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  • Nora Koch

Except of course, for not having Mass, not being able to meet with those whom I love, not walking to work, or seeing the people I work with each day, not feeling safe in a grocery store, not being able to find toilet paper, things seem the same as ever.

Everything looks the same, but nothing is the same. It seems to me we are being called to repentance, as we always are, but now, like the Israelites, either left in a ravished land, or hauled off to a place they did not want to go, we are made aware of our peril.

I am left alone with my husband, who before the “Shelter in Place,” order, was sheltering in place for two months, recovering from a wrist operation and was scheduled to go back to work this week. We have been surprisingly good to each other during this time, and I am grateful that he is in my life. I shudder when I think of weathering this alone, as I was for 25 years before I married him. He has had to interrupt drawings for a new painting of Mary and the Child Jesus to keep away from, our friends, the Mother and three-year-old son, models.

The day before the likely lock down, we drove to Maiden Rock, and hiked back a half hour to the edge of the cliff where he painted and I prayed, read and mused, since I forgot to replace the SD card in my camera. On the way home, we stopped at the Ellsworth Creamery and from the parking lot, called in our order for cheese curds; they brought them out, with gloved hands. Except for the parking lot exchange, this day was not unlike others we have had. One would never know what was going on in the world.

I don’t much like myself these days: I see my sins too clearly, repent of them and then see more, or commit them again. All of the things I planned to do at home when I had time stare me in the face. I get some of them done, but realize my plans are a joke.

Yet I am grateful for the opportunity to watch Bishop Barron’s Mass and know that my friends watch the same mass; to go to drive by confession given by our treasured Pastor and Associate Priest. I pray throughout the day, especially for our friends who have the Corona Virus, one of whom is recovering, the other ventilated and in danger. I pray for friends who suddenly lost their daughter-in-law and I pray for friends who both have cancer, who I may never see again. In addition, I pray all my old prayers, and clutch a rosary dragged around France by my friend for me and touched to holy sites, which makes it a third-class relic. I love the saints that pray with me.

I awake saying Veni Sanctus Spiritus. Veni Per Miriam.

  • Nora Koch

As Production Manager, I was in a Coffee House Press production meeting regarding a typeset, handmade book for an Allen Ginsberg. A young homosexual artist was there and kept asking the Publisher if he could do whatever he wanted with the images for the book. The publisher ignored his questions. A month later his explicit drawings were rejected for banal, and benign drawings by another artist.

At a design meeting I picked out beautiful, though florid paper: purple with gold and black Jackson Pollackesque streaks all over it, and a red Japanese paper for the label. The publisher later chose these papers, but as he often did, gave me no credit. At first, I was baffled when this happened; it hadn’t occurred to me, but I came to accept professional jealousy.

I met Allen Ginsberg at the Publisher’s dinner, but bowed out of the book reading ceremony attended by many enthusiastic people. Because I’d worked printing the book, I was entitled to a copy of it; a valuable book, I knew. But I didn’t want one, so I printed a label with my name on it and asked Jill Jevney the very talented book binder, to bind me a blank one in the same materials. The book, with Its purple clamshell box, is beautiful.

I have been going through old journals and winced when I found this one. I plan to destroy them all once I have gone through them, and I really did not want to destroy this beautiful book. I prayed before opening it that I might find a way to keep it. I was astonished! I hadn’t remembered that I had singled it out as a spiritual journal, and I found nothing in it that I would hate for someone else to read.

I’d seen the stunning Broadway play three times before reading the book and watched the movie adaptation from 2012 just this past spring, unaware that I would be reading the book soon after. I do not regret experiencing either of them before the book. They helped me appreciate and admire how efficient those two mediums are in conveying characters and the plot line of the book, albeit greatly abridged. It’s a long book 1260 pages in the version I read. In that regard and others (it is written at, and of, virtually the same time period), it reminds me of War and Peace.

Since I first saw the play, as a protestant at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City in 1989, 1990, and then as a new Catholic in the Ordway in St. Paul in the mid-nineties, I thought the story was in large part about two men. I still believe that, only the two men have changed in reading the book. I thought for years that this most important relationship was between Jean Valjean and Javert. However, now I consider it in the contrast between Jean Valjean and Thénardier. It is the main theme of the book – the choice between doing what is good and suffering the consequences or doing only that which is self-serving.

Thénardier is found throughout the play and the movie, but the impact of his actions are not nearly as clear as in the book.

In the book I understood more and found myself sympathetic to Javert.

The significance of the silver, especially the candlesticks becomes clear in the book along with the goodness of the Bishop, which is only given a nod in the play and movie. The Catholic Church is beautifully portrayed.

As noted earlier, I was a protestant the first two times I saw the play and a new Catholic the last time I saw it. As a result, I found Cosset wearisome. She seemed like Thérèse of Lisieux, who until I actually investigated her, I found too good to be true. I preferred Epinine. But again, in the book, Cosset becomes real; her Catholic Convent upbringing becomes real and the goodness of it is obvious. Her rare goodness should be admired and protected. Cosset would be found boring in our culture, which finds chaste Catholic girls, as in my ignorance I once did, wearisome and irrelevant.

I still love Epinine, even better for not comparing her to Cosset. Her goodness is nearly unfathomable – where does she get it? It is clearly not from her upbringing. It is from love.