Breath-Built Rooms

by Kip Zegers

In 4th grade, with a lay teacher at St. Juliana, Miss Doorban, I was sunshiny. I could talk to other kids, girls were bright and warm, boys were less confusing, and Chuck had moved onto my block. Laurette Weins were the first two words of a magic trick. Bubble words. Then puberty, Tarzan and Jane, sin, the sudden and absolutely clear thought, as I lay in bed at night, cozy, dreaming of rescuing Kathy Braun from a burning house up the street, of the Ape Man rescuing fragile Jane and carrying her to his secret nest high in the trees, thoughts were real, in words, and I thought, if I fall asleep in my bed with words like these in my mind, I risk waking up on fire, in hell, screaming, this could become that, my bed opening up into a chute that sent a boy’s body down to find himself helpless, burning, on fire. 

That is, IF I slept. That shut me up. I was not telling anybody anything, not any of it. I stopped talking. I stopped sleeping. 

When I spoke again, it was to authority, and if I was in the state of sin, I was also in a state of good luck, or good choice, for my parents took me to the St. Juliana Rectory and left me alone with Fr. Caniglio, who I did tell, in words, what had happened. I hope they had known about and asked for him, that this was not chance and could have been Father Young, because this man said, and I quote, many, many years on, “Son, yours is a scrupulous conscience. Nothing a boy like you can do will send you to hell. Stay out of Confession, for a long time.” He was a kind man. He was to be believed. God’s rules had secret passages, I was able to sleep, an owner of the word that sounded like it came from an important, secret book: “scrupulous.” I wasn’t wretched, I was “scrupulous.” And, the rules of God had exceptions. This small, kindly man had the authority. I did not have to go to confession. In fact, I never went again. I now had room to grow in. 

I recently heard myself think, “when I was among them I believed what the people believed.” It was Easter week, and, on Holy Thursday coming out, at rush hour, onto a busy street where Father took the censor and made incense flow onto the roofs of cars, made holy smoke pour across Chicago land. Us boys had practiced our procession. We were serving several priests who held the incense and the boat beneath the canopy we held up, facing drivers who crossed themselves, drivers who threw up their hands, drivers who honked at us, then we turned and left them out there, alone. When I wrote about this, one of the things I did not say was how proud I was to have been chosen to hold the canopy under which Father marched. And that it felt good to be “among them,” not apart, as yet. Another thing I have not said is that I felt ritual, having no words for it, but knew this happened every year, always had, always would. Then Easter.

Soon enough the streets would be full of the youth marching, civil rights, war, two things my church would, sadly, take a pass on, but in 1953 the church had been full. The street outside the church had been full, and “when I was among them I believed what the people believed.” Writing now, I offer that kid respect, and care. He is an independent clause in the sentence of my life, and I wish him well, living in a place from which he does not need to be rescued, where he is not safe, and his eyes are clear.

“Sin happens when we refuse to keep growing.” A 4th century quote, St. Gregory of Nicea, used by Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward. Rohr is describing the challenge of life in age, the transition between work/career and what follows. This is a notion of sin without theology. I think of “sin” as being root-bound, brown, brittle, and I imagine growing as green, as leafing out, as The New. Five years ago, having been a teacher for 33 years, I went back to Union Theological Seminary, I was not reminiscing, I was taking a class called Encore. It was 50 years since I’d walked in to start work on a master’s degree at Union. Now as class got rolling, it was clear that this was a good place to go forward from. A class of 15, and we all had in common some connection, live or past, to religion, the church. All had careers behind us. Fifty years ago, I’d been the only Roman Catholic in my class at Union, a first ever. I had encountered Protestants, studied advanced thought about scripture, had a taste of Freud and Marx, and of a pragmatic ethics. I’d had no idea how to speak of my own tangled departure from Catholicism. I was ashamed of it then, thought it of no interest to modern folks, but these people did not talk of God or belief. You could study Genesis as a text, ethics without heaven and hell, philosophy without one true belief. The Seminary was liberal, tolerant, thoughtful, serious, and 50 years later I recognized in the room at Encore something of that. We had all fallen, mostly by choice, out of a lifetime of one sort of work, a career. We read, we talked, and had to make new choices.

My choosing to work with the New York Writers Coalition, after a long career as a high school teacher, was green. I made several 90-minute trips to Brooklyn, first to interview and then to train. The thing is, change is not something we choose easily. I like stability, familiarity, but I found The New York Writers Coalition. Change has to sneak up on us. I thought I wanted a simple thing, to continue working with writing, as I had at Hunter College H. S. First, I visited a class of disabled adults, a group led by a woman who had led them for a decade, and saw users of words, how they trusted her, and could explore with words. After that came 25 hours of training, which I met not as experienced teacher but as a New Guy. We worked on writing to a prompt, on listening, and on making it all safe. This is a misunderstood word. Safe, in this context, does not mean sweet and quiet, small and protected. It means a workplace. So many have been told they are finished, even before they have begun, or because they have aged. We can age in as well as out. Genuine writing needs trust and safety, I knew that from my decades with kids, but training with the Coalition meant for me, as the oldest in my training class, also trusting young people. I was learning about being the old guy. And it was all about growing, leafing out, widening. 

Growth can mean travel, relocation, a new skill, or it can mean an hour’s writing. After a year of working with a group at New York Hospital Outreach, I thought of the phrase “breath-built rooms.” It described what we were about. In age, we can carpenter additions to our lives, we can make the mental house we live in new by adding rooms. It might be that when we work with kids, we are trying out new houses, building things from scratch, but this, these breath-built rooms? Sometimes when we write we find a room already there, one that had been in our house, closed-off, all along. Sometimes we add a verandah out front, or a sitting porch out back, or a tower room up above the dining room, even a sunporch off to the side. When we do this, we are growing our lives. Putting more against less, larger against smaller, new against repetition. Even shut in by illness or frailty, or as now by worldwide disease, our house can enlarge. One can find that where a back door had been is now a whole new room. Writing a few hours a week, or even daily, is not a substitute for living, for suffering, or tedium, but breath-built rooms make our inner house larger, give us new space to think in. I wrote a piece about my father, dead now 30 years, and it opened a wall. It began with a strange idea, “my father in heaven” (he never spoke of heaven). It grew fanciful and fond. It featured celestial vegetable soup, an angel who flies past him and winks, and my father’s surprise. Not fear. As I wrote, my father’s death was a place on the page, in my mind, where I could see him. He is there now, eating vegetable soup, both in heaven and in a new room that I know exists, and can sometimes find and visit. A breath-built room. When our lives get larger, no matter our age, they have a future tense, they are not root-bound and yellowed. It is a fact of life. It is best that we do not refuse to grow. 

About the author:

Kip Zegers is from Chicago, educated there in the Catholic schools. Since arriving in New York he has been a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War, worked at many jobs before becoming a teacher, and has been publishing poetry for some time, most recently three books with Dos Madres Press (A Room in the House of Time, 2020. Of late, he has been working on writing with older adults and this has led to some good work in the essay form.

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