Thursday, July 22, 2021

Habita tecum

The last day of summer is misty and smells like fermented blackberry juice, and it sticks to me and makes me gag. I sit in my room in the attic and try to read what I've been assigned. Briefly I wonder whether the non-believing daughter of a Catholic woman and a Volunteer Reserve Militiaman might still be able to join the oblates and spend a few year living in the Congregation of the Sisters in Christ's Heart, like Sister Anna or Sister Łucja, in the world of old women, where all things are determined by Mother Stanisława or a Sister Zyta, where reality intermingles with dreams, present with past, sacred with profane and the mundane with the supernatural, asceticism with eroticism, sin with saintliness; I could really learn Latin, habita tecum, delve into the mysteries of my own heart, and write, and read big books as soon as the Mother Superior gets me those entry cards she promised me for the Old Library and the one in Jasna Góra.

Sometimes I wonder. I wondered when I visited the monastery earlier this summer. I wonder when I walk past the convent on my way to Mile End. I wondered when I booked a plane ticket for my daughter; I wonder what I'll do with this time to myself, where would I go? I start checking into artist retreats in Ireland. Wherever you go, there you are, as I like to remind people whose impulse it is to run away. Where would I like to find myself? I've changed in the last year; I need to habita mecum all over again. 

Accommodations, by Wioletta Greg, is the follow-up to Swallowing Mercury. It recounts Wiola's ordeals in Częstochowa, where she's going to university, staying initially at a hostel and then in a convent. It's a big city by comparison with the shithole of a village she grew up in, and she's ill-equipped for independence. But she gets on with things. (I'm coming to believe this is a Polish trait; we get on with things.)

This novel feels like a reckoning: with the outside world — through the thuglike lives of the Russians at the rooming house; with the past — as Mother Stanisława's mind rewinds to a state of Nazi occupation; with love — when Wiola surrenders to the brutal realities of the heart.

I walk intent upon the rhythm of our steps, watching our shadows as they shamelessly slide into one another on the sidewalks.

While her village life was bathed in a kind of wonder, city life is dirtier, lonelier, more grim. One can feel Wiola's romantic notions being stripped away. Many of the episodes recounted are disjointed, as is her sense of identity; her place in the world keeps shifting. The novel ends with her screaming; I hope it is the pain of rebirth, as she shakes of the tattered chrysalis. 

Now I take a look around the city. Small balloons knocked around by the wind rock over the pavement. Older people doze off under parasols. Tipsy bandaged pilgrims in straw hats, looking preposterous with neckerchiefs affixed to their heads, trail around the monastery, the baths at the Pilgrim House and the stations of the cross. In the underground passageways volunteers give out water and condoms; pickpockets, religious fanatics and prostitutes divvy up their beats. Jehovah's Witnesses, carrying old issues of The Watchtower, announcing the latest upcoming apocalypse. Younger pilgrims, clustered in and around the pavilions, gazebos and places to grab a bite like Prasowa or Wakans or Alex, hum "Abba Father" and peruse the twenty-four-hour liquor stores and the drug dealers, who come to Jasna Góra in droves during pilgrimage season. I sit atop a low wall and, without taking off my sunglasses, I stealthily touch the hot concrete with my palm. The city swells with the cacophony of guitars, harmonicas and drums, but beneath that surface rest layers of silence, pulse underground rivers, only barely making themselves known, as though the ground were a kind of forgetting.


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