Our home overlooks Lake Superior where we are often treated to sights of large ore boats, fishing vessels, pleasure yachts and an occasional brave sailboat. I suppose it's only natural then that my life, all our lives for that matter, remind me of small boats riding the erratic currents of life. When things go well, we skim safely along the surface without encountering danger, but when things so wrong it feels like we've crashed into rocky cliff or submerge reef. We make choices trying to maintain control over our small boats. Some of these choices are good, some not so good. Unlike the choices that result in tragedies at sea, the choices we make seldom doom us to total shipwreck. Nevertheless, the choices we make often have an uncanny ability to surprise and wound us.
Our home has a great view of the lake with it ever changing moods: reflective, agitated, violent, soothing. Our lake view also contains a monster rock that hides around 50 feet offshore. I've nicknamed it Nessie, after the Loch Ness monster, because it appeared suddenly one day as I sat watching the lake. I heard a gurgle, saw a wet black back emerge to shimmer briefly in the sunlight then watched it disappear again under the waves. The water level in the lake was then several inches higher than it is now. Nessie no longer hides under the lake’s surface. She can’t. The water levels are too low. She’s been exposed because of drought. Knowing she's there is good. Discovering her size daunting.
Like our often hidden monster rock, circumstances can so stress and disturb us that our spirits enter a drought of sorts. It was during such a period of drought that I overheard my children discuss that they thought they were damned. Why? Because their mother had been a nun and his father a priest. I was stunned.
Yes. Life had been hard since their father died when they were toddlers, but their conclusion devastating. Probing the why's of their theory, I realized that while they'd known about life "after daddy," they knew nothing about "before daddy." I wanted them to know about the love that brought Vittorio and me together, the love with which we’d greeted each of their arrivals. It was a complex story, one impossible to tell in a few sittings. And so I began to write what I thought was a love story and discovered that beneath my surface competence, I harbored the same doubts my children did. Was Vittorio's painful death from pancreatic cancer and the suffering that followed in its wake punishment for the choices we'd made?
As a teenager, I’d experienced God in such an overwhelming, unforgettable way – a love so consuming and unconditional – that I pursued it into a monastery thinking I’d be lifted to the heights of sanctity within that hallowed atmosphere. I was so wrong. Rather than saint in the making, I discovered the same compulsive/obsessive behavior that I’d condemned in my father. He was an alcoholic. I became an anorexic. I discovered that I could get as ragingly angry as my mother. That rather than disappearing into the cloister, I wanted to be noticed, to be special. What a shock that was. And when I was sent home to Puerto Rico to help my invalid father, rather than the devout and retiring nun everyone thought I was (including myself), I discovered I was sensual. That freedom intoxicated me. And that yes, I could fall in love.
It’s interesting how we learn to live with and to cope with ambiguity without really understanding or examining what is happening. When I was in Puerto Rico falling in love with Padre Vittorio I became two selves at war with one another. One wanted to stay faithful to my vows. The other wanted to be loved. To survive I called a truce. I would view our love as God’s gift. We would love one another utilizing all the proper channels. We sought dispensation from our vows, waited until the church accepted our request, then married. When our little girl almost died at birth and when Vittorio simultaneously began his death journey through pancreatic cancer, I buried the doubts that maybe we’d deceived ourselves. That maybe our love was not God’s gift. And I’d kept those doubts buried until writing revealed them.
In writing a memoir, I'd had to dive under the surface waves of my story, and, in doing so, I discovered that the rocks I found there had transformed from hidden dangers to islands of refuge and rescue. I discovered that far from punishing us, God had been with us throughout our journey. I encountered the goodness radiating from within my parent’s tormented lives, touched Vittorio’s anguish as he struggled to live for his children, and passed from my own loss to enter the children’s grief. The deeper I went, the more tears I shed, but eventually those tears cleared the murky waters in which I swam. I discovered that by reconnecting with my past, I can move more honestly and bravely into the future, no matter what that future holds.
The late Thomas Merton, famed author and beloved spiritual guide, wrote that "When we live superficially, we are always outside ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions … we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives."
Thanks to writing, I continue the journey to an ever deeper awareness of who I really am. Writing opened a channel leading to my inner truth and I bless the gift it shares.
© Beryl Singleton Bissell 2012