The Long Arc

IMG_2100“Although the threads of my life have often seemed knotted, I know, by faith, that on the other side of the embroidery there is a crown..”  Corrie Ten Boom

I sit at the kitchen table with Audrey a few weeks ago.  We talk theology a lot these days.  She has a lot of dreams about heaven and angels and a lot of questions.  “God didn’t want appa to die,” she asserts.  “But He can still make something good from it,” she looks at me for assurance.  “We just don’t know what yet.”

“No, we don’t know yet,” I answer after clarifying that his death in itself will never be good, and no, God is not the orchestrator, but He is the arranger.  We may not see beauty in his arrangement for a long time, or even in this lifetime.  I also freely admit that it’s all hard to understand, and we don’t really know.

These are not flippant, pat answers or platitudes.  They’re hard-won truths after many long and dark “nights of the soul,” after many meetings with people deemed wise, many hundreds of pages read, and at least a couple of years of turning a cold shoulder to the Arranger.   The first words I finally said to Him after my husband died surprised me in their simplicity as I heard them slowly leaving my mouth, “How could you?”

In my twenties and up until he died, I was an auspiciously devoted believer.  We led a worship team together at a charismatic church on the Upper West Side.  We went to Bible study together weekly.  We prayed together on Sunday nights after we were married.  My faith was strong, but young.  Like the woman who bled and believed if only she touched the hem of His garment she’d be healed, I believed lives could be changed miraculously if someone even stepped into the area where we worshipped on the second floor of the International Youth Hostile on 103rd and Amsterdam.  But somewhere deeply rooted in me, was also a very immature, formulaic faith.  In the environment I was in, we did a lot of sitting around and saying, “I think this is what God’s trying to tell me because (insert whatever happened)…”  So, it’s not surprising that I looked for causes and effects.  I believed in the artistry of the Creator and thought I might see only the underside of the tapestry for some time, but eventually there would be those moments when I’d see the true design on the reverse side, and I’d know- and I’d understand.

Here’s an example.  As an awkward thirteen-year-old, I was a huge New Kids on the Block fan. I’m not proud of this.  I often dreamed of marrying one particular “New kid,” by the name of Joey McIntyre.  About seventeen years later, my husband’s band got a gig.  They were opening up for Joe McIntyre who was touring solo singing old standards a la Frank Sinatra, mostly attracting an audience of those now grown-up thirteen year olds.  My husband shared a tour bus with Joe and when they played at BB Kings in New York, I got to go.  And…I got to meet Joe back stage- my husband accidentally waking him from a nap to introduce me.  I couldn’t help whispering back to my insecure teenage self- “This is so funny- you will end up meeting him.”  And it was a front side tapestry moment for me.  The man I loved introducing me to the man I thought I once loved. (hanging my head in shame) I even went so far as to send out an email to friends bragging about my awesome husband and the artistry of God, fulfilling a childhood dream for me.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.  But all narratives do not follow this formula.  All narratives do not so obediently bend.

On a Facebook grief group shortly after he dies, I see someone post a quote that goes something like this, “Everything will be OK in the end.  If it’s not OK, then it’s not yet the end.”  Some people attribute it to John Lennon.  Others to Paulo Coehlo, and still others to a Brazilian writer named Fernando Sabino.  Someone posted it because they found it catchy or hopeful.  I found it irksome because when someone dies, it really does feel like a tragic finish to the narrative you had together.  It really does feel like an ending.  And who, I wanted to know, is so pompous they think they know that everything will be OK?  Why should it be? Formulaic thinking, hopes constrained to this lifetime, and the very false notion that one can understand the mind of God, cannot survive the narrative of sudden tragedy.  But this is as it should be.  There is no tapestry moment for a tragic death while we’re here on earth.  This also, is as it should be.

A couple of months ago, I listen to an interview with the writer Paul Auster.  He tells the story of how he became a writer, tongue in cheek.  As a little boy he loved the baseball player Willy Mays and ended up seeing him before leaving a game with his parents and their friends.  He asked for his autograph and Willy said, “Sure, just give me a pencil.”  Neither Auster nor anyone else had one.  From that day on, he carried a pencil, and alas became a writer.  At the end of the interview though, Auster comes back to the narrative.  At a writing conference, author Amy Tan, who had read the story about Mays, tells Auster that Mays, now in his late 70’s, is the neighbor of friends of hers.  She asks her friends to get his autograph, and they bring him Auster’s book and let him read the story of Auster as a seven-year old boy, walking away empty-handed.  Apparently, Mays sat with tears in his eyes saying over and over again, “52 years…52 years…”  Auster tells the story beautifully here.  While a bit classier, and longer in its time span than my Joe McIntyre story, it is similar in content.  “Sometimes you have to wait a long time before stories find their endings,” says Auster.

“We’re learning about stories,” she says today at dinner.  “There’s always a problem and a solution.  In mine, Summer (her main character) can’t play the piano with curved fingers- so she learns how to do it.  (Something her piano teacher is currently focusing on with her).

That’s right, I tell her, there’s always a conflict and resolution.  And I wonder to myself which came first- is there a real pattern of conflict and resolution in life that we reflect in our written words?  Or do we look for resolution in our lives because we have come to define narrative that way in our writing, in our stories?

I stopped trying to figure my own narrative out a while ago.  I didn’t see God for a while, and then I did.  But I saw him as the creator, not just of the earth- the oceans, the sky, the forest, but of the universe- the infinitely expanding universe, which we have not come close to surveying the whole of.  I take Audrey to a local observatory to see Saturn’s rings through a large telescope they’ve set up outside on a summer night last summer.  I revel in my smallness.  I don’t search for those tapestry moments- when all is revealed, but I wish for moments of peace and moments of beauty that somehow might be compounded or collected in some design, but are also whole galaxies of meaning in and of themselves.  The arc of the story is long.  Much longer than I thought, longer than seventeen years, longer than the 52 years.

You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out, perhaps a little at a time.  And how long is that going to take?  I don’t know.  As long as you live, perhaps.  That could be a long time.  I will tell you a further mystery, he said. It may take longer.  Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

“We just don’t know what yet,” she had said.  No, no we don’t.  I once found comfort in those moments when I believed I was getting a glimpse of how God was “working everything out.”  But there is a hopeful comfort, and I believe a vaster one, in this confession of not knowing.  Real, genuine faith is after all, not seeing and knowing, or understanding.  It is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”  There is no smugness involved, only anticipation, only hope.  It abides.  It is a gift.

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7 thoughts on “The Long Arc

  1. Your post is honest and a wonderful description of the feelings we have after immense loss.

    It is a reality after death when meaning or understanding is lost. This quote is my favourite from Kahlil “What you have not done is feel all that you are beyond that pain.” – Kahlil Gibran

    It took many years before I saw any goodness from my son’s death and yet, it did come. I now understand this quote. My son’s death woke me up. It allowed me to discover a deeper meaning of everything in life.

    Search for it, and over time your autograph will turn up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t believe in God. I wish I could and I truly admire those who have strong faith in the face of adversity, but I can’t worship a God who (if he exists) would allow terrible things to happen to young children, to meet their end at the hands of evil people and endure unspeakable cruelty. However, I do believe that there is ‘something else’, that we are part of a bigger picture, that there is a higher power and that somehow ‘life’ has a plan for us. The problem for me is I hate uncertainty, it makes me anxious. I want to know the path ahead, to have a map, even a Sat Nav for life with turn by turn directions. I want to flip to the end of the book and see that there is a happy ending, not just for me, but for all of us. I wish I could be the sort of woman who just lets things unfold, but I’ve never been like that: I make plans, I make lists, I concoct scenarios in my head. This is fine for a planned vacation, but not for life. It’s exhausting.

    I was very moved by Healing Grief’s comment, “My son’s death woke me up.”

    Beautiful writing my friend. xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Helen. I too like to have a plan, so I totally get that- and yes, it’s exhausting. I guess what you mention about children suffering is basically the oldest question of “why is there suffering?” And your belief in some kind of design is based on the other side of that question, “Why is there goodness and beauty?” Necessary to ask both I think. I agree about the comment about being woken up. Much love to you!

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  3. I’ve long struggled with much of what you write about here (and sometimes still do). For me, death came suddenly as well, but I turned to God but asking how and why he did not/could not answer my prayer.

    A story that touched me deeply which I think I may have shared with you before is in Peter Grieg’s recount of Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew in his book God on Mute.

    The Magician’s Nephew, which is the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a boy named Digory whose mother is dying. He asks the great lion Aslan, “May I—please, will you give me some magic fruit of this country to make Mother well?” It’s a prayer of desperation—and yet, at the time, Aslan appears to ignore it completely. “He had been desperately hoping that the Lion would say “Yes”; he had been horribly afraid it might say “No.” But he was taken aback when it did neither.”

    When God is silent in response to our deepest and most desperate prayers—saying neither yes with a miracle nor no with a clear sign that would at least let us know He has heard us—it is natural for us to conclude that God doesn’t care. But a little while later, Digory dares to ask Aslan for help again.

    He thought of his Mother, and thought of the great hopes he had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out: “But please, please won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and huge claws on them; now, in despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

    Digory’s prayer remained unanswered, but everything had changed. Now, he knew that the great Lion—in whom all his hopes were resting—truly cared. Whenever we carry a burden to God in prayer, begging, “please, please, won’t you, can’t you” and yet God remains silent, we may assume that He is unmoved as long as our eyes remain downcast reverently at His feet. But when, in our pain and shame, we dare to lift our gaze to study His countenance, we find His face bent down near our own and, “(wonder of wonders) great shining tears” are in His eye. What an incredible revelation! Our Jewish forefathers considered God’s name so holy that it was never to be pronounced nor transcribed. And yet this same God invites us to speak to Him and to call Him “Abba.”

    I confess I have no idea why anything has happened (good or bad) in my life, but somehow I trust that God’s love is far beyond my understanding and somewhere deep within my soul I trust that love He has for me, and my children.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for sharing that scene. It’s beautiful. For some reason, that idea, which I had heard quite a bit- “Where was God?” “He was crying too…” didn’t comfort me. I guess I wanted action. But I do remember coming to the point where I realized I could never worship a God who hadn’t suffered the way I was. So in that way, a suffering God, a weeping God, made sense to me.

    Like

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