The picture on the left may look like an oily smudge on a stone path, and that’s precisely what it is.
I’m part of the Altar Guild at an Episcopal church, which means I prepare for and clean up after Holy Eucharist, mostly, and I take care of other liturgical chores. The chores themselves, and the details of how they’re performed, have meaning behind them. Like this little smudge.
One duty specific to my team is to change out the oil stock. This is a tiny screw-top vessel, less than an inch in height and diameter, containing half a cotton ball moistened with Oil of Intinction (from the Latin for “dip.”) When a person comes to church seeking prayer or healing, the priest dips her finger into the oil stock and makes the sign of a cross on the person’s head as she prays. Once a month, I take out the old cotton ball, carry it outside to the memorial garden, set it on the stone path, and burn it. I stand there with it until it has completely burned out, and all that’s left is a grease spot on the stone. This is one of my favorite duties on the Altar Guild.
This past Saturday, I was standing there in the cold January wind, watching the oil burn. The distinct scents of the cold air, the of the smoke rising from the ground, and the asphalt from the road just beyond the trees combined and took me back to a memory. Smell memories are the strongest, for me. A little jarring, actually.
Long ago, one winter during the holidays, when my younger sister and I were both in high school, we had a ritual of sneaking down to the cul-de-sac with my chocolate-scented candle and a bag of marshmallows. We would sit right on the asphalt, roasting the marshmallows over the candle’s tiny flame. The candle made an oily, artificially-sweetened smell when it burned, and the marshmallows would absorb some of that slightly-off quality so that we could taste it, too. It was hard to roast the marshmallows evenly this way, of course. I remember thinking, “How is this considered food?” Something so artificial, all sickly sweetness and air, mostly. They filled our mouths with emptiness. The bitterness of the blackened bites offered a welcome contrast.
My sister and I would sit there, dreaming about running away from home to Spain, to start a bakery together. I had recently traveled to Spain with the Spanish Honor’s Society at school, and the highlight of my trip was the convent. The nuns in this convent had taken vows of never looking upon the outside world. They stayed inside the convent, ancient and made of wood, with no glass, no windows, where they made and sold delicious cookies. Transactions were executed through a wooden lazy Susan with a small opening. You could speak to the nun to place your order, and she could speak to give you your total. You’d place the money on the lazy Susan, and the nun would turn it around, cookies appearing where your coins had been. An entire community, isolated and insulated within a major city. Present but unseen.
After a while of holding vigil together, sharing our misery and isolation, my sister and I would get too cold and sneak back inside. Though we didn’t have to sneak, really. We were in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac, surrounded by houses with dark windows. (What’s the opposite of “The lights are on but nobody’s home?”). No one was looking for us.
Since being confronted with this memory last Saturday, others have popped up as well.
I remember a home video of myself, on my 3rd birthday or so. Wearing a beautiful hand-smocked dress by my mother, I stood alone in the middle of the living room floor. My parents and grandparents were off screen, sitting on the couches, all eyes looking at me. No one laughed or played with me. No one reached out for me. My grandmothers kept asking me to sing and dance for them, which I did not want to do. In my discomfort, I kept pulling up on my dress. My mother kept scolding me to put it back down.
I remember sitting at the dinner table, about 5 years old. My dad was at the head, and I was at the foot in my booster seat. I bobbed my head side to side in a playful way, smiling at my dad, wanting him to see me and smile back. He looked at me from across the table, scowling for a few moments, and finally told me to stop doing that and eat.
When in was in first grade, I had a recurring dream: I was naked and alone, in a prison made of glass. People would walk by and look at me. In the dream, I felt very uncomfortable and I did not like it, though I understood this was what I was told to do, because the people liked to look at me.
When my younger sister and I were both in elementary school, we would play Anne Frank together. We sat on the old, frayed couch in the playroom, with odds and ends gathered around us—plastic dishes, food stolen from the pantry, blankets—and pretended we were in hiding. If anyone walked by, we hid under the blankets and held our breath until they were gone. In hindsight, it was a morbid thing to play, but I was drawn to the experience of being hidden plain sight. Looked for, but not seen.
When I was in high school, in the years leading up to the cul-de-sac vigils, my parents started eating nearly every meal in front of the TV. Even on weekends. My dad went on the Atkins diet, so my mom became inspired by new ways of cooking. That was good for her. She was so proud of him, and praised him for his improved health. That was good for him. She would make Sunday dinner out of the Atkins cookbook—meat and greens. She and my dad would make their plates in the kitchen and park in front of the TV, isolated and insulated on the double-wide recliner. My siblings and I would wander around the house, a multi-story house with an open floor plan. Passing from our rooms, through the tv room, to the kitchen. Present but unseen. Hidden in plain sight.
My mom, like nearly all moms, had some famous catch-phrases: “I didn’t ask what you wanted!” and “You can’t have it, so stop wanting it!”
I developed an eating disorder. In about 8 months, I lost 25 pounds. I felt invisible, trapped, constricted, starved. Filled up with emptiness.
During that time, I don’t remember my mother speaking to me. My dad gave me more attention than he ever had in the past, or has since. He took me out for coffee for the first and only time. It felt artificial and man-made. He did all the talking, as usual. He looked at me across the table and lectured me about what he thought my problem was. He took me on a daddy-daughter retreat for the first and only time. Other dads took pictures of their beautiful daughters in the hotel lobby one night. My dad asked to take my picture, too. I’m sure he had good intentions. He probably wanted to prove that looks don’t matter. He wanted me to think he loved me no matter what I looked like. I obliged silently. But I didn’t want to be looked at. I wanted to be seen.
Soon after the retreat, he took my older sister to a fancy restaurant. He had taken her there before. Uncharacteristically bold, maybe because of the much-needed attention I was getting, I asked my dad if he would take me out to the same restaurant. He scoffed, “You wouldn’t eat anything.” You can’t have my love, so stop wanting it.
A year or so after I had recovered, my dad bought me a book. Dare to Desire, by John Eldridge. The irony apparently flew right over my dad’s head. I never opened the book. I assumed it was just some feel-good mumbo-jumbo with no basis in reality. My bitterness offset his artificial sweetness.
By the time I was a senior, my desire to run away from home was unbearable. It was a constant refrain in my mind. My sister and I would just look at each other and say, “Spain.” I was finding subtle ways to run away without actually packing my bags. I found a friendly math teacher who let me stay in his classroom even after he’d left for the day. I would sit there on the industrial carpet, doing homework and watching C-SPAN, long past dark. The janitorial staff would come in to empty the trash. We had a silent understanding. I stared at them until they were gone, and they pretended not to see me. When I got home, the house was dark, everyone else already closed in their rooms. No one greeted me.
. . .
When my sister and I held our cul-de-sac vigils, we never said out loud how miserable we were, but we both knew. We talked a little about Spain and cookies, we heaved heavy sighs, but mostly we sat silent. Side by side, hovering over the tiny flame, we gazed outward together, rather than at each other. Seeing without looking.
I think that’s why I find meaning in burning the oil stock each month. When I take the cotton ball out of its tiny jar, the size of a marshmallow, it looks matted down, felted from being rubbed again and again. These people dared to desire, dared to speak their request out loud, and dared to ask again and again.
I wonder if they feel alone, forgotten, or unseen.
The Reverend Steven Charleston often shares blessings and encouragement on Facebook. Once he posted something about not being alone. You are seen, he insisted in the most poetic way possible. At the time, I thought it sounded unrealistically good. Too sweet to be natural. I am embarrassed to admit I commented, “If only it were true.”
But what I am living proof? What if I am one who sees? When I look at the oil stock, I see more than just oil. The desires, struggles, fears, hopes, and requests themselves are hidden from me, along with the faces and voices that made them. I can’t look at them, but I see. I see the evidence in the form of a tiny oily cotton ball. I hold it, I carry it, I place it on the path. I turn it into an offering. And I sit with it in silent vigil until it has been transformed.
I see you. And I thank you for allowing me the opportunity.