Okay, lovies, here's is the latest, awful installment. I can't believe I'm showing you my rough draft. And I do mean rough friends. Forgive me, but I'm trying to find my way here. It's a struggle. Thank you for loving me, and creating the kind of trust that makes it possible to share my worst writing. Talk to you in few days.
CHAPTER ONE: My Name Is. . .
On the day I was born my father tried to rape my mother. My mother told me this over the phone when I was forty years old. I had called her that day because my first attempt to write a memoir had met with dismal failure, largely because I had no idea how to start the thing. I finally decided the beginning of me would be a fine launching point. All I needed to know was if she remembered the barest facts of my birth day.
Was it balmy that September night? Had the end-of-summer heat left her cranky? Was she bored numb? Or jealous that her sister,Patsy Jo, could still wear cute clothes, while her own small frame could fill a tent she was so swollen with child? I wanted to know if worry about labor and delivery furrowed her brow? How did you feel, Mama? I'd probe like an amateur psychologist.
I can be as melodramatic as a Lifetime movie, but to ask if Daddy sexually assaulted her would have never occurred to me. The truth shattered me.
I imagined how Mama must have looked that day, twenty-seven years old, seven months along in the pregnancy, her belly a not-quite-ripe melon. She was a pretty, yellow woman, with full, cupid's bow lips, and soft, but mournful brown eyes. I picture my father with less generosity, looking older than his years, his pecan shell colored skin glazed in perspiration that reeked of cheap liquor and stale cigarettes.
We tussled, Mama said. Tussled, a soft word that made the brutality of him forcing his pregnant wife to have sex against her will sound like a playful romp between lovers. Her voice dipped when she spoke of it. Even now I wonder if her tell revealed that she bore the kind of shame I know all too well, or had her mama instincts subconsciously tried to shield me from the horror of my father's glaring defects? I didn't ask then, and doubt if I would now.
That is how I came squalling into this world, unfinished, weighing in at a little over three pounds. Mama named me Claudia. I didn't find out until I was nine years old that Claudia means "lame, but intelligent." I may have only been in grade school at the time, but I was nonetheless profoundly disappointed. Could anyone have consulted a baby name book, for heaven's sake? And the fact that it also meant intelligent offered no consolation. It was as if someone tacked that part on to make us Claudias feel better about being saddled with a name that heralded brokeness. Sometimes I think my troubles began right there, at the bestowing of a name.
My friend Sharon Ewell Foster once told me that she believes before we arrive on the planet we make a deal with God. I think of this scene taking place at his heavenly throne, that looks a little like the chair Abraham Lincoln sits in on the Lincoln monument in Washington DC, only God's is more luminous. His radiance is shrouded by gilded clouds against a soft blue sky that has never seen a storm, and I'm right there at his feet, sitting with my legs criss-crossed, my head inclined toward his feet. The love I feel pulling me toward him is an umbilical cord, the golden thread indelibly connecting us.
God lays the sorrows I will face out before me, beginning with my violent arrival, and that dreaded name! Next to it I see myself at fifteen months old, given over to a stranger. She is loving yes, my kindly great aunt, but I never return to my parents. I would mourn the loss of my family of origin, my mother in particular, for the rest of my life, but as a small child, being too young for words, my tiny shoulders would round in sorrow, and stay that way.
If Sharon's theory of life before life is correct, and there are many days I believe it is, I'm the one who signed on to be called lame. Of course, upon arrival in this world I would promptly forget, and find it a bit off-putting that I wasn't called something like Simba, the lioness who kicks everybody's butt. Hear. Me. Roar!
I tried to ditch my name several times. As a teen I dreamed of being Michaela, a lilting musical name. In my twenties I longed for an African name, like Malaika or Ayodele, because I found them exotic, pleasant to the eye, and a more than a little mysterious. Once, when I was twenty-six years old, I had a naming ceremony under the stars. I'd stolen away on a balmy summer night with a friend, a woman who'd seen her own share of name incarnations. Her name was Joy when I met her. It's Orah El now, and I'm certain I missed a few names in between. She was an artist, and had crafted me a beautiful bas relief with my new name, and the image of a proud African woman on it, with a serene face, and her crown of regal locks flowing from her upward tilted head. I see that piece of art now, as my first experience with an icon. Rather than it being a window to heaven, it was a mirror into my soul. Joy and her bas relief proclaimed that I was Seshine, an Egyptian name that reminded me of sunshine when I looked at it. Seshine means, "the lotus flower," for Joy saw that I could bloom in anything, including a heaping pile of dung. Sometimes I wonder if she wasn't some kind of angel, in my life briefly to remind me of the passions--the blood drenched crosses--that I said yes to before I entered into time. Who can really say?
What I can tell you is the night of my naming ceremony, when I returned home, Rafael, who you will learn much more about later, told me I didn't deserve an African name. Just like that I relinquished it to him. I was too afraid of him to keep my own, precious, beautiful, and newly name. I took my rage out on myself, the self Joy so lovingly revealed in her art work. I smashed that bas relief it to bits, wishing I could destroy the life I lived with Raphael so easily. Oh, to have my breath fade to nothing, like the spaces between the broken pieces of my icon. I still regret my violence toward that amazing picture of grace Joy created, and what's worse is that I would continue to hurt my most essential, most authentic self. I'd do it again, and again.
When Rafael decided to relent and give me a name, he called me Kai, which in some West African countries, means, "loveable." But it was me who picked the name, and prayed with everything in it he'd agree to it, and let me believe I was worthy of his affections--that I was worthy of anyone's. Raphael didn't find me loveable at all, but everyone in our life called me Kai, the one who is lovable. This too was a gift of grace, a sliver of hope in the darkest, most dismal time of my life. Sometimes I wonder if that minuscule pinpoint of light kept me alive in that dark, harsh season. It was very hard for me to stay alive those days.
A few years ago, I had my first communion. In the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions, one is allowed to take on the name of a patron saint. I choose St. Mary of Egypt as my soul's mother. She was a fifth century harlot, whose life resonated with me for reasons it will take another memoir to explain.
You should have seen me on that glorious day in May, wearing all white, smiling with my whole being. Right there in church I spit upon Satan. Literally, that's part of the rite. I cried my way through the Nicene Creed, tears of joy, without a hint of sorrow on my countenance that day. When Father Leo, a dear Romanian priest so full of love it often spilled out of him in booming laughter, came to the part in the service in which I'd take on my new name, Mary, he looked me in the eye and pronounced me before God and witnesses Claudia Mary. I've been researching on the internet, he said. Claudia is a saint name, too. Now I was stuck with Claudia for life, and it would be a long time before I realized I was Claudia from the very beginning.
You may be wondering why this book doesn't have the name Claudia Mary Burney on it. Suffice it to say, I can be remarkably malcontent, especially when it comes to what to call myself. I just didn't see myself as a Mary, so I asked God if I could call myself Mair, because it just seemed more like me than Mary did. Mair is a variation of the name Mary, kind of like Maria is. He didn't seem to mind. Neither did Saint Mary of Egypt.
I visited Africa once and stayed for almost two weeks in Swaziland, a little country in the Southern part of the continent that's about the size of New Jersey. At a simple mission care point, on a dusty hill, I met a gorgeous little girl of twelve. Her name is Ntondo. In Siswati it means, "person who loves."
Ntondo looked at me, a stranger, having arrived in her country with a group of white people. They were used to seeing the white missionaries. A caramel skinned, African American woman was a novelty. What is your name? she asked me in flawless English.
It's Claudia, I told her. I almost said Mair, but since I'm often confused about what to call myself, I defaulted to the old standby. Ntondo must not have been thrilled with Claudia either. She looked at me, a serious expression on her face. To this day I have no idea why she did it, but she said, From now on, you will be called Ntondo. She gave me her own name. Her last name, too, letting me know I was part of the family. Her choice of a name told me that she could tell I was a person who loves. I'd have changed my name to Ntondo, legally, but it would have confused everybody in my life even more. So I tattooed my African name, not on my skin, but on my heart. I tattooed my little namesake's face on my scarred heart, too, and I still pray for her, the sweet, magnificent child who agreed in heaven to a life full of far more suffering than I would ever see.
You'd think I'd have settled this matter, but no. This is me we're talking about, the girl who changes names to the rhythms of all my life's shifting seasons. And you may wonder why I've spent so much time telling you about my names, rather than telling you that I am a mother, a writer, a Catholic convert and an emerging new monastic urban abbess, as well as a soul friend to many. But those are just facts. But when I say my name is Claudia; it means lame, but intelligent; when I say my name is Mair, a bad girl gone good; when I say I used to be Seshine, a woman child full of sunshine, who flowered in a very shitty life; and I used to be Kai, because despite the fact that I was denied love by a man who should have cherished and protected me, I found a way to find love my damned self, and it's just sad that I had to do it in such a stealthy way. And now I'm Claudia again, lame, but intelligent, and I'm okay with that most days, even though I still prefer Mair. Once I bemoaned my name to a woman I met at a conference, and she told me something I will never forget. She said, if you are lame, you will have to be carried.
So, here I am. My name is Claudia, in God's arms. Sometimes I'm a broken little girl he carries, a lamb on her shepherd's shoulders. Sometimes, I'm a woman, swept into the ravishing embrace of my divine lover. Be I child, or lover, I'm always being carried in his arms, broken, but held. That's who I am. That's what I agreed to be, on earth as it is in heaven. Claudia explains everything.