A Calling & More
In a Memoir, Carol Marsh Traces the Emotional Framework & Evolution of Miriam’s House, A Residence for Homeless Women Living with HIV/AIDS
by T.J. Banks
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Mike Olliver
For Carol Marsh, starting Miriam’s House was something that she felt called upon to do. “It felt like coming home,” she recalls, “and I think that is the hallmark of a calling.”
Marsh founded the Washington, D.C., residence for homeless women with HIV/AIDS in 1996. But in many ways, she had been moving toward this kind of work since her teen years, when she’d read Catherine Marshall’s Christy. The 1967 bestselling novel about a young school teacher doing her damnedest to bring education to children in Appalachia had fired Marsh’s imagination: She’d seen herself as being “a benevolent helper of others” and making sense of all “the cruelty and inequity” in the world. There’d been comfort in “dreaming of a life of service in which I would make things perfect for some small village or group of children. For that they would, of course, love and appreciate me.”
But the path to our true callings is seldom a straight one. We take wrong turns, get waylaid, or lose sight of where we’re headed. “I lost that vision for a while,” Marsh admits. “I moved to Washington, D. C., at thirty-five, and that’s when I reconnected with a passion that had been mine as a teenager.”
She threw herself into the work of bringing her vision of Miriam’s House to life. “We didn’t want to create a cookie-cutter program that forced women to comply or leave,” Marsh writes in her memoir Nowhere Else I Want to Be (Inkshares 2016), “so we opted for an open-to-the-possibilities, organic kind of growth that, while it achieved its goal of allowing residents to help shape this new program, also left us in chaos much of the time.” She started out “with a few rules about sobriety and violence and being able to live cooperatively in community” but soon realized that she needed to go beyond that.
For the disease was, she saw, only part of the story that each woman brought with her. The other part of the story—call it the back story or the subtext—was even more disturbing. (At Goucher College, she was, Marsh explains, encouraged to dig deeper and go “underneath the stories.”) Juanita, for instance, had begun shooting up at fourteen in an attempt to escape from a reality that included savage beatings by her own mother. Alyssa had been pimped out by a drug-addicted mother when she was twelve; despite that, she still loved and kept reaching out to the parent who never came to see her during her time at Miriam’s House.
Being with Juanita, Alyssa, and the others “transformed me,” Marsh reflects now. “Their generosity of spirit was a major part of that transformation.” The living situation at Miriam’s House was, by its very nature, often volatile. “I was never able to embrace the volatility, but I learned to accept it.” She cites a quote by journalist and social activist Dorothy Day—“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily”—and comes up with her own variation on that particular theme. “I say to myself, ‘Don’t gloss over the difficulties and the challenges and suffering—the sorrow of Miriam’s House.’ Since I can’t do the work anymore, it would be easy to sentimentalize. Especially when I think of the women living together, watching each other get sicker and die [or] sometimes get better. So the women who were declining were watching other women improve, and the women who were improving were watching the other women decline and were being there for each other. So there’s that dichotomy. That can’t be sentimentalized, and it shouldn’t be.”
She learned a lot about herself in the process. “I had to crash through barriers of low self-esteem and anxiety,” she says. There were other barriers, too: the sense “of not being a good leader and having judgmental, prideful feelings about the way the women and my staff spoke, cooked, and held conversations….I had an image of myself as a kind, compassionate, understanding person and thought I knew how I’d be in relationship to the women—as a member of the community and as a leader.” Gradually, she found it easier to step outside of herself and be present for the women, accompanying them to the emergency room or sitting by their bedsides when they were dying. To just be with them, no matter how difficult it was.
Marsh never lost that sense of her work there being a calling. But she also came to realize that that doesn’t necessarily mean being led “to some small and easy place. I think that’s a hallmark of a calling—it takes you into the broken places, your own included….You have a mountain-top experience when you get a calling—and everything feels good, possible though scary—but then there’s the descent. As you descend, you need to translate the mountain-top experience into ordinary daily life.”
Marsh captures all this in her book. But she also shows us how her teenage Christy-like ideal gave way to something more grounded—how “being in service” to others was “gradually transformed into being present” to them. It changed into a kind of companionship that, while never in denial about the very status differential between us, made for an easy camaraderie of reciprocity rather than always a giving/receiving exchange in which I had all the power.” There was “transformation in changing an adult’s diapers and learning to do it lovingly, without ego or hidden agenda.” It was in bringing an Easter basket to a resident in hospital, only to find that she’d just passed away; in trying to make a feeble elderly man understand that his daughter had just died of the virus; and in “patt[ing] the cold, swollen hand” of an intubated woman who was no longer aware of anything in this world.
“That was the thing about Miriam’s House,” Marsh reflects wistfully. “You had to keep giving it permission to break your heart….Over the years I had come to terms with the feeling that the needs were too much, the resources—mine and the world’s—too few, energy and will in too short supply.”
Despite all the emotional wear and tear, she thought that they would all somehow manage to keep on keeping on. During the years at Miriam’s House, however, Marsh’s chronic migraines had become more debilitating. Finally, in 2009, she decided to step down from the directorship. She felt that it was a good move from both “a personal perspective and an organizational perspective since the women were not getting what they deserved from me.”
Miriam’s House is still in operation, but it’s no longer the place that she described so vividly in Nowhere Else I Want to Be. “The staffing, program, and purpose are different because AIDS is, thankfully, no longer a seemingly automatic death sentence. There is effective treatment.”
In the prologue of her book, Marsh talks about “tak[ing] dictation from my heart.” That was, she says now, “part of the grieving process after I had to leave. I didn’t want to forget the women and how they’d changed me….But when you’re grieving, you’re kind of immersed in a whirl of feelings that make it easy to romanticize the past. That kind of sentiment, however, did a disservice to me and to all we went through together at Miriam’s House.”
For more information about photographer Mike Olliver, log on to: www.mikeolliver.com.
T.J. Banks is the author of Sketch People, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Houdini, and other books. Catsong was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award.