Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”
Oddball Magazine just published my poem “For Beth with the Golden Hair.”
I am a weaker version of you
you are a stronger version of me
you said as you did not grind the gears
as you pushed it into fifth
Read the full poem here: http://oddballmagazine.com/2015/02/25/poem-by-frances-donovan/
A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”
It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.
I remember very little from the years between 1973 and 1980. There’s a simple reason for this, but one that omits a large part of the story. In the years between my birth and our unintentional immigration to the East Coast, I was busy learning how to eat, how to walk, how to use the bathroom, how to dress myself, and how to talk. I was learning about the world that surrounded me, and about my place in it. I was learning what kind of a person I was, and what kind of people had brought me into this world.
In the first decade of the 20th century — a decade variously referred to as the ’00s, the naughts, the oughts, the aughties, and the naughties — the big buzzword in psychological circles was resilience. Resilience was the word used over and over again in the days following the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013. It’s a word that contains within it a kind of boundless optimism often lacking in the discussion of trauma, PTSD, and recovery from same.
This is the sort of memoir piece I aspire to write. It’s also a wonderful reminder of a few of the advantages I took for granted growing up. Compassion grows from an understanding that we are more alike than we are different.
Five things I’m grateful for today:
- The guys who called to request “November Rain” by Guns & Roses after a day installing sheet rock.
- The DJ on 100.7 who played it during a particularly hellish commute home this evening — through cold November rain, early November dark, and crosstown Boston rush hour traffic.
- The excellent speakers in my car so I could blast Slash’s solo in the last two minutes of the song.
- The peculiarly layered sensation of hearing the song in my car now, the memory of the first time I saw the music video on MTV, and reliving in an instant the twenty-plus years between the release of Appetite for Destruction, their brief stardom, their decline into obscurity, and their return as retro metal stars. The whole concept of retro metal still boggles my mind. Those years in the late 80s when hair metal ruled seem preserved in amber, out of time.
- I will never have to live through the winter of 1989 again.
“of switch vertu engender’d is the fleur” is one of the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even though I haven’t read Chaucer in years, I hold his work — and the Canterbury Tales in particular — very close to my heart, in part because it was probably some of the first college-level literature I ever read. In high school, AP English was famous for a few reasons. For an aspiring writer like me, it
represented the apex of academic achievement in high school. But it was also notorious because of the woman who taught it: Dr. White. No one got to be head of my high school’s English department without earning a PhD, and the head of the English Department was usually the only Doctor in the building. Dr. White was a towering inferno of a woman, lumpy, swarthy, with a mass of greying black hair spilling down over her bona fide hunchback.
My brother and his friends told stories about her, imitating her screeching voice and her derisive comments. I was entranced. I wanted to be her — I wanted to have a doctorate in English, head up the
English department of a fairly well funded public high school, and I wanted to teach other people about Chaucer. I wanted to bathe in poetry all day.
Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t get my wish. It might be sour grapes, but looking back over the course of my life and talking with other poets has helped me realize something I didn’t get when I was 17: that poetry is a rare, intense, sweet thing, like chocolate. And like chocolate, I find it best served in moderation.
I don’t remember exactly how Lammie appeared anymore, but he probably came in one of the boxes Grandma Donovan would send every few months. Usually, these packages were stuffed with gorgeous clothes two sizes too small for me. But Lammie wasn’t too small at all. He was huge — almost too big for an eight-year-old girl to put her arms around. He must have come in the spring, along with the swiss-dotted Easter dress that I couldn’t zip up and the Easter card with the flowery script and the lilies embossed with gold. He was a rather minimalistic interpretation of a sheep: a rectangular puff of cream-colored fleece with four black stubs for legs and a black snout poking out between two fleecy white ears.
The best thing about him was his bell, a real honest-to-goodness sheep’s bell tied around his neck with a thick ribbon. For months and months that was Lammie’s voice, a ding-ding-ding every time I sent him into the slightest motion. I carried him around in my arms, comforted by the full, round way he filled my embrace. On bright Saturday afternoons the entire family would retreat to beds and couches and immerse ourselves in books. I leaned on him like a pillow, until his great round flanks flattened from the weight of my head.
At night he kept watch at the foot of my bed, a-ding-ding-ding-ing with my every toss and turn. The sound of Lammie’s bell drove my mother’s boyfriend to distraction, kept him awake far into the night. He asked if there were a way I could muffle it, but the mere thought seemed like sacrilege to me. Lammie’s bell was Lammie’s voice, and hearing his gentle ding-ding-dings as I turned under the covers made me feel safe and protected. One day I came home to find Lammie’s bell missing from his neck. I discovered it under a pillow, reattached it with its length of now-ragged ribbon. Eventually his bell disappeared entirely. But I still have him, 30 years later, still pull him into an embrace beneath the covers, and still hear in my mind the distant ding-ding-ding of his voice lulling me to sleep.
“Try my Jesus,” she said. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”
She had the warm, rounded curves of a mature Jamaican woman. She wore white — white tunic, white pants, a white head wrap. Her name was Mother Lil.
When I arrived at the store, the woman at the counter gave me a slim, hardcover book bound in green. “Have her read Psalm 23,” I heard Mother Lil tell the woman.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
I’d been raised on Bible verses. The Franciscans sang the entire mass, in a chapel suffused with Sunday morning sunshine. But what I remembered was Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. What I remembered was the dingy gray Cathedral where a fat Archbishop in a gaudy dress rubbed oil on my forehead and told me to go forth and be a soldier of the Lord.
The Franciscans were kind, but they weren’t the ones who confirmed me. That fell to St. John’s Parish. Sister Christine ran the Religious Education program at St. John’s, and to this day I think she honestly believed every one of her little charges was going to grow up to be a drug dealer. She wouldn’t let the girls enter the church without a skirt on. Once, she dragged me down to the thrift store in the basement, picked out some moldy old thing, and forced me to put it on over my jeans. The word “genuflect” still makes me think of her.
They still used the Baltimore Catechism in my CCD classes — and that was in the 1980s. “What is the nature of God?” it asked me. And then gave me the answer in one paragraph. Even at the age of 12, I knew humans had been asking and answering that question since the dawn of time.
The Roman Catholics told me my body was dirty and bad. They told me I should be silent in church. They told me to marry a nice man who would take care of me if I submitted to him, but I knew how well that had worked out for my mother. And I loved my body. I loved other women’s bodies. There was no place for me in that church.
Here, in the Hope and Love Botanica, on Main Street in Poughkeepsie, New York, I hoped to find the secrets of that other church. I wanted to unlock the faces of High John the Conquerer, of Yemaya and Obatala.
“What goes on here?” I asked the woman at the counter when I first came in.
“What goes on here?” she echoed. She raised her eyebrows at me, this young white girl in the cheap blazer and the high heels. With my Vassar education and my computer skills, I thought I could cut into the secret practices of a religion born of the slave trade like you cut into a stick of butter.
“Yes, what sort of tradition do you practice?” I asked.
“Well, we are affiliated wit’ the church,” she replied. And I had to ask her to repeat that, because the Jamaican accent, and the notion of the Catholic Church tangled up in this, this thing I wanted so pure and sacred and separate… I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
“Do you teach classes?” I asked.
“We do spiritual readings.”
So I made an appointment for a spiritual reading.
And that is when Mother Lil handed me the Book of Psalms and had me read.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside cool waters
He restores my soul
He leads me on the paths of rightousness
For His name’s sake.
Even if I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I shall fear no evil
For Thou art with me
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me
You prepare a table for me in the presence of mine enemies
You anoint my head with oil
My cup overflows
Truly, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
My whole life long
As soon as I began to read, the tears leaked out. Pipes opened by a vision of a loving God -– a Father, even — who would care for me like a shepherd.
But I couldn’t–I couldn’t. Not then, not for 10 years and more, could I open myself to such a Lord. That wasn’t the Father I knew. He was a Father of vengeance and hate. He never told us the rules, the rules changed all the time. And the rules that he set for us… they made no sense. You might as well tell the Irish to stop eating potatoes, the things he wanted me to do, and stop doing.
Mother Lil never said I had to take the Father, though. She offered me the Son.
“Try my Jesus,” she said, as I wept in the back room next to a table with a white candle and a bottle of fleur de lis. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”
She settled into a trance after an opening prayer so filled with lovingkindness it wrenches my heart today to think of it.
“Someone does spiritual work,” she said. “You do spiritual work?” And I nodded.
“The answer isn’t in the books,” she said.
I never paid her. She never asked for money, but I knew I owed it to her. I was living hand to mouth, right out of college, but nothing really prevented me from going back another day and dropping a $20 bill, a $10 bill, something, on the counter. The store is gone now. There’s no counter left where I can drop that $20. And interest accrues.
Gifts always come with a price, even if it is not money. My price is ministry. Because I cannot pay her back, I have to pay it forward, all the days of my life. Dwelling in the house of the Goddess, under the eye of Obatala, child of Brigid, child of Athena, child of Yemaya, child of Oya, I pay it forward all the days of my life.
Sometimes the whirlwind follows me, not goodness and mercy. I am not the Lord. I am not the Lady. I am a child of the gods as we all are. Any power given to me is borrowed. It leaks out of an imperfect vessel. Given the chance to lead, I’ve sometimes led us into deserts, not green pastures. But even deserts have their lessons to teach. And still I pay it forward.
I send thanks to Mother Lil for that first opening, for that first answer that didn’t come from books. I send thanks to Mother Lil for her Jesus, who is my Jesus, who is your Jesus.