I’ve just inhaled my third Barbara Brown Taylor book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Her books are not new, but, for me, they couldn’t have come along at a better time. This is me processing some of the things I’m learning, both because of Learning to Walk—and strangely right before reading the first sentence, which is, incidentally, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.”
(Really, shouldn’t we have coffee, BBT?)
The Valley Walk behind me, you’d think I’d have piled up a treasure of take-aways.
Don’t alert Oprah yet—I’ve got nothing. Other than it’s November, and I’m still dusting myself off.
I had a crappy summer. I mean, I was knee-deep in it.
In the aftermath, mostly my sum of sureties have suffered subtraction. Talk about a fresh start, a blank slate! But somewhere around September, I did glimpse the truth that God is there—somewhere—even when my sense of him is not. Other than that, there’s very little I know. I do know I’ve made it through, because I can write about it. That’s a harbinger, not a lesson.
But there’s this: I’m going to try to stop viewing the, um, darkness with such disdain. I’ve found there’s nothing worse than succumbing to sad or lonely or scared, except, perhaps, the dread of it. I don’t think my deep contempt for the uncomfortable is unique in our problem-solving, pleasure-seeking culture. Happiness is our most precious commodity, and there’s something shameful in not keeping up with those super-perky Joneses. I was raised on a trinity of high virtues: Strength, Stability and a Positive Attitude.
Tugging on those proverbial bootstraps got me far—it works under normal circumstances and perhaps for normal-ish folk—but it’s also partly what got me in a mess in the first place.
So what if you have a Dark Night of the Soul every now and then? If you’re brave enough, you probably will.
If you’re really brave, you’ll resist numbing yourself with Netflix to ease your insomnia, and you’ll pull your Wellies over your pajama pants and venture on a moonless night into your yard—all the way down the hill to the edge of the woods—the same woods that wake you with fox screams and owl hooting—and lift your eyes and beseech the still, black sky.
Not that I’ve done that.
Hoping no one inside the house notices you’re missing, you chide yourself for being such a ridiculous romantic; nonetheless, you wait for your mystic moment. It eludes you.
But you stood empty, enveloped in velvety darkness, and this sets you apart. You feel something shift. Even if you were only sending up a constellation of questions, or one big question—why?—you faced head-on whatever it is that keeps you awake and aired it out befittingly, in the dead of night. You went outdoors and asked God why he was bugging you when you should be sleeping.
He didn’t answer. You’re strangely okay with that.
So you start to experiment with not being so quick to chase away the shadows by flipping on a light. You’re an expert at living a one-hundred watt life, and you have lots of clever tricks—busyness, shopping, a second glass of Syrah. You got the dog to the vet and the kids to the orthodontist in one afternoon: Score! But sooner or later, especially if you’re a bit touched in the head (i.e. an introvert), everything sounds like a dim hum. You remember there’s supposed to be magic. Tuesday, however, looks a lot like Monday, and so on—no fizzle, just flat. You know bunches of your suburban comrades walk around this way—you see it in their bored eyes—and you send them prayers of loving-kindness. Then you dare to ask one for yourself.
You begin making allowances for the uglier emotions and are surprised at how they come and go. Look Jane, look, see how they pass! And sure enough, the door is eventually thrown wide open for the other half: the heights.
You’ve been missing them, but they’d grown to almost frighten you. Your gut knows you can’t have the heights without the depths.
After a long, lukewarm bath of apathy, I’m quite keen. I see glimpses of what’s next. Leaves of Grass and all that.
Add to the keenness the season, this pregnant prelude of the promise of the breaking of God’s silence, the light in the darkness. But the light didn’t come to remove the darkness. The light made a point to arrive in the darkness.
Kinda makes you want to visit the ole’ backyard at 1 a.m., doesn’t it?
And when the light came, the light didn’t erase the depths. The light experienced them firsthand.
(That’s my current favorite Bible verse, the glue that holds it all together.)
The air smelled of leaves all along, with or without me, and the sun warms me in the car. Now I hear the music,
I am grateful down to my toes, but I promise myself to be okay with the next storm front, trusting heaven’s still there.
Poor Job instinctively knew it: God is God no matter what you happen to think about his methods at the time. God is God no matter what you happen to think about him. He’s the same, but he’s always redrawing that portrait in my mind, just when I think I’ve got him pegged—especially when I think I’ve got him pegged.
My theology these days, it’s written in pencil.
Hold still for just a second, will you, Lord? Because today I am fully alive, basking in your graciousness, and I’m thinking thank you for feet that carry me, hands that can cook and clean and take care of the littlest one. Oh, but there’s so much to do! I hadn’t noticed how dusty the baseboards are.
But should such health and well-being be spent on switching out the closets from summer to winter clothes? I ditch those best-laid plans, get dolled up and head for a cozy dinner with my husband. When has a Manhatten tasted so good? On my way to the ladies’ room, I spot a *well-known writer, work up the nerve to introduce myself to her, find myself astonished at her coolness: I am snubbed. Who snubs? I’m really quite charming. (No, said author is not shy. It was a clear rebuff, like in one of those Mean Girls genre movies.) I renew my resolve to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List, and when I do, to always, always reach out my hand and grab another (unless, maybe, it’s hers). There’s no mistaking hand-in-hand and locked eyes for go away.
As Luke and I leave, I toss a ten in the guitar case of the restaurant’s hired-for-the-night singer, perched near the front door. He’s good, but no one’s listening. A talented friend who writes and sings told me she has stopped lugging expensive equipment to bars and cafes—nobody pays one lick of attention.
Imagine crooning your heart out and blending in like wallpaper. (Or writing words no one reads. Hmm.)
These are the thoughts—the doomed artistic plight—washing over me as I watch the spouse simultaneously deposit a wad of cash. He is, as always, simpatico, but he tells me to forget about the snub. Still, I pull my pea-coat’s hood over my head and let a few hot tears fall while he drives. Why not get it over with?
We come home, build a fire and settle into the couch when we’re startled by a wrapping on the door. The neighbors, who also happen to be old friends, come in, merry and bright. As soon as we’ve gotten drinks in their hands (we’re adept at this), there’s a second knocking on the door: the other neighbors, also from the same school days friend group. Miraculously my den is warm and filled with laughter and familiar faces I love. The snubbing fades, worlds away. (Would it have so completely evaporated if I hadn’t permitted the brief pout on the ride home?) We talk until almost one. When they go, I’m barely tired.
Later the same weekend, a daughter confesses her loneliness. I know, I remember. What heartache! But what beauty in the confiding! I get to tell her I get it. I do not tell her to buck up, that loneliness is not becoming on her.
Sunday I go to the movie theatre to watch a filming of the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s “Jewels.” I melt at the opening notes of Faure as I hold my breath through the first piece, a tribute to the loveliness of Paris (I am watching two days after the horrific terrorist attacks on the city). The French homage is followed by “Rubies,” Balanchine’s playful nod to New York in the twenties, and then dancing to end all dancing: “Diamonds,” with ballerinas in white evoking Imperial Russia. It is Swan Lake on crack—Balanchine is ballet on crack. I’ve never seen anything so clever, so gorgeous, so fine.
At least not lately.
A daughter volunteers to cook dinner that night, butterflied pork with sautéed apples and herbs, smashed new potatoes with chives and parmesan, wilted kale with garlic, pumpkin dark chocolate chunk cookies. She prints out a “Dinner in Fall” menu and places it on our plates.
I like this girl. Even her twin sister does at this moment. I eat slowly, because the food is wonderful but also because I want the meal to go on and on, the four of us in a circle of candlelight. The kitchen smells like browned butter and sage.
Did you have a nice weekend? someone asks me Monday. Well, I laughed, I cried, I noticed things, my heart soared, I didn’t get a thing done. Yes, very nice, I answer. And you?
The keenness, it won’t last. It comes, it goes. But while it’s here, I’ll grab it. And I’ll rest in the knowing that it will come around again.
Everything always does.
*Not BBT. She would, I’m sure, never, snub.