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 23, 2016 § 2 Comments
Happy weekend, y’all! Here are a few links to things I’ve written lately.
Of all the things I ever thought I’d publish, poetry was not one of them. Which is why I’m glad I sometimes (okay, a lot of the times) get things wrong.
This month, one of my poems was published in the beautiful online literary magazine s/word! You can read the poem in the magazine or check it out here:
I’ve talked before about my work with The Well Community, a nonprofit that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas. The Well is a super organization, and I recommend them to anyone in the Dallas area (or beyond) wanting to help those on the margins.
This month, I wrote several stories for their blog:
- I hung out with their members, those who struggle with mental illness, during their biannual spiritual retreat.
- I chatted with several volunteers about their experience helping The Well.
- And I hung out with a group of firefighters renovating The Well’s boarding house.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Well, please drop me a note! I’d love to answer any questions about them.
Also, I recently created a Facebook page where I post links to things I write. You can check it out here!
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.
May 5, 2016 § 2 Comments
When you are shrouded, how does one go? Who am I, that which beget me? Love which holds the universe fastened together,
where do I pass and are you mindful? Why, if you are?
That such intricacies exist which we do not know: a caterpillar chewing a green leaf, a frog dying in a pond alone, baby chicks hatching in a needled nest, me by myself drinking coffee. Such personalities! Such extravagance, and I’m more interested in what’s for dinner.
Expand our hearts so that we might see — the universe within us, and without. Show us your radiance in it all, in an early morning sunbeam and the minuscule growth of a fingernail.
These images, pasted together, amount to a glimpse, but still you remain hidden behind layers and layers of starry black cloth. It doesn’t end here. There is more to be given, and received. Fold us into your shadowy veil.
*Photos from my recent trip to Texas Hill Country.
April 25, 2016 § Leave a comment
I shared this essay on all of the usual social media sites when it was published several weeks ago, but in case you missed it (and if you’re interested!), my essay After the Storm appeared in the fifth issue of the lovely Cordella Magazine, an online literary magazine that features the work of women artists and writers across the world.
The piece is a somber reflection on the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit North Texas over Christmas.
It started with some meditations I jotted down after helping some friends who’d survived the tornadoes clean up their house, and through the editorial advice of a friend, became the essay it is.
We say a prayer of thanksgiving for safety, and I am glad to whisper it. I have known safety in moments of danger, and it is something to be thankful for.
For any interested readers, you can find the essay here.
April 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
A year ago today, I posted an essay about a car accident that I should not have walked away from. I try not to talk about the accident too much because I don’t want to be that girl who’s always talking about her near-death experience. But the truth is, I think about it fairly often.
I think about what one of my wise friends told me afterwards: that I can think of every day since the accident as extended time, time that, really, I should not have.
And so, I’m reposting this essay today as a reminder of the wonderful gift that life is, the wonderful grace of existence. It was also adapted as a Sunday essay in The Dallas Morning News, and you can read it there as well.
Once, I had a car named John Russell.
An odd name for a car, you might say, and many people did. But if you’re going to name a car, you might as well name him something special, and John Russell deserved a special name.
He was a college graduation gift from my parents, a dusty gold Ford Escape, used, but complete with everything a 20-something-year-old could want: sunroof, CD player, and cargo trunk, ready for road trips, ready for adventures.
And we had some adventures.
We drove halfway across the country and back. We drove up and down the West coast. We drove in the mountains. We drove in the desert. We drove in the snow. And we drove in the rain.
I gave John Russell his name on our inaugural adventure.
I’d just graduated from college and was driving from Texas to California for my first job as a post-graduate. And because it was my first job, and because it was my first time driving halfway across the country, and because they love me, my parents came along.
Which meant: I got to spend a good deal of the trip reading in the backseat (a reason to let the parents tag along, in my opinion).
Before we left, I visited the local used bookstore to find the perfect novel to accompany me on my adventure West. The great Elmore Leonard had died that summer, so I sauntered over to the Westerns in search of his name. A thin yellow paperback caught my eye.
Within seconds, I knew this was the book.
In Hombre, Leonard tells the story of John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. John Russell is taking a stagecoach ride with a bunch of other white folk who, because of his association with the Apaches, don’t like him much. In fact, they dislike him so much they force him to sit up top with the driver rather than inside with them.
Of course, their attitude changes when outlaws attack.
Suddenly, John Russell, with his wily Apache ways, is the only one who can save them.
And he does.
But in the process (spoiler alert), he dies.
I read Hombre while driving west. While the dry Texas plains and the hot New Mexico desert and the rain-streaked Arizona rocks zipped past, I read how John Russell gave his life for some people he didn’t know, some people who thought he was less than the clotted mud on the bottom of his moccasins.
And because Hombre was the first novel I read in my car, and because I loved the character so much, I named my car after him – a Christ-like figure in a cowboy hat.
Now, as you can imagine, explaining the origin of John Russell’s name was always a bit of an ordeal. In fact, the explanation was so tedious it usually left me wishing I’d chosen something simpler or, better yet, nothing at all.
And so, only a handful of people knew his name, but those who did used it affectionately.
When his transmission broke, they said, “John Russell has a stomach ache.”
When I took him to the car wash, they said, “John Russell’s taking a bath.”
But in the days after the crash, we never once called him John Russell. Instead, we referred to him only as “the car.”
I was driving on the highway from Dallas to Austin, and it was raining. John Russell and I had been in the rain before, and though I doubt he liked it much, I certainly did. I’ve always loved the rain, especially the rain in Texas.
I was listening to the radio. At first, NPR. Then later, Johann Pachelbel’s Magnificat in D, Mary’s song of praise when she finds out she’s pregnant. And still later, some obnoxious new country song.
I hit a patch of water, which caused me to hydroplane and lose control. I slid right and John Russell’s nose went left. The steering wheel jumped away. I was drifting fast, trying to brake, not sure if I should brake, headed toward a semi truck on my right, sure my tires would hit a strip of dry road and the car would flip and the semi would barrel through me.
I thought I was going to die. I cried out to God.
When we hit the concrete median, John Russell crumpled like an empty soda can, the hood buckled, the glass shattered. I bit my tongue hard and my head snapped side to side.
I should have died. I should have cracked my skull or fissured my spine or broken my arm, but I didn’t. All the energy that should have shattered my bones, John Russell absorbed instead.
Afterward, I rode in an ambulance to the emergency room and never saw him again.
The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret our lives: either the things that happen are meaningless, or they’re not. And if they’re not, then we can look at our lives and read them like a story to discover the purpose underneath.
Reading my life like a story sounds nice when it’s day-to-day, but when it’s something as profound as a near-death experience, every interpretation sounds hollow in comparison to the real thing, as though it’s too extraordinary to understand through human eyes.
What’s more, I will forget details of the event and botch the story.
I will forget that earlier that day I was filled with a surge of hope for the future, but that I was frustrated when I left Dallas.
I will forget that in the ambulance I repeated over and over to myself the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, because even though I was safe, I was still afraid that my luck would run out and God would let me die right there on the gurney from some unknown internal wound.
I will forget that on the drive home from the hospital, my body wracking with sobs, my father calmed me by telling stories of his own near-death experiences.
I will forget all these details and pull together others to make a story that makes sense to me in the hope that it is the right story, or at least one true story out of many possible ones.
But what else can I do? Meaninglessness isn’t an option.
My interpretation goes like this:
Before the accident, I was scared, mostly about the kinds of things I imagine most 20-something-year-olds are scared about: the scant number of dollars in our bank accounts, the pressure to find a job that both pays extremely well and fulfills our unattainable desire to absolutely love our work, the unfounded belief that with each friend’s wedding we move closer to spinsterhood, and other things as well.
After the accident, I was no longer scared.
Though my whole body ached, though bruises began to appear in black splotches on my arms and legs, though a red mark emerged where the seat belt had dug into my collar, I’d never felt better. I was keenly aware of having survived something I should not have survived, that my very existence was a gift, that I was a living testament of grace.
Survival brought with it a kind of freedom. I was grateful to be alive. What else mattered?
God had been there, a hand of protection when I swerved all over the watery road and slammed into the concrete, so near to me in that moment when my heart was a hand that reached out and grabbed him, when I yelled “Help!”
And yet, where was he, really? I didn’t see him. Not on the road or in the ambulance or in the hot shower that night when I scrubbed the sticky tape leftover from where the medic had stuck an IV in my arm, or when I curled, shaking, under the comforter and tried to sleep.
And why me? I know others have not been as fortunate. Nor am I now untouchable by evil, by pain, by death, though I’m as likely as anyone to naively believe in her own immortality.
To have an encounter with death like that, to know God’s protection in a moment of complete lack of control, and then to find afterward that God is still too huge to comprehend, too different to even find to approach, too vast to experience fully – it is disquieting.
This is what moments of closeness to the other world do to a person. They awaken in us acknowledgement of God, acknowledgement of grace.
What am I saying?
I’m merely saying that this life is grace, that both the accident and surviving the accident were gifts. I’m merely saying that this moment of survival, along with the thousands of breaths we take per day, are given to us and could just as easily be taken away. I’m merely saying that I experienced a holy being who loves me, who undergirds my existence, who in doing so is nearer to me than I am to myself, and in being able to do so is farther from me than the farthest star from the Earth, a being who would crumple and bleed to keep me safe, just like John Russell.
I miss John Russell, of course.
I miss the memories we made with my bare feet sticking out his back window. I miss reading on his sunlit seat. I miss finding sand scattered on his floor after a day at the beach. I even miss checking his oil and filling his tank with gasoline – or, as I used to say, “taking him out for a drink.”
As I write this, my old friend’s in an impound lot in West, Texas, a blip on the map just north of Waco, sides scraped, bumper hanging loose, frame twisted, and windows smashed. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my front porch in Dallas on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, sunlight dappling the grass and a light breeze rustling the leafy branches of an old oak tree.
John Russell saved me.
But in the process, he died.
A tall calling for a used car, but John Russell had a tall name. I’d say he lived up to it.