Melancholy has been my friend, since childhood. I am drawn to grey seascapes and misty mornings. Sad endings to books and movies often resonate more than happy ones.
An exchange from one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who (yes, I am that nerdy) sums up my natural feelings quite well when Sally Sparrow says:
I love old things. They make me feel sad. Kathy: What’s good about sad? Sally: It’s happy for deep people.
I would argue, even, that there is a Divine Melancholy that comes from seeing the deep truth of our world. Our wide, great earth is irreparably broken. We have been irreconcilably cut off from our Creator, the source of all love.
What I love about winter in the north is the way the backdrop of snow and cold highlights every hidden beauty. Visiting my parents’ house, I took a walk in the woods I grew up playing in and stopped at everything that caught my eye – berries, bright red like the world’s own Christmas ornaments, thorn bushes with green and purple branches branches bound together, rich brown stripes on mushrooms growing like shelves on fallen trees. Even in the cold, dead winter, there is enough small grace to take the breath away.
“What are you afraid of?” he asked me, as we walked a boardwalk across a northern portion of the Everglades. The swamp was still, trees rising out of solid green algae. He told me the water is moving, slowly, slowly, even if we can’t see it. Otherwise, we’d be swarmed by mosquitoes.
I said the only thing I could think of, growing old and feeling like I’ve never done anything worthwhile.
“So it’s like a big existential thing?” he asked, and I said yes, I guess.
Adulthood is a rhythm I’m trying to work out, and there are days it feels like a song hummed on some spring morning and other days it grinds inside my ears. With my first grown-up job, I am reminded how much of life is repetitious—I drink my coffee, go to work, come home, eat dinner, pack a lunch for tomorrow, go to sleep and restart again. Grocery shopping and laundry replay week after week.
Then in the news I hear of all the ways and places the world has split open to bleed. Our black brothers killed, attacks on police, Baghdad bombed, crowds mowed down by a truck in Nice. Bloody summer once again.
What can I do? My daily routine is shabby at best.
It is always when you’re about to leave a place that it starts to seem the most lovely, and everything you’ve taken for granted suddenly squeezes your heart so you know what you’re about to lose.
I’ve never felt like Iowa is quite where I belong, although I can’t say that is objectively true so much as that I have a tendency to cast myself as an outsider in my own life. I’ve been trying to own up to that habit. At some point, we all have to take responsibility for ourselves. Whatever has happened to us and whatever we think or feel, we have the choice of how to respond to it.
Everyone who gets to adulthood is a bit frayed in spots, I think, a little cracked around the edges, or deeper still. Perhaps from real tragedy or simply careless words spoken to us as children that burnt our fragile skin, and the scars became the narrative we walked our whole life through.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post pondering how God speaks. It’s still a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and fairly recently, I read Frederick Buechner’s memoir The Sacred Journey, where he says,
“If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we all of us have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all—just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.”
This sounds quite nice, and is certainly something I would like to believe—that God speaks and is present in all things, but I would be the first to admit that in my own life, I rarely sense it. What does it really mean to say that God speaks?
Earlier this year, I felt as if my heart and head both broke open, and everything of myself fell out. People told me I should trust in God, cry out to God. But I didn’t have much to say to Him. There was nothing I wanted. I had no plans or dreams to seek wisdom about. And while I knew I had things to be grateful for, there was nothing I particularly felt like giving thanks for.
Then I discovered liturgical prayer. In his book Water To Wine, Brian Zahnd lays out the liturgy he prays each morning, and it’s been extraordinarily helpful to me. Zahnd says this about prayer:
“When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes.”
Did you know, Lord, that you could feel this – emptied, depleted in the wilderness?
Does the voice of the tempter sound just like your own, insisting, if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. Do you stretch a hand toward them, trembling, wondering if you can fill yourself and end this hollow torture?
Do you remember that other voice, booming as you rose from the glistening Jordan, skin dripping wet, when the Spirit descended dove-like upon you, and your Father claimed you as his own?
Then that same Spirit drove you into the desert; you wandered forty days and nights. Did you know this world you gave life to could blister your feet and turn a blind eye, deaf to all your needs? Can you hear your Father in these dry stones, or do you perceive only silent, cloudless sky?
“What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low.
All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love, in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”
Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.” (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882).
The more I read about Van Gogh, the more I find in him a kindred soul. Today, I also find in him a challenge to keep seeking, keep searching; despite many rejections throughout his life, Van Gogh did not reject himself, but sought constantly after beauty in the world and in his own soul.
As a child, Easter was a main event, mostly involving spring and eating a lot and having my grandparents in town for the weekend. My sister and I put on our new dresses and flowered hats; we wore white gloves to church. Before we piled into the van, my eyes would scan the hallway, seeking the plastic eggs I knew were filled with chocolate, though the egg hunt wasn’t until afternoon.
Jesus was a part of it, but I’d heard the story so many times; resurrection was hardly a surprise. Mostly, I think I was grateful the savior enabled such a holiday—where overnight a new stuffed bunny might show up on the kitchen table in a basket, along with chocolate eggs and turquoise candy-coated malted milk balls.
Perhaps as children, this is all we need; the assurance of newness, joy returning every holiday.
Easter dawned cloudy this year, and the wind felt cold walking from the van into church with my family. I didn’t have a new dress. I didn’t wear white gloves. Afterward, only one grandma came home to celebrate—the other sits in a nursing home barely aware of what’s around her, and my grandpa is years gone.