With My Eyes Closed

Franchesca Peña
  • An essay about my relationship with faith, which develops through my relationship with my grandmother.

I need to remind myself that Mama is human, that she is not endless love, and food, and sacrifice. But she makes it hard to do. When I tell you I was raised Catholic, I mean I was raised by Mama: a woman who always keeps her creased Bible close: under the bed, wrapped in a plastic bag, tucked in a suitcase; a woman with golden eyes on her chest; a woman who made a promise to God and has kept it for over twenty-five years; a woman who can pray in the middle of our crowded apartment as people cross by to get to the kitchen, the tv plays loudly in the background, and the dogs bark at our neighbor’s footsteps. What I mean is, I was raised by a woman who could always block out the noise.

If you were to tell me, they just don’t make them like they used to, I’d toss you a wash rag and laugh in your face. That is, unless you happened to catch me watching Mama pray. It’s a sight to behold: the concentration, the repetition, the ritual, the intrinsic motivation, the simultaneous vulnerability and authority.

Maybe they don’t make them like they used to because the older I grew, the more noise seemed to make its way inside and breed chaos in my mind. As a young adult, I was suddenly anxious about everything: my relationships, my career, my future, the state of the world. I couldn’t find quiet or stillness. I wanted to know why some days, I’d sneak to a bathroom stall to shake the vivid, excess energy beaming off of me, and other days, sleeping was the only way to calm the dull pain that ached all over my body and brain.

I adopted a new variety of faith. These questions were something I could out-clever, out-strategize, or out-work. I could be more productive and efficient. I could work out more and journal more. Every morning, I could write three things I was grateful for. I stocked up on self-help books that I used to laugh at. I went to therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), now that was something I could believe in. CBT taught me the importance of things like communicating, setting healthy boundaries, and regulating emotions. It suited how I viewed the world, an approach that was empathetic yet problem-focused and action-oriented. I clutched on to the idea tighter than how Mama holds her rosary.

When I did go to church, on the occasional Ash Wednesday or when someone died, I fidgeted in my seat, my back began to hurt when the congregation had to stand up for longer than a few minutes, and I hid the yawns that came easily in the dim lighting. I tried to listen dutifully to the Father (attend church or not, that infamous Catholic guilt finds a way). Yet his words landed flat on my ears, unable to penetrate to the place where the noise ran wild.

There were moments, however, that drew my attention. I loved when the congregation turned to each other and wished one another peace, when we sang and our echoes filled the room, and I loved to watch someone with their eyes closed at church. I looked at how all the muscles in their face relaxed, how tension gave way to a look of openness, and then I felt less alone.

 

***

One night, I am on vacation with a friend in Paris. We are pacing around in the cold air, dealing with the discord between expectations for a night in Paris and the reality of a night in Paris. I am restless. I have been in France for a couple of months and despite everyone’s assurance that I would have the time of my life, I feel unsettled and on edge. I suggest to my friend we go to the Sacré-Cœur for a beautiful view of the city. Inside the church, there are sections roped off for worshippers. I find an empty spot on a bench and look up to the massive, domed ceiling where there is a mosaic of Jesus. He stands with his arms fully extended, embracing everyone in the pews. I take in the bright blue and glimmering gold tones. I count my breath and listen for the soft echoes of whispered amens. I start to cry. My cheeks are still cold from the outside air and my tears are warm against them. I don’t know why this is happening. I look around and see others with their heads bowed, their eyes closed, and it seems the only thing to do is to sit quietly, close my eyes, and let myself cry. I am not alone, I am in company.

 

***

A few months prior, I was with my family in the Dominican Republic. One night, as everyone was going to their rooms, Mama told me she wanted to talk. Sensing what was coming, I told her I’d be there once I got ready for bed. In the bathroom, I slowed and paced my breath, which is how I grant myself time when I need to face things, which those days was most days. Maybe in the time I take three breaths, I thought, the answers will come. Maybe I will breathe in and out and everything will become lighter. My body will unclench.

I sat down next to Mama on the couch. What’s going on, she asked me. I have been watching you for the past several days and I can tell you are not okay. I can tell something is tormenting your soul. It breaks my heart to see you this way. This was, in my family, everything I had ever wanted. My family was tight-knit but at times I wondered if that closeness was out of desire or necessity. As I grew up and tried to create an individual identity for myself, I found it difficult to find my place within our group. Naively, and emboldened by years of therapy, I believed that communication was the answer to everything. We just needed to be open and honest, ask the right questions, and affirm one another. Then we would see each other as we really were.

Yet as I sat there with my beloved Mama asking me if I was okay, asking me what I had been through, if anyone had hurt me, and assuring me that there was no blame being put on me, I could not say a word. I couldn’t find what to say, nothing that would adhere to the rules of sequence, time, and logic that language so often calls for. All I could do was cry, which I have found fills the space when language cannot.

For some time after our conversation, I was devastated. My grandmother wanted to understand me and I should’ve expressed myself better. I had missed a chance to deepen my connection with someone I cared so much about. I was learning that honesty, communication, and so many of the other things I’d put my all faith in can only take you so far. These tools have their limitations.

 

***

Sometimes, when I hug others, I try to give them peace. I squeeze tightly and try to transmit it through my bones and skin into their body. When I cry, it can feel like prayer. When I look out before me and each color is vivid and each line is sharp, I feel closer to Nirvana. When I feel gratitude in my blood, like color dispersing in water, I understand the notion of a God.

These days, I look for purpose and meaning in many places: in meditation, in writing, in cell eighty-five on the sheet I scroll through at work, in food, in therapy, in the voice on the other side of the phone or the person on the other end of the couch. This is to say that many of my acts are religious acts.

A part of me wished I wouldn’t have needed to say anything to Mama that night, that she would’ve looked at me and seen everything in my heart and known exactly what to say and what to do. But not even my beloved Mama, with all her superpowers, could do that. As I develop my unique relationship to faith, I wonder if maybe that is the grace that belief can offer us, to see us as we really are, and know exactly what to say and what to do.

 

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