Confessions of a Nun Manque, by Mary Elizabeth Parker

Mary Elizabeth Parker

I’ve always craved a place where the world can’t get at me. A few days at a convent that forbids speech (a retreat fashionable now among the secular) would be a start. Yet my yen toward a nun’s life is, at the core, crazy—given that, hard as I yearn, I can’t believe in God.

Despite Methodist Sunday school when the love of and fear of God was drummed into me, despite a stint of quasi-Catholicism when I was 16 and lousy with emotion for something, belief in God has remained, for me, out of reach. At 16, when on Saturday afternoons I stood alone, singing, in the deserted balcony of Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church, belting out Lauro Nyro’s credo song “Timer” (about God) into the perfect acoustics of the church’s huge, modern, bat-wing shell—I did almost apprehend God. But not quite. Until I discovered boys (I was a late bloomer) I considered myself secretly a nun manqué, kept from touching the hem of Christ’s garment only by the slight impediment of not believing.

Even now I practice a kind of prayer and praising without ceasing—consciously letting my appreciation for the world’s myriad beauties well up in me throughout the day. Yet I have no sense of a cosmic ear that attends my praise: My gratitude seems to drift and fall flat like so much confetti. It would be wonderful to pray to something, to believe in a loving intelligence that crooks its dove’s wing around me, to nestle inside that pocket of faith. But the best I can believe is that God is a daemon who set this amazing universe in motion like a perpetual dynamo, and then decamped.

A while back, I watched, bemused, Miami Ink, the TV ‘reality’ show that glorifies the work of South Beach tattoo artists. One of their clients impressed me: a plump, grandmotherly type with dyed red hair who apparently had met transcendence via the Blessed Sandwich, a 10-year-old grilled cheese which sold for an obscene amount on e-bay—$28,000. She was having a likeness of the sandwich tattooed to the slope of her huge right breast. Like other of the faithful, she believed the greasy indentations and shadows in the cheese formed the features of The Virgin’s face.

Nearly in tears with the fervency of her faith, she said (of The Virgin): I’m just so grateful she came to ME. A little whacked out. But I admire her certainty. Hard as I try, I can not believe in signs (in cheese or elsewhere) as proof of God. I guess I won’t believe a loving God exists unless I’m whomped upside the head by a ten-ton personal visitation that says, Okay, stupid, it’s me!

If God smote my ear and gave me blessing, then I’d know I’d received my vocation. Then I could enter the convent gates (if my husband would agree to my entering). Or I could skip the convent, stay home and enter without guilt into my true life as a contemplative—a modern anchorite, a kind of Julian of Norwich in Suburbia, With Husband.

The crux is for God to okay a contemplative life without guilt. Because, truth is, I’m a closet contemplative now (but a guilt-ridden, atheist one). I spend most of my time pondering. I think and I read and I write and I think. I don’t have children to rear (by default, not by choice), and my writing work isn’t 9-5. People ask what I’ve been up to, and my shameful, vague answer is nothing, because what I actually do, I know, is sanctioned only for nuns at contemplative orders. Just thinking isn’t, for the secular woman, recognized and respected as work.

My upbringing didn’t countenance sluggards. I haven’t been a useless, lollygagging, unproductive wool-gatherer always. I grew up in a house with no money, worked my way through three university degrees, and labored on clumsily for 20 years at respectable humanistic jobs that paid little. Struggle is the norm where I come from—work, work, and more work to acquit oneself—though even then, grace is not assured.

I began my religious schooling at Temple Methodist Church. (My mother’s mother, in her hat and white gloves, held my small hand in its white glove. I loved the propriety of that.) When I was twelve and my siblings were even younger, my parents kidnapped and hustled us to a more forgiving Unitarian church. (Singing alone in the Catholic sanctuary was my own secret detour.)
Yet it was the unrelenting specter of John Knox’s Calvinism that draped its bat-wings over my family and just sat on us, without stint. My mother was a Ferguson and, despite everything, the tribal imprint sticks. We’re no longer starving in a Scottish croft, but every one of us is, still, the dour Scot. A Scots grimness weights every atom of our being despite the humor with which we try to leaven it (fatalistic humor, of course). If I’m walking down the street feeling, really, just fine but with my Ferguson mouth (genetically, constitutionally) down-turned, I can expect to be accosted by strangers and urged to Smile! It’s not that bad! My father’s lineage is grim, too: My great-grandfather on my father’s mother’s side died of sepsis from bad teeth and his wife succumbed to grief one month later, leaving an 11-year-old orphan, my grandmother (who then died at 59 of twisted bowels, when I was 17).

The Calvinist creed (no salvation but through election, and the sign of election is works) was not carved over our door; it was merely branded upon our souls. As a kid, I felt guilty for the time I spent lazing through books and daydreaming. I was never upbraided for my wool-gathering but I knew, guiltily, that spending long hours just thinking wasn’t normal: That was moodiness, that was unfocused, that was unconscionable wasting of time. I knew from example that my behavior was contumacious: How could I loll when my father drove himself twelve hours a day scouring the counties selling insurance, and my mother (without money or materiel) raised six kids and arranged a home Martha Stewart would envy and eventually aced her way through a college degree and into a job as a medical librarian.

Somehow, I acquitted myself satisfactorily through high school and college. But when the moment came to grow up and earn, I stood on the sidelines, sick with fear: I felt like a terrified spectator at Le Mans, desperate for the careering world to get itself under control, compose itself, slow down—and let me cross safely to adulthood. Instead, like everybody else, I was shoved out onto the tarmac to dodge as well as I could. As I struggled for success, my life was jammed with work, with the tasks and obligations that connote a fine upstanding human being.

Thirty years later I still believe that at the end of a day, as justification for snorting up my allotment of air, I should be able to list Tasks Completed. So on a ‘good’ day now, I vacuum my home, wrestle linens and laundry, bathe the pup, scout stores for bargain groceries (I feel guilty for spending my husband’s income—my writing earns such a pittance), perform (marginally) in the kitchen, toil at my writing, and pack off my manuscripts to literary journals.

But most days, truthfully, I don’t do that much work. I read, I write a little, I contemplate the struggling world, I feel guilty for sitting in my house doing: nothing.

Lean, rich Brazilian women, I’ve read, believe it’s their right to do nothing— that simply raising a hand to lift their hair off their sharp faces makes a day. Maybe instead of yearning for nun-ness, for sanction (maybe from God) of my indolence, I should simply strive to be a rich Brazilian woman—a sort of contemplative shod in Christian Louboutin red-soled pumps. But I don’t have the sharp racehorse bones for it.


More Than a Nickel, by Roy Collie

Roy Collie

The longer we ponder some memories and their related stories, the more muddled the details sometimes become. Often times, the recollections become so blurry that we begin wondering if they really happened at all, or if they are mere remnants in our minds from a dream, a passing conversation or a movie from our past. The saving grace, at times, is found in those precious photographs that someone had the foresight to take. Such pictures can empower us, and those who follow, to revisit our experiences with greater levels of clarity and accuracy and a heightened sense of sentiment.

It was one of my very first days of school. As is traditional, the elementary school I attended was having a fall festival that included a variety of events, activities and contests that lasted over a period of a few weeks. One such contest captured my eyes as I walked up the broad concrete steps and through the tall, heavy wooden doors that appeared to me more made of paint than of wood. The first thing I saw inside was a huge jar of candy resting on a small wooden table. As I moved up for a closer look, my own reflection in the glass jar was quickly replaced with a crystal clear view of the treasure inside. My trance was broken abruptly when an older student asked me if I would like to pay a nickel to guess how many pieces of candy were in the jar. He went on to explain that the money helped to buy school supplies and that the person who guessed the closest to the actual number of pieces of candy would win it all. “Are you kidding me? All of that candy – for just one nickel?” Impervious to statistical odds, laws of probabilities and the likes, I quickly surmised that this was much more than a good cause; this was indeed a deal just too good to pass up. Still gazing at that huge jar of candy, I surrendered a portion of my lunch money for a guess; I don’t remember how I bought lunch later that day. After studying the jar for a few minutes and knowing very little difference between twenty-five and a hundred and twenty-five, I wrote down a number on the little piece of paper for my guess, turned it in and paid my nickel.

I remember going home that afternoon and telling my mother and father what a great investment I had made and how wonderful it would be when all of our family would have this enormous supply of candy at our fingertips for – well, probably a lifetime. It must have been my confidence, maybe my innocence, or perhaps a little of both that charged them to join me in celebrating this – my very first executive decision as a first grader. Perhaps, chastising me for recklessly wasting a portion of my lunch money would have been a more practical response, but maybe they thought that five cents exchanged for a profound lesson on coping with life’s disappointments would be a nickel well spent.

It must have been about a week later when I heard my name called over the school loudspeaker – a thing that no first-grader wanted for – asking me to report immediately to the principal’s office; no one ever got sent to the principal’s office for anything good. I remember walking the long hallway trying to think of what it was that I must have done wrong to land me in front of the principal. When I arrived at the door, I was motioned in and instructed to take a seat. Sitting in another chair close by was a big sixth grade boy; I remember he had a very serious look on his face. The principal began, “It seems we have a bit of a dilemma, fellows. The two of you guessed exactly the same number in the candy jar contest and as luck has it, yours is the closest to being the correct number. I’ve thought this over and decided to have you draw straws to decide a winner. The youngest of you will draw first and the one drawing the longer of the two straws will be our winner”. A little confused about the unfolding event, I tugged at one of the smidgens of straws poking from the principal’s tight fists and sat holding it pretending to have some concept of what was going on. When the sixth grader then took the remaining straw, noticeably shorter than the one I held, I was pronounced the winner and found myself hauling this huge jar of candy back down to my classroom.

Now, I was not always the most popular guy in school, but I can tell you that I came mighty close that day. I still remember the eyes of my classmates when I walked back into the room that morning with hands clutching a massive jar of goodies rather than rubbing my backside as they may have imagined me to be doing. The enormous jug of candy was outsized only by the smile on my face – which may have diminished slightly upon my teacher’s suggestion that I walk around the room and offer everyone a piece of candy.

I remember carrying that jar on my walk home that afternoon; we lived within a block of the school. I wanted to run, but I tried to pace myself so as not to lose the death grip I had on the glass jug. I don’t need a picture – though I’d love to have one – to recall my mother’s expression when I came into her view as she stood on the porch of our house watching me walk home like she did most every afternoon. I honestly think that she may have been more excited than I was. The conversation at the dinner table that evening was great as I told the story about guessing the number to win the candy and then outsmarting a big sixth grader to close the deal.

I don’t know whatever happened to that old glass jar, but I can tell you that for many months, it sat on a table in our hallway sharing tokens of my good fortune to any and all that passed. When the candy was finally consumed, my mother could hardly bear the thoughts of moving it, so she creatively transformed the jar into a place of safe-keeping for our family’s spare change throughout the year. Each night, my father and older siblings would put their loose change in the jar; it became a challenge to see how nearly filled it could be by year’s end. Then, a few weeks before Christmas, our family would gather around the kitchen table, dump the change out and divide it evenly among the children to use for Christmas shopping. For many years, the jar continued to represent giving to our family in this manner.

Collie Photo

As I look at the photograph of that little boy holding that big jar of candy, many thoughts go through my mind. I don’t remember what the candy tasted like, how many pieces the jar held or what lucky number won the prize. But the smiling face in the photograph is yet reflected in the lessons and traditions that were secretly embedded within the jar’s contents. Often when I see a small child reluctantly sharing some of his candy with another, I think of the wisdom that my first grade teacher showed as she nudged me to share some of my good fortune with my classmates that day and how good the feeling was to have something to share. To this day, I have a habit of keeping a jar of candy on my desk for visitors. As well, in the corner of my closet, there sits a large gallon jar in which I deposit my loose change each evening. We do not divide the money up at Christmastime, but for years, my children have seen this jar as the little well that never runs dry – though it has been dangerously close a few times – to which they can go whenever they need a little extra money for school or church.

So what if I had never won the candy in my elementary school? What if my mother had not thought to freeze this moment in time with the miracle of her camera? Would I still keep a jar of candy sitting on my desk? Would a gallon jar for my loose change yet be stationed in my closet for my children? Perhaps so; but one thing is for certain, when it comes to the value in reminiscing, the lessons and memories gleaned from a photograph of a first grader and his jar of candy are worth a fortune – or at the least – more than a nickel!

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, by Brenda Smith

Brenda Smith

I feel stuck in a canticle like Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” Not only does the refrain of “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” floats through my head on a constant recurring and refreshing breeze, and the alternate lines that they inserted worm their way in, too, but they aren’t a refreshing breeze. They are a reminder of the constant fight between love and it’s counterpart. Now whether hate or indifference is that counterpart, I won’t debate here. The idea of a melody of life with its ever-present undercurrent of downs to steady the ups—that is the issue here.

At first our minstrels weave the tale of true love, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?”, followed by the haunting recurrent, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Then: “Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine. Tell her to make me a cambric shirt. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Without no seams, nor needlework.” The first in the singer’s list of impossible tasks he demands. He goes on to list others like cultivating the elusive land that appears between the foamy waves and the dry sand, or reaping the harvest with a sickle of leather. He admits after naming even more tasks that these are impossible, as true love often asks for the impossible, but if his once true love will at least attempt these feats, and then return to him and ask for his hand (the woman being the asker is another unthinkable task for the Middle Ages), then she’ll be a true love of his once again. Then they will marry. A dreamy yearning of a jilted lover perhaps? Yes, perhaps, but without the dreaminess that love brings, all that we have left is stark reality.

Hauntingly between it all: “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” In the days of the song’s writing, these fragrant herbs all had special meaning to the people of England. Parsley was used to take away the bitterness of a meal; it aided in digestion. Sage has been a symbol of strength for thousands of years. Rosemary stood for sensibility and prudence, and hence, female love. Rosemary is strong and tough, yet it grows slowly. Brides in England and other parts of Europe once wore, and sometimes still do wear, circlets of rosemary in their hair. Knights’ shields were emblazoned with images of thyme, the widely recognized emblem of courage. So, with every task the singer requests of his love, he re-emphasizes the traits that she must have. She hurt him once, but he will put aside his hurt and pain, if she soothes his bitterness (parsley), makes her love strong again (sage), wears the symbol of feminine love and matrimony (rosemary), and gets up the courage (thyme) to ask him to marry her.

A love song, a love song. Sweet is the tune, haunting the melody, revolutionary the theme. Does the singer’s dream have even half a chance of coming true?

In a strange quirk of the muse, be it genius or just a wandering thread of thought indulged, Paul Simon, the arranger, juxtaposes both on top of, and between the original lines of song, another song entirely. I had listened to this song ever since Simon and Garfunkel’s version came out in the 1960’s, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never even realized quite what was being said. I thought them ghost lyrics of the love song, like a round almost. But they are not. Here are those superimposed lines: A hill in the deep forest green/ tracing of sparrow on snow-crested brown/ blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain/ sleeps unaware of the clarion call. On the side of the hill a sprinkling of leaves/ washes the grave with silvery tears/ a soldier cleans and polishes a gun/ sleeps unaware of the clarion call. War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions/ a general orders his soldiers to kill/ and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.

Two stark images, two pictures painted. An innocent mountain child sleeping, unaware that war rages somewhere. In another spot, a graveyard perhaps, a soldier polishes his gun. But how can he be unaware of the clarion call? Or is he asleep to the purpose of his actions? Or is his conscience asleep from years of suppressing it as he fired his gun again and again, hitting straight and true his target, sending his enemy home to the earth? A cause, long ago forgotten. Are these two people, the child and the soldier, one and the same? Does the sprinkling of leaves wash across the grave where they lie?

The song ends with the refrain, “then she’ll be a true love of mine.” Does his true love await him? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?

The juxtaposition of love and war, a cause long ago forgotten, a love lost, an innocent child: all these images, taken together, are my mind these days. And this song haunts me daily. What am I about? Love, war? Do I not do battle every day in the classroom, sometimes struggling on to win for a cause I’ve long ago forgotten? Do I struggle on, dreaming for true love anyway? The parsley, the sage, the rosemary, the thyme. Their fragrance is as sweet and pungent as this song is bittersweet and ephemeral. And yet the ephemeral lives on. Still searching for true love. Soldiers still fighting for the forgotten cause.

Losing Fear and Choosing the Right Side, by T. S. Evans

T.S. Evans

Packing … furiously. It seemed as though He was standing behind me waiting to pull away my luggage again. I had learned to look over my shoulder. He taught me well, and I was his best student. “I have to concentrate,” I repeated to myself. I had spent years honing the skill of fear. Fight or flight…I chose flight; now I choose both. Making it to the airport was crucial. Is He behind me?

Oftentimes I could not breathe…concentrate…live. Who had I become? There has to be a calm, creative woman somewhere in the mess of me that He had sculpted. This newly found breath, away from His suffocation, had awakened something that was originally me. Before Him, I knew who I was. I had lost myself in a marriage. “Could I ever get it right?” I thought.

Two months ago, my phone rang. It was an illuminating sound. The ring tone transformed from a startling sound to a light I could see in a tunnel of darkness. I was asked to interview for a job. Someone actually believed I could be a stewardess on a private yacht? His instincts and negative thoughts still echoing, I fought the learned fear of accepting the job. Breathe…I took my leap of faith. My mind began to spin. The restraining order against Him had been in place for a year. That never stopped Him. Old feelings of actually getting away without being captured again came to mind. What would He do?

“He follows me around without fail. He knows. He knows who I call. He knows what I do. What if He is right? He convinced me to be weak. I don’t feel strong. He is controlling. He is wrong. He is controlling, but not if I say no. What the hell am I thinking? I earned this job. I deserve a new beginning. I no longer will give him control. This opportunity is going to change my life.” I picked up my cell phone, dialed Captain Morgan’s number, and accepted the job. I was scared out of my mind by my daring choice.

“Breathe again,” I tell myself. Looking around, I absorbed a different view of my life. The Ft. Lauderdale sunshine and salty breeze were intoxicating.

“Ahoy, Miss Evans! Welcome aboard the Trilogy,” Captain Morgan said.

I could hear the sea gulls caw in the distance. My surroundings were amazingly new and unforgettably different. I crossed the threshold into what would be my home and source of employment for the next fourteen days. I was filled with nervous energy as I prepared for my first table service. A stewardess was required to be invisible. Perhaps that is why I was hired. I had already learned to remain in the shadows from Him. I rounded the table refilling water glasses and returned to the galley. The task of wine service was staring me straight in the face. After struggling to pierce the dry cork of a $300 bottle of wine with the tip of the corkscrew, I let out a sigh of relief. Thankful I accomplished this task away from judging eyes, I approached the guests. Trilogy was a private yacht. A great deal of money had been spent for this home away from home. The experience the owners wanted needed to approach perfection. My original anxiety of failure returned. Again, my thoughts left me, and I went back to the role of the obedient wife. “Snap back to reality,” I told myself. I approached the dining table. Everyone was engaged in a political conversation. I was invisible. “Thank God,” I thought. As I rounded the table, the “head man” put up his hand slightly. He was signaling everyone to stop the conversation. All eyes were on me.

He spoke. “Are you left handed?” he asked me with interest.

I was filled with thoughts. I anticipated acceptance and praise. Simpering, I immediately blurted out how I was born left handed but had to learn to write with my right hand because it was proper. I smiled the whole time, proud that intelligent, dynamic people found me interesting again.

After my explosion of acknowledgement, he spoke again, “I was just wondering, because you keep returning my glass to the left side of the place setting.”

Absorbing the uncomfortable silence, I disappeared from the guests’ table, my confidence deflated. I reverted back to the invisible world of self- doubt He had created for me.

When I returned to my quarters, I cried tears of embarrassment. I had tried and I had failed. Sleep and tears took the rest of the night. I awoke and prepared for the guests’ departure. I donned my uniform again with a cloud of disappointment slowing my every move. All staff convened on the docks to see the guests off. As an unspoken gesture often made by patrons, the head man approached me, thanked me, and handed me an envelope. This tall gentleman smiled kindly and walked away with his family. Back in the sanctity of my room, I opened the envelope. Inside was a card and it read, ‘To the best novice. Keep learning. It will always be hard. It will always be worth it.’

All too soon, my journey was over. After collecting my belongings, pocketing my handsome paycheck, and saying my goodbyes, I headed to the Hollywood International Airport. I returned to Charleston slightly stronger as a result of my determination to keep trying. I noticed my reflection at the airport. My gait had a familiar pride and distinction that was almost forgotten.” I did it!” I told myself repeatedly as I journeyed home. I remembered I had asked my neighbor to collect my mail in my absence. I stopped by and picked it up. Shuffling through it I noticed a letter from my lawyer. I sat down on my front porch with my favorite beer, took a sip, and paused before setting the bottle down on my side table. Looking at the table I envisioned a dinner setting, and as homage to my experience, I placed the bottle gently on the right. A smile came across my face as I recalled the last two weeks. I opened the letter from my lawyer and smiled, as I relaxed into my comfortable renewed self. My long anticipated divorce was finally granted. The fight was over and my new life had begun.