on hospitals and hunger, and words you’ve heard me say a hundred times (or, writing into the darkness, only half-believing)
I’ve been meaning to write for a few weeks, but lately it seems like I can never find words to say. Perhaps nothing is happening; perhaps too much is happening. While there are always things I’m learning, books I’m reading, questions I’m pondering, it all feels so mundane and repetitive—do you really want to hear me say yet again that I believe because of beauty?
It doesn’t make sense, but I think I feel both too comfortable and too challenged. I don’t know how that can be. In some ways, working a stable if mundane job, living in a safe town, with familiar people, it all feels too safe, too easy to be lulled into false confidences, a sense of self-sufficiency. At the same time, the past few months have felt like a whirlwind of events ever since my great-grandmother’s funeral, which looking back, I don’t think any of us would have anticipated as the sort of ushering in of a new season of…everything. Change is both necessary and horrible for people like me, who are a little cautious and wary by nature. And it’s amazing how things can feel so normal and yet so strange at the same time.
Last night, I lay in bed and under the hazy cover of darkness, snow falling steadily outside my window, felt immersed in old traumas, partially-healed wounds. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about a lot of those things—a fact for which I’m thankful, that I know is only grace—but it felt more of a shock for that very reason. I almost felt surprised by the act of remembering: did that really happen? I find that when I look back upon painful things, one of two things tends to happen: either the sheer power of emotions feels impossible to conceive in the safety of the present, or else I wonder how in the world I survived such an event, such a season—in those moments, I think that remembrance can bring a sharper pain than the actual lived experience.
Four Novembers ago, I spent four days and three nights alone in a hospital. Thrust into a strange world with rules no one cared enough to explain to me, knowing no one, the youngest person by far, all my sensitivities exponentially heightened by the cold logistics of the place—I’ve never felt that kind of fear in my life. The utter lack of control was astounding, as was the impersonal callousness of the doctors, the feeling of being stripped away of all that was me and forbidden to rebuild myself except to the image they created for me. I learned that health and sickness were not so much states of being as labels of identity sculpted by other hands and handed out to you for keeping. I’ve never written directly on this blog about this experience in the hospital, and this morning as I lay in bed remembering the night of remembering, I forced myself to admit why: because the stereotypes are so strong, the desire to maintain my persona too deep. And then I remembered the terror, the loneliness of it not just during but after, and realized my silence would only contribute to the stigma for countless other individuals who’ve undergone the same thing. So here’s to the truth of it: I’ve been hospitalized. Maybe you have too; maybe your best friend has, or your coworker. Someday, maybe our society will progress enough to learn to baptize those wounds, nurse those traumas, with remarkable tenderness.
Suppose there was a time beyond time when God walked among the fig trees and onyx stone in the cool of the evening. Suppose his footsteps fell to a rhythm you could tap to, and his shadow lengthened in the very late of the day so that you could track the seasons by his humanity, his humble obedience to natural law. And suppose you and I were there in that garden, working the earth with our hands, the soil dark and rich in our fingertips and the dust birthing our souls. Would we have known ourselves as lonely and thus found communion with the other? Or would it have been our communion that taught us the possibility of loneliness? Did grief come first, or the longing for redemption and thus, the necessity of something to grieve for? Even now I wonder if original sin came about because some hidden part of humanity ached for all the worlds our sin would open—like the Sahara after a rain when all that hungering death births into life unimaginable.
On that gravel road
Riding north along the sea,
A light brighter than the sun blinds a man
Who, falling from his horse, finds himself
Struck by God, stricken into passion,
From zeal to zeal with a change of heart
No less terrifying for its grace
(And we who wrestle with unbelief
Cannot help but envy such a fall.)
In his letters left behind we find
A man brilliantly alive,
Speaking and writing and exhorting
With a wearying kind of zeal—
Yet also consuming love
For a man he never met.
I could see how a Damascus moment
Might inspire reverence, certainty,
Even loyalty and obedience,
But love, it seems, is rather much.
Love, I think, requires a countenance,
A face, or faces, to impress.
Perhaps the brothers forgave him
Too completely; perhaps there was
A little too much mercy in their eyes.
Or perhaps the hands upon his head
Were too tender for a shaken man
Who deserved a striking instead,
And such kindness was a wound
No less undoing for its tenderness,
And from that moment on,
He felt such ravishing a love
Even his name splintered beneath its weight.
Succulents, like sin, require very little watering.
I loved owning succulents until I realized that I hated owning succulents. Or rather, I realized that the very attribute that made them so ideal—their self-sufficiency—was also what made them so offensive. I wanted to care for my plants, to uphold them with my righteous right hand, my daily watering, and instead, they managed far better on their own. With this I learned two things: the first is that self-sufficiency has always been offensive, even if the appearance of self-sufficiency has always been applauded; the second is that immaturity is not simply needing others but needing others to need you.
Why do people read this blog? Even WordPress insists on telling me over and over again (to their utter exasperation at my refusal to modernize my approach, I’m sure) that I should use tags, join Twitter, add those bold, one-sentence paragraphs and “Seven Ways to Increase Your Readership”-type titles. I hardly ever incorporate pictures into my posts and tend to write in long, sweeping prose that tends to work if you’re Frederick Buechner and not work if you’re anybody else. I’ve had this blog for six years and have been tempted more times than I count, particularly lately, to get rid of all evidence of it. And yet I keep writing. Someone, supposedly, keeps reading. And I keep wondering why.
“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo. And if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words—to march, to tell, to fight—to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to awaken in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”
Richard Wright wrote those words at the end of his remarkable memoir, and they’ve stayed with me ever since I first read them years ago. “To awaken in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.” I suppose I write because I fear Christians of all people, perhaps, are most in danger of forgetting the inexpressibly human, the gnawing hunger, or at the very least are most in danger of being seen as forgetting it, and I would like to do my part to either refute that stigma or change that truth. And I write because I have hurled those words and heard those echoes. You are an echo. We are an echo. We are echoes together. Have no doubt that a world out there listens, ears peeled to stone, aching despite themselves for what might come reverberating back.