments as a prerequisite for taking Holy Communion. Everyone was there because they wanted their marriages recognized by the Church. The anomaly, I had chosen to convert at the behest of a small sign that said Interested In Becoming Catholic? It seemed I was.

I saw Kelly twice after the class ended. She invited me to Olive Garden for lunch during Christmas break where she stared into the bottomless basket of breadsticks and told me how she looked forward to death because she could meet her most intimate lover, Jesus. In my ragtag explorations of garden-variety Protestantism, I had never heard the Good Lord referred to as a lover. I looked at Kelly who during class had appeared both as a very young girl and an old woman as if she were one of those paintings where you could see either a skull or a rose depending on your point of view. Our minestrone soup arrived and Kelly said she loved Olive Garden because you could eat as much as you wanted, an odd comment in light of her gaunt appearance.

She had been very kind about my sparse props at the Misery, noting that she liked that my mattress had no bed frame because it would enable her elderly dog to hop on it with ease. So this I thought was what it mean to be Christ-like -- to see what other people lacked through the scrim of love.

I became a Catholic that April, six months after my mother died of cancer and one month after my best friend Hank had lost his life to a blood clot following surgery to repair his broken leg. I felt glad to have chosen a religion that recognized the value of suffering. Say the word and I shall be healed, I said before my first communion. I had invited Kelly to my baptism, but her mother refused to allow her to stay out after nine at night. Her only hope to free herself of her Grey Gardens-like existence lie in her plan to become an elementary school teacher thereby securing a modicum of financial stability that would allow her to live on her own.

Two years after the workshop, I moved offices and the boxes had been dumped into a recycled bin by an overzealous janitor. Kelly paid me a surprise visit, informing me that she had obtained her degree and would start teaching in the fall.

"Do you still have the boxes?" she asked.

I froze, not knowing what excuse I could given. I was having a hard time of making sense of my own fragile psyche -- two deaths and the end of a long-term, dead-end relationship had left me overextended, raw, and anxious. My solace had taken the form of saying fifty-four day novenas on a rosary not unlike the one Kelly had used in my class.

"It's okay if you don't. I just wanted to take them to a field and set them on fire. I wanted to watch my old self burn. Like a girl on fire."

I told her that the boxes had been damaged in my storage unit by a storm. I couldn't bear the thought that she might think I didn't appreciate her gift, an offering to the gods of writing. She had entrusted me with the most damaged parts of herself and now they were being recycled. It didn't have the poetry of an act of God.

She smiled. "Then Jesus took care of it for me."

Her lover, I thought. She smiled like a bride who just found out her groom had built a house for her. She walked out of my office, and a month later, my dad died in a plane crash where his friend flew a two engine Cessna into a power line. Dad's body had burned, and he had to be identified by his dental records. All my pretty ones, I thought as I went to the crash site and collected some charred dirt in a Ziploc.

That week, I was scheduled to move out of the Misery into a beautiful little duplex near Lake St. Clair. I still didn't have much in the way of possessions, but I bought a fire-proof safe for the dirt and pictures and little gifts from my mother, Hank, and my dad. It didn't dawn on me that I now had my own version of Kelly’s box until I moved a couple of weeks behind schedule. Nobody wanted to touch my safe after they found out what it contained so I strapped it in the passenger seat of my car and drove it to my new home. No matter how hard you try to strip everything away, some burdens could never be set on fire, I realized, and you must carry them on your own.


Cheri said...

Wow. This is purely filled with emotion.

Tim said...

Hi Michelle,
I think this story ranks as one of your best! Really a masterful piece of writing!!

Charles Gramlich said...

I think the Catholic church does indeed understand suffering. I'm not much of a practicioner anymore but I still consider myself a Catholic.

jodi said...

Hi Babe, I am a Catholic since birth. I am fascinated by the suffering and martyrdom of the saints. How about those nuns that starved themselves for their faith. I think the phenom is called 'holy anorexia' or 'hysterical anorexia'. Crazy but intruiging.

Shea Goff said...

my first thought was wow.

then I came here and saw that it was Cheri's as well.

but it is truly all I can think to say.

the walking man said...

"some burdens could never be set on fire, I realized, and you must carry them on your own."

Yeup that is a very Catholic attitude but then being a excommunicated Catholic I get to leave the baggage at the station. or was it me that excommunicated them...oh well either way the bags stay on the platform.

Rob said...

great post michelle. just wrote about becoming catholic myself in my last post. how ironic!

Anonymous said...

A janitor didn't "dump" Kelly K's journals and medical records. You abandoned them, left them in a filing cabinet drawer in the tiny adjuncts' office in B Building, Center Campus (the drawer had your name on it). I found them, began reading at random the tortured thoughts of this deeply troubled woman. I felt the records deserved more respect than you had given them, so I put them in a large box and carried them to my car. After skimming the journals -- did you know Kelly had taped rosaries to some of the pages? She taped other things as well, but I'll not mention them here -- I disposed of most of them eventually, but I still have two in my possession. Kelly wanted someone to write her story. I wrote it.

Michelle's Spell said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for the rescue of the records. I didn't know where they went and assumed they'd been dumped when I left. This essay is meant as a tribute to the wonderful kind spirit of Kelly and as a chronicle of my own failure of generosity in response to such an offering.

Anonymous said...

Powerful work--I remember this title being mulled over years back.

Can't ever begin to tell you how sorry I am for my own failure of character in the face of your generosity.