Tuesday, September 20, 2011
So I made my coffee at home, and I even made prune danish a few times, a laborious process, but worth it.
Still, it's hard to describe the jolt you feel when you realize that you can no longer do the ordinary things you once did. In New York, most people can legitimately claim membership in a handful of communities, into and out of which they slip with relative ease. These might include one's friends from church or work, say, or the other mothers, like oneself, generally shunned at the playground (in my neighborhood, these included the German woman married to a Jamaican man, whose toddler daughter was completely bald from alopecia; the Irish-born woman who'd lived there for years and had many friends, but who was rejected when she adopted an attachment-parenting philosophy; and, perhaps most problematic of all in my majority-Irish neighborhood, the black Englishwoman). For me, they also included my classical musician and singer colleagues; the brilliant young university-student mother with autism who lived downstairs and was my son's first babysitter (and, for her own reasons, a fellow outsider in our neighborhood); my professors and colleagues in my doctoral program; and the community of solid friendships I was able to construct with a few other women, including Really Rosie. Here, I can't even seem to make friends with anyone at church, and the post-kindergarten pickup line is not shaping up very promisingly; the other mothers seem to know one another already, and I'm prepared to be shunned when it's discovered that I'm the mother of the only child with autism in this otherwise mainstream class.
I found myself with time on my hands this morning, and I decided to go to the local Catholic hospital, to which I can walk, and do Adoration in their chapel. One of my main incentives was, admittedly, that the hospital cafeteria carries these fantastic chocolate-filled croissants that are reminiscent of the ones sold at many a New York deli, with one of which I anticipated rewarding myself afterwards. In the chapel I met an elderly nun I know who's originally from New Jersey, and I poured out to her my tale of crushing loneliness. But as we talked, it dawned on me, as it does every so often, that God has uprooted me from everything I once knew and loved in His mercy. For everyone who wishes to ascend must descend.
In my former life, after many years of struggle and hard work, I had achieved a certain level of accomplishment and a certain small amount of recognition. And when I entered my doctoral program and began teaching college, things seemed, for the first time, completely right; I felt as if I had finally found what I was meant to do. When I met my husband, got married in the Church, and had a beautiful baby boy nine months and three days after our wedding, I felt even more confirmed in the rightness of it all.
And then, multiple pregnancy losses. And then, we moved here. And then no more teaching, or friends, or community. And secondary infertility. And my mother's terminal illness. And my son's autism diagnosis. All these conditions, for now, are ongoing, as is my sense, to quote Saint John of the Cross, of the pervasiveness of "nothing, nothing, nothing."
And now this community has been devastated by flooding resulting from the recent hurricanes. I suspect that, because of the disaster, more people will leave this area, which has already lost half its population in the past twenty years.
Being stripped so bare of everything that I thought made me who I was, being so left to my own meager devices, makes me realize how much I relied on the good opinion of others in my former life, and how much I defined myself by my accomplishments. Here, it seems there is nothing but my daily struggles, mostly of the most mundane kind, but in many ways more challenging than the daily struggles of my former life, which were more easily solved, and whose resolution was so much more readily rewarded (good coffee and pastry, after all, can be had on nearly every street corner back in New York). I feel so diminished here, and I feel as if God is pushing me to my knees every day. Though this is painful and is not what I would have sought, it can't be bad.
My new town used to be a manufacturing hub. That's all gone now, of course, leaving an emptied-out shell of a city. In the midst of this, for some reason I can't fully comprehend, there is a small, independent coffee roaster here that makes the best coffee I've ever had in my life outside of Italy. After the days of flooding, feeling rather helpless, I went downtown just to have a coffee there. They had been closed for several days because of ordinances against water use, and were just reopening. As I was paying for my coffee, my eye fell on a glass cookie jar at the counter, which, to my amazement, was stocked with regina biscuits, a very particular, local, and therefore rarely found Italian cookie -- sesame-covered, delicate and not too sweet, my favorite biscuit of all, far outstripping your margheritas or your anisette cookies -- that I had not seen since I was quite young in Brooklyn, when I used to eat them by the dozen out of a brown paper bag from the local bakery. I asked the proprietor where these cookies had come from. From Brooklyn, she told me. She didn't know the name of the bakery; a friend had brought them. I bought some; they were the same as they always had been.
I sat there with my coffee and my reginas and I wasn't sure whether I should play my usual game of conjuring lost worlds by way of strange-yet-familiar objects, mediating the ghosts of the invisible past with the tangible, the material, the present, as Proust did so famously in the opening pages of Remembrance of Things Past. In the end, though, I decided not to, because I am trying to actively turn my memory over to God, as suggested by the Ignatian "Suscipe" prayer. I see, indeed, that there is nothing to fall back on but God. I'm not saying I like this state of affairs, but that's the way it is.