Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Three

The day was turning into ashes and the little light that remained was barely enough for the blinds to cast their shadow on the carpet stretched out across the conference room floor. One large upholstered chair and a couch across from it sketched out the beginnings of the circle that would be completed by brown metal folding chairs, which an hour earlier had been stacked neatly up against the wall by members of the planning committee for the annual St. Valentine’s Dance. A door opened into the dark, and with a familiar sweep to her left Martha turned the light switch on. Setting a manila folder on top of the piano near the door she walked over to the kitchenette at the other side of the room and took a canister out of the refrigerator. She scooped coffee into a filter before putting it inside the ancient, dented tower, and then returned the canister to the fridge with a shiver. It was still cold, especially so in the kitchen. She rubbed her hands together while checking the thermostat on the wall, picked up the manila folder off the piano and headed down the hallway to make copies for the meeting.

Just half a minute after Martha left the room, Diana entered the parish hall and followed the hallway down to the meeting room. Less than two minutes after her arrival, Keith came in carrying his bible and a red leatherette book titled “Christian Prayer.” Unlike Diana, Keith hadn’t been back on a Wednesday night since he stopped attending the Inquiry sessions the previous summer. Still enthusiastic as the day he started with the same coal-black bible in hand, he stood in front of a wall, reading items on variously colored pieces of paper tacked to a large bulletin. His arms were folded across his chest and his feet were set just a little more than shoulder length apart.

Martha made it back to the room just as John and Anne were coming down the hallway, each saying “hello” and John offering a small wave as well.

“Our last minutes of freedom,” he added after the wave.

“Well, you’re still free, but for some of you this might be your last cup of hot chocolate for a while.”

“That’s the freedom I meant,” he said with a nervous laugh.

This struck Diana as a little silly. Surely Lent was meant for something more than just giving up chocolate for a month or so. She also realized that she hadn’t yet figured out what she was going to do for her forty days before Easter, which was all the more reason to keep her opinions to herself, if she had to keep them at all.

John began helping Keith, who had finished whatever it was he’d been reading on the bulletin board and was now setting up the folding chairs in order to complete circle. By holding onto the backs and pushing on the seat they were able to change the chair from a two dimensional object into a third – not unlike the transformation they were trying to effect in themselves spiritually, even psychically, in the meeting to follow. Anne followed Martha over to the kitchen counter, where they began taking cups out of the cupboard and setting them up next to the machine. Chatting amiably about wedding plans they had been over at least two or three times before, the two women were clearly having an easier time of conversation than Keith and John, who soon, too soon, had finished setting up all the folding chairs.

Keith half threw himself in the upholstered chair that had been his favorite since the Inquiry days.

“Advantage of coming early.”

“I guess you’ve earned it,” John replied.

After fumbling at pleasantries for a minute they both eagerly greeted Charles as he walked through the door, an attorney who was somewhat of a surprise this early on a weekday evening.

“They let you go after all,” said Keith by way of hello.

“Well I’ll go right back afterwards,” chuckled Charles.

Diana, Jim and Sarah all entered the room at that point and Martha called everyone into the circle of chairs.

“We only have a few minutes here, but I did make some coffee, so if you’d like a cup go ahead and take it now so that we can get started.”

After everyone had sat down she continued with an explanation of the procedure for the evening ceremony, pointing to the grey smudge on her own forehead as an illustration.

“. . . the advantage of going this evening, of course, being that you don’t have to walk around with a mark on your forehead all day. I went to the service this morning, although I think that most of it has rubbed off…”

“Isn’t that the point?” Diana wondered to herself.

“Isn’t that kind of the point?” said Chaz, clearing his throat a little in order to soften the question. “I mean, why else would we have it there, instead of on our arm, or our throat or somewhere…”

“Yes, of course it is, and I’m glad you bring that up. Of course it’s a sign, not just to ourselves, but an outward sign that we consider ourselves fallen; not our true nature, but an acknowledgement of the nature of sin and the effect it has on our lives.”

“I would NOT want to run around all day with that on my forehead. I mean, I work at a salon all day, I see quite a few customers, and people would think I was just weird…” This from Sandy, a young woman who’d begun coming to church with one of her girlfriends in the young adult group, and then moved into the Inquiry group just a month ago. Diana didn’t know much more about her, although she couldn’t help but be conscious of their identical status as single women. ‘Why is she so insecure? Or am I being too judgmental?’ she asked herself. To which she answered ‘Yes, but…’

“Well, it’s a good thing we have the evening service,” said Martha, graciously. “Although I think we should all use this as an opportunity to examine our beliefs and inclinations, including our attitude towards being visible members of the church.”

“Maybe that’ll keep her quiet,” thought Diana.

“All right then. It will all make sense when you’re there. Just follow the crowd.”

Which did make sense, Diana realized, and she found this to be true much of the time. During services she was already kneeling and standing on cue with the rest of the congregation. Realizing this was a little disconcerting, as if religious devotion were being dumbed down to mindless conformity in a group activity. This was an uneasiness she’d felt several times before, never more than when someone else unknowingly voiced one of her own biggest fears, which was unfortunate, as her very attention to the dilemma went a long ways towards inoculating her against that particular problem. And she had said this to herself so many times before. She quoted a scrap of scripture to herself, Wherever two or three of you may gather, and in this way put an end to the conversation she couldn’t stop having with herself, and then turned her attention back to Martha.

“…and there will not be a communion service. It’s not a mass, so you don’t need to worry about when you should go up. Just follow the crowd. When you get to the front there will be several people giving out ashes. You don’t need to go to the priest, although I think that Father Adamowicz will make a point of getting to us, since we’ll be sitting in our usual place up front. Don’t worry about sweeping your hair out of the way; he’s done it thousands of times before, he’ll take care of it…”

The inquirers and the catechumens all sat there nodding in agreement as Martha swept her eyes around the circle to see if there were any questions.

“Now remember that this coming Sunday we won’t meet after the 9:00 mass, but we will gather briefly in the parking lot at 5:00 in the afternoon for those that would like to carpool down to the cathedral for the evening.”

“Why down at the cathedral?” asked Samantha.

“The Rite of Election is on the first Sunday of Lent. You don’t need to be there, Sandy, and in fact there won’t be room for anyone except the catechumens and their sponsors.”

This brought out murmurs of protest from among the catechumens.

“I don’t know if Sarah is going to appreciate that,” said Jim, who had said the exact same thing when he’d first found out last week. Jim was receiving a large welcome to the church from his in-laws, although Sarah hadn’t, in fact, seemed to mind all that much.

Martha sighed and gave out a weak laugh. “I know, I know; it’s just so crowded. It’s great that there are so many people joining the church . . . perhaps in the future they’ll have to consider a third service.”

After pausing for a thought she went on.

“Tell you what: you didn’t hear it from me, but if your wife or husband or,” here she nodded in the direction of Chaz “your children really want to come – I can’t imagine they would – they might as well show up. We have a limited number of rows, but there has to be room somewhere. The cathedral is enormous, and there’s so many people nobody will actually be keeping track.”

Martha paused there for a moment, looking around the room to see if there were any questions.

“All right then, if everyone is okay with that… we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that in the coming weeks. For now I’d like to bring up again the idea of your journals. I want to emphasize two things: first that I strongly recommend that you keep one to write down your impressions of things as we draw closer to Easter. I’m sure that there are lots of things that come up when we’re not actually here, but which you’d like to ask a question about. The journal will give you a chance to write it down. My second point is that they are meant to be perfectly private. There won’t come a day when you have to read out entire pages in front of the congregation, I can assure you. I won’t be checking up on them to see how much you’ve written. This is not school. However, there may come a point when you want to share some of your impressions. This has certainly been true in the past, and every year after Easter there seems to be some people who want to get up and read out a letter, or share something with either the rest of the catechumens, or even at mass, something that they’ve written during their journey.”

With that, she looked around the circle at all of the heads nodding in agreement. Diana’s was not one of these. The idea seemed monstrous to her. She realized this time that it wasn’t just her own thoughts and fears she was afraid of sharing; she didn’t particularly want others to share theirs either. She didn’t much like the way the word ‘journey’ was emphasized either (although she’d heard it often enough in a similar context before); it was as if an entire wardrobe were being stuffed into a small suitcase.

“What about something more visual?” asked Laura, a woman in her late thirties who had decided to enter the church officially after being married in the church some ten years before.

“Sure. What did you have in mind?”

“I’m just a more visual person – I couldn’t stand English in college, all those papers just stressed me out. But I’ve always liked art, and for the last several years I’ve been doing a lot of pottery.”

“If that’s what works for you, then, well, go for it.” Martha said, lowering her head and then nodding upwards for emphasis. A number of people, including Diana, murmured in approval, or at least nodded at the woman’s response.

“Again, this is not intended as pressure, it’s not an assignment that’s going to be graded, but I’m hoping that it will help spur discussions in the future. Okay, are there any other questions?”

Seeing none, they all stood up together to go, leaving the chairs where they were because there wasn’t time to put them back. They filed over to the church together in groups of ones and twos and threes, and Diana listened to Susan and Martha as she walked along. Everyone fell silent as they entered the church.

Diana was surprised to see that the crucifix had been draped in purple. Why hadn’t Martha mentioned that? On a second look the reason was evident enough, and she realized that it had more effect on her because she hadn’t been told about it in advance. She made a mental note to comment on it at the next meeting; that would give her something to say.

The mood throughout the church was somber, and Diana realized that she felt right at home in the silence. Aside from observing as a child that a number of classmates had given up sweets (she remembered how they’d proclaimed it so proudly, and it was this same attitude that had bothered her about the conversation she’d heard earlier in the evening), she’d had no idea what was meant by Lent. As soon as she entered the church she understood perfectly, understood this had more to do with her returning to church week after week than all the catechumenate meetings she’d dutifully attended so far. It was even a relief (only now did she admit it to herself that she had ever considered it a nuisance) to be spared the music at service.

The service itself wasn’t long; she had ashes rubbed onto her forehead in an approximation of a cross, just like all the actual Catholics, and then filed out of the church with the rest of her group. She was halfway to her car, a vintage Volkswagens, painted something between beige and off-white in color, when she heard her name called from back towards the church. She turned around just as Susan slowed down her pace, then wave and smile.

“Not so bad, is it?”

“Not at all, it was fine. Better than fine; good.”

With the same hand she’d waved, Susan reached into a large handbag and pulled out a plain, cardboard notebook. Diana recognized it as a smaller version of the same notebooks she’d used for her chemistry lab in college.

“I know how you feel about talking during those meetings, I know it’s sometimes difficult to talk about everything that’s going on, and I know that -”

Diana felt like she had to say something reassuring. “No, really, it’s fine, I was going to pick one up myself.” As she spoke she could only think, ‘What a coincidence.’ It was a chemistry lab book, the exact same one she’d used in college. She took the blue notebook and opened it up, as if checking to see if wasn’t already written on. Even after looking she couldn’t shake the strange feeling that perhaps it must have been done in invisible ink.

“Of all the things we’ve said or did over the last several years, I’ve found that this has been the most helpful. Well, not always helpful, but I’m glad I have it now to look back on.”

“Well, I’ll try it.”

“And you really don’t have to read it out.” She gave a reassuring smile. “Okay, gotta run. I’ll see you on Sunday?”

“I’ll be there.”

Driving out of the church parking lot she nearly had a head-on collision with a van. She saw the driver lift his arms up in exasperation, which seemed pretty funny to her, as he was the one in the wrong lane. Not that the lanes were so clearly marked in the lot – she’d often considered this a possible trouble spot when entering or leaving the church before. As the van swung back closer to the curb to drive past, the driver stopped and rolled down his window, glared down and waved his middle finger at her. That this should happen in a church parking lot was a little shocking, and when she looked back she saw that the van had been painted with a sign that read ‘Big Paul’s Janitorial Services,’ and underneath that, ‘For All Your Plumbing Emergencies.’

She was so stunned that she watched the van in her rearview mirror as the obnoxious driver pulled it into a parking spot and jumped out and walked to the rear double-doors. She was surprised at how short he was, and checked the logo on the side of the truck to make sure she’d read it correctly before. She considered calling to have it out with the owner, except that the little jackass probably was the owner. Lucky for her that she forgot about it almost as soon as she’d driven off the lot.

During the drive home she thought about the journal and played her own devil’s advocate. ‘Why should I write down what I’m thinking in a diary? I already know how I feel and what I’m thinking, and I can’t see how writing down either my thoughts or feelings will accomplish anything. I’m not like Jeb, who obviously wants other people to read what he writes. I’m not a writer. On the other hand, what do I have to lose? If I don’t expect much, I can’t be disappointed.’

‘Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed’ could be the first thing she wrote in her new diary, for it occurred to her that this might as well have been the unwritten motto she had lived by most of her life.

Since she lived in a small studio apartment by herself, she didn’t have to worry about interference from a roommate or the possibility that someone might find her diary. Almost as soon as she got there, without taking as much time as would be needed to develop a mental block, she sat down at the small table in the corner and took out the notebook.

Ash Wednesday

Went to the 7:30 service, but before that had the Inquiry session and met some people who will probably be in next year’s catechumenate. Odd feeling for just a moment, remembering how I once thought that I would be the last person ever to take part in something like this. I still feel like a fish out of water. It really did feel strange. Chaz made it to the service, even though on Sunday he’d said he probably wouldn’t, so it obviously means something to him.

Had the ashes rubbed on my forehead, where they still are. Glad I don’t have to tend bar with them there.

Susan gave me this notebook to keep track of my thoughts during Lent; by the way she talked about it I’m pretty sure that she has continued writing in her own diary. Of all my experiences so far in the catechumenate, this is probably the closest I’ve come to feeling evangelized. Which isn’t so bad, although I’m wondering now about how easily I get my hackles up.

She paused for a moment, biting the end of her pen instead of the customary nail.

For a moment there tonight I thought that Martha had devised this exercise specifically for me, just to get me talking more during the sessions. That’s crazy, of course, but I think it’s funny that we’re supposed to have some sort of reason for being there. Some people do, which is fine, but I still have the feeling that if I were to say, ‘Well it’s just the right thing to do,’ I’d get more questions than anything else. The rest I just really can’t get into. So why even get started? Martha keeps saying that it isn’t school, but in a way, I wish it were. That history class actually did help me get here; didn’t I have that the same quarter as my chemistry lab? So long ago… now I’m rambling. Anyway, Martha is right to keep it basic, to stick to the scriptures.

Ashes on the forehead makes sense. It’s what remains of public penance, I think. That’s what Digs said. Professor Digbury, I mean. Jonathan Edwards and ‘Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,’ that’s what I remember most from the course, although Edwards was hardly Catholic. Neither was Professor Digbury, for that matter. Which makes for a kind of double blind experiment, or at least a pair of hypotheses. Or so it seems to me. Okay, that doesn’t make as much sense as I thought it did, now that I can read it back to myself.

After giving this somewhat rambling account of her first day’s recollections, she walked the diary over to her bookcase and stuck it on the top shelf with her photo albums. She briefly wondered whether in time they might come to complement one another. She paused for a moment, wondering to herself exactly who she was writing for. If it was for herself, why bother to explain the nickname of a professor she’d had eight years ago? On the other hand, it can’t be for her sponsor, Susan, since it includes speculations articulated in a manner she was fairly sure she wouldn’t use while talking to her, and that went for the rest of the group as well. Walking over to kitchen area she then grabbed a coke from the fridge and plopped herself down on the couch for an evening of sitcoms. What are the odds that there’s something on about Ash Wednesday? she mused to herself, as if she were still writing in the diary.

She stood up to walk over to the television and then paused for a moment to look out the window. She couldn’t see very well because it was dark outside, so she paused for a moment and looked at herself. It was a short pause, because she was then distracted by the blinking red lights of the radio towers on top of Queen Anne hill. Were they synchronized? Realizing that she would see what was outside more clearly if she turned the light off, she walked over to the front door and did just that. Then she walked back to the window and gazed up at the towers, counting the blinks as if there might be a message in Morse code. There wasn’t, but it was pleasant enough just leaning against the edge of the widow, staring out of the darkness she’d made just to see out into the darkness she hadn’t.

And there she remained for quite some time.


  1. While reading, I got to thinking of AA meetings, and couldn't help thinking of the atmosphere of self-control, sentimentality, and something a little more sordid and aggressive.

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