The story of my locket begins in a silent monastery in Kentucky, amid rolling hills, Trappist monks, and the clinking of ice water carried steadily on a tray, almost a year ago.
For someone who relies heavily on hearing, a weekend in silence was slightly intimidating, but definitely doable. While I am typically self-conscious about using my cane in public, fearing someone I know will see me or that I will look weak or, God forbid, blind, I knew it would be my trusted companion on the grounds of the Trappist monastery. And it was.
Besides helping me navigate around inanimate objects, it alerted fellow silent retreaters to steer clear. And since there was no talking, I didn’t have to deal with any nosey strangers asking me the typical questions about how blind I am or what caused it or how long I’ve been this way.
I went about my business on the retreat silently, as everyone did. Strolling through the gardens. Journaling. Attending “none” service at 2pm and “vigils” at 3am.
I had made the 6-hour drive to Gethsemani with a good friend, Emily, who was incredibly helpful wherever we walked, but I wanted her to have time to just be, and I also wanted my own time of solitude, so I tried to go out alone as much as possible. The only non-negotiable place where I definitely needed her was in the cafeteria.
Buffet lines are always a bit tricky, but my dislike of silent buffets is akin to my distaste for running through muddy obstacle courses in the dark. Fortunately, Emily is one of my “seamless” friends who is able to assist me via mind-reading, so we cruised through the line with minimal commotion and just a couple whispers
(elbowing her) “That?”
“Split pea soup.”
There was something about silence that made my food look foreign. I honestly thought my grilled cheese sandwich was lasagna until I cut into it with a fork and knife. I guess in the talking world I rely on verbal cues like, “mmm, grilled cheese tonight” more than I thought.
Maneuvering from the food line to our eating area was probably the trickiest part of the entire weekend. Since my tray required two hands, I couldn’t hold on to Emily in the dim hallways. I had to hold my cane in the crook of my arm while balancing my tray. Besides the hallway being very dark, it dipped down in certain places, allowing for a full disorienting experience. Being a good friend, Emily walked with the intentional pace of a 90-year-old, and her ice water clinked softly, so I simply followed the sound of her cubes.
When I recently told my mobility instructor about this, she said I should have placed my tray against Emily’s back as she walked so that I could feel where she was going. That would have been helpful to know beforehand, although several potential food catastrophes reel through my mind when I picture walking with my tray jammed against her back, particularly on the downward slanting part of the hallway.
Placing my tray, dishes and utensils in the proper cleaning areas after our meals was a dreaded chore for more than visual reasons. I could usually tell where she was placing her utensils, but then there was a “slop” bucket to pour leftover liquid and food into, which was triggering my gag reflexes quite ferociously. I had to turn away from the smelly bucket, making it even harder to tell where to put my plate, glass and bowl. After a couple meals, Emily politely volunteered to just clear my tray for me. I took her up on this generous offer, knowing she would rather scrape my slop than watch me vomit.
I wondered, at times, if any of the other 20-or-so participants observed any of our cafeteria wanderings and whether any of it struck them as funny, but I mostly tuned everyone out, which was incredibly easy to do since they were silent and usually out of my 4 degrees of vision. They honestly could have been walking around with giant blocks of cheese instead of heads, and I wouldn’t have seen enough to notify one single mouse.
I did more writing during those two days than I had the previous 2 months, fully intending to go “post-all” upon returning home. But in the end, much of what I wrote ended up being just for me. One story, however, started out for me, and a few close friends, but is now begging to be told.
On the last day there, immediately following a short seminar given by one of the monks, a fellow participant nervously approached Emily and I. He handed Emily a small piece of paper and said, “Can you read this to her?” pointing to me. Emily, who knows how sensitive I am about people treating me differently, was defensive of me and annoyed by the fact that he addressed her, not me, when I was standing right next to her.
“She can see.” Emily stated.
The man squirmed, and I could feel his panic.
“Well, sort of.” Emily added, panic seeming to rise in her too.
I jumped into the extremely awkward exchange.
“Yeah, you can just tell me what you want to say.” I offered, hoping my voice sounded kind.
He shifted, clearing his throat, looking like he wanted to crawl in a hole.
“I just want to say that I noticed you walking around with your stick, and you look completely normal, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell that you can’t see– er– kind of can’t . . . and you taught me so much. People could be walking around spiritually blind, and you can’t tell just from looking at them.” He cleared his throat again. “And in conclusion you have this beautiful aura of compassion.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I think I said thank you.
We were supposed to meet another participant to go on a hike to see the monastic statues and were running late, so Emily stuffed the paper the man had handed her into her bag, and we left on our hike.
The stranger’s words were all I could think of as we walked through the woods, looking at statues. I had spent a good part of the past decade worrying about what people would think of me with my cane, using it as seldom as possible, for fear of judgment. I had never stopped to consider that my cane might be a gift. That it could teach a stranger something. It suddenly dawned on me that without opening my mouth or typing a word, I could affect someone’s day simply by being seen. Not in one specific way, and not all the time, but in certain scenarios with certain people. Maybe someone is idling at a stoplight, complaining about having to cart their kids all over town, and a glimpse of someone with a cane walking in the rain, causes them to pause. And be grateful for the privilege of driving.
As we continued on our hike, we passed a statue of Mary, looking decidedly strong and compassionate, and I felt a kinship in her stance, that of a peaceful warrior.
I couldn’t wait to return to our dormitory-style room and read the note the man had written. I wanted to write out the entire story before we left, despite the fact that we had less than an hour to pack up our stuff and drive home.
When we returned to the room, Emily began searching her bag for the note.
Only it wasn’t there.
She searched and searched, apologizing profusely. I had the story engraved in my mind, so I told her I could simply type it out while it was fresh in my memory, and the note wasn’t important. I meant what I said, but I did still secretly wish I could read his exact wording since he had paraphrased the note instead of reading it to me.
As we pulled our heavy luggage out of our room (yes, 2 suburban gals on a 2-day retreat with Trappist monks must pack for a multitude of scenarios), we ran into Phillip, the gentleman who had taken us on our hike, an army chaplain who we nicknamed Guardian Angel after he rescued us from a crazy-long walk in search of the statues the day before.
As he helped load our bags into Emily’s car, I couldn’t help but ask how much longer he was staying, and if, by chance, he would be traipsing past the statues again. He said he would be there two more days and that he might take another hike, so I told him about the lost note and asked if he could e-mail me if he found it. Basically, I was asking him to look for a piece of paper folded to the size of a penny on a 2-mile trail in the woods on a windy day. The paper could be anywhere, and I fully knew there was little chance of him finding it, but I didn’t think it could hurt to ask.
I finished typing the story on my laptop on the way home, Emily continuing to apologize, and me feeling bad that she felt bad.
I told my husband all about the trip when we got back, including the story of the note and my revelation about using my cane. And then I put the whole thing in the back of my mind.
Until 2 weeks later when our Guardian Angel sent me the following e-mail:
The small piece of paper says:
“Please excuse my intrusion into your experience
-You have taught me something spiritual
-even the “blind” look completely normal
-and I sense a warm gentle spirit, and beautiful soul, in you
God bless you on your journey.”
God kept it safe in a plant right about where I was standing when your picture was taken with Emily.
You see. He careth for you.
Several days later, Emily received the tiny slip of paper in the mail, as Phillip found her address in the guest book and mailed it to her, knowing she had been beating herself up over it. We were both giddy about the whole story, barely believing it all came together as it did. A million miraculous moments from two days at a monastery. No wonder Thomas Merton had so much to write about.
I tucked the note in my jewelry box and forgot about it.
Until two months later, when Emily presented me with an early birthday present.
A locket, sized just right for the tiny slip of folded paper.
A reminder that our weaknesses can be gifts that shed light.
A locket is just a piece of jewelry in the same way that a cane is just a mobility aide. Both of mine happen to hold stories. And in those stories, meaning.