Prologue: Writing/1

by Mark Chmiel

I knew it was coming, but I just kept putting it off.

When I was an undergraduate, I suffered from the debilitating condition of not being able to get very far on an assigned composition unless I really liked my opening sentence and first paragraph.  In the era before PCs and laptops were commonplace in homes and at universities, I irritably ripped up innumerable sheets of notebook paper until I could get the right beginning.

A few years later, when working as a lay minister in two Catholic parishes in Louisville, Kentucky, my girlfriend blessed me with a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing down the Bones.  Natalie’s advice for would-be and stalled writers was to do “writing practices” and keep the hand moving across the page for a certain length of time.  I took great interest in her serene advice, “Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’”  And hoping for the kind of liberation she promised, I proceeded to fill notebook after notebook with scurve and silliness.  That college paralysis had become a thing of the past.  I trained myself to be able to write about any topic and not care what anybody thought, especially my own smug, nefarious internal critic.

But that January there was a short writing task that I had been avoiding with diligence.  After all, there were seemingly more important things to do than sit down at my desk, now often stacked high with winter coats as the Saint Louis temperatures had taken a chilling dive.  There was the new role I had of an apartment maitre d’ and host, welcoming the family, friends, acquaintances, voyeurs, do-gooders, and merely curious who had been arriving and moving through these five rooms of our home.

There was reviewing the phone log that a neighbor often kept for us, freeing me from the return answer of each and every phone call, a draining chore that would have necessitated far more coffee than I was already consuming.

Then there was the major labor of translating:  Not from one tongue to another, but from raised eyebrows, moans, giggles, stares, and screams, to English for the many people who were congregating in the first floor flat in this Forest Park Southeast.

Realizing what was upon us, my mother-in-law had gently encouraged me:  “You’ve got to do it.  You’re the one to do it.”  She was right. And I took heart in her own difficult determination:  She had gone to Kriegshauser’s to make the necessary selection with a Visitation nun, a friend of the family.  How could my mother-in-law pull that off? But then, I realized she had an indomitable will, even as her heart was breaking all over again each day she walked into our apartment.

One of our recent out of town visitors was another nun, K.C., who had been such a wise companion when we had lived in Oakland.  Coming on a pilgrimage of sorts, she stayed with my in-laws at their comfortable home in the suburbs.  K.C. later told me how, one night, she came upon my mother-in-law weeping as she was knitting a frayed blouse. Mrs. Puleo looked up at K.C. and said,  “A mother shouldn’t have to knit her daughter’s shroud.

No.  She shouldn’t.

And a husband doesn’t anticipate writing his wife’s obituary three and a half years into their marriage, either. But that second week of January, as we kept vigil through the night, we were expecting Mev to die any minute. And, reckoning that I would have far more urgent matters to attend to within a few days, and with the New York Times obituary page as my guide, I finally sat down at my desk and took a stab:

Mev Puleo, a photojournalist whose work focused on the lives, struggles, and dignity of poor people around the world, died _____ at her home in Forest Park Southeast in Saint Louis.  She was 32.

Ms. Puleo, who received the 1995 U.S. Catholic Award for furthering the cause of women in the Catholic Church, began her work as a social documentary photographer in 1982 in Tijuana at the California-Mexico border where she taught during summer vacations while a student at Saint Louis University.  She also traveled to Haiti several times during the mid-1980s with the local Haiti Project; there she volunteered at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying. Photographs from these travels appeared in the book she co-authored with Jesuit Father John Kavanaugh, Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ in 1990.

She traveled to Brazil on photojournalism projects in 1987, 1989, and 1990.  After conducting interviews in Portuguese with lay Church members, theologians, and bishops, Puleo published a book on the Catholic Church in Brazil, The Struggle is One:  Voices and Visions of Liberation in 1994.  She recently adapted the book to a video of the same title.  In her more recent work, she participated in fact-finding delegations to Haiti during the period of the military coup government in 1992, and to Chiapas, Mexico after the Zapatista revolt in early 1994.

Ms. Puleo was one of three emcees at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver that hosted Pope John Paul II.  She also served as board member of the activist organizations, Brazil Network and Christians for Peace in El Salvador.

Ms. Puleo was born in Saint Louis and attended Our Lady of the Pillar Grade School and Visitation Academy. She recently received the first annual Visitation Academy Award of Excellence.  She graduated from Saint Louis University in 1985 with a B.A. in Spanish, Latin American studies, and Political Journalism. She received her Master’s Degree in Theological Studies from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1990.  She was enrolled in the doctoral program in Worship, Proclamation, and the Arts at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California when she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in April 1994.  In honor of her work and service, the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley presented her with the Pedro Arrupe Award.

She is survived by her husband, Mark Chmiel of Saint Louis; her parents, Peter and Evie Puleo of Saint Louis; two sisters, Laura Krueger of Saint Louis, and Rose Kocis of Houston, Texas; a brother, Peter A. Puleo II of Saint Louis; and 3 nieces and 2 nephews.

The local newspaper would need an obituary.  There’s a certain tone you adopt when writing such prose. With this, I cut through my huge resistance and prepared the previous few paragraphs, actually, it turned out, the day before Mev died.

What are we supposed to do, those of us whose beloved, a soul-mate, dynamo of delight, and poetic muse, has died, passed away, trekked on, toodle-looed?  We are here, but they are where? Absent, yes, definitely absent, then preternaturally present at the most eccentric times, times, yes, we’re off-center, because they – these treasures of pulse and synapse — centered our lives, in grace, with gratitude. What to do?

This work is an idiosyncratic response to ache and awe, a book of bliss and blows, a daydream after a nightmare came true, and an affectionate writing-down-my-bones of and beyond that obituary.

–opening chapter, The Book of Mev

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