February 10, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction


My mind is an enclosure. A small cell where I reside.

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enclose (v.)
enclosen, “to surround (a plot of ground, a town, a building, etc.) with walls, fences, or other barriers,” early 14c., from en- (1) + close (v.), and partially from Old French enclos, past participle of enclore: “surround; confine; contain.”

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My grandmother spent forty years in self-imposed exile. Forty years living a life of quiet remove. And prayer. Lots of it. Mimi was a staunch Catholic. In the early 1950s, when she was in her forties, she was bitten by an unidentified bug in the backyard while she was talking to a neighbor across the fence. When she returned to the kitchen, her forehead was bleeding. The doctors never came up with a definitive diagnosis, but after that she almost never left the house. And she worried—about everything—the state of the world, traveling, her children.

I can count on one hand the times I touched my grandmother; she was always too anxious about germs to hug me.

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Anchorites were ascetics who bricked themselves into the sides of churches during the Middle Ages. The word anchorite or anchoress comes from the Greek, anachoreo, meaning “to withdraw.”

Women outnumbered male anchorites four to one. For centuries, marriage or the nunnery were two of very few acceptable options for women. If a woman didn’t want to be beholden to a man, and she preferred not to enter the convent, she might choose to be an anchorite where she was assured a room of her own. The only catch was that she had to vow never to leave it. When a woman became an anchorite, the priest presided over an enclosure ceremony similar to a funeral. Afterward, the anchorite was dead to the world, literally bricked into a cell on the side of the church. There was no door. People passed her food (and she passed other unmentionables back to them) through a small, north-facing window called a squint.

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Mimi ended up on the couch in the early 1950s. The bug bite had rendered her housebound with chronic fatigue and vertigo. The doctors could not make any headway. I will never know exactly what incapacitated her. I can only speak to the outcome. One positive aspect of her illness was that she finally had time for her art. When she died in 1998 at ninety-two years old, my mother and I were able to compile her collection of poems. Like Emily Dickinson, she withdrew from the world but realized her dream of writing a book.

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These past two years, I have started listening to my own voice. I have tried to tune in before, but I’ve heard it only on occasion and only in the distance—like a whisper down a long marble hallway. Now there are no friends, colleagues, interruption. I sit at this desk and contemplate many things, including Mimi.

Why has it taken me so long?

Maybe there were too many other people shouting down this corridor.

I was born into a conservative, Republican household. I cast off conservatism in college, but I still have the same family. I left the Catholic Church about ten years ago but still know and love many Catholics. The world of my youth revered compliance. It occurs to me now that Mimi probably never even allowed herself to contemplate dissent.

She remained a good girl, unlike me.

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I inherited two big things from Mimi: her passion for poetry and her anxiety.

When I was four, I was almost hit by lightning. Soon after, I developed astraphobia. To this day, I cannot leave my house during a thunderstorm. I have gone to therapy and taken anti-anxiety medication to combat the fear, but I am still nearly catatonic when I am outside during storms.

Mimi’s anxiety was worse, compounded by her religiosity. Because she was often too sick to go to Mass, she would not go out at all. Going shopping or out to dinner after missing Mass would have constituted a mortal sin.

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Julian of Norwich, who lived between 1343–1416, spent much of her life secluded in her chamber attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich. She has experienced a resurgence of interest during Covid-19. Janina Ramirez told the BBC News that “Julian was living in the wake of the Black Death” and might have been relieved at the prospect of self-isolating as a means of escaping the plague.

Like many women who have made history, we don’t really know her story. We don’t know why Julian became an anchorite. We don’t even know her real name—they gave her the name of her prison, St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, where she died at age seventy-three. We do know that, isolated there, she survived the plague. And we know that she managed to write the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.

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Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar offer numerous examples of the nineteenth-century female writers who were trapped either literally or figuratively in The Madwoman in the Attic. Isolation was a prerequisite for many female thinkers. The only way to fulfil their destinies was to lock themselves away, avoid marriage and child-rearing. Think of Octavia Butler, Emily Dickinson, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.

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When Mimi was thirteen, and in boarding school, her mother succumbed to tuberculosis in a sanitarium. Rather than tell Mimi right away, her father decided she should finish out the school year. After that, she was always afraid something bad was going to happen and no one would tell her. Was that part of the reason she couldn’t leave home? Or did she decide that God was so capricious she better not cross him?

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As Emily Dickinson famously wrote,

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

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Everything’s a blessing until it’s not. If it’s not a blessing, it’s either a lesson or a test or part of the divine plan. For Mimi, every single event was infused with a secret meaning, often one “we can’t fathom.” Also, her God was apt to be harsh. If he didn’t approve of a person’s behavior, he might whip up a natural disaster or a disease just to show them who’s boss.

In Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature (2010), Michael Austen describes scrupulosity as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder where persons suffer anxiety at the thought that they are not worthy, that they have thought or done something “wrong” which may exclude them from God’s grace.

Mimi hated to miss confession. When my mother teased her—wondering how she could possibly have anything to confess when she never left the house—Mimi would explain that evil thoughts were just as bad as actions.

So many saints suffered from similar scruples and starved themselves, beat themselves with sticks, or hid in caves and anchorholds begging forgiveness for their evil thoughts.

We don’t know what those thoughts were exactly because God forbid they write them down. One exception is Saint Augustine, who famously wrote about his own transgressions in his Confessions. I imagine he felt safe talking about them only because he had repented.

Of course, I absorbed all of these messages. I don’t believe them, but I still feel the visceral fear. Why can’t I shake that?

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“The anchoress is called an ‘anchor,’ and anchored under the church like an anchor under the side of a ship to hold the ship . . . so that the devil’s blasts, which are temptations, do not blow it over.” https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/the-life-of-the-anchoress

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While my grandmother was lying on the couch, aside from the poems, she sometimes wrote letters to politicians about the evils of communism. In her mind, the devil was everywhere.

I suppose in some ways her letters were the equivalent of my modern-day ranting against the perils of conservatism on Facebook. One can send off letters, in Mimi’s case, or Facebook posts, in mine, from the safety of one’s own enclosure.

There! I imagine Mimi thinking. I said my peace! And no one in the real world was the wiser. All of those random recipients probably tossed her letters in the trash just as people today block others who disagree with them on social media.

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As Virginia Woolf famously said, before a woman can write, she has to “kill the angel in the house.”

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Perhaps Mimi believed the bug bite had set in motion her own penance. She never complained about her illness or the years on the couch. She said she was “offering her suffering up to the Lord.” She wasn’t alone in believing that physical suffering is a form of atonement. If the Lord was asking her to atone for sins committed while confined to her own home, imagine what he might do to her if she were free.

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In Mimi’s poems, God longs for the “pearls” and the “sweetness” of yesterday’s girls.” In one poem called “Contrast,” she laments yesterday’s girls who were “sweet of face / A winsome lass and full of grace.” She bemoans the fact that “Today’s girl is of different mien / Her mind with frivolous thoughts does teem.”

It’s ironic that her illness allowed Mimi the time to write, but her beliefs precluded deep or honest reflection. She ended up penning a lot of platitudes. If she’d been a nonconformist instead of a good Catholic girl, might she have embraced her own personal truth and thereby escaped the metaphorical couch?

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In the early 2000s, I frequented chatrooms hosted by modern-day hermits who were hiding out, sometimes barricaded in their apartments or houses, sometimes in the woods. Unlike the anchorites of old, they weren’t always religious; some just wanted to be alone to make art or to assuage their anxiety. During that period, we also had Y2K and 9/11 filling our buckets of existential dread. We were afraid to travel. We stayed closer to home.

The idea of enclosure and remove from the world intrigued me. I didn’t long for prayer like the anchorites, but I was pining for solitude. A quiet life seemed like a blissful ideal. I was caring for four small children, every second of my day filled with nonstop demands.

Sara Maitland is one of the modern-day hermits I admire. In A Book of Silence, she writes: “I moved north to County Durham, to a house on a moor high about Weardale. I was eager and greedy. I wanted both to be silent and to think about silence. I set out to hunt silence and I have been doing so ever since.”

I still long for a life devoid of interference, but in my case some of the most distressing intrusions take place inside my own head. How to remedy that?

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If Mimi were alive today during Covid-19, she might have spent this period of enforced enclosure writing devotional poems and bargaining with the Lord.

Never again, Dear Lord, if you spare me from this virus, I will never do it again.

What sin haunted her? What impulse was she denying? I have no way of knowing.

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The problem with religiosity is the penitent is always trying to figure out what went wrong instead of accepting that sometimes things go awry. When I was left out in the storm as a young girl, I, too, felt like I might be struck down. After all, there I was yelling and banging on the door and no one answered. And I’ve never gotten over that feeling of being locked out. I know it’s because I continue to voice my opposition to the world of my youth.

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“Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time both his goodness and his wish that it should be known?” Julian of Norwich writes when she is trying to convince the church leadership that she has something to say.

Are you telling me that just because I am a woman I am not worth listening to?

Ironic that Mimi was such a staunch advocate of conservatism and yet she couldn’t quite keep her mouth shut. Sending letters to politicians. Writing poems. Shouldn’t she have been in the kitchen? Shouldn’t she have kept mum and kept house?

I suppose she would have been busy in the kitchen if she had been well.

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One key aspect of the Ancrene Wisse, otherwise known as the “Rules for Anchorites,” illustrates a mindset that is particularly damning for anyone who values self-esteem and self-expression. The rule advocates staying away from the “squint” or window and advises that the black cloth of the curtains has a symbolic meaning: “þe blake clað bi tacneð þet ȝe beoð blake & vnwurð towart þe world wiðuten” [The black cloth shows that you yourselves are black and of no value in the eyes of the outside world] (f. 20r – digitized image 3).

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Before Mimi was sick, she attended a faculty picnic with her professor husband. One of the deans approached as she was taking a bite of a sandwich. She couldn’t respond because her mouth was full, and she was mortified. It seems like such a trivial moment now that I’m recounting it, but she must have told me that story ten times. The event held some significance for her, but what?

She also mentioned a persistent fear that she was going to embarrass herself in church. She was afraid she would laugh or make a loud noise and everyone would look at her.

Classic anxiety.

But her subconscious impulse might be worth pondering. What would cause a person to laugh or scream or make a loud noise in a highly regulated environment where no interruption is tolerated, where it was so important she be a “good girl”?

Unspoken dissent?

Feeling like a fraud?

An urge to run?

• •

Anxiety is a formidable foe. There are myriad forms of anxiety and OCD, but germ phobias and religiosity or scrupulosity often go hand in hand. I feel evil, I feel bad, I feel dirty, I better pray, maybe I should hide. Maybe if I keep quiet and bargain with the Lord he will save me.

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We all have predilections—predetermined response patterns that will influence how we approach enclosure. What seems a reasonable amount of solitude to one person makes no sense to another. My mother has had difficulty remaining home at the age of eighty-one, because she witnessed Mimi’s fear and wants no part of it. I would rather remain in my room even when there is no good reason to dread the outside world. Part of the reason is that I am so tired of being a voice of dissent in my community.

After years of railing against a system that seems implacable, I am fighting the urge to give up and retreat. In 2015, I wrote a book about white privilege in the suburbs of Detroit. In 2016, I wrote a chapbook of poems about the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. Did any of that writing matter? It doesn’t always feel like the words have any impact at all.

When I was growing up, my father was a politician. The message I absorbed from the campaign trail was: If you want to win, let other people talk, and if you disagree with them, keep it to yourself. When you speak your mind, you lose the vote.

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I’m not going to stop speaking out. I’m not going to hide in a room for the rest of my life. I’m just examining the impulse. Of course speaking up matters. We would not get anywhere in this world if advocates for societal reform remained silent. I’m just saying this battle—at least my own battle—has to be fought despite my inner critics.

Who do you think you are?

Why do you think you have anything worth saying?

Why are you always such a trouble-maker?

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In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Supposedly this is a direct quote from God, who told her this to comfort her when she was close to death.

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The survival of some of the most important female writers of the medieval period was ensured by the women who came after them. The earliest copies of the “Long Text” of The Revelations of Divine Love were created by exiled nuns in France and Belgium in the seventeenth century. And, in the twentieth century, it was a woman named Grace Warrack who produced the first modern edition of Julian’s works.

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My mother and I typed up Mimi’s poems.

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This is not an Emily Dickinson moment. Mimi’s poems aren’t going to win any awards. Still, it’s worth noting that she felt compelled to put her deliberations down on paper.

She wanted someone to see her mind at work.

And what I see is enclosure.

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When it comes to expressing ourselves and emerging from the captivity of the mind, we can be free only if we answer to ourselves instead of the subjective proclamations of the world.

If the walls safeguard the mind then they are no prison.

But if the mind is the prison, what then?

• •

They shut me up in Prose— (445)

By Emily Dickinson

They shut me up in Prose—
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet—
Because they liked me “still” —

Still! Could themself have peeped—
And seen my Brain—go round—
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason—in the Pound—

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Look down opon Captivity—
And laugh—No more have I—