For your listening pleasure while you are reading this post, here is the Count Basie Band (my dad’s favorite) playing Comin’ Through the Rye.
This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Mabel Ruth Kellick, in her teens. Whenever she showed me this photo, she would always say, “Mabel, coming through the rye.”
One of my three books waiting to get published (Who am I kidding? I am waiting for an agent to discover me and wrangle one of them into something salable) is called “Wonderful Plans of Old.” It starts with a family intervention to deal with the father’s alcoholism, and then goes backwards and forwards in time to explore the roots of this moment as well as the effects after it. When I was writing it, I was reading the Book of Isaiah, because it seemed to fit so well with the ideas of Desolation and Redemption I was exploring in the book, and each chapter title is taken from Isaiah. This chapter is from the very middle. Don’t worry: I will be tying all this seemingly random stuff together!
Among Fat Ones, Leanness
Kate was gone to China – we rarely heard from her. Patrick was home sometimes, six weeks at college followed by six weeks of working at home. And I was a high school senior: pianist, valedictorian, tennis team captain, and so very alone. My English class read The Catcher in the Rye that year, and like all adolescents I felt that Holden Caufield was my voice: repulsed by all the phoniness of adulthood and reluctant to move into the contradictions it seemed to mandate.
I rode the bus home from school, sitting in the front seat with a scarf over my nose and mouth to filter out the smoke – not all of it tobacco – that drifted from the back of the bus. Our driver was known to allow – even condone – smoking, so the bus was packed with students willing to walk ten blocks home from the wrong stop to smoke their pot in warmth for one mile. Roxie the bus driver would snap her gum, big ball earrings bobbling, and cackle to the back, “You smokin’ that horse shit back there?” She purposely aimed for the big bump halfway down Washburn Street and we would all fly into the air. Everyone but me laughed.
When I got dropped off, I walked across the street, got the spare key from the garage, and let myself in. No one was home. I’d drop my books at the kitchen table, take off my coat, and start the ritual. Holden had a malted and grilled cheese at the soda fountain. Without the equipment of a diner, I made do with a cheese sandwich on toast and a chocolate milkshake. Then I would line up twenty-five Ritz crackers – five by five – and slather them with peanut butter. Once I had eaten those, I checked into the ice cream – usually half of a half gallon would go next. Then Oreos: one column. By then my stomach felt tight, way beyond Holden and into a territory of loneliness Holden did not know, a territory where no one saw me, no one knew what I was doing, where no one seemed to notice that I was home, wanting someone to care about my day, wanting someone to notice that I had emotionally quit everything.
The upstairs bathroom was the place: away from anyone, close the door, turn on the fan, run the water, pretend I was a teenage girl obsessed with washing my face in case anyone got home early. No one knew – or really cared – what I was doing, even when I repeated this part of the ritual right after dinner. It really became quite easy. I would drink an enormous glass of water, and then it was amazing how easily it all came out – it didn’t even taste bad, just a watered down version of what I had just eaten. Three times and it was all out. I had had the feast – treated myself if no one else would – and still did not gain weight – as thin as a Junior Miss at least. So thin that my period stopped and Mom finally took me to an endocrinologist who took one look at me and said, “She’s too thin.”
I got thin, very thin, and I would lie in the hot June sun in the driveway on the lawn chair wearing only the Bloomies underwear and camisole I had bought on a class trip to New York City, the camisole rolled up to expose my browned stomach. I had no bikini and Mom wouldn’t allow one, but my blue-and-pink-striped cotton undies worked the same, as long as I had covered up by the time Mom got home. Our backyard was shaded by a huge maple, but there was a strip of strong sunlight along our driveway right next to the Gardiner Girls’ lilac bushes, which were on the other side of the waist-high chain link fence.
Mrs. Dixon came over one day and found me this way. I didn’t hear her approach since I had my Walkman on, slathering myself with coconut oil. “It must be nice to be so perfect,” she said, looking down her nose at me. She obviously disapproved of a teenage girl half dressed lying in view from Morton Avenue, or else she was jealous – a former beauty queen herself, believe it or not – whose figure with teenage children now was not what it had been.
I smiled in a knowing adolescent way and pulled my sunglasses back down over my eyes. If only boys would have the same response, but my obsession with my weight was mixed with a fear of sex, and the physiological effects of thinness had been to halt my hormones, leaving me desireless. I craved the jealousy of my female peers more than attraction by males. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a boyfriend if I had one.
The night of my first drink, I had gone to a senior dinner dance with a childhood pal, and there, in a funky bar in Buffalo, I had several white Russians. They tasted good, and I enjoyed, for a time, the way I warmed up, chatted with everyone, danced without inhibitions. But on the way home I felt bad, guilty, headachy, and when I crashed into my room that night, I planned the next morning to confess and gain absolution from my parents.
When I finally awoke, a beautiful, sunny spring day, my head ached, and I lumped down the stairs to the kitchen where my father was making a second pot of coffee. I slumped into a chair and drank the glass of orange juice he offered.
“How was the dance?”
“OK, I guess.”
“Did Jeremy behave?”
“Barely.” I finished the orange juice and poured some more.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked. “Aren’t you guys going to church?”
Dad sat down across from me and took a deep breath, sighed long.
“Mom’s upstairs in her room.”
I looked up. Something had happened.
“She had to have her stomach pumped last night.” I stopped. I had a vision of an ambulance in the driveway, reds lights flashing on the neighbors’ houses and on the Sansones’ garage wall. Mom on a gurney coming out the front door.
“She … wanted to show me what I looked like, so she drank an entire bottle of wine.”
I felt sick to my stomach. “Is she OK?”
“Yes. She’s going to be OK. She’s resting upstairs.”
“Can I go see her?”
I got up, holding my throbbing head, and went into the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Across the hall I could see that the door of the sewing room where she had been sleeping of late on the spare bed was shut. I approached it quietly and peeked in through the crack. She had her eyes closed, but she heard me at the door and opened them.
“Hi, Moll. You can come in.”
I opened the door, which squeaked a little, and closed it behind me. The lovely soft sun had risen and came in a strip under the shades on the east window. I moved slowly to the bed and sat down on the edge.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Kind of bad,” she whispered. “Did Dad tell you?”
“I’m sorry. On the night of your date.” She cleared her throat, which appeared to be a painful process. “How was it?”
“It was fine. Do you need anything?”
“Can I lie down with you?” She made room, turned over and faced the wall. I lay down on top of the blanket and spooned in next to her, like she used to do with me when I was scared by a nightmare, but our positions were reversed. I put my arm around her and just stayed. The shade glowed with the sunlight outside, but in her darkened room it felt more like sunset.
She was there through the next two weeks, up until my graduation. Dad called and told her boss that she was very sick. After school I would come home and lie with her. Then I would go back downstairs and sit at the table, doing my homework: Calculus, AP Bio, English, Psych – a breeze really, it just took time – and maybe I would play the piano, or practice my valedictory address, or I would take the car and drive to the school a few blocks away and practice my forehand, hitting my tennis ball against the big brick wall, over and over and over and over until blisters formed and broke open and my hands bled.
Did the music end? Here it is again.
I would not wish such a senior year on my worst enemy. Unfortunately, many students in high school DO have this kind of senior year. I have been teaching seniors now for eleven years, and I am convinced that it is one of the most stressful and difficult years of a kid’s life. It is like Kindergarten in reverse. Kindergarten means leaving the safety of home for the unknown of school; senior year involves leaving not only the now thoroughly known of school, but also leaving hometown, everyone known and loved for 18 years of life, and heading into the unknown of adult life.
Yes, some students are Homecoming King or Queen and apply early decision and are accepted at their first choice college, with a happily married mom and dad standing proudly behind them. But plenty of others are dealing with a parent’s illness or divorce or a major family problem, they have suffered socially throughout school and are glad to be leaving it behind, though they are simultaneously terrified of the blank slate before them. Sometimes no one has ever seen or understood their situation, and they have no support at all as they apply to colleges, all the while knowing that there is no money available at home to support this huge and expensive venture.
These kids need a catcher in the rye. They are technically adults, and yet many of them are running dangerously close to a cliff’s edge. Oddly enough, I have found myself in a job where I can BE the catcher in the rye for some of these kids. In my previous teacher job, I saw 75 kids a day for 40 minutes each: they were a blur. Because I now have a small class of students and see them for over two hours a day, my relationship with them is very intense and becomes very close. I know their lives and their dreams. Also, the programs that my colleagues and I run require students to leave the safety and familiarity of their home schools and take an early leap into independence and novelty. We often end up with the kids who are happy to be leaving their high schools behind.
Because I was also one of these types, I find myself with a rare ability to see their fears and their hurts, and I find myself so grateful to be in a position to help them, to the best of my ability. To quote Holden, my main man,
“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Not crazy, Holden. I hear you, dude. Many of us have fallen off that cliff because no one was there to catch us. But anyone who has been over that cliff can see – preternaturally almost – those heading toward the edge. You can see it in their eyes, in their stance, in their words or their silence. If you personally survive the fall and pick yourself back up, you are in a unique position to see those little kids nearing the edge and to try to get in the way.
My heart aches for the Holdens and the Mollys of the world, and the many real teenagers I have seen undergo this process. My heart aches because it ached for me going through it. Holden sobs for Phoebe in her joy on the carousel, and it is true that innocence – either in its still pure form or lost through no fault of the child – is worth our sobbing over. The events that cause this are often beyond anyone’s control; who can stop cancer or death or any of a variety of things from raining on our parades? But I wish here to offer thanks that I have been given the opportunity to see and assuage what pain I can. God grant me the wisdom and the strength to do so.
I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.
In addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.
My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.
As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.
One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.
I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.
Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.
I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).
This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.
As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.
However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!
On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.
Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.
I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.
Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.
I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.
When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.
On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.
In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”
Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.
Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.
Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.
Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.
The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.
Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.
My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.
All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.
We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)
Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”
Sure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments. Wendell Berry chose farm animals.
I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.
If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.
I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.
This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.
Please share your thoughts …..
Well, a certain commenter has got me thinking about religions and denominations and world views, and at the risk of blabbing my theories all over the internet (but isn’t that what blogging is all about?), I would like to share this poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which is actually a re-telling of a Hindu myth:
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
When my children ask me about religion, I always tell them this story about the elephant.
My own zig-zag spiritual path has involved encounters with each of the following:
1 Raised Post-Vatican II Catholic, including the spiritual renewal of the 1980s
2 Assembly of God during high school, including a summer working at an AOG camp and a mega-conference during which I evangelized using the four spiritual truths
3 Living in Japan with a family who practiced the combination of Buddhism and Shinto typical of the Japanese
4 A nameless church that met in homes
5 Collegiate studies in comparative religion that introduced me to Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hindu, Confucianism, etc.
6 Marrying basically a pagan (in the best sense of that word)
7 Discovery of the Catholic mystics
8 Continued reading in a variety of religious traditions: chakras, Kabbala, whatever I run into that feels like Truth.
I hope that where this has finally landed me is in the camp of humility at my inability to understand what is really going on. I fully acknowledge that I am a blind woman running into various parts of an enormous elephant that I am unable to see. I think it is very possible that each of the world’s religions taps into a pure vein of what is the ineffable divinity at the heart of the universe. I KNOW it is very possible that we really haven’t a clue, and that if we WERE to experience the divinity in its resplendent form, that our nervous systems would not be able to handle the load.
In terms of EXPRESSION of spiritual experience and outward communication of and participation with community in spiritual life, I fall back on the experience of Christmas in my hometown. Lockport, New York, was settled by immigrants from Ireland and Italy who found work in America digging the Erie Barge Canal. Because so many settled in Lockport, the city has always been predominantly Catholic. However, there is quite a difference between the Irish-Catholic traditions and the Italian-Catholic traditions.
Take Christmas for example. In my house, we ate potatoes and roast beef and opened one gift on Christmas Eve listening to Nat King Cole and drinking eggnog. Imagine my surprise to find out that my Italian friends had the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. What?! Fish!? That’s not Christmas!!!!!
But I am absolutely convinced that the feeling of Christmas in each household is the same. Family. Food. Gifts. Magic. Mystery. Light in darkness. What specific food and music is involved is beside the point. And some people grow up on roast beef, discover the seven fishes through a spouse, and have suddenly found their celebratory home.
Now, if sacrificing small children is what it takes for you to be singin’ and swingin’ and gettin’ merry like Christmas, I am probably going to have a problem with that, in the same way that “killing the American he-devils” might make me think twice about Jihadist Islam or stockpiling weapons to prepare for Armageddon makes the Branch Davidians seem not quite aligned.
But I cling to “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and I keep reminding myself that it is a very large elephant and I am a grasping blind woman. The shelf of “Bibles” that make me feel aligned is large and eclectic. The very fact of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama makes me feel God. The art of Sher Fick makes me feel God. The novels of Haven Kimmel make me feel God. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop makes me feel God.
I am completely open to being told I am wrong about all this. Therefore, I would welcome a discussion here. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or throw in some new ideas of your own.
I just finished my annual re-read of Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. I first encountered this book when my sister was in college and I was still in high school, and the first time I read it I was working at a camp in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. The copy I own is the 1977 edition; I bought it from Amazon Used to make sure I got the edition that I originally read.
Anyone who knows me well would be very surprised to hear how much I love this book and that I have probably read it at least 20 times.My love for this book is surprising even to me because I often do not like “Christian fiction”: I finally broke down and bought The Shack in the name of cultural literacy and had to force myself through it. Actually, I skimmed most of the second half, muttering “Yeah, yeah, yeah” as I flipped through the last fifty pages.
I know that my literary tastes expose me as a bit of a Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View. As Lucy explains after he walks out on Freddy singing: “It’s ugly things that upset him. He’s not uncivil to people.” Her mother replies, “Is it a thing or a person when Freddy sings?” I find myself in this bind when reacting to some spiritual novels, and I don’t like myself very much. I am sure all of these writers are much better people than I am, and I admire that. I just don’t like the writing. Much of it feels like eating a Twinkie when what I want is wheat bread.
And Hinds’ Feet on High Places is wheat bread for me, and I read it every June as I get ready for summer vacation. It is a completely unapologetic allegory, in the tradition of Everyman. Each character is named after a trait: Much Afraid, Craven Fear, Resentment, Suffering, and therefore the book is more like an icon than like a badly written novel sneaking spirituality in the back door. It reminds me of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is a painting I heard of in another of my re-reads: In the Spirit of Happiness by the Monks of New Skete, a Russian Orthodox Monastery near Albany. They are the same monks who raise German Shepherds and write the dog obedience books. The icon shows a group of monks ascending toward Christ while devils shoot arrows at them on the right and a group of angels cheers them on at left.
Hinds’ Feet on High Places is similarly and unapologetically allegorical. The premise of the book is that Much Afraid, a young crippled shepherdess in the employ of the Shepherd, asks to be taken to the High Places away from her Fearing relatives, where “perfect love casteth out all fear.” The Shepherd is overjoyed to grant this request, has been waiting for Much Afraid to ask, and gives her as her companions on the journey Sorrow and Suffering to help her up the mountain.
Here I stop and say “Thank you, sir. May I have another” because I need this God Smack. Asking to walk a spiritually evolutionary pathway is not buying an airline ticket to Jamaica. It is taking off your shoes and heading over the hot coals. We are “too, too solid flesh” and the only way to get it in shape is through training, which is another reason I love this book: it reminds me of the summer of 1988 when I backpacked through Europe alone. I lived on $20 a day, filling my pockets with bread and cheese at the Youth Hostels and hiking everywhere. My trip included a week in a tiny hostel in the Austrian Alps, far enough up that I could hike up to the snowline. By the end of the summer, I was a Lean Mean Hiking Machine and also quite able to handle myself in just about any strange circumstance.
The allegory is both so true and so overt that it allows complete entrance of the individual reader into the tale. Nothing blocks the reader from inserting the self: no silly plot devices or clever new metaphors that distract. Just a nearly skeletal rendering of the indeed harsh reality of the spiritual journey. Very few butterflies and rainbows but plenty of drear landscapes and difficult delays.
As Much Afraid makes her journey, here are the places she must traverse:
Detour Through the Desert, symbolizing long and difficult periods of bleakness and hardening to difficulty
On the Shores of Loneliness, symbolizing long periods of aloneless and solitude
Great Precipice Injury, symbolizing the truly treacherous task of attempting holiness
The Forests of Danger and Tribulation, symbolizing the hardships that will intensify once you get closer
The Mist, symbolizing periods of confusion and tedium
The Valley of Loss, symbolizing the seeming destruction of all that has been gained
The Place of Anointing, symbolizing the times of peace allowing preparation for great tragedy
Grave on the Mountains, symbolizing the requirement to give up all you had hoped for
Healing Streams, symbolizing the grace that comes after complete surrender of personal will
High Places, symbolizing the freedom and clarity of spiritual life beyond personal dreams
This book knocks me flat every time I read it. It is the astringent reminder of just how difficult a task it is to set oneself on the spiritual path. Along the way, Much Afraid’s enemies attack her repeatedly: Self-Pity, Resentment, Bitterness, they all make an appearance and try to divert Much Afraid from her goal. I have been there, and these vile enemies, which of course come from within, do try their darnedest to halt my progress.
I re-read this book every year as an assessment: Which of these places have I recently traversed? How did I handle it? Where am I on this journey? Which of these enemies am I listening to?
This year, with all the knowledge about Asperger’s I have gained in the past twelve months, one scene jumped out at me in starker contrast than in my previous readings. Much Afraid is told she is very close to her goal and is directed to go alone to a rocky crag where a silent preist stands at a grim altar. The Shepherd tells her, “Take the natural longing for human love which you found already growing in your heart when I planted my own love there and go up into the mountains to the place that I shall show you. Offer it there as a Burnt Offering unto me.”
Much Afraid, knowing that she hears aright, proceeds. She accepts that 1) she may have been deceived by the Shepherd all along 2) she is giving up her heart’s desire 3) her enemies might be right that she will be abandoned on “some cross” 4) she will do it anyway because she wants the Shepherd more than the promises. Fearing she cannot do it, she asks the preist there to do it for her and also asks him to bind her in case she struggles to prevent it.
When Part One ends, she has suffered her all, given her all, and accepts that “It is finished.” This part is so important and struck me so this time through. I can trace my own path through every one of those parts of the journey: suffering, loneliness, injury, confusion, danger. But I am not sure that I have made this final sacrifice.
Many of the Asperger’s books say that the hardest part for a spouse is to accept that you might never get the kind of love and empathy one would wish from a partner. Many women cannot accept this and leave to find it elsewhere. Other women take the gifts that are offered and find that empathy elsewhere, in friends or family.
Perhaps this is Summer 2009’s leg of the journey. I know I am not leaving, and I know I am currently seeking empathy and love in other places such as friends. But I also know that I have not yet really made that sacrifice and it lies before me.
For all she knows, Much Afraid has accepted her own death on that altar. And yet when she awakes after three days, she bathes in Healing Streams, is healed of all deformity and disfigurement, and is finally able to leap like a deer. She is turned into Grace and Glory, and her companions Sorrow and Suffering become Joy and Peace. These are the promises of the High Places, and yet here’s the rub: they lie the other side of that grim grave.
I know I’m not there yet. I know I’m closer to it. I know I fear it. Tough as I appear, I don’t like pain. I know that this event will be unseen, unknown, because it will happen inside.
The other annual event linked with this book is my climbing Bald Peak, which is in the Berkshires, an hour’s hike from the Bartlett Camp. I go there to steel myself and to physicalize the truths of this book and of every great spiritual tradition I have ever encountered. I also steel myself by listening to this beautiful album: Doug Howell’s settings of the poems from the book, which are all from The Song of Solomon.
Maybe this is the summer I finally get beyond the reach of Resentment and Bitterness and Self-Pity by ripping that human-love plant out, but maybe it’s not yet ready to be uprooted. In the meantime I will at least once again set my foot on the path, because the invitation is always there.
Sometimes in the morning, I approach my lectio session just knowing I am going to get a smack, a God-smack. I know my spirit has not been on straight and the only way it’s going to become aright is through a mighty smiting. This morning was one of those mornings.
I had spent the past week in a whirling cloud of PMS-induced-snarl. The progesterone had plummeted, I hated everyone. I was annoyed 24-7. I was looking for a new job and a new town and a new husband.
I am at ground zero even as I write. My ETA for the month was predicted for today, and that was confirmed when I awoke with a blistering migraine.
I crept to my desk in an Imitrex fog, ducking my head to try to get underneath my throbbing temples, and opened my Bible with great trepidation, for I knew I had done it again. I knew I had let my diminishing hormones get the best of me. And sure enough, the readings for the day were exactly what I deserved:
First this from Hosea:
“Your piety is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that early passes away.”
How true is that? How many times have I pledged to remain loving, pledged to be patient and follow God’s lead? How many times has that lasted for only a few days, or until the next round of menstruation makes that a challenge?
Usually, I hate to leave my desk in the morning. My soul is so straight and shiny, and then I walk down the stairs and encounter Asperger’s: Andy is rude to me or Eldest overreacts or I am asked to do something simple that proves overwhelming to Andy, and I am immediately awful. Sigh.
Thank goodness for those oh-so-human Psalmists. Here is today’s emoting:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Oh, I hope not. I hope I will be not spurned. I am sure there is not an NT spouse who would not admit that life with an Aspergian is difficult. The behaviors can push every sensitive button. And I know that I fall. I pick myself up and I fall. I pick myself up and I fall once again. The early monks were asked to plant sticks in the ground in order to practice obedience. Meeting the needs of Aspergian often feels this way.
Then of course, I encounter the dynamite. I fearfully turn to the Gospel reading and prepare myself for a Jesus blast. No holds barred there. Here’s what I got:
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity
greedy, dishonest, adulterous or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week,
and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There is no finer Pharisee than I during PMS week: “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of Chenango County: ignorant, lazy, backwards or even like this Aspie husband of mine. I am able to multitask and I understand how to act polite at all times.”
What I SHOULD be saying is this: “O God, be merciful to me who once again used PMS and Asperger’s as an excuse to be unloving.”
SMACK. “Thank you, Lord, may I have another.”
This is why life with an Aspergian can be such a school of holiness – it brings those dark emotions right up to the surface. Every day.
When I am saturated with progesterone and no one can do anything wrong in my book, yeah, it is easy to be loving and Christ-like. But what happens when the going gets tough and the Roman guards are spitting in your face, and the people whom you came to help are pounding nails through your hands – how do you act then?
So, once again I stand off at a distance and will not even raise my eyes to heaven but beat my breast and pray, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I am thankful to Hosea, who does not leave us smacked down to the ground, but offers this:
“Come, let us return to the LORD,
it is he who has rent, but he will heal us;
he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.
Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD;
as certain as the dawn is his coming,
and his judgment shines forth like the light of day!
He will come to us like the rain,
like spring rain that waters the earth.”
Today is the equinox, so I can no longer blame my bad behavior on Seasonal Affective Disorder, nor should I be blaming it on Cassandra Affective. I can’t change the movements of the planet and I can’t change the structure of my husband’s amygdala. There is ONE thing I can change, and that is me.
I ask, as the progesterone returns and the spring rains begin to fall, that I may try once again to live like an elegant spirit. And I ask, as I should at every moment, hormones or no, that the Spirit of love and compassion guide my thoughts and my actions. Amen.
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