Achievement was my first drug, and I was freebasing by second grade. Actually first. Sister Lynn Michelle held the spoon. She favored quizzes, and the lucky pupils who answered all of her questions correctly won a sticker depicting a long-haired Jesus instructing a group of rapt children.
I always got a sticker.
In Catholic school there was so much to memorize: stations of the cross, beatitudes, Hail Mary, Our Father, the Act of Contrition. I memorized, metabolized, internalized, repeated back.
My pull was to the mysterious and nothing magnetized me more than the corporal works of mercy. These ethereal actions sounded poetic, but they were more than words. They were the underpinnings of good Catholicism, the root system for the sturdy tree on which I was a mere twig.
For full credit, you had to list them in order.
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Harbor the harborless
Visit the sick
Ransom the captive
Bury the dead
Some of them I didn’t understand. I wasn’t certain I was allowed to give my clothes away. The one about the harbors was confusing because I didn’t know anyone with a boat. “Visiting the sick” was tricky because I worried about germs. What if I got sick and had to miss school or Sunday mass?
“Ransom the captive” vaguely reminded me of something I once saw on a Pippi Longstocking episode, or maybe it was the Three Stooges who lobbied to get their missing stooge back from a captor. It didn’t seem like something I should do at age six. I’d wait until I was older. I hoped that was okay with God. “Bury the dead” also didn’t seem like a job for a kid. We would bury my grandfather the next year and I would stand by the grave site in my monogrammed blue sweater. Would that count? I never touched a shovel.
“Feed the hungry” was the easy one. Give people who didn’t have food the old cans of chili or creamed corn your family no longer wanted.
* * *
This morning on the bus I dreamed up an essay collection about eating disorders. Before I decided that was too over-played, bourgeois, and 90’s, I fleshed it out. The opening essay would be about Mother Theresa, anchored by that quote that feminists adore, which is attributed to Sarah Silverman: “Mother Teresa didn’t walk around complaining about her thighs—she had shit to do.”
My thesis: We don’t know if Mother Teresa obsessed about her thighs. I got a bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and a J.D., all accompanied by bouts of obsession: my thighs, my breasts, my stomach. I had babies, won court cases, wrote a novel, breastfed, taught classes, and there was always a potent sliver of my consciousness devoted to attacking my corporeality. I couldn’t stop obsessing any more than an asthmatic could start breathing normally. Achievement and obsession about my body have always co-existed, overlapping circles in a Venn diagram, from a time before I got that first sticker.
I don’t know jack shit about feeding my own hunger. And I have no idea if a struggling family wants my dented can of Wolf brand chili.
I can imagine a Mother Teresa afflicted with self-hate so potent that throwing herself into a life devoted to serving those with leprosy, AIDS, and tuberculosis didn’t quell a quiet, secret war she waged against her body.
I can. I can imagine it.
I’m already bored with this idea. Except for the title, The Corporal Works of Mercy. The title I love.