Breathe the Unconditioned Air

It is temping (I want to say, “I think,” but the truth is, I know.) to feel beholden to you. To feel as though you are my employer and I work for you, and in a sense, this is true. I am not like those poet-artist delighted types who cannot help but write, for whom writing is like breathing, for whom writing is the thing they always knew they were called to do and if they denied themselves its exercise, they would be denying their very selves. I am not like that. Most times I sit down to write I do it with trepidation and an ambling sort of ambivalence (is that repeating myself?). I never feel as though I have “broken open a vein” after doing so and rarely feel as though I have given much of myself at all. It is similar to the way I approach folding the laundry or washing my hair: avoided until inevitable. In this sense, I do work for you. I do this because you keep asking me to and I feel beholden to you.

Last month Nate and I made a decision that set in motion a flurry of other decisions, and so we found ourselves with a surprisingly empty autumn ahead of us, something that has happened to us never. And in the face of such a void, we knew exactly what must be done with it: all the things we have avoided while doing all the other things that must be done. Things like doctor’s and dentist appointments, physicals and bloodwork, a gym membership, a mammogram because I am cusping the hill of midlife, some intentional work with our souls, some routines we’ve eschewed under the guise of busyness. Some order to our restless lives. Most of will cause discomfort at first, followed by assurances or health or reward or hope or healing of some sort. We, and I in particular, avoid doing anything we cannot do perfectly or in which are not guaranteed a perfect outcome.

A few years ago a fellow writer said some words to me that I have not forgotten. They replay with an irritating and comforting sort of consistency: “I have often marveled at how detachedly you write about [all these difficult things (miscarriage, shootings, moving, etc.)]. I wonder if writing about all this for the public while in the middle of it serves to exacerbate the emotional distancing. Writing inherently distances us from our inner life simply through the process of externalizing and reifying it. I wonder if this might contribute to that kind of detachment.”

This afternoon I was reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem, How to be a Poet, where one stanza reads:

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

I am reminded that all the things we do are inextricably tied to one another. The way I write, the way I think, breathe, practice, speak, engage, disengage, fear, love, delight, study, pray, sleep—these are all done with the Spirit of God within me and they matter. They are not unsacred simply because I have done them badly or without thought for the Spirit. They are sacred because I do them with deference and delight with God at my helm, or they are desecrated because I do them with rote dismissiveness, abject deceit, the pursuit of peace-keeping, or as unto an audience of men. I breathe the conditioned air of doing what works and what others expect.

Life in Christ, it seems to me, should not be a life where what works or what’s expected is necessarily what is done. Simply because it works for someone doesn’t mean it’s wisdom for someone else. Simply because it has worked in the past for me, doesn’t mean it works for my future too.

Why am I saying all this and how do these disparate pieces fit together?

They don’t. That’s kind of what I’m trying to say. My writer friend hit my nerve when she said that to me four years ago. She called me out while trying to be gentle and understanding: you have bowed for so long to the audience of man, you do not even know how to name your own grief. In your effort to be whole, you have become fragmented. You have made real what should still be abstract. You have turned into a lesson what should still be being learned. And she was right.

I was thrust or thrust myself out into the writing world either by nature of being an early adopter of blogging in 2001 or by working hard on the craft or simply by pure chance or by God’s design hand. I don’t know how exactly it happened but it happened with good intentions on my part. Sayable is named after a line from Rilke’s Ninth Elegy, “Perhaps we are here just to make things sayable…” and that has been her entire purpose: to make sayable the insufferable grief I was walking through that year in the aftermath of my brother’s accidental death, my parents agonizing and nasty divorce, my complete and total surprise that my experience of growing up was abnormal to a degree I’m still uncomfortable naming. I did not know how to grieve these things and all the things to follow except to make them sayable. To make them concrete. To give them words because feelings felt too messy.

I skipped the messy work because I so desperately wanted to be whole.

I think this is a common experience, although perhaps maybe it’s not. Perhaps in your hurry and my hurry we are so desperate to be out of the unsacred and into the sacred that we desecrate all spaces with that hurry. We skip over the thing that is more difficult (whether that is feeling for you or thinking for another) to do the thing that simply makes it be okay. To survive.

In the past few weeks of doing some work, all the work I’ve skipped or overlooked is being unearthed and I find myself surprised at its presence. All these years I thought I was okay about some real, deep, painful history, and I find I’m actually not. I just skipped the not okay parts. I worked for you instead of for the Spirit inside of me. I worked for you instead of for me.

Maybe I am one of those poet-artist delighted types after all. I think I might be. Deep down in places I haven’t let breathe since I was 20 and trying to hold my crumbling world together as best as I could. Way back when the way to survive was to keep myself safe. Further back when any show of emotion in my testosterone laden home was belittled, ridiculed, or punished.

I remember being a child who wrote narratives, who delighted in color, who was always creating, who put myself to sleep at night telling stories, who cried when bugs were smashed or voices were raised or fists were made or I was scared. I remember when I stopped crying too.

“God, give me tears,” I prayed at the start of this year. But to cry, I’m finding, takes feelings, and feelings, I’m finding, take work. “God, give me feelings,” I’m praying now. Help me to not write about them or over them or through them but with them. Help them do the work in me that I’ve never let or been allowed to let them do.

Help me make this desecrated place sacred.

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