The Unfolding of Forgiveness

the-prodigal-sonblog

“The Prodigal Son,” Max Slevogt

The air stuck to my skin, humid enough to hang suspended and thinly substantial. Like a veil. A torturous, hot, stifling veil. It was a typical late Spring day in the Midwest, and I found myself back in Milwaukee for work and for family. And for a friend. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it turned into the most important thing.

My friend was a former friend, and we had once been very close. I admired her still, though I had lost that thought for a time. I lost a lot of thoughts for a long time. Cracking at the seams after my dissertation, I struggled to stitch myself together. Every relationship in my life shifted under the strain, and I – a mess of threads – often forced the change. I withdrew, lashing out when threatened, and I felt very threatened indeed. So I hurt people, deliberately and accidentally. Always, always reacting to the stress as if I were scrabbling at rocks at the edge of a cliff. Desperate, shivering. Angry.

I endured some kind of subterranean implosion, an upsetting of the farthest reaches of me in a catastrophic  supernova. Everything scattered, no longer intelligible. I clutched together what fragments I could, collapsing inward like a neutron star.

One of the casualties of this event was my friendship with this woman. A fiercely warm and nurturing person, cleverly intelligent and intensely energetic. I pushed away her nurturing in particular. Raw on the cliff edge, fighting for autonomy by fighting to be left alone. And I did so viciously. The lick of flames over a collapsing bridge.

It wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t at all. I understood that a little at the time, and better later.

In the present, we walked together down a serene sidewalk in an old Milwaukee neighborhood. Green grass and bright sun. Sticky air. I clasped my hands behind my back to hide their trembling. She was all lean edges of muscle and bone, striking and beautiful in a clever outfit – always clever – and I felt miserable by comparison. She resplendent and I a collection of scars.

I apologized. I tried to review what I had done, and tried to describe the ways I was sorry. Trauma and all that stuff explained my actions, sure, but it did not excuse them. I stumbled in the middle of my confession, needing to gather my thoughts as if they had scattered to the ground.

Her voice came strong at my side: “I forgive you.”

She proceeded to explain why. Incomprehensible things like how she loved me and missed me. How she could see my unbearable pain.

My invisible mental notecards dropped from my shaking hands again. I blinked, heart suddenly pierced by a strange hurt that bloomed warm. “I’m… I’m not done yet. I wanted to say more. You can’t just instantly forgive me.” I paused. “Goddamn Christians,” I added, acting grumpy to hide soft and vulnerable wonderment. Probably unsuccessfully. She’s not an idiot.

She laughed. I smiled.

Then I finished my confession, and she repeated her forgiveness, and we cried.

I do not know when she felt ready to forgive me. It took me a couple of years to grow into an existence that could bear to miss her. Two years to unfurl again, unsteady and different and the same. Long days spent learning how to mourn, how to forgive. How to live with the very, very sad things that had happened to me, and how I made it worse.

It arrives to me unevenly and in fragments.

My friend is this mystery to me. This frail human being is able to be broader than the fracture, arms poised outward to embrace the all of me: the one who hurt her and the one who loves her.

It hurt to be forgiven, and I barely understand why. And I don’t understand how the sting became comforting.

But I cherish these things I don’t understand. And I cherish the memory. And my friend.

 

The Triune God and the Theologian With a Broken Head

Franz Stuck, “Pieta”

It was hard to re-read my dissertation-turned-book. Not simply because I really don’t like listening to myself – it’s like hearing your own voice in a recording, familiar yet strange. It’s just… I tried to kill myself four months after the defense. And I remember the span of thoughts and emotions that carried me there. That I carried. It’s true that I was already cracked in the head before the book. Still, the book reminds me of the time I snapped apart like so much brittle glass.

After. After, my mom asked me how someone religious like me could do it. All I said was, “Please don’t.”

I don’t know how. All I know is that there’s a place in our hearts where there is neither God nor not-God. I don’t mean metaphysically. Of course God is there.  But it is a place of non-relation, a sort of severing even from the self. It doesn’t matter where anyone is or isn’t. That person is hurting in a very lonely way, and it is not a path one can accompany.

It’s not your fault if someone tries – or succeeds – you know. Suicide. Please don’t ever think that.

The book has very little to say about suicide. If anything, it traces Hans Urs von Balthasar’s careful refutation of the suicide of thought in modern theology, philosophy, and the arts. As I read it, I wondered if the past me would “convert” me. That is, draw me closer to God.

It has not been very easy, being close to God. After.

Other things are. These days, I have significantly more facility describing what mental illness is like. Helpless and unearned and a harrowing responsibility, mostly. Is what it’s like. Surrounded by all kinds of cultural ignorance. I thought everyone had violent nightmares every night – or at least a lot of them. Surely no one ever feels safe. Everyone hates themselves at least a little. Surely. I didn’t understand the signs.

So I really didn’t know that I was sick. And, I’m sorry, but graduate school isn’t a place that makes such things obvious. I have never again seen so much goddamn anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms all clustered in one place. I love you guys, classmates, but holy shit. Did you see us? Our professors didn’t know the signs or weren’t paying attention. Or maybe that’s not their job. Either way. It wasn’t healthy.

Once in grad school, while my grandmother was dying of cancer and my brother was in incredible distress, two friends pulled me aside into one of the chapels and had an intervention. They told me that I needed help and didn’t believe in the resurrection. I wish they hadn’t brought faith into it. I wish they’d known that college counseling services are easy to reach. I wish they’d been compassionate about how hard my family life was at the time. And I kind of wish it wasn’t them. I wasn’t close to them.

I was already heavily traumatized. I needed some real help and had no idea that I did. I needed help in high school. I needed help in kindergarten, for God’s sake. So I’m not saying they were wrong. Not exactly. It’s just that the whole thing was wrong. The time and the place and the people.

The resurrection thing – in a church – well, that was a bit much.

Mental illness shouldn’t be a condemnation. It isn’t a question of faith. God gives that anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever not believed in God. There was a time in high school that I was an atheist and I kept it secret from everyone. I was the saddest little atheist, because even if there were no God, it seemed clear enough we needed one. Which is still a kind of faith, albeit stripped of most of its gnosis (knowledge). Even when I taped that note to my mirror and held a knife to my throat, I didn’t think there was nothing. I just didn’t care, or had drawn so near to an iron-jawed simulacra of nothing that I knew little else.

Nichtigkeit. The Nothing, the Not. Heidegger’s word, which von Balthasar distrusted. I wrote about that.

I wonder many times, when I reach hesitantly toward prayer, whether I still participate in that strange Nichtigkeit that held me with its sharp edges. I have the scars that ask the question if I won’t. And the answer is that I don’t know. I can laugh now, I have a job, I care about others. Heavy doses of medication slow me down enough that I can open my eyes. It’s a physical condition, the illness. Neurochemical distortions and depletions. That doesn’t make it un-spiritual. Our bodies simply don’t do that. Become un-spiritual. I’d have to die to do it.

I wrote about von Balthasar’s love for the physical, the specific, the concrete. The flesh. I wrote about that too.

If you’ve been hit in the head by a tire iron, you might lose some sight. That injury will henceforth affect what you can see, and you’ll have to learn your way around and through it. Well: mental illness isn’t any different. I don’t know that Jesus wants to save me from mental illness any more than He does you the tire iron. Which is to say: suffering just doesn’t seem to work like that.

I do think God did not let me die. So did I. So did others. Not let me die.

God always seems to insist on collusion.

There is a difference between art and the artist. This was, during the book, an obsession of mine. Total bastards can create beautiful, profound art. Their art ends up better than they are. I wonder now if this is so with me and my book. Its perspective – von Balthasar’s perspective – is much broader than the well I sat by. Not that I had nothing to do with it. Only that I don’t determine the meaning of everything I create. Only the one Creator does that.

There are ways that God is there in the gap, between art and artist, the measure of the distinction between esse and ens, colluding even with what we lack.

Von Balthasar was determined to show us this, in his way. He is famous for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday. Christ plunges into the uttermost depths of loss, embracing even the threat of nonbeing. In terrible silence, von Balthasar says, the Son descended. And so does the Church, following along in her liturgy: the great silence of empty sanctuaries during the Triduum. Yet all is in the light of the resurrection: God knows how to make something of wounds.

Still, I sometimes fret over whether von Balthasar went and cleaved apart the Trinity.

But there is another part of me that knows that place, that hell. Very well. And God is there, even if all I can manage for worship is silence.

Von Balthasar would say that God doesn’t leave us the last word. Just His.

Survivor.

Scriptorium de l'abbaye de Vaucelles - Nord -

I am alone. The phrase echoed dully in my head, and I scowled at it as my awareness slowly widened to the soft gray of a foggy bay morning. I dragged a hand over my face, sitting up with my head down. Trying to feel my way into some response to the hour, finding only the silent phrase lonely in my skull. It’s what I should’ve said. I am alone. The answer to a question from yesterday.

But not today.

My therapist calls it “putting yourself together.” He means that time when we awaken and prepare ourselves for the day. Mental illness is something of a disintegration, especially for the traumatized, and slowly they (we, I) learn to piece themselves back together. Learn to be aware of a consistent and durable self. Until then, the jagged edges are arranged and scattered anew every day.

I felt angry and sad that I’d only just figured out what to say. For yesterday. I felt even angrier that this was what I had to say. Today. Only now did I register my emotions – just as they drowned me awake.

Maybe that’s what it’s like some mornings: a strange, suffocating too much all empty of light.  A collapsed star.

In any case, I understood that I felt extra upset because I’ve been sick. I tried to file that away as something to forgive myself for. Being sick.

I’ve been sick most of the semester. Not just – you know – sick in the head, but also physically struggling. Thus the medical visits and such, which I hate, since I hate anything associated with doctors. (And I am one. Ha.) Medical visits that require every inch of my strength exactly when I don’t have much of it. Only the sick visit doctors, after all. And the sick are weak. And the weak are not safe in the hands of the strong. It’s an old thought that has followed me wherever I am.

Half my nightmares involve some kind of… I can’t look even in memory. Anyway. Stabbing me apart with needles. Basically.

My therapist says that I’ve had a difficult semester. He says it like it means something significant that I should understand, and I see that he thinks this and I see that I do not understand. It’s something just outside a window. I know it’s there, whatever it is. But I’ve done hard things my whole life, and when I look back all I see is some impossible inability to totally die. And it’s hard to be impressed.

At first there was all that… There were those things that happened, and I wish I’d died. And I tried to forget, and I couldn’t, and then I really wished I’d died. Nowadays I don’t wish it that often, but that leaves me with… Well. Everything else. The whole world outside of dying and forgetting. The whole world. Those terrible things, and some existence shivering in them and without them. And me, armed with only my inability to completely die.

The long road of healing is a a bloody-knuckled fight every damn minute of the day. I have to learn essentially a whole universe of skills. Life. That thing people did while I not-died –  they lived. So natural and so beautiful, and I protected it with the only thing of mine that worked: my mind.

I am amazing at thinking.

Nowadays I want to live too.

I sat miserable in my office, working hard, feeling thoroughly sick and thoroughly awake. It reminded me of something ancient, like a blood memory. Something I knew well. That old, clawing awareness of being able to think and unable to move. Like in the hospital beds, or at home. Eyes blinking wearily over a collapsed body and a living mind; a mind flexing all of its strength until it was as if there was no pain. And no body.

Scowling, I felt the ancient thing rise. That old and terrible awareness. I didn’t want it, not at all, and I didn’t want my body to keep failing and I understand that my mind fails too. I can’t do it anymore, and my poor mind can’t anymore. It can’t. My whole self bleeds together, body and soul. Nowhere to go.

Healing is a new kind of pain. It means that now I can feel the unraveling of my own thoughts. It scares me more than anything. I am amazing at thinking. After all. And then – then it’s gone. Gone. Split apart in some brutal Gnostic fantasy. And I hate watching the thoughts scatter and die. I hate being awake to it, burning alive in the self that isn’t thoughts. Self alive and dead to all.

And so weak. The strong are not kind to the weak.

I came home shaking and near tears, and the thing that kept me from crying was that fierce old understanding that crying would only make it worse – I’d definitely pass out then. Crash my car. Collapse down the stairs. I hated the way my vision would go black as I walked, and then my heart would stutter, shoving blood to my brain and sight to my eyes. And I’d stand there on campus, hand gripping a railing. White knuckles. Breathing calmly. Getting upset would do me no good. It would rob me of whatever blood pressure I had left, and I just wanted to go home. And not go to a hospital.

God, please. Not that.

So I arrived home, grim and pale, and silently curled up on my couch. I slept. Not a tear shed.

I feel a little better. My mind is alive with thoughts, almost angrily. A weary part of me doesn’t want that. Just some rest. I won’t be going to work tomorrow, though I hope I get those damn grades in. If I’m too weak, I’ll have to file it away in my head as something to forgive myself for.

Still. I’m not sure which I’m more miserable over: the fever cold thing that turned into a game of chicken with my own judgment, or that I knew how not to cry as I dealt with every single jolt of pain. I knew. I had to go away. File myself away. And I felt it. I felt myself go away. Felt the lights in the library flickering out one by one until there was just a lonely empty desk. Deliberately, carefully, smoothly.

Don’t think. Don’t feel. Survive.

It’s so fucking lonely. And I should’ve said it. When my friend asked how I was feeling and not what I thought. I’m not as good at that. At feeling. How lonely it is. I wish I’d said it. That this is what I feel most of all: I feel how lonely it can be trying to live.

And I know there’s something just outside the window, but I don’t understand.

A prelude to forgiveness.

“The Church doorway,” Grant Wood

“They don’t understand,” she said, soft on the phone. I sighed and closed my eyes. She meant our vast shared family. She meant mental illness. “No, they don’t,” I said, voice just as soft. “It isn’t their fault.”

I have an enormous network of family members, there are a million, or close to that, and I remember in kindergarten figuring out that when the other kids said “family,” they didn’t mean all their cousins and aunts and uncles and second cousins and so on. Everyone in my family is wildly different, whatever branch of the family tree I imagine.

I have loved and hated that tree. Every inch of it. With all of my being. Loved. Hated.

The side of the family in question, in that phone conversation – well. I won’t name it. The story would wander through different details to arrive at the same destination. Let us leave some things to rest.

Either way, I do not… It has been very hard to face what no one noticed when I was young. The awful things. I do not know how to mourn the horrible, the shameful things – that no one knew. Not really. They didn’t. They couldn’t. My God, they would’ve stopped it. Right? If they just knew. And why didn’t they? It hurts. Why didn’t they know?

My keen awareness of how little others could do for me slices me apart inside, like I’d swallowed razor blades.

I hurt. All I did was hurt. It still hurts.

It has made me angry, this question about the past. Sometimes I thought I’d burn alive right where I stood, consumed by a rage so powerful I feared I wouldn’t survive it. I hated every soul who’d ever known me as a child. Fuck them for never rescuing me. I had never felt such anger. Or, I should correct: I had never realized how angry I was inside. Very, very angry. Burning up.

Sometimes it comes up again, the howling rage. It terrifies me every time, though I do remember I’ll survive it. That it doesn’t make me evil, or a monster, or unredeemable to feel it. For a long time, I worried that I had betrayed my family, and that was the one thing I knew I should never, ever do – betray them. I needed to love them, not hate their guts. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I stop hating them so much? I was the worst, the worst human being, to hate them so much.

And.

Strangely, I have learned that love can survive hatred. Anger, too. It just…doesn’t burn.

That is a mystery to me, that strange quality of love. It has a way of redeeming even an anger so fierce it eats everything else alive. All red and orange claws, all breathless heat. Snarling.

I hear their voices on the phone, and I know. I still love them. I do. Even when it hurts all over again.

It is the case that no one understood what happened to me, or in any case very few did, and definitely no one did anything. It doesn’t matter: I was alone with those feelings. They are painfully difficult even now. It is also the case that no one understood as I fell apart with those feelings and many, many more. I was alone with those feelings, too, hurting in a different way.

And.

It isn’t their fault. Not understanding, whenever they don’t understand. There is much, so much, underneath all that lack. Like some darkly crystalline cave beneath the floorboards. They don’t do it on purpose, not knowing. It’s a twisted history under there, carefully unspoken. They still love me as much as they know how, even when there is so little to hold onto in the dark. Love has a strange way of surviving…really goddamn demented family histories, and gut-wrenching blindnesses, and secret devastations. Not everything survives. Not happily. Even if none of it did: it isn’t their fault. How they are isn’t their fault. And they are still lovable, just the way they are.

Even when I hate them.

Even when I don’t understand them at all.

It isn’t their fault. Somehow. When I first said it on the phone, I did not expect the other voice to understand it, even as it seemed to echo in my ears all new and mysterious. I’d add that a weight was lifted from my shoulders, but really it wasn’t, and really I felt deep sorrow. Sadness at the strange blamelessness of guilt in the world, that saturated and surpassing guilt. The kind of shuddering thing that’s no one’s fault as everyone hurts under its power, as everyone hurts each other – which is their fault, that part.

Is it possible to forgive a strange mess of measureless guilt and (sort of) measurable responsibility?

I worried, sometimes, that to forgive would mean somehow voiding the past. Like it never happened. Like that hurt never cut. Someone once told me that when God forgives us, God doesn’t remember our sins at all. That’s not forgiveness, that’s forgetting. How much more real is it when the dark is there in plain view – and forgiven? In other words, forgiveness is for things that need forgiving – not things that go away. The remarkable turn isn’t so much that the hurt vanishes, but that it is relinquished as it is acknowledged. It is as if it never happened, but only because it did happen and it was forgiven, and somehow the wound itself is more precious because it became an experience of genuine mercy. Remembering the agony becomes a window to remembering that aching relief, that breathless happiness that strangely makes us cry. Why forget that?

“Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I have things I need forgiveness for, too. After all. And I do hope that I can be forgiven, someday, for what I did and do. I hope that those people don’t have to forget what I did, or say it wasn’t real, but can know it in some new and precious way. For them. Not for me.

I need to forgive my young self, too. After all. For all that silence.

And… My family. I understand, a little, the jagged pathways of fault. They don’t understand, didn’t. I barely do. Must I keep waiting around for them to cry for my every tear before wiping them away from all of our eyes (Rev 21:4)? I don’t think forgiveness needs that. Not really. Though of course many other things must pass before grace finds its way through the wounds. It’s not easy. I’m not saying that. And maybe there are some things that wait for another time, a time beyond time, for forgiveness. Hell: it has taken me years to arrive to wherever it is I am. It is somewhere or something, though.

I wouldn’t call it forgiveness. Not from me. Not yet.

It is something like the shadow of forgiveness stretching across an open door.

Who Can Think of It?

“Who Can Think of It?” Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya has a series of horrific and leering political portraits of Spain falling apart before his eyes. Called “The Disasters of War,” they were only published after his death. The court painter – going deaf – revealed himself as a sensitive observer of violence, able somehow to paint with it – to make it real. Famous for his rich colors and smooth lines, everything went black and sharp and stark. As if violence itself skittered through his fingers, spidery and knowing.

They are fascinating. They are brilliant. They are awful. It is possible to see them glaring in a chronological list of his works, right next to portraits of the Duke of Wellington. The contrast cuts as much as the paintings do.

I love them. I love their brokenness. The thick, horrible lines. They say something that I cannot.

They announce something about memories that I have, and for which I have very few words. Very few, even as the memories themselves, firing through my nervous system, return with strangely specific vengeance.

Memory is a complicated thing. Every time we surface a memory – actively recall one, that is – scientists say that we seem able to edit them before tucking them away again. In fact, we frequently modify our memories. The science seems to imply that memory is nothing if not unreliable.

Memory is alive. I don’t know if that means it’s unreliable.

“I don’t remember anything happening to you,” someone in my family once said. I cried. Memory against memory. It’s a bad fight from the start.

I don’t know what Goya did and didn’t see. I know that his paintings are real. I mean that they know something real. They know about it. He knew. It’s on the canvas. He knew something without words. It’s there, remembered, in the paintings.

It is as if the art testifies to the moment that God vanishes from everything all in one horrible, violent instant. There is something very real about atheism, at least this kind. It never sounds like the atheism argued in the academy, so I’m not sure they’re the same. The kind I mean is to have seen God nowhere.

I have experienced that nowhere, that awful blank page. It is its own kind of negation, whatever it is, and different than the logic that would claim there is no God. This other place is simply, violently, nowhere. Apart and alone. Every theology disappears, even the theology that there is no God.

This place, where God is nowhere, I felt it again just yesterday. As a needle carefully punctured my skin, and I felt the sharp burst of pain as it entered and the dull ache as it remained. I watched dark blood, my blood, fill vials. I feel sick and scared just writing the spare words. The vials were for a whole series of blood panels. For my doctor. So I can feel better. But in the moment, I couldn’t remember why I was there.

All was nothing but me and that needle. Nothing at all.

I cried, later, in my therapist’s office, curled into a tiny ball on the chair. “Jesus wasn’t even there,” I whimpered.

You and I could both argue to me that He was, but you and I both know that’s not what I meant.

I was absolutely unable to be anything but alone. (Hell is being alone in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce.) Nothing was anywhere, is what I think I meant. Something like that. Because of my own memories, everything went away. Like it has hundreds of times before. That strange nowhere, where nothing is. Not even God.

I hate that nowhere.

And I wonder if Goya knew it. That place that cannot be thought. Where there is no thought.

Did Jesus know it?

And does God remember me, think of me, when I remember and I cannot think? He must, but that’s not what I mean.

Redemption in the Dark

Jean-Leon Gerome, “Dante and Virgil in Hell”

It figures my return to poetry would be brutal. I hadn’t wanted it to be. I wished to write words with the frail edge of something new. I wanted that so very badly, in a tender and trembling way, unsteady on my feet. What came of it instead was the painful shape of over-saturated rage. And loss. Loss so deep it pauses in a breathless gasp before it can scream. Loss enough, that is, to describe poetic silence.

Poetry was freedom. To me. It was the thing I’d never wanted but found anyway. The talent that was mine without my intending it. The skill so effortlessly my own that it could be nothing but weightless and wonderful. A secret daring that no one, for once, could take and use for their purposes. (How many other times, how very many, I had been asked to speak, to write, to explain, to read, to learn, even to listen – the other things I was good at, always somehow made someone else’s great instrument.) Poetry was straightforwardly useless. It assisted none of my work in the academy, convinced no one to request it violently from my hands. And I loved it for that. Poetry was something I had never been encouraged to do. I didn’t even grow up “artistic.” That was my siblings. I was the one who hated art, the one who wasn’t artistic. I hated subtlety. I hated intuition. I hated feeling. And I loved poetry so much for that. For all the magnanimous reversal that it was.

And then.

I collapsed. Under the weight of a nearly measureless agony. Sometimes people wanted me to explain. How could I? What words are there to describe the motives that made my hand reach for a knife to drag it across my neck? If you do not know, you never will, and I pray sincerely that you never learn. I remember it, all that silence of profound inner disintegration, eyes wide and staring at the lies I could no longer keep.

After all that – after so much – there remained nothing left of me for poetry.

Now was the time to learn how to die. To let myself and the secrets die, though it cost (and costs) so much more than my life. There is no taking up that pulverized human being anymore. I mean that there comes a time when lies end. I cannot be – why won’t you be your old self please? – I cannot be anyone but the one who has learned to die. As if I could go backward and find a self that wasn’t crying anyway. There comes a time, I mean, when the old Adam is buried in the earth with his shame.

I began to ache and complain that I wanted to write poetry again. That it felt hopelessly lost. Still, I yearned. For the first time in a very long time, and in many ways for the first time ever, I yearned. I wanted a poem about learning to die. About the delicate relinquishing of hope. The kind of death that opens up when it closes its eyes.

Then I dreamed of some lines. Lovely and sad. I kept them close, as if to sketch them would shatter them. Tried hard not to try too hard, tried to let the words rest and be what they willed. Not that words are alive, exactly, though they are not exactly not.

I told my therapist how I missed poetry. Cried at a poem I’d forgotten writing but that a friend remembered. A beautiful little poem that I had clearly written as a lark. So simple. So easy. My little play of freedom with its half grin. It was gone, not even there in my mind to be recalled. Buried and gone.

I mentioned my precious lines. My therapist asked me to explain. I stuttered toward the vision, skittish, glancing at him and trying not to blush. The pink ears of a vulnerable thought caught being just that. They were only little words with a vague shape. Embarrassing and unformed. Rough-hewn like a sculpture half begun. I knew enough to know – from long ago – that there was no trying it yet. I had never been a creature who could fumble into a poem and make it right after a sputtering mess.

Besides, my therapist was being encouraging. I had to thwart him.

Eventually, I dreamed of more. So I began to write. I scowled and stared at the blank page, the blinking cursor. Flitted through enough keys and lines to emerge – an ageless time later – with many stanzas and no sense. It wasn’t even poetry, not to my eyes. Anger spiked through my trembling hope, and I raged to my therapist at how awful it was, how it had become something else entirely. Something not lovely at all. And it wasn’t even poetry. My therapist wondered if it really was that bad. I knew it was. I wasn’t being difficult. Not this time. I simply knew. I was simply correct.

I was sad at that. Since it seemed the poem I’d yearned for didn’t exist.

I was even more sad that it wasn’t lovely. That my heart didn’t have that left.

The next day, I still knew it had become something else. I understood in a simple way that my fingers had followed the pattern of something real. The final stanza, the one that had yanked me to a total stop, was much too fierce and firm to be anything else but real. It did not resemble the stanzas that were not poems. It was a poem. The end of one. A different one, one that I didn’t want to write. One that was mine anyway. So very dark. Not lovely at all.

Apparently, I am now a creature that can stumble into poems.

So I cleared the page and placed the end at the end. I drew out another stanza from the mess, saw in it somehow the shape of the real poem that I had – as best as I could tell – no choice but to write. I knew it was the beginning. I simply knew. I made decisions with firm simplicity. Felt out a simple rhyme pattern, fiddling with the rescued beginning, since this poem needed a rhyme. (Not all do.) I was determined. These rhymes would be better than my old tone deaf ones. And so I raised the difficulty level considerably, especially for a return after a long silence. I simply did. Without much thought.

Two other lines, I saved. The rest I buried in the earth. Then I wrote entirely new between beginning and end. Saw the real poem firmly to its conclusion. The grim and angry dark. The one that was my own.

Details of my life were offered up in lines that made them something else. This is the odd redemption that poetry is: where the specific is unmoored from itself, made to drift the way of anyone who reads. My own chronology became a new time, references were dis-ordered for the sake of a new order. I wrote a fiction that says something real. I hewed painful rage into its unmistakeable face – one I’d find in a mirror, one other mirrors would hold.

Brutal. A return so brutal. An unflinching poem about the kinds of things that drove me to the grave.

It is mine. It is what I know. When I think on it, it seems too fitting. Of course it’s brutal. These are the only words that my heart has to give. This is what it looks like to see the dark and die.

Not that there aren’t other words. Only that, right now, these are mine. And in carefully gathering them together to rest in a ribbon on stone – dead flowers – they become, for once, an offering. For once, the dark is redeemed just enough to be a gift.

We tangled together

We tangled together in the shifting dark.
Reaching for what neither had, fingers
gripping nothing tightly, cutting marks.
The bitter trembling not-even-near.
On those hollow insatiable nights.

Once I touched your jaw. A light
thumb tracing a dark curve and gone.
I was all wavering and pulled right
apart as cold eyes settled on
my own and wished I were someone else.

And I didn’t know. How to un-self
the someone neither of us desired,
how the hell to hold still and help
cut me away into the one we required.
I couldn’t fucking figure it out.

I sliced apart my face somehow,
and wept when you stared anyway –
and touched the jagged route
of blood and salt and shaking pain.
Disappointed I was always underneath.

And always I howled with gritted teeth.
It wasn’t fair. I just wanted you to –
I was the one thing you didn’t need.
It wasn’t fair at all. I loved you.
Why the fuck wouldn’t you love me?

And why the fuck would you be
still so bent on holding me close?
Why’d you go and cry and need
so much I’d go and sell my soul
to wipe the tears from your eyes?

We only shared a bed when I cried.
God damn you.
For the dark nights I died a thousand times.
For offering the only touch I ever knew.
And God damn me: I gave myself to you.

The God Who Was Afraid

Superman. Duh.

Superman. Duh.

I remember a Superman cape. It reached almost to my feet, swallowing my skinny child-frame. I must have been three. I remember straightening my shoulders, fists planted at my waist. I was the little girl who wanted to be Superman. The kid who needed to be brave and invulnerable. The memory says more about my young self than I wish it did.

I know I was three because it was the first preschool I attended before we moved. Other than my steadfast and vicious hatred of preschool, I don’t remember much of it. Almost nothing of that first one other than the cape. That, and some godforsaken “Wheels on the Bus” sing-a-long that I passively lip-synced to, bored, ever the quiet little anarchist. God, I hated preschool. Even the second one, whose efforts to get me to eat food-dyed green eggs and ham utterly failed.

Anyway. I wanted to be courageous, indestructible, strong. Superman was all of those things. I can still see myself standing there, silent and shy as always, for once stiffening resolutely with that damned cape across my shoulders. When I think more deeply about it, I see a terrified little kid desperate for ways not to hurt so easily. Desperate to be fearless somehow. Because I already knew the world to be a grim and violent place. Even if only inchoately (I mean, I was three), I grasped some hidden horror just enough to need the cloak of a superhero. This continued with me as I grew. I remember being deeply concerned with this, with who was strong and who was not.

It puzzled me that Jesus wasn’t a hero. He just wasn’t. He was God, sure. But that guy died, too. I’d stare at the crucifix in total sympathy. I felt I knew what it was like to be him. I drew crosses all over everything.

I’d always end up sitting by my very best friend in the world, a patient and sweet girl. She had a native tolerance for my long list of intolerances. She had a gentle way of reaching past my frequent silences. She was the only safe human being in my universe.

(Jesus was something, but not safe.)

What a weird kid I was. Don’t think I don’t know.

I do remember how scared I felt. I do remember thinking the world quite a violent place. I knew this as a simple fact. The world was disturbing: fact. Deal with it or don’t. So I made sure I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Of course, I lost again and again. Little kids don’t win against adults. I do remember those losses – sometimes painfully clear, all etched in glass; other times a felt impression made of bare fragments.

God damn if I didn’t learn how to go down without a fight at all. It was quicker that way.

Then I would fit the mask back on, don the cape. Admit nothing. Quietly tag along with my very best friend, who was brave in ways I very much wished to be.

Jesus was pierced and he bled. I was fascinated by the whole story. It was important to me. Not quite comforting, but definitely real. The world was disturbing: fact. Jesus knew.

It is more accurate to say that Jesus felt all that human flesh would feel at the prospect of death: fear, sadness, repulsion. The Son, the divine Son, felt these in his human flesh. This is an important distinction – that he wept as a man and not as God. It means he felt our fright as we feel it. We human beings. Then, with a breadth only possible to divinity, Christ drew every single one of our feelings to himself. Words begin to fray here, at the edges of a mystery. What I mean is: all of human experience, all of it, has been embraced by God in Christ. That doesn’t make every inch of it good. Just embraced.

Even my experiences.

There are large swaths of my childhood I have not learned to forgive, cannot remember without stifling anger.

I wonder sometimes at how Christ forgave everyone on the cross. I wonder if he’ll forgive me for being so unable to forgive. Or I wonder if that divine mercy toward me will be the painful working out of forgiveness stretched through the remaining hours of my life.

Jesus was never a hero, and certainly has never made me one. I have resented him more than one time in more than one way for that. I mean that I could never be brave enough, or tough enough, or smart enough to win. God lost, and so did I. And I struggled very much to understand.

I don’t know if I understand any better fully grown. Still, my gentle best friend remains so. And she remains braver than me in some secret way that is, I am convinced, closer to the cross than all my scowls and scars and white knuckles. Not that she is willing to lose, or weak. Not that God is, either. There is simply a gentleness required to acknowledge the reality of fear, a tenderness that faces it and somehow passes through to another side. A fierce patience that steps through instead of fighting against, finding a place where fear is, though not vanished, at least transfigured.

I have no idea why gentleness is the key. I don’t know how it doesn’t shatter along with everything else. I don’t know why divinity bothered to be afraid like us. Statements of faith aside – to redeem us, I know – I really don’t get it. The logic is bewildering. But it does require gentleness, this bothering to be like us, whatever the logic is. Not superhuman feats.

Which is good, in the end.

We cannot be superhuman, but we can be gentle at least.