Unfit for Life I Wanted to Go to the Monastery

Friday, June 28, 2,000
The walk towards the abbey, though beautiful, makes me sad. I walk for miles. Along the paved road, new ugly bulky houses push into each other, interspaced with older ones in ruins and vacant plots.
The road winds up around hills. When it cuts thru an orchard I hear horse clip-clops and dog barking approaching from behind. I freeze, imagining bad things happening to me. I turn around. It’s a one-horse carriage. I ask the young man to stop the dogs from barking at me because I’m afraid of dogs. He yells at me, “What?” So I repeat and he tells the dogs, marş, marş and the dogs stop barking. I’ve hoped he'd stop at some garden, or at the trees that lay cut along the road, but he keeps on following me.
Some women come downhill with colorful plastic buckets full of cherries. I ask them if the abbey is far away. One says, quite far. They ask me why I don't ask the man to take me in his carriage. I tell them I’m afraid of him. She says, “God forbid, nothing evil will happen! I’ll ask him for you.” She does when he catches up with us, and the man takes me and we clip-clop together with a lot of jerking and wavering on the pot holed dirty road. The dogs aren't nasty to me anymore. The young man says he goes to his grandma's when I ask him, thinking that if I talk to him, he'd see me as a person and won't be evil to me. Also when the women came by I wanted badly as the clip-clops grew nearer, to ask them to tell the village policeman that I was going towards Bic Abbey, and if something happened to me, he should look for me in the woods. But then I didn’t say anything. My expensive cameras are killing me with worry. Might make people rob me. So I chat with the young man. "Maica stareţa/the abbess said it would be a light walk, but I've walked one hour, though I told her that I'd be there in 15 minutes, but what seems short for her, it’s long for me." I tell him this to make sure he knows I’m expected and if I don’t show up they might search for me.
Bic is a deserted village with just about 20 habitable houses. The rest are in ruins. I should buy a house here.
The abbey rooms are in an old school. There weren't enough kids to keep it open, so people stole bricks from it, and then the abbess took over the dilapidated building. The nuns sleep in it, until the new building will be finished.
I thank the young man. I get off and hope someone will welcome me. No one seems to be behind the closed doors. I knock and knock until finally one sleepy monk come out. I tell him I’m looking for the abbess. He goes to another door, opens it and says, "Someone is looking for you," and a voice says, "She should wait in the armchair."
The place is ugly. Full of kitschy icons, printed on paper, masquerading as old. Maica stareţa comes to greet me. She’s sloppy. The monk goes back to sleep apparently. There are so many men's shoes around the hall that I reason there are both monks and nuns here—or nuns who wear men's shoes—but it comes out the monk is a preot duhovnicesc/confessional priest—Maica stareţa says.
The conversation starts slowly. I’m afraid I've been lied to by the abbey’s lawyer in Zalău, and I'd go back to America without fulfilling my journalistic assignment, that is take a photo of a nun making mătănii/rosary beads for one of Oprah’s websites. I humbly tell her what my mission is, and she trying tries to figure out what we could do because the nuns are in the kitchen, cooking for the 30 workers who build the abbey.
I interview her about the abbey. She sounds a bit like macho Orthodox priests talk, switching from a soothing sing-song, to a scary hollering, but from time to time she switches to her natural voice, but then again she builds up to a crescendo, harping against homosexuals and abortion.
I put on a poker face, feeling duplicitous because I am to be fair, objective, and professional, give her space to unfold, though I find her backwardness alarming, yet amusing. Who knows maybe she’s right in her peculiar way. My duty as a journalist is to give a voice to everybody, let the reader decide. My convictions being extremely different from hers, I silence them. I don't fuss over my convictions that much. Though I should. Perhaps my poverty and my precarious legal situation in America, being on a student visa, made me often times overly accommodating, even servile.
I noticed with a fresh eye how in Romania people kiss hands and talk to their bosses. It smacks of servility. They adopt a tone of scared helplessness, candor, warmth, but it’s all fake. Scary.
The grounds are lovely—huge chestnut trees, with an animal farm and a garden with rows of potatoes and many flowerbeds surrounded by whitewashed rocks. She showed me a troiţa/triptych—again a paper icon lacquered, meant to look like old painted wood. Then we enter an old wooden church from the 17th century with faded mural paintings. I find them ugly. But people adore them, she says. On Zilele Împăraţilor/Kings' Day Holiday multitudes come to attend the service. The crowd covers all the surrounding grounds. When they go back home, the traffic gets clogged down in Şimleu.
In the cafeteria old workers eat their soup. It smells tasty.
Maica stareţa summons a nun who is a gifted painter, she says, but the sloppy woman, a shy peasant, says she can’t do anything without a paint brush, she left hers home, where she usually paints. Maica stareţa wants to send her to a painting school, so beautifully she painted the walls of Bocşiţa Church.
Since she refuses to pretend to lacquer, or to do any last touches on the icon which Maica stareţa has brought from the wooden church, we get a few little bottles containing rosy tea in lieu of paint, and I photograph Maica stareţa as a painter.
Her hands are beautiful. Then the rosary bead maker shows up. Finally, a tidy nun, young with red cheeks, shy and bright and patient. The rosary beads she made are beautiful too. I hope the shots come out well. It suddenly crosses my mind that this Oprah website editor might have a fetish for nuns, and my photo might land in a lesbian's bedroom. What am I doing?! But I chase away the thought, keep on treading gently not to spoil the serenity and humility of my nun model.
I beam: mission accomplished. "Ella went to the end of the world and found the nun and got the prize. Ella is a good, tenacious journalist, she clambered six kilometers through woods with a heavy bag, hiding cameras. Ella is a nice person. Why does no one love her?"
Maica stareţa suggests that I take pictures of all the buildings there. I do, but they are quite ugly and I’m fed up with churches. The whole place questions me. I compulsively photograph the white lace curtains hanging on a clothesline in the back yard. I take off some unappealing panties drying on another line, and photograph the black habits and white lace together: white innocence, light grace juxtaposed with black, heavy, gruesome, entrapping, stiff habits. Though maybe I should have left the panties in the picture too. A marker, a question, nuns are sexual beings too…
Then Maica stareţa wants me to walk back up the hill with her to their rooms, where a driver, a nun’s brother, in a hurry to catch a train in Zalău will give me a ride in his black Dacia car. As we walk arm in arm the horizon is so very beautiful, but I don't take any shots. I’m happy, though sadly consider that I’m perhaps unfit for life. I want to go to a monastery myself, write there in peace, have a final home, at last.
I ask Maica stareţa when she has become a nun and she says she had wanted to be one since she was 17, but finalized it only after much visiting, when she was 27. She studied at the Theological Institute. She misses school. She says, while walking as if she could go forever, swinging canta cu apă/ a tin water can like a pendulum, that she’s never regretted her choice. Her life is fulfilled in the abbey; she manages to do both spiritual and material deeds that otherwise she couldn't have ever done. Only a prime minister or a president can do the kind of things she managed to do for The People, she says. She sees happiness and sadness. She can advise people. She has talked to so many people since she became a nun. She couldn't have done any of these by tying herself within the small family circle!
I say, "How interesting! Usually people think of nuns as closed, finished lives." "Oh, no," she smiles. "Life opens up for you! You do good deeds for people. Even if you sit all day and just pray for humankind, you're doing a great thing because you're praying for all people, and not just for yourself."
I wait on the porch, looking at the walnut tree leaves ruffled by wind. "My God, what am I doing here on this earth?!" The Jesus Christ crucifix, incredibly, has a feminine silhouette, plump womanly hips. I’ve seen this Jesus woman three times on the grounds, first thinking it was a mistake, but it was made on purpose.
Părintele duhovnic passes by me without a single word or looking at me. I feel uncomfortable, but my mother says he’s not allowed to interact with women, so he avoids temptation. Some Orthodox rule. I tell Maica stareţa that I'll walk ahead down the road, towards the cemetery because I want to take a shot of a wheat field dotted with red poppies, so I'll get in the car from there.
In the field I catch a stag beetle and put it in an empty audio cassette box. I shoot a cut off of a cliff layered with different colored clay, when the black car stops by me as the driver yells, "Hurry up! I'll miss the train." I hurry indeed, but tell him, "It's not my fault, I've been waiting for the last 30 minutes," and the driver says he couldn't finish his work on time.
I get off at the Zalău train station. He drives further on to Jibou, to catch up with the train he missed at this stop. I get into a maxi taxi/a taxi van with my stag beetle. I hold its box tightly so not to lose the bug because I want to bring it to my son and nephew to see their marveling faces.
I keep the scarf on my head, like a pious, modest nun.

My short anarchistic brushy hair sticks out of it though.

New York
July 11, 2013

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

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