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.

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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.

Imagination in Ruins

“Ruins of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche,” Bernardo Bellotto

Oh, the things students say. One sat in my office, face open and sincere. And then she said: “My favorite things you say aren’t about Jesus. They’re about love. I’m sorry, I just love the way you talk about love.”

I blinked, not exactly shocked. Well, not since the first time such a comment made me stutter and blush until I almost ran from the room. It happens once or twice a semester. Love comes up in theology, especially the more philosophical and existential sort that I teach. It is a way to reach students who sure as hell don’t care about God, but who do care about love.

Coughing away some nerves, I quirked my mouth into a half grin. “Well. Thank you. And please don’t be sorry.”

I really hate when people are sorry for thinking something.

She shifted, drawing in a breath and hesitating. I saw the question in her eyes before she whispered: “How do you know so much?”

I tried not to scowl. “Oh, I’m observant, you know.”

“You must have loved so deeply.”

Now I was trying not to roll my eyes. I know what sort of love she meant, and it definitely was not friendship or how I love kittens or anything like that. I verbally prodded her to move on, and she let it go.

Except.

She’s not entirely wrong.

And yet –

She is.

There are many, many kinds of knowing. None of them are secret unless we insist on not paying attention. Mostly we do insist. So it becomes very hard to explain that there is an imaginative shape to knowing that allows us to extend experience into new anticipations of the future, and even to foreshadow what has not been experienced at all.

Because the truth is my actual, real experiences of “love” are more horrifying than beautiful and romantic. Not that I went and decided to follow the path of amazingly traumatic options like it was the greatest idea ever. But there you go. My first-hand knowledge of love is not great. So how do I end up with students all in my face about love?

Our knowledge does not, and cannot, end with what we directly understand. Human beings are not reducible to their experiences. And thank God. Else all I’d be able to say about romantic love is that it is awful and violent and it is a mystery to me why people want it ever.

I rarely indicate that I am aware of the dark undercurrents that can claw apart human desire. In the classroom especially, I announce a much different reality. I think it is important to leave hope in the hands of those who bear it. So I do my best to interact with that hope and imaginatively grasp what love might be like, what it should be like. The ruined pieces of me, the burned hallways and wrecked rooms savaged without my consent, seem to somehow know.

So. How does one imagine what one does to know?

Something important that we do all the time is observe others. We watch them and imitate them; we draw close to people and learn what is wonderful about them and what is hurt. Their own experiences live in them as a portrait of what we might want to be, or might not. We are not, in other words, only thoughtful about our own experiences.

That is one way we broaden our ability to understand what might be real. Another is the inward orientation we all have toward what Plato would call “the Good” and that we might experience as a simple yearning for more. We want to improve, somehow, at something. Or somewhere. We want to “get better.” However we put it, we all desire a richer form of life. That desire itself is an anticipation of, a willing of the potential for – a hope for more than we have yet known.

There is yet that strange imaginative impulse that insists on trying to grasp more than we know before we have even encountered it. It has a way of attempting to know before we know. Things like daydreams about that future job. That future family. That extravagant new whatever from Apple. None of us has yet known that reality, and – not to be a raincloud – it might never happen. All I mean is it has yet to be at all, doesn’t exist yet. Still we imagine.

It is beautiful to imagine.

Beauty, you see, shapes the best imagining. Beauty is what draws together what we already know with the “more” that we yearn for wordlessly. We try to dream about beautiful things, and dreams are only really beautiful if they stitch together fragments of what is true with care for what is good. Or else we will only be fantasizing, or having a nightmare. When we imagine, we anticipate a better self. That better self becomes real for us in figure, in a shadowed “almost.” An almost that we might yet make real.

So I think that artists at their best are incredibly capable dreamers, and in an uncanny way they are able to know things that they don’t know at all. Perhaps that they never will. Sure: Rilke was a selfish womanizer. And still: that poetry. It is more than he was.

I was once a poet of sorts. I’ve admitted that before here, and I continue to feel sadness at the ways I lost poetry somehow. Perhaps there is darkness that poetry cannot overcome. It’s only poetry, after all. It’s not a light from Heaven. Still, I miss it and hope for its return.

Because the best of me was alive when I wrote poems. In my little way, with what little I could sew together. And through it I could do some remarkable things. Like the time – maybe my favorite time – that I wrote a love poem (of all things!) for someone else. On something of a dare, I wrote a poem for a husband to his wife. (Yeah, do the difficulty math on that one.) I remember smiling softly after they gently teased me to write a poem, saying I’d do it. Meaning it.

I remember walking through the cool sunlight in the afternoon of wintry Milwaukee, closing my eyes and thinking of him. Thinking of her. Drawing together everything I knew about them and everything else I knew, including what I did not know. Letting it blur together. All so I could create something beautiful and good and true.

And I did. Especially, I think, with respect to each of them. I created a poem an engineer might write if he could write poetry. I drew a picture of his love for her, and of someone she loved. I held in mind her love for him as much as his. This fiercely independent woman who would not be bothered with love unless it were equally as fierce and free. Wasn’t that what she loved about him? Wasn’t that the way he loved her? Even if he had the most irritating way of saying it – “you’re mine” (I mean, come on, dude) – didn’t the fumbling words mean something else they both knew?

Then I lit a fire underneath each stanza.

Because love is yearning.

Love wants.

With no violence at all.

And I included his damned favorite phrase, and made it shine with the secret gold it concealed.

None of which, of course, is what I know. And, somehow, is what I know. The poem was as much theirs and as much the impossible imagining of my own ruined heart. I include it below, and if you can’t see why I miss poetry after reading it, well. I don’t know what to say to you that isn’t mean. Just read it gently, is all I ask. It’s an important part of me I want back.

Wrought

I am not weak.
I am wrought iron that, once
bent in bright primordial fires
(long before I met you)
never takes another shape.
I am not weak,
though all my angles,
my permanent contours,
turn to you.

I cannot change the way,
I cannot change –
my whole life curves toward you
like so many determined lines.
Threads gathered in and held
in your hands.
I could no more refuse you
than I could refuse myself.

Everything is yours.
My enduring curvature,
wrought before I knew you,
made for you alone:
time before time, dark
ages fashioned me for you –
and you alone.
And you…

And if you bent yourself close
to me, and felt the gentle
cool of my lasting shape,
the way my arms were made
to hold you (and you alone) –
you could rest here (with me).
If you curved yourself close,
you could feel that I am yours –
and you are mine.

All the Saints and All the Souls

“The Passover in the Holy Family Gathering Bitter Herbs,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

My great-grandfather was an angry man. A drunken, racist misogynist. I hated him. And I’ll remember him, often, with my students. When they make Heaven all rather easy. “Really?” I’ll ask, eyebrows raised. “How about the man who scowled at me just for being a girl?” Not that I think he is in Hell. Only that not all souls are easy to think about, and not all mercies simple to imagine.

So, yes, I hated him. My great-grandfather. Not that I am proud to admit it. Nor was it the powerful hate of venom and spite, the hate of action and consequence. I felt the worse kind of hate: the fearful kind, which knows nothing but trembling inadequacy. It was hard, as a young teen, enduring his scowl. Watching him grin at my brother, the young man saddled with the family name. I did not feel that my brother was lucky. I imagined that it was difficult and painful for him in other ways.

I never heard anyone say anything nice about my great-grandfather. I never saw him smile, except at my brother, and that did not seem nice at all. (Though, naturally, I took it as an opportunity to ditch my brother and sprint out of the room. Because I was much more coward than saint.) And I never saw him without a drink.

Many people have stories like this about one person or another. Sometimes these are the only stories they have at all.

My great-grandfather’s funeral, which I remember in broken pieces, was awkward and sad in all the wrong places. He had lived to his mid-nineties, so most of the people he had known were already dead. The minister, of a Protestant sort, had not known him and struggled to find things to say. I remember asking my dad difficult questions about my great-grandfather, wrestling with what the death of such a man meant. I did not hate him so much anymore. I worried about him, even while I hurt deeply over the memories of him.

He was Irish-Protestant. He made bathtub gin during Prohibition. He worked on the mail cars for the railroads, and for that he had a switchblade and a gun – in case of robbery. I think he had a flask, too, but I’m no longer sure. He seemed like he had one, maybe, is what that almost-memory probably means.

I remember the last time I saw him, and this is really the point of writing him down. The point of the challenge of his being, which was so beleaguered by anger and bitterness.

He was in a home by then. My mom said we were going to see him. I did not want to, because he scared me. My brother was with us too, and I think my sister as well. We are all fuzzy. But I remember my mom said we should see him, that it was the right thing to do. I did not understand.

She bought some cards for him. One was of a cute puppy, and that is the only one I remember. We walked into his small room, and he was sitting at his old desk – a desk that rests now at my parents’ house, and which will be my brother’s someday. I have no idea when or where it is from, though I am sure someone knows. There were nice pens on its surface, and papers and envelopes neatly stacked. “He likes to write letters,” my mother whispered into my ear, “and it is hard, because so many people he knows have gone.”

That was the first stab of sympathy I had ever felt for him.

My mom stuck the cute puppy on his wall, and a few other things. All colorful and lively and so unlike him. She spoke to him cheerfully about how we had come to brighten up his room and to say hello. She ignored his scowl, and asked how he was doing. I can’t remember what he said in reply. I stuck close to my mom, both for protection and yet somehow determined to protect her right back. I can’t remember if I said anything, or if I had a real moment of gentle awareness. I wish I did, but I probably didn’t.

I was rather familiar with death by that age. All too familiar. I had seen it in faces at hospitals, had brushed close to it more than once myself. This kept me haunted, not brave. Not at all.

It should be obvious, you know: I was and I am in terrible need of mercy, too.

My mother said it was the right thing to do, and of course it was. I wonder sometimes if she was remembering the old Corporeal Works of Mercy, which we had memorized at Catholic school. One of them is to visit the sick, and another is to bury the dead. None of them say that we are to do these things only for the kind and good-hearted, for the people we like. We are supposed to care for everyone, in every way. My mother knew that, and I am glad she did. The memory remains with me with a curious sort of power: both my young weakness and my mother’s courage. She insisted that everyone should be cared for, perhaps especially the ones who make it very hard.

God makes no exceptions. Nor should we.

This is what is so very demanding about Christianity.

There is an ancient theme in Christian thought called apokatastasis, a theme both condemned and defended. It refers to the idea that all will be redeemed, even the fallen angels. While this latter portion has been firmly rejected, the genuine hope that mercy will reach all human flesh has remained with the Christian tradition – even as it remains controversial.

We still pray for the entire world in the liturgy. The whole world. For all time.

And why not?

Mercy, real mercy, has a deep cost. It is no easy or simple thing, as we too readily imagine nowadays. But I do not think it a cost God is incapable of paying. Or, if we must part ways with economics, I have a hard time imagining a place where God’s infinity does not reach. I have a hard time imagining the prayers of the Church as futile.

Surely my mother carried God’s own mercy with her when we walked into that dim and lonely room. Surely the prayers of the Church echoed in her very steps.

And, perhaps, God’s mercy found me, too, in my great-grandfather’s presence. Mercy gently goaded me. Through him, somehow, as well as through my mother. Why not? Who says that is impossible?

I do not imagine that my great-grandfather is in Hell. I am not able to know what that would mean. The mind cannot comprehend loss like that. I wonder instead what he might look like transfigured by mercy. Maybe I wouldn’t recognize him, since I knew him so little and since I only knew the bitter old man. I’d like to think I would recognize him, though. I’d like to think I’d be very happy to see him, God willing, and he me.