The Order of Undoing

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.
—Thomas Merton

New Haven, Kentucky
4 May, 2012

Photo: Kierstin Casella

I arrived at Bethany Spring to find Sister Kelly standing on the gravel drive waiting to meet me. Not at all like the nun I expected, she wore an oversized royal blue golf shirt, khaki shorts with pleats, and tennis shoes. Her short brown hair was damp at the ends with sweat. I followed her inside the main house's outdated kitchen, dizzy with 70s patterned wallpaper, where she flipped through a stack of envelopes on the washing machine, handed me a key, and gave me directions to the town market to buy the last few groceries for my overnight stay.

“I think you’ll like it,” the sister said as she led me down a long sloped path toward my rented dwelling. We passed an erupting compost bin, gnats swarming around our faces, on the way to a tiny cottage camouflaged in dark green paint and set off in the distance. The midday heat felt more like August than the brink of summer and I huffed at the thought of lugging my heavy bag of cookbooks, art easel and huge canvas, plus the two bags of food I brought from Nashville, down from the car.

To one side of the cottage, named Wellspring, stood a graduated hill of moss-covered rocks creating a secluded border to the rest of the world. A balcony along the front overlooked a large, unappealing pond, a murky concoction of brownish-green, slimy with algae and reeking of frogs in the sticky afternoon air.

So far, little matched the serene, picturesque experience the web site had promised, but I caught my disenchantment by the arm. I had longed for this getaway, so I made up my mind right then to just go with it and pretend I was someplace more exotic than Kentucky.

I had to admit, the cottage was cozy. Nothing fancy, but just what I needed. In one part of the L-shaped space was a twin bed with a thin white coverlet and a side table stacked with books. A single religious icon decorated the living area, but otherwise, the walls were bare. After several trips back to the driveway, I quickly unpacked and set up the kitchen with an assortment of supplies — a potted basil plant, a bottle of red wine, a dark chocolate bar, and a basket of fresh blackberries — before heading out again.

Eight scenic miles of pasture led me to Trappist, to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton once lived. The Abbey was striking, its creamy whiteness stretching high above the verdant landscape. A rough-hewn stone wall marked the entrance, and a statue kept watch on a nearby hill. Down below, almost as if scripted, two men sat, softly plucking guitars in a valley of grass. I parked and wandered around between flowering shrubs and carvings of angels, afraid to step too loudly or click my camera too many times.

Photo: Kierstin Casella

I searched for monks but saw only regular people like me scattered among the beauty of the grounds. Some had their heads bowed in silent meditation; others seemed to be staring out at nothing with a vacant gaze. I wondered about their stories — what or who they were hoping to find here and how many of their pursuits overlapped. When I planned my trip I'd actually considered reserving a space here at the monastery instead of the retreat center, but the truth is, I wasn't really looking for enlightenment. I mostly just wanted to sleep.

I had also come to escape. I needed a place where I could paint, do a little writing, replenish my soul through cooking, and maybe in the process extinguish some of the sadness that had been churning inside me for weeks. In the past three months, there had been much to take in: our close friends had moved away, and shortly after, we had a surprise pregnancy. Then one afternoon, as our family huddled together in a downstairs bathroom, a tornado swept through our neighborhood, breaking windows and leaving our home in need of extensive repair. A couple of weeks later, at an ultrasound appointment without my husband, I learned we lost the baby.

Walking slowly around the immaculate gardens, I examined the careful placement of things. High gates marked with signs guarded certain areas from intruders. Manicured paths turned at right angles, gingkos and dogwoods hovered over evenly spaced benches. It all seemed logical. Here at the monastery, I had room to investigate. I saw explanations and absolutes within the symmetry and the locked doors. There were even places to hide.

Photo: Kierstin CasellaIn contrast, the pieces of my life didn't feel safe or ordered at all, but wedged inside a room too small to contain them. My emotions were beginning to seep uncontrolled from that room faster than I could shove them back in. Desperately, I wanted to dig myself free from this avalanche of events that had happened, all so abruptly and without my permission.

I stood on the chalk-colored steps of the Abbey looking toward thick, shadowed windows a few yards away. Then I remembered the eggs and butter I'd just bought turning warm in the car and moved to the end of my self-guided tour. Five o'clock church bells rang, drowning out a faint crackle of wind against leaves. I rolled down the long driveway back toward the main road.

* * *

Back inside my small hermitage, I poured a glass of wine and filled a blue clay bowl with blackberries, taking time to taste the two kinds of dark purple fruit against one another. It was the first time I could remember eating blackberries with wine, and I paid attention, soaking in the quiet of early evening. Gillian Welch rattled softly away in the background on my laptop speakers. I relaxed. I breathed in and out to the heartbreaking rhythm of her whiskey-tinged voice and tried to find myself within this slower pace. I knew my husband was moving much faster back at home in the middle of dinnertime with our two kids, no doubt wiping yogurt from faces and peeling off peas flattened underfoot while they fought over the last ravioli. I inhaled, held it in, closed my eyes. It takes concentration to embrace total solitude, especially when you're out of practice.

Pulling the vertical blinds closed a moment later, I blocked both the view of the pond and the memory of loss on my way to the stove. I gathered ingredients from the small refrigerator and opened to a center page of Beatrice Peltre's La Tartine Gourmande, its saturated hues of aqua and strawberry red enticing me to cook just for the love of it, for the experimental process. I'd chosen my menu a week before: spicy linguine with wilted arugula, fresh cherry tomatoes, and ribbons of salty prosciutto. As water boiled on the two-burner stove, I smeared artichoke purée on crusty bread and grated parmesan over the top before sliding it into the creaky little oven. I poured more wine, I turned up Gillian.

After dinner, the night unfolded mostly without agenda. I scribbled disheveled thoughts inside my journal, breaking off crumbly squares of chocolate between paragraphs, then climbed into bed much earlier than I expected.

Throughout the night, rain knocked against the roof above me and the wind whistled sharply. Blasts of thunder and lightning made it difficult to sleep and I kept waking up disoriented, checking the time hour by hour until morning. I could stay in bed as late as I wanted but got up and brewed coffee a little past eight.

After pouring a cup from the small pot in the kitchen, grabbing toast and a few more blackberries, I tugged the chain to open the blinds, letting the light in. Still half-awake, I shimmied the glass door along its track. A startling blast of cool air greeted my face, all traces of yesterday's humidity gone. I dug out the lightweight sweater I'd packed just in case, stepped outside and sank into a low wooden seat, wiping away the fog of sleep. Looking out over the balcony's edge, I could hardly believe the view.

The pond, now crystal and calm, reflected trees and sky on its sparkling surface. Mist rose from the water, shrouding the new daylight in a milky haze. Everything was completely still for one quiet moment that seemed to last much longer. A goose honked as it took flight, cutting through the silence. Barely a second later, a mother duck plunged into the water, coaxing a line of ducklings behind her. It was an almost laughable On Golden Pond sort of moment, and I half-expected Katherine Hepburn to come skimming across in a little canoe. It was the kind of morning I haven't had in a long time, maybe ever. Beautiful, perfect, and a total surprise.

* * *

It's a short while later now and almost time to leave. The canvas I brought, intended for some artistic epiphany unleashed by grief, instead reveals a work that's been half-heartedly begun — mostly layered shades of yellow — a nod toward hope — smoothed on quickly with a pallet knife after breakfast. I've carried my things up to the car in several trips, pausing on the last one to sit near the water's edge and savor the tranquility a final time. I miss my family but secretly wish for one more day of stillness, a few more hours to rest and breathe. I know I'm not returning to Tennessee entirely pieced together. I feel just as uncertain as I did twenty hours ago, possibly more.

But healing, I've begun to realize, cannot be crammed inside a suitcase. It is seldom accomplished through solitude or good food or even pretty scenery, at least not all at once. It's a long and winding process that works itself out in disruptive, oftentimes disorganized ways. In chaos upon chaos and then again when the dust settles, it will come without my knowing and in spite of my best-laid plans.

Photo: Kierstin Casella

Kierstin Casella is an artist, writer, and photographer who looks for beauty in unlikely places. Her favorite things include traveling to Southern towns, drinking good coffee on her porch swing, and spending quality time with her husband and their two small children. They occupy an old farmhouse just outside of Nashville and share their property with a flock of backyard chickens. Occasionally, you can find Kierstin on her blog, A Net for Catching Days.

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