The silence is unbearable in my disturbingly unhuman TownePlace Marriot room off of Interstate 35 in Iowa, across from the local Ames joint, El Azteca. I gaze at the dust bunnies in the carpeted corner and the cracked linoleum floor of the kitchen and wonder, how did I end up here? Alone in a hotel as a tech consultant, a tech consultant. For reference, I was a political science major with hopes of taking the world by storm in all things written. I was going to make a bang, a splash, I would’ve even settled for a baby violin level of noise in the symphonic cacophony of the world.
Somehow, I ended up here again. An in-between so long that it becomes my new life. School is gone with all its societal markings of progression, my resumé out of sight with all its proof of development, the crowds dwindle at each passing birthday, the relationship of a lifetime ends. No decisions being made now, absolutely none. In between the making of one decision and the next.
- 8th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- Schaal Prize: “The Understory," Austin Hagwood '15
- 2nd Place: “Death in Front," Stephanie DePrez '11
- 2nd Place: “Radical Lovers," Mikaela Prego '15, '17M.Ed.
- 2nd Place: “Courage to Enter the Dance," Ginny Varraveto '11
- Honorable Mention: “The Maroon Baseball Cap,” Tara Pilato ’17
- Honorable Mention: “On the Mount of Martyrs,” Natalia Yepez Frias ’19
- Honorable Mention: “Rallying,” Andrew Robinson ’17
- Honorable Mention: “Material Girl,” Kathleen Clark ’15
270 steps to the top. Here I am in the pitch black at 9:55 p.m. on a Saturday night in Paris at the foot of Montmartre, the mount of martyrs. I take a breath and look behind me, I am alone after all, at night, in what is known to be a more dangerous part of the city. But I saw that there was a 10 p.m. Mass on the far side of the city and formed a plan while half the city slept and the other half forgot themselves. I took the tram from Cité Universitaire, my United States building sitting in the southernmost cluster of villages all named after different countries, students solving political disputes in every apartment. I switched at Porte d’Orléans to 4 towards Château Rouge, then walked. Walked 11 minutes through the darkened city streets, stayed on the main road as long as possible, left it to weave between the recovering market stalls. Up I go.
250 stairs to go. Here — in the silence exclusive to danger — I search for an end to the silence in my heart. Look up. There it is. Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, sitting on the highest land point of Paris. Keeping watch over Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Pantheon, the Opera House, Montparnasse Tower, and all the people hugged in between. I start up the steps quickly. The three domes promising heaven.
230 to go. Montmartre was named after the first Christians martyred there in the third century. A beheaded bishop Denis among them, this mount became a pilgrimage site. Despite the several iterations of chapels and churches, always it has remained Montmartre. I have always found it odd, the human need to mark where human suffering has happened, to immortalize disasters, to erect a beautiful building there. Right there. An eternal echo throughout human history.
200 to go. Sacré-Cœur, a beautiful building erected on the heels of French defeat in the 1870 FrancoPrussian War. It was a sign of humility, of penitence. Funded by the public, Sacré-Cœur was thought to be a reminder of hope after war and death. The previous chapel had fallen into ruin and yet the people persevered in all that darkness of war and loss, of a hope unfulfilled. God are you listening? I know I am. The silence is uncomfortable, but there are lampposts to light my way.
150 to go. I am slowing down. Many saintly figures have gone on pilgrimage to Sacré-Cœur, but, the journey of a young woman, Thérèse Martin comes to mind. She came on her way to Rome to seek permission from Pope Leo XIII to enter the Carmelites at the age of 15 after her local bishop and mother superior would not listen to her. She was certain and would later be known as the Little Flower. She loved God through the simple things in life. Her saintliness was a quiet one, living day in and day out. She herself experienced the absence I feel walking up these steps and that I will feel again at a truck stop in Iowa. She brought me, the person I am now and will be, here — to try when there is no reason to, to persevere when life should be easy, when I have a degree and all this promise, when there is so much sound, but I cannot hear anything at all.
110 more steps. I look up at how the brilliant white and uniform exterior shines. It is made of travertine stone, known as Château-Landon, which comes from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarry in Seine and Marne. The material is extremely hard with a fine grain and exudes calcite on contact with rainwater, making it white. A renewal before our eyes. Sacramental, Baptismal, Eucharistic.
50 more steps. I have spent so much time in my life developing the relationships around me and yet I leave them all. I go to Jerusalem for a month, I go to the South of France for two, I go to Galway for three, I go to Paris for four. I’ve lived all my life in America, even there, at home in the Carolina mountains, I escape. This restlessness, for a time, goes away when I arrive in strange and challenging situations, hidden from stagnation in the constant demarcation of events in my life, like a collection of trophies.
25 more steps. I am exhausted from the nothingness. The breeze of darkness snuffs out the light from the lampposts. And yet, I hear the noise of other rustling feet journeying towards the divine, right next to me. Before me. After me.
“And they did not understand the word that he spoke to them.”
“And his mother kept all these things carefully in her heart.”
Carefully, I wipe away the tears of a silent suffering, unworthy of a mount of martyrs. A loneliness unworthy of its predecessors.
It is quiet in the folds of my mind and corners of my heart. How comforting.
I’m a Mexican woman in Paris, surrounded by a wonderous babble I long to master but can barely decipher. The kind of loneliness that comes from the inability to speak, in a city functioning off of a different set of rules.
I befriend other foreigners wherever I go, people who do not belong. The giant dark-haired man working at the Turkish food stand eight minutes from the institute recognizes me and notes my accent is not American or French. He decides to teach me how to say “shawarma viande,” bold, brave, loud, deep from his core, embracing the rolling ‘r’.
2 steps left.
Eighteen years of silence. There were 18 years of silence between Jesus in the temple and Jesus’ return to his people. He was in the public eye for only two or three years after that. For 18 years he grew up, quietly in his family. The wisdom blossoming. For eighteen years I sat at a desk, for four more I walked across the quads, waiting to blossom. How difficult it is to wait when I do not know what is coming.
1. I breathe in.
Mary and Thérèse and me.
We are at the top. I breathe out.
Look at the city at night, it is bright and all the confusion and effort to be here or be there fades away. I hold my breath. I know, I know as it’s happening that this is a moment I will think back on and that I will try to recreate all my life. I will come back again many times with different people, but right here I feel that certainty, that certainty in waiting. The whisper in the dark, the silence passing through my heart for a moment does not fall on deaf ears. A deep, still and silent love. This silence will happen again, perhaps it will feel different, like the lull between the construction of one edifice and the next, between one disaster and the next. Let the crescendo do its work.
The city to my back, I step through the arches and open the big wooden door, flooded with light and the single piercing vibrato of the choir nun.
I’m looking out my window at this middle of nowhere place and I know why I am there. The blazing sun sets on the Iowan corn, all the pinks and purples fly through the sky. I rest in the in-between, this disquiet and darkness washes over me. Shadows dance in the crack on the floor taunting me with their secrets. Who stood here before me? What peaceful quiet, to be another nameless face, united across time and space. Maybe it was just the sun, reaching a hand through my window and flooding the crack, or maybe it was God.
Natalia Yépez Frias’ essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2020 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She is an aspiring writer living in North Carolina.