Today my mother asked me when I was going to write a book. I told her I don’t have one in me but that is not true. I have lots of stories in me but they die away before I can cultivate them. I am the dead story cemetery.
She wants me to write her book. Little Saint Monika in the frigid and lovely Swiss mountains. Confined by religion and liberated every spring by ideas of romantic love and human sensuality. She was so burdened until she came here. Crossed the vast Atlantic like an ancient traveler and settled in a new shining land. It was here that she built her new life, one of frantic energy, and had her children.
In some ways we were always in the mountains with her. We were the goal, the brass ring she was reaching for and the kind of future that made her seem normal. In some ways the mountains were always in her. This secular world held little real charm for her, lacking as it is, any magic. With the four of us in tow, there were forays into dark places looking for mystical union and the sacred spaces where fear and awe are indistinguishable. On her own her journeys were even darker. She pushed her body to unsafe limits, doing noisy and ugly things that made us cry.
So, riding the train today, when she asked me about writing a book it gave me pause.
After we parted at the station, she moving toward her next crusade, me home to the lumpy couch and soup bowls of loneliness, I kept thinking about a book, the book she would want written about her. Walking past shop windows, reflecting the late afternoon sun, walking in the fumes of city buses, I could picture her blond and wind-burned, entering that mythological church, the real church that she said suffocated her and kept her from her true and beautiful nature.
What if my language is not my own? Perhaps my words are her words. Is my only purpose to be her record keeper, her portrait painter, her holy scribe. As she walks uptown and I down, her gravitational pull is intense and horrible and like an unborn baby I don’t know where she ends and I begin.
All along she has insisted, in her soft and convincing way, I am nothing but the story of her, a part of her, breaking off of her but orbiting her always.
She was born there and years went by and they were full of snow and sadness but also a lightness in the sky beyond the clouds that made her loosen her grip on the wooden benches she sat on to pray or bent over as the strap came down upon her thighs when she was punished. She loosened her grip all the way until she had completely let go and found herself here. And found her body splitting four times so that she could be in five places at once. So she could be all the senses and experience everything but maybe nothingness on certain days, too. I am the sense of hearing. And, sixth sense, but not the one you think. I am the sense of pen on paper, of memory drying in ink. I am the sense of weight lifting from you as you become legend because your story is told, is sung, is recorded and you are free of it now.
At home I call my mother to tell her I do want to write a book, to write about the mountains and the church and how cold and hungry she was but how it all made her blue eyes shine. But, she doesn’t seem to know what I mean at first. She wants to talk about herself, yes, of course she does. Yet other parts of herself, my siblings, have called before me today with even greater gifts and talents and she doesn’t need me now. She has moved past this idea already and left me with its husk, empty, dry and crumbling.
Here I am. And here is my mother’s attention running through my hand like something lighter than sand; like dust. And I am left with the clean air filling my lungs, air I worry might be Monika’s mountain air, but the lungs remain mine alone. I am small again and my mountains are made of glass and steel and reflection. I thought I was only the reflection of my mother but see now that an entire city was a reflection of me. I ran up and down those sidewalks then, the concrete solid underneath my feet and my hands reaching for the pen and my heart longing for the clean white page. I hang up the phone.
You should write a book she tells me another day, another year. But, that story, her story, has died and is in me no more. I am free of it now. In my hand is something new, a pen filled with my own blood and my own memories. I attack the page with a singular ferocity and my story is fiercely singular. Each stroke is a breath, clear and deep and almost too much and this story is the tiniest of seedlings coming up through a crack in the sidewalk with my own feet somehow still moving me forward.
Sarah Rachel Egelman is a professor and writer, among other things.