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It feels like I’ve been poised at the end of a diving board, muscles tensed, concentration total, waiting for the moment of push-off—it never came. 

Such has been my near yearlong experience with hospice nurses and chaplains coaching appropriate measures of self-care, given my rare terminal illness—Interstitial Lung Disease with Rheumatoid Arthritis, its called—that again appears to have plateaued upon new limits.

True, I‘m ill, but not actively dying, but if I’m completely honest, an undercurrent of my mortality has been leeching vital energy from my psyche. Evidently one of my caregivers also fed into this disorder and fueled an untimely dependence upon her. Because she is no longer around, I feel more myself, still in my right mind, and able to make decisions for my ongoing needs.

Again, it’s about acceptance, Step One of Chronic Pain Anonymous. Funny, how that graced word consistently implodes internal tangles and opens skies above it where the sun brilliances the next step: to walk to the other end of the diving board, climb down the ladder, and wait for the next right step.

My relief is huge.

Killing winds seep through ill-fitting sashes of this prestigious boarding school for girls, the setting for Zoe Keithley’s novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli (2014). In an affluent suburb outside of Chicago, extensive woods surround this four-story brick building, topped by a white cupola and cross. Beneath its veneer of elegance, however, lurks multifaceted violence. It is 1945.

Into this setting comes ten-year old Helene, motherless, aware of the jail-like atmosphere the moment she and her alcoholic father set foot inside the well-appointed parlor to await her admittance into the school. He fluffs off her fears, silences her protests. Of more importance is his six-month lecture tour in Italy‘s finest hospitals. Even the school’s repressive rules do not deter him from leaving her with these semi-cloistered teaching nuns, one of whom is the young Mother Adelli. And promises of a Christmas reunion in Rome do not work.

Over the next two months, Helene’s total dislocation from everything meaningful plunges her into destructive rages against this unfeeling world. Hatred oozes from every pore. Especially abhorrent is the no touching rule. Intuiting her damaged psyche, Mother Adelli knowingly bends some of the rules to afford the girl some breathing space, at the same time igniting the superior’s reprimands. “We have our reputation to maintain,” she insists.

This page-turner is enhanced by the effective opening and resolution, the crisp images, the dialog heightening the drama, the angst within Helene and Mother Adelli, the slow motion scenes leaded with detail and feeling, the chilly autumn/winter keeping the story on edge, and leit-motifs of death and funerals.

What surfaces from this read is a closed world, dominated by patriarchal values. Its unwary captives comply with strictures that eviscerate woman-spirit and damage receptors to the Sacred. Without extensive help, such women can only pretend to live, juiced by elegant wines.

I know. I used to be one.

 

 

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