Fifty years later I honestly can’t remember why I became an altar girl. I wasn’t especially pious. I suspect it might have been because I wanted to get close to those smart, cute altar boys, who wore cassocks and surplices and looked like miniature priests. They learned Latin. They assisted at Mass, weddings, baptisms, and funerals. They swung the incense burner, rang the bells, and were often recruited for the priesthood.
As altar girls we performed our invisible duties on weekdays, dressed in our ugly school uniforms: vacuuming the sanctuary and altar area; dusting the statues of the saints; ironing the priests’ and altar boys’ complicated garments; and laying out the priests’ vestments in a highly ritualized order taught to us by dour, black-robed nuns.
We also filled the golden bowl — known as a “paten” — with unsanctified Communion hosts (papery wafers a little bigger than a quarter). I was shocked to find that the wafers came in cardboard boxes marked “Manufactured in Chicago.” It’s not that I’d believed they were sent from heaven; I just hadn’t thought about it. Finding that factory shipment was like stepping behind the magician’s curtain. The central act of the Catholic Mass — the transubstantiation of the Host into the actual body and blood of Christ — now looked like a trick.
One day, after we’d finished our heavenly housewife chores, we unchaperoned altar girls began to play Mass. In the role of priest I mumbled in faux Latin and laid the hosts on the outstretched tongues of the other girls. We munched on the unconsecrated wafers like potato chips.
By the time I was thirteen, I had lost my faith. What had once been reverent religious ritual had become to me only so much hocus-pocus.
Port Townsend, Washington
At the age of fifty-eight I was laid off after sixteen years on the same job. I’d intended to work there until I retired, but instead I was escorted out the front door in under fifteen minutes with no explanation.
I sat in my car feeling lost. My daily routine, my income, my friendships with co-workers, my sense of identity — all were gone in an instant. I knew this was happening to thousands of other people all over the U.S., but I felt singled out and alone.
I went to unemployment offices, filled out confusing paperwork, met with officials about pension and severance, and struggled to make sense of the health-insurance bureaucracy. Finally I enrolled in community college. In 2009, at the age of sixty, I received a degree in small-business management. The local unemployment rate was 22 percent, and the commencement speaker told us to go out and volunteer in the community. The day after I graduated, I applied for food stamps. Congress did not extend my unemployment benefits, and they ran out.
Today I am writing a plan for a market-gardening business that I hope to run from home. I am living off my savings, eating two meals a day, and not driving anywhere I don’t absolutely have to. Instead of enjoying retirement, I am facing a future of uncertainty and unfulfilled promises.
I was struggling with anxiety and being a parent, and my therapist suggested I go on a vision quest. For eight hundred dollars I could experience an indigenous ritual in a remote location with just a tent, a sleeping bag, and some water. (Why don’t I just starve myself at home for free? I wondered.) After three days without food, my body and brain would think I was dying, and I would have visions. I was told I could come out of this experience with a newfound sense of peace and perhaps a spirit animal to boot.
I didn’t do it. If I was going to spend that much money and all that time away from my kids, I wanted more than hunger pains and hallucinations.
Then I found an alternative: a one-day “holotropic breathwork” workshop. From what I had read, the rapid-breathing technique created the same illuminating visions, and I didn’t need to starve myself to have them. I signed up.
When it came time to do it, however, I was terrified. I was supposed to breathe as deeply and as quickly as I could for three hours. I’d already witnessed the breathers in the first session thrashing about wildly, howling, spooning their partners, and being cradled like a baby.
“Can you please wake me up if my lips start turning blue?” I asked the breathwork facilitator, Glenn.
“You just have to trust your body,” answered Glenn.
That was the problem: I didn’t.
I took a quick last glance around. The other people were lying on their mats, their eyes covered with black sleep masks, partners perched on pillows next to them. We were a group of strangers lying on the floor of a Grange hall, watching each other hyperventilate. The idea of starving alone in a tent no longer seemed so bad.
I told myself I needed to do this for myself and my kids. So I furiously snorted air in through my nose and out through my mouth. Soon my hands and feet started buzzing as though they were full of bees. Then my hands curled into tight bird claws, and my calf knotted up. I kept breathing.
It didn’t take long for the visions to come. I could see myself dying in the desert with gimpy limbs. I saw a raven. I saw a magician eating her hand. And then, right in front of me, was the most peculiar sight of all: a huge womb. I was looking inside a giant vagina, the cervix widening like a camera lens. Jesus. Was this my message from the great unknown? I hadn’t expected the Virgin Mary, but a vagina?
Now someone was emerging from the womb — a young girl with her arms wrapped around her knees and hair over her face. I could only guess this was my inner child. If you aren’t protected as a child, my therapist had told me, you end up parenting yourself. He said I needed to let go of the hurt girl inside me in order to be a better mother to my kids. I can’t let her go, I said, because I don’t know what will happen to her if I do.
As it turns out, I didn’t need to let her go. I just needed to let her out. And, in a room full of strangers in sweat pants, I did.
I sat on the tree limb about fifteen feet up, my teeth quietly chattering, and waited for dawn to come. I was twelve years old and on my first deer-hunting trip.
Dad had taken my brother Charles and me out a few times to shoot ducks, geese, and quail, but this was a real hunting trip: two nights away, stalking big game.
Dad had placed me on the edge of a massive cornfield rimmed with live oaks, maples, scrub pine, and mesquite. Now I was waiting, absolutely still, until sunrise.
As daylight approached, I became aware of dark shapes near the limit of my vision: deer, and lots of them. I couldn’t tell if they were bucks or does, and Dad had said that we were only going to shoot a buck today. I had to be sure.
As the sunlight began to fill the darkened corners of the field, I counted more than sixty deer. Every time I looked, another emerged from the dark woods, but not a buck among them. I watched them browse, ears pricked, unhurried but poised to vanish in an instant.
Then, on the far edge of the field, I noticed a bigger, stronger-looking deer. I looked through my rifle scope and admired his massive antlers: at least eight points. But it was a very long shot. At that distance even the slightest movement of the barrel would cause me to miss by yards. I knew I needed to aim high, but by how much? I decided three inches.
The buck was facing me, and I had a good view of his chest. I held my breath, placed my shoulder firmly against the stock, and aimed. Then I eased off the safety, and, praying the buck would hold still for a moment longer, I pulled the trigger.
The buck dropped. He didn’t get back up. I climbed down from the tree and made the long walk across the field, alert in case he might suddenly jump up and run away. I couldn’t believe I had done it. Twelve years old, and I had killed an eight-point buck with one shot, from a hell of a long way off. Why wasn’t I feeling any elation?
When I reached the unmoving corpse, I looked at the buck’s eyes and felt his warm body. I could see the small perforation in the chest, just level with the shoulders.
A few minutes earlier this powerful, beautiful creature had been grazing and slowly warming up from a cool night. And then I had killed him. I’d thought I wanted this, but now that I had done it, I felt empty. I knew it was OK to kill what you eat. I had learned that deer would overbreed from having no natural predators, and that hunters helped keep the population in check and healthy. But at that moment I saw only a majestic creature whose life I had taken.
It was the last time I went deer hunting.
Columbia, South Carolina
At eighty-two my mother received two dolls from my sister-in-law as a present: stuffed, whimsical monsters, flat and pillowlike, in bright colors with Xs or Os for eyes. “Why would she send me these?” Mom asked, laughing. “Does she think I’m in my second childhood?” I was pleased she could see the humor in the gift, but I grew concerned when she repeated herself ten or twelve times: “Does she think I’m in my second childhood?”
Six months later she received the diagnosis: Alzheimer’s.
As my mother, once a keen businesswoman, became less capable in ways of the world, she became more capable in ways of the heart. She was sweet, affectionate, easily delighted — in short, childlike. I got used to buckling her seat belt, telling her when she needed to eat, and guiding her through simple tasks, such as addressing an envelope.
One afternoon at a lakeside she squealed and waved her arms wildly as ducks fought over scraps of bread. Embarrassed, I peeked over my shoulder. Was anyone watching? Then I stopped worrying and looked fully at my mother’s unrestrained joy. Suddenly her condition seemed less like a downward spiral and more like coming full circle.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
I lined up by the door with the other girls in Mrs. Miller’s sixth-grade class while the boys remained seated at their desks. We giggled at our luck — being excused while the boys had to work.
At the entrance to the gymnasium Sister Agnella waved us inside, and we sat in silence on the bleachers. The lights dimmed. A film projector sputtered to life, and on the screen appeared the words “Your Monthly Cycle.”
I watched intently as a nurse identified body parts on a diagram as though they were countries on a newly discovered continent: ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the mysterious uterus, where eggs holed up before being washed away in a shock of blood. I felt nauseous.
Up to this point in my life, all I’d known was that God created the universe, and men and women were united in holy matrimony and blessed with children. What else was there? Apparently more than I realized.
The film ended, and we filed out of the gymnasium the way we’d come. At the door Sister Agnella handed each girl a small pink booklet to take home. “Show your mothers,” she said. I cringed at the idea. What if my father or brother overheard? I tucked the booklet into my navy-blue sweater, wondering where I could possibly hide it in a house as tiny as ours.
In seventh grade my peers began to play kissing games at parties: Spin the Bottle, Seven Minutes in Heaven. I was intimidated. My father had died, and I had no adult male to guide me through adolescence. (I did have an older friend, who’d breathlessly explained that babies resulted when the boy peed into a little hole in the girl. I knew that couldn’t be right.)
I was desperately interested in girls and spent many nights agonizing over how to get them to like me. It wasn’t sex I wanted, even after I got the facts straight. I had absorbed a strict moral code from my mother, who’d neglected to tell me that girls were just as curious about exploring sexual feelings as I was, if not quite so tormented. I was after girls’ admiration and love, and I believed I would win it by respecting them.
So I decided the games were immoral, and I took no part in them. I would simply watch awkwardly from the edge of the circle.
By tenth grade I had decided that kissing, at least, was permissible. My dates and I spent hours necking in my car or at summer camp or on youth-group retreats. One girl, bored with kissing, urged me to go further. Despite her clear invitation I was immobilized by impending guilt.
And so the task was left to my girlfriend at the beginning of senior year. Exasperated after yet another marathon necking session, she took my hand and placed it gently on her breast, an act of mercy for which my wife and I are forever grateful.
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
If you have sex, you need birth control — period. That has been drilled into me in school and by my mother. I know damn well that “pulling out,” as Joe calls it, doesn’t work. But I let him do it one time anyway.
Now I’m afraid I’m pregnant. I’ll get an abortion if I am, but it’s not something I could keep from my mother. I already feel terrible for not telling her that I’ve had sex. I’m only fourteen.
Joe keeps telling me not to worry, but I call Planned Parenthood anyway and make an appointment. As the woman gives me directions to the clinic, I realize I’ve never gone to a doctor’s appointment without Mom. I feel guilty for denying her the chance to participate in my first gynecological exam. “An important rite of passage,” she would call it.
I make my friend Gina come with me. We’re both too young to drive, so we walk there after school. The clinic is in an old church, but inside it looks like a run-down doctor’s office. There are four or five women in the waiting room, all adults. I had expected Planned Parenthood to be full of teenagers, but these are mothers. The women watch me walk by, making no attempt to hide their disapproval. I blush and stand taller.
Gina leafs through a tattered Parenting magazine, scanning articles about teething and the right color for your baby’s poo. (“They call it ‘stool,’ ” she says.) Then a woman in jeans and a pink smock calls me to the back.
The examining room resembles a living room except for the shiny metal table-chair contraption in the middle of it. The nurse hands me a folded paper gown — it feels like a disposable napkin — and asks me to put it on, then leaves.
It hasn’t occurred to me until now that I’ll be naked and someone I don’t know is going to look at — in — my vagina. No one has ever done that, not even my boyfriend.
Trying to stay calm, I get undressed and spread the disposable napkin-gown awkwardly over my front. The doctor enters, knocking as she comes. “Ready?” she asks. The nurse is with her.
The doctor shows me how to rest my feet in the metal stirrups, then asks if I’m doing OK. I tell her I’m fine.
“Is this your first pelvic?” she asks, looking at a folder and making notes.
I’ve never heard of a “pelvic” before. It sounds painful. “Yes,” I say, trying to appear mature.
The doctor positions herself on a stool between my spread legs and flips on a bright light. The nurse takes my hand. “It won’t hurt,” she says. “It’ll just feel funny.”
“This is the speculum,” the doctor says from underneath the napkin-gown. “It will be cold.” I feel a metal rod slide into me. My instinct is to pull away, but I don’t. “Opening,” the doctor says, and my belly is pulled tight inside, like a balloon inflating.
While the doctor does her exam, I wonder how Gina’s doing. I feel a world away from her, as if I’ve entered the realm of adult women and she’s still a girl out there, feeling squeamish as she reads about breast-feeding.
The nurse leans over to look inside me. “Wow!” she says. “What a beautiful, healthy cervix. It’s so pink.”
The English public school I attended as a boy was as austere as the stone it was built of — granite from the open moors in Devon. In England “public” schools are, in fact, private, and any boy sent to one has parents of a certain standing. I’d failed the entrance exams, but my father had pulled a few strings and paid a bit more money, and I was accepted.
I was eleven years old, a pale, gangly boy in gray worsted shorts, crooked tie, and blazer with the school emblem, when I was unceremoniously deposited on the school’s gravel drive, my new suitcase beside me. Filled with dread, I walked up the stone steps into a towering hallway. Everything was made of stone: walls, ceilings, floors. Boys of different ages were everywhere, all dressed the same as me.
A man in a black cape and mortar-board hat with a tassel was staring down at me, hands behind his back. He leaned over so that his face met mine. I smelled alcohol.
“What’s your name?” he barked.
“ ‘Sir!’ ”
“ ‘Tew, sir.’ You say, ‘Tew, sir.’ ”
“Do up your buttons.”
“Do up your buttons. Do I have to repeat everything? Juniors have to have all three buttons done up on their blazers.”
“Now go to your dormitory and attend evensong in one hour. . . . Don’t just stand there. Go!”
The following weekend was the ceremonial rite of passage for all juniors. The school was on the edge of Dartmoor, a barren, windswept expanse broken only by occasional granite rock formations called “tors.” Some five miles away atop a hill stood one such granite monolith, carved by glacier, wind, and rain. To become a “man,” I needed to run, with the thirty-nine other luckless juniors, to the top of that hill and return before nightfall.
After chapel that morning the juniors congregated in the parking lot of the school. Most, like myself, had never run even a mile before. There had never been any need to.
A gust chilled us through as we huddled like sheep against the cold. Then a whistle blew, and we were off, our thin frames leaning into the biting wind. Rain began to fall. I wanted to cry but kept it inside and ran.
With my long legs I soon left most of the other boys behind. My shoes filled with mud, and the brambles tore at my socks and shins, but I pumped my arms and legs and was the first to the farmer’s gate at the bottom of the hill.
It was then that I saw the long, slow ascent ahead of me. It was miles to the summit, and all along the path to the top stood students from the school, shouting and holding sticks and rocks. They were beckoning me to run the gauntlet.
A senior stood sentry at the gate. He pointed to a broken stone wall. “Pick up a rock the size of your head and carry it to the top.”
Then he whipped me with a long piece of birch, leaving a welt on my left thigh. I fell to my hands and knees and pulled at a rock half submerged in the mud.
The rock was heavy, cold, and slippery. I had to cradle it in my arms like a granite baby. The students lining the path jeered as I pulled the rock to my body and began the impossible walk to the top. Crying from the pain, I was taunted every step along the way, whipped with brambles, tripped, and kicked when I was down. Mud was thrown at me, and small stones peppered my legs, but I never gave up. My pain had grown into defiance, my fear into anger.
Some two hours later, at the top, I slipped once more and fell. I sat back on my heels and looked up at the monolith. It was not a granite peak worn down by thousands of years of wind and rain, as I had thought, but a massive pile of rocks: four thousand hunks of stone carried there by four thousand young boys over a hundred years.
I stood slowly and placed my stone on the edge of the pile, a testament to my manhood. Then I knelt on the rocks and cried and wondered if the adult world would always be this hurtful.
J. Archie Tew
Santa Fe, New Mexico
When I was in medical school in the late forties, I volunteered one summer at a state mental hospital. I arrived there an eager, naive young woman, hoping to help the chronically ill patients.
My first day on the ward, the head nurse told me that the attending physician (whom I would rarely see all summer) wanted me to interview the patient in Room 6. For reasons of privacy, students were not allowed to see the patients’ charts, which meant I knew nothing about the person I was to interview.
The nurse took me to a door with a small barred window and asked me to enter. Then she locked the door behind me. I found myself in a room with padded walls and floor, no furniture or bell to call for help. Sitting on the floor was an enormous man, well over six feet tall and more than twice my weight. His knees were pulled up to his chest, and his head was bent to where it almost touched his knees.
In a quavering voice I said, “Good morning.” There was no answer. Perhaps the man was deaf? I tried again in a louder voice: “I am one of the medical students who is going to work here this summer. My name is Renate.” The man did not stir. I sat down across from him and hoped my shaking wasn’t noticeable.
“Did you sleep last night?” I asked. “Are you getting enough to eat?” After a while I ran out of questions and said, “I will meditate with you now and be silent.”
Thirty minutes later the nurse unlocked the door and let me out. I headed to the bathroom to wipe the sweat off my hands.
I named this patient “Big Bill.” Every morning I had to spend a half-hour with him. I always feared that he might explode with rage. I read him poetry, fables, and nonviolent stories. He never spoke and rarely moved, but occasionally he made eye contact. I interpreted his gaze as one of pure anger.
I told Bill about my childhood, where I’d studied, my sisters, and much more. If he did listen, he knew more about me than my closest friends.
Bill’s diagnosis was probably catatonic schizophrenia, and the purpose of my visits — which was never explained — was likely for me to learn about the disease. Today there are medications that might have helped Bill, but they didn’t exist in 1949.
I did learn something from Bill. That summer I changed from an idealistic young medical student to a more mature future physician who realized that not all suffering can be ameliorated. Bill’s mute, threatening figure, crouched in a padded cell, has remained for me a symbol of incurable pain. He taught me that my powers to heal are limited and that wanting to help those who are hurting is not enough.
Renate G. Justin
In the middle of seventh-grade French class my pad slipped, and blood overflowed the boundaries of the white absorbent rectangle, seeping into the crotch of my underwear and my jeans. A little may even have gotten on my seat. I tied a sweat shirt around my waist, raised my hand, and asked the teacher if I could go to the restroom.
In the bathroom it was a blood bath, and I had three more classes to get through before I could go home. I prayed my classmates wouldn’t see red on my pants.
I made it all the way to the bus without detection. Then the class bully saw past my camouflage and asked in a loud voice if I was “on the rag.” I flushed crimson, feeling betrayed by my own body. The blood poured from me thick and fast. How could there be so much of it?
That night after supper I mustered the courage to ask my mom if I could start using tampons. She took me to the bathroom, handed me a box of my sister’s Playtex Super Plus, and said, “The directions are inside. Or maybe on the box.” She shut the door quickly behind her.
I looked at the ink diagram, removed the wrapper, and shoved the plastic cylinder into that unknown place inside me. It felt too big and hurt going in.
I walked to my sister’s bedroom with my legs spread wider than normal and told her the problem. She laughed and asked if I’d tried to pull it out. I had. It had hurt worse. “Well, it’s probably too dry. Why don’t you wait a while and then try again.”
I waited half an hour before tugging on the string. It wouldn’t budge. I sat in a warm bath and watched blood snake into the water, then pulled some more. No go.
I was crying alone in my room when my mom tapped on my door. “I’ll take you to my gynecologist in the morning” was all she said.
I was afraid of toxic shock syndrome. I was afraid of showing my unknown places to a strange doctor. I was afraid the whole wide world would know of this terrible thing that was happening to me.
The doctor was gruff. “Why didn’t you just pull it out, for God’s sake?” He yanked hard, and I gasped from the pain.
Once it was out, the female nurse said, “Gosh, those are the biggest ones they make!”
My mom was in a silent snit about being late for work that morning, or maybe she was humiliated to have a daughter who bled so publicly. It was a while before I tried using a tampon again, and when I did, I bought the slender kind. I did not ask my mother for help.
At twenty-two I married a college dropout and wannabe rock star, much to the chagrin of my conservative Chinese-immigrant parents. Before my marriage, my life had been bound by family duties and my parents’ stifling pragmatism. Their goal was to buy a mansion in the suburbs, where all of us would live the American dream together.
My husband’s mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, had similar dreams for him. He and I encouraged each other’s rebellious sides. It felt good to break free from our parents’ rules and orders.
I went to my husband’s band “rehearsals” — he and his friends never had an actual performance to rehearse for — in the basement of someone’s parents’ house. The noise terrified me. There were dirty clothes, empty beer cans, and bags of potato chips lying on the floor. The band members, including my husband, sometimes became so drunk that fights would break out.
Unhappy, I fell back on my mother’s wishes for me to study medicine or “something useful.” I got into dental school, and my husband and I moved to San Francisco and lived in married-student housing. He found a part-time job at Tower Records and started making new friends, who also dreamed of becoming rock stars. (There was no shortage of them in San Francisco.) They formed a band but, not surprisingly, couldn’t find a gig. After all the bars had closed, they would end up at our apartment.
In the morning, to get to my eight o’clock class, I had to step over spilled beer, vomit, and foul-smelling bodies. When I complained, my husband dubbed me an “uncool, ungrateful China bitch and a whore.” I called him and all his friends “disgusting bums,” “losers,” “white trash,” and “assholes.”
My marriage lasted six years. After the divorce I traveled around the world to work or volunteer for nonprofit organizations serving indigenous peoples.
I blame neither my parents nor my ex-husband for my failed marriage; I consider it a rite of passage.
The first time I came out to my parents, I was twelve years old. My mom, concerned that I was depressed, had read my diary, and during the tearful discussion that followed, I told her I was a lesbian. She and my dad struggled to understand. How could I be certain at my age? Was it a choice? A phase? A lifestyle? But with much persistence and patience all around, they grew comfortable enough to tell strangers, “Our daughter has a girlfriend.”
The second time I came out to my parents, I was twenty. I’d realized I was not a lesbian woman; I was a straight man. I told my parents over Thanksgiving break, hoping they wouldn’t find my new identity as a transgendered male too upsetting.
I was wrong. More tearful discussions ensued. My parents asked familiar questions: Choice? Phase? Rebellion? They mourned the loss of a daughter, but eventually they adjusted to this change, too. They learned to call me by my new name. They replaced the phrase “our daughter and her girlfriend” with “our son and his girlfriend.”
At twenty-three, with some trepidation, I came out to my parents for a third time. It was New Year’s Day. The night before, I had met my soul mate, and he was male. I was a gay man. When I phoned my parents’ house, my dad answered.
“I met someone last night,” I said. “Someone really wonderful.”
“What’s her name?” my dad asked.
“Actually, um, it’s a guy.”
Without missing a beat, my father replied, “What’s his name?”
Last summer my wife and I arranged a coming-of-age celebration for our teenage son, J., in Denmark, where he was born. The setting was an organic farm whose owners also rented out a couple of banquet rooms.
When the thirty guests had arrived, J.’s uncles Lars and Iens, his older cousin Philip, and I blindfolded him, lifted him up, and carried him out the door. We brought him behind the tractor shed, out of sight and hearing of the guests, and sat him down amid old pavers, pallets, and roof shingles.
When we removed J.’s blindfold, in front of him was an empty leather bag. “This is the start of your journey to manhood,” I told him. “We are here to help you get a good start.” Each of us, I said, would describe for him one of the four pillars of manhood.
Lars began with “humor,” which he said was the shortest distance between two people. He told J. to laugh at life, at our fellow humans, and, most importantly, at himself, and he dropped into the bag a novelty item: a pink rubber mouth with its tongue sticking out.
Iens spoke about “responsibility” — economic, interpersonal, ecological, and responsibility to oneself. He admonished J. to, in all things, “drive safely” and added to the bag a condom.
Philip spoke about “compassion,” telling J., “If you can open your heart to see the inner good in everyone, you will make friends everywhere you go.” Into the leather bag he placed a little metal heart.
Finally I spoke of “intuition,” which I described as the voice inside him “that will help you in times of problems and decision making.” Into the bag I put a clear crystal, his birthstone.
Then we hung the bag around his neck, put him on our shoulders, and carried him back to the party.
In the fifties, when I was a junior in a Chicago public high school, I met a handsome young student at the university. Our relationship heated up, and, left alone at his home one rainy afternoon, we finally “did it.”
I learned a lot from the experience but was troubled afterward that I was no longer a virgin. Female virginity until marriage was the rule in my middle-class Jewish community. Sex was not even talked about among girlfriends. You never knew anyone was having unmarried sex unless there was a hurried wedding.
By the time I graduated from high school, the boy and I had broken up. My parents were not pleased; they adored my ex-boyfriend. But I was determined to go to college.
At the university I decided to pretend that I was still a virgin. I had convinced myself that if I rejected all sexual activity until my honeymoon, I would be able to “pass.” Although there were probably three dozen boys to every girl on the campus, and I was constantly asked on dates, I played the role of the prissy innocent. No one was allowed to get too close. I had no intention of losing my newly regained virginity.
In my second semester a tall, handsome student kept sketching my profile in geology class. In response I passed him notes. We dated and started to get close. But the more I allowed myself to respond to him physically, the more he held back. Ironically I found myself the aggressor. The critical moment came when I told him that I wasn’t a virgin. I was actually glad to be rid of that burdensome pretense. And I got what I’d thought I didn’t want.
Forest Knolls, California
I was the sole passenger disembarking at the Greyhound bus shelter in Ocean City, Maryland. It was off-season, and a storm was spinning up the Atlantic coast.
I hitched a ride with a local man in a pickup over an estuary to the northern end of Assateague, a thirty-seven-mile-long, undeveloped barrier island. My ride said he was a mechanic and his name was Crow. I laughed to myself: so mythical, the crow taking me over the water to find my path.
My plan was to camp on the island and walk its length. I had decided to do this because my life was in turmoil: My marriage was headed toward divorce. I had gone back to school and was broke. The social movement that had consumed my life for fifteen years was stagnant. I had read about Assateague in a hippie guide to nude camping, which described the island as a “sacred space” and, more important to me, unpopulated in fall and winter.
Even as I had packed for the trip, I’d mocked myself for contriving such a stereotypical rite of passage. Clearly I’d read too many feminist poems and Goddess books. It wasn’t until I was on the bus that I realized I was genuinely afraid to be alone in nature without a locked door between me and the world. The journey I had mocked now seemed essential.
That night on the island I slept wrapped in a sleeping bag and a tarp, sheltered by the hollows of the dunes. The storm had passed, and the quarter moon rose into a field of stars. Night birds screeched.
By day I walked on the beach or on deer trails. I bathed in sun-heated tidal pools. I plunged naked into the cold ocean and warmed myself by dancing up and down the dunes. I watched a blue heron in a marsh-grass cove and saw a red fox at the edge of the bush. I found a deer hoof at the waterline, worn smooth by ocean and sand to the shape of a woman’s torso.
Most of all I grieved my marriage. When I’d met my husband, I had seen the ocean only once. This country boy and Eagle Scout had taught me how to play in the waves and later given me mountain trails and wild woods and campfires and caves and meteor showers. Somehow I had thought that, in losing him, I would lose all of this. Assateague made nature mine again.
I met just three people on the island: a couple staying at a closed state-park campsite and a solitary duck hunter. I acted friendly and lied ferociously to all of them, mentioning a male companion just down the beach or giving myself an infectious and fatal disease. “Charm the snake and back away,” my Southern granny used to say. Walking on alone, I wondered if this was the right approach. Probably these people knew I wasn’t telling the truth. They didn’t appear to be a threat. Possibly, in my reflexive lying, I had missed a needed encounter.
Late on the third day, having traversed the entire island, I walked over the bridge to the village of Chincoteague, had a hot meal, and took a shower at a motel. The next morning I got a ride out to the crossroads where the Greyhound bus would take me home.
There was no great epiphany — I was too aware of my own taste for drama to let that happen — but the time I spent on Assateague marked the start of a slow dawning. I wore the deer hoof I’d found as a necklace for years.
In my first year of medical school I was assigned to interview a patient while my fellow students and our physician mentor observed at the bedside. My patient was a “thirty-seven-year-old diabetic female appearing older than her stated age.” Her right leg had been amputated below the knee years earlier, and her left had been removed above the knee just a few days before. She had gone blind. Her kidneys had failed, and she received hemodialysis three times a week, connected to a machine for five hours at a time. She had suffered numerous heart attacks and undergone bypass surgery. Her bladder was chronically infected and constantly pained her. Her hands were numb. Her hair was thin and brittle. Her skin was plagued by ulcers and pustules. She smelled of stale urine, sweat, and the remains of her hospital breakfast. She lived entirely alone, her cat having recently died.
During the interview she was listless, her words whispered and few. As I spoke to her, I was so overwhelmed by sadness that I felt as though I might faint. But I pressed on despite the ringing in my ears and the hot, prickly sensation on my face and scalp.
Afterward the other students and I went to a conference room and discussed with our mentor whether the interview had achieved its goal of obtaining all details needed to formulate a discharge plan for the patient. I was still distracted by the woman’s hopelessness and my strong emotional reaction to her. Preparing to go on to the next interview, our mentor asked if there were any other questions or comments. I responded by expressing how sad I had felt during the interview.
No one spoke. Everyone was suddenly very interested in his or her styrofoam coffee cup. Finally our mentor said, “Shall we move on to the next one?”
In my nineteen years of clinical practice I have never again confided in another physician regarding my feelings about the suffering I witness.
When my husband died, I wasn’t fully present, even though I was only a few feet from his hospital bed. I had wanted to be right there with him when he took his last breath, but at four in the morning exhaustion had taken me, and when I’d awakened a few hours later, he was gone, his body already cold.
How could I not have known, not have sensed his passage? I felt cheated somehow.
I realized that what I’d really wanted was to participate in some way in his death. I longed to be washing his body with the elder women of the family while the men dug a grave out back, as my grandparents and great-grandparents would have done. Instead I watched as the funeral-home personnel wrapped his naked body in a clean white sheet and lifted him from bed to gurney. There was something shroudlike about the wrapping. This ceremony, at least, gave me a clear line of demarcation at which to begin my own passage into grief.
Returning to college at thirty-nine to obtain my BA was both exciting and intimidating. I felt alive with all my newly acquired knowledge. My favorite subject was anthropology. One of our assignments was to make a family tree — to illustrate the concepts of lineage, kinship, and family relations. I found an old family tree that I had drawn up in elementary school, on which I’d proudly recorded the names of my great-great-grandparents.
I’d recently taken part in a Native American sweat-lodge ceremony with my best friend. Since I didn’t speak Lakota, the elder had instructed me simply to say, “All my relations,” whenever it was my turn. As I was finalizing my family tree, the meaning of “all my relations” hit me on a profound level. I cried as I stared at all the names.
I wanted to formally pay respects to my ancestors, and it came to me that my upcoming fortieth-birthday party would be the perfect occasion. I decorated my living room with photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents. When the time was right, I thanked all my relatives for coming and explained that my birthday was not only about me but also about all those who’d come before me. Then I slowly read off the name of each deceased relative from my family tree. I felt as if I were in a trance. My voice started to quaver, and my body trembled. I imagined my ancestors looking down on me, and I hoped I’d done them justice.
When I’d finished, I saw my uncle crying and the emotion on both my parents’ faces. It was a moment I will cherish until I am called to the ancestral world myself.
Los Angeles, California