Something felt different as I emerged from the waves a week ago. My feet were back in familiar sand that held a thousand memories, from boogie-boarding with Dad to seminary study sessions to my daughters first introduction to the mighty force of the Atlantic. Within 30 seconds of dropping my bags I was body-surfing, carried along by a power I needed to feel. I’d been pushing the last several months, weary and worn. The energy around me pulsing through rhythmic waves cradled my tired body, carrying me back to shore more whole and free.
On shore, I sat in my chair, shaded by a cheap umbrella and spiritually directed by Elizabeth O’Connor’s classic Search for Silence. I – so often the helper – needed care. I longed for inner silence, a quiet place amidst the noise of so-much-pain in our world and around me. My only prayer during a “dark night” season has been “Lord, help me.” At the lowest ebb, I wondered if my life mattered, my work mattered, my presence mattered. I thought briefly about an early departure.
[ Side note: I was recently reminded through a re-reading of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that depression can lie on the other side of publication, that accomplishment doesn’t really scratch the sacred itch of our hearts. At once, I diagnosed myself with Seasonal Publication Disorder! Aspiring writers – seeing your words in print doesn’t satiate the deep ache. ]
Beneath the umbrella, I began to feel the grief of these last months. I carry the grief of others, but I’ve neglected my own. My work over the next days was to take, hold, analyze, and experience each aspect of grief on its own. One-by-one, I’d acknowledge the presence of a particular source of pain, greet it, and begin my conversation. Sometimes, grief would speak : “Where have you been? I needed to talk six months ago.” Or, “There’s a lot here…sure you want to hear me?”
What was especially present during our days there was the terrible toll of old age on my parents/step-parents. And at least part of my grief was a profound powerlessness to reverse the course of aging and disease and dying in the ones I love. Even sitting for a few hours lured other voices out of the dark, voices whispering that a good son wouldn’t selfishly sit beachside when he could be spending every waking hour with ailing parents.
As is the case so often, with each unique grief came a kind of recognition of my own self-sabotaging control. So much has felt out-of-control. Covid-19, a Presidency off-the-rails, unfathomable injustice, unchecked narcissism in the church, rampant abuse, weary pastors facing criticism for naming racism, weary clients experiencing betrayal and uncertainty and trauma upon trauma. I continue to bear in my being the story of an over-responsible child, the fixer, the one who cannot ever be enough or do enough but is apt to try. So, in late June in my own weariness, I said to Sara, “I need to take July off. I’m not sure what I need beyond that, but I at least need the space to listen.” And as she is apt to do, Sara said, “Ok let’s do it. Where are we going?” It wasn’t hard to land on that familiar, beloved mile of sacred shoreline.
Something changed when I felt the familiar waters around my body and the secure sand under my feet, something akin to the “one day” of poet Mary Oliver:
|One day you finally knew|
|what you had to do, and began,|
|though the voices around you|
|their bad advice —|
|though the whole house|
|began to tremble|
|and you felt the old tug|
|at your ankles.|
|“Mend my life!”|
|each voice cried.|
|But you didn’t stop.|
This was my “one day” amidst the cacaphony of voices, so instead of caving the next demand I kept waiting, kept listening…
|determined to do|
|the only thing you could do —|
|determined to save|
|the only life that you could save.|
The “only life,” of course, was my own.
There are so many voices – many simply internal – that demand more of me.
And so, I often live my old story unconsciously – I am one who gives, who helps, who cares, who listens, who counsels, who advises, who teaches. And, as I realized, I am one who is so very often alone.
In this aloneness (which, by the way, is filled with all sorts of activity and engagement with others), I hold the questions:
Is it all worth it?
Does it matter?
Do I matter?
These feel like terribly self-indulgent questions when I’m busy alongside others. Maybe even unimportant questions. A quiet voice whispers within me, “You’ll be 50 soon, shouldn’t you be over this already? Grow up.” Like every voice arising in the quiet, I listen, welcoming another perspective.
Yet, on this “one day,” carried along by fierce waves and canopied on sacred sand, I heard a deeper voice say, “I see you.”
And a bright light far greater than the Florida sun broke through the dark night offering such deep consolation that I knew things were different in an instant, that I was different.
Years ago, my conversational habits with God featured all manner of theo-babble. There was much talk, but little intimacy. It wasn’t always like that, though. I remember it being simpler when I was a child.
Like many Christian men in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, I’ve played hard to earn my spot on the team. Reading Kristin Kobes Dumez’s extraordinary Jesus and John Wayne these past days, I’m reminded of what my sub-culture demands of men, which as I’ve seen in me and in others mostly leads to exhaustion, shame, and a well-developed and mostly hidden shadow side. Guided by some good therapy, along with mystics and poets of a more risky fidelity to God, I’m inclined to pass on playing the game the way our sub-culture requires, though I’m too chicken to give it up altogether. That’s why I need the sacred sand, the wild waters, and some silence now-and-then – the “one day” where I don’t stop to fix the other, but where I ruthlessly pursue the truth of my sacred life and my secret griefs beyond the helping persona, beyond the good boy.
“I see you,” God said, and in that moment I knew it was God, because there was no demand for an answer, nor an expectation that I dutifully respond with a line from the Westminster Confession or the Psalms. He smiled, and I smiled back. Held in that moment, I knew the “all shall be well” of Julian of Norwich, despite no change in a whole host of events outside of my control.
And so, I write this to remind myself, mostly. I turn 50 in a week, so I’ll leave this as a marker, standing stones to mark passage through this threshold. But I write it with the hope that you might be reminded too, that something of my story might be yours, as well. You see, this longing to be held, known, and seen is not just the primal ache of an infant, but a longing that ripens with age.