This quote is not for the faint of heart, the young crusader, or the know-it all. I was all three when I argued on the black and white side. Similar to author Jeannette Walls, I graduated to gray after failing to force an ambiguous, mixed-up world into a tidy black and white box. Good people did screwed up things. Bad people did good things. Bad things turned out good. “Good things” turned out not so good.
No one managed to have a tight rein on truth.
Jeannette Wall’s parents (as chronicled in The Glass Castle) often let her go hungry. Despite this fact, she knew they loved her. Their behaviors took “dysfunctional” to a whole new level, yet their whacked-out worldview toughened and trained her voice to speak for millions.
Pardon me, have you seen my sense of destiny?
I seemed to have lost it along the way somewhere
Yet, I’ve looked up and down and it isn’t here anywhere
I can’t even remember when or where I had it last
Or any other clue that links the future to my past
I must have lived so long without it that, I’m ashamed to say,
I hardly even noticed it was gone today
Until I read that book.
The book that meddled, unauthorized, with my head
Forcing me, irreverently, to unearth the sacred dead
And bow humbly to destiny’s gravitational force
At the unyielding wall of its Holy Source
I wrote this after being struck dumb with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane; a delightful read that surprised me with the holiness of everyday life and everyday people.
“Not loneliness, but solitude. Not suffering, but endurance, the discovery of grim kinship with the rocks and sky. And the finding here of a harsh peace that would transcend bodily discomfort, a healing instead of the wounds of the soul.”
– Diana Gabaldon (referring to Jamie Frazer from the Outlander series)
It’s fiction, although, through the character of Jamie Frazer, author Diana Gabaldon challenges us to strength, resilience, and patience in difficult circumstances.
I am not lonely. I am learning solitude.
I am not suffering. I am learning endurance and kinship with creation.
I am not wounded. I am learning a harsh peace that transcends pain and discomfort.
We can label this as way too unreal or romantic, or we can look and learn from countless men and women throughout history who have raised the bar by conquering their circumstances.
Do I need to list their names?
I was critical of The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis who writes in a difficult-to-follow, stream-of-consciousness style until I realized the book had casually exposed my own pattern of random patchwork thoughts; pin-balling around from topic to topic, past to future, pointless to profound, and noble to profane.
Afterwards, I was easier on Kathryn Davis, but harder on myself; shocked by the sheer absurdity of my…
- Re-runs (experts say that a very large percentage of our thoughts are the same every freakin’ day!)
- Petty gripes
- Overestimating my own understanding
- Limited awareness of others
But, shock precedes improvement, so I am better for the experience.
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work I go…shocked into better thinking and a more productive future…thanks to a book that was difficult to read.
Nothing shakes me out of my self-centeredness, ethnocentrism, and poor-me problems more than reading biographies and fiction about the struggles of passionate men and women in other times and places. The first book that called me out on my bull#h*t was Les Miserables. When I read it many years ago, the plights of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette, representing the real problems of the time period, shook me hardily out of the illusion of my “difficult life.” Other books followed suit: Roots, Tale of Two Cities, A Good Earth, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Hiding Place, etc. And, more currently, Jungle of Stone, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Endurance, Pillars of the Earth, Outlander, The Glass Castle, Same Kind of Different as Me, and countless others.
I hope you don’t have the same tendency that I have to become a small-minded cry-baby. But if you ever do, I hope you will let a book rescue you.
In her book, Thick Face, Black Heart, Asian-American best-selling author Chin-Ning Chu was painfully honest about her life:
“One morning, years ago, I woke up with an overwhelming feeling of aloneness overtaking my soul. I felt as if my spirit were covered by layers of dark clouds. I lived but made no difference to the world… I stood alone in the pit of my soul. I felt the world could do very well without me. I didn’t see any hope, only despair. Then I picked up a book my parents had given me long ago: one I had never read…“
In Soaring, Chu heard the message that saved her life.
The author said, “if one is destined for great accomplishments, the preparation for the journey will be extensive.” She embraced the message, deciding that her pain had not been wasted. I’m glad she did, because I would need her book many years later.
The longer I live, the more I agree with Poe, and believe we are all in various stages of insanity. The willingness to admit this about myself makes me seriously happier. Poe lived with great personal tragedy; he was an orphan, his wife died very young, he never made enough money to live on, etc., yet he kept working.
Whatever we believe about Poe’s unorthodox life, we are forced to respect the fact that his is a recognizable name one-hundred-sixty-seven years after his death. Most of us have been frightened by “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or “The Raven,” and have felt his influence in many branches of literature and film.
If life drives me crazy today, I’ll be Poe-like and enjoy it.
Right before my sister’s body convulsed in the terrible grip of death, I received a gift from her learning-challenged son. He had been with me at her hospice bedside saying goodbye. After asking his mother to say hello to Elvis for him in heaven (which even garnered a wisp of a smile from her solemn, sedated face), he gave me his mother’s hand and said, “She’s gone. God took her with Him. Couldn’t you feel God here in the room?”
His confidence that she was no longer in that body has saved me from reliving the strange savagery of her end…over and over again.
I was reminded of this mystery of our souls’ departure by Temple Grandin’s story of Autism and her sensitivity to the death of animals. When the body of a euthanized horse collapsed, limp and empty, she asked about the spirit, “Where did it go?”
Also in Elizabeth J. Church’s words about the heroin’s father’s death in The Atomic Weight of Love: “Where did all of that energy go? What happened to the bounty of his being, his love for us, for me?”
It’s an important observance and question. Those who see a bit differently often see more than the rest of us.
Even when our circumstances seem completely hopeless.
Even when there are no options.
Even when all doors are barred and guarded by malignant, hideous, malevolent forces.
We don’t have to stay anywhere forever.
That seems a ridiculous thought when…
- pain causes moments to feel like years
- random and horrible things have paralyzed us
- there are no advocates, no miracles, and nothing new to try
As Neil Gaiman meant by his quote, we always have our imagination, our mind, books to escape into, our attitude, and our mortality, which, inevitably, brings an end to all things.
But, if we are as wise as Neil, we will use all of what we have, right now, to escape early and often.
From my worst prisons I have been rescued by books, by Neuro-Linguistic Programming, by wisdom stored up long ago.
“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.” -Neil Gaiman
But, sometimes we don’t make things because it feels like everything gets broken or tarnished or does not measure up in the first place. And that makes us feel inadequate, amateurish, or stupid.
Make something anyway.
Nothing will be wasted. The mistakes we make will be compost for better things.
Gaiman’s reference point is writing, yet his advice applies everywhere. Make a path, make pictures, make homes, make something easier, make gardens, make beauty, make dinner, make plans, make fun, make a living, make friends. Make something that wasn’t there before.
Yesterday, working was like banging my head on a brick wall. So, I left my work and matted a picture. The world seemed brighter because I did what I was born to do. I made something that wasn’t there before.