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Life in a Haunted House

haunted house kids trick or treatWe never get any trick-or-treaters. I can tell myself that it’s because we’re the only house on a dead-end street and surely, being off the beaten path is part of the problem. But if I’m to be completely honest, it’s because I know that little kids are afraid of our home.

Yes, we live in THAT house.

It’s the one we all dared each other to visit on Halloween. The one that got the occasional egging from only the bravest, most rebellious teens. The one that made toddlers cry.

In the neighborhood I grew up in outside of Chicago, there was a dark, recessed house that looked like a Turkish prison. It definitely stuck out, as the rest of the homes in our neighborhood had been built in the early 1960s and had a decidedly family-friendly feel to them. Swing sets in the back yard, goofy Halloween decorations and middle class tastes made them look safe, even when the masters of those homes appeared grumpy and mean, and the mistresses depressed, lonely and on the edge.

At the Turkish prison house, me and my friend Laura would get about as far as ringing the doorbell, but ultimately, we’d chicken out and run away. I don’t think we ever got candy from those people, and if we had, we would’ve probably stuffed it in their mailbox before high-tailing it out of there. Afraid that any loot we might’ve scored was laced with arsenic, battery acid or just plain old bad juju.

haunted-house

I recognize now that the unfortunate, in all likelihood sweet-as-heck folks who lived in that house waited in vain every Halloween for someone – anyone – to come by and put a dent in that bag of Hershey’s Minis they felt obligated to buy every year…just in case.

I know that’s what we do.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Aw, come on. It can’t be that bad. You seem nice enough – I’m sure there’s a very good reason why no one will trick-or-treat at your house.”

And there is.

Our house is haunted.

haunted house ghost and man

It’s no surprise, as our house is really, really old and has had a lot of traffic. She was built while Thomas Jefferson was still among us and living across town for heaven’s sake, cross-breeding heirloom vegetables and writing letters that now sit in the Smithsonian. She’s been a general store, grain depot, bar, theater, voting place, boarding house, student ghetto, and a musician’s flophouse (we’ve been told Art Garfunkel partied at our home in the 1960s – scary, right?), until finally, over the course of two owners, she morphed into a single-family home.

I think our basement is the crux of the problem. An old-fashioned wet basement, it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. It is populated by numerous snakes and spiders that we welcome as part of the delicate ecosystem of our house, as those critters keep the mouse and insect population in check. But that’s not why I mention it, and it’s not why little kids who don’t know us do the fifty yard dash past our property line.

It’s that our basement was also once used as a (gulp!) Civil War morgue.

So maybe that’s where all of the cling-clangs, footsteps, apparitions and ghostly murmurs come from!

gettyimages_3170621

Case in point, in our most recent paranormal encounter, I got up in the middle of the night to fetch myself some water. When I returned to our bed, I distinctly heard a man’s whisper and turned to my husband.

“Did you say something, honey?” I said.

My husband told me that he had not.

“But I heard it, too,” he said. “Let’s talk about it in the morning.” Which we did, but without the drama and hullabaloo you might imagine.

We’re not afraid anymore. We’ve been living here long enough to know that these odd occurrences are just our home’s way of saying hello every once in a while.

downstairs

And that’s what I’m getting at.

As spooky as our house may seem to outsiders, we know she loves and protects us.

Like a loyal, old crone, she objects loudly and emphatically to people who annoy, interfere or in any way attempt to cause mischief in our lives.

When my grandmother got ornery and meddling in the years before she died, our house would actually respond to her visits – keeping her up at night with grating, intermittent noises that tormented my Baba’s sleep like Chinese water-torture. The plumbing wouldn’t behave for her, temperature controls would go haywire and the guest room TV screen might simply go on strike.

I don’t have to tell you that all of these petty annoyances would vanish the moment Baba pulled out of our driveway, Rush Limbaugh blasting from her radio and a cloud of cigarette smoke billowing out of the passenger side window.

Now, I loved my grandmother – even at her worst. But my house? Not so much. She always preferred the company of my more cheerful mom, who accompanied my grandmother on her visits, but would remain curiously unbothered by the woo-woo goings on.

monster mash

And I love that our house is strong – clad in history’s armor. Thick-walled and made of brick. She barely shakes when the trains go by, standing broad-chested and chivalrous; a black, Southern grandmother. She has been a friend and safe haven throughout violent weather, illness and economic catastrophe. Even when we’ve scowled at her and bristled at the tyranny of caring for her scratches, bruises and idiosyncrasies.

But we have never let her down either, and she knows it.

My husband and I have fought her and fought for her, fixing her face-paint, finding the right doctors for her Edison-era wiring, buying her a brand new roof that sits on her head like a Sunday hat. No more piles of cold, young men, whooping cowboys, tired merchants, transients, or naked hippies. Our children have filled her life with laughter. They’ve hidden their secrets in her many nooks and crannies and papered her walls with their dreams.

We have given her a happy family.

So, please, consider coming by this Halloween. We have all the good kinds of candy and you’re sure to get a big handful instead of the usual one piece allotment that more popular homes dispense.

coven

MCV Egan’s Long Journey to Prague

letter from homeThis, for me, is the week of the re-blog, but I just can’t resist. On Monday, I posted Christoph Fischer’s lovely piece about his trip to Prague and now I’m posting MCV Egan’s. But don’t for a minute think you’re just getting more of the same. MCV’s post is powerful and meaningful – drawing not only on her observations from her recent trip to my favorite city, but on family stories and tragedies in her own home country of Mexico.

Please have a read. Then go have a cry.

My Long Journey to Prague
By MCV Egan

Just a week ago, on Monday October 6th I got up early in Prague to catch the first train to Kutná Hora . My friends and I wanted to see for ourselves The Bone Church in Victoria Dougherty’s phenomenal novel.

BoneChurch_border

My one hour train ride that morning was with two Europeans with very different youths and perspectives of train rides in Europe. The gentle motion of the train and the even sounds as it moved made our Danish companion state that she had forgotten how relaxing these old trains and their sounds were. The images that flashed through my mind’s eye were full of many memories of my own train rides in the 70s, 80s and as late as 1993.

I was born in Mexico City, Mexico and until ten years ago I traveled under a Mexican passport. As such I chose my train trips with great care and only visiting countries that to me seemed ‘safe’; I did have my share of incidents in the ‘safe countries’ including being held at knife point on one train in France, but that we can save for another story.

The ‘un-safe’ countries I regrettably chose not to visit then, were countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia; all of which I had ample opportunity to visit, in the years I lived in France and Sweden; especially Poland.

My fears and feelings of peril in the then Eastern Bloc Countries stemmed from being a bearer of a Mexican passport; as such I felt that the country it represented would not be able to protect me if I came to any harm in foreign lands. The other reason I chose not to visit Eastern Bloc Countries was the ingrained dread of communist evil. This was a fear well fed by my education in the U.S.A. as well as by my father.

In 1957, my dad in a daze of admiration for the beauty of Russian Architecture managed to separate from the group he was traveling with. He was detained for a few hours by the KGB while it could be confirmed that he was just a young Mexican architect attending the UIA (Union Internationale des Architectes) meeting being hosted by Russia that year. He never really described what happened but for decades he woke up from nightmares in which he was ‘running away from the Russians’.

As the rhythmic sound of the train carried us to Kutná Hora my European companions described their experiences as young European travelers; these were all happy with the feeling of safety the passports of their native lands granted them.

I felt safe that day on that train carrying the passport of the country I have chosen as my own; a country that for all its flaws does grant me the feeling of security the country of my birth did not.

As the famous quote below expresses the scenery in the window and even The Bone Church as seen by our very different experiences in life was interpreted in such different ways.

bone church chandelier

“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. … In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.” John Lubbock

I so wish I could tell you that the fears of my youth were absolutely absurd, but as much as I tried not to watch the news during my trip which on October 3rd were full of the sad and horrible reports of Alan Henning’s beheading.

That very day; October 6th going to Kutna Hora anyone with any ties to Mexico was surely haunted by the report of the mass grave found in the state of Guerrero that seemed to be the missing students.

bones and more bones

I avoided the news but they danced around my mind as I visited the bones so carefully displayed as an odd collage sculpture. I looked at the bones and remembered the fabulous book that gave one set of bones a story; albeit a fictional one, and I wondered how many of those souls died in peace and naturally and how many like the Mexican students and Alan Henning died in brutal unnecessary violence.

My traveling companion Christoph Fischer had a vested and interesting family connection to the region, which he explored in fiction as well in the fantastic book The Luck of the Weissensteiners and shared with us in our journey.

Luck of the Wassersteins

That evening as Victoria Dougherty presented her novel at the English bookstore THE GLOBE ; she gave us a detailed perspective on her family history explaining how war and Russian occupation had affected her family and the psychological scars that remain.
Her eloquent manner and the choice of reading material kept me very in tune with the moment, it wasn’t until later looking at the photographs we took that night with the Mexican Día de Muertos skull I brought her as a gift on the table in front of us, that I really identified how much each one of us is so shaped by so much; our parents fears and experiences, where we come from and what surrounds us.

me, Christoph and Catalina

On October 9th as I waited to board my plane back to Miami at Heathrow a man next to me was reading a Newspaper in Spanish; the large headline stated that two men had confessed to the murder of the students, I asked him in Spanish if he really thought it was simply two men. In a neutral beautiful Spanish he answered that two had confessed and stated his views; (which I won’t repeat as I have not had the heart to read enough on the sad subject, but which made me very sad). A few minutes later the man’s phone rang and he had a conversation in Perfect French, when it ended I said to him “ Vous Parlez très bien L’espagnol pour un Français.” He smiled and answered “Non, pas pour un Français, pour un Italien.”

In the past few days since I came back state side, I have not heard one person mention the student massacre in Mexico; except for my Mexican contacts in Cyberspace. These tragic deaths should not go un-noticed.

Cat and Christoph at Bone Church

Christoph Fischer’s trip to Prague on the trail of “The Bone Church”

Chrisoph, Catalina and II just had to reblog this wonderful post by my friend Christoph Fischer. I can now officially call him a friend because we have officially met. Until last Monday, we had only known each other virtually.

Despite that fact, he and the great MCV Egan came to Prague last week and were kind enough to fold-in my “Bone Church” reading at The Globe Bookstore and Cafe. It was an incredible night – most of all because I got to finally meet Christoph and MCV (I call her Catalina) in person and find that they are even better in the flesh – fun, adventurous, kind and interesting. How often does that happen?

In Christoph’s post, he talks about his trip to Prague, my thriller The Bone Church and the real-life bone church – the inspiration for my book – that he and MCV visited together. The pictures are fabulous and Christoph really brings the place to life. After reading his post, please check out his books. He’s so talented and writes with tremendous heart. You can find links to all of his stuff through his blog post or the one I did with him a few months back (see Questions on Gulags, Sponge Baths and Losing Your Mind). And please check out The Bridge of Deaths by MCV Egan as well. It’s a historical mystery and a love story. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. These are two seriously talented people. You can find links to MCV’s work in my blog post The Bridge of Deaths 75th Anniversary from must a few weeks ago.

My trip to Prague on the trail of “The Bone Church”.

(and please stay tuned for my musings on that incredible trip. I’ve still got to wrap my brain around it all)

Prague, My Alma Mater

high school back seatFor some people, their defining years were in high school: that first passionate kiss in the back seat of a Mazda; the artful way they managed to change the birth date on their driver’s license – even if it only fooled one, old Asian man at a 7-Eleven across town; the weathered Jeep their dad bequeathed to them on their 16th birthday, essentially setting them free. Those things reshaped their lives and allowed them to see themselves anew. They were something to build on.

For others it’s college: falling head-first into a first real love affair, the keeping-a-toothbrush-and-spare- change-of-clothes-at-their-place kind, of trying on the hat of poet, rock-n-roller (after all those humiliating years in Band), intellectual, or joining a fraternity or sorority and finally getting to act out all of the scenarios they’d been coveting in the movies.

Animal house

For me, however, it was the time I lived in Prague.

Don’t get me wrong, high school and college were great and I would undoubtedly look back on those years with more than just a passing glance if I’d never sold my car, quit my job and moved half-way around the world to the country of my family’s origin.

But the fact is, the roughly four years I spent in the Czech Republic shook my life to the core, and forced a metamorphosis in me on par with Franz Kafka’s, but without the tortured, want-to-kill-yourself-slowly aspects. He did, after all, morph into a cockroach.

Franz-Kafka-The-Metamorphosis

I morphed into a daughter, a wife, a mother and a writer.

If you define Karma as Wikipedia does: As the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual, then my time in Prague was filled with it – from my first job on the newly named Political Prisoner Street, a pretty powerful coincidence for a girl who came from a family of political refugees, to my translation of a Communist propaganda play that my theater performed to several full houses of howling Czechs, to the close ties I forged with a family I never thought I’d meet and the friendships that will sustain me until my death.

I met my husband in Prague, while performing an original, naughty comic-feminist poem I’d written for my friends’ amusement. We were at a four-hundred year-old candlelit pub at a long wooden table filled with ex-pats. Months later, I would hear that after my recitation, my husband had turned to a mutual friend and asked, “Who is that?”

Our friend told him.

“Well, that’s the girl I’m going to marry,” he’d said.

It was a time so raw and invigorating. And not just for me, but for everyone in that part of the world. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Velvet Revolution had transformed a nation without a shot being fired, a playwright had been elected President and a lot of young people just like me had come to see what it was all about. I toured concentration camps, I slept under the stars on my father’s farm, which had only recently been given back to my family through restitution (the process of returning property that had been stolen by the Soviet State), I worked for Czech companies, and drank way more than I should have. I went to weddings and pig roasts – actually learning to make homemade sausage, though I’ve never used that skill again, I was chased down a dark alley by a Serbian gangster, attended countless balls (sounds fancy, I know, but for Czechs it’s more akin to dance hall culture than hoity-toityness), saw a dozen or more operas for mere pennies, and finally learned to understand poetry. Not by reading it, but by living it.

dance it

And in a few days I’m going to take my nearly thirteen year-old son for week in my old stomping grounds.

Just him and me.

I can’t tell you how nervous and excited I am.

My father has just negotiated a sale of his farm and my son and I will be the last people in our family to see it while it still belongs to us. This is a house and a piece of land that has been under our care for well over three-hundred years, minus the four decades under Communism. And now it will become a brewery and hops farm. Just like that.

I’ll also be introducing him to a mother he’s never met: a woman who perfected the art of the smoke ring and French inhale, who can’t quite remember how she got home some nights, who has stood on stage in less than her underwear for heaven’s sake, playing a harried newlywed in a Czech play.

While I’m hoping some of my more colorful antics won’t be trotted out in front of the boy, I’m so proud to introduce him to my friends. These are people who are not only hosting us in their homes (no hotels for us!), but who went out of their way to set up and promote for me a reading of my novel, The Bone Church, at The Globe Bookstore and Cafe.

The Globe

The Globe and I go back a long way, even if it’s no longer owned and run by my homies.

This is a place I helped scrub and scrape for its opening some twenty years ago. It’s also the place where I first seriously entertained the notion of becoming a professional writer – even if I never told anyone. Now, I wasn’t one of those people who wore berets, talked about Kierkegaard and nurtured a hostility towards the ruling classes. I had a day job supplemented with a night job in theater that actually cost me money. And I had none of the ennui necessary for a credible stab at the writer’s life.

But somehow, here I am, taking my kid to a reading of my novel at a bookstore at my Alma Mater, the city of Prague.

How’s that for Karma?

Globe TBC flyer

It’s on Monday, Oct. 6th @ 7:00 pm. Pštrossova 6, 110 00 Praha 1, Czech Republic
Phone:+420 224 934 203
Won’t you please come if you can?

Want To Understand Marriage? Watch Naked and Afraid on Discovery Channel

naked with skullUnlike “distraction TV,” which simply takes you out of your life for a while – the day to day grind of ditching the secret police, escaping the clutches of a sadistic assassin, making love to a charismatic Russian diplomat…oh, wait, no, that’s the book I’m writing.

(insert snippets from your daily grind here)

Anyway, my point is, Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid actually teaches you something. It is, in my opinion, the best microcosm for marriage you can find on the small screen – or anywhere else for that matter.

Before I get into that, I want to start with a bit of marriage advice that my Aunt Viki gave me when I was still a teenager. It was great advice and I’ve never forgotten it. I thought hard on it before I even met my husband and I’m so glad I did.

She said (translated from the Czech language), “First of all, never marry someone who’s weaker than you. You might think you’re going to be okay with it, and a more delicate mate might even make you feel good at the outset. You might feel needed and safe as a result. Strong. But don’t be fooled. First of all, no matter how much your little flower might seem to need or worship you, weaklings are the first to jump ship when the going gets rough. And even if they stay, in the long run, you’ll lose respect for them and a marriage can’t survive that.”

Amen, sister.

“And whatever you do,” she continued. “Make sure the mate you choose is someone you want to come home to whether you’re living in a one room flat or a ten-bedroom mansion. Someone you truly enjoy talking to and laughing with. You don’t know how quickly fortunes can change or what life has in store for you and I’ve seen a lot of marriages crumble when the money disappears and they have to live a simpler life. But I’ve seen just as many fall apart when things turn for the better.”

She also said that it’s important to like how your mate smells, but that’s neither here nor there in this post (although I wholeheartedly agree).

Truer words have probably been spoken, but her’s are pretty darned good. And there are few shows that put my aunt’s wisdom on display better than Naked and Afraid.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, let me enlighten you: Two strangers – a man and a woman who both claim some level of survival skills are dropped naked and presumably afraid (or at the very least apprehensive) into a hostile, natural environment such as the Amazon, the desert, or the tundra. They’re allowed to take one tool with them each (most choose a fire starter or a knife of some sort) and that’s it. No phone. No lights. No motorcars. Not a single luxury.

FTRGILLIGAN15

They must survive for 21 days – hunting and gathering their food, keeping their fire burning, dealing with stinging and biting insects (think naked here), snakes, wild boars, torrential downpours, blistering days, freezing nights (again – naked) and most importantly – each other.

We’ve all observed various couple dynamics in our own lives: The husband and wife who bicker incessantly, yet march on to make an illogically successful life together, the lovers whose passion starts out so hot but fizzles when they actually have to leave the bedroom and do everyday things like shop for groceries or visit the DMV, the passive-aggressive couple who can never be happy for each other’s successes, yet resent each other’s failures with equal determination, the pair who does their own thing, living separate but equal lives, the partners in a lifelong love affair that takes your breath away as they walk hand in hand through triumph and travail.

Not only are all of these pairings and more glimpsed on Naked and Afraid’s scant hour, but you are taken through a condensed version of a particular brand of marriage from start to finish in the course of that time. Some make it, but barely, others bail out altogether and end up going home before the first week is up. A few just rock it and leave you feeling energized and invigorated.

AT3481-001

I should tell you at this point that I watch Naked and Afraid almost exclusively with my nearly thirteen year-old son. It offers us that rare combination of experience where we can enjoy something low-brow and 7th-Grade-boy together while still not missing out on my being able to impart a genuine life lesson that isn’t coming straight from me, and allows my kid to draw his own conclusions.

My kid: “I can’t believe she wasted all that time making a pentagram out of vines while he was out hunting for food!”
Me: “Yeah, well, you know, she’s into Wicca and that. She did it to ward off bad luck or something.”
My kid: “That’s fine, but you do that when you’ve already got a fire started and you’ve found a water source.”
Me: “Hmmm.”
My kid: “I bet her real-life husband made her come on this show. I bet she acts like that at home and makes him do everything while she just farts around.”

Then we make our bets.

My kid: They both bail, but she goes first.

Me: They both bail, but he’s outta there.

I won that round.

My kid: “I liked that couple where he was a military guy and she was like a nature-type hippie person.”

I nod. I liked them, too. Both had made it through the Naked and Afraid gauntlet with other partners and were put together when a really annoying pair of vain whiners bailed out.

My kid: “You know what was cool about them? They each had things they knew how to do and brought those to the situation, and when things went wrong they never blamed stuff on each other – even if it really was one of their faults. They just moved on and made the best of it.”

Me: “I loved how they high-fived each other at the end.”

My kid: “That was awesome.”

This is where my Aunt Viki’s marriage speech really dove tails with the inherent genius of Naked and Afraid. You see, like many people in my family, my aunt knows a thing or two about surviving hardship. With her husband of over forty years, she’s been through every scenario she described and then some.

And in her wisdom, what she was really saying was as daunting as it is true.

When choosing a mate, you not only have to feel that indescribable something that draws you to a person in the first place. That makes you want to kiss their face every morning, make their coffee, go to their office Christmas party, listen to their music, and cuddle with them even when they’re kind of clammy and gross.

You also have to know in your heart that if there was an apocalypse – zombies, nuclear war, an alien invasion – the two of you could at least have a shot in hell at making it through alive.

Nudists

James Brown is in My Hot Tub

james brownWe have a thing for James Brown in our household, and I want to give the man a nod today because he’s dispensed so much joy to me and my family over the years. Like a screaming, dancing, cackling, “hey”-ing Pez container.

He’s made us sing, he’s made us shake our booties in a way white people don’t often do, and he’s made us laugh. Ok, I admit, we are kind of laughing at him sometimes. But it’s a laugh that comes from a good place – like the way I crack up when I make fun of my mother’s accent.

And that’s really what it comes down to with James and my clan. Because, yes, we love his music. Our children were potty trained to “Hot Pants.” But what it’s really about is that James Brown feels like a member of our family – my side of it, that is.

Like my crazy Czech family, he’s a gaudy dresser – glittering, brassy, ostentatious. Just check out this picture of James with Janet and Michael Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. He makes them look like country club Republicans.

james brown fashion

Which brings me to my next point. James was a great fan of Richard Nixon.

If you’ve read COLD more than a couple of times, you probably know that President Nixon is to my parents what a Terrence Malick film is to most film-aficionados. Deeply misunderstood by the masses.

James’s Republican activism was sort of ignored in the recent biopic about the Godfather of Soul, Get On Up, and it’s a damned shame. James Brown was an American original, not some pretender who showed up at all the right events just to get a pat on the back. He loved Nixon and he loved Al Sharpton. That wasn’t a contradiction in his mind. And it wasn’t for sale. He loved Ronald Reagan and he loved Ray Charles. He truly loved black America.

There was nothing you could say or do that was going to get him to back-peddle on that. Or even try to make sense of it for you.

He had a kind of empirical purity that, to me, is the very definition of soul. Our souls, after all, are what make us unique, human, eternal. James Brown wasn’t going to bargain his soul away for anything.

In a world where everyone’s trying so hard to be loved by everybody, and is always going to great pains to say the right thing, isn’t that refreshing?

james brown and nixon

Of course his personal life was a technicolor mess. He enjoyed good liquor and bad drugs. He had a weakness for nasty women. The kind of gals who aren’t there when you wake up in the morning (or afternoon) and neither is your wallet. Sometimes he tied them up and wouldn’t let them leave. He rarely checked the birth dates on their IDs.

But he remained close to his first wife, Velma, until the day he died. He loved her.

james brown's velma

When I think about other musicians whose work has moved me, been a part of the fabric of my life, I often have to make a conscious effort to chase the images from their personal foibles from my mind. The Mamas and the Papas come to mind, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, obviously.

But somehow with James Brown, I don’t mind his mug shots. I can take his life and his music as a whole without cringing or wanting to cry at certain parts. I can even look at the end of his life that way, despite the fact that he essentially died of self-abuse.

Maybe it’s the unbridled exuberance in his voice as it blares from my iPod. He had a runaway thirst for life that’s present in only a handful of public figures. Maybe it’s just because he was always gloriously and authentically James Brown – even at his worst.

james brown jumps

A Long Day’s Journey Into Light

Conversion-of-PaulMy switch from non-believer to believer has been more of a slow evolution than a short, sharp shock. You know the kind of blinding light followed by the voice of Christ conversion that St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus – pictured here in a painting by Caravaggio?

Well, that’s not me.

First of all, my conversation with God began at the gym. And it was definitely one-sided.

I was lifting a ten pound weight, trying to beef up my left bicep, letting my mind run wild – thinking about the story I’d just begun writing, wondering whether I wanted to make roast chicken or lasagna for dinner, and plotting my husband’s and my next adventure. Childless and newly married, we had moved to San Francisco the previous year and were taking some sort of little road trip almost every weekend. Often, it was my job to dream them up.

As I switched the weight from my left to my right hand, it suddenly occurred to me that while I lived my exterior life with tremendous imagination – that very moment contemplating a visit to Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed – I approached my spiritual life with the creative vision of a bureaucrat. Out of a combination of laziness, and frankly, smugness, I had stamped a big NO into the box for belief.

Faith journey - bureaucrat

So, for the first time since my senior year in High School, I cleared my throat and in my mind’s voice said, “Hello, is anybody there?”

The simple answer was no.

But for some reason I didn’t stop asking the question. Every few months or weeks, I would basically just say “hi, there,” and wait to see what would happen. And, well, nothing happened.

It wasn’t until some two years later when I actually decided to do something about my lame attempts at seeking God.

I was in a book store in the Castro district with my nearly eight month-old son looking for a book of poetry to give a friend on his birthday. I hate choosing poetry for people – it’s so personal, like picking out their underwear. But when you get it right, you’re able to add something of real value to their lives. A thought, a metaphor, a validation of a buried dream that will travel with them always. I wanted to do that for this friend, but I was struggling.

“You should try William Carlos Williams,” a man next to me said, handing me a copy of his collected poems.

“It’s for a friend,” I said, casually flipping through the book. I’d never read William Carlos Williams and for some reason didn’t want to.

“They’re wonderful poems,” the man said with genuine emotion. He looked at my young son. “I’m a Catholic priest. Would you mind if I blessed your son?”

I should mention at this point that my husband and I had left the Catholic Church in a huff, separately, during our college years. We were angry with their treatment of women, their refusal to sanction birth control in even the most poverty stricken countries, and their over-all Holier Than Thou attitude about everything. Our marriage was a civil ceremony as we had no intention of going through the required Pre Cana (this is basically premarital couples counseling officiated by a priest) that precipitates any Catholic marriage, and we had recently been congratulating ourselves for having left the Church, given the pedophilia scandal it was embroiled in at the time.

First Communion

We did want to give our son some spiritual grounding, however, and had looked into Buddhism (we’re not groovy enough), Judaism (we’re only a quarter Jewish, each), and the Unitarian Church (too Protestant).

Anyway, I looked at this Catholic priest standing next to me – dressed in a sweater, a raincoat, jeans and a fedora – and he seemed nice. And I’d let a trans-sexual healer fresh from an all-nighter bless my pregnant belly some months back, so why not a poetry-loving priest?

“Sure,” I said. He asked me my son’s name.

“Eamon Francis Dougherty.”

“Oh, you’re Catholic!”

Busted.

“Mmm-Hmm.”

“Where do you go to church?”

“Um, we’re kind of new to San Francisco,” I explained. “We’re still looking.”

“How long have you been here?” He asked.

I felt like a little kid again. “Actually, three years.”

He didn’t judge and he didn’t miss a beat.

“You must try St. Gabriel’s,” the priest told me. “You’ll love it. The 9 o’clock mass is perfect for children, really any mass there is, but that’s the one families most attend.”

smoking gustav

To make a long story a little less long, I strode through my front door with a book of poems by William Carlos Williams stuffed into my armpit and told my husband, “We’re going to church on Sunday.” Regardless of recent meanderings, he knew exactly what I meant by “church.” – “Just go with me on this.”

“Okay,” he said.

I wish I could remember the homily on that next Sunday when we attended mass at St. Gabriel’s, but I can’t. I only know that it was soulful, beautiful, relevant and utterly down to earth at the same time. I do remember the priest saying, “There’s a lot of noise here today – giggling and whispering from the children. Crying. – And I want you all to know that if this is bothering you, than I’m afraid you’re at the wrong church.”

For the first time in our entire lives, although we’d attended years of Catholic school and hundreds of masses, my husband and I had a moving experience during a service.

We became regulars at St. Gabriel’s, even if we couldn’t quite call ourselves believers yet. That would come a long way down the road. But we made friends with the man I’d met at the book shop – Father John. Shortly after my son’s first birthday, we did what we’d swore we’d never do: we had him baptized in the Catholic Church.

When Father John sprinkled holy water on Eamon’s still-bald head during the ceremony, he said, “Eamon Francis Dougherty, you are a poet, a priest and a King.” My husband’s eyes welled up. He still says that to our son every night before we head off to bed – even though the boy is nearly thirteen.

It would be years before I would hear anything even resembling an answer to the tentative greeting I offered God at my gym. Before I could call myself a Catholic with a straight face to be perfectly honest. Or even a believer in anything other than strong values, love and good citizenship.

I would be at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a grieving room that was offered to me while my new baby underwent a life or death surgery – one of several she’d already been through, but this time I felt at the end of my rope.

I was rolled up in fetal position on a cot and my hands were folded together so tightly that my fingers had gone numb. In the morning, when the nurse came to get me, I would actually have trouble prying them apart.

But that night, I finally heard something. And no, it wasn’t a voice. I guess it was more a feeling than a sound. It was what I can only describe as the heartbeat of the universe. It was a notion, a hunch, an impression – I don’t know – but one that without saying a word told me that I was a part of it and that no matter what the outcome of my daughter’s surgery would be, my family was safe.

I didn’t spring into that next day with all of my problems solved. Nor were the next few years a breeze because I’d had this experience. But I did feel different. I felt stronger and like anything was possible. And by that, I mean even the worst I could possibly imagine.

And I understood, for the first time, what it meant – doubtlessly, categorically – to love.

on her knees

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