“I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. C.S. Lewis
When my daughter and I read through picture books with a magical sensibility, we’ve gotten in the habit of looking for “clues.” In a charming book called, “The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake,” the story includes an appearance by angels to taste a cake a little girl is baking in the middle of the night to surprise her mother on her birthday. Once or twice, I had pointed out examples of foreshadowing in the beginning of the story- like how one of the illustrations is from above as though seen from the clouds, or how there is a little gold angel figurine on the fireplace mantle in the home of the little girl. My daughter calls these “clues,” and in whatever book we’re reading, she examines each page carefully, lowering her five-year old voice to a loud whisper if she thinks she’s found one, “Look…it might be a clue.”
It is part of the writer’s job to be more open to looking for “clues” in life and explicating them, or at least pointing them out. “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world,” said Susan Sontag. And just as my daughter scans every illustrated page with her tiny pointer finger, I have found myself from an early age quietly observing the world around me, ready and expecting to find- something. Sometimes I do, and then I write about. Sometimes, even more mysteriously, I write, and the discovery is made in the process. Ever since I was handed my first list of “Literary Devices” in high school, I began to see my close observations of the world around me in terms of narrative, imagery, foreshadowing, and metaphor. When I learned there was a word called pathetic fallacy for the dramatic way I approached the weather- anthropomorphizing it according to my mood, I was no longer simply self-centered- I was literary. People were round characters, symbols abounded, and clues were everywhere.
Also contributing to my penchant for these clues were the leftover superstitions and fatalism from my upbringing. “Company’s coming!” my mother would yell at the loud clatter of cutlery accidentally dropped on the floor. “It’s lucky if it rains on your birthday, but if it’s nice that means you’ve been good all year.” “Is your nose itchy? Uh-oh, that means you’re going to get into a fight.” As a young child, every time I kissed my grandmother goodbye and told her I’d see her soon after a shared meal at her house, she always replied, “Well, you never know.” This bore out in me I think, in psychological terms, by creating an external, rather than an internal locust of control. I believed things were bound to happen, and I had little control over them, except maybe to look for foreshadowing, and ready myself as best as I could.
Perhaps the third prong of my clue-searching was born partly out of that fear: a hunger for God- for someone I could befriend who might control the things that I could not- for someone who already saw everything clearly- not “through a glass darkly.” And because I already had this writerly, superstitious worldview, it’s not really surprising that in my early twenties I ended up in a charismatic church movement on New York City’s Upper West side where people saw pictures or symbols that they shared with each other during prayer times, or told stories of their circumstances followed by words like, “I think it means…” or “I think God is saying…”
But it wasn’t until my husband died, and grief fell on my life covering it like a giant magnifying glass, that the sensitivity in me to clues erupted. When people are in raw grief, and especially when they’ve experienced a sudden traumatic loss, the mind tries to make sense of what’s happened. Almost immediately, there was foreshadowing I hadn’t seen before. I had suggested he might die two times in the previous six months. I had the thought that while he was traveling I was being prepared to be a single mother. I had delayed a second pregnancy because, I told him, “I don’t want to be a pregnant widow.” And then there was a search for “signs.” Signs that he was OK- that there was life after death, that there was some kind of plan still intact. All grievers are susceptible to this. They visit psychics and mediums. They find special meaning in the sightings of cardinals, butterflies, hawks, and rainbows. They look for numbers- birthdays, death days, and anniversaries to show up anywhere: the time remaining on a parking meter when you pull in, your ticket number at the bakery, the time an email was sent. This is early grief, a time when one is grasping for anything to make sense of the literary narrative- or rather anti-narrative, one has been handed.
When I met with a very cerebral, well-known Presbyterian pastor of a large network of Presbyterian churches in New York City about eight months after my husband had died, I told him I was asking God for signs, but hadn’t really received any. He suggested that it was my charismatic background that was giving me the idea to even ask for signs, that although sometimes God did provide signs in the Bible, there was an equal number of times he did not, and so asking for one would probably lead to disappointment. I confess, that did not stop me from looking. I remember telling a friend that even the “signs” I did feel I got weren’t enough. “Of course not,” she replied, “You don’t want a rainbow, you want your husband back.” But since that is not an option, we take small comfort at least, in what we get.
Today, I meet new young widows and try to be a support to them. I see that strained look in their eyes; that raw hunt for clues is on. The reason they search is really the same reason Audrey and I look for her “clues” in her picture books: to find evidence of a plan, a plot, placed there by an intelligent author. The search, even if it comes up seemingly empty-handed, says “I have hope.” “I believe.” Maybe in the end, it’s not about finding signs or seeing God or seeing a plan. It’s less about seeing, and more about being seen. Those clues in my daughter’s book aren’t revelatory- they don’t really explain anything, and they don’t prove anything – but they are an exchange between creator and reader- a wink if you will. I see you- I knew you’d find this.
That same cerebral pastor I met with, Tim Keller, writes about clues “written into the universe” in his NY Times Bestselling apologetics book, “The Reason for God,”
When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare.
If the God of the Bible exists, he is not a man in the attic, but the Playwright. That means we won’t be able to find him like we would find a passive object with the powers of empirical investigation. Rather, we must find the clues to his reality that he has written into the universe, including into us. That is why, if God exists, we would expect to find that he appeals to our rational faculties. If we are made “in his image” as rational, personal beings, there should be some resonance between his mind and ours. It also means that reason alone won’t be enough.
Being married meant I was seen and known at my most vulnerable. One experiences this “being seen” when one first falls in love. Dostoevsky writes, “To love is to see someone how God intended them to be.” And then, after infatuation wears off, our spouse also sees us in a way most of the world does not- in front of them we will bear all of our faults, scars, and imperfections, whether we want to or not. In the middle of a marriage, we don’t “feel” this being seen as much. We are accustomed to it. It is comfortable, non-chalant: a quick phone call, “I’m on my way home- do you need me to pick anything up?” a gentle push to roll him over to his side in the middle of the night when he snores, knowing what he wants on his bagel and how he likes his coffee- milk, not cream, no sugar. But with the loss of a spouse, comes the loss of shared memories, of the familiar name on your phone when it rings, and of the person with whom the simple greeting “Hey you,” will do. The feeling of being “unseen” is palpable. This might be part of the reason for the search; at the root of most of our fears and desires is this need to be seen.
I no longer search for signs with the same desperation that I did in those raw days of grief. But I do enjoy taking photos of hearts I find in nature or on the street, or watching a hawk slowly soar in the sky above the reservoir by my house, and Audrey and I often see rainbows from our front porch. I enjoy these clues more contentedly now because I don’t necessarily need to extract any specific meaning from them.
Frederick Buechner writes a lovely sentiment on “coincidence,” and this is the same sentiment I feel when I find a clue, or a sign.
I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know. Who can say what it is that’s going on? But I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.
It is a comfort, this “resonance” between God’s mind and mine. We are never forgotten.
Note: This was written last September, but never published. I have been working on a longer essay and unable to write here- but still wanted to post something. I hope it does not feel stale.