The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
When I was seven years old, I sneaked onto the roof of our home, straddled its shingled peak, and leaned over the edge to contemplate jumping off. I was convinced that if I jumped with the total belief that I could fly, then I would; but if I jumped with even the slightest trace of fear, I would fall. To my mind this was perfectly clear.
I never jumped, but when I grew up, I entered the Air Force Academy and learned to parachute. Raised in an Evangelical Christian home, I had the sense that this was God’s calling for me in the battle between good and evil. I would leap out of planes more than a thousand times before graduation.
During my senior year at the academy my roommate and I came up with an idea for a freshmen initiation: to haze them, we would play the part of “hippies” who aggressively challenged their military commitment. For inspiration I wrote to a vocal antiwar professor at Colorado College and asked for his perspective. One of his views was entirely new to me: What if Jesus actually meant what he’d said about forgiveness and expected us to live according to his gospel even if it threatened our comfortable lives? If we truly loved our enemies, how could we kill them?
The experience of arguing this point of view stayed with me over the next few years as I left the academy and went on to train as a pilot. I began to question how my Christianity fit with my patriotism and the violence inherent in the military. By the end of pilot training, I’d become a conscientious objector. To nearly all my friends and family this was a dishonorable departure from the correct path, but to me it was the sort of leap I had always wanted to take.
Before I met my husband, when he was twenty and single, he heard the voice of God calling him into service as the Final Prophet. Or perhaps the Left-Hand Son. Or maybe the two-thousandth reincarnation of Moses. He wasn’t sure which. But when the Voice told him to do something, he obeyed: He ran through the city following a trail of purple footprints no one else could see. He climbed a high mountain naked and in darkness. When the Voice fell silent, he tried to decipher the messages he found hidden in pop songs and graffiti. He once spent a day riding a train through Europe, waiting for the apocalypse.
He confided all this to me on our first date. He was sane enough to know how crazy it sounded, yet he still firmly believed the Voice was real. He later proposed to me by placing a rubber band on my ring finger.
We’ve been married for twenty-eight years. My husband has done short stints in mental hospitals, seen psychiatrists and psychologists, and taken medications that didn’t help, including one that almost killed him due to an allergic reaction. He smokes marijuana to keep the voices at bay and wants to move someplace where medical marijuana is legal. Eleven years ago he gave up trying to hold a job and applied for disability, even though taking the money makes him feel guilty. He also sees it as a tacit acceptance of the label “schizophrenic.”
On the outside our marriage appears normal. We own a home, grow a garden, walk our dogs, wave to the neighbors. But my husband’s paranoia and conspiracy theories overshadow every aspect of our lives. He thinks our phone has been bugged and our computers have been hacked; that we are followed by men in unmarked police cars; that cops disguised as townspeople walk drug-sniffing poodles and terriers by our house. He says I’m his CIA handler. I prefer to think I am the net waiting to catch him when he’s done falling.
I’m a thirty-four-year-old man, and this afternoon, for the first time in my life, I’m going on a date with another man. His name’s Jason, and we’ve been chatting online for almost a month.
My profile on the dating site says I love writing and can quote lines from Star Trek. What my profile doesn’t say — and Jason doesn’t know — is that just a few months ago I was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. I was “disfellowshipped” and expelled from my congregation after someone discovered gay content in my browsing history on a borrowed laptop. I lied in my profile and wrote that I’ve been out since I was twenty-one, but I’m as in the closet as they come.
When Jason and I meet for lunch, his high-pitched voice and effeminate manner catch me off guard. There’s no doubt about it: Jason is gay. As a Witness I trained myself to avoid people like him. I can’t help looking to see if anyone is staring. I slouch in my seat and spread my legs to appear more straight.
At the end of our date Jason leans in to hug me, and I let him. Even the brothers in my congregation hugged from time to time, I tell myself. A hug doesn’t have to imply anything I don’t want it to.
Ten minutes after we parted, I get a text from Jason inviting me to go to a club called CC’s on Saturday. CC’s is a gay club. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses know this.
On Saturday Jason brings a few friends along. One of them asks me, “Are you sure you aren’t a breeder?”
Though a novice to gay slang, I gather that he’s asking if I’m straight. “No!” I reply. It feels odd to speak the truth. Lying about my sexuality is second nature.
“You sure seem like it,” Jason’s friend says. “Straight guy!” he announces to the room. “We have a straight guy here!”
I wonder if heterosexuality is as much a sin among gay men as homosexuality is for Witnesses.
The music inside the club is overwhelming, and it’s impossible to move without bumping into someone. Men are kissing and holding hands. Unable to handle so much freewheeling homosexuality, I bolt outside before I’ve even finished the drink Jason bought me. He follows and kindly says, “Too many fags trying to act fabulous can get to me, too.”
I laugh nervously. When gay men refer to each other as “fag,” is it an insult or a term of endearment?
Over the next month he and I have several more dates, but, aside from the hugs goodbye, there is no physical contact. My inner Witness insists that I keep my behavior proper.
One day Jason texts to ask if I am his boyfriend. “I’ve been calling you that to friends,” he writes. “Is that OK?”
I want to reply that, no, it’s not OK. We haven’t even kissed. Then I stare at the smiling emoticon he attached to his message.
I tell him it’s OK.
Jason begins holding my hand in public, but if people approach, I find a need to cough or scratch, which requires letting go of his hand. When we finally kiss, Jason points out that my heart is racing. I don’t tell him it’s with fear, not passion.
Finally I have to break up with him. I can’t bring myself to be honest about the reason — that every time his lips touched mine, I couldn’t help but think what the elders in my congregation would call me: Faggot. Sodomite. Monster.
New York, New York
Scans discovered a suspicious area about two inches across on my pancreas.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to operate,” the gastroenterologist announced. He was a good doctor and took ample time to listen to me and explain the situation. Still, the news was unsettling. Having had a health condition since childhood, I was familiar with both the miracles of modern medicine and its unintended consequences.
Leaving the gastroenterologist’s office, I remembered a conversation with a neighbor about a skilled acupuncturist who’d recently moved to town. I made an appointment and found I felt better afterward.
“Don’t let them cut you,” the acupuncturist advised. “Stall for more time.”
I was flummoxed. I usually followed doctors’ recommendations for serious illnesses, but I didn’t wish to have any more invasive surgeries, like the ones I’d had during childhood. One day, while I was praying, the thought occurred to me that maybe my pancreas was not diseased. I had no logical basis for this belief, but it stuck nonetheless.
My surgery was postponed, and I scheduled another scan for after the summer solstice. On a lark I attended a solstice gathering in the mountains the weekend prior to the scan. I soaked in mineral pools, ate organic vegetarian meals, and sang songs with the other campers. On my last night there someone performed an acoustic version of “Stayin’ Alive,” by the Bee Gees. I felt as though the song were being sung directly to me.
The day after the gathering I sat in the gastroenterologist’s office, waiting for the scan results. When the doctor walked into the room, he looked perplexed. “Thank God we didn’t operate,” he said. “It’s gone.”
Cottage Grove, Oregon
I grew up right below Twin Peaks in San Francisco, an area known for its hills. Around the corner from my house was one of the steepest slopes in the neighborhood — “Monster Hill,” we called it.
I was a pretty decent skateboarder as a girl and had ridden down Monster Hill seated but never standing up. Gavin, the best skateboarder on our block, had conquered the hill standing up plenty of times.
One day, hoping to impress Gavin, I decided to attempt a standing ride down Monster Hill. I imagined how his blue eyes would sparkle with admiration after I’d made it safely down.
The steep incline was daunting. I stood at the top and saw Gavin at the bottom, holding his skateboard. I put my front foot on the board, took a breath, and pushed off.
The wind rushed against my cheeks, and my ponytail slapped my neck. The sensation was somewhere between exhilaration and terror. At the bottom I had just started to yell, “I did it!” when a heavy object hit me on the head and knocked me off my board.
Gavin hadn’t been watching at all. He’d been idly throwing his skateboard in the air and catching it. At the last minute he’d seen me flying toward him and jumped out of the way, leaving his skateboard to come crashing down on my forehead. Blood poured from a gash, and I was taken to the hospital.
While the doctor stitched me up, I kept thinking, I did it. I did it.
I hadn’t conquered Monster Hill for any boy, I realized. I had done it for myself.
El Sobrante, California
He approached me on a crowded dance floor during a free swing-dance lesson. After five minutes we both admitted that we had no love for swing dancing, and we returned to the bar.
I was a German citizen halfway into a three-month work assignment in Washington, D.C. Six months earlier I had ended a thirteen-year partnership with a man who had cheated on me too many times. I was enjoying being single and had no intention of getting involved, but when this man asked me out to dinner that weekend, I said yes. Outside the bar, he lightly touched my shoulder as we crossed the busy road, and I felt protected in a way I hadn’t in a long time.
We started to see each other often. He took me to my first hockey game and to dinner at another restaurant. A month after we’d met, I asked him to join me for a weekend at the beach. On the boardwalk it began to occur to me how much I liked this man. He seemed to feel the same way about me. On our trip back to D.C., he took me to a restaurant with a view of the Potomac River. As soon as we were seated, he got up and went to the cigarette machine. I had never seen him smoke, but now he was inhaling nervously and avoiding my eyes. “I have to tell you something,” he said.
He has a girlfriend, I thought. Or he’s married and has a dozen kids.
“I was in prison for a long time,” he began.
“How long?” I asked.
“Ten years,” he said. “I never hurt anybody, I swear,” he quickly added. Then he went to the bathroom.
When he came back and found me still sitting at the table, he hugged me and whispered, “Thank you.” He had been afraid I would leave while he was gone.
I didn’t ask questions — I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answers, and why ruin the two weeks we had left together? I would probably never see him again once I returned to Germany.
On my last evening in D.C. we were snuggling on the sofa when I felt him grow tense. He sat up, looked into my eyes, and said, “I have to tell you something else.” He had actually been in prison for seventeen years. He’d been released only two months before we’d met.
I started yelling. I’d had enough of men lying to me, I said. He paced the room, insisting that he would always tell me the truth from now on.
We ended up in each other’s arms. He promised he would tell me the reason for his prison term in a letter, after I’d gone back to Germany.
The letter arrived two weeks later. It told a story about drugs and petty crimes that ended with him and a girl having sex in the back seat of a friend’s car on a dirt road. A few days later he’d been arrested for rape and kidnapping. He said he’d done nothing she hadn’t wanted him to do and that she had giggled the whole time. Rather than accept a plea deal, he’d gone to trial to proclaim his innocence. But he’d been convicted and sentenced to life in prison, which later had been reduced to twenty-five years. He was now out on parole. He hoped I would give him a chance.
I would never know what had happened on that night eighteen years earlier, but I knew the man I had met was gentle, caring, and compassionate.
This year we will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. As a registered sex offender my husband still has to report to the authorities once a year. I am so happy I took a chance on him, and that he risked telling the truth to a woman he had known only six weeks.
When I was nineteen, my mother died, and my days passed in a fog of depression. Reading Dante’s Inferno for a class, I could sympathize with the phrase “Abandon all hope.” One afternoon, while struggling with my music-theory homework, I stood up from my desk and declared that I simply could not understand it.
“Yet,” my good friend said from my couch.
I was confused.
“You can’t understand it yet,” she explained. Surely I could see that I had learned a few things already in that class.
I reluctantly agreed.
“So, you will again.”
My friend’s advice helped me with more than just my homework. I began to apply it to my grief as well: I didn’t need to stop being depressed. That was too much to ask. But I could allow that, at some moment in the future, I might experience some relief.
Over the next few months I started adding yet to the end of sentences in my head:
I don’t want to laugh — yet.
I don’t want to stop crying — yet.
I don’t want to let go — yet.
One day I wouldn’t think of my mother all the time. One day I would become so excited about something that I would forget to mourn. I would move on. Just not yet.
Charlotte L. Kent
Brooklyn, New York
In the run-down student neighborhood where my husband and I lived, our porch and yard had become a hangout for late-night revelers. Eager to move, we found a log house on four acres of mostly wooded land. Even the inspector was charmed by the place.
The house was on well water, but the well provided enough gallons per minute to pass inspection. What we didn’t know was that the previous owner had pumped two thousand gallons into the well the night before we did the test. It ran dry that first summer, leaving us to worry constantly about the quality and quantity of our water and whether we’d ever be able to sell if we needed to.
Within a few years we’d saved enough to drill a new well, but there was still the possibility we wouldn’t find water and might be throwing away thousands of dollars. The well digger suggested we use a dowser to determine where to dig. Dowsing is a folk method of locating water underground. I was skeptical. My wall calendar is from the Union of Concerned Scientists. But how else would we decide where to drill? There was already one dry well on the property.
The grandfather of one of our daughter’s classmates was a dowser, and he offered to do it for free, so we had him come out. He didn’t know why dowsing worked, he said, but it did. He invited me to try it with him and see for myself. He handed me two L-shaped metal rods with handles. It seemed goofy, but I played along. He had his own divining rod, and we walked through the woods in different directions. The metal rods hung there in my hands. Then suddenly they turned toward each other, as though they were magnetized. This was ridiculous. I kept walking, and they drooped again. I walked back the way I’d come, and they jumped up.
“I found water!” I yelled.
My husband and I gave the dowser a six-pack of beer, and the dowser gave me faith in things I can’t always understand.
Altamont, New York
When I was twenty-four, I fell in love with my boss. It was fall, and I had recently graduated from college and was negotiating my new life as a young professional and a single lesbian living in Brooklyn, New York. She was single, too. She was also seventeen years older than I was — and pregnant.
I commuted to a nearby college town for work and would often stay over at my boss’s house during the week. We cooked meals, worked late into the night, and talked about our families and the baby she was having alone.
On the train to and from my job, I would look at my blurry reflection in the glass and recite all the reasons a relationship with my boss was a bad idea: She’s your boss. She’s a lot older than you. She’s having a baby, for Christ’s sake. Thinking I needed to meet women my own age, I set up an online dating profile and went on a few dates, but each time I would catch myself talking to the woman about my boss.
One cold afternoon in the spring my boss and I drove into Manhattan for a meeting. Afterward she told me she had an hour to kill before her next appointment and asked if I wanted to have a drink.
The wine had barely been poured when she acknowledged that she had feelings for me. But, she said, our professional relationship made it impossible for us to be anything more than friends. In fact, we had better dial our friendship back. I tried to convince her otherwise, but her mind was made up. Then she had to leave for her next meeting.
Back at my apartment in Brooklyn, my roommate listened dutifully as I went over each line of the conversation I’d had with my boss, trying to find some hidden meaning. I decided I needed to go back and be there when she got out of her meeting. She would probably be mad, I knew, but I thought it might be my last chance. I rode the subway into Manhattan and waited outside the building. My phone pinged, and I saw a text from my boss: “I’m heading home. Are you OK?”
“I’m here,” I replied.
“What?” she replied. “I’m in the subway. Where are you? I’m coming up.” I gave her my location, and she found me on the sidewalk.
We have been married for five years and have three beautiful children — the oldest of whom is the daughter she conceived before we met. If I hadn’t gone back that night like a fool, I wouldn’t have any of this.
Princeton, New Jersey
After nearly ten years of working for a Silicon Valley company, my friend L. founded his own technology start-up in 2000. He spent all his savings, borrowed from his family, and got a loan from a bank, but he considered his biggest resource to be his faith.
Few knew that L. was a deeply religious man. He certainly didn’t have the appearance of a pious person, with his tailored suits, expensive watches, and Porsche. He hosted fancy parties and outdrank his guests. Yet he was a scrupulous churchgoer and active on several church committees.
L. told me he would never have started his business if he hadn’t believed that God wanted him to create jobs and use his earnings to help his church and his community. He saw a clear link between piety and prosperity.
His kind of faith was not for me. I teased him with the saying about the rich man having the same chance of getting into heaven as a camel did of passing through the eye of a needle. L. laughed and said providence was showing him how he could double his profits the following year. And he did. I saw his picture on the covers of two business magazines. When I congratulated him, he graciously gave credit to his colleagues, adding that a divine hand had helped him choose the right people to carry out his vision.
Then came the recession of 2008. I heard from friends that L.’s company had downsized significantly. When I got in touch, he said he had been forced to sell what was left of the business.
We met for lunch six months later. L. was now an adjunct professor at a business school and spoke enthusiastically of his students. He had moved into an apartment and no longer drove the Porsche. I asked if he missed his earlier success, and he said he had enjoyed the excitement of building a business, but the hectic pace had eventually become too much. He hadn’t known how to step down from the helm of his company until God had created circumstances that led him to a simpler, quieter life. He was grateful.
I hoped a long bath would cure the vague sense of uncleanliness I felt. No music, no book, no wine — nothing but my body in a tub of scented water. I lowered myself in until my ears were below the surface and all I could hear was the sound of my heart beating.
Earlier that afternoon I had been to Todd’s office, and I’d sat on his lap as he’d traced his fingers along my cheekbone and talked about our future together. It was a short rendezvous: he had to leave campus early to collect his daughter from day care and return home to his wife. I walked back to my own office, graded a few papers, and drove to my therapy appointment. The earnest therapist listened with detachment as I struggled with my misery and self-loathing. Then she asked the obvious question: “What if he doesn’t leave his wife?”
I had no answer.
In the tub I took a deep breath and sank entirely underwater. Had I lost my sense of right and wrong? Love had unmoored me. I thought I was doing the right thing by not pressuring Todd to make a decision. Still, I was steeped in guilt, believing that his unhappy marriage was my fault.
I surfaced again and inhaled the scent of lavender bath salts. I’d bought them on a work trip Todd and I had taken to Boston. While he was reading Federalist pamphlets in Worcester, I’d walked and shopped and read all day, alone.
Lying in the bath, I remembered my life before Todd, and it came to me: I needed to plan a future for myself without considering whether he would leave his wife.
Just then I heard an insistent knock at the door. It was late, and I wasn’t expecting anyone. The rapping continued. I climbed from the tub, wrapped myself in a towel, and went to see who it was.
Todd’s muffled voice came through the door: “It’s me. Are you there?”
I remembered my therapist’s unanswered question. Then I unlocked the door anyway and let him in.
Rochester Hills, Michigan
I came to the U.S. from India in the fall of 2008 at the age of eighteen. I wasn’t thinking about becoming an immigrant. I was a student who had left Mumbai — the fourth-most-populous city on the planet — for a small town adrift in a sea of cornfields and pumpkin farms in rural Iowa.
When deciding to move halfway around the world for college, I’d known I would be in for a huge change. But I hadn’t anticipated the mundane frustrations of figuring out how to open a milk carton (milk always came in sachets back home) or not knowing at my first doctor’s appointment what copays and deductibles are. The receptionist repeated the words slowly, thinking it was English I didn’t understand when really it was just America.
Seven years later I was faced with another choice: Should I return to the country printed on my passport, where the grocery store was always stocked with Maggi noodles and mangoes, and where my large family would shower me with affection — but also where my emerging political identity as an outspoken feminist would be out of place? Or should I become an immigrant in a country where I’d earned two degrees and made lifelong friends — but also where I’d be forced to jump through sky-high hoops for the next decade to acquire citizenship?
I made my decision: I am an immigrant.
© Johnny Kerr
At the age of twenty I decided to undertake a spiritual journey to find my life’s path. Starting out in Eugene, Oregon, I planned to hitchhike across Canada, hoping to reach Nova Scotia.
I was stopped at the border of British Columbia when I admitted to having smoked pot. My hitchhiking companion, who had no such compunction to tell the truth, hopped into a convertible and left me in the border town with the sinking sun.
As I paced the main drag quietly, shedding tears and looking much younger than my twenty years, I caught the eye of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. He beckoned me to his car and pieced together that I had been stopped from entering Canada due to my honesty. “Get in,” he said, “and I’ll take you to the next entrance east of here. And don’t say anything if they ask you about drugs.”
I did as he advised and got on a bus on the Canadian side. As I walked down the aisle, a young man with bright-red hair to his waist caught my eye. I fell asleep with my head on his shoulder, and when I awoke, he asked me to stay with him in his tepee. I left three days later, unknowingly pregnant.
I made my way back to Eugene two months after that, by now very aware my body was changing. I was couch hopping and had no job and no plans other than to keep my baby. The woman at the free clinic quickly assessed my indigent status, slipped information about an abortion clinic into my pocket, and admonished me to “think about it.”
My friends were sure I was dooming myself to a life of poverty. How could a motel worker with a tenth-grade education have a productive future? “Think of it like a cold, and an abortion is the treatment,” one friend counseled. I dug in my heels and would not hear it. I believed having and raising my child was an ordained decision. At the same time, being at odds with friends and family was a hard and lonely experience.
Forty-one years later, my child and I both have master’s degrees, well-respected careers, and generally happy lives. I wake some mornings flooded with gratitude toward my younger self, who stood firm in the face of unrelenting pressure. She gave me a life beyond any she could have dreamed of, much less known for certain.
I had dropped out of trade school and was unqualified to do anything but loaf when friends introduced me to online poker. They worked day jobs and supplemented their income by playing Texas hold ’em on the Web a few hours a night. All I needed to get started were a couple of books on game theory and a reliable Internet connection — oh, and a thousand dollars. One friend had been successful enough that he was willing to give me the money in return for a percentage of each hand I played.
At first I played for pennies and nickels. As I built up an account, I moved on to dollar tables. It might not sound like much, but when the average pot reaches twenty dollars or so and you’re playing six tables at a time — more than a hundred hands an hour — it adds up. I was soon playing online poker for a living.
The small stakes meant that my opponents were mostly hobbyists, stay-at-home moms, and teens using their parents’ credit cards. After a thousand hands, even the slightest edge — a passing knowledge of inferential statistics and risk-reward relationships — was enough to net me a reliable profit.
I played for almost two years, mitigating the effects of chance by using formulas. Other players’ patterns became apparent to me, and my decisions were nearly automatic. Winning was about minimizing my losses, which were many, and capitalizing on any advantage.
But the problem with all gambling systems is that sometimes logic and numbers and theory fail. To be a career player, you have to trust your gut on occasion, and I couldn’t. If the odds said my hand was a sure thing, but my instinct told me that the quiet, unassuming player who’d just pushed his stack of chips at me would win, I couldn’t just throw in my cards. I stuck with the odds and often lost my money. The stress started getting to me. Eventually I traded in the playing cards for a job with a timecard.
Most people think the leap of faith in poker is when you put all your chips on a single hand, but the real test is whether you’ll give up when the odds say you should win but your gut says some rookie just got the one card he needed.
More than a decade ago, in college, I joined a nondenominational Christian church — the type where a band plays rock music during services and the pastor has tattoos. The congregation met on Saturday nights and was made up mostly of students. I’ll call this church “The River.”
I’d joined only because I had a crush on a guy who was a member, and because I wanted to belong to something. With the poor state of my health and relationships, I needed a change. The River helped me get rid of my bad habits and reinvent myself.
Yet there was a cost. Women in The River were allowed to teach and lead only other women. And regardless of how progressive the church claimed to be, it maintained that homosexuality was a sin and that we needed to pray for “those people.” I had practically been raised by my aunt and her female partner, who provided the main example of love and commitment in my life.
The summer after college I attended a Christian leadership-training program with other church members in Colorado. I’d been celibate and focused on my faith for three years and wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, but then I met Charles. He was tall, lanky, and a bit goofy like me. I was drawn to his energy, his blue eyes, and his six-foot-three frame. (At six-one I had a hard time finding a boyfriend taller than I was.) Charles had done almost everything that I hoped to do someday: Teach English abroad. (Check.) Spend time at an ashram. (Check.) Travel the world. (Check.) And he dreamed of joining the Peace Corps. I was in love.
The problem was that Charles didn’t belong to my church. I hadn’t met him through the program. He wasn’t even a Christian. He referred to himself as a Buddhist. Charles told me he had no intention of joining The River, but he’d be happy to learn about my faith if I’d learn about his.
So we gave it a try. Charles attended meetings, baby-sat my pastor’s children with me, and even hiked a mountain in a snowstorm to help rescue a few stranded church members. Once the others realized I was attached to Charles, they attempted to convince him to become a Christian, but they didn’t get far. Eventually they stopped trying to convert him and instead tried to break us up. Members of The River regularly told me that I wouldn’t go to heaven if I was in a relationship with someone of a different faith. I was threatened repeatedly, both in person and by notes left in my room or on my car. My closest friends started avoiding me.
Meanwhile Charles never once asked me to leave The River. Since we’d started dating, he’d shown me more generosity and kindness than I’d experienced in years from my church community. So I gave my heart to him and left The River.
I’d thought the drama would end after that, but it only got worse. Charles and I were shunned by my former community for the rest of the summer. After the program ended and the River people headed back to their college towns, Charles and I stayed on to teach outdoor education to youth in the Denver area. Life got better. We were engaged for a short period of time, but eventually we ended our relationship.
Four years later I heard that Charles had taken his own life. I will always be grateful to him for having saved me from my need to belong to a group, any group, even one that tried to control me.
Angela Watson Robertson
Kansas City, Missouri
Ireland has a long history of religious devotion and superstition. The countryside is littered with ancient stone circles, burial mounds, and holy wells dedicated to both saints and goddesses.
In the summer of 1985 I was traveling in Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland, photographing mysterious monoliths in the mist-shrouded landscape. One dreary morning the name “Holy Well of Doon” drew my attention on the map.
I turned off a narrow road onto an even narrower one that ended at a small farmyard with a stone house and barn. On the barn door hung a weathered Cross of Saint Bridget woven from straw. About twenty-five feet away was the holy well: only eighteen inches across and about as deep, lined on the sides and bottom with flat stones, and filled by a hidden spring. Upon the mossy stones rested a chipped enamel cup. Every inch of a nearby shrub-like tree had been covered with offerings: saints’ medals, rosaries, snapshots, holy cards, and even a child’s sweater. I took a photograph and returned to the car, where I had my lunch of bread, cheese, and tomato.
While I ate, a young couple pushing a pram rounded the corner and headed for the well. After a whispered discussion, the mother lifted an infant from the stroller and removed its diaper. Even from a distance I could see the redness and blistering of diaper rash. While the mother held the baby over the well, the father filled the cup from the spring and gently poured the water over the child’s bottom. Then they made the sign of the cross, fitted the baby with a fresh diaper, and left.
A few minutes later an elderly gent with a walking stick hobbled toward the well. He gingerly lowered himself to the ground, unlaced his well-worn brogues, and removed his tattered socks to reveal swollen feet and gnarled toes. With difficulty he eased his beet-red feet into the water. After a five-minute soak he replaced his footwear and walked off.
I was just finishing my meal when an automobile arrived carrying two middle-aged women and their elderly male driver. Exiting their car, they proceeded to kneel around the well. The women produced rosaries from their bags and rattled off a number of Hail Marys. Before they stood, each one filled the enamel cup from the healing waters and drank. Then they returned to their car and drove away, leaving me to ponder what I’d just seen.
I have no doubt that, had I drunk from the Holy Well of Doon that day, I would have died from dysentery. But I suspect that the pilgrim supplicants suffered no such distress. Such is the power of faith.
Frank M. Lavelle