Barbara Brown Taylor gave me permission to take a break, to stop trying to find my way through the night. After reading her, I decided to give myself time off from prayer and spiritual books and the quest to understand. The despair from earlier in the week had begun to mellow into a gentle, benevolent emptiness, and this felt like a place where I could linger for a bit. Thursday brought a series of fun, energetic class sessions, then I went home drained, read a werewolf comic, and found myself caught up in a story for the first time in months. And it was exactly what I needed to get myself out of my head. When I finished the comic, I started a novel by Phil Rickman, my absolute favorite writer, whose books are so dense and require such close attention that I haven’t been able to read him in more than a year.
I needed that break.
Friday I was running an errand when I had a sudden, stunning realization about my recent angst. The kind of realization that requires time and space to unpack without distraction, and you know it’s going to fester until you explore it. So as soon as my afternoon meeting ended, I packed a bag, loaded Rufus into the car, and headed south, past swamps where the setting sun caught on the water between trees. I could feel the force of what I had to unpack running like steel cables through my arms and legs, clenching my back muscles, so I kept the radio on to hold it at bay while I drove. The last fiery light drained from the horizon as I crossed the Altamaha River, and ninety minutes later (only because of my propensity for getting lost), I arrived in Waycross.
Waycross is where I stay when I visit one of my favorite Georgia places, the Okefenokee Swamp. But on this trip, I planned to hunker down in the hotel room, journal, read, and take my dog for a hike instead of trawling the swamp for reptiles.
At the hotel I spent hours writing. About why I’m angry at God and who I’m really angry at and why God is the one I’d rather blame. And about what I’m most afraid of: that abuse I don’t even remember has shaped me in ways I didn’t realize until too late, and although I’ve finally pieced together what happened and am working to heal from it, I’ve missed the window for that to make enough difference to salvage my life. That it’s too late to meet a man who’s not too jaded and cynical to give or receive love; that it’s too late to start the family I’ve always wanted, to build the career I’ve dreamed about. That unless and until I heal fully and completely and perfectly, I will never be worthy of friendship or success or community or love.
These are my deepest, darkest fears, the ones that surface like clockwork to wipe away all the progress and optimism I’ve fought for. When things get bad in my head, the love and the promises feel like illusions, and the fears are all that seem real. I’m finally starting to understand why this is. But I don’t know if understanding will help the next time things get bad.
Saturday afternoon I was ready for a break from heavy thinking and unpacking of old baggage, so Rufus and I headed to Laura S. Walker State Park for some outdoor recreation. At the trailhead, signs told us about Eastern indigo snakes and gopher tortoises, and as we rambled, I combed the undergrowth for signs of reptiles. To no avail. I kept thinking, “This is optimal snake habitat, and if I just knew how to look, I’d be able to spot them.” And I got increasingly irritated that I don’t know how to see snakes, which textures and patterns to seek out. I’m very good at finding gators, but I usually need someone else to point me toward snakes.
Partway through the hike, I realized that I was so frustrated with myself that I wasn’t even enjoying the experience. And apart from the dearth of reptiles, there was nothing not to enjoy: The weather was sunny and cool, and I’m healthy and fit enough to walk for several miles. I love saw palmettos and pine carpeting, the little flowers whose names I don’t know, the sounds of trees creaking in the wind and birds singing unseen in the scrub, the smell of woodsmoke drifting through the air. And my usually timid dog was having the time of his life sniffing every clump of grass and tugging me along the trail.
I was so preoccupied with checking every palmetto cluster for sunlight on scales that I was missing the simple pleasure of a golden afternoon walk in the woods with my dog. And that, like so much else, is a metaphor for my life lately: I search so desperately for the hidden things I really, really want that I overlook what else is around me. This season of life has been one that I never wanted to enter and have frantically wished would end — and have worked overtime to get through. Because if everything happens for a reason, then the trick is to figure out why it’s happening, right? In which case, the sooner I decipher what God’s trying to teach me, the faster the season will end.
But I’m never going to be a good enough student to figure it out.
And this belief — which for a long time I didn’t even consciously realize I held — has caused so much of the exhaustion and frustration that keep crashing in on me. Looking for lessons in everything is wearing me out (and straining friendships). Thinking I’ve learned what I’m supposed to, only to see nothing change, keeps me in a constant loop of hope and disappointment. Spending night after night wrestling, like Jacob, only how can you fight through to the blessing when what you’re wrestling with isn’t as tangible as an angel? I feel like God is a trickster, punishing me because I’m not smart enough to decipher the cosmic riddle. If God can’t or won’t end this season and bless me until I stumble across the precise thing I’m supposed to learn, then I’m never going to earn the blessing.
But blessings aren’t earned; they’re given. Maybe that’s one of the things I have needed to understand.
If this whole thing was just about learning lessons for a reward/grade, then as soon as I decided to chill, enjoy the day, and focus on the beauty surrounding me, I should have rounded the next bend to see an Eastern indigo snake crossing my path. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead Rufus and I finished the walk without spotting anything more exciting than a few birds, a couple of gopher tortoise burrows, and a bug that flew into my eye. Still, when we got to the end of the trail, I was happier and more relaxed than I’d been at the start.
Then I spent a little time rambling along the lakeshore. The ranger at the entrance had told me that even though there are gators in the park, a dog Rufus’ size should be safe as long as I kept him out of the water. “It’s the smaller dogs we usually have trouble with,” she said dryly, “the ones look like a good snack for a gator.” But Rufus opted to stay in the car after our nature hike — and by “opted” I mean ran to the other side of the back seat whenever I opened a door, and when I tried to scoop him up, he looked at me so piteously that I decided not to force it. He’d done really well on the hike, after all. He deserved a rest.
As I walked along the shore, taking pictures of grass and water and trees, I realized something else:
Maybe it’s about gifts, not lessons.
Maybe this season of my life, which I have detested and raged against and tried to rush through, isn’t about me needing to learn anything or figure anything out, or even grow or heal to some magical point at which I’m miraculously ready for love and fulfillment.
Maybe this season is about God having gifts for me, and if my life looked like I wish it looked, I wouldn’t have the time and space — and the emptiness and need — that I have now. That have created room for those gifts, have made me able to open my hands and my heart and receive them.
Yes, I have work commitments and not much extra money. But for the first time in several years, I have a reliable car. I have the flexibility to leave town for a weekend with only an hour’s planning, and enough disposable income to afford an inexpensive hotel room and a few restaurant meals and an extra tank or two of gas. I have a dog who’s a mellow, pleasant travel companion. These are privileges I haven’t always had.
And Friday I had a realization about the way I’ve spent my life relating to God, about why I react the way I do to setbacks and lost dreams and crushed hopes. It’s a realization I’ve just started to unpack, and I know that unpacking is a crucial step in my healing. But beyond that, taking the time and space — and grace — to explore it gave me gifts I wouldn’t otherwise have received: that gorgeous drive through a lingering sunset; gentle whispers of hope in the spaces between sleep; a perfect afternoon of exploring woods and swamp and lake; the uncomplicated beauty of light filtered through palmetto blades, of tree bark, of pine cones, of tiny flowers, of cypress knees, of sunshine on water, of swamp grasses.
Even though I didn’t see any snakes.