Thursday, August 4, 2011
The house is quiet – three grouchy kids in three separate rooms, silent if not sleeping. I sit down with a cup of mostly decaf and a bible study I want to finish before the end of summer and the start of school. I close my eyes to quiet my spirit, open myself up, find the part of me that recognizes that there is more going on in this room than furniture. But the little me that is spiritually sensitive is sometimes hard to find, harder as the day moved toward noon, nearly impossible to coax out of hiding after lunchtime.
But this is the hour that I have and I want to spend it in renewal. So I close my eyes and try to breathe. But today, for the third time this week, when I close my eyes I see something bizarre, unnerving, altogether uninvited. And since I have seen it three times, I think it is time for me to sit, write, and hopefully hear what it is my spirit is trying to say.
This is what I see when I close my eyes and attempt to prepare myself for prayer – a woman (me, I guess) shaking the metal bars of her cell with the full weight of her body. She is yelling, but there is no sound. I don’t know what to do with her, so I just open my eyes when I see her and tell God what we will have to start the study without a proper spirit. The first time I saw her I think I said something like, “So, clearly my heart is not in the right place, but I think I can learn anyway. Do your best, God.” The second time I saw her, I sighed. And today I just closed the bible study and picked up my pencil.
I know I am prone to anxiety. I know last August, as summer was stretched to its last translucent threads and I thought about starting school again I could not find my pulse. It is August again, but this year I have armed myself with Psalm 131, which I have been wearing like a pair of those functionally hideous oversized wrap-around sunglasses (only old people wear) that fit right over everyday spectacles. I have been wearing those verses like an amulet, a shield. They have been a parasol to shade my fragile spirit from borrowed troubles. I sleep with them like a scrap of baby blanket. I drink them with my coffee. “I have not concerned myself with great matters . . . like a weaned child with its mother I am content . . . put your hope in the Lord.”
But just when I was getting familiar with the peace of resting in the lap of God, I headed down to the maximum-security prison where I am sometimes a guest teacher. The privilege of spending time with writers in prison is humbling, deeply real, and often raw. It is an opportunity I hold loosely and with great reverence. The men who share their writing with me do so bravely and at some cost. They bare their souls, which are often more fragile than we might expect. They tell of childhoods stolen, lost and wasted. They tell of parents violent, addicted, and absent. They remember loves lost, obscured, imagined. They respond to each other’s writing with respect and dignity. They show me what community looks like when it grows delicate and green in the places where the concrete has cracked and the wind has swept a little soil into jagged bits of promise.
It is my honor to spend some time with these men. But herein lies the fundamental problem with witnessing humanity in the places where it stretches out an unlikely hand. The hand becomes human. Suddenly it looks like mine. Suddenly it feels familiar. Suddenly my stomach turns as I play back the way I walk to the classroom without making eye contact with the men in phone booth sized cages waiting for whatever men in phone booth sized cages wait for. And the way I ignore the attention of the blue shirts who hang on the fence outside the sally port. When I am in the classroom, I feel hope and the energy of a dozen muses zings around the room like bits of light through a prism. And every time I leave and fumble for my car keys in the parking lot I want to scream.
So maybe that is who I see when I close my eyes – me screaming and shaking the bars, unable to really process my time inside. Or maybe it is something else. I really don’t know. But I know she wants to be heard. I know she wants out. Or maybe she wants in. And I, mostly, want her to go away because she reminds me that I am powerless on my own. She reminds me that “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Her silent screaming works like acid on the fabric of the little shelter I have built for myself.
Since I can’t seem to shake her, I pray and ask God to go with me into that little space where she is standing, knuckles twisted and bleeding around bars that will not bend. I ask Him to bring along the promise of His comfort and His strength. I ask Him to sing to her, not so that she will forget what it is that has her so upset, but that she will find a road through it while she is still tethered to reality.
I go around the quiet house to invite the big kids out of their rooms. Mister pretends he is sleeping – lying on his back with folded arms and a smirk. He snores when he sleeps and always ends up on his tummy, so the act is not convincing. Sis is downstairs, having migrated from the couch to the whiteboard where I find her drawing.
“Wow, that looks great,” I say.
“Yah,” she agrees. “What does realistic mean?”
“It means something looks like it really is in real life.”
“I thought it meant that it was true. Because this drawing is realistic. I really was just sitting here thinking about space camp then I went and drew myself doing that exact thing.”
Realistic. Reality. Realness. It had not been five minutes since I had used that word. And here she was, drawing and reminding me of what is real and what reality looks like to a young mind. Reality means that rosy cheeks are represented by dark circles of marker. Reality means that thoughts hang around above our heads in little bubbled pictographs. A realistic drawing is one where the artist gives a true representation to the contents of her mind.
So what am I to learn here? This home, these babies, the dishes in the sink are real. So are the phone booth cages and the signs that say 'No Warning Shots Will be Fired'. Trying to hold these two places in my mind at the same time feels impossible. But I feel called to bear witness to more of this world than what transpires in my home. And so I ask for grace and strength to see without despair and be faithful to the realities that open up before me – here and there.