The Price of Finding Depth

Today is my seventh session of counseling. It has been three months since my cousin shot himself on Christmas Day. He would have been my age—twenty—in sixteen days.

I’ve grown comfortable in this room, in this red plush chair—enough so that I don’t always have to cross my legs or clutch my own hands in my lap. When I don’t stare at the counselor in the same rocking chair across from me, which is most of the time, I stare at the full bookshelf to his left, the books with spines listing every disorder and mental ailment imaginable, the window next to me that looks out of the reverent, red-brick Nazareth Hall, my view framing a corner of Lake Johanna, the cold and gnarled oaks twisting across gray water.

We always meet on Friday’s, during what the college calls “praise chapels.” It’s a weekly event most students flock to, leaving the century-old campus quiet and deserted.

The first praise chapel I went to after Christmas, I stood and listened while a peppy worship leader belted out a Hillsong ballad about “victory over death,” the whole auditorium on their feet and clapping. I fell into my seat after about five minutes and wept, my hair like a curtain, my face in salt-soaked hands the rest of the hour. I haven’t been to a praise chapel since.

My counselor and I don’t always talk about him—sometimes we talk about poetry and art, or we discuss blogs and books we’ve read. But he always comes up. I try not to be surprised by the fact that I always have more to say.

I tell my counselor the question that I asked my roommate last night while she was sprawled on the thinly-carpeted dorm-room floor doing theology homework, clacking on laptop keys, the white Macintosh apple glowing in my direction.

Are you satisfied with your life?

She did not hesitate when she said yes. When she asked me the same, I responded that I don’t know whether I’ve ever been truly satisfied by anything. That I am always seeking, always trying, always groping for something more. And it’s exhausting.

My counselor looks at me quiet with focused eyes, waits while I feel my face wrinkling up in frustration, my palms sweating in this blanketing room that smells of the red hard candies on the desk. All my life, I tell him, I’ve always seen the worst fate possible as feeling and experiencing life shallowly. But what I’ve forgotten until now is that the deepest depths of the ocean are the darkest and loneliest places on earth.

It is saying these words aloud that makes me crush a plush Kleenex against my eyes, stop while I try to control my voice and breath. My counselor tells me I feel isolated from people because I feel and experience things in ways that most twenty-something college students do not. He says I am “burdened by insight.” His statement flattering and lonely all at the same time.

When I walk outside, it is April and it is empty and it is snowing—light, gentle flakes, not so much falling but rather chasing themselves around my head and the mass of steely sky. I walk through a world in slow motion. The air is fresh and spills down my throat like ice water, settling somewhere deep inside of me, cleansing me. I can smell the water stirring in the lake behind me, the weather-worn dirt that is finally exposed. I tip back my head, stop on the walk overlooking the campus courtyard, stand utterly still.

Later today I will have classes, and I will read books, and I will think thoughts about all kinds of things different people want in my brain. But in this moment, my thoughts are mine and God’s. I am my own. I am being laced in white, and I am healing in the only way I know how.


For the Old Soul in Me

We settled on Riverview theater for date night because my best friend loves the place, the website referenced the 1950s, and because tickets are a whopping $3 each. But it was actually being there that made me never want to go anywhere else ever again.

To get there, Riley and I drove through a part of Minneapolis neither or us were familiar with, or vaguely recognized from Guthrie shows and afternoons at the walker, the MIA. We kept along the train tracks, the street dark as we wandered further away from the bright lights of the skylines, the tops of buildings lit up like match sticks. But when we turn on 42nd street, the whole corner of the theater is made up of blinking lightbulbs and is impossible to miss.

We pinch into a spot in front of the Riverview café, windows full of lanterns and candles and couples holding hands and sipping wine, and as we make our way toward the line that has formed around the block, and I start to feel like I’m in a small town that’s managed to keep the urban out—like I’m a part of this neighborhood everyone has just sort of emerged from, like I could have just walked here from down the block.

We stand with other adults for the late-night 9:30 showing, me with my beret and red lipstick and vintage heels over wool tights, my roommates black dress and cardigan, Riley holding my waist in a blue button up, the rows of yellow light flashing around the movie titles reflecting off the lenses of his glasses. We stomp the sidewalk in the cold, feeling the buzz of being out on Friday night, waiting for the doors to open, listening to strangers’ conversations in front of and behind us.

A policeman is standing on the corner chatting casually to a woman near the front. They exchange their childhood neighborhoods, and the policeman tells her the street he grew up on, that he brought his first date to this theater nearly thirty years ago. I hope this is what the 50s felt like. I hope that it felt like excitement for simple things and the willingness to wait for something good and sharing memories with strangers and feeling like you share something with them anyway. I wish I felt like that more often.

When the doors do open, we rush in to the heated building like everyone else, pay for real tickets on red paper, hand them to the usher who rips them in half, lets us keep what he doesn’t throw in his ballot box. While Riley buys real-butter popcorn, I find seats in the fast-filling auditorium.

There is one stage, a massive room of plush green seats, glowing wood walls, blocks of felt lining them in neat rows. I scoot past a middle-age couple on their own date who seem way less uncomfortable getting up to let me past than I feel asking them to. Most theaters I’m used to always feel cold and dark and utilitarian, like a drive-through that gives you your service and sends you on.

But this room is warm, and bright like a fireplace. Melted butter and salty oil waft off greasy fingertips, and people are greeting each other by first names and shaking hands and are here for something more than the screen, which is showing slides of trivia, and the couple next to me is finishing the famous movie lines it gives them. There is no place like ____ “Home.”

The previews show indie films and trailers, and Riley and I place the cardboard bowl between our seats, and when it’s time for our film, the curtains shuffle closed, the lights dim, and drapes of red are pulled back to start the story. And through the entire thing people are connected. We all laugh at the hero’s on liner. We gasp and shake our heads at injustice. We smirk and cheer at the retorts. We can hear the hush of the broken hearted. We are engaged with the characters—we are engaged with each other.

When the credits fall, the crowd applauds. And when we scuttle towards the door, the magic of it drifting out with us. The lobby clears fast, and from the water fountains, we watch them wander back to wherever they came from. The theater workers counting up and closing down. The lights out front are dimmed and the signs are dark. The corner’s quiet. We are the curtain fall of tonight.


Riding Through Woods on a Snowy Evening

There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.                        -Kathleen Norris

 My grandpa bought the 160 acres behind my parents’ farmhouse so that when he came in the November he could hunt turkeys and shoot trophy bucks. But most of the year the land sits quiet under snow drifts. Subdued and still.

Much of it consists of thin woods, slender sprouts and silver-barked birch trees. Narrow deer trails wind like tunnels into the brush off the main trails that were cut and carved out years before I walked them, dark round droppings spilled like berries into the dips and tracks left by delicate hooves.

Gray, gritty brush surrounding the miles of open meadow that spreads itself below the crest of the tree line, opening itself so wide you have to turn your head both ways to take in it all. Rolling in a waving sea of gray-brown prairie grass poking like stubble through the white, the shallow frozen creek cutting through the bottom of the open field, a grove of pines blocking the northwest wind that burrows under coats and into your skin, sharpens the inside of your nose.

It’s a threatening beauty that impresses through intimidation. The starkness of it is enough to knock you back, its sheer endlessness enough to shrink you into humble awe.

I’ve always considered the land best witnessed on horseback, the smell of leather and animal sweat and alfalfa under your seat. I’ve been riding the same horse since I was nine, and when I was home in January, after months of being away at school, I heaved the worn saddle onto his warm black body, thick with staticy fuzz he’d been growing all winter. He is stomping the frozen, hollow-sounding ground and bobbing his high head, eager to be out, to have a purpose again.

When we are on the end of the trail and the meadow is framed between the two oaks that mark its beginning, my right hand is holding the reins under the curl of my fingers, the other is on the horse’s taught neck, his ears spring-coiled forward, twitching at every rustle of wood, every bird and gust of wind. Paused, but charged with the air that tastes deeper and fuller in the bottom of my chest. He can taste it too, and when I lean into him, my hand giving him the full length of his head, he bolts forward in voiceless, touchless obedience, pure willingness; the power in his legs pounding with a terrifying force, striding longer and faster until tears whip the outside corners of my eyes.

I don’t bother faking control, the thought of such only makes me want to cling on for dear life, knowing an animal this wild can’t be held back any more than the wind or the movement in the trees. So I move my body with his, raw energy pulsing into me until control’s no longer the point. We are the ground and we are the air and we are the gruesome aliveness that just simply is. And while the familiar, hear-racing fear spills into me and grips like the abruptness of stepping into January air, it is this that reminds me of how shockingly good and costly it is to feel.