Reflections on the Woodshed Year

Well, it’s Advent, beginning of another liturgical year, and the end of my so-called “woodshed year.” I published nothing save for a poem sent out ages ago and forgotten. Instead, I spent the year huddled with a notebook, writing everything by hand, trying to write from my body. Trying to let go of grad school, searching for a new way of writing and speaking, a way that is earthier and more honest, more feminine perhaps.

Did I find it? I don’t know. I think I might be on its trail, though. For so much of the year I was laid up with an inexplicable knee injury, followed by a cancer scare. I suffered choking anxiety and severe depression. It seemed like nothing was happening. Certainly nothing good.

But through it all, I wrote. Mostly, what I wrote were prayers, because I was desperate AF. I re-read the Biblical psalms and the prophets. I began to think of poetry and prayer as made of the same stuff, and imagined the words curling up to God like incense smoke, or chanted like incantations.

I read Betty Friedan and Ram Dass and The Argonauts. I spent a lot of time grappling with the concept of gender. I lifted God’s beard from his face.

And then I tore it off.

Still, it seemed like nothing was happening. From the outside, it just looked like I was sitting in a chair, crying a lot. I skipped church most Sundays because I just couldn’t stand there crossing myself and exchanging the peace when I had no peace to exchange.

But looking back, I can see things were shifting. I’ve been accepted to study with John Fox at the Institute of Poetic Medicine starting January 2020. I’ve written hundreds of poems, lots of them crappy but some of them good. And I’ve been named the inaugural Poet in Residence for St. Mark’s.  All small things in the grand scheme, but movement nevertheless. I can sense a shift in the trajectory of my writing, and possibly my life.

The Couch in the Jordan River

The couch in the Jordan River took me by surprise.

No, it was worse than that; I felt insulted. From the moment I’d received my travel itinerary for a Holy Land pilgrimage, I’d had an appointment with God, there on the banks of the Jordan. The renewal of baptismal vows was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. I’d had it on the books for months.

For this, I got off the tour bus with my heart all tuned to hear angel-song; I was ready for that white dove to swoop down and say something to me. Our travel guides had made a special point to take us to a more remote section of the river, a place in northern Israel where the Jordan was narrower and quieter. This was presumably to avoid the theme-park atmosphere at popular baptismal sites farther south, where crowds in screen-printed souvenir gowns posed for dripping selfies.

There were no crowds at our little section of the river, but no swooping doves either. What we did have: a couch half-submerged in the middle of the water. A skull and crossbones spray painted on its back side peeped above the waterline, a pirate flag where I least expected to find one. And, as with all pirate invasions, my morning was invaded, robbed of sparkly holiness, and re-routed. I noticed for the first time all the trash at my feet, littering the bank. Several yards from the clearing, a makeshift shed sheltered a set of battered plastic chairs. Nearby, some local boys splashed and shouted over Arabic pop music.

Also, it was hot. Really hot. The sun stung my scalp and arms like the blast from a salt gun. Assuming God would manage the ambiance, I’d foolishly left my hat on the bus.

What I felt at that moment wasn’t anger. It wasn’t cynicism. It wasn’t even disappointment. I had come seven thousand miles for this, I’d cashed out my vacation savings and even dipped into my touch-me-not money, and now God had stood me up. I felt empty.

If I hadn’t been part of a group, I might have knelt down in the mud and trash, thinking God needed more supplication or something. But the vow-renewal service started right away. In unison, we read a prayer from a laminated page. One of the priests dipped a bundle of olive branches in the river and flung the droplets out over our heads. Yes, we’ll gather at the river, we sang, that flows by the throne of God.

And then we were done. A fellow pilgrim joked under her breath that she hadn’t expected the throne of God to be a soggy couch.

Then, with hardly a moment’s pause, we all began filling empty bottles so we could take home some souvenir Jordan-water. The impulse to collect or try to preserve something spiritual — either with or without having really experienced it — was a tendency I observed in myself and others time and again during my trip to the Holy Land. What was I bottling, exactly? Couch-water?

I must have been visibly underwhelmed, because as we prepared to leave, my priest sidled up to me. “It’s been there every time I’ve come,” he said, nodding at the couch. “I had a hard time with it too, at first.” And then he walked away, leaving me to wonder at his decision to return here, year after year with groups of pilgrims. What was he trying to teach us? His face shone with mischievous glee.

Maybe the emptiness I felt was the point. Maybe, paradoxically, God is present even in God’s absence.

Or maybe it’s some other kind of koan, something about finding God where I least expect to, or not finding God because I expect to, or not recognizing God because God’s kicking it on a nasty couch in the middle of the river.

More probably, it’s a challenge to my idea of beautiful.

But I don’t know yet. All that was less than a week ago, and I’ve touched other relics since then. I’ve traveled seven thousand miles back home and back to work. That couch is still lodged in the center of me, a symbol I don’t understand.

But, having been on pilgrimage before, I know that meaning sometimes takes years to emerge, rising like steam from my memories, and the pages of my travel journal. Until that happens, I resolve to bless the couch, if only because, the further away I get from that moment, the funnier it gets:

God pranked me.

I’m trying to laugh about it.

But also, even though our meeting didn’t go exactly as planned, God didn’t leave me totally hanging.

You see, we weren’t supposed to go in the water that day, but I hadn’t come all that way for a sprinkle. Some people were already on the bus, but I rolled up my pants and waded in. The river moved slow and cool around my knees. It wasn’t blue, but it felt blue, the color of the snowmelt that nourished it. For a half-second I thought I felt God in that coolness, the way the prophet Elijah had heard God in the gentle breeze. Thousands of years ago, on a mountain not far from where I stood, he’d also witnessed the absence of God, in an earthquake and a fire and a raging wind, the same destructive forces in which we still search. “Why are you here?” God had asked him.

On the way back to the bus we passed a man standing by the trunk of his car, wearing a t-shirt and the world’s tiniest swim trunks. The man waved his hands at us, grinning crookedly, dancing. He seemed drunk or crazy. But people thought that about the prophets too, and I’m reminded once again that you can’t know what holy looks like ahead of time; God’s the ultimate shape-shifter, a master of disguise.

It All Started With Marie Kondo

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard of her. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is an international bestseller, and perpetually on request at the library where I work. Last spring, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I expected an orderly makeup drawer, but reserved some skepticism for the book’s daring claim that Kondo’s methods would be life-changing.

Boy, was I wrong.

In case you don’t know how it works: you go through your belongings, touching each item to determine whether or not it “sparks joy.” If not, you (gratefully) relinquish it. We’ve all got junk in our trunks, and often, our belongings represent identity baggage—gifts that don’t suit us, things we’ve outgrown, items that represent who we’d like to be but just…aren’t. By applying Kondo’s process to my material goods, I was simultaneously stripping away what wasn’t me, and distilling the essence of who I actually am.

It felt great. To my surprise, this process quite naturally seeped into other parts of my life. I found myself evaluating obligations and paradigms. I bowed out of things. I passed torches. My life became more spacious, more peaceful.

This dovetailed nicely with my study of the Enneagram. Using this personality tool, I learned that, as a Four, my lifelong “quest” is one of identity and legitimacy. Ever on the hunt for a way to confirm my individuality, I despise herd mentality, buck trends, and continually explore ideas. According to Riso and Hudson,

“Fours enjoy being alone… [and are] Passionate about their relationships as well as their inner lives: willing to explore any feeling without judging it, they are the ‘deep-sea divers’ of the psyche. They emphasize beauty and enjoy expressing their feelings aesthetically….” (Understanding the Enneagram, 2000).

What does any of this have to do with my spiritual journey toward—and away from—Orthodox Christianity? Everything, it turns out. I was able to be honest with myself about the reasons I was attracted to the church in the first place, which were very ego-driven. One was its exoticism. I didn’t know anyone who was Orthodox. It set me apart.

That I could belong to such a mysterious sect! That I too could learn to bow at the right times and be permitted to partake of the Eucharist! My ego trembled with joy at the prospect.

I also converted because I’m an aesthete. Incense and choral music, mournful icons, the exchange of blessings, and the poetry of the liturgy really sent me. I remember admitting to someone shortly after my chrismation that I’d converted “primarily for aesthetic reasons.” I needed my church experience to be beautiful, and I didn’t see anything wrong with that. In many ways, I still don’t.

But once I was inside, things gradually lost some of that luster. I detected a certain country-club mentality within the church, a smugness about being Orthodox. The beautiful bowing people weren’t serene and Zenned-out when they weren’t in liturgy. Moreover, I wasn’t any different.

I’d been enchanted by the version of myself that I thought outsiders would see: interesting, part of some arcane tradition. I’d hoped to believe in that version of myself, hoped to really inhabit it so that I could feel special. I wanted to be someone else, someone exotic and esoteric and fascinating, so that I could love and accept myself. But inside, I was the same garden-variety me, and I knew it. I’d been trying to convert from the outside in, instead of the other way around. It felt gross and wrong, Pharisaical.

I also really, really didn’t like not being able to participate in the Eucharist. Jesus is for everyone—even doubters like me, who grapple with the fundaments of their faith on the daily. Now I wonder if it isn’t inappropriate to withhold the Eucharist from someone. If I’d been permitted to partake of it when I first began visiting the Orthodox Church, would I have converted? Would I have converted so quickly?

Yesterday I went to an Episcopal church near my house, simply because I knew I wouldn’t be denied the Eucharist. As much as I struggle with everything and question whether Christ was the only son of god, there is something mystical and important and sacred in the act of eating that holy communal “meal.” As the priest pressed the little lump of bread into my hand, he smiled and said, “The bread of Heaven.” Something in my heart sang out, a single note, true and pure as the resonance of a tuning fork.

I want that bread.