Mending Memories

korravenomredlotus

I know why I keep watching them. The handful of episodes from this one cartoon. Of all things. But I know: I know what it reminds me of, and I know that what I remember hooks its way through my brain and pulls – and then that broken part of me wakes up and steps automatically into the shadows. Tasting it, I turn around, reset the pulleys, and deliberately draw myself to the dark. Again and again. This is how torn memories live on; this is how we try to stitch them back together.

This kid, this young woman – Korra – has been captured. She’s important, this character named Korra, because she is something special and powerful called the “Avatar.” It matters to the plot, although not really to my memories. She’s a child, barely the age of my own students. This matters. She’s restrained, held in the air Christ-like in chains. This matters too.

The fantasy reminds me just enough and not too much. A threatening ghost. I do have specific memories of trauma, though most are confused and fragmentary. Still, some crinkle in my hands like something wrapped up and brand new. I remember being held down at my wrists and ankles. More than once, though there’s one time in particular that refuses to fade. To see something like it on the screen is to somehow to experience it without experiencing it.

korra poisoned

So I watch as the bad guys poison the child. I never know if it’s the poison sinking into her skin or the way she jolts in pain, limbs taut, unable to fold in on herself. Whatever it is, I jolt, too, and I never seem able to look away. Watching attentively, remembering… Something. Many things. They’re never clear to me, the rush of memories, but the feeling is exquisite: hurting badly while stretched out, fighting not to flinch.  Ex-quaerere – exquisite – comes from a word that means “to seek,” refers to the perfectly sought and found. Exquisite pain. Instantly, I know the feeling again. That strangely thin terror, frail and tremulous, unable to comprehend surviving. The feeling is the memory.

But here is where Korra changes and I do not.

korra zaheer

The young woman awakens in her most powerful form and breaks free, snapping the links of titanium chains. She fights, furious, wielding devastated revenge. It is not quite enough, and that not quite is something I know. She still almost dies. The poison eats away at her, and her enemy literally tries to steal her breath away. That flickers like something in the back of my brain – I don’t know what. The heroes capture the bad guy, and poor Korra is freed of the poison (mostly).

I don’t know what it would have been to escape. I watch her fight and lose and win, and this is to experience it somehow. To somehow dream of what it might be like to live outside a tragedy. She fights, and I see in her reckless anger my own. She colors in the details, and so do I: to have wanted so badly to claw free, the rage that kind of feeling requires, the rage that still sits there deep in my chest. Hot anger that conceals trembling fear.

She lives, but she’s still hurt – she’s not the same – and that’s a feeling I know too. Or rather, I know what it feels like to be broken until feeling itself seems to have gone away. It matters that she doesn’t make it out whole. It makes a difference, draws me close. I watch it again, that past and that sorrow living on in me and on the moving screen. I’ve done things like this before. Gotten caught in a mimetic loop. It’s something that the traumatized do. I sit almost helpless, obsessed, aching to watch again and again – and again. Trying somehow to safely touch the memories, searching for a way to escape them.

Mourning what did happen through something that didn’t.

red lotus end

The birth of memory.

Study of a figure for Hell, John Singer Sergeant

Only last year, my mother was telling me a few details about when I was born. The myth itself sits heavy on my shoulders, and has rested there my whole life. We spoke of it so many times: how I came three months early, I almost died, my mother almost died, and I was baptized immediately. I’ve seen the photos. My mother, rail-thin and pale, dark hair and glasses just like me these days. My two-pound self lying there in a clear plastic box, tubes and needles everywhere. The red of my skin, which didn’t soothe into the soft pale of a newborn. Unnatural. I’ve looked at the images my whole life.

My therapist says I need to remember that child. The little baby alone in the incubator. For the first few months of my life, I only rarely received affectionate touch. My parents had to scrub themselves perfectly and wear gowns. The other touches: they were needles and pain. There wasn’t the snuggling regular newborns receive. The constant soft assurance. Babies are shaped by their early months. Science shows us this.

Me: I was primed by a brutal world.

I hate the science. I hate the goddamn facts that point like daggers to my painful shyness, the tearful anxieties that haunted me through school. Struggling to feel attached, which worsened as the doctors did. I hated the doctors, hated them more and more as I saw them more and more. Sometimes I think: I just couldn’t seem to live or die. I feel so angry at that child, can’t seem to avoid hating myself at any age, and I blame myself. Sometimes for just not freaking dying. The anger conceals terrible loss, terrible disappointment.

In a world that will send no one to rescue me.

My mother told me that when I first came home from the hospital – in Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, because they didn’t make clothes for premies then – she sat with me and held me all day. Just held me. I try to picture it, and I’ve made it a memory of my own, though of course I don’t actually remember anything. I treat it as if I do. A memory of how much my mother suffered and cared. And simply that she held me. I don’t have a memory of her holding me, not ever. I know that she did. But I don’t remember, and I don’t know why.

Flesh hardened for an unkind world doesn’t remember touch, I suppose.

My sister doesn’t like it when I say these things online. She says I never remember the happy things. I do – and I don’t. And I don’t like it when she suggests I’m not remembering it right. I’m worried it’s true – and I know it’s not.

Once she spoke of my life like it came to me easily, my success, like an unrolling carpet. I saw something then: that certain things are very, very easy for me. That this was painful for her to see. School was never so simple for her. That I forget. I also understood that she didn’t, she can’t, know what it felt like inside. And both are true: school was really goddamn easy even when I missed half of it sick; also, I missed half of school sick.

God damn high school. I have dim memories. It all runs together, the shapeless days and me half-dead inside. Deeply withdrawn, deeply religious, hyper-intellectual. I still get that way in the summer, because summers are still the most like back then. (And the world is brutal.) Most of the real remembering is impossible. So when I seek to reference high school in class, I ask students for their memories. I can’t offer any of my own.

And I still can’t fully remember what happened to me. The really bad things. They are purely concentrated conjectures, perhaps, that try to provide answers for feelings I have. Their reality is more in the shape of my pain than their flickering, tenuous concreteness. My body remembers something. The confusing flashbacks to hospitals, the sudden crawling spider-waves of fears – these are memories of a kind. Recollections of a body already long primed by a brutal world, shaped to perceive what hurts.

No one will come and rescue me from all that. From the memories and suffering and confusion. I’m sorry, but it’s true. No one will glide in and carry me away. No one ever has. No one at all. They can’t. Lift me from the waters all you want: I cannot be made to breathe. Sure, there are machines; medicines. But don’t mistake those for breathing.

This is the impossible conundrum of freedom: that to be had, it must be used. Even when the free one in question desperately is not.

Because there isn’t some moment of titanic willpower into being better. Not from things like this. Sometimes I think mental illness terrifies people because it exposes the limits of our willing. My suffering isn’t actually explained by any of the memories, you see. Not quite. Yes, in part – and yet not. My sister remembers our childhood, and she makes an effort sometimes to set her memories against mine. But the suffering isn’t in the memories themselves. Not quite. I could take control if it were true, if everything came to remembering – or not remembering. If it came to “moving on.” Time doesn’t work like that, though, and neither do memories – we can’t will them away.

Remembering is a strange sacrament. These words and symbols that somehow more than they are – even pain. The fragility of a memory isn’t the problem so much as the strength of what they impart. A brief half-trace can burn all over.

Even if everything were reducible to the trauma of my birth – which it isn’t – and the rest is just a self rather helpless before experiences that would never hurt anyone else, it would mean so very little. The answer. If it were all that one thing. Like it always was, growing up: “She’s a premie, so…” God dammit, I’ll never escape the shadow of being born. And neither will you. Part of what being born means is that you will never be able to summarize yourself.

Being unable to recount high school doesn’t leave me unmarked by it. The lack of memory shows me how the past is more than what I am able to see in it. Even in the presence of memories – like the time a teacher asked me what happens to us when we suffer, and I felt the whole world of a suffering adult settle on my shoulders – I do not fully understand.

Trauma is a particularly painful and broken way to remember. This doesn’t make it unreal or more real than the rest. (As if suffering could summarize me instead.) But it does hurt, far too much, and we at least must say that memories ought not do this. Something must somehow break the hold. Yet what would it be, that thing, if you cannot offer it and I cannot either? We don’t like to ask that question. This one than mental illness lays to bear.

The obvious implication is that my spiritual powers are not enough. We think we see guilt on the faces of the mentally ill, some kind of failure on their part. No: they are signs of a frightening impossible. The uncomfortable proposition that we are not enough for ourselves. Nor even for each other.

There is a word in Latin: conveniens. Thomas Aquinas uses it to discuss when something is “fitting.” It isn’t necessary; it isn’t arbitrary. It fits, makes sense in the strange way only beauty makes sense: inexplicably reasonable. Of course, of course – that just suits you. It just does. Conveniens.

There is a doorway somewhere in our imaginations and wills, there where memories and dreams live. A door that can’t be made – not with human hands – nor opened. But by some fitting measure there is a way the heart (which dreams and remembers) can be soothed into the perfect shape to open it. The measure of a different willing, a will that is not the heart’s yet not without the heart. So suitable it goes on unnoticed in the beating dark. There may be no memory of it, none at all. Or the recollection may rise up sudden from the past in some future far from now.

A grace that doesn’t rescue so much as it breathes within, and the dead gasp awake.

Paradoxes and Double-Vision. (There is more than one reality in a single life.)

“The Drowned Cathedral,” M.C. Escher

By the time I was twenty-eight, I had defended my dissertation, earned my doctorate, and agreed to a tenure-track faculty position across the country from where I grew up. I am very, very proud of these facts. They mean that I did something quite hard at a younger age than most. They mean that I am very, very good at what I do. These are facts that even at my darkest I’ll be able to call up and hold onto as real. I have also suffered immensely under the cross of mental illness. My life has threatened to splinter apart from it. This is also real, also true, and I don’t care who knows this about me. My colleagues have been nothing but supportive, for which I am both lucky and blessed, and if I know one thing about suffering, it is this: keeping it a secret makes it worse.

My mind is good and my mind is wounded. I can be both. One does not invalidate the other. There is a part of me that loves the apparent contradiction of a trustworthy and untrustworthy mind. Take that, Gnosticism and René Descartes.

There is more than one truth of mine that gathers in a complexity like this.

One of the symptoms of depression and anxiety is a kind of hyper-attention to a single truth. The truth of knowing that a thing can be hurtful or unstable, or that life is profoundly sad. We all know things like this. The one who suffers knows only this. It’s not that people with mental illness believe lies, though some do. It is much more that someone is unable to receive any other truth.

There is no “bright side.” There is no “safety.” Not for the person whose world has narrowed to darkness or danger. And they (we) cannot be argued out of it. What others say has very little purchase. Because the person who does knows nothing but danger does not think that safety exists at all. They’re not living in an alternate reality; they’re living in a single aspect of the truth. The world is very unsafe. Especially in a panic, the one truth is literally all they can think of.

I remember being able to think of nothing else but my own death. I remember this terrible repetition, this single fixation. And it made sense. It felt entirely logical, appeared intellectually and emotionally coherent. I was abused, and I never said anything, and no one knew. That is terribly sad. That is a harsh reality that makes living hard. It was easier, in a way, to think of death. It meant I could concentrate on my loss instead of a life lived through loss.The mind tries to preserve itself.

The more I focus on how to live these days, the more challenging it becomes to come to terms with my losses. It is a kind of mourning. A grief over what gave out and gave in. All those many things.

I love my parents. I have never once doubted that they love me. They said so, and they tried to show me so. And still they didn’t notice this dark secret. They struggled to assist a terribly shy and emotional child. They didn’t know about mental illness. Even so, it means everything to me that they were at my dissertation defense, that they saw me do what I am very good at doing. They wanted to be there. My sister was there too. Because they love me. They still dragged me to hospitals, struggled to notice year after year of trauma. They watched much of it. It hurts. Their care and my horror can both be true even if none of us understand.

My mother sometimes held me. Eventually I didn’t want hugs at all.

It’s not like I never assisted in my collapse. I have always have a hard time receiving affection, and being nudged to go hug and kiss my relatives felt like torture. Encouraging me to go do the thing I hated made me more afraid of it. I found what praise I received intolerable. It’s an unfortunate mix: parents who were not quite aware of certain hurts, and my own inability to feel comforted. Each assists the pain of the other. Even recently, my dad said he’s proud of every little thing his children do. I grumbled at the phone and felt the weight of two truths: that he is and always has been proud, and that he never expressed it in a way I understood. In a further prism, he didn’t know that I didn’t understand and I never said so.

Could my mother predict how alienated I felt from her, from women, when she wanted me in a dress so badly? No. Why was it so very important to her? Why did I intuit from this that I’d never be pretty? I don’t freaking know.

And I love them. So fucking much. My mother helped school me into the talented learner that I am. She was almost always at my side. Or there was being able to talk religion with my dad. The times he assured me it’s okay to ask questions about faith. And my mother’s simple faith, so much wiser. The closeness we once had. I never felt close to either, though I know they felt close to me. I complicate the good things.

I care that they baptized me when I was born and dying. I care that they cared about that. What better gift to give a child but faith, even if only briefly? I lived, but no one forgot. The twelve weeks I wasn’t in the womb, the two-pound weight. The incredible survival. The uncertainty over what kind of life that would leave me.

My siblings helped me. Especially my sister. When I became very, very sick. She was there (except when she wasn’t, some part of me hisses), and she has carried me down staircases. Still I withdrew from everyone, including her, even in high school. I loved them and I love them and didn’t – and don’t – know how to love them. Not at all.

Yet I can be incredible at supporting others, listening. I can be very, very soft. Very nurturing and attentive to life. And I can vanish too. I tried to kill myself, after all.

I have known God, I have lost God. I don’t really understand my relationship with God right now. I have asked why we suffer, and refused to ask at all. I flourished in school and was still very lonely. I taught myself nearly half of high school, which is cool to say but was the worst. I have never trusted anyone with my body, and the one man I did repeated all the old hurts. Which is sad. There are memories I can’t stand. There are those I can’t live without. I didn’t really understand that I was smart until much later, and I never figured a kid as shy as me could grow up to be a great speaker.

Weirdly, I didn’t know I was funny. Dammit. I could’ve killed it in school.

On and on and on. My childhood was good; my childhood was awful. My family was wonderful; my family failed a lot. (They have always been good people.) It seems to me to be very difficult to hold these things together, and that each truth lives in me and I live in them – or I’m learning. I’m not sure I can be expected to put the fragments together. I’m not the one who holds the whole of me. That I know.

I am aware that I focus on the dark things as I struggle to trace the cracks in my heart. All are true and all are not everything.

I trust that there is time for mourning, always time. And time to live on.

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.

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.

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.

Confessions of the Neither Left Nor Right (Nor Up Nor Down)

"a dog is not a toy," by Paul Stumpr

“a dog is not a toy,” by Paul Stumpr (Flickr)

I suppose, if forced to collapse to the left or the right of Catholicism, I’d scowl slightly and twitch to the right. But I’d resent being compelled. I admit I have a panic button that, when struck, makes me look a lot like a toddler with plush doll versions of Ireneaus, the Virgin Mary, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, hugging them close and yelling, “BUT I NEED THEM ALL FOR THE CAR RIDE!”

I’ll not be very easily or pleasantly unhanded of the great theologians of the tradition. (Yes, Mary was one of them.)

My stubborn clutch of the past makes me something like a conservative, I guess. If by that we mean “someone who likes old things.” I do like old things. Hell yes. If it means “against change and development,” I don’t even think that’s possible for a Catholic. And if it means “angry/stupid,” I honestly don’t remember signing up for that one at my baptism. Not that I remember my baptism. I’m just saying: my baptism is carried along by all the baptized who have come before me. So I like old things, yes.

All the same, tradition without conscientious engagement with the present is no longer itself. Jesus did not say to the Apostles, “Go therefore and ignore people.” The strange adventure of faith means, somehow, a consistency with its origins that is at the same time creative and new. Now, we might well disagree on what that looks like – tell me I can’t bring plush Saint Benedict along and watch me throw a fit – but we must at least agree that faith has to live. That it cannot simply look “the same,” since that ends up being code for “my favorite century of Catholic history.” We are responsible for all the centuries. Including this one.

Which is, I suppose, what the left is said to wear on its banner. So I guess I’m twitching left now. I don’t know: I have two hands, a left and a right. Are we talking about my hands? I have two. You have two, I hope. And if you don’t, you will in Heaven.

I don’t know what side I’m on. I want to be on Christ’s side. “O good Jesus, hear me; within thy wounds hide me; suffer me not to be separated from Thee,” as the Anima Christi says. That seems like a great side to be on, whatever it looks like. And I will suggest only that it looks like Christ. I will add that it probably does not look like us.

I mean, I wouldn’t attend a parish I myself ran. I know that much.

I find them all rather useless, these old little boxes people keep trying to stuff each other into for some reason. I guess it’s easier than facing how complicated the Church and her people are. In any case, I know I’m small, but I freaking hate being shoved into a locker. Stop it. I’m not a freshman in high school anymore, and when I was, the practice amongst the senior girls was to hiss at freshmen girls. Which was just…weird, and not all that frightening.

It might be healthier to think of loving soft things like a toddler does instead of choosing sides. Not to mention it’s infinitely cuter. Essentially, the first and last principle of Christian thought is charity. If that is not what drives what we say and how it reaches others, I’m not sure what we’re doing.

I’m not saying “let’s all get along,” though that would be nice. I am saying we ought to think seriously about what charity might look like, and leave open the possibility that we are not at present being very charitable at all. Even if we are right.

I would very much like to share my very huggable Aquinas with you. He’s so fat, it’s easy to cuddle with him. And what would you share with me?