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ReciproCity, Non-fiction by Angela Townsend

Get me out of the City.

I have been here so long, I scramble myself. I have watercolored the smog and believed it beautiful. I have dripped in furs of indignation that are useless against the cold.

I have convinced myself I’ve caught the last train to the garden, free at last. I wake from gardenia-scented dreams to emails asking for empathy without asking me how I am.

I realize I’m still in my rent-controlled apartment in ReciproCity.

From childhood, I was the "Girl Who Cares," a cherubic chaplain who went to divinity school. Toddlers and teachers gravitated my way. I fancied myself an ark, hustling in the drenched and despairing. I wanted to be the healing pen, wielding vocabulary to fill mouths. I prided myself on being humble enough to nurture without needing, to remember details without tucking forget-me-knots onto ties that bind.

I have erupted in resentments that scare me. I am no Master of Divinity.

I tell myself that compassion is my calling, and God will gather my fallen stories. He has given me a mother and friends who care about my holey socks and unholy fears, my opinions of Gain detergent and the loss of youth. Who could ask for more?

Yet there it is, my greed all greasy on an ordinary Thursday. It’s there in the email from the colleague complaining about her weak Wi-Fi “because no one cares like you do.” It’s between the paragraphs about awful uncles and subpar sandwiches and work kerfuffles, the double spaces where someone might ask about my diabetes or my dreams.

It’s the grasping little gnome who dresses as a giver, only to jab me with her pointy hat.

I do not want to give with expectation of return. I want to be 1 Corinthians 13 on legs, patient and stripped of self-seeking. I fancy myself sleek like a seal, bouncing my loves’ balls on my need-free nose.

Then a friend asks, “how’s your sister-in-law?” My only mention of my sister-in-law was four weeks ago, when she died.

I ride the elevator up and down my high-rise martyrdom. I flex my bitterness and make it strong. I strut lividly down the streets of ReciproCity.

It is just this point when grace grabs my sharp hat and crowns me with gardenias.

The postmaster looks me alive in the eyes. “You send a lot of colorful cards. What’s your story? Who are all these Valentines of yours?”

My boss sends me an article on pancreas transplants. “Sounds like hopeful news. Maybe we’re getting close to a cure.”

My mother reads eight of my essays and responds line-for-line. I interrupt her when she talks about her lean and lovely poem.

My God sits beside me as I gurgle out grievances, gesturing wildly. I utter not a word of thanks. I hijack the hot dog cart and joyride through streets of self-importance. God gives me a lemonade and doesn’t let me spill.

I bristle and gristle against my lonely greatness, only to land all little on a lawn I have not kept. There are marigolds and mercies, beds to rest in and birds who sing every name. The garden gnomes can’t stop giggling.

Without my seedy little needs, I will never catch the subway home. As the windows whoosh by, I think I catch my reflection, all sanctified and sweet. Isn’t that me, the nurturer without needs? Isn’t that love, to give without a self?

Isn’t that the first lie to scrape the sky, the last lie to sway: to be like God?

Isn’t it just like God to use bitterness in the service of sweet?

Aren’t my best memories the wildflowers, free from arithmetic? In the rare hours when I drop my abacus, I rise to the joy of being. We may talk past each other or shriek to be fed. We may be bitten by mosquitoes or miscommunication. But we are togethering, which is loving, which is enough.

Perhaps resentment is the gift that first makes us groan: the toddler screaming about ketchup, or the yellow light when you forgot why you were in a rush. Woe to me if I am stripped of this bother, for that will be the day I am deceived for good. As long as I keep an address in ReciproCity, I know my need for the garden.

As long as I yearn for limitless love, I know my limits.

In the City of God, love will learn its name. But here among the soot-faced, my best efforts are beeping horns. In the chaos of this city, we make a mess of mutuality. We give too much and give too little and take each other right to the bleeding edge of ReciproCity.

We will reach the garden, where we know as we are known. We will glimpse the gardenias that silence grievances.

We will give grace to every gnome, even the greedy grasping goofus under our ribs.

ReciproCity will be redeemed.


Angela Townsend is Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary, where she bears witness to mercy for all beings. She has an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and B.A. from Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Braided Way, Cagibi, Fathom Magazine, LEON Literary Review, and The Razor, among others. Angie loves life dearly.


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