On God’s Green Earth
– Fierce Fiction by Helen Beer –
Catherine sat on the wrought iron bench, staring out across the vineyard. She hadn’t been able to sleep. Her mind kept drawing troubling conclusions, now that she was halfway through her week’s stay at the monastery. The food, the wine, the accommodations, the company, the setting, the unplugged solitude? All good, exemplary even, just as the guidebooks had said, just as the reviews had confirmed. But it hadn’t yet been the life-changing experience her brother had wanted it to be for her. And for this, Catherine blamed herself; she realized she was dangerously close to previously uncharted territory—that of the disappointing older sister.
Jonathan, two years younger, had been the class clown, the creative one, the one who spent more time in the principal’s office than any of his classmates. And while his IQ had been tested as higher than his sister’s, he didn’t apply himself or take his studies seriously—as his parents hoped, as his teachers expected, as his principal prayed. His brilliance, though, played out in other ways—he developed games and apps, and made his first million by twenty-two, without ever spending a day in college.
As the older sibling, Catherine had always been the diligent honor student, the practical, responsible one, the star swimmer—the one her parents hoped would have a positive influence on her brother. She’d taken the more traditional route—Stanford for undergrad studies in economics, buoyed by a swimming scholarship that left her unburdened by student loans, followed immediately by her MBA, also at Stanford. The day she graduated was the day her brother’s face was splashed across the cover of Forbes, as the latest Silicon Valley Wunderkind. It was all her new bank colleagues could talk about when she’d gone through onboarding.
And while Jonathan moved in a caffeine-fueled world of all-nighters balanced by frequent mini-vacations, with a sprawling home in Menlo Park shared with a steady, long-term boyfriend, Catherine was satisfied with her modernistic, Financial District studio apartment, her VP track at the bank, and a solitary lifestyle. At twenty-six, she’d been celibate since her Stanford swim team days, when she’d fallen for Andrew, the butterfly specialist. He’d made the Olympic team and dumped her the very next day, shattering her romantic illusions. The bank became her life, twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. It was a convenient excuse not to lead a fuller life, Jonathan always chided her.
In spite of an active lifestyle—taking full advantage of her apartment building’s indoor pool, and biking to and from work—Catherine’s annual physical revealed early signs of hypertension. When asked about her work/life balance, Catherine could only laugh, and ask, “what life?” It was a wakeup call, though, and made her reflect on her brother’s previously ignored, nearly constant advice to take time off to recharge; she called him immediately upon returning to work from the doctor’s office.
She met Jonathan for lunch at Café Bastille the following week—he’d wanted to meet earlier, but she had to work him into her meeting-heavy schedule, something Jonathan declared “ridiculously ironic.”
“So, you need a therapy break, eh?” he’d asked, as soon as their drink orders were placed. “How far do you want to go? And how long do you have?”
“Someplace I can drive to, preferably. And, technically, I’ve got two weeks… but in reality? I can only do one right now. There’s just too much…” she began but was interrupted by her brother.
“Catherine Denise Larabee, there’s always going to be ‘just too much.’ And, no matter where you go on God’s green earth, you’re not going to fully enjoy it, or relax, if you can’t divorce yourself from your damn job for brief stretches of time now and then. So, I was thinking…” he began.
“Uh-oh… that’s a dangerous thing,” she offered.
“Oh, shut up. No, really, since you called last week, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I know the perfect place, now that you’ve clarified your parameters. There’s this monastery up in Napa…” he began.
“Oh, that is perfect…” she interrupted. “I mean, great…the consummate celibate’s destination vacation, right? Pun intended.” She gave him her dirtiest look, then cracked up at herself.
“Well, it’s a gorgeous place, very peaceful, terrific food and… oh, there’s a winery onsite. Their Sauvy B. is wonderful. Look, trust me when I say it will be perfect for you… but only if you allow yourself—for one whole week—to open up and drop …” he began.
“The pretense? Were you going to say ‘pretense’?” she asked.
“Actually? No. I was going to say, ‘drop your guard.’ Big difference there.” The waitress brought their iced teas, and he added, “You can do it. You have to do it… for your health. Little brother has spoken. Oh, and… no pressure, but I need you around for a long damn time, okay?”
And so, she’d exercised her due diligence, researched the place, and planned out her vacation week around the bank’s regular, heavy audit schedules. The most difficult part, she concluded, would be the “unplugged” rule; she regularly scrolled through work e-mails nights, weekends, and even while on the toilet. And while her logical mind conceded that that behavior may have been a contributing factor in her higher-than-normal blood pressure, she still confirmed with the booking service that it was a hard-and-fast rule. It was; while onsite, electronic devices were forbidden.
By day two, Catherine had driven off the pastoral grounds to check in with her assistant, and was greeted with a cheery, “all good,” that she didn’t entirely believe. Ever the one to commit to something fully, however, she participated in twice daily meditation; it made her restless. So, she’d thrown herself into re-reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book she’d first read in freshman psych class; she finished it in one sitting. Never particularly spiritual, or introspective, Catherine found herself newly, surprisingly fascinated by the concepts of Logotherapy; she hoped, in her remaining days at the monastery, to discover her “will to meaning,” her spirit, her essence.
She wandered the vineyards, she chatted with the monks and other guests, she petted the local cat population, and she began reflecting on Frankl’s words during meditation—and, she had to admit, she found it brought her some measure of peace. But the nights were still difficult; alone with her thoughts, they ran in a continual loop: I am inadequate, I am not a fully formed individual, I don’t know what my essence is, I don’t know how to love, I don’t know how to change.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, its rays forming arcs over the winery’s weathered tin roof, Brother Michael sat down beside Catherine.
“You’re not sleeping,” he began.
“Yes, you’re right,” she responded.
“Outside world intruding?” he asked.
“Well, more like my inner world, honestly. You know, I’ve always been the ‘good daughter,’ the one who worked hard at everything, the one who took the expected path…”
“The path of your choosing?” he asked.
“I… I’ve never really thought about that.” And it was true.
“Well, ask yourself whether it’s what you would have chosen for yourself, had there been no outside influences or expectations. Let’s go back to when you were a little girl… what made you happiest?” he asked.
“My parents’ unconditional love,” she answered, without thinking, without hesitation.
“And when did that change?” he asked.
“When my brother came along,” she answered.
“Ah, I remember your brother,” he said, chuckling. “Yes, a very memorable fellow, that Jonathan… he exudes positive energy; it’s contagious.”
“Yes, you’re right… and I’m fade-into-the-woodwork Catherine, in comparison,” she responded.
“I’m sorry for the digression. Let’s put Jonathan on the back burner for now—a place he’s never spent much time, I’m sure. Anyway, that’s where we’ll park him for now, and let’s get back to you. That work?” he asked.
“Yes, it does,” she said and smiled at the thought of Jonathon parked, unceremoniously, in the back.
“So, when he came along, did you feel, somehow, that you were responsible for him, responsible for his happiness, and that your parents expected this from you?”
“Yes… although they never came right out and said so. But… yes.” Again, truth.
“And is your brother happy now? Is he successful?” he asked.
“Um, when did he move back to the front burner? But, yes, on both counts.” Jonathan was the happiest, most fulfilled person she knew, and successful beyond all measure—although, she had to admit, a stranger could never tell, upon meeting him, that he was a multi-millionaire. He certainly didn’t act the part, eschewing all outward signs of wealth—save for his home hidden, as it was, behind a nondescript wall.
“So, start from the premise that your parents’ unconditional love is still there, that it never left. You already have access to that love, to the joy and acceptance that love brings with it—but you have to open yourself up to it,” he said.
“Holy shit… oh, sorry!” She smiled. There’s that ‘opening up’ thing again. Huh… wonder if this is where Jonathan picked that up?
“Don’t apologize. ‘Shit’s’ a very good word, and appropriate in context,” he said, chuckling. “And it’s a far better word than your brother’s favorite word, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Yes, indeed,” she answered. True to his creative nature, Jonathan loved to use his “favorite word” as a verb, a noun, an adjective. “And just to clarify, you mean dropping my guard, and trying something outside the box I’ve locked myself into all these years, right?” she asked. Locked up, thrown away the key…
“Yes, exactly. Now, speaking of that ‘box’—your box—are you happy in your work?” he asked.
“I’m good at it,” she responded. I really am.
“That wasn’t the question, was it? Does it make you happy?” he tried again.
“But accomplishment does make me happy,” she insisted.
“So, what have you accomplished at work that’s made you happy?” he asked.
“Well, I’m the best at… shit. Nothing I’ve done at work really makes me happy, if I’m honest with myself. Well… shit,” she laughed, “that’s in context, Brother.”
“It is. And there you go. So, beyond your parents’ unconditional love, which you have—and oh, by the way, your brother’s unconditional love, which you absolutely have—what will bring you joy?” he asked.
“Falling in love. You know? Like Jonathan and Ben. But… I don’t really have time for that. Not now, not with my current job,” she said. My life is one long meeting…
“What’s stopping you from changing jobs to another role that would give you more time to live, to find love?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said, surprised by the immediacy and assertiveness of her response; she still doubted her ability to climb out of her comfortable box, though. Huh, where’d that come from?
“You’ll be here for four more days, correct?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right… I leave Sunday,” she responded. Four more days won’t be enough…
“So, in those four days, think about what it is you could do, if you wanted to make a change,” he noted.
Their conversation was interrupted by bells tolling seven times.
“Breakfast,” Brother Michael said, as he stood and offered his hand to Catherine.
“I’m ready,” Catherine declared, as she took Brother Michael’s hand. “But this change shit’s hard.” And probably impossible, she concluded.
“It is, but… tough shit,” he responded, as they strolled towards the dining hall. “You know, I’ve always wanted to say that. It’s in context, though, right, Catherine?”
“Ha! Right, Brother Michael,” she responded, “now you’re thinking outside your comfortable box.” Oh, fuck it, maybe I’ll give it the old college try… what have I got to lose? A few blood pressure points? “Thanks for the gentle kick in the ass,” she added.
Catherine smiled and chattered animatedly with her fellow guests during breakfast, on the usual topics—the breads, the jams, different varieties every day, all lovingly made by the brothers, and all scrumptious, sinful even; the wines served with dinner, oh-my-God, the wines; and the chronicles of Tabitha, the tabby, who visited every guest’s room at least once. Catherine strode off to meditation with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency, and a glimmer of community she’d not felt since her college days.
As she listened to her own breathing, slowing its pace, and feeling in control of her body, she found herself reflecting on Brother Michael and Jonathan—and their collective messaging and wisdom.
Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan played out in her head like an earworm—but not quite a mantra—and she felt a wave of calm come over her.
“Shit!” she exclaimed, to giggles in the room. “Sorry!”
She gathered herself, quietly exited, and headed for the parking lot and her car. She pulled her cellphone from the glove compartment, and waited as it powered on, glancing in all directions to make sure no one was witnessing her transgression. As her home screen popped up, she hit the first speed dial number.
“This has got to be quick… I’m sneaking a call… oh, and my battery’s nearly dead,” she lied, “but I had to…” she began.
“You’re coming to work with me as my business manager,” Jonathan announced. “Can you start in two weeks? I need you yesterday.”
“Yes!” Catherine shouted, again glancing around, spotting only Tabitha, just feet away from her car, staring in that accusatory manner cats seem to assume half the time.
“Monday’s a holiday. When you head out of Napa Sunday, come on down to my place, and bring a case of that Sauvy B. with you… we’ve got some talking to do. You know, like salary, benefits, your very own private cottage in my backyard, resident cats, a pool…”
“And a pool boy?” she asked, laughing at herself. What the hell did meditation unlock?
“Guess you found monastery life, uh… inspiring?”
“Guess I did…”
“By the way, Brother Michael’s coming to work for me, too, as the manager of my new vineyard. He could use a ride Sunday…so you’ll bringing him and the wine.”
“Jonathan Grayson Larabee! You devil! You’re stealing a monk? So, does the brother have a brother? Uh… battery’s dying,” she lied again, disconnecting.
“Unlike you,” he said to the dial tone. “Unlike you.”
About the Author – Helen Beer
Helen Beer sells for a living and writes to maintain some semblance of sanity. She is the author of numerous short stories, poems, essays, and feature screenplays, some of which have actually seen the light of day through publication and contest honors—while some remain hidden under a rock somewhere. She shares her life with a husband, three cats, a horse, and an adventurous human son. She admits to deriving an inordinate amount of therapeutic benefit from mucking horse poop.
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