His Effort Was Not In Vain

photo-6When my roommate texted me I think your fish is dead, I was in the monastery library.  I only use my phone for the time, and for guided meditations, while I’m there, but I had it with me, and thus I was thrown from perfect peace.

My fish was dead!  I was sad!  I shouldn’t be sad.  I wasn’t sad.  It was just a fish.  Now I could get Henry V.  (My fish are in a line of English kings.)  Why did everything always go wrong?  I was sad.  I was definitely sad.  The king was dead; long live the king.

One theory of going to the monastery is to get calm, and stay calm, get calmer than you ever have.  This does happen, but perhaps the point of life is not to get calm, or to stay calm.

I read most of a book by an Irish woman who became a Buddhist saint.  She wrote about realizing her body was not her body, that it really wasn’t.  I kind of got that.  If it wasn’t mine, maybe I should take care of it for that reason.  I was sitting in a rocking chair and the sky and trees were outside.

The monastery is on a hill, and the night before, there had been a thunderstorm and I thought, it’s nice to rightly fear a tornado, when thunder comes.  It is as God intends.

On my way home from the monastery, at the Glore Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, I saw their collection of rocking chairs.  The Lunatic Asylum/State Hospital used rocking chairs therapeutically, which sounds nice, but also as sort of time-out chairs.  Their tenderness and effectiveness in dealing with people who have mental illnesses varied a great deal over time.  Apparently the beginning period was good, the 1930s to the 1950s were awful, the rest was okay.

They would do anything to you to make your mind change: throw cold water on you, surprise drop you in freezing water, spin you, burn you, cage you, bleed you, flush out your digestive system. Try to poop it out of you.  They didn’t have much idea what might help, so they just tried everything that made sane people feel different.  I would feel different after being confined in a tiny box, myself, I would feel insane.

I had gotten a phone call about a job interview while at the monastery.  I was disappointed realizing I wanted to check my email and phone once a day, for job-hunting purposes.  My calm-down time would not be pure.

The truth is everything you think keeps stuff pure, you are mistaken.  This was a central part of Jesus’ message that I find it hard to get on board with.

I would recommend any time at a Benedictine monastery not because anyone there is pure, but because they are all working on becoming more sane, many of them have been deeply working on it for fifty or sixty years.

I was supposed to get this job interview call on Friday.  I wondered how I could sleep Thursday night.  My sleep lately has been poor.  Somehow I got to sleep.

I woke up at 7:15 AM, fresh from a dream in which my ex married my best friend from grade school who looked so much like me everyone confused us, I felt awful that he loved her and not me, but then, no one would ever love me, and morning prayer was already over, mass was starting that very moment, and I was in my pajamas, so I would miss that, too.

I had set my alarm for 6:00 PM.

Mother of God.

I went down to breakfast, set down my tray of rice krispies, cinnamon toast, cranberry juice, coffee.  “I missed you at prayer this morning, Elizabeth,” one of the sisters said, which made me pleased.  She had missed me.

“We had a no-show at mass this morning,” another sister said.

“Besides me?” I said.

They didn’t have a priest.  There was no mass.

(I have set aside the oddity that the sisters can’t do their own mass, they need a man to do it for them, there are only so many things I can get offended about and I don’t want to be offended there.)

I missed a mass that didn’t happen.

But I had this job interview without any ritual to set me straight.  There was no more prayer until noon, and my call would be at 10.  This was terrible.

One night I went out to the cemetery and had a good cry and mosquitos bit me and, worse, flew into my right ear like it was theirs.  It felt good to say fuck, fuck this, fuck all this, my grandma being dead, being lonely in New York, being not lonely here and having to leave again, knowing what you must do but it’s not comfortable.

There remain some good reasons for me not become a nun, one of them that is when you are an artist, everything must be permitted.  (Kandinsky.)

When it was 10 AM, I tried to read, and my hands shook, and I was like, I have to pee, but I didn’t have to pee, and my thoughts zoomed all around and from the book.  My room this time was the top of the tower in the century-old house that became the guest house for the monastery.  I spent most of my time there tucked into my twin bed, reading, napping, reading some more, napping some more.

It’s all twin beds at the monastery, baby.

My phone rang.  I talked to the lady.  She asked if I could send my resume and references.

Sure, I said.  Thanks, she said.


I texted my roommate.  Is my fish really dead?  I thought he might have panicked.

No, he’s okay.

I crouched on the floor and put my head on the carpet and laughed.  My fish was alive!  My fish was resurrected!


A tall cage of chicken wire and two-by-fours, in the corner at the Glore Museum. It is full of cigarette packs, Marlboros and Pall Malls and Camels. The sign says:

His Effort Was Not In Vain

The cigarette packs in this display were collected over a period of two years by a young patient who believed that 100,000 cigarette packages would be redeemed for a new wheelchair for the hospital.

As you can see, the patient put his heart and soul into the work resulting in a collection of 108,000 cigarette packs.  Unfortunately, there was no such prize offered for the redemption of the cigarette packs.

However, on November 19, 1968, the hospital administration presented a wheelchair to the unit in which this patient lived as a token of appreciation for the tremendous effort he put into the project.


The book by the Irish/Buddhist saint I referred to is: Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind by Maura O’Halloran.

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