megan bott

Letter to the Editor: Heat

Dear Reader,

I am from a place where heat is aggressive. I would say it enters with vengeance but honestly, it never really leaves. It makes home on the Mississippi River and may fall dormant for Mardi Gras week in February, a foggy morning in October, or even a night in December, but it is never gone.

When my family and I evacuated for Hurricane Gustav in 2008, a mere three years after Katrina made landfall on our homeland, the air conditioner in our car was broken. We sat on the I-55 swampland between Lake Maurepas and Lake Ponchartrain dripping in sweat, the heat in the car more potent than the encroaching hurricane. The heat was aggressive and unbearable against the leather seats. My youngest brother said enduring the hurricane at home would have been better.

On our second day in Ponchatoula, the electricity went out, and we slept on the wooden floor while cicadas screeched and frogs entered through the open front door. My father kept taking the frogs outside, but they entered the house in droves, looking for the same thing we were—relief from the debilitating, wet air outside. At night, my brothers and I were eaten alive by mosquitos. We lay in pools of our own sweat, bodies swollen from all the bites. Our skin burned red even after we returned to New Orleans days later.

I tell this story because heat always wins. My brothers and I would climb a gate and break into a hotel pool for temporary relief, but our bare feet would blister on the concrete as we walk back home. My friends and I would suck on ice when we walked to school, but even that would melt into warm water before we arrived. The breeze I would feel biking home from work brought not relief, but heat.

This kind of omnipresent heat manifests itself in all of our pieces. In some, it’s the heat of political tension: Sara Fleming discusses the heat of leftist revolution and the delusion of leftist sympathizers; David Eik shares a narrative of immigrant detention haunted by the heat of San Diego and Guatemala; Emma Gorsuch interrogates the heat of the polarizing political climate of the United States.

Editing this issue has affected each of us personally; for me, however, it has affected my understanding of heat and thus my understanding of my own identity. I carry Louisiana heat inside me; it wakes with me and it sleeps with me no matter the Colorado weather. This issue taught me that all of us carry some manifestation of our own heat. Callie Zucker’s piece on meat and masculinity is a reflection of the knack she has for making connections between gender, food, and society. Sophia Skelly’s narrative about living with a woman named Debbie reveals a deeper desire to reflect on human connection and relations. Becca Stine’s interview with Cecelia Gonzales shows how the groundskeeper and chef connects the heat in her chili to her family, homeland, and identity. All of us are just trying to understand our own heat.

Heat hangs heavy on the skin. It cannot be dealt with in the same way that cold can. You can apply layers and layers of clothes in anticipation of cold—but heat? Heat gets inside of the body with no release. Peeling away layers of clothes provides no relief when the heat gets trapped beneath your skin, in your lungs, inside of you. The dance with heat never ends, but this issue helps me realize that’s okay—because heat will keep changing you and me and the world around us for a long time.


Megan (and the Cipher Staff)  

Heat Issue | November 2018

Receding Floodwaters

August heat in New Orleans is a heat felt inside the body. It is the heat of a city 12 feet below sea level, where feet drag on blistering concrete and the breeze carries nothing but the smell of the lake and river. New Orleans always moves slowly, but in August it comes to a halt. The summer is marked by wet air, sticky skin, and an insatiable lethargy. At night, screeching cicadas are the only way to tell that time moves at all.

But water is quiet, and even the cicadas fell silent for the weeks that brackish waves lapped at shotgun house porches in the aftermath of Katrina. Spray-painted X-codes identified which rescue squad had come to survey the house, the time and date that the team arrived, the hazards within the house, and the number of people (or bodies) found. In one house, a gaping hole in a roof cast shadows of a family using an axe to escape.        

As floodwaters finally receded back into Bayou Sauvage and Lake Borgne in late August of 2005, they left only a shell of New Orleans in the crescent of the Mississippi River. This new, post-Katrina New Orleans was bleak. New Orleanian refugees marooned throughout the United States wondered what awaited them in southeast Louisiana. Images of corpses swollen with water and the Superdome crowded with people dominated the news cycle.

But in the Village de l’Est community of New Orleans East, something different was happening. In mid-October of 2005, only a little more than a month after Katrina made landfall and days after the floodwaters receded, a group of Vietnamese-Americans arrived en masse to the East. By early November, the community had even successfully pressured the city to turn on the utilities for home use. While the majority of New Orleanians were still stranded across the country, the residents of Village de l’Est were planning church services, discussing reconstruction plans, and opening their homes to the refugees who had been trapped during the storm.    

The story of Vietnamese resilience post-Katrina was quickly hijacked by anti-black media outlets that transformed the incredible endurance of Village de l’Est to fit their racist narrative which pit southeast Louisiana’s poor black communities against their Vietnamese neighbors. The speedy organization and activism of the Vietnamese community was juxtaposed with the lack of activity in the Lower Ninth Ward in order to exacerbate the pre-existing racial tensions between the two communities, both of whom were disproportionately affected by the storm. The government and media outlets alike underscored Vietnamese self-reliance by framing them against the “government-dependent” black communities of their neighborhoods.

This narrative failed to address the complex history of the Vietnamese in New Orleans, which played a vital role in forging their identity borne out of communal and intergenerational trauma. The first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Louisiana in the wake of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The U.S. had finally renounced support for the Vietnam War, and North Vietnamese troops had invaded South Vietnam as a result of the withdrawal of American combat troops from the area. Around 2,100 of the estimated 130,000 Vietnamese people that fled that spring settled in New Orleans. By 1985, an estimated 12,000 Vietnamese residents were living in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, with almost 6,000 concentrated in the Versailles neighborhood alone.

The Vietnamese resettlement process was spearheaded by the Associated Catholic Charities, an organization that the New Orleans Archdiocese worked through in order to sponsor the first resettlement of 1,000 Vietnamese families in New Orleans East. Catholicism, which plays an important role in the cultural identity of New Orleanians, worked as the foundation upon which the New Orleanian Vietnamese society was built. In August of 1978, a mere three years after the Vietnamese began immigrating from South Vietnam to New Orleans, a Vietnamese Catholic chapel was opened to fully service the neighborhood. This chapel would expand in the early ‘80s to become Mary Queen of Vietnam Church (MQVC), which was instrumental in the organization of the community after Katrina and today serves as the center of Vietnamese culture in New Orleans East.  

As the only former French colony in the United States, New Orleans was a popular destination for Vietnamese refugees who hoped for an easy transition and re-creation of the lifestyles and culture from their old towns. French cultural influence, as well as the city’s proximity to the coast, also attracted immigrants who did not speak English or wanted to continue their lives as fishermen. Dzuyet Hoang, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled Saigon in 1975, reflected on his resettlement process with the Times-Picayune reporter Gayle Ashton in 1985. He explained, “They ask us where we want to settle … maybe in Washington, what do you want? They say New Orleans is a city on the coast, the climate is warm and have many seafood. And we say, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah.’ And we choose New Orleans. Because of the warm weather, the seafood available, the people who speak French sometimes. But we choose it.”

Despite various cultural and environmental similarities, however, the Vietnamese transition into the city was anything but smooth. The majority of the Vietnamese refugees settled in the Versailles community of the Village de l’Est neighborhood, an area that was approximately 90 percent black at the time. Race relations intensified as the marginalized black communities began to feel as though the Vietnamese presence was negatively impacting the city and the neighborhood. Various black community leaders expressed concerns that the resettlement program worsened the city’s already depressed economy by increasing both taxes and competition among the poor for limited housing and jobs.

Cheryl Wilson Cramer, head of a city task force that studied the effect of the Southeast Asian refugee population on New Orleans, explained in 1985 that resentment towards the Vietnamese spread throughout portions of the black communities as a result of the special programs that assisted in helping the Vietnamese of New Orleans East prosper. The $800,000 spent by the Associated Catholic Charities, in partnership with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to buy housing for 1,000 Vietnamese families in a low-income black neighborhood was seen as an investment into foreigners instead of the community. Other programs that were exclusive to Vietnamese immigrants were various tax breaks, welfare (even though only 20.4 percent of Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans collected welfare in the 1980s, as compared to the 54 percent nationwide as reported by Gayle Ashton in The Times-Picayune), and even small plots of lands to grow crops to sell at the markets.

The conflicts between New Orleans residents and the Vietnamese immigrant communities, however, were not purely economic. New Orleans, though popular among various immigrant groups, had never before had a substantial Asian population. The appearance of these newcomers shocked white and black locals alike and the cultural differences intensified the strain surrounding the resettlement process. “The Vietnamese would dry fish or shrimp in 90-degree heat on their balcony and their American neighbors would come home and get a whiff,” recounted the Versailles Arms apartment manager Melanie Ottaway in 1985. Farther south, in coastal towns throughout Plaquemines Parish, fishing communities also felt the impacts of resettlement as Louisiana fisherman began to compete with the Vietnamese in overcrowded waters throughout the Louisiana coast. Louisiana shrimpers oftentimes felt that the Vietnamese were not respecting Southern shrimping and fishing customs, which caused strife between the two communities.

Despite the intense racial divide, heightened economic hardships, and their limited ability to speak English and thus communicate with the majority of their neighbors, the Vietnamese refugee communities were painted by the public as communities with a “bootstrap ethic” in the face of their many grievances. The Vietnamese quickly found employment and often began paying their own rent after the first month of resettlement. Michael Haddad, who was head of the Associated Catholic Charities at the time of the resettlement and thus in charge of the $800,000 housing expenses, explained that “I was scared … [but] they took a lot of jobs nobody else wanted, menial low-wage jobs. The advantage they had was a tight family unit. And when all of them were working at minimum-wage jobs, they were basically able to swing the rent.” The “bootstrap” narrative imposed onto the Vietnamese was only strengthened by the fact that the refugees were fleeing a communist country. Rather than attributing the dedication of the Vietnamese to the survival tactics imposed on them as refugees and necessary for survival, Americans instead created the narrative that capitalism empowered the Vietnamese to make a new homeland for themselves.

In 1985, The Times-Picayune even published an article titled “Refugees Showed They Are Survivors” with an entire section titled “A bootstrap ethic.” In this section, the journalist Gayle Ashton reports, “Although some refugees may have escaped Vietnam with jewelry or gold, many—especially those who were attacked by pirates as they escaped by boat—arrived with nothing. What may amaze or confound native-born Americans is a difference in Vietnamese values and lifestyle that is reflected in their quick economic process.” Later in the article, Ashton further supports her claim of Vietnamese “bootstrap ethic” by quoting a personnel director for a major New Orleans hotel. The director explains, “I find they tend to be industrious entrepreneurs. I wish more people had the same work ethic.” The hotel director and Ashton both clearly value the work ethic of the Vietnamese refugees, but hidden in their words is an understanding that the Vietnamese are prosperous in capitalist United States in a way that they would not be in newly communist Vietnam. Though this article, published as part of a four-day series celebrating a decade of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, was written in 1985, it exhibits how the early perceptions of the Vietnamese would manifest into the later characterization of Vietnamese resiliency and how this understanding glorifies capitalism as the economic system which empowered these refugees to flourish.

However, Vietnamese New Orleanians themselves also identify in part with this “bootstrap” narrative, especially in how it relates to anti-communism. Cyndi Nguyen, current city councilwoman for District E (the district where Village de l’Est is located and which took the brunt of the Katrina damage), writes in her campaign biography that she was five years old when she and her family left Vietnam in 1975. Nguyen’s website explains that “they escaped from the Communists because her parents wanted their children to have access to opportunities and most importantly to have freedom.” Later, Nguyen cites her immigration to New Orleans as the key motivating factor that fuels her “work ethic, her integrity, and her audacity of hope.” Nguyen believes that capitalism and the United States afforded her the opportunities to be where she is today and to empower her district, comprised of both Vietnamese and black communities. She does not criticize capitalism even though capitalism plays a huge role in the poverty, violence, and destruction in her own district. However, she also governs on a promise of unity: unlike the post-Katrina media focus that sought to polarize the Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans, Nguyen promised to utilize the strengths of each community so that together post-Katrina New Orleans East could prosper.   

This “bootstrap ethic” narrative played an integral role in the outside perception of post-Katrina Vietnamese organization in New Orleans. Nguyen’s City Council District E was the area most heavily impacted by the storm; when over 50 levees failed on August 29, 2005, Village de l’Est and the Lower Ninth Ward took on over 20 feet of water. This area flooded along with 80 percent of the city as thousands of homes were destroyed and the Vietnamese community was once again displaced.

However, this destruction did not delay the return of the Vietnamese to Village de l’Est. The Vietnamese, emboldened once again by the MQVC and the head priest Father Vien Nguyen, returned to New Orleans East in droves, ready to reclaim and rebuild their new homeland. In mid-October of 2005, less than two weeks after Mayor C. Ray Nagin had declared the city safe for return, the Vietnamese took the first steps towards the re-creation of normal life by creating a petition that successfully persuaded the utility companies to restore power in New Orleans East, which became the first neighborhood to receive power in the city after the storm. By early December of 2005, an estimated 600 Vietnamese individuals had returned and begun cleaning and repairing Vietnamese American homes and businesses in the area. Over 90 percent of the Vietnamese community was once again living in New Orleans East by the spring of 2007, compared to the less than 50 percent of black residents that once resided in the neighborhood.

During the immediate post-Katrina rebuilding effort, the Vietnamese were lauded as the first community to return to the city and begin the restoration process without significant government assistance. Instead of celebrating this astounding example of exemplary community organization and impressive resiliency, the city and state political climate quickly shifted towards anti-black rhetoric. The Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans East both endured the brunt of the Katrina damage, but the quick Vietnamese return laid the groundwork for victim-blaming against the black communities that was perpetuated both politically and in general by white elites.

This victim-blaming is preserved in a news segment by Al Jazeera English, an English-language news and current affairs TV station headquartered in Doha, Qatar. In the segment, Rob Reynolds follows Father Luke Nguyen through New Orleans East as Nguyen regales the tale of the last year. However, much of Nguyen’s speech is voiced over as Reynolds uses the resiliency of Vietnamese New Orleanians to shame the black communities (though they remain unmentioned). He explains, “After Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese community decided not to wait for the government or insurance companies to help. They returned to their neighborhood immediately and started rebuilding.” This kind of reporting dismisses the violence and fear that the black communities experienced at the hands of the police during and immediately after Katrina, stereotypes the black communities as lazy, and dismisses the actual voices of the Vietnamese communities. Reynolds spends a large part of the segment talking over Father Nguyen’s speech, erasing the voice of the community in favor of the voice of white elites.

Shockingly, however, for the first time in city history, the Vietnamese and the black communities forged a united front. In solidarity, they organized to hold government officials accountable and prevent the continued marginalization of their communities. The strongest display of unity was presented in the form of a coalition between the black and Vietnamese communities when, in February of 2006, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced that a toxic waste landfill would be opened less than two miles from the Versailles Arms Apartments in Village de l’Est. MQVC once again stepped in by developing the MQVC Community Development Corporation, whose mission is “to preserve and promote our unique diversity and improving the quality of life of residents in the Greater New Orleans area, beginning in New Orleans East.” The MQVC Community Development Corporation united the two communities under the same goal: to prevent the opening of the Katrina landfill, which would in essence serve as a dumping ground for all of the toxic waste that was left in the city by the receded floodwaters and result in the further marginalization of the communities in the area.

On the anniversary of Katrina, Vietnamese and black citizens alike from all over the Greater New Orleans Area stood at the gates of the proposed landfill as they awaited the arrival of dump trucks. With the eyes of the nation watching, the two united communities understood that the landfill was bigger than themselves. They were fighting for all of New Orleans and for everyone that would come after them. The demonstration was successful, for the dump trucks never arrived and the proposed landfill was never opened. The Vietnamese and black communities, who had been so segregated and divided for the past three decades, had come together to rise up against the powers that had oppressed them.

“We are a suffering people,” Father Luke Nguyen remarked to Reynolds in the 2007 interview. “We endure a lot of pains in the history of our development as a culture. And the war—the war in our land—kills a lot of people. And so Katrina here … is only a twist to us. It’s only a twist.” Father Nguyen’s words, which came less than two years after the storm, epitomize the Vietnamese outlook on disaster and destruction. He considers his people to be a people born of pain; people who must endure deep anguish in order to persevere. South Vietnam and the capitalist haven that it could have been must live on within Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans. His words resonate with those of Jane Foley, who was the resettlement director for the Associated Catholic Charities. “Survivors, that’s what they are. They don’t give up. They do what they have to do.” The Vietnamese response to Katrina and their rebuilding of a post-Katrina society is contingent on their identities as war refugees. The suffering and trauma that they endured in their home country at the hands of their own government gave them the strength to endure anything.

“The war changed the face of the Earth,” Trancong, former magazine director and Vietnamese immigrant to New Orleans, remarked to Ashton in 1985. “The war changed the values of Americans. The war changed a lot of things.” Trancong’s words here haunt the post-Katrina Vietnamese population of New Orleans, a population that has already once been traumatized by the loss of a homeland. Determined not to lose their “second homeland,” the Vietnamese returned, rebuilt, and made sure to lift up their neighbors to do the same. There was no more racial divide or jealousy or pain between the two groups because the Vietnamese saw in the black communities where they themselves had been 30 years prior. Even store owner Mike Tran, who returned to his looted grocery store in Mid-City New Orleans a mere six weeks after Katrina, showed no animosity towards those who robbed him. Proudly, he explained that his store, which was built on an elevated slab, must have served as a safe haven for those who had stayed behind to weather Katrina. He pointed out the large pieces of cardboard that were scattered throughout his store and remarked that they probably served as temporary sleeping mats for those stranded there. “Cash, liquor, and cigarettes—yeah, they stole everything. But, you know, not everyone was there to steal. Some people were just finding a way to survive.”

November is a time of of celebration. The sweltering August heat is a hazy memory as the sun starts to dip below the Mississippi River and ushers in a cool breeze. We remember that we have survived another hurricane season. We remember that, somehow, we always survive—though not all of us. But the Natchez in the port will play her dirge, and the people in the streets will sing of the cypress trees, and we will remember that our communities—born of floodwaters, of X-codes, and of war—will fight for one another. People fall in love with New Orleans not for the oppressive heat, but for the people that come out of it. And my people will always, always come out of it.

Heat Issue | November 2018

Vinegar and Ash

Natasha and I share a history marked by white knuckles gripping wooden pews and dusty sunlight sliding through antiquated church windows and transubstantiated wine tasting of vinegar. For me, growing up in a Pentecostal church run by ex-Southern Baptists meant that my fight was “not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Twice weekly I confronted this evil by confessing lust for other women to a Cajun ex-convict pastor who ran a drug, alcohol, and sexuality rehabilitation facility out of a converted shack behind my church. She forbade me from receiving the body of Christ until I rebuked my wickedness and cast out the demons from my heart—but still, every week, I found myself tasting salty tears while solemn believers standing around me received Christ’s forgiveness in the sapidity of grape juice.

On the other side of the world, Russian Orthodoxy also asserted that the body and blood were for those with penitent spirits. Every Sunday, Natasha opened her mouth wide and Father Sergei placed the sacramental bread upon her tongue, but she tasted only ash. Each week she held this cinder under her tongue as her mamuchka crossed herself and bowed to the crucifix. Prepubescent Natasha sat in the shadow of her mother, a single woman raising a child in a society newly eclipsed by the fall of the Soviet Union. Picking at her skin, Natasha waited for the divine liturgy to come to an end. Bloody fingernails and patches of missing hair on her arms betrayed her anxiety. Have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind. She crossed herself and bowed to the icon. 


I am 13 and my own outstretched palms are bathed in sunlight streaming through opaque stained glass windows. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord while knowing in your heart that He died for your sins, then you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I pray the sinner’s prayer, begging Christ to remember me in His kingdom. I am 13 and, like the thief on the cross, I am being justly crucified for my sins. I wonder if I, too, can be with the Lord in Paradise even though my heart is contaminated with feelings for other women. At school, a student spreads a rumor about my homosexuality and people throw things at me and stop talking to me. At home, my father tells me that gays are unnatural and my brothers call homosexuality disgusting. Still, my thoughts are focused solely on Christ and His sacrifice. I ask myself if living an open life of sin is worth it. For what is a man profited, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

Natasha is 14 and clothed in a white dress and white shoes. She stands at the font with her godmother. Do you renounce the Devil? She tilts her face up to the cross as the priest gathers water and begins to pour it over Natasha’s hands and head. The water reminds Natasha of her patron saint, Veronika, the woman who wiped the face of Christ as He carried the cross to Golgotha. As the service ends, Natasha thinks of the cross that she bears. A boy in her classroom calls her a faggot offhandedly and a gay man is murdered just outside Moscow and still Natasha wrestles with Christ’s redemption.   

Natasha and I are in our 20s when we first meet in April, when snow is no longer falling but sidewalks are coated in black ice and skies are still heavy with gray. The Moscow sun is falling just behind my friend Gosha’s apartment complex as I climb the stairs with my bookbag. Inside is a bottle of vodka and stray beers. When I enter the living room, I see Natasha and Gosha spreading kartoshki, pelmeni, and solyanka on a table while listening to Soviet-era music from the rebellious progressive rock band Akvarium. Natasha eats a pelmeni and tells Gosha that Pasha is coming with his grandmother’s pickled tomatoes, which the Amerikanka must try with the vodka. I laugh and take off my shoes as Natasha shows me a photo on her phone from the night she met Pasha. The phone’s brightness is dim but I see Pasha, eyes closed, with his foot on a stool and a guitar on his knee. Gosha is shirtless, sitting on the ground with his head next to Pasha’s foot on the chair. It isn’t until Natasha turns up the brightness that I see her in the background, face turned away from the camera and spine bent over babushka’s jar of pickled tomatoes.

I do not tell her I am gay. Instead, I let her teach me about ecology in the Kola Peninsula, transportation engineering in St. Petersburg, and Orthodoxy in a post-Soviet society—but it isn’t until a friend’s wedding that Natasha tells me about Christ and queerness. Cheeks flushed warm and red, she takes a shot and tells me that she is afraid of God. I watch as she follows with a large bite of pickled red tomato, hands nimble around the skin and juice dribbling down her chin. I am reminded of original sin, of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and I wonder if God damned woman because of the pain He first felt when His own new creation ate of the forbidden fruit.

Later, Natasha pours herself another shot and I reflect on Christ’s cry in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion: “Oh my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus, knowing that He is to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of man, asks if God’s will can allow Him to escape the cross—but no. The disciples fall asleep in the garden and Natasha takes off her shoes and I confess barefoot before my pastor in Louisiana as I too ask if this cup can pass from me. I am 16 and going to prom with a boy who will bring me to the lake after the dance. We are sitting on the pier together and he puts his hands around my waist. I spend the next two years closing my eyes and gritting my teeth as his hands travel over my skin. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Natasha hides her shoes under the table and takes a seat next to me. We have eaten all the pickled tomatoes and the jar casts a small shadow over an empty plate. She turns and tells me that, years ago, she prayed for this cup to pass from her. She explains that, if God wills it, then temptation will pass and she can take communion, face the crucifix in peace. But the cup did not pass from Christ, and Judas kissed him and the soldiers came to Gethsemane and still Natasha works to reconcile her faith with her sexuality.

Natasha stopped taking communion at 17, when she told herself that walking in sin and continuing to take communion would lead only to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sitting against the wall behind the bridal table, Natasha talks about those missed communions as if her voice is echoing in the empty chalice, trapped in the darkness created by the pre-communion pall. She pretends to have found peace with her decision, but her hands reveal her unrest. She first tugs at the bottom of her green dress but then begins picking at her skin and roving as though searching for a wooden church pew to hold. I look down at my own knuckles and remember white Sundays clutching at the wood, wondering if God saw my sins through the hymnal prayers. 

Natasha has no doubt that Christ sees her sins, which is why she abstains from communion, choosing to hide near choir stalls rather than brace the credence table. She spends her whole life navigating this balance between obscurity and light—navigation I’m learning, too. Russia is no different from Louisiana when all roads lead to Calvary. And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. Natasha—at Gosha’s apartment, and at the wedding, and each time I see her—mirrors Mary of Bethany. Mary of Bethany was the sister of Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. Later, she approached Jesus at the home of Simon, anointed His head with expensive perfume, and washed His feet with her hair. I imagine Natasha in that room, breaking the sealed jar of perfume on Christ’s head and watching the fragrance run down His body. Like Mary, she is desperate to empty herself and forfeit all in hopes of attaining Christ’s love.

I am back in Louisiana. It is March, almost a year since the wedding in Moscow, and I am sitting at the coffee shop where, two years ago, I ended my forced straight relationship. The boy was kind and I was restless and broken and felt as though I had failed Christ. I sat down and reflected on my pain, on two years of emotion and experience and body given to someone whom I knew I didn’t love. We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 

I order a coffee and ask myself why peace is so evasive, why I continue to struggle with peace and God as I live openly. I think of Natasha and fear that the peace of God, which should be righteous, will always evade us both. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I take a sip of coffee and taste the chicory, smiling as I remember to celebrate all the milestones. After all, even through all the trauma in our adult lives, Natasha and I no longer taste ash and vinegar when we take the bread and wine from the father. θ