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I LIKE TO MOVE TOWARD THINGS that don’t feel real. I signed up for a weekend retreat at a monastery in upstate New York without thinking too much about it. The structure of these days does not compute in my mind. Neither does the measure of train travel nor the weekend away from the city surface as a reason to go. For me to look forward to this trip concretely, it would have to seem real, and that would make it less exciting to me. But in the weeks before the retreat, I’m antsy. I wonder what buses run upstate at four in the morning. Before I fall asleep, I fantasize about falling in the middle of the street. When I hear my alarm in the morning, I feel my muscles ache.

That first night, I try sitting alone on the church floor. I think of my chest like the inside of a grand piano, each key triggering an invisible response in the instrument’s body, releasing some build of pressure within an anatomy of hammers and strings. I think about writing. It’s always a gamble to live life without writing everything down in real time—the fear of what will be forgotten haunted by anxiety over what’s already been lost. A train of inkblots surfaces behind my eyes and disappears just as quickly, like music. I try to resist reaching for metaphors, attaching any images or words that would put distance between myself and the moment as it’s happening. I try not to feel like a failure.

I hear myself whispering forgive me, forgive me over and over again before I even realize I’m saying it, making me wonder if it’s out of habit, and if it still counts.


When I was traveling in Rome almost exactly a year ago, I briefly left my friends to visit the Vatican by myself. In the Sistine Chapel I looked up until my neck hurt and I got dizzy from walking in circles and bumping into everyone else who was likewise staring at the ceiling. I moved through scenes of glory and pain, my chest lifting toward the vibrant epics above me. I watched the angels fall. I traced the hard curve of every sacred body, the soft ripple of royal clothes in their stride, the way Eve steps with such gratitude from rib into life. I froze under the image of Adam and God, captured not so much by the weight of their embodied forms, the way they floated on clouds and reached so casually for each other, but rather by that space between their bodies, the fingers almost touching. If I blurred my eyes, if I tilted my head, that space became hazy. If I looked from just the right angle, the distance between God and man disappeared.

“Silenzio,” a man bellowed from the altar at the front of the chapel, forcing me back from heaven to earth. I was startled, but as he continued to repeat this command every five minutes, I recognized it as routine. People must get so caught up in visiting this place that they forget it’s a house of worship.


Waking up the next morning, I can feel the gears pulsing, asking me to turn to some urgent task. I foray through the chilled monastery and pick at the fruit laid out on the visitors’ table. I peruse the libraries and living rooms where other guests sit in plush chairs with laptops or books. There are few cell phones out, fewer clocks on the walls. Time is measured by the monastery bells, whose ringing marks the five daily calls to prayer. I don’t know what is urgent here. That afternoon, I go on a walk. I lie down beneath a tree in the expansive yard overlooking the Hudson River. I look up at the last leaves that have held on to their branches all winter long and imagine my body sinking into the dirt.

In Liverpool, a little less than a year ago, I stayed with a friend who didn’t know what to do with me, what I’d want to do in Liverpool. He took me on a tour of the city’s biggest churches. We’d only ever spoken about religion once, when I asked him if he believed in God and he said no. He made the tour playful. We raced up the steps to the churches and ranked them from most to least gaudy. He ventured occasional jokes about organized religious righteousness. I laughed and, when he wasn’t looking, wandered to a corner and tried to feel something. In one of the churches, I lit a candle for my dad and my sister. I know it’s long out by now, but sometimes it still gives me comfort to think about something that was lit and burning for them thousands of miles away.


“Love,” says the priest who leads our retreat, “is to let things be, to allow them their existence. So when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ he was giving love to light.”


I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I keep anticipating the moment of release when I’ll realize I’m no longer in the city, no longer easily reachable, that I have in fact run away to the woods. That I am in a place in which one might be easily inspired. On our last night I sit on the floor of the chapel once again, the wood warming my bare feet. I bring my journal and write things down. The blue ink bleeding from the page onto my fingertips reminds me of smoke: the way incense burns and leaves a trail as it ascends so that the thing we most perceive are its remnants amid its destruction.

Time doesn’t feel expansive the way I thought it would. Instead, it feels dizzying and random, jumping uncontrollably between my memories and my anticipations. Other retreatants ask me about my plans and suddenly I’m a year older with a new face on a new continent. Reflections of the past come back to me like stained glass. I remember the overwhelming color of the chapel in Liverpool, the dizzying steps I took at the Vatican. I can’t stop moving forward and I can’t stop jumping back. I live the week ahead before it happens. I think of grand pianos and incense, stained glass and the way the sun looks as it falls through the trees. How can I capture any of this? The way it feels—the way it really feels—to ask a question or say I’m sorry in an empty church. To wonder if something is trying to answer. In every moment of reflection, I close my eyes and see a messy string of words trying to grasp at some inner meaning, a core I am not sure is there at all. I write this whole essay out in my head over the weekend as it’s happening. I read it back and hate it.


In church, candles may be thought to carry the hope and light of those for whom they were lit. I’m watching one now. The smoke rises and spirals, the curve of its movement like running water. I cannot see the end of it, that space where smoke becomes air. It’s as invisible and fleeting as the moment between waking and sleep. I realize it’s pointless, that I might actually be missing something by trying to pin down this moment, to measure the push and tug of every change. I’m a bad listener, I always go to metaphors. I stop, blink. For a moment I think I see the light flicker out, but then I realize it is just moving with a draft.

There is a distance between what we feel and our ability to name what we feel. I wonder if it’s possible to measure this distance. I wonder what it would feel like to travel it, to run it, to stumble on a tree root and fall down in the mess of it. I wonder if that’s all that’s happening when I try to pray or catch words or sit in silence in church. If this distance is responsible for the secret part of myself that I can’t name, that makes me want to run away and never tell anyone and also sit at this desk, in this church, on this bench, forever and take deep breaths until I grow as stable and heavy as a tree.

I could pray every day. Lie down on this warm wood floor. I could run to the edges of the earth and hang remembrance candles on every branch of every tree on my way. And it still wouldn’t be close. I could run forever and sit in stillness forever and I’ll always be just there.



Jessica Blatt graduated from Barnard in 2023 with a BA in English literature. She has written journalism for Voice for America, Catalyst Planet, and the Columbia Spectator, and has forth-coming work in The Racket. She is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala.




Photo by Claudia Ramírez on Unsplash

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