Psalm 51: 12
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
Last Ash Wednesday, my brother sent a text asking what my spiritual goals were. I wrote back, “stay alive.”
I was lying in my best friend’s bed in Chicago, so depressed I could barely move my fingers, but I vividly remember answering his text, then scrolling through the weather app on my phone to see the high that day would be -1. For the last time, I checked the weather in Louisiana, then deleted it from my locations.
I was pretty much crazy with grief and felt that even a cartoon image of a round yellow sun was mocking me.
My best friend brought me a fried egg and sat on the edge of the bed to make sure I ate it. She took care of my kids and told me to rest, though I couldn’t sleep. I guess at some point we must have bundled against the cold and walked to Mass to get ashes–there’s a picture of us with our foreheads smudged–but I don’t remember any of it. Only the weather app, the egg, and the text to my brother: stay alive.
I didn’t really want to stay alive, but I knew that I had to. Even if I was going crazy, I didn’t want my kids to suffer the grief I’ve lived with my whole life. I didn’t want to perpetuate the pattern that began with my mother’s death, or maybe long before then. Who knows? Some new scientific study suggests that the Old Testament writers were right about the sins of our ancestors being visited upon us. We pass trauma on with our genes. Maybe there’s no stopping it, and we’re all living out stories set in motion long before we were born. But I don’t need science to tell me what the Greek poets knew: we repeat ourselves. Despite our best intentions, we fall into the very traps we are determined to avoid.
So what happened that made me lose my head? I could chase the T in my diagnosis of complex-PTSD down many backward looking paths–back to the night a freak storm ravaged our house in Virginia, when I held my children close to me in the dark pantry while towering old poplars crashed into the roof of our house. “Are we going to be okay?” My 7-year-old daughter asked through her tears and I said yes, sure that I was lying and we’d be crushed. I could blame the miscarriage, the surgery, the cancer scare, or the sudden job change and move so far north that when I looked at the map to see where we were headed, I cried.
But I survived all those traumas, just as I’d survived, somehow, my mother’s death and the rest of my girlhood without her. When we left Virginia, I grieved the loss of the home I loved–the home I’d felt so gratefully, naively sure was my consolation for all that I’d already lost–but I was also confident that I’d heal again, eventually, that I’d reinvent myself up north, find a new story to live in. I tried to become a viking (norse myths!). But for the first time, my chief survival skill–creating a sort of fantasy world in which I was a character that could thrive–didn’t serve me. I couldn’t find the narrative thread.
I remember I tried to go apple picking with the other mothers of preschoolers in the new neighborhood, something I’d always enjoyed in Virginia. But as I stood there in the orchard listening to the others coo happily over their children and take pictures, all I could think was, my feet are wet and I don’t know who I am anymore. I hid my tears from them and from my three-year old son as he plucked apples from branches and tossed them into a basket.
Apple-picking. This is the stuff of myths, right? There might as well have been a serpent in the tree.
Sure enough, I soon began to hear lies about who I was, who I should be, and where I really belonged. I found myself living a story that had all the power of the myths I love, including a return home for the exiled wanderer.
But when I arrived home in the height of carnival season 2015, I realized too late that I’d been a fool. I’d been lured back to the beginning not to find my true self and live out a happy ending, but merely to repeat the past with disastrous effects.
I went to see a priest and he held me while I cried. “Oh you poor darlin,” he said, in that gentle, familiar accent that breaks my heart. “The devil won this round, didn’t he?”
For a year since then, I’ve lived in the dark woods. Literally. I live in a little cottage on the edge of the pine woods of lower northwest Michigan, where we don’t see the sun for weeks at a time, and I hear the coyotes yipping outside the windows at night. I realize that sounds like something from the Brothers Grimm, and the figurative power of the landscape isn’t lost on me. The Dark Wood is an ancient metaphor for spiritual desolation.
In his recent book, Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes describes it, more hopefully, as an “inner terrain you negotiate more through intuition, imagination, and indirect ways of knowing.” He meditates on the ways we , like the ancients, are “forced to convey interior phenomena using concrete external metaphors.” But I don’t have to reach very far for this metaphor. I’m living in it. This year my interior life has matched my external landscape perfectly.I scroll through the pictures on my phone and see that I’ve done so much in a year–traveled, given lectures, celebrated birthdays, made new friends, gone to the beach. I ran a 5k with my daughter. I saw Neil Young. I published another book. So why do I remember only lying in bed and staring out the window at the trees in my yard? One of them hosts a patch of lichen in the shape of a heart, and it has always seemed to be a symbol of something I can’t quite articulate, some poetic thought lingering just out of my grasp. That kind of desire for congruity and pattern-making is typical of writers, but it’s also typical for trauma victims, and brain fog is a hallmark of major depression.
I made good on my Lenten promise to my brother from last year. I stayed alive. I started vigorous cognitive behavioral therapy. I took vitamins and baths and long walks. I tried to do the things I’d once enjoyed, though I felt no pleasure when I did them. Those pictures prove I went places and did things and saw people and laughed. Maybe only I knew that I was numb. When I look at them, I see the shadow of grief on my face. Alive, but just.
I also spent the year reading about darkness, suffering, and spiritual desolation. At my lowest point, I read A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves, an inspirational meditation on the desert as metaphor for spiritual crisis. Graves is a gentle guide, but not a sentimental one. She speaks not just as a theologian but from personal experience and compassion. She writes with an awareness that those of us who are limping through a true spiritual wilderness probably aren’t ready to think about rising strong. The last thing I wanted in that state of affliction was to see it all as some kind of divine lesson. Instead, Graves offered me a roadmap, pointing out “you are here” and revealing the predictable landmarks. This alone was a desperately needed consolation. This wilderness was not uncharted territory, after all. Many people had walked here before me–good people, holy people. Graves put my despair in theological context, and made me feel so much less alone. Hers is a book of wisdom and companionship for the actively suffering.
I read Learning to Walk in the Dark, in which Barbara Brown Taylor challenges the traditional Christian imagery that equates light with good and darkness with evil. Taylor roots her book in an explorations of literal darkness: she stargazes, goes spelunking, and sleeps in a cabin off the grid. In each case, she encounters fear and discomfort but emerges with some treasure, including a metaphorically resonant rock that disappoints her in the light of day but glitters brilliantly in the darkness. What she’s ultimately after is a spirituality of darkness–one that acknowledges that God is present there too, even if we don’t recognize him.
Elnes also makes a case for the spiritual gifts of darkness. In the Dark Wood, he says we will find that uncertainty, emptiness, temptation, and disorientation, but that these will come with unexpected gifts, even if that “gift” is nothing more than the sudden awareness of something in us that knows how to live even when we want to die. Elnes, and Parker Palmer before him, think that thing is the soul. Part of living in the Dark Wood is learning to lead with the soul, to rely on God alone.
These authors know that spiritual darkness is not a failure, a character flaw, a punishment, an embarrassment, something to be eradicated or fixed. The Dark Wood is not a sentence for a crime.
I’ve resigned myself to staying here a while. If I can’t find the way out, I might as well take a good look around.
Today, Lent begins again, that season of darkness that means another Mardi Gras is gone–this one, again, spent far from home. Another Ash Wednesday means another smudge of scorched palm on my forehead, the shadow that reminds us liturgical types that we’re made of dust, and to dust we shall return. I used to feel a kind of perverse pride at wearing those ashes around town. They identified me as part of an ancient faith that still believes in the power of symbols and stubborn repetition. I loved the church’s cycle of feasts and seasons, the same but different every year, depending on your own personal story.
But I’ve lived in the Dark Wood long enough now that Lent is really starting to feel superfluous. When you never get to the carnival, do you still have to repent?
A sweet friend sent me a king cake from Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans. Every year, these sparkling, sugary cakes come with a collectible ceramic trinket representing one of the many carnival krewes who organize the parades, most of which are named for mythological gods and goddesses. This year the trinket was a tiny pink purse from the Krewe of Nyx. I wasn’t familiar with Nyx, so I googled the name. When I read her story, I laughed out loud. She’s the goddess of darkness, who brings dusk in her chariot, trailing in her long shawls the gifts of the night.
I know I have a tendency toward pattern-making, but this is getting ridiculous.
With every bite of cake I think of Nyx riding through the streets of New Orleans on a flatbed truck, throwing her trinkets to the revelers, hauling Lent in her wake. Her shawls are as dark as the Dark Wood, as dark as the cave where homely rocks glitter like stars, as dark as a tomb that hides an unlikely promise of resurrection.