“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound…….”
This morning I was making coffee in the kitchen when I heard Ethan flipping light switches in the next room. A little bit later he came to the kitchen and grumbled, “These lights are weird. I can never figure out which switch turns on which light.” My thoughts EXACTLY.
Recently I’ve noticed my irritation when all too often I flip a switch and get no light. I walk a few steps to a different switch and flip it only to produce light in a totally different part of the room. So then I walk across the room and try again with a different switch. Now the light that I’ve just turned on goes dark. And I still don’t have the light I wanted. Every once in a while, I get lucky and the lightbulb I want comes on with my first flip of a switch, but more often I give up in exasperation and just carry on, using whatever light is available.
Why – after nearly 2 years of living in this apartment – don’t I know the switch-light relationships?!? And then I realized, it’s because I go for days, weeks, months without using them! Living at this latitude means we have a long stretch of summer days and nights where it never gets completely dark.
But in the rhythm of seasons, there comes time to pay the price for the seemingly endless summer light, and that time is now. We lost nearly 3 hours of daylight in September and we’re continuing to lose at a rate of about 5.5 minutes per day, on pace to lose another almost 3 hours in October. When we first moved to Anchorage from Oregon in the fall 2012, David made me a graph to compare our sunrise/sunset times with Portland. Right now we are sliding down maximum slope, straight into the deep dark, cold winter and I feel dread rising. It started at the edge of a September sunset while I watched the sun slip behind the mountains, leaving glorious colors of sky to fade into the black of night. It dances with my memories in the chill air of season’s change.
Dark was once cancer in my brother’s body. Dark is death. The loss of a grandparent. A friend. A dream. Dark is a move miles and miles from home. It is marriage in turmoil. It is a miscarriage. Again. Dark is the loss of a job. A career. Uncertainty. It is pain. Dark is anger. Anguish. And grief. Dark is a broken body. In the hospital. Alone. At night. Dark is parenting in moments of fear. It is a lump. A test. A waiting room. Dark is the blank spots in my brain. The terrifying holes I fall in.
“I don’t want this winter!” I proclaim in futile protest. “I’m not ready. It’s too hard. Too cold. Too dark.”
But this evening I pull on my hat and my gloves. And walk into the fading light. I crunch through frosty leaves and icy puddles. Winter is coming. I can feel it. The deep, cold dark. I flip switches that may or may not produce the light that I want. And yet. In a Gospel of John + Barbara Brown Taylor mashup – these words: “There is a light which shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”
There is a light which shines in the darkness.
This is the light that I need.
Last April I got a prescription for my first pair of glasses. Actually, three pairs of glasses. One for reading. One for distance. One for sunshine. I’d been using over-the-counter reading glasses for a couple years previously, so that wasn’t really new, but when I walked outside with my new distance glasses on – OH!!! The world in clean, sharp lines filled with depth and…. glory.
But perhaps the truly amazing part is that in the months since, I’ve actually managed to keep track of three pairs of glasses for three different purposes! This means they matter. Wearing them, or not wearing them, makes enough of a difference that I have figured out routines to help me mostly keep the right pair perched on my nose or
close at hand on top of my head at the right time.
Today I am seven and a half weeks post-op from brevis tendon (ankle) repair and it’s been a TOUGH recovery. I haven’t gone out much and I haven’t read much. And so, I haven’t used my glasses much. But this past week, as I’ve found myself able to focus longer, think more clearly, and read more, I’ve been reaching for my reading glasses more often.
For nearly two months now, I’ve been mostly stuck inside. Sitting with one foot up. My distance glasses lie folded on the side table, waiting for another day.
This was my 3rd surgery in 4 years and I thought I knew the drill. Boy was I wrong. The surgery itself went great. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by my doctor and his team. The anesthesiologist was excellent. He listened well to my history and fears and then made my journey out and back feel like I was a PRO.
My parents came up to help in my first weeks after surgery and I am so grateful. David has somehow managed to keep working right on through these weeks and also stack his after-hours with All. The. Errands. and a huge To-Do List. Friends have filled in gaps. And it’s Alaska so – casseroles stuffed with halibut?!? Yes.
When I went in for surgery on November 16, I knew I was in for a long recovery. The doctor has been clear from the beginning: It’s gonna be long, and hard. This surgery would knock me off my feet and keep me there. For a long time.
What I didn’t anticipate was that waking up on the other side of surgery with my right foot trapped in post-surgical dressing for several weeks, and then stuck in a non-weightbearing boot for weeks beyond that, would send me into some of the worst crazy-brain behavior I know. I’m no stranger to roaming the landscape of my brain and it has some pretty dark valleys carved out by trauma and drugs and pain. I’ve collected some wild stories from my adventures there. But I’ve also done a lot of work, learning how to avoid or manage the Crazy. So I was surprised when this ankle surgery sideswiped me and suddenly I found myself in the all-too-familiar dark, scary places. I never guessed that immobilizing my foot would pave a superhighway back to my accident memories. Some of my new stories are ridiculous and kind of funny. Some are quirky and annoying. I mean….I was annoying. Most of the stories are still too close and too raw for me to find words to tell. But underpinning them all is a deep sense of vulnerability. And in vulnerability, fear. What is it to be unmoored from rational thinking, frantically clawing through panic and so many tears? I hate everything about it.
I have had my feet knocked out from under me, yet again. And not just in a literal sense. Once again I have had to admit that life is fragile and unpredictable. I know too well how it can knock me down whenever it wants to and one of these times it will knock me clear out of the game. I don’t have enough distance from this latest drama – I’m still mostly stuck foot-up in a boot, though at least I can freely take it off now and let my brain breath. But as I begin to sort through what it all means and how I’m going to answer my erstwhile question, this all being true, how are you going to live? I put on my reading glasses and…..
START CLOSE IN
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
Sitting in my chair by the window this morning, I was thinking about my September calendar and only half attending as I read aloud to the boys. Blue sky + white puffy clouds + sunshine replaced yesterday’s cold rain in my window view as my eyes ran fast across the words on the page in front of me. We’ve been working our way through a book list that features early America, and this morning we were reading The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz. It’s a sweet little story for younger kids about life on the western frontier = Western Pennsylvania in 1784. It’s a quiet tale about a little girl, Ann, who has moved with her family from Gettysburg to western Pennsylvania. Ann didn’t want to move west. She misses her cousin Margaret, school, and her life back in Gettysburg.
When we started this book a couple days ago, apparently I skipped the first page, which turned out to be basically a brief introduction by the author. It clearly hinted that something toward the end of the story was true….and cool. I missed it. So this morning when we got to the part where George Washington appeared out of nowhere and asked Ann if he could come to dinner that evening, I guffawed. or something like that.
Then I read the final pages of the book and discovered the “postscript from the author” which essentially revisited the point of the first page: “Most of what happened to her (Ann) in this book is just a story, but some of it is true. There really was an Ann Hamilton; she was my great-great grandmother. As long as she lived, she told the story to her children and her children’s children, about the wonderful evening when George Washington rode up Hamilton Hill.”
Ah well. That IS cool.
But just prior to reading this remarkable bit about a famous dinner guest, I had been drawn out of my plans for September by this scene where Ann receives a surprise new cover for her diary:
Ann fitted the new deerskin cover over the diary. It was very handsome, made from the underpart of a deer’s skin where the brown shades into a honey color. It looked like a real frontier diary now, Ann thought as she stroked it. She began to turn the pages over, re-reading parts she had written. All at once it struck her that on the inside her diary wasn’t much like a frontier diary. For the first time she noticed that she had hardly written anything about the Western Country. Most of her entries were about Gettysburg, about Margaret, about her homesickness. If any outsider were to pick up this diary and read it, he might not even know where it had been written. She turned the pages more slowly. She had never mentioned what Hamilton Hill looked like. Ann jumped up. She didn’t want to think about Hamilton Hill now. She didn’t care if her diary did have a handsome new cover, she didn’t feel one bit like writing in it. She went inside the cabin and put the diary up on her shelf.
All day long as Ann went about her chores, she felt out-of-sorts and out of courage (emphasis mine). It wasn’t only that the McPhales had gone East while she was staying behind. She didn’t know what was bothering her, but everything she did went wrong. She cut her finger when she was chopping pumpkin for her mother to make a pumpkin pie. She spilled half a pail of milk as she was taking lunch to the men in the field. She caught her dress on a prickly bush and tore it. And every time she picked up the baby, he cried.
“This just isn’t your day,” her mother said toward the middle of the afternoon. “Why don’t you go on down the road and try to find some grapes? You’ll like that. But mind you don’t go too far.”
Oh Ann!!! How I know you, dear child!! That afternoon trip to find some grapes turned up a very famous dinner guest, and whatever I may think about the art of storytelling here, I found compelling messages embedded:
1. Sometimes life takes us places we don’t want to go.
2. Sometimes the effort and energy required to inhabit a place takes all the effort and energy we can muster and we can’t accurately find words. Or don’t have any.
3. Sometimes we need time and space to just go look for grapes. It is a gift to have people in our lives who recognize this and even more, to help make it happen.
So now……think George Washington’s coming to dinner, or maybe more to the point: thread from a great great grandmother.…After I finished reading and was thinking on these things, I came across this song entitled North, which was inspired by the artist’s newly purchased home but indeed I found so much more. (To be clear – I am not simply talking about geographical Place in this post. Though the irony of this song title is not lost on me!)
4. As we inhabit whatever our place, may we find the strength and the nerve that it takes…..Give us Bread, Give us Salt, Give us Wine.