The Arc of Repentance
The Death of the Book
Line of Duty By Albert Haley
Friday Night in Kizmack By Carrie Sherman
On Another Road: Pilgrimage to Fátima
The Woodlands Have a Rank and Moldy Smell
THE ARC OF REPENTANCE
By Helen W. Mallon
...and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Colossians 3:3 (NIV)
It's been a hot, dry summer of extended car trips. My husband, kids, and I have landed home for a few days between a vacation on Cape Cod and a visit to my in-laws in the mountains. We're all grubby, tired, and in need of haircuts. I wade through the living room, feeling for floor space in the tumble of soft-sided luggage, sandy sneakers, and Ziploc bags stuffed with my daughter's beach combings. The closed familiarity of our house feels weird, like a mirror image of the real house.
I've sent the children upstairs so I can have a few minutes to myself. My solitude feels as uncomfortable as sunburn across my shoulders; during the vacation, I didn't have to be alone with my conscience. I think about unpacking, but instead I'm moving piles of clothing, damp towels, and beach equipment from one end of the room to the other. Upstairs, the kids are making up for two weeks of video game deprivation, and my husband shouts his encouragement over background music that sounds like somebody's skull breaking.
A bag of seagull feathers spills open on the carpet. My seven-year-old sees romance in these raucous birds, but I can't get beyond their image problems. To me, they're nothing more than winged beach rats. In her mind, each feather signifies a small girl's potential for flight.
Perspective. With a suddenly fresh take on our ordinary realm, this disheveled house, the last year of my life now seems like a guilty dream. I spent the vacation longing to get back to e-mail correspondence with my friend Daniel, but since our van disgorged vacation detritus into the house, I haven't even turned on the computer. I deeply love my husband Steve, a handsome man who listens well, makes me laugh, and loves me regardless of tidal changes in my moods. What was I thinking?
Steve resides comfortably in my heart, but it's a layered, ambiguous place. Somehow over the last year, I've invited a squatter to share his space. I've only met Daniel once, at a conference. I can't even recall his face with clarity. I just know he likes to write. He's a man with an intensely poetic inner life and the ability to package it in intimate torrents of language. Our correspondence, which began after the conference, crackled with unattainable dreams and vivid metaphors: Your words are stitched deep in my pocket, I told him via e-mail. I write inside the pupil of your eye. Daniel has been a shower of manic glitter in my middle-of-the-road life.
Now I stroke a gull feather across my forehead hoping it'll bring me calm. If e-mail isn't the devil's technology, at least it's the tool of fantasy, I think now. I'd sent Daniel my thoughts about art, suffering, and the power of poetry, heedless of the fact that my words, mixed with his, could generate a reaction forceful enough to rocket me out of my own life. I'd catch your tears on a dime, he wrote me once. When we spoke on the phone once or twice the intensity didn't let up.
The relationship that sustained me with the fervor of a hallucinogenic dream now looks, in my disoriented clarity, like a silk pillowcase with weak seams, a trifle without substance or longevity. Daniel's letters had a cumulative effect. They made me feel taller, more gifted, more lit from within, than I'd ever believed possible. Once he wrote to me: You know that bright, intense light caused by a welder's tool, the sparks flying from the seaming steel? And despite what you know about the light being dangerous to the eyes, you can't tear your eyes away? That's you. It's heady stuff, but it turns out that this is not the kind of light you can read your children to sleep by, nor can you use it to heat up canned soup when the family arrives home from vacation, burned out and hungry.
Especially not if you're both married to other people. But I hadn't wanted to consider that before. Perhaps that acrobatic buoyant self, the Me who jumped up like a joyful child at the sound of the phone ringing up through the stairwell, was simply a reflex of misguided emotional investment, and no one's there after all. Who am I?
Sitting alone among the baggage, I can't seem to locate a core. Along with the emptiness in my chest is a feeling of spiritual dislocation. What deceived me into thinking I could fly above the life God has chosen for me? Today I'm a seagull caught in a hurricane wind, my homing instinct knocked senseless in the dizzy flux. I have always known that marriage is for life. How, then, did I end up here?
Since I was a child I've tended to look outside myself for a working description of who I really am. As a preteen, I was desperate to have a best friend. If some other girl wrote my name in her book of life, I felt like a queen--The Favored One--for a little while. But friendships shift and change, and I was always anxious about being rejected, always looking for new sources of light when others faded.
In reality, my name was Fear. When no friendship appeared on the horizon to rescue me from the desolation of myself, I realized how broken I had felt all along. Something had to fill the hollow places. My life became a game of changing obsessions. Throughout my teens and twenties, I was dominated by one compulsive drive after another. A childhood terror of sleeping away from home grew into an adult-sized piece of baggage: a generalized anxiety whenever I had to travel. I worried about it constantly, avoided social situations that included overnight stays. I lived in dread of anyone discovering my senseless fears. If people knew the secret that dominated me, I would be condemned, forever named by that warp in my identity.
One fixation gave way to another. The changes weren't conscious on my part; they swung with my circumstances. The Travelphobe took a vacation when I was in college, and I weathered the stress of overdue assignments by morphing into a secretive and shame-filled Overeater. Then in my senior year, I became The Insomniac. Miraculously, my eating pattern became healthy.
If only I could travel I'd be happy. I used to repeat it like a mantra: How perfect my life would be, if I could only shed the need for Ben and Jerry's.... Lack of sleep is ruining my life.
After graduation, things became more sinister. I had to work and make my way in the world. Adult-sized responsibilities threw at me random bolts of scalp-crawling, paralyzing anxiety, and I gnawed on one question like a madwoman who can't stop chewing her own hands: Is this what it feels like to go insane? What if it only gets worse?
It never quite did. I functioned. I worked at my job, had my friends, went to church. There I learned that even the neurosis-of-the-month is smaller than the living person of Christ. This truth freed me to relinquish control, to trust God to help me become myself. Despite the urge to twist my mind around the private disfigurement of my soul, I grew more mature. Somebody had loved me enough to die in my place; I learned to relax in the solidity of that love.
Gradually, the fixations drifted away. Almost. I still find it very hard to let go of an idea, sometimes driving a point home late into the night for the "benefit" of my long-suffering husband. And come to think of it, didn't I meet Daniel during a phase of mild depression? It was a time of career struggle. I knew where I wanted to go; with no guarantee of success, should I risk the light of day and financial uncertainty and call myself a Writer? Our correspondence convinced me the answer was yes.
Another fixation, yes, but this one was lovely as an azure ocean sky. Didn't my cloud-climbing friend describe our conversations as a dance? Didn't flames seem to shoot from my fingers when I typed him rhapsodic letters on my computer?
But flames can also burn to nothing but a houseful of living memories. Upstairs, my children laugh and my husband joins them. Any remaining fire now looks like dirty embers at a rained-out beach party. I paw through damp bathing suits, and I wonder what it means, today, that my life is hidden with Christ in God.
As my life has become overtaken by the effluence of travel and failed relationships, I've realized that identity in Christ has to be something practical--something that enables me to focus myself despite the wreckage, a contact lens of angelic accuracy, thin and flexible enough to cover the entire soul.... There have been so many selves over the years, so many layers, so many versions of me dropped and rewritten. Who am I in Christ?
It's tempting to think the answer is coiled inside exasperating spiritual exercises tailored for a control freak like me--some new devotional practice I could attack with zeal, the way you'd purge a smelly refrigerator on the heels of a vacation. I'd identify everything in me that's scandalously irreligious, then blast it with appropriate passages of scripture, like a teenager chopping limbs off zombies in a video game. Repeat as needed. When it's all over, the sticky little wad of flesh that's left would be me: God's lamb chop.
The problem with this approach is that it puts control in the wrong hands. I mean, I've already blown it, right? If this were a video game, I'd have died a thousand deaths. And of course, this is no game. Move by the wrong impulse, and the heart of a family sheds actual blood.
Maybe the real story of the self is vast and oceanic, like grace itself. My false starts--and they were many before Daniel ever showed up--suggest that I'll never find one straight path over the dunes. How big am I in this picture? God could blow me off his hand, a loose clump of sand. What a leviathan I considered myself in my grand compulsions. And then there are the moral lapses. Sure--nothing "happened" with Daniel, outside the petty universe of my own heart. But that's no small matter; it's enough, in fact, to recreate myself as The Guilty Woman, scarlet with shame and sunburn. Yet another obsessive incarnation? What's the point?
There's only one thing to do. As I have at crisis moments in every previous sea change, I look for a place of quiet. The kitchen will do. Unused recently, it's relatively clean, and I unlock the deadbolt on the back door. I'm assaulted by the metallic buzz of crickets and cicadas. Suddenly I'm more alone than I was in the living room, exposed as the screen door I push open to the night. But this is my place of beginning; half of me inside, half of me lost to the universe. In naked humiliation I pray to God. Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace....*
Here I am with ragged hair between halves of summer. I've emerged raw from a lunatic romance, and there's a Sunday school song running through my head: The foolish man built his house upon the sand ... It isn't the first time I've had this kind of conversation with God, and I doubt it'll be my last.
As I wait, the emptiness in my chest splits apart to disclose a deep sadness. A feeling I've avoided for months, drowning it in tides of e-mail. I think of Jesus who endured flux, who slipped, incarnated, into the skin of a naked human. And there he learned obedience to God. I am myself again, painfully, knowing I need to be Named.
Two days ago, we watched seagulls scavenging at the water's edge. They cut arcs in the wind. One hovered lower than the others, its head cocked toward a piece of bread that floated on the shallow waves. It pivoted as if its unmoving wingtip had punctured the sky, then dropped down, ungainly and raucous, to snatch the crust. My earthbound repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape. I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center. Though I'd like to rewrite the last twelve months of my life, I am comforted to know I'm not the final author of my own story.
Can I find a better name than this: to be called One Who Returns?
Helen W Mallon's poetry chapbook, Bone China, was published in 2002 by Finishing Line Press. She regularly contributes essays to the Drexel Online Journal (www.drexel.edu/doj) and has written for the commentary page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poems have appeared in The David Jones Journal in England, Café Review, The Mad Poets Review, Gumball Poetry, Drexel Online Journal, and One Trick Pony.