On enissophobia

It was 2005, and we were staying at the Hotel Gallery Art in Florence. A boutique hotel in an ancient, romantic city full of art. In the lobby bar, we sat with a little cup of crunchy snacks between us, a bottle of wine, and he confessed with some shame that he was obsessed with a fear of committing the unpardonable sin. A fear that he had already committed it without knowing he’d done so. This fear is called enissophobia. And he confessed he had OCD, too, which made it hard for him to take tests, because he was always checking and checking and rechecking his answers, never sure he’d gotten them right. The enissophobia, I’ve learned since, sometimes goes along with OCD.

According to the New Testament, the unpardonable sin is to “blaspheme” (or some translations render it “grieve”) the Holy Spirit. But this is a fuzzy concept. What does it mean to do this? Different churches have different ideas. The Catholic church has a list of six sins that are eternal and that effectively fit the bill as unpardonable.

I have a different definition, based on what I’ve learned about my own soul. We call the Holy Spirit different names, depending on whether or not we’re religious – but in practical terms, it amounts to the same thing. The Holy Spirit is the tongue of flame inside us – our inspiration, our psyche, the faint but instinctive thread we follow that leads us through life towards who we are becoming. For me, the unpardonable sin is willfully, continually ignoring that still, small voice we each possess. This probably comes as no surprise, since it accords closely with the shadow work I’ve been doing for years in analysis. My personal work has been about unearthing that voice, and learning to trust it to guide me. And it always does, when I’m really listening.

And so, for me, the unpardonable sin is unpardonable not because it’s a sin you can commit once and be done with it. It’s not some sudden thing you trip over and fall. On the contrary, it’s progressive. You have to keep doing it. You have to persistently, pointedly keep on ignoring what you know in your gut to be right, keep on making conscious decisions to turn away from that. Again and again and again. Eventually, your own repeated choices are what condemn you. God doesn’t even have to step in and do it. You’ve damned yourself to your own self-made hell.

Long ago, when he gave up art for medicine, he killed the tender, sensitive boy I was friends with when we were kids. The friend I loved. Giving up art for medicine doesn’t have to mean destroying one’s soul, of course – but in his case, it apparently did. That young man he was – he’s dead. He killed that sweet boy when he elected to stop listening to his inner voice. Sometimes I’m able to pity him for that. Sometimes, when I think of all the harm he’s done to others – not just to himself – I can’t find sufficient generosity.

That night thirteen years ago, when we sat together in the bar at that tiny table, I was stunned by the extremity of his worry. I wanted to comfort him, take away his dismay, reassure him that he had not committed any sin that could not be forgiven.

But the truth is, he just hadn’t yet. Now I feel certain some part of him must have known he was already heading in a dangerous direction. And the truth is, he was right to be worried.


Dirty Limerick (solicited)

There once was a gal from south Philly –
a very voluptuous filly –
she was prim, though, and modest
and so, blushing but honest,
she’d not call herself busty, but “hilly.”


In that time anon, you’ll understand.
The windshield wipers will wipe
in sync to the song on the radio
from the very first note. The bend
of the river will unkink, shrink, and slow
to reveal the riverbed, the sweep
of waters past, the shape of creatures
long dead. You will learn your name.
You will know the sky and scriptures.
You will see beginning and end
at last, and know they are the same.


Little shoot, you tried to plumb abscond
but failed, and linger, awry, catching any stray
thread or loop in my sweater, stronger
than any splinter lodged in thumb
or finger, till I give, and cut you at last away

January 3

On the brittle tree, a trinket
holds the morning light
turning it slowly
this way and that.
I refuse to join in
with the wringing of hands.
I will not lay my rod
alongside another’s to compare.
I decline to beat the mare
trusting instead
she’ll carry me where
at length I’m meant to be.
Out there in the blue, a jet
curves its contrail 90 degrees.

On This Day

30 years ago, my mom put a sign in the yard of the house where I grew up, and a couple made an offer that day. So we started to build the warm, sturdy house where I would spend my teens and twenties and part of my thirties.

26 years ago, my ex and I had dated for one month, and I broke up with him flightily. We were 16 and 15, respectively. I stared into the collapsing coals in his parents’ fireplace, memorizing their arrangement, as he tried not to cry.

21 years ago, my sister was one week dead. I signed up for a poetry workshop for spring semester, figuring I’d have plenty to write about.

13 years ago, I’d just been dumped by someone I didn’t even like that much, two friends of mine had recently died in a drunk driving accident, and just before the holidays I got the flu. I spent New Year’s alone on my parents’ couch eating pizza, convinced my life had already hit its peak and everything from here was downhill.

10 years ago, I spent the night wearing sequins and listening to live jazz, drinking Dom Perignon, and eating poached salmon cleverly and aesthetically arranged to look like a fish, with cucumbers and halved cherry tomatoes for eyes, at the house of my ex’s mentor, who was essentially a modern-day Gatsby, with all the annoying and sad things that implies.

7 years ago, I was reading IT. Disgusted, afraid, impatient, I couldn’t stop. It took me one week to get through all 1200-plus pages. One day, there were several red helium balloons inexplicably caught in a tree outside our bedroom window. A few days later I’d catch my ex cheating, and he’d threaten to kill himself.

5 years ago, I wore a cut-off thrifted black velvet and lace minidress to the fanciest restaurant in town, and ate a seven-course “wild food” dinner that included wild greens vichyssoise and elk carpaccio. Then I came home and my ex put a gun to my head.

4 years ago, I made a frittata with purple potatoes and chorizo. I committed to writing a poem a day – a resolution I abandoned in May. Later that year, I would run 26.2 miles.

3 years ago, N and I spent our first New Year’s Eve together, getting dressed up, going out to eat Ethiopian food with our fingers from a shared platter, and comparing formerly closeted skeletons.

2 years ago, we had a party at his house. We cleared off the kitchen table and the desk in the office and put out curried cauliflower pickles, cheese straws, molasses spice cookies, magnums of champagne. We listened to Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.”

1 year ago, I had the flu again. I dozed all evening, sustained by the Kraft mac-and-cheese and double-bergamot tea N had made me for lunch. Convinced the world might well end within the year, I don’t remember whether I even made it to midnight.

Last night, in the house N and I now own together, I joked with my parents on the phone, ate the best steak of my life, replicated a longtime favorite steakhouse recipe, laughed and kissed many times, petted cats, drank too much, danced in the living room, walked outside at 2 a.m. in bare feet in 15-degree weather to look up at the nearly full moon.