Saturday, June 26, 2010

For Mount de Chantal

Two Saturdays ago, Michael and I went to Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, just outside Wheeling and sat in our lawn chairs under the giant tents erected on the front lawn, while police and news crews circulated among the crowd.

Approximately a year ago, Mount de Chantal graduated its final group of girls. Over the years, student enrollment had decreased, and the nuns were aging. After a great deal of debate, the school was closed. The nuns, the youngest of which is 75, moved to a Georgetown Academy in Washington, D.C., and a series of auctions began. That's what we were there for.

I was gunning for the library books, for the bust of Ceasar Augustus; Michael wanted the Barrister bookcases. We got the books and the bookcases. The shelves now hold volumes of French, essays on ethics and morals, German primers in the nearly impenetrable gothic script, and a grand little "author copy" of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.

We were fortunate enough to be sitting next to Margaret Brennan, who heads the Wheeling Historical Society. She was very soft-spoken, took careful notes on each winning bid amount, and expressed joy at my enthusiasm for the old books we had won. We did not know who she was until much later, when we read in the Wheeling Intelligencer that she was the winning bidder on the smaller of the two Hobbs-Brockunier crystal chandeliers that will now hang in Wheeling's Independence Hall (which stands across from of West Virginia Northern, where I teach).

While they went through a seemingly endless array of china and furniture we had no interest in, Michael walked beneath a crumbling stone archway that lead to the back of the building, which has a strong presence all its own. And so, this:

For Mount de Chantal ~

Some of the nuns remain here. I still feel their presences at windows, their circulating concentration of particles that wander the halls even in daytime. Yet, I am empty, empty of the laughter, empty of sorrow, empty of the light that shone out the windows, rather than in—for the light of life shines both ways. Often there is as much within as there is without.

My furniture has been ripped out and sold off. I watched people cart away bookshelves, trophy displays, built-in cabinets never meant to be torn from my insides. My books, too, are gone: a diaspora of encapsulated knowledge, both relevant and obsolete, populates unfamiliar shelves. My chandeliers, the last things to catch the light and shower my wooden floors with tiny rainbows are gone, too. Even the secrets packed in my corners have been pulled away to reveal the bright geometry of their absence.

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