Migraines, Faulkner, and Love

Saturday night and Brooke is in bed: she successfully fought off a migraine tonight, icing her head and taking magnesium and resting in the dark. Migraines are rare for her, but she has had symptoms that often accompany one a couple times this week. I do not like this, and she does not like this. Still, we go on.

Sometimes, when life is going well, Brooke and I talk about how things will turn soon. I do not know if we are realistic or fatalistic or simply pessimistic, but we all know what it is to fear. There is something about growing older — maybe it is becoming a parent — when you realize how tenuous this life is, how delicate or even flimsy. We slough off our idealisms of adolescence and understand something of the tragedy in life. It comes in the form of a daughter born two months early, a miscarriage, and migraines during the subsequent pregnancy. Brooke and I generally mention our fears in passing, with ludicrous affect: “Can you believe I think about this?”

Except, when the sun shines on the other side of the world and there is that time of stillness between day and sleep, we all think about this.

There is little we can do. Write. Pray. Drink. And while only one is guaranteed to make you forget your worries — at least for a time — it isn’t the forgetting that we need. It does not help us to shut out the world and pretend it isn’t.

We become like Miss Emily Grierson — a woman who shut out the world and the change that it entailed, who could not quite acquiesce to death. To loss — the loss that change inevitably brings, that life inevitably brings. So, she poisoned her lover and spent the rest of her years locked away from the town, sleeping next to his corpse. Faulkner writes to wrestle with the change and loss that attended the early 20th century, and chronicles the horrifying fate of those who cut themselves off, who try to negotiate and manage loss.

We see the same idea throughout the Psalms: these poems where people cry out to God, facing loss and dislocation, alienation, abandonment, disillusionment. These poems are not so much about grand questions of suffering as they are desperate attempts to hold onto God, to find not so much relief as transcendence. We see, even as the Psalms chronicle events from David’s life, a “passion” of David: a willingness to suffer, to be vulnerable, to let suffering change and grow that man who would then, because of such suffering, be more able to change others. It is the opposite of Miss Emily Grierson, and an embrace of suffering in all the forms the world can hand out — not necessarily in a masochistic sense — but in a sense that moves beyond a human-centered or anthropocentric view of this world.

I still do not know what to do with suffering. I write. I pray. I read great books and listen to music; I talk with friends, listening to heartbreaking stories, finding a few sad stories of my own. Sometimes, I read poetry. Sometimes, I try to forget it all and watch television. But tonight, as Brooke said she saw flashes, we turned off the lights and I took Ellis upstairs. I read her a story. She kept reminding me “Mommy is sick.” We prayed, together, for Brooke. Then I came downstairs and gave Brooke the gentlest backrub I could, so I would not ever shake her head, but simply touch her shoulders while I prayed to our unseen God, to love my wife well and let my fears melt like the ice that was on her neck.


Psalm Thoughts

Today, a few of Walter Brueggemann’s thoughts on the Psalms, from his book, Praying the Psalms.

The Psalms, in their boldness and passion, are out beyond our conventional liturgical and devotional practices.  We are always hurrying to catch up with the daring faith of the Psalms.  When we catch up with it here and there, now and then, the transaction itself, in its transformative force, is nothing less than resurrection, the gift of new life that the God praised and summoned intends us to have.

[Each psalm] speaks about life the way it really is, for in those deeply human dimensions the same issues and possibilities persist.  And so when we turn to the Psalms it means we…speak among them and with them and for them, to express our solidarity in this anguished, joyous human pilgrimage.  We add a voice to the common elation, shared grief, and communal rage that besets us all.

I went to coffee with a good, good friend last night, and we talked about loss and anger and all that is never spoken of in the church, or spoken of obliquely.  Inevitably, our conversation turned upon the psalms.  I’ve been taking a look at the entire scope of these ancient poems, instead of moving on to Psalm 47 (next in the queue), and find solace in what counts for faith, as Walter Brueggemann writes about, as my brother talked to me about Tuesday night, as I talked about last night over coffee.

The stream of faith is wider than we give it credit, and encompasses more doubt and rage than we allow — which in turn allows for more rejoicing. For, the soul that can feel deep, deep negative emotion also learns to feel much higher positive emotion.  The soul that goes into the dark, beyond the door and into the room, into the far blackest corner, is most overwhelmed and awed when the light comes on.

So, may we, all of us, refuse to stand at the threshold.  May we enter into the room of doubt and exaltation through these ancient poems.  May we tell truer stories than the staid and safe ones that come from far too many pulpits; may the language and permission of the psalms enliven us to the anguish and joy of the world around us, within us.


Learning and Spirituality…

I read an article last week that talked about the need for memorization in schools.  As a teacher, I have seen the push to engage students, to let them discover facts for themselves, because a self-discovered truth is weightier than one told you by others.  I think, a lot of this push toward self-discovery, self-paced and individualized learning is good.  Yet, when I came home last week to see Brooke watching an Oprah show on the disgraceful state of education in America, followed a day or two later by an article in New York Magazine about the need for memorization, I see the oddly traditional manner in which Americans overreact to a situation: we all saw the weakness in having to memorize dates or capitals, how we weren’t really “learning,” and thus students should self-discover the important truths of a time period, dates be damned.

As a lover of trivia, I have already struggled with this.  Just today, I was listening to a sermon by a pastor that I greatly enjoy and respect, and he said that the steam engine was invented around 1880.  I muttered to myself, “Try a hundred years earlier,” with an adequate amount of arrogance and pretentiousness, and wondered how this pastor thought trains were getting around all those years before 1880.  The date the steam engine was invented is largely inconsequential, until you’re actually talking about, you know, steam engines: then we do need to know dates because they are causal links in a chain.  And, I have no doubt that if the steam engine were invented a hundred years later, then our lives today would be vastly different (remember, the steam engine is largely credited with making the Industrial Revolution possible in the early 19th century).  No steam engine until 1880, and I’m blogging to you all by writing a letter over and over again, then sending it out via post.

But that’s neither here nor there: the fact that I didn’t need to look up any of the above information really is more about my lack of a life and fortunate genetics: it’s pretty easy for me to memorize inane trivia.  And, when I come to a subject that I need to know about, memorization is absolutely necessary.  Sure, you don’t really need to know what year the steam engine was invented, because you so rarely deal with that information.  But, as the NYMagazine article pointed out, we must absolutely commit information to memory in order to let procedures become second nature, so that we can focus on the “structural elements of the problem.”

For myself, this means that I have far too much gray matter filled with dates about the steam engine or Battle of Hastings, far too much knowledge about song lyrics or Super Bowl winners, than I have about things of actual consequence.  In college, I memorized Henry V’s entire speech at Agincourt.  I memorized Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, Frost’s poem “Birches,” not to mention various paragraphs here and there in the Bible, let alone the Bible verses that I regularly crammed into my brain, from Bible studies in high school to classes in college (I went to a Christian school).  This knowledge, then, was available to me at a moment’s notice.  If I wanted to stir myself, to remind myself that life wasn’t meant to be comfortable, I could recite Henry V’s speech in my head.  I could recite “Birches” to be amazed at the natural world, and wonder at the ability of the imagination.  I could pull up the first twelve verses of 1 Peter to remind myself of God’s salvation story.

After talking with my brother last week, I am inspired to do the same.  Such great giants who walked before us leaned heavily on the Psalms: the psalms were the gymnasium of the soul, the book that instructed followers of God on how to pray.  Spending so much time in the book, I want some of the knowledge to become second nature.  Though I can quote verses throughout the psalms (especially since a lot are, you know, set to music), I want to let whole psalms sink into me, reside in me, instruct me so that I don’t even realize their instruction.

I want to fill my brain with that which matters, which that which will move me closer to God and not distract me from God.  So, this long post is to not only to declare that I’m learning that reading and studying is not always enough: if I want the Psalms to really inform me I realize I must begin to memorize some.  I must let their words sink through my skin and into my marrow.  May we all learn in such a way: to take what is most, most important, and to hold it so close to our hearts in the Hebrew sense of the word.  For in Hebrew, the heart is the center of our intellect and our will to act, it designates the totality of our being.  May we hold it that close.