The Problem of Pain

It’s October again.

I know, I know–a truly revolutionary statement. October carries with it it’s own dignified sense of autumn, distinct from September’s gentle turning and a far cry from the bite of November’s march into winter. October is falling leaves and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; it’s bundle-up weather and early evenings, pots of cinnamon tea and hand-knit socks. It’s also become my month of endings, of death.

I think about death a lot.

There is a point in every child’s life where they come up against the truth of mortality: perhaps they lose a family member, or they see an animal die. It’s formative, necessary even, to the development and understanding of a person as they age– that knowledge that everything is temporary. But I cannot remember a time in my life where I wasn’t acutely aware of death. Even before I tangibly encountered it, I knew what it was– who she was. I’ve never feared death; rather, I’ve always found myself somewhat fascinated by it, evident in everything from my reading and writing preferences to the way I’m forever identifying with fictional personifications of it, either male or female (my favourite to date have been Neil Gaiman’s Death from Sandman and a friend’s interpretation in a recent theatrical production of Everyman, in case you were wondering). This preoccupation with the subject has over the years become a close acquaintance with the lady herself, which brings me back to October, and into the subject of pain.

Pain reminds me somewhat of a child, not entirely without sympathy: he remains to sit with those left behind once Death has moved on. You will find him there, by the coffin, the closed door, the empty closet, his grey dog Grief lying unleashed and close at his heels. October, death, and pain have come hand-in-hand this year more than ever, and I’ve spent a lot of time searching for a way to express it all in words. Not a day into the month and I found myself finally ending a long, tumultuous, complicated, abusive relationship with my father. The day after that, a relationship was ended with me. It’s now three weeks later, marking the two-year anniversary of the day my best friend ended her life, barely 18 months before another mutual friend would do the same.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis discusses the fact that there is no “unimaginable sum of human misery,” saying that “there is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe.”

Why then do I feel like I’m bearing the pain of three people?

My poor relationship with my father only ever complicated and warped my image of and relationships with men, while also tearing a sizeable hole in my relationship with a God who’s chief attribute of love is most often described in paternal terms. The decision and ability to finally relinquish the endless and impossible struggle of sufficiency enough for my father has opened a door to finally move on past all the cruel words cluttering my mind in his voice. The decision wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t quick: it took years to reach and several sleepless nights to choose. To be broken up with unexpectedly barely a day later took what was already fractured and shattered it completely.

I’m discovering that over the past few months I’ve somehow forgotten how to be alone. The independence so hard-wired into my system, strengthened by months spent navigating the streets of New York City on after high school, then sharpened as I moved halfway across the country for school seems a lifetime away, so easily obliterated by a single summer as I find myself in the position of relearning how to operate independently, how to pass my time on my own, how to savour solitude once more. I never used to notice an absence, but now absence is all I feel. I wake up every morning to begin regathering all the fragments once more, pieces to a puzzle that I can’t seem to assemble.

Lewis later goes on to write “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

And then there is the guilt. Anyone left in the aftermath of suicide knows the unfathomable weight of guilt that settles across your shoulders never to lift again. It’s been 731 days and I still think of her daily, still grapple with the what ifs and if onlys. What if I’d tried harder to convince her she was loved and needed? If only I’d called her one more time, stayed up with her a little later. There’s no earthly consolation for the vacancy left by someone who felt their presence too great a burden for this earth to bear. Suicide doesn’t dissipate that weight, only passes it on to those left behind. They are gone, and try as I might I live under the shadow of that loss every day.

In the mean time, life (like time) continues to march ever-steadily forward. Lewis wrote his treatise on pain in his effort to explain the coexistence of a purportedly loving God in a world so riddled by injustice and grief. This is a quandary I’m spending more and more time contemplating these days. Being raised in an environment where asking God “why” was viewed as defiance and “counting it all joy” the only right response has caused me to balk countless times in my spiritual life, opting to muddle through things on my own terms rather than carry them to a loving father God who’s purposes and ways are too terrible in their goodness and mystery for me to comprehend. But if there’s one thing I’m learning this month- this year, this lifetime- it’s that it is sometimes necessary for uplifted hands to turn to fists, if only for a little while, with the knowledge that there is grace enough even for this.

I know I’m not alone in this. Part of the struggle has been grappling with these things while coming alongside others around me who are fighting to carry their own burdens as well. We none of us can do it alone.

So in the midst- or rather at the end- of this heavy October, despite the unanswered questions and the gaping holes, despite the darkness, and most certainly despite the pain, I’m permitting myself the bruises and blood that comes from being so repeatedly driven to my knees, hoping that better and more glorious things will come of it the more I do.

In summation (and as only Lewis could put it): “The great thing to remember is that though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”

Up Til Now

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Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you: and by funny I mean entirely unexpected, rather unamusing, and somewhat unwanted. But that’s the way it works, all at once and while you’re not paying attention. I’ve had so many questions from friends and family concerning my plans since crossing the stage in May to receive my diploma. I in all my scatter-brained busyness have hardly had the time much less the inclination to answer every well-meaning inquiry, but I’ve decided it was high-time I brought the world up-to-speed.

I’ve found myself in the unique position of moving rather deliberately from stage-to-stage these past few months, carried along by events that have felt out of my hands, and in a way that most do not have the privilege of experiencing. I slipped easily from the world of undergrad classes and into the waiting arms of a relationship, and an internship that would keep me distracted from the wait-period following my interview for a full-time job. God knows my tendencies, and in turn gave me lines to memorise and stage tasks to fill the weeks of what would otherwise have been anxious hours. The internship’s end bled into the job’s start (which I did get), while also leading me to the people who will become my flatmates in the house we just discovered will be ours for the coming year. All of these things shifting gently one into the other almost imperceptibly until I suddenly realised that life had been circling for weeks, moving in slowly and knocking me out in surprise: guerrilla warfare of the most ordinary kind.

Ask me at age sixteen, fretfully counting down the days until I reached adulthood, where I would be at twenty-three: “Europe,” I’d probably say “reading books along the Seine” or “bicycling around Reykjavik;” “writing in a flat overlooking London.” Ask me a yaer ago and I would have said the same thing. Certainly not Pennsylvania: certainly not settling down, not by any means.

I am a gypsy, and I like to travel light: one blanket, my trusty pillow, a few pieces of clothing, and a battered copy of Eliot’s poetry in hand. I arrived on-campus my last year of undergrad, my entire life packed in two suitcases under fifty pounds with room to spare. I am always yearning to roam, and I am certain to be equally prepared to do so. I moved to six different homes the summer of my junior year alone. As long as this wanderlust keeps me itching for another quest, my dream-home has sworn to stay relegated to photos of rooms filled with softly filtered light. Commitment and settling down for me looks like an excess of blankets and pillows, a wall of bookshelves filled with my own personal library, the contents of which have spent the last four or five years over two thousand miles away, packed up in cardboard boxes.  

Suddenly these days I find myself perusing websites and store walls, asking friends what they use, what they think.”Don’t even think about it,” breathes the ever-practical traveler within as I run my hands over the pile of pillows- those down-filled-delights that epitomise impracticality- stacked in Target, “how would you take it with you when you move? It’s a hassle to carry with you when you go.”

But that’s the thing: I’m not sure I am going, at least not now, at least not soon. I have a house and a job, a degree and a car. I have someone who makes it worth the staying. For the first time in my life I’m considering shelves and calculating the cost of seven large boxes of books shipped media mail across the United States so I can reread them all over again. I’m planting things and building a pantry’s supply of spices. I’m tracking down a mattress, and considering putting at least two pillows on my bed. And while all of this feels like it should be unsettling and a touch scary, it really isn’t. 

Certainly I’m not always committed to this concept of commitment. Depending on the day, I am overwhelmed in a gulf of panic at the thought of losing my independence, my ceaseless desire to roam. It’s as if by purchasing pillows I am nailing my feet to the ground, never to explore again, and that simply isn’t so.

It takes a lot to relinquish the well-laid plans that took years of dreaming to formulate and grasp, exchanging them instead for the things that appear in front of you now. Sometimes we get so used to wanting something for so long that when we no longer want it, we feel we must still cling on, if only to justify the time and energy we’ve invested into the thought alone. To let go feels like admitting defeat. In cases such as these I think we often find it’s the tradition of the thing we can’t relinquish rather than the thing itself. Or at least this is what I’m discovering about myself. 

And so I am willingly facing the coming days and the commitments both large and small that they doubtless hold. There’s a certain power in staring down the unknown and shouting “I choose this” into its void. It’s a power the faith of which rests in an assurance that a greater plan is in place, and that the plan holds greater things than my little suitcase heart can fathom. And perhaps choosing to trust that plan starts by purchasing a few extra pillows.

Presently

Something there is
Courses through the open window,
Parted blinds,
Riding on the back of the
Afternoon light:
A wind
Like memory,
Heavy with summer scents
In mid spring,
Casting dappled patches of light
That seem to say
“Look:
The light is here,
The time is now.”

Finifugal

Finifugal: (adj.) Hating endings; of someone who tries to avoid or prolong the final moments of a story, relationship, or other journey.

This past week has been a veritable tornado of things and feelings that have ultimately formed themselves into a crisis of sorts, reflected in the fittingly changeable weather plaguing north-eastern Pennsylvania. My birthday coincided with the sudden death of a close friend, leaving me breathless and wondering how God works all things (all things) for good (because He says He does, and I sometimes don’t know how to trust that). I’ve spent the last seven days waffling between busy okayness and moments of exhausted despair.

In the midst of the guilt that trails in a suicide’s wake, as well as the existential questions that naturally form as another candle finds its way on to the cake, I’ve found myself questioning my identity. Who am I in Christ? Who am I as a person? How do the two meet and mesh? If there’s anything I’ve learned moving through these things before, it’s how easily it is to let the weight of sadness overwhelm you, turning life into a question of blank futility. “What’s the point?” you ask. I have a theory: I believe that sadness is like matter– it can be neither created nor destroyed, just manifested and passed along. Suicide passes the greatest of sadness onto those left behind, a sadness so great you feel like you become the emptiness itself. So it’s in this moment that I find I need to remind myself who I am, and especially Whose I am. You don’t necessarily need to this list (although it may help you understand me); but in this moment, I do.

I like to think that God believes in irony, but never coincidence.

I can (modestly) climb a tree while wearing a skirt. This talent took years to cultivate.

The quickest ways to my heart are flowers and books.

I want to take a cross-country road trip in which I stop and spend time on a swing set in every state.

I take sermon notes in free-verse poetry.

I can spend hours in a museum.

I like pots of tea at 4 PM- scones of course are always welcome.

The only place flannel and plaid belong are on blankets and kilts.

I sometimes get caught up thinking about the micro-worlds that could exist on every single dust mote.

There are few things as satisfactory as a purring cat.

I love tall windows and natural light: I avoid using overhead lights.

The best part about tall windows and natural light are the patches of shadow-and-light they throw across the walls and floor on clear afternoons.

I drink coffee out of necessity, I drink tea out of preference (and sheer enjoyment).

My favourite films are in black and white.

Even so, I know almost every line from the original Star Wars trilogy.

No matter where I go, I almost always have two books with me: a small anthology of Eliot’s poetry and essays, and a rather battered copy of Donne’s verses.

Someday I want to live somewhere I can keep a garden.

Kindles are convenient, but real books are best.

Paperbacks are for dog-earing and annotating.

I like to buy used books with notes in the margins: it’s like a peek into the previous owner’s mind.

Both my favourite poem and song have the same title: Clair de Lune. One was written by Paul Verlaine, the other by Claude Debussy.

Cumulus clouds are my favourite.

I don’t know who I prefer: Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald.

We will obviously be singing choral music in Heaven, because it’s simply the best. I imagine the set list will include Eric Whitacre, Arvo Part, and Gregorio Allegri. Also, there will be cellos.

I desperately want to have a picnic in a graveyard.

The thing that astounds me most about salvation and God is the incredible freeing nature of His grace and love: I am a fearful person, and I find it hardest to rest in the knowledge that the only thing that could ever make me whole was completed by His Son. There is an amazing kind of peace in that.

My favourite day and place is a foggy beach along the Pacific.

Stargazing is wonderful, but it’s better with someone else.

I could survive on banana pancakes and orange juice.

Everyone has a story, and stories are for sharing.

I don’t trust people, but I’m working on that.

If you cut me I would probably bleed salt water, ink, and earl grey tea.

As hard as it is to move through suicide, I’m coming to understand that perhaps one of God’s desires for me is to continually find and work with people who struggle with it. And that scares me.

April Is The Cruelest Month

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

April: gently filtered sunlight passing in and out of cloud-cover, windows-opened for the first time in months- permitting the breeze to make its way through the room, the stir and stretch of the world as she wakes and brings things back to life.

I feel that all of the openness and light should make this my favourite month of the year, yet somehow these thirty-odd days have managed to encapsulate a sense of death, life, darkness, light, loss, and growth all at once, and it’s a paradox the inner workings of which I’ve long-since given over trying to understand.

But the more Aprils I experience (and I’m beginning to amass quite a few) the more I see parallelism between what transpires in my life as things transpire in the ground– the discomfort of death and life and that blank space in between where the living usually drowns into mere existence, about the discomfort of growth and T.S. Eliot using words to prod the pain of letting go to stretch into bloom.

It’s ironic that with all of this living, April is to me instead a struggle with death and how to come out or away from it. I know death- we’ve long been on speaking terms she and I- and I’ve stood at the edge of her cliff numerous times, usually holding the hands of friends, in dialogue about all the reasons to walk away as we continue to toe the line. A number of them have slipped over the side anyway: it’s never something you get used to. And that is April.

I think a lot about how little we understand life without the contrast of death– of Icarus as he fell, suddenly aware of what it truly meant to live. How impossible it feels to consider an eternity of living without death to make us aware of it! How strange to imagine that it was never intended for us, for this world, to begin with.

Growth requires the letting go of the dark, cool safety of the earth in order to move skyward, and April signifies this in so many ways: the fear and discomfort of growth and light, and the pain of loss and letting go of even that. Things bloom out of death- dirt itself is comprised of dead things-and it’s that which is necessary for plants to not only grow, but to sustain life. In that way it’s much like the death and life of Christ to the believer. He took on darkness and death that I might have

light and life. And perhaps that’s the thing: for all of the darkness in me I know myself to be a creature of the Light, and there’s the unbearable dissonance of two things that cannot mix. The darkness so often wins. But I always thought that if I could remind anyone of anything I’d want it to be cherry blossoms. Someone once told me that was silly and childish: I choose it anyway.

“I have learned
Things grow towards the light.”
-A Fine Frenzy, Grasses Grow

To the Girl in the Crowd

Quiet girl,
Careful girl,
Wide-eyed-blue and bright,
Observing things no one sees–
Pain before it’s felt,
Heartbreak yet to happen.

Caring girl,
Steady girl,
Misunderstood:
Armour of reserve
Conceals a lifetime of bruising,
Protects against those yet to come.
Sweet girl,
Clever girl,
With your music and lines,
I wish I could make you see that
Even in silence,
You are a music lovely to hear.

Mysterious girl,
Mad girl,
Falling down holes
Chasing rabbits,
In search of truth
And delight.

Smart girl,
Patient girl,
Skin indelibly marked,
An ink-drawn map
To who you are:
A blazing fire of hope.

Lingering in a darkness,
Which could never snuff your light-
Radiant and flickering-
Only more defined by the shadows
In which you stand.

A force of quiet
In a sea of weak and loud:
You are so much more than just
The Girl in the Crowd.

Rubatosis

Rubatosis: (n.) the unsettling awareness
of your own heartbeat

Where do I begin?

Whole pages of thought and impressions gone like leaves ripped from a book, plot holes superimposed over the storyline of my memory, paragraph-breaks in continuity. A Picasso portrait of angled questioned marks and blank squares.

Flashback:

I remember the first time my heart stopped– walking miles home in the withering July heat and feeling the abrupt pause as my last remaining ally skipped successive beats in its valiant effort to work on little-to-no support. Sitting on the sidewalk, counting passing cars and calories as I waited to catch my breath.
…Red, white- one hundred– white, silver- twenty– black, white…

Memories of standing on the bathroom scale, tilting back and forth as I tried to find the position that would show me the lowest number. Or the highest: I’m not quite sure.

Cutting off long inches of hair until it grazed my jawbone, partly because I wanted less of me, partly to better ignore the way it was beginning to fall out by the handful.

I used to talk about it more- the all-consuming battle of anorexia- and I’m not sure when or why I stopped. Perhaps I grew tired of sharing the word to  watch eyes inevitably flit down and across my body, incredulous because I no longer look the part. It could be the overwhelming shame as I duck and weave in and out of behaviour patterns, constantly skirting the edge of the cliff and occasionally peering over the edge and down the slippery slope. I truly think it was after too many failed attempts to explain the complicated nature of this abusive relationship with the voices in your head- with yourself- all the while trying to maintain some modicum of composure– trying to explain the reasons why while protecting my privacy.

Privacy: the hallmark trait of eating disorders, and the reason it so often stays relegated to a petty choice.

So privacy be damned: here is my transparency.

 I struggle with anorexia.

Because my father’s voice has taken up residence in my head, a constant loop of names and conversations, all beginning with “undesirable” and ending with my need to change. I’ve destroyed every journal I have ever owned, but I still have the scraps of paper on which I wrote all of the countless reasons he told me I would always be alone. Sometimes I wonder if I truly believe I am happier on my own, or if I choose it because I’m afraid I’ll discover that he was right. Or maybe its because he was right and I already know it. He wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t true. Right? My fears of abandonment will never be fulfilled if I permit no one in to begin with. And this terrifies me.

Because four years ago, if you touched me I could easily have shattered into a thousand pieces. Numerous pounds later you probably still could.

Because I’ve seen so many friends succumb to the illness, and so many overcome it, and I’m not sure of whom I am more envious.

Because it’s my attempt to take the internal clutter and fragmented pieces, the chipped china bits of myself that I put in a box, placing it in the darkest corners of the furthest reaches of the highest attic. All of the pieces that find their way back down again despite my best efforts: all of the ugly, jagged things that I try to hide with skin and hair and an unattainable perfect shape, hoping that they will distract you from the mess beneath.

Because perhaps if I am beautiful it will compensate for all of the unbearable, unloveable things I feel I am underneath.

Because in the end, that’s why any of us do it: we want to be loved.

There are never two people with eating disorders under the same circumstances or for the same reasons; only that all of us have things we don’t know how to carry or to hide, fears we can’t control, and flaws we can’t conceal. It’s never really just about being thin. It’s about all the unspeakable things moving beneath our skin: lies that we fear by speaking out loud would only somehow make them irrevocably true. And if by speaking these half-truths into existence I can shatter the stigmas surrounding the world of eating disorders, then I will consider it worth while.