My sophomore year of high school, I moved into our house’s upstairs bathroom. There, I could feel alone in a house full of people, find solitude away from my three siblings. I slept on a mattress on the floor that I leaned against the wall when I woke up. The tub became an alcove, a place to read and think. I taped Virgin Mary prayer cards to its sides, and hung rosary beads from the shower-curtain rod. In need of comfort, I prayed for strength. “Please God, make me whole.” My parents helped me paint the bathroom walls sky blue. Later, I added white clouds.
The same year I moved into the bathroom, I stole two books from the back shelves of classrooms. The first one, from my English teacher, was a small Random House dictionary. Tucked in the tub, I drew stars by the words I looked up and copied out their definitions in a composition notebook. Eventually the dictionary’s red-cloth binding cracked; its cover fell off entirely. When a few pages ripped, I inserted the thin sheets back where they belonged.
Later that year I stole May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973. The cover features a black-and-white photograph of Sarton’s office: a desk with a lamp, a typewriter, a glass of pens and pencils. In her November 11 entry, Sarton writes, “We are whole or have intimations of what it means to be whole when the entire being—spirit, mind, nerves, flesh, the body itself—are concentrated toward a single end.” To what end was I at sixteen bent? Toward learning how to write, yes, but also toward making sense of my life and God’s place in it. In an entry on November 17, Sarton writes, “One must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private.” She spoke of putting inner turmoil to good use. I kept the book by the bowl of the sink.
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