October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!
When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.
South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.
“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”
I never know quite how to respond to these questions.
After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.
When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.
Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.
Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.
Other times, I talk about the war.
It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.
Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.
Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”
Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.
And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.
I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.
We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.
We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.
Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.
We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.
As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.
Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.
We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.
Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.
By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.
I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.
The bus pulled to a stop.
We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.
Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.
We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.
Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.
My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?
I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.
As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.
More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.
Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?
But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.
The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.
The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.
There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.
So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.
I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.
Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.
Scaring us was a way to pass the time.
When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.
Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.
Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.
The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.
Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.
I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.
After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.
October 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
In my family, we have a tradition.
It began a year before I was born, back when my parents were newlyweds, and like almost every other family tradition out there, it’s somewhat peculiar.
My mother wanted a cat. She’d grown up in rural Montana surrounded by animals of all different kinds – frogs, wild geese, a beloved Boston Bull Terrier – and when the church’s pastor announced at the end of Sunday service that there was a box of kittens waiting to be adopted in the reception room, she looked over at my father with pleading eyes.
To which he emphatically replied, “No.”
The way my mother tells it, they were just going to take a look. Scratch a pink nose, tug a triangular ear, rub a furry belly. I have my doubts about this. I am fairly certain that my mother never planned to leave that church without a kitten.
In any case, they had just entered the gymnasium, the cardboard box on the other side of the room, when one of the kittens boldly climbed the box’s side, sauntered over to where my mother stood, wrapped its claws around her ankle, and sunk its teeth in.
For anyone else, this would have been reason to shriek out in pain or, perhaps, kick the cat across the room. But not for my mother. Instead, she looked down at that fuzzy fur ball and cooed.
The kitten was small and black, with bright yellow eyes.
“No,” said my father. “No. No. No.”
But the kitten was already in my mother’s arms, batting at her chin with its tiny clawed paws. And so, my parents left that church, a tiny black kitten snuggled in my mother’s coat.
And because the cat was black, as black as those cats in horror movies who howl and run out of dark alleyway shadows, and because my parents have a wry sense of humor, they named the kitten Diablo – Devil in Spanish.
Thus the tradition began. Any cat my parents owned had to be black and had to be named, in some language or another, after the devil.
Though I am technically the elder in our family of four, my mother always called Diablo her “first baby.” By the time I was born a year later, Diablo had lodged himself firmly in her heart. And though he was a cat, he certainly lived up to all of the stereotypes of oldest siblings.
For one thing, he was extremely protective. My mother loves to tell the story of how I used to crawl around the house until I found Diablo lying sprawled asleep in a patch of late afternoon sun and promptly flop myself directly onto his exposed belly. Or how I used to grab onto his bewitching tail, stick it in my mouth, and chomp down. All this torment Diablo took with a kind of Stoic patience, as though he understood that I was merely a baby who did not know any better and that no matter what I did to him, there was no situation in which he would be allowed to retaliate in turn.
Then, there were the German Shepherds, another story my mother loves to regale. We lived in a townhouse at the time, and because my mother felt bad for any cat cooped up inside, but didn’t want to let Diablo out for fear he’d be killed by a negligent driver, she took to walking him around the block – on a leash, like a dog.
For other cats, this may not have gone over so well. But Diablo was a special cat, and he took to his afternoon walks like it was second nature.
A number of our neighbors also had pets, including two older ladies who owned two German Shepherds. Now my mother, who had a bad experience with a German Shepherd as a child, was deathly afraid of these dogs. Whenever they came around the corner, she would stop stalk still, holding Diablo’s leash as if it were a lifeline. Diablo, on the other hand, was not the least bit afraid. In fact, as though he could sense my mother’s fear, he would raise his shackles and pierce those muzzled German Shepherds with a fierce glare. The way my mother tells it, those German Shepherds took one look at Diablo, turned around, and took off running, the only sound their expandable leashes whirling in their shocked owners’ hands.
Diablo was a gentlemanly cat. In the mornings, he would leap gracefully into my mother’s porcelain tub and wait for her to fill it with an inch of lukewarm water in which he would give himself a thorough bath. He disliked milk and catnip, treats that were far beneath him, but loved my mother’s gourmet cooking, licking up such expensive dinners as roast beef, steak on the grill, and honey glazed ham.
If his manners were graceful, his stature was even more so. His black fur was slick and shone in the sun. He walked slowly, plodding along as though he had nowhere in particular to go, and yet every step he took was deliberate. Once, my brother and I told one of our neighborhood friends that Diablo was actually an African panther, and he believed us. Nevertheless, I still denigrated his genteel nature, nicknaming him such epithets as “Bubba” and “Bobbles” and, the only one my mother ever used, “Dobs.”
No one, least of all my father, expected Diablo to live as long as he did. Which is why we adopted our second black cat when he was still alive, my father naively assuming that old Dobs wouldn’t be around for much longer.
But cats always have one more life than you think. Diablo, it turned out, would live for eighteen years, until the night he disappeared suddenly, without a trace.
My mother walked around the house crying for days. My father used it as an opportunity to teach my brother and me about the mysterious, yet absolute reality of death. Meanwhile, I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking Diablo was there, sitting stately at the edge of my bed like he had ever since I was born, but he was gone.
Given my family’s patriotism and penchant for free market economics, it’s always struck me as ironic that our second cat was a bona fide Canadian. We were vacationing in Prince Edward Island off the coast of Nova Scotia when the manager of the B&B told my parents about the litter of kittens living in her barn.
Of course, we had to see them. My mother, brother, and I spent a glorious morning playing with those energetic fur balls. I was partial to a white one with a little brown spot beneath her chin. My brother loved a fluffy gray one we nicknamed Grayball. My mother, a black one with a partially bald eye. We carried them around beneath our arms. I plucked daisies and stuck them behind the ears of the ones I thought were girls. The little black kitten: definitely a girl. She got extra daisies to cover up her bald spot.
All of us were sad when my father emerged to tell us it was time to leave. That night, we had reservations at an Anne of Green Gables-themed B&B.
But on our last day of vacation, my father woke us with a surprise.
“We’re going to visit the kittens,” he said.
“Really?” said my mother.
“Just for fun,” he said. “It’s on our way.”
My brother and I were ecstatic. No one, not even my mother, expected what my father had up his sleeve. For as the three of us happily snuggled with the kittens in the barn, my father diligently packed an old cardboard box with crumpled-up newspaper, a plastic baggy filled with cat food, and a red plastic bowl so that we might take home a small, black, bald-spotted kitten.
My father named him Teufel – pronounced Toy-full – which was Devil in German, and it wasn’t until after we took him to the vet that we found out he wasn’t a girl.
If Diablo was a stately gentleman, Teufel was a fiendish rogue.
He was first and foremost, a barn cat, which meant he was skilled at catching and devouring all manner of small creatures. Rats, mice, snakes, birds – you name it, he would kill it and eat it, leaving only a small pile of bones. Once, when I was seventeen, I drove all the way to high school, parked in the coveted senior parking lot, and slammed the car door, only to find the remains of a large rat stuck to the trunk of my car. I refused to clean it, instead letting its long pink tail, scruffy grey skin, and bloated purple intestines dry to a crisp in the hot Texas sun.
Teufel was unabashedly audacious. He stood down a wild fox, winding my mother into hysterics as she listened to their wild snarls. He roamed at night through the tall Texas grass, braving coyotes, rattlesnakes, and cougars.
Of the four of us, he liked my brother best.
Every morning, he would plod into my brother’s room, leap onto his bed, and settle himself directly onto my brother’s solid, warm back. My brother would wake to Teufel’s purring — a sound that did not necessarily mean the cat wasn’t about to lash out at you with razor sharp claws — the feeling of those claws lightly digging his skin.
I suppose Teufel liked my brother because he didn’t treat him special in any way. Whereas my mother doted on him, offering him nibbles from the dinner table, and my father had, on several occasions, slapped him off that very table, my brother ignored him completely. And as a rogue cat – my brother and I often called him the pirate – this was exactly what he wanted.
Me, on the other hand, Teufel didn’t seem to like very much.
I suppose it was because I once thought he was a girl and put daisies behind his ear. Teufel was the kind of cat to hold a grudge.
After I moved away for college, Teufel became very sick. Cancer, said the vet, all over his mouth.
I wasn’t around for that last year of his life, but my mother tells me that Teufel knew he was sick, the way animals often do. He became very dependent on her, and so much was her love for him that in the final days of his life, when the cancer was causing pieces of his pink tongue to fall out of his mouth, she fed him warm water and watered-down cat food with a plastic syringe.
On his last day, Teufel, who hadn’t been outside for days, walked the perimeter of our Texas home, my mother watching him through the kitchen window. He smelled the sweet grass and watched the sun fling brilliant rays of light across the mesquite trees along the horizon. Then, she took him to the vet.
She called me several days later with the news. Although by then I felt rather detached from Teufel, a cat I’d never felt that close with and remembered more for the times he’d slashed me in anger than cuddled me in love, I was still sad I didn’t get to say goodbye.
As I write this, my family’s third black cat, a corpulent female with a white tuft of fur just beneath her chin, lies sprawled across my desk, sleeping contently.
I was never supposed to end up with this cat. My mother rescued her as a kitten and so technically, the cat should live with her. But my mother and father now live in a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C., while I live in a suburban house in Dallas, a living arrangement that’s landed me with the cat who’s currently shedding clumps of fur all over my room. Incidentally, fur is somewhat like glitter: just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it all, more appears, matted to your bedspread, perhaps, or stuck to the legs of your yoga pants.
My father named our third black cat Lucifer, a name that was promptly shortened to Luci when the vet told us she was a girl.
Luci, as I said, was a rescue cat. My mother found her in the dead of winter, hiding in an empty home that was under-construction. She was near freezing and living on bugs when my mother used a can of tuna to coax her out of a hole in the home’s cement foundation.
My mother paid dearly for rescuing Luci. The terrified kitten was so excited at the prospect of eating real food for the first time in her life, she gobbled up all of the tuna and then tried to eat my mother’s fingers too. Lest any kitten fool you with its adorable eyes and miniature paws, let me remind you that these animals are relatives of the mighty lions. Their teeth cut through skin and bone. My mother walked around for a week with a giant bandage wrapped around her throbbing index finger. But she is a saint to all lost kittens, and despite the pain, Luci was allowed to come home.
Like all creatures, the early months of a cat’s life are its formative years. Before her rescue, Luci’s life was marked by starvation and fear. All alone in the frigid cold, she survived by catching and eating anything smaller than she – mainly, bugs – and hiding in her hole from anything larger – mainly, the coyotes who roamed the Texas hills. To this day, Luci is marked by these habits of survival.
She gobbles up bowls of Meow Mix as though it’s the only food she’s ever had and may ever see again. Then, she gobbles up what’s left of the dog’s food. And then, she winds herself around my ankles, tail curling up my leg in the hopes that I’ll drop her a tasty morsel of my own meal (which, of course, I always do).
When she was younger, Luci jumped at the slightest noise. She hid under the bed when any stranger entered our home. She hated to be outside. Now, she is a calmer, older cat who spends her days immersed in her two favorite things: sleeping in the sunlight that illuminates my room and eating like a deranged wolf.
She is a sweet cat who’s never once lashed out at me, and I love her companionship very much. In many ways, she is the perfect pet. She loves it when I scratch the top of her head and will snuggle against me for hours while I rub her nose, yet she is also perfectly content to lie around the house by herself, requiring nothing more than to be left alone.
Growing up, people sometimes told my mother, “I would never own a black cat.” I saw shock on the faces of these same people when my mother told them our cats’ names. “You mean you named your cat after the Devil?” Why yes, yes we did.
What is it about black cats that engender so much fear among us? In many cultures, they are considered signs of evil. The association of black cats with Satanic forces goes back to the Medieval Age. If one crosses your path, it means suffering and death lie in your future. If you pet a black cat, you may also find yourself in the company of the Devil himself. If you let one aboard your ship, on its next journey, the ship will sink. The list of bad omens goes on and on.
Yet if we are going to take up superstitions, I’d rather be like the Scots, who believe a black cat in the home brings prosperity. Or the English, who believe if a fisherman’s wife owns a black cat, it will keep her husband safe at sea. Or the Celts, who believe a woman who dwells with a black cat will attract many suitors.
In case I didn’t mention it above, I am, in fact, a single woman living with a black cat. A black cat named Lucifer, perhaps, but after all, the Devil’s only in the name.
October 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
For me, the true horror of depression lies in its rootlessness.
The black tar of melancholy appears suddenly from some unseen place, seemingly causeless. One moment, your day is bright and shiny. The next, you’re awash in a wave of blue. Something sinister, sticky, and horribly familiar rises from the bottom of your gut, threatening to envelope you in an obsidian shadow, and as much as you try to articulate the overpowering sensation gradually swallowing you whole, you cannot.
When you get a bacterial infection in your thumb from a manicure gone wrong, you know that you should visit your doctor for some sound medical advice. And when that bacterial infection spreads to your pointer finger a week later, you know that it’s because you didn’t take your doctor’s advice to apply that topical anti-bacterial ointment three times daily. In fact, you didn’t even buy that topical anti-bacterial ointment because it cost $50 and wasn’t covered by your crummy insurance policy.
But with depression, it’s often different. With depression, you’re often unsure what’s causing the suffering, let alone how to handle it. Sure, there are medications, like Zoloft and Prozac, but these merely treat the symptoms, rebalancing the chemicals in your brain so that you feel better. They don’t address the root cause because the root cause is often entrenched deep in your mysterious self. It’s not easily isolated. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to exist at all. Moreover, medications are for severe forms of depression, not the milder forms which temporarily afflict high numbers of adolescents and adults today.
This milder, but nonetheless real, kind of depression has emerged in my life several times in different ways, like a creature always appearing in a new mask, taking me by surprise just as I think I’ve beaten him.
In high school, it took the form of long walks at night while the darkness wrestled like storm-tossed waters in my belly. It was crying in the middle of rehearsal for a play and my director looking at me confused. It was a record playing over and over in my head saying, I will never be happy, things will never be okay.
In college, it was standing gloveless on a snowy, silent, moonlit field, letting the frigid wind freeze my slender fingers. It was refusing party invitations, preferring my own unhappy company to the unbearable camaraderie of others. It was thinking about my future and seeing nothing but a black hole, ready to suck me into nonexistence.
In my early twenties (since I am 25 now, it feels like I can write about my early twenties), and on my bad days, I pictured depression as this black-clothed, red-eyed demon barreling like a tornado down the highway after me. I saw myself driving a red pickup, stepping on the gas, speeding away from him as fast as my little engine could. And with every puff of wind, every mile covered, the demon grew taller, stronger, and more insane. He became a swirling cloud of shadowy fire, and eventually, I knew I’d run out of gas.
For a long time, I felt ashamed of these periodic dark moods. After all, aren’t all high schoolers angsty? Doesn’t every college student feel sad from time to time? Isn’t life in your early twenties supposed to be challenging? I told myself my dark moods were nothing unusual. I told myself I was selfish. After all, I was white and upper middle class. Think of all the people less fortunate. I should be happy. Anything less, and I was ungrateful.
Of course, all that denial, all that dampening of my true feelings only made things worse.
I am now in a happy moment of my life, a time in which I don’t have to look for the silver lining — everywhere I look the world is aglow in silver and gold — which makes it strange to look back on difficult times and write about them. On the one hand, it is easier to write about them through the distance of time. On the other hand, it feels immensely vulnerable, and even weirdly dishonest, given my current equanimity. But I find myself wanting to write about my periodic bouts of depression anyway, because like all things that happen to us, they played an essential role in who I am and what I believe today, and I’m trying to understand what, exactly, that role is. Writing always helps me do that.
Most religious traditions claim that suffering, be it physical, emotional, existential, or what, can be a source of great spiritual transformation. For Buddhists, reaching enlightenment involves recognizing that suffering is merely a part of normal life. For Hindus, suffering is the result of karma, so if you want to be healthy and happy in your next life, you’d better act well in this one. In my own religious heritage, Protestant Christianity, suffering is the unfortunate result of sin, but the all-powerful, loving God uses this suffering to bring mankind closer to him.
For most of my life, the idea that God uses suffering for good has been anathema to me. That’s great if he does, but if he’s all-powerful, wouldn’t it be even better if he simply got rid of the suffering altogether? In fact, doesn’t it prove he isn’t so good after all, since he has the power to end suffering, but doesn’t? In philosophy, this conflict between an omnipotent, good God and the existence of suffering in the world is called the problem of evil, and for a long time, the problem of evil was one of the main reasons I could not and never would call myself a Christian.
The thing is, though, when you’re actually suffering, when your depressive tenor reaches an all-time low, you don’t care too much about the contradictory nature of God. All you care about is receiving some sort of relief, some sort of balm. And when all else fails, you turn to God, even a God you’re not convinced exists, in a last ditch effort for help.
Or at least, that’s the way it was for me.
One evening several years ago, I sat on a twin-sized bed, a book lying open on my lap. But I wasn’t reading. I was staring out the window, my emotions churning and disoriented. I felt so poorly, like I would never be able to read another word, let alone get out of bed, that I decided to temporarily suspend my disbelief in God and ask him, please, to ease the pain.
Amazingly, something happened.
As I stared out that window into a cold, snowy night, an image appeared in my mind, an image of a strong, firm hand reaching through my bruised ribcage to cup its soft, steady palm around my wounded heart. And as my heart rested against that warm hand, settled into it, unclenched its tension, a sense of peace settled around me, and I entered a momentary solace, a temporary reprieve.
In the morning, the melancholy descended upon me again. But I carried with me the memory of that comforting hand, using it to wield off despair. I was still suspicious of God and of prayer, still unsure whether I’d received an actual answer or simply conjured the image I needed. And yet, I guarded the memory of that hand, of that fleeting peace, reminding myself of it whenever the shadows slunk too close, threatening to cave me in.
This experience nudged me toward a deeper investigation into my religious heritage, but it did not convince me of the existence of God, nor did it resolve in my mind the seemingly unresolvable problem of evil.
So, maybe God comforted me in a moment of despair. But if he were a good God, there wouldn’t be any despair to begin with, any need to comfort me at all. He would have done away with all that suffering long ago, maybe never allowed it to exist in the first place.
It wasn’t until my investigation led me to the story of Jesus that a realization clicked into place.
Of course, I knew the story. Growing up, I’d heard it in church services, talked about it at my evangelical high school, and even studied it from a literary perspective in college.
Yet, I’d never let the words soak into my skin. I’d never imagined what it must have been like for Jesus when Pontius Pilate handed him over to be flogged, the wild whip stripping away the skin on his back until he was nothing but mashed red meat, the crown of thorns smashed onto his beaten and blood-drenched forehead, the nails hammered forcefully into the palms of his shivering hands. They say in order to breath during crucifixion you must lift your whole body up by your hands, and I see Jesus’ palms torn open by nails digging sideways through flesh and bone.
And then Mary, his mother, comes to stand below him, with Jesus’ beloved friend John at her side. And they look up at Jesus with tears in their eyes, and how deeply Jesus must have wanted to be let down from that instrument of torture to be with them. And then Jesus cries out to God, but God has forsaken him. And how lonely and abandoned he must have felt. How much he must have suffered. Really, in those last moments of his life, he experienced all the various kinds of suffering that exist in the world.
Which, of course, means he was and is acutely aware of every kind of depression, from the occasional down day to the severest mood swings.
Christians often describe Jesus as a compassionate God, and as I began to reflect on the story of Jesus’ death, I began to think he must be. Consider the word compassion. It comes from two Latin roots: com, which means “together”, and pati, which means “to suffer.” These roots combined mean “to suffer with.” To be compassionate, then, is to share in the suffering of another.
And isn’t this exactly what Jesus did, what he’s still doing today? He knows intimately what it feels like to suffer – be it from depression, from physical illness, from grief, from poverty – he knows what all that’s like because he knows what it was like to die on the cross. And he cries with us because he knows our pain. He cries for us because he knows what it’s like to suffer. In fact, he went to the cross to be able to enter into our suffering with us, to take our suffering onto himself, to let us participate more fully in his divine life.
This suffering with us, this entering into our pain, this compassion is what allowed me, for the first time, to trust God, to believe he wasn’t at best, indifferent, or at worst, malicious, but instead, fully aware of my tendency toward melancholy and fully wanting to bare that burden with me.
Of course, there’s still evil, there’s still suffering, there was and is and always will be, and this is a conundrum, a difficulty that philosophers and theologians continue to debate and struggle over, but if I were to believe in a god, in any god, it would be the God who tackled the problem of evil head on by jumping deep into the middle of the most painful experience of all. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft put it, the only way we get God off the hook for all the suffering in the world is for him to hang on the hook. Then, and only then, can we trust him to understand, trust him to comfort.
I prayed once more that year, a unique prayer said in another moment of blue.
Again, I stood in my small room, looking out the window at the nighttime snowdrifts. Again, my insides were steaming with boiling black sap. What I wanted more than anything was another moment’s reprieve – like that night when it felt as if God reached through my chest to massage my poor heart. And I didn’t want it to be fleeting. I wanted to know with solid assurance that what I felt was real, that I wasn’t making it up in my head, that God actually appeared to me, and would appear again.
And so I suspended my disbelief once more and asked, if God existed, really, truly existed, that he make me turn to him again and again until I saw his face, even if what made me turn to him was depression and that meant letting me descend into the deepest, most severe darkness I’d ever experienced. If that’s what it took, let it be.
In that moment, I intuited what I now believe: that the presence of God is often strongest and most apparent in our deepest fears, and it is often through pain that what is hidden becomes abruptly illuminated. Jesus said those who mourn are blessed, a counterintuitive, bitter truth I began to understand just a little through my own invisible, blood-red wounds.
He’s always standing solidly in the center of our struggles, holding our hands, knowing, knowing what it’s like, realizing that we don’t always understand, and inviting us to trust him and walk a little further all the same.
September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.
Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.
Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.
On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.
The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”
In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.
A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.
Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.
This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.
August 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
A few days before my 25th birthday, several of my older friends admitted that on their 25th birthdays, they’d woken up feeling rather like someone had punched them in the face. They were no longer in their early twenties. They were 25 now. They needed to get their lives together. They needed to grow up.
These were honest, innocent admissions, not meant to bother me, the one nearing this momentous occasion in her life, but they gave me pause.
At 24, I’d already experienced my fair share of difficulty: rough moves, disappointing jobs, and unexpected grief. I did not need the additional hardship of simply turning one age to another. Yet, as much as I tried not to give in to this myth of the quarter life crisis, I found myself waking up on my 25th birthday with the stark realization that where I was in life was not at all where I wanted to be.
I wanted so much more.
Not that my life lacked for good things. Quite the contrary. I have traveled some, taking to heart the advice I once read that when you are young, you should travel cheap and far and wide. I am full to the brim with deep, lasting friendships, for which I am ever more grateful day by day. I am perfectly healthy (well, except for that recent bacterial infection from a manicure — a first world problem if there ever was one).
And yet, I am not satisfied.
I want. So much. More.
What is this urge, this deep desire within me?
I wake with it in the morning. It ceases momentarily while I sit at my computer to write (this is, I’ve come to believe, one of the reasons I love writing). Then it is back as I drive across the city, as I work in coffee shops, as I walk my dog in the evening, as I fall asleep at night.
It is an urge to get up and go, a sense that if I sit here, alone, for too long, the whole world will pass me by. It is a sharp desire to rise and flee. It is a vague longing within the center of my chest. As I told a friend lately, I feel like a deep cavern of need.
I could write down a list of all of the particular things I want at this moment. Actually, being the overly-organized person I am, I already have. This list includes normal things any 20-something-year-old wants, both within reason (money for monthly yoga classes so I can stay in-shape) and without (an upscale flat in Paris where I can live with several obscure, but exceedingly rich and brilliant artists).
But I’m not convinced that any of these things will actually fulfill my cavern of need. I think my cavern of need is like an ever-growing pit: the more you fill it in, the larger it grows.
Half of me thinks I should cultivate contentment: don’t let your greediness for more taint the good things you already have!
But another part of me thinks I should press into this neediness: the world is full of so many lovely things, and we ought to be greedy for all of them.
I guess this life is full of contradictions. I guess both things can be true at once. This is the beginning of something I’m learning in my 25th year.
July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”
When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”
Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.
I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?
And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.
When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.
I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.
I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.
And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.
To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.
*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.
June 13, 2016 § 3 Comments
Over the past few weeks, since returning from a long-anticipated trip to Iceland, many of my friends and family have asked how it was and what was my favorite part. To which I usually reply by sharing the story of the glacier.
Funny enough, when I think about the most enjoyable parts of the trip, my encounter with the glacier isn’t one. Most of the trip was just plain fun. Get three good friends together in a car driving around an island chalk full of stunning vistas and waterfalls and weird volcanic rocks, and of course it’s going to be fun. In fact, barring the usual annoyance of long layovers in crowded airports and jet lag, the trip was seven days of bliss — except, for me at least, the encounter with the glacier.
It was the near the end of the second day of the trip, and as we drove along the Ring Road, the nearly-deserted route which circles the island, we began to see white tendrils of glacier slipping out between the surrounding black-green mountains. They were part of the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe. On a whim, we meandered down a gravel road, crossed a rickety wooden bridge, and wound our way toward it. Incidentally, this is how we discovered many incredible sites in Iceland: by following the curve of a gravel road to see where it led.
This road happened to end at the edge of the glacier.
We got out of the car. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing and silent expect for a faint crackling: the sound of the glacier melting.
A narrow, rocky path ran adjacent to the glacier, overlooking the striated walls of ice jutting high into the overcast sky, brown pools of frigid water below. We walked along the climbing path for some time, until the height made me dizzy. I let my friends go on, content to stop where I was, leaning against the cold stone wall, staring out at the massive glacier. Soon, I was completely alone.
In trying to describe the way it felt to sit there by myself in the silent cold, overlooking what appeared to be a massive block of ice, but was really only the tiniest finger of a glacier that expanded far beyond my sight, I always fall short.
I say that it made me feel small. I say that it astonished me to contemplate how old that glacier must be. I say that because it was so old, it made me realize my life is just a tiny blip in comparison, inconsequential really, and certainly not the center of anything. I say that it made me feel vulnerable, and helpless, and fragile, and needy. I say that because the glacier was so cold and so big, colder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, it felt otherworldly, and because it felt otherworldly, it made me afraid.
It made me think about god, not as a squishy, found-in-a-Hallmark-card god who answers prayers and is always there, but as something far more expansive and mysterious than anything I had ever thought of or experienced before. It made me think of the fear of god, the fear of the wildness, the otherness.
Later, at the evening’s hostel, I would write these observations about what the glacier made me feel in my travel journal: danger, mystery, that cold wind off the glacier, darkness, where is god?, ancient, left out of the equation, alone, what it evoked based on its inner being, the birth of the world, didn’t make me feel good.
A few days later, when talking about our experience at the glacier, one of my friends would observe that it’s no wonder the Nordic gods are depicted the way they are, so fierce and foreboding — their myths reflect the lands which surround us.
I suppose we all have moments like the one I had at the glacier. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve definitely experienced something like this before. These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence other than, an existence which lies beyond.
It is not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it is a powerful one. It is one that sticks with you long after a return flight home.