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.

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Desert Floors

As we pull off a highway near Phoenix, hazy Superstition Mountains looming over us just west of the horizon, I point out the car window off the road and ask, “Grandma, what’s that tree called?” It’s waxy bark the color of pea soup, it’s trunk curves slender and smooth and graceful.

“Palo Verde,” she answers. “It’s the Arizona state tree. Green stick.”

For the few days I’m able to spend with my grandmother for the weekend, I’m still amazed that this landscape has any vegetation at all. Arizona is a desert. Underneath rough shrubs is red dust, cracked and dry. In metropolitan areas, what they haven’t paved over, they’ve covered with similar colored rocks and gravel. Yet even through that something lives.

Large-pored fruit sags from locals’ fiercely green orange trees, the star-shaped blossoms  saturating the air with their sweetness. Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea flowers grow thick in brilliant clumps, tender, but capable of recovering from both frost and drought.

Even the cacti with their crisscrossed spines awe me, towering with thick limbs lifted up into the sky. Many plants have the means to preserve water in such a climate, but the cactus knows how to be more hydrated than the soil it’s growing in. When rain comes, new roots shoot out to absorb all they can hold, but when the soil runs dry, the roots break off. It has to disconnect itself from the soil in order to not lose its nourishment to it.

There is a quiet beauty to the desert. It’s full of subtle color–warm and always changing in every light and time of day. It’s here I’ve come to get away, to spend precious time with my grandmother, but also to be alone. Maybe to recover. To understand the wilderness I’m wandering in.

I echo the cacti’s version of survival. Looking for but also fighting solitude, I’m aware of how I’ve closed myself off. I struggle with the guilt of the relationships I’ve distanced myself from, mostly due to my own thirst, everything I can’t presently afford to give. I’ve broken myself off from the soil I’ve known because it’s proved too costly. And I’m bleeding myself dry.

But there is rainfall even in the desert. There is cleansing that is so much more treasured when I’m in the drought. For the people, the words, the blessings, the God that pours into me, I stretch out every palm and reach for every drop. My desert floor is cracked from cancer and death and failed friendships and suicide and broken families and too little time. But even on that barren dirt, the rain still comes. Through the cracks, plants grow, flowers bloom, and they suck in every ounce of life. I’m stretching along with them.

And I am alive.

 

Sitting in It

Darkness itself isn’t daunting. Rather, people fear what they don’t know, what they can’t see. We’re afraid of what lies outside of our control. We’re afraid of how the darkness disarms us.

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Twin Cities author, Addie Zierman speak a bit about her new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in Darkness, and I left truly thinking about darkness in ways I’ve never had before. The way Addie puts it, we are so afraid of being apart from light, apart from sight and goodness and everything else light typically stands for, that we too often create our own artificial ways to eliminate the darkness around and in us. And at the end of it all, our artificial light is just distraction from what we don’t want to face.

If you look at the physical make-up of the world for five minutes you realize that darkness is a crucial element. It passes but it never really ends. The night gives way to daylight and the winter will eventually melt into summer, and though there is a season for everything, nobody claims that seasons are a one-time thing. They always cycle back. And just as cities full of blinding artificial light pollute the air, so do our attempts to block out the night pollute our ability to truly see and understand.

In the months after my cousin’s suicide, part of me is tempted to ignore, well, everything. It’s easier to ignore the poetry on my shelf and watch Netflix, it’s easier to avoid friends and people and bury myself in school work, it’s easier to surround yourself with whatever dulls the feeling, distracts, keeps your thoughts from where you don’t want them to go.

But even though it can feel easier, it’s the last thing we really want. Though paradoxical, I think we ache for the reality of what makes us ache. We crave vulnerability and authenticity and lives capable of genuine thought and feeling. We want stories of depth–even if the depths are the deepest and darkest places we can go.

Last week in my poetry class, the professor assigned each of us terms that we were to define and present on in front of the class. Now, I’ve had two years worth of poetry classes and feel fairly knowledgeable in that kind of thing. But while everyone else gets terms like metaphor and personification, I get a John Keats concept I’ve hardly ever heard of before. Great.

And when I come to the professor’s office for help, she looks at me and says that’s right, I gave you a hard one because I thought you’d be able to handle it. 

The term Negative Capability in poetry is described as the ability to stay in a point of suspension without reaching after logic or reason. It’s being in a place of discomfort or confusion or even a place that makes no rational sense, but not avoiding or fleeing that state.

And now that I’ve looked into the concept, I can’t stop thinking about it in my writing or in my life. Where I am in my life is a place that I don’t necessarily have answers or explanation for. I’m in an extended place of doubt and difficulty. I’m in a place that not many can reach me in. But I know that the best thing I can do for myself is to just sit in it.

I will stay in the darkness because I am called to be in the depths. I can be suspended in darkness because it is shaping me to not rely on the perception of control that fails me. I’m staying in with the grief and the tears and the counseling and the poetry because I don’t want want to fear feeling–whether it be joy or pain.

I’m sitting in it because it’s the only way to fully experience the light.

 

After the Fact

On the aisle side of a middle pew, feeling small inside a breathtaking, originally Catholic church building, I am sitting with a open journal on my lap, not paying as much attention to the sermon as I should be. All around me, dark wooden beams scale white walls, curving into high domed ceilings, light suspended in lanterns, fixed on metal chains leading upward.

Chopin rings from the classical piano being played in the front of the church. Near the piano an original painting, a 7ft. canvas framed with the color of canyon red dirt, holding a depiction of the woman Jesus met at the well. She is crouching, low on her heels, back bent, her hair the same color as the dirt. But her arm is reaching upward. A delicate hand holding her clay jug like an offering, tilting it back until water rushes forward, nearly spilling over, ready to wash over this lowly figure in the dust.

~

The last month and a half since my cousin’s suicide have been some of the toughest weeks of my life. At this point in time, I can feel some of the heaviness, the pressure of it ease off me in ways that I couldn’t afford before. But there are also days, more like moments, when something just hits for no remarkable or explainable reason and all of a sudden I’m crying in class, at lunch, in the middle of my professor’s office.

And after these last few weeks of tears and writing and phone calls and prayers and frustrating, emotional conversations, this is what I’ve learned about grief. And that is that there is absolutely nothing that can quiet the pain and the sadness, and there is nothing to make it go away. There is no remedy, there is no treatment, there is no cure.

But there is healing.

The only, only thing that can heal what so thoroughly breaks us is the knowledge, the realization that we are not alone.

When the same professor that I break down into tears in front of takes the time nearly every day to ask how I’m actually doing, I am not alone.

When the school councilor I’ve been seeing goes out of his way on a Saturday to email me a blog post he found about grief, I am not alone.

When I read poetry, when I read others’ intimate experiences, when I can feel what I don’t have to sum up into coherent sentences, I am not alone.

When a dear friend takes me out to dinner at India Palace, and over curry chicken listens to everything I could possible say, willingly enters into my story without fear or hesitation, holds every jagged, broken piece of me, I am not alone.

And when I am sitting in church this morning, and the light is igniting the stained glass ivory and gold, producing warmth I can’t feel, I read among the azure and the ruby laced window, a scroll inscribed with Blessed are the poor in spirit.

When the people stand and pour out Aleluia, I actually have the breath to join them. And with those words, my skin feels lighter and less like my own, and again, I am crying, but I try not to get caught up in mopping them with my sleeve. When I just let them leak out of closed eyes, let them wash away all that I’ve been holding on to, let this warmth, this light, this voice wrap around me, there is healing.

There is the realization, the reminder. I am not alone.

 

 

The Eternal Heart

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”              ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

It’s painful for me to say that this post, in addition to this last week in general, has held nothing that I would have even dared to expect, and somehow, though I would rather write about anything else, nothing else seems acceptable to address.

Over Christmas, my family experienced incredible tragedy in the form of my cousin’s death. For the sake of our family’s privacy, I will not go into details, and I’m here to say not only that this post is not that story, but also that it is not my story to tell. I can only tell my own. And this happens to be part of it.

Until Christmas morning, I had never had to face death in this degree of closeness. Never had to experience grief in those circumstances or to that level. I’m afraid I’ve even caught myself in the past saying that I doubted whether I had experienced enough, known enough darkness to pursue the world of writing. Was this what I was asking for?

Shock is an emotion (if you can call it an emotion) that dulls and blurs all others. My mind has been thick with it and has left little room for me to feel anything else. I feel pressure to mourn, to grieve, to undergo a process that acknowledges these things, but I am utterly lost in what such things look like, let alone how to go about them. It’s easier for me to act strong for others, whether siblings, parents, or friends, ask how they are, but not nearly as willing to seek an answer for myself. I’m not always sure how to respond, and as a result, I’m learning my own process for coping. And it turns out that all I know to do is what I’ve done for the majority of my life, and that is to write it down.

So here I am. Two poured-over journals, fifteen pages of handwritten scrawls, an open Bible, and four hours in the loft of the town coffee shop have gotten me to this point, though I’m still not sure exactly what that is.

The first few days proceeding the news, the same thoughts kept replaying in my head, over and over again.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

I kept repeating them with some hope that they would tie me to reality, make the truth of it stop hovering in the air and sink beneath my skin, keep me from drifting off into the world inside my own mind. When I felt myself slipping into normalcy, and saw how easy it is to do even in the midst of such turmoil and tragedy, I kept snapping myself back, trying to force something I don’t understand.

But I’m beginning to realize that seasons run together even more than we expect. Not only do we have seasons of weeping and seasons of laughter, but we experience them together, despite how unnaturally they feel. I am learning to mourn death and loss, but also allowing myself to laugh at my sister dancing around our room in her Batman pajamas. I will give myself these opportunities to reflect and grieve, to spend hours journaling by myself, to cry with close friends, but also appreciate the moments of my family gathered around the living room, making fun of the old Star Wars special effects. Treasuring the life, the moments, the continual and constant support and empathy around me.

I’m witnessing first hand that our souls hold more than we can measure, and our hearts are capable of greater suffering and greater joy that could ever be imagined or contained. Even the depths of suffering tend to make room to hold an even deeper love and a greater degree of life. We are creatures with eternity placed in our hearts, and like death, like anything of great permanence, we do not know how to understand it, but the thing is that we don’t really need to.

I may not know how or what to feel at times such as this, but I am determined to continue feeling despite my lack of understanding. We continue to live in the presence of death. We continue to laugh in spite of tears. We allow ourselves sorrow, and we make room for joy. We love in a broken world because the broken does not take away from the beautiful. And it is the encounters with the beautiful that I keep my heart open for.