Buy the Book: Amazon, Indigo
Published by: Dundurn Press
Release Date: September 14, 2021
Angela Morrison has it all. She’s married to a wealthy man, adores her son, grows orchids, and volunteers at Our Daily Bread Food Pantry. What more could she want? More. Much more. And she’s willing to risk everything after meeting Carsten, the landscaper with the glacier-blue eyes.
Sister Eileen, who run the Daily Bread Food Pantry, tries her best to “love the dear neighbor, without distinction,” but struggles with a silent God. If she is to convince Angela that she’s loved by God, she must first learn to love Angela, and that’s no easy task, especially after Angela causes a terrible tragedy.
EVEN SO explores what it means to love others — even the selfish, the careless, and those who not only are harmed by others, but who also do harm.
Thank you for your interest in EVEN SO, a novel in which I explore the challenges of loving difficult people, and love’s role in redemption.
I’ve met a few people over the years who are able to love unconditionally. One of them is a Catholic nun. A few years ago, when I was in a grim emotional landscape, someone suggested I talk not to a psychologist but to a Spiritual Director named Sister Rita. Luckily, she didn’t care whether I was Catholic or not; she cared only about being a companion in a horrid time, and helping me find whatever invitation to a freer, deeper life beckoned from the pain. And she did just that.
At the same time, a number of people I knew were making life-altering decisions. Some for the better, some not so much. Some actually seemed hell-bent in throwing a grenade into the trenches of their lives, oblivious to the fact other people lived in those trenches, too.
Plus, I’ve been concerned over the years about how the gulf between the privileged and the marginalized grows ever wider, and there is very little understanding in the vast majority of the privileged for what the materially poor endure.
I began thinking about how it’s relatively easy to love people who’ve been harmed, but what about those who do harm? Questions about forgiveness and redemption, restoration and transformation, obsessed me. So, I began to write, and developed the characters: a woman of privilege who, in her quest for gratification, is careless of others; and a nun who suffers the silence of God even as she runs a food pantry. Through their relationship with each other, worlds collide, as do other things, and in the end it’s true we all, even nuns, need forgiveness and love.
Again, many thanks popping in. I hope you find something useful here.
Angela sat on the side of the bed, lacing up her running shoes, and watched her husband standing at one of the two sinks in their ensuite. Philip was shirtless, a towel wrapped around his waist. It was early spring, predawn, and the overhead light cast unflattering shadows. The bathroom was so very white and cool. Philip leaned in toward the mirror as he shaved. His belly, a hairy fold of flesh, rested on the top of the sink. His legs were ham-pink, and a purple varicose vein wriggled like a worm at the back of his right knee. Angela watched him in the silver-framed mirror. He squooshed his face up, lips pursed. There was a considerable amount of loose skin and so he used his left hand to pull it taut. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Rinse the razor. Tap, tap, tap on the sink. Repeat. Wipe face with towel, wipe the sink with the same towel, and deposit towel in hamper. No towel was ever used twice. He turned back to view himself in the mirror. He posed to the side, and slapped his gut three times, as though in congratulations, and grinned at his big, meaty reflection. He noticed Angela staring. He unwrapped the towel at his waist and waggled his dangling bits in her direction, raising his eyebrows.
“I’ve got ten minutes.” He waggled again, the grin and the heavy eyebrows working in tandem.
While it was true Philip’s bits were impressive, the last thing Angela wanted was to have sex with him. In fact, the extent of her distaste for the man to whom she was married came as a bit of a shock. She could just about manage sex after a bottle of burgundy on a Saturday night had put a little Vaseline on the lens, but, in the full-on glare of morning’s bathroom light? No. No, she very much did not want to have sex with Philip. It had been, what, three months since there’d been one of those Saturday nights? She tried not to let her aversion show and walked to the closet to grab her jacket so he wouldn’t see her face. Oh, she thought, let me just get out of this now. Don’t make a fuss, Philip. The image of his belly slapping against her ass popped into her head and she winced.
No wife should be thinking this about her husband. But there it was. The little toad hopped in, with no promise of turning into a prince. When had this happened? Slowly, she supposed, over time. They hadn’t always been so distant, so much at odds. When Connor was little there had been parties, and dancing, BBQs in the back yard. Business-related events, mostly, but she’d liked some of the wives, even if all they really talked about were kids. That was okay. She’d only wanted to talk about Connor, anyway. The perfection of him. The joy of him. And with the parties had been champagne, and martinis, and yes, there had been sex, quite a bit of it, to be truthful.
Had her desire for Philip fallen away because of the way his body had changed over the years, or was it more than that?
It was puzzling, she thought, the way someone so persnickety about household perfection — no dust, no clutter, nothing out of place — could care so little about his own body, and equally baffling that he thought his wife would find it attractive. Philip had never boasted a six-pack. He’d always been slightly on the heavy side, but at least it had been firm flesh back when they’d met. And he’d smelled of some woodsy cologne she liked. What was it about men, wanting their women to be sylph-like and flawless while they went the way of all flesh? For her part she was still slim, not five pounds over what she had been twenty years ago when they married. Her auburn hair shone from expensive conditioners and was kept in the softly curling bob Philip said made her look like Audrey Hepburn. Her hazel eyes were framed by perfectly arched brows and thick lashes. Not a single line hovered over her full lips. All this was expected of her, while just look at Philip there, in all his self-satisfied glory.
Those waggling eyebrows. That grin. Those dangling bits, now slightly tumescent.
“Can’t,” she said, keeping her voice cheerful. “Got to get this run in. I’m at the Pantry this morning.”
Philip rewrapped the towel, his grin disappearing. “Again?”
“I don’t get it, Angela.”
“I know you don’t.” She zipped up her windbreaker. “You’ve made that clear.”
“Like emptying the sea with a slotted spoon,” Philip said as he applied deodorant.
Angela had begun volunteering at the Our Daily Bread Food Pantry a little over six months ago. One of those frequent fundraising letters had come in the mail, asking for donations. She had written a cheque, of course, but then had begun thinking. She had time on her hands, too much time, in fact. Connor, off at the Lawrenceville boarding school, was home infrequently, and at his age was hardly interested in hanging out with his mother, more was the pity. She had no job outside the home, which was mostly managed by Irina, the twice-a-week cleaning lady, anyway. She had few friends, since she was uninterested in things such as golf or bridge or shopping-and-lunch. She had joined a book club, briefly, but the women (no men) seemed more interested in gossip and wine than Balzac or Morrison. Her greenhouse and beloved orchids were important, a sort of meditation on the solace of beauty, but they didn’t contribute much to the world at large.
Ever since Connor had moved to the Lawrenceville boarding school, the restlessness Angela had felt creeping up on her for so long had become impossible to ignore. Running helped, but she couldn’t run all day every day, could she? When she felt that tinge of possibility looking down at the cheque she’d written for the Pantry, she felt perhaps this was what she was being called to do. She telephoned them. Spoke to the nun, Sister Eileen, who ran the place and asked if she could pop in with a cheque and for a chat about volunteering.
This is the way it had started. She went once a week, more or less, and the place now mattered to her. Perhaps not as much as her orchids, but still. It was a bone of contention between her and Philip. He didn’t like her heading into what he called The Wilds of Trenton. For some as yet unexplored reason, that made her want to be part of it even more.
She looked at Philip again, stepping into his pants now, heaving them up over that belly.
“See you tonight. You going to be late?” She shoved her hands in her pockets and jogged down the stairs.
“Home by eight. Hey,” he called after her.
“Langs’ for dinner tomorrow night, remember? Can you pick up some gift? She cooks.”
“I’ll find something.”
“Love you,” he called again.
“Love you, too.”
Her hand was on the doorknob. Love him? Did she? She had once, she thought.
An odd memory flashed through her mind of the two of them, dressed in white linen, playing croquet at a fundraiser for the Princeton Hospital. They drank Pimm’s with mint and cucumber. She wore a fetching wide-brimmed straw hat with silk flowers on it and a slip dress with a drop waist, all very 1930s. He hit his ball into hers with a hard clack and then prepared, as the rules gave him permission to do, to smash hers into the deep wilds. But he didn’t. He looked sideways at her, smiled, and tapped it ever so lightly. Then he stood and touched the rim of his boater, bowing gently. She had loved him in that moment, looking, as he did, like some English lord, so sturdy, a country man, but elegant in his whites, and so gallant. She had loved him then, she was sure.
Love. Did she even have the faintest notion of what that word meant? She shook her head and set out into the brightening spring day. It was too early for all this.
Eileen sat at one of the two chairs beside the tiny Formica table pushed up against the kitchen wall. It was seven-thirty in the morning and, not having slept well the night before, she was grateful for the strong coffee in the cup around which she warmed her hands. Anne leaned against the counter, absurdly upbeat and energized for someone of her advanced years. Anne was seventy-four, thirty-four years older than Eileen, and was alarmingly chipper in the morning. The cabinets were once a jolly yellow, but now they were dull and chipped. One of the doors was gone completely, and the dishes on the shelves were mismatched. Anne’s hair was tied up in a messy knot atop her head, and she was dressed in what Eileen had come to think of as the Nun Uniform: sensible shoes, loose-fitting pants, a blouse and light jacket. What Eileen was, in fact, wearing herself.
“Test today,” said Anne. “We’ll see how well I’ve done teaching algebraic word problems. Scares them. Don’t know why. It’s all about breaking it down and turning it into an equation. Anne tipped her coffee cup to her lips and drained the dregs, with what looked like regret. She shrugged. “I have to run.”
“See you later.” Eileen, who had been scared of algebraic word problems herself, thought it was way too early for mathematics of any kind.
Anne ducked out the door just as Caroline appeared, slipping her arms into a pale blue cardigan. She strode to the coffee pot.
“Want some more?” Caroline held the pot up and tilted her head. She tucked a strand of the curly auburn hair that had escaped her ponytail behind her ears.
Eileen rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “I didn’t get much sleep last night with all the noise. So, yes, please, even though it’s my second. Did you sleep?”
“Sort of. Anne said she did, but I think that’s because she turns her hearing aid off. I don’t see how anyone can sleep with the sirens and I’m sure those were gunshots I heard. Do you think it was?”
“Probably. Not uncommon, I’m sorry to say.”
Caroline filled Eileen’s cup and then fiddled with one of the dials on the stove. “We really should see if someone can fix this.”
The appliances were old, but serviceable — although one of the burners on the stove had stopped working the week before.
Caroline looked around at the room. “Maybe we could get a couple of gallons of paint. Yellow, maybe, something cheerful and clean.”
Eileen chuckled. “That would be pretty. If you’ve got time to paint. Do you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“I envy you your energy,” said Eileen as Caroline sat down beside her. “At the end of the day I’m exhausted.” She blew on her coffee and then sipped it, sighed, and leaned back in the chair. “You’re with me today, I think, right?”
“Yup, all this week.”
As part of her mission year, prior to taking her first vows, Sister Caroline was discovering where her talents might best be employed, shifting her time between working alongside Eileen at the Our Daily Bread Food Pantry, and with Anne at the school.
Caroline got herself a bowl of cereal and returned to the table. She said, “Maybe we could get someone to tear up that concrete out front. We could put in a garden. You’ve got that gardener guy coming to the Pantry today, don’t you? We could ask him, maybe.”
“It would be nice to have a garden. We’ll see. Does the house bother you?”
“No, I mean, not for me. But you know, it might be nice for the street. It might set an example and would certainly be more welcoming than that slab of grey.” Caroline paused. “I’m not a snob; at least I don’t think I am.”
“I don’t think you are, either. And you’re right. It would be good to spruce the place up a bit, as we can.”
“A coat of paint. A few flowers. Sort of a bare minimum, I think.”
Eileen smiled but said nothing more. Caroline had been raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, in a Nantucket-style shore colonial worth five million dollars. She had once said to Eileen that she had imagined a house full of nuns in an urban neighbourhood like this would stand out, be a beacon of cleanliness, calm, and serenity in a jumble of chaos, when in fact this plain-fronted, almost tumbledown place bought at foreclosure auction looked like every other building on the street. Theirs was grey siding, some of the others were brick, and most were duplexes, while this one wasn’t, and it did boast an ash tree in front, and a tiny porch with latticework from which, in the summer, the sisters hung potted plants and set out chairs. Eileen wondered what Caroline would think if she knew where Eileen had grown up — over a bar on the Jersey Shore, amidst the drunks; the fights; the motorcycles; the stolen cars; the shit-faced, fist-happy father; the narcissistic, martyred mother. It must surely be a sign of God’s great plan that women from such different backgrounds would both find their way here.
Caroline was tall, with big wrists and wide shoulders, strong-looking, suited to soccer and field hockey. Now, she fingered her necklace. All the Sisters wore one. It bore the symbol of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a silver globe with a cross to the side. One of the cross’s arms was elongated, as was the downward portion. The symbol represented the Order’s vision of embracing the whole world: downward toward earth, upward toward the cosmos, outward to humanity, creating lines of communion and union with God, with each other, and with the “dear neighbour without distinction.”
Eileen got up, wiped the counter, frowned, and said, not unkindly, “I do wonder if you’ll be comfortable here in Trenton. I find it challenging enough and I’ve been here for a long time.”
“I’m glad I’m not the only one, at least,” said Caroline. “I like a lot of the people, but it’s kind of shocking to see some of them working two minimum-wage jobs and still not able to make it through to the end of the month.”
Eileen rinsed out the cloth she’d been using on the counter. “Having the electricity turned off. Kids doing homework by candlelight.” She sighed. “Ah, the ‘deserving’ poor, right? They’re easy to love, but it’s harder to love those not only to whom harm has been done, but who have done harm in return.”
“That’s where I am. I know Christ calls on us to love everyone, to see Him in everyone, but the guy who beats up his wife and kids? The ones who fight dogs?”
Eileen could see Caroline was about to continue with what she suspected was a long list. “Yes, Caroline, even them. Hard as it is. Listen, I try. Often fail. I try again. But it’s not for everyone, and that’s no shame. It’s what you’re here to find out: how best to serve God, being exactly who you are.”
Caroline bowed her head and took the medallion in her mouth like a child. “It just seems so dangerous.”
Just then Ruth, lean, with wiry salt-and-pepper hair and the air of an eager, bounding wolfhound, stuck her head in the door. “I’m off! Have a good day, everyone!” She waved and disappeared again, off to her job as chaplain in the New Jersey State Prison. She worked part-time there, and part-time at Edna Mahan, the women’s prison in Clinton. “Oh, Eileen,” she called, “can you take the lasagna out of the freezer? Tonight’s dinner!”
“Bye, Sister Ruth! Have a blessed day!” called Caroline.
Eileen reached into the freezer and produced a large tray of frozen lasagna. “Ruth cooks enough for a dozen,” she said. She put it on top of the stove and peeled off the plastic wrap covering the top. She glanced at Caroline. “You know, I was raised on the Jersey Shore. Bars and blue-collar families, the hardscrabble church-centred life where everyone knew everyone’s family and every family had its troubles. Domestic violence. Drunks. Car crashes in stolen vehicles. Rape, sometimes by members of the clergy. Oh, don’t look like that, you know it happened … happens. Abused kids. Drug abuse. It wasn’t the sort of community that could hide its bags of bones. I grew up understanding life is both as messy as the beach after a hurricane and as indescribably beautiful as moonrise over still water.”
“So, you think I shouldn’t be here?”
“I didn’t say that. You’ve only been here a few weeks. Give it a chance. But look at Anne. She adores teaching. It’s what she’s made for. You have a master’s in English literature. You won’t use that much here. You might be better suited to a more suburban posting, maybe a teaching post. You’re wonderful with children. Just something to consider. Time will tell, and you and your spiritual director will work it all out.”
“You never wanted to teach?”
“Me? Nope. Not my thing. Not great with kids, at least not for any period of time.”
Eileen did not tell Caroline about the time she was twelve, babysitting her little two-year-old cousin, and when the child would not stop crying Eileen had slapped him, hard, across the mouth. Oh, that terrible moment when, in shock, he’d stopped crying, his mouth and eyes wide and wild, and then, a wrenching moment later, the screaming had begun. Crying of an entirely different order, a wordless protest to the world’s cruelty and injustice and horror, having been betrayed by love for the first time. She’d done that, destroyed a child’s innocence, just like that, as her own had been destroyed by her mother with a similar slap. Teach? No. She was not made for children. Her great shame.
“I’m just saying I found it difficult when I first arrived, and I still have my moments.”
“Was it always like this?”
“Trenton? Oh, it goes through ups and downs, but it’s been a sad place ever since the late sixties, I guess, when most of the industry left. Always trying to get back on its feet, to be the great city it once was. Hard, though, when there’s nothing much for people to do.”
“You don’t get scared? Ever? Come on.” Caroline snorted.
“I’ve been scared, of course. A couple of times. But after a while I began to see it as an opportunity to rely more fully on God. And we’re not in danger, you know. Not really. Other than some random incidents that could happen anywhere, the violence is self-contained. Gangs. Young people against each other. I think of the parents, how difficult it is on them.”
Caroline hunched over her mug and put three heaping spoons of sugar from the blue-and-white bowl into her coffee. “I don’t know how anyone gets used to gangs and guns.”
Eileen shook her head. “You’re right. Getting used to something like that would be awful. It would be a kind of heartlessness.” Eileen walked over and hugged Caroline with an arm around her broad shoulders. “Keep praying. Bring your fears to God. The way will become clear, I promise. And what a gift it is, to be able to feel the fear other people feel. Think how you’ll be able to help them, should the need arise.”
Caroline nodded. “I know I’m not alone. I feel it more all the time.”
“That’s a very good start. Thank God.”
Eileen did not say that what she felt more and more was the great silence of God. When she had been Caroline’s age, she, too, had felt God’s loving embrace, God’s clear presence, leading her, protecting her, guiding her. When had it left? She didn’t know. She only knew that now when she prayed, she felt the words were going out into some great void. She felt as though she was dying of thirst sometimes, her soul cracked and parched as old leather. She felt like King David crying out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. She understood she should see this as a call to trust the promise of God more than the perception, and that wasn’t really indifferent, or absent, or silent … but where once there had been a garden perfumed with God’s presence, for the past number of years there was nothing but an arid wind across a blasted landscape of unrelenting darkness.
She hoped Caroline would never experience this dark night of the soul.
Eileen shook her head to scatter the bleak thoughts. No time for this. There is work to be done. Blessed is the day the Lord has made.