All shall be well

October 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

At the end of summer, I packed the car with a cooler, a plump duffel bag, and two paper sacks of medicine. I got up early, and with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, hit the highway west out of Dallas.

I was headed to the desert. But I was not sure if I would make it.

The last two times I had attempted a trip of this magnitude, I’d canceled at the last minute because of my poor health. This time, I felt stronger. But it wasn’t until ten hours later, when I parked in front of a small cottage in the heart of a canyon encircled by dry desert mountains, that I realized I was stronger. Strong enough to make it all that way.

I’m pretty sure there were more wild javelinas than people in this Far West Texas outpost. It was quiet, but not still. I watched the long grey ears of a jackrabbit disappear into the underbrush. A stag paused beside the tangled thorns of a mesquite tree. Dozens of birds clustered in the juniper bush outside my bedroom window—red cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds.

I was there to write, and read, and rest. But mostly I was there to see if my body could withstand it.

On day three, I attempted a drive down the mountain to visit the one grocery store in town. The car bottomed out on the dirt road just as the sky started spitting rain. I was convinced I’d punctured a tire on one of the road’s sharp rocks. I turned around at the nearest pull off.

Back at the cottage, the Internet was out. It was raining hard now. Thick ribbons of hot water streamed across the road. This is flash flood country. The dry ground can’t soak up the rainwater fast enough, and rivers appear in minutes where before was only dust and stone.

All the fear from my years of illness—of sudden, unexpected, and debilitating catastrophe—flooded my mind, creating an empty crevasse where common sense normally exists. I held my phone up to the window in search of service that was as elusive as the mythical jackolope.

As quickly as it came, the clouds cleared. I looked out the window at the chirping birds.

I thought, Look at the birds of the air.

I thought, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

There, hanging like a Crayola drawing between two mountain peaks, a shimmering rainbow appeared.

I am not one who takes much stock in rainbows as signs. But there was something comforting about this bow, which evoked the happiness of a carefree child, the kind of peace that really does pass understanding. I decided to believe in it. To believe that, as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich put it, All shall be well.

Julian would have earned that phrase given she lived during the Black Plague, which wiped out something like half of the European population. All shall be well meant something deeper than, “everything will turn out all right.” It meant the very matrix upon which creation rests is moving toward flourishing. It meant that, despite many signs pointing to the contrary, at the heart of the universe lies a profound and trustworthy love.

The next day, I hiked for two miles. My body worked in ways it hasn’t in over a year. It was cloudy all weekend, so I never saw the Milky Way. But that rainbow lasted nearly all afternoon.

***

This post originally appeared in my September newsletter.

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A kitten takes a bath

August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment

Recently, I told a dear friend, “These days, I feel about God the way my kitten seems to feel about me after I give him a bath.”

I had been giving my new kitten a bath every few days because he came to us with ringworm, a potentially deadly but easily treatable diagnosis for a kitten, and regular baths with special antifungal shampoo were supposed to help.

Most of the time, the kitten can’t get enough of me. He’s either attacking my foot or sleeping on my stomach, and any time I leave the room, he trots along in my wake. My husband calls him a Momma’s Boy.

But during those first few minutes after the bath, when he looks more like a wet rat than a tiny black kitten, that little guy wants nothing to do with me. He slinks off to some dark corner of the house to lick his fur, and anytime I pass, he eyes me warily.

“I haven’t lost my faith in God,” I tell my friend. “I’ve just had enough of Him and the world He’s made to last for a while, and I kind of wish He’d leave me alone.”

***

Sometimes, when I say things like this, I wonder if it might be better if I kept my thoughts to myself. After all, a thought like that doesn’t exactly encourage a sense of tenderness, let alone love, towards God. If anything, it enhances a kind of confused distance between our challenging lives as creatures and our (sometimes) obtuse creator.

But then I remember the time roughly a year and a half ago when another friend invited me to use her late husband’s prayer shed. That day I was having a flare-up of my Lyme symptoms, and I was angry. I was not at all Zen or pious, like I figured one should be when preparing to use a prayer shed. Instead, I was mad at God, and fed up with a world that included a microscopic creature with the power to make my life a living Hell.

But when I stepped inside that quiet, simple prayer shed with the woven rug on the floor and the wooden icon of Jesus on the wall, I heard this faint whisper: You can be angry. In fact, I have given you an entire room to be angry in.

I am convinced God gives us plenty of space for unpleasant emotions. He wants all of us, after all, including the parts of us that don’t exactly look or feel good.

***

The kitten is chasing his tail around and around in violent circles, so I leave the house to sit on the front porch and pray on the phone with another friend. She is going through a hard time which has lasted far longer than we ever imagined, and it seems impossible that God could be anywhere near her life right now. Certainly, she cannot feel Him. Is He even there?

An image comes to us as we pray: my friend standing in a pitch-black room with no doors or windows. Her eyes are open, but she can’t see a thing, which means she can’t see Jesus standing just a few feet in front of her, holding out His hand.

It could be a cheesy image—Jesus is still there! In the dark!—but it isn’t. It’s exactly what my friend needs, and frankly, it’s what I need also.

It’s often tempting to want to tie up our hardships in a bow, to turn them into some kind of purposeful, triumphant event, and sometimes we do understand what it all means in the end, but more often we don’t.

More often what we have is Jesus standing with us in the dark, reaching out an invisible, scarred-over hand.

***

This post originally appeared in my July newsletter.

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How to survive a flare-up

July 12, 2022 § 2 Comments

Last month, I had a draft of my newsletter ready to go when something happened. I had a flare-up.

This flare-up wasn’t exactly unexpected. I had recently started another treatment for my ongoing Lyme disease, and my doctor had warned me that as we killed these “bad bugs,” as she calls them, I might feel worse before I felt better.

Feel worse I did, and Sunday evening found me lying on the couch trying not to move because movement exacerbates the nerve pain in my arms and legs (pain I once described to my husband as akin to the Cruciatus Curse in Harry Potter).

It sounds bad, and it is, but I’m also used to it. I have these flare-ups about every few weeks to every few months, and I’ve learned some tricks to manage them.

I cancel everything for the next few days. I schedule an appointment with my favorite osteopath. I take medicine that usually alleviates the pain within 36 hours. And in the meantime, I wait. I do my best to limit the TV (truthfully, there are only so many times I can watch even my favorite shows before I start to feel my life slip away). I perhaps write a few words using the dictation software on my tablet. I pray a little. I read.

This time around, I found myself returning to an irony that struck me early on in my experience with Lyme: as hard (read: at times, horrific) as it’s been, this battle with illness has pushed me further toward Truth with a capital T than just about any other event in my life.

Why is this ironic? Because (with some chagrin) I’ll admit that not too long ago I was convinced I should devote my entire life toward knowing the “Truth with a capital T.” This was why I got a philosophy degree. To some extent, this was why I became a writer (I would write my way toward Truth). All this even though at the time I was also convinced there was no way to be certain about anything (think, Matrix-style: could this all be a dream?).

A lot has changed since then (conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, for one; maybe I’ll write about that another time). But what is this so-called Truth that having Lyme disease revealed to me?

The truth is nothing new, not really. It’s that the world is broken. Or wrong. Or somehow off. You choose the phrasing. Whatever phrase we use will likely sound like a platitude anyway, something tossed around so many times its lost all meaning. Nonetheless, there’s something to it. There’s a reason it’s been said so many times.

When we are not going through a crisis, it’s easy to walk around like everything is basically fine, like you and I and the rest of the world are not deeply messed up (I could use another word here, but I won’t). It’s like when my flare-ups cease, and I have a hard time imagining I was ever in that much pain. Could the world really be so bad that I could hurt that much?

But having a disability or an illness, when the brokenness is your very body, you can’t escape that. You can’t free yourself from your own physical form. You’re forced to reckon with the reality that something is very wrong within the created order, you know it in an embodied way, in your very bones.

And this, in turn, reveals other truths. You see with new clarity that all along your life was tied up in the lives of others, the ones on whom you are now so clearly dependent. You see that at the end of the day you need something other than yourself to save you. You need medical intervention, to be sure. You may very well need God.

What’s neat, of course, are the moments when this brokenness is made right. When a bit of the Kingdom of God, if I may, breaks into a sick body. As in, when the meds start to work, and I can go back to yoga. Or when I have a “good day” and can cook an entire meal standing up in the kitchen. Or when I can type this letter to you without my hands hurting. All of a sudden, we have the resurrection inside our very veins. We feel the difference between the wrong way and the right way, and know how easily it could all go south, but for just this moment it doesn’t, and grace takes on a whole new meaning.

There is a lot that’s terrible about long-term illness, and I am fighting tooth and nail to get better. Though I have a lot of hope for my future health, it could still just as easily be me who’s sick for a lifetime. For now, I find these kernels of reality, of truth, a kind of consolation.

Next month, maybe I’ll share that neatly edited essay. For now, what I have is this musing hastily written on my iPhone late at night. I’ll end with yet another platitude that’s nonetheless true: I do hope you’re well, wherever this note finds you.

***

This post originally appeared in my June newsletter.

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