With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Heather King is an ex-lawyer, a sober alcoholic, and a Catholic convert with three memoirs: Parched, Redeemed, and Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at www.shirtofflame.blogspot.com.
We carry in our bodies a whole host of hurts, of lonely nights, of tiny slights and insults, of guilt for the slights and insults we’ve inflicted on others. If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that you are first in no one’s heart. You walk the earth with billions of other people, and you are first in no one’s heart.
When I first met Fred, I didn’t know he’d be a thorn in my side for twenty years. I didn’t know yet what Dostoyevsky had meant when he’d said, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” I didn’t know yet that the parts of us that are the most painful, the most difficult, the least susceptible to healing are the very parts that bind us most to others.
I used to make ninety bucks an hour as a lawyer doing part-time legal research and writing — hateful work I was nevertheless grateful for, as for ten years it had supported me while I tried to make my way as a creative writer. I’d found the job by sending out résumés to lawyers listed in the yellow pages.
Christ embodied and lived the sum total of what I’ve learned in life, which is that the truth about things is hidden, it is small, and it is scorned and mocked by the world. Out of this poverty and want, this failure and humiliation, he created a temple “not made by human hands” to fulfill the deepest desire of every human heart, which is not to be so eternally, everlastingly alone.
All that winter, when I was deep into my self-deprivation, self-imposed-poverty phase, I walked the filthy, noisy streets of downtown LA, my used laptop on my back, toting a Ralph’s grocery bag containing my lunch: a quart yogurt container of brown rice and cabbage, a half-rotten apple, and a few crumbled matzohs (two boxes for ninety-nine cents at the ninety-nine-cent store).
I’ve just driven 550 miles from LA to a monastery located in the desert a couple of hours northwest of Las Vegas. The moment I spot the Celtic cross atop the adobe chapel and pull in, I see that one of my lessons for the next week is going to concern the gap between expectations and reality. I’ve been picturing a flowering-cactus-festooned oasis; instead, the property is next to a state highway and is home to more double-wide trailers than cactuses.
Having always been drawn toward the mystical and the contemplative, I’d converted to Catholicism three years before, but now I saw it was one thing to be told that death leads to resurrection and another to watch someone you love die in agony.
A few years after my arrival, I move with my husband to Koreatown, a colorful neighborhood where our jewel of an apartment gleams quietly amid a cacophonous welter of Salvadoran taco vendors, alley-cruising crack-heads, and ambulance sirens wailing the news that yet another Seoul-trained driver has merrily run a red light.
I am a moody, bookish teenager living in a small town on the coast. Ten miles offshore, the Isles of Shoals seem to hover, whispering of mystery, a promise unfulfilled, a gift forever withheld. In fact, the islands are easily reached by boat in an hour, and the one time I went there it was bleak and cold and a seagull swooped down with its sharp yellow beak and stole my sandwich. I prefer to regard them from the shore, imagining a paradise just beyond my reach.