I think the term “miracle” is overused, so I’m not going to call what’s unfolded since Friday a miracle. But I am going to acknowledge all of it, gratefully, as a series of gifts that I badly needed. For months now, since even before COVID-19, I’ve been feeling like I couldn’t stand any more hits, like I was clawing onto the frayed end of my rope with fingernails that were about to tear off, like something needed to give and it was probably going to be me.
But for whatever reason, however things work, the awful tension finally broke.
Not in the majestic, life-altering fashion I’d anticipated, but in numerous quiet, gentle, persistent ways that have made the past three days a joy to walk through.
It began on Friday, after a restless and uneasy night, with a Facebook post that I ended up deleting, but in the interim I was genuinely surprised and moved at how many people wrote caring, thoughtful responses. A friend messaged to say that since we were both having rough weeks, maybe we should hold a virtual happy hour, so we made plans to meet later in the day. I published a blog entry, which led to more kind, affirming, loving responses.
By the time I met with my spiritual director in the early afternoon, I felt more peaceful and positive than I had in days. It took conscious effort to remember and practice those directives from the previous night’s Lectio Divina: Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. Be still. But I tried.
My spiritual director also begins our sessions with Lectio Divina, and this time she had chosen Matthew 6:25-27. When, after the third reading of the passage, she asked what call to action I discerned, the answer was obvious: Do not worry.
Then I spoke about my pain and confusion, about people and situations that ended up not being what I thought they were, about my frustration with where my life is and not knowing why I’m here right now. She listened, and when I was finished, she began to talk. The words spilled out of her, tumbling over each other in their haste to reach my ears. She spoke confidently and without hesitation, and hokey as it might sound, her face looked radiant on Zoom, even though faulty matches had kept her from lighting the candle she usually burns when we meet. The words came so rapidly and addressed such specific, deep needs within me that it didn’t seem like she was the one talking. I felt like God was speaking through her, that she was the vessel through which poured a cascade of promises and assurances directed to me. I came away with deep joy and peace.
The rest of that day and the weekend brought more small gifts: That virtual happy hour with Lisa, featuring cameos by both of our dogs and lots of laughter as well as sharing of struggles. A good talk with my aunt, who’s helping me brainstorm ideas for starting a business. Time to read. Plans to see Kate and Claire next weekend. More productive work sessions. A woman at the park who was very kind with my exuberant dog. E-mails about the possibility of small, socially distanced, outdoor gatherings. The dog getting so excited about a pine cone (which I think he thought was a squirrel) that he tripped over his own feet and face-planted in the grass.
This morning brought a Zoom talk by Janisse Ray, which was profound and beautiful in ways I need more time to reflect on, but which also led me to ponder so much on an experience from earlier in the week that I needed an entire separate blog post to discuss it.
And then I checked my phone. And my sister-in-law had sent this photo:
Yes, that’s my shy dog on the left. The clingy rescue who isn’t allowed off-leash in the mountains anymore because he ranges so far on his own. The male-phobic who has been a faithful companion/shadow while my dad recovers from surgery. The averse-to-other-canines loner who has decided, after five months of patient and not-so-patient advances by his cousin, that maybe friendship with another dog is a thing he is willing to try.
Transformation is beautiful.
Feeling happier and more relaxed than I have since my return from Colorado, I decided to spend some time this afternoon at the Botanic Gardens. Last spring I walked the labyrinth there almost every Sunday, but I’d only gone once this autumn.
Before I headed into the labyrinth, though, I sat down on a wooden bench in a circle of trees. I wanted to spend a little time quieting my mind, meditating, slowing the rush of thoughts. As I noticed the fall of light through leaves, the glow of sun on daisy petals, I heard a child loudly singing “The Farmer in the Dell.” I looked up to see a man with two little girls walking toward the labyrinth. Suddenly the song broke off and the girl shouted in excitement, “It’s the maze! The maze!” as she raced forward.
I have felt so cross with people so often lately that I was taken aback by my own pleasure at witnessing her delight. But it felt good to smile at someone else’s happiness. It felt wholesome to experience a child’s voice as a source of joy rather than a wound.
When I walk the labyrinth, I choose two issues or situations or questions to focus on; I consider one as I trace the path on one side, then I try to switch my attention to the other as I follow the winding route on the other side. Usually, week after week, they are the same two situations, which have been chewing at me for far too long, preoccupying me, stealing joy and hope and faith and trust. I decided today not to ask questions, not to seek guidance, just to be still and hold first one and then the other situation in my head and heart as I watched my steps unfold.
Sometimes I think I get answers and later I doubt. Sometimes I feel a fleeting sense of peace. Sometimes nothing discernible changes.
Today, however, carried specific, clearly worded insights:
Build your own community. I have looked repeatedly for existing communities that might carve out a niche for me, embrace me, bring me into the fold. And repeatedly I have been disappointed, rejected, hurt, left outside. But this isn’t because I lack good people in my life. It’s because I have not tried to build communities with them. I have, both intentionally and because of the busy-ness of life, kept my friends segregated from each other. I’ve always liked having different groups of friends who represent different facets of myself: townies and grad students; work pals and Goths; colleagues and church folk; book club and gym crowd. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but instead of bringing people together I have kept them apart.
Last winter, a few months before lockdown, friends threw me a surprise birthday party. I had finally confessed, the previous year, that I’d always wanted a surprise party. But I was so sure no one would ever plan one for me that I’d stopped even telling people when my birthday was. I’d hidden the date on Facebook and asked to have it removed from the department calendar. Because I didn’t think anyone would want to help me celebrate if I asked, and it hurt less — although it still hurt tremendously — to not ask, to just obliterate the possibility of hope. Of course that was a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy: People knew I hated my birthday, so they tiptoed around it instead of rejoicing with me, and I spent the entire day in such volatility that I made Emily Bronte characters look well-adjusted and stable.
I doubted anyone would remember, a year later, that I wanted a surprise party. But Kristen and Pam did remember, and they put a lovely one together at a favorite restaurant, and they managed to track down my closest friends. I felt a little embarrassed to realize how much effort they had to put into tracking people down, though. And at how many of the people there — people close to me, people whose families I know and with whom I’ve spent holidays and who have shared meals with my parents on their visits — hadn’t met each other before. They knew names, they’d heard stories, but they’d never actually been introduced to each other.
Because I have not brought my people together. I have not built disparate friendships into a community. I have relied on other people to welcome me into their circles instead of thinking of ways to create circles myself.
Carry the good with you and leave the bad behind. I like shades of gray far better in theory than in practice; it’s tough to admit that someone who harmed me could also help me — or that someone who brought gifts could also inflict damage. But that’s everyone in my life, in all our lives; that’s the truth of human relationships, and acknowledging it is the only way I can find resolution and stop obsessing over people and situations that hurt me. The good things don’t need to outweigh the bad. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have made different choices. But there were people I needed to meet and lessons I needed to learn and experiences I needed to have in order to grow.
Case in point: I once made the stupid mistake of dating a charming, charismatic jerk I met in a nightclub. But if I hadn’t dated him, he wouldn’t have introduced me to his friend Lisa. Who became, and has been for nearly two decades, my friend Lisa. The one I got to relax and laugh with on Friday. So was dating the guy really a stupid mistake?
I think maybe admitting and embracing the good is the only way to truly leave the bad behind.
After the labyrinth, I spent some time walking around the gardens, soaking in the sun, relaxing in the shade. On the way home, I detoured through the graveyard, because graveyards beckon me on golden October afternoons, and took some photos.
Since I returned to Georgia — actually, since even before that, when I started trying to figure out how this fall semester would actually work — I haven’t written anything except this blog. I want to; I need to; but writing is a demanding mistress and I’m scared of what she’ll require of me if I give her an inch.
But as I drove out of the graveyard, over a culvert I’ve passed countless times and never noticed, I decided to stop. And scan for snakes. And take some more pictures.
And as I did, a scene for my novel in progress, the one I haven’t even looked at in so long that I’ve forgotten the name of the town where it’s set, came fully formed into my head. A plot question I’d backed away from three months ago resolved itself. I saw this beautiful, horrible conflict between two characters who’d been dancing around each other for the first third of the book. The words pounded my brain. I had to go home and write.
So I did. I started around 5 p.m., and except for a walk with the dog, I’ve been writing ever since. It’s almost 1:30 a.m. now and I haven’t finished yet, haven’t recorded all the words and feelings and impressions that hit me in the graveyard with such immediacy. Instead of stopping to make dinner, I ate Ritz crackers and rice cakes. And I’m going to be up far too late because I have to finish this section.
Because writing is a demanding mistress. But she’s my demanding mistress, and her adamant return is the grace note to this weekend’s many gifts.