Lord it's hot.
The words won't come.
It hasn't rained
in weeks, Lord.
have you forgotten us?
we are dying.
Everyone has guns
and saws; the river
has a pipeline
pointed at its head.
we un-knit your quilt
faster than your hands:
every twenty minutes
a species disappears.
We blame someone else.
My knees hurt from kneeling
at altars you no longer grace:
dead forests, churches
Prayers rattle in the ditches
mean as snakes
and I writhe in bed
instead of sleep, repeating
myself -- look. Look
what I have become:
slack with fear, mad with grief
and shame, a bush
that burns and does not burn,
does not know its name --
o if you cannot weep for us
then weep, Lord, for your trees.
Send rain. Save
one thing you have made.
E. D. Watson
They say raise your fist,
stand in your truth, speak it
loud and clear
but I can only kneel
in this unsayable
that trickles and whispers
things I don't know
if I believe, undrinkable
as prayer. There is
no hashtag for this, no
slogan, no hat, no color
no meme no name no sunrise
over a mountain crest, no
perfect lady in a yoga pose
who I can pretend I am inside.
that is not my own.
The river is made of fear.
I have no feet to stand on;
I lost them in the mud
and rubble. I lose another
part of me, every time
it floods. I'm cold.
I'm getting old. I should
have learned by now
how to be triumphant.
E. D. Watson
When I was a kid, I loved Christmas. LOVED it. Most kids do, I guess — all the twinkling lights, the extra cookies, the break from school. The presents.
Especially the presents.
But I loved Christmas music, too. When I was ten, I embarrassed myself by belting out Christmas carols in the shower at summer camp. The acoustics, as I remember, were spectacular. I didn’t realize that singing O Holy Night in mid-July was odd at best, and annoying at worst. To me, it was a beautiful song, about a beautiful event, and it moved me. The feeling I got from singing that song couldn’t be constrained by seasons…could it?
When I finished my shower concert, I realized the whole dormitory was laughing. Somebody called me an elf. In the cafeteria, at the pool, I was singled out as the Girl Who Sings Christmas Carols in the Shower. I was pretty jazzed about this new identity, and continued to treat my fellow campers to my vocal stylings, for the remainder of my stay.
I mean, who doesn’t like Christmas?
A lot of people, actually. I wouldn’t have understood it at ten, that particular December malaise that falls like a musty blanket over the hearts of otherwise-content people. I hardly understand it now, decades later.
Perhaps it’s the idea of spending as much on Christmas presents as I spend on my mortgage.
Or maybe it’s the expectation of extreme good cheer, the notion that now, more than any other time, we’re supposed to feel all snuggly about mankind. It’s a lot of pressure, after all. Not to mention the fact that mankind has been particularly unattractive lately.
Don’t get me wrong. Every year I put up a Christmas tree and string my house with lights. I make cookies (or buy them from the supermarket), I send out Christmas cards and donate to charities and purchase gifts for the people I love. But this is my dirty little secret: I’m just going through the motions, waiting for the magical Christmas feeling that never comes. I’d like to be all starry-eyed and full of wonder like I was at ten. But something’s missing and it has been for a long time. It’s not exactly bah-humbug territory, this land where I’m living, but it shares a border.
At this time of year especially, I miss belonging to a church community. I miss the sense of shared ritual, of a meaning that runs deeper than the slot in a credit-card machine. From time to time, I consider going to a service. But then I remember a certain scorn cherished by the never-miss-a-Sunday adults of my childhood, a scorn reserved for people who attended only at Christmas and Easter. Bi-annual Christians, that’s what such people were called, and they were to be pitied for their poverty of spirit.
The thing is, I like not going to church. I like waking up on Sunday morning and sharing an endless pot of coffee with my husband. I like lying around in my pajamas until noon. I like to spend hours curled in a chair with my nose in a book, to go for a walk or dig in my garden. Church, to me, has always been antithetical to the whole day-of-rest concept. There’s nothing — NOTHING — relaxing about pantyhose.
Nevertheless, I miss church this time of year. I don’t want to feel blasé about Christmas.
With all the distractions — the things we know Christmas isn’t, but easily forget — I want to have my focus realigned with a sense of mystery and wonder. I want to marvel that I am here at all, that I’m not hungry or cold or sick, that every day is filled with opportunities for kindness. I want to feel my blessings more keenly. Most of all, I long to return to a sacred space inside myself — a chapel of the soul, where awe unfolds as naturally as a blossom.
This is what I want for Christmas — this thing that money cannot and never could buy. I want to sing again, to lift my voice for the pure pleasure of doing it — now, and in July.
It’s natural—perhaps even biologically sound—to shun the afflicted. In this way, we’re no different than other animals who practice this form of social hygiene. We fear infection from illness, and the disruption that comes with psychological instabilities. Our limited reserves of personal energy — our limited time — is precious.
Moreover, we balk at hopelessness. Most of us are unable to simply bear witness to another person’s despair; we are action-oriented, we want solutions. Our culture in particular is obsessed happiness. A flourishing industry of books and motivational speakers insists that such a thing is sustainable. If you are lonely or angry or crazy — or just living what Thoreau called “a life of quiet desperation,” solutions abound: perform an act of service! Get a pedicure! Clean something! If one method fails, try something else.
God help you if you don’t keep trying.
Consider how easily we excommunicate from our cult of hope the willfully self-destructive.The addicts. Those who won’t take their medications. Those we deem “toxic.” The Biblical story of Legion is a beautiful, terrible example of this human tendency, and how far back it goes.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this story. But re-reading it recently, I was struck by its poetry. A man living among the tombs, either banished or waiting to die. The story refers to the chains he’s smashed; Legion could not be controlled; “… neither could any man tame him,” the scriptures say. “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.”
The story of Legion awed me as a child. He was like a comic book villain, terrorizing a village, bursting his chains with superhuman strength. As an adult, I see Legion differently: a fugue of mental illness. No one what knows what to do with him. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. Crying and opening his flesh lets out the confusion and darkness within him. Blood is easy to understand. It explains something beyond words to anyone brave enough to look. It explains him to God. It explains him to himself.
Is there anyone in the Bible more wretched? If Legion were alive today, he’d be in an institution, sitting in a wheelchair, drooling on his pajama shirt. Or he’d be on the street, ragged, smelling of urine, haranguing passersby over imagined insults. Unloved at best, Legion’s horizon is without any hope beyond death.
Then Jesus comes and speaks to him. Asks his name. Respects his requests.
The “demons” entreaty that they not be sent “out of the country” could be merely practical. If we are to believe that the man himself is speaking, he likely understands that if sent into the neighboring lands, he will presumably be treated with even less tolerance. A more esoteric reading of this request — as one made by actual demons — begs the question: why ask not to be sent away, only to be released moments later from the bodies of the pigs? Are they itinerant devils, assigned to wreak havoc among the Gadarenes? Or do they fear Christ banishing them from the Kingdom of God—His creation—effectively ending their participation in it?
Why, above all, does Christ respect the wishes of a devil? By granting the wishes of these “evil spirits” he is colluding with them to increase the suffering they bring, making it even more widespread. Two thousand pigs could very well represent the livelihood of all or most farmers in the village. The economic ramifications would have been quite serious. The villagers respond with fear and outrage, never mind that one of their own has been restored to them. For the first time, Legion’s destruction has touched their lives, and their anguish is manifold.
This, I think, was Jesus’ point: there is no such thing as individual suffering.
Because we are temporal beings, we tend to understand ourselves individually rather than corporately. When in pain, we believe our pain is unique. Like wounded animals, we withdraw, ashamed or unable to endure others’ feeble ministrations. When we are not in pain, we shake our heads at the suffering of others. We try to defend ourselves from it by making it disappear, by calling it bad luck or a punishment for poor choices — choices that we are too wise to make.
But joy and suffering are the weather of the soul. The winds that scour give us shape; searing droughts make us grateful for rain. Floods destroy the temples we’ve built within ourselves, tearing what is precious from our hands, leaving a plain of silt.
It seems blasphemous to suggest that there was value in the work of those demons. It feels like a dangerous temptation of fate. Certainly, it’s nothing you’d say to someone in the throes of heartache: This has purpose, this is for your own good. Still, I can’t help thinking of another man who ran to Jesus, the “Rich Young Ruler.” How self-satisfied he was, how his unwillingness to relinquish stalled his spiritual progress. As awful as Legion’s story is, it has a brighter outcome.
Only to the empty-handed can anything be given. Such was the position in which the man from the tombs found himself: without a name, without a home, without a word in his mouth. On his knees before Christ, awaiting what would come.