“Encountering Starlings Again for the First Time,” City Creatures Blog (Center for Humans and Nature), March 2014
“Orcas in Passing,” Adventum – A Literary Magazine, Summer 2011
“Things that go beep in the night,” LabLit: The Culture of Science in Fiction and Fact, July 2011
Personal Essays and Creative Nonfiction
“Pasayten Wilderness,” In Her Place: Stories About Women Who Get Around, 2011
“One Jew’s Confession at Notre Dame,” Drash: Northwest Mosaic, 2011
At Notre Dame, Father Anatole heard confessions in a glass booth. Tourists like me sat beside pilgrims and watched the old priest. We all dripped with July rain. Tour guides whispered. Digital cameras whirred. Shoes squeaked on the wet black-and-white floor stones. The devout prayed. I was an out-of-place, agnostic, American Jew in Paris for the first time. My feet pinched from a day’s walking, and I rejoiced in a discovered love of medieval places — the Cluny, the Latin Quarter’s courtyards and twisting streets, and Notre Dame, built over the Roman temple of Jupiter, with its stained glass windows and rooftop stone gargoyles portraying souls caught between earth and heaven. Notre Dame is a chapel to Mary, once a goddess herself, but now worshipped as the mother of a man trapped in stories as old as Isis and Inanna. That son’s death is said to forgive the confessions and grant the prayers whispered around me. Usually I’d rather wrestle with HaShem than pray. I’m not worried about my cantankerous soul, but I had never seen a confession and I was fascinated by the one happening in Father Anatole’s glass booth.
Father Anatole rubbed his chin. His hair was white and thin; his face hung with age. How did he have the heart for another stranger’s broken heart? After hundreds (or thousands) of confessions, isn’t each one just another all-too-common story? The penitent wore a red and white-stripped sweater. Brown curls reached her shoulders. Her back was to me leaving her eye-to–eye with the priest. Father Anatole made a swift sign of the cross. He brought both hands to his heart and flashed them like birds taking flight.
Outside Father Anatole’s booth, pilgrims and tourists dropped 2 Euros into the offrandes (offerings) box, lit a white votive candle, murmured a prayer, and placed the candle in a metal tier. Small flames flickered in the chapel’s darkness. Strangers murmured in French, German, Korean, English, Italian. Their eyes were closed. Or, they stared at an altar of stargazer lilies and images of Mary grieving beside her son’s limp, bloody body. Candle smoke diffused into the humid air. Prayers — for the next month’s rent, a lover to return, a child, a lover to stay in exile, a new job, to not be alone, to be forgiven, for a loved one to go to heaven — escaped through chinks in the stained glass windows, wafted beyond gargoyles and kestrels, and rose to the rain and clouds.
I don’t know if God exists. I have known fear and barrenness. I once felt that believing in God was as basic as breathing. I don’t know where my long-ago prayers went any more than I know where the ones here at Notre Dame will go. What I trust now is the reprieve that arises from telling my story as close to the truth as I can know it. From story comes salvation; my inner spirit becomes clearer, its actions in the world truer, and the world itself vaster — for the more I know, the more I have to learn. Was that true for everyone? Is that what kept Father Anatole alert to every confession, every story? Don’t they say no two snowflakes are alike for all the same radiance of reflected sunlight, the same slushing to water that evaporates to become rain?
Someone’s votive burned down its wick and extinguished its light. I rose from the bench outside Father Anatole’s booth. I dropped 2 Euros in the offerings box. I relit the votive. I closed my eyes. What if the words whispered around me never left earth for heaven, but rippled about the ears of strangers, neighbors, brethren who were graced to receive an epiphany, a dream to ponder, a stray thought that returned like an old cat in the night? My prayer then and now and forever, I hope: Heaven and hell may be eternal; life is short; sorrow is inevitable. There’s always time to rehash sins, recite miseries, request favors. Forget the rain. Forget the guidebook. Walk down the street that isn’t mentioned. Keep your eyes open. Buy the meringue after all. Talk with the stranger in the bookstore. Buy the book he suggests. Read it; think about it; pass it on. Revel in the erotic heat of Rodin’s marble nudes. Listen for a story. And another. And another. Return home.
I opened my eyes. I watched as Father Anatole rose. He shook hands with the penitent. She gathered her raincoat, umbrella and white shopping bag. She left. Father Anatole sat down. He clasped his hands over his chest. His door was open.