In March 2018, boxes all around me in our new Tokyo home, I spoke on the phone with Elizabeth. Elizabeth, whom I met when we were two, after my grandma had been introduced to some new neighbors and said, “I have a granddaughter her age — they should be friends!” Thirty-three years later, and we are still friends.
It takes effort to give life to a long-term friendship, and we have weathered the pains of adolescent yearnings for popularity and boys and beauty. We have put in the work to continue loving each other into college and philosophical questioning, past marriage and motherhood, through overseas living and career changes. God has connected us, even when interests or space or seasons have not.
During that phone call, Elizabeth told me of the recurrence of her cancer, which meant it would drive her toward death sooner than any 34-year-old anticipates. She and her husband were on their way home from the doctor’s to tell their three small children. I wept on the phone. I said it wasn’t right or fair. I couldn’t understand. We said goodbye, then I dried my tears and did some unpacking, my life forever altered.
In the following months, other things happened in quick succession that I may find myself sharing here in due time. But today, what I most wanted to share was that a wind blew through my life during that phone call, and subsequent events gave the wind strength. I began to see God as an angry and impersonal force, if he was there at all. I started to wonder if I wasn’t completely mistaken and the heavenly realms were empty — after all, how could a loving God let such horrible things happen? It is the age old question, and I’m not the first to ask it. If God had ever seemed loving or safe in my life, I lost connection with that knowledge and my view of reality grew dim. My children would ask me to pray for something, and I would go through the motions, my mind and heart unwilling or unable (sometimes, how can we tell the difference?) to participate in hope and asking. I’ve been told since that this is grief.
I shared with friends that I was not doing well, even with my friend Elizabeth. I was completely honest, which was cathartic, but also frightening. I’d never looked honestly or questioningly at some of the doubts I’ve held in life, and the pain I was experiencing set those doubts before my face daily. I felt strange and out of place, unable to connect with the Being who has always been very real to me. Other life difficulties had taken the wind out of the sails of my belief in the past, but none had ripped through them like this. None had left me stranded in black and lonely seas, unable to pursue a direction or continue course spiritually.
Psalm 103:14 became the only verse in the Bible I could read: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” To me it meant that God knew my human limitations, even my limitations for hope and belief. He is not surprised. Even though I could not speak of his existence with confidence, my intention was simply to remain, to connect myself with others who had hope and wish for it to pass, even if I didn’t know if it would. Doing life was not difficult — I didn’t have trouble sleeping or completing daily tasks — but anytime anyone would ask me to pray or pose a simple question about God, I simply could not go there.
More than a year later, the waves have calmed somewhat, though I now find myself in the middle of vast ocean with irreparable damage to my sails. I have imagined God looking down on me in this time, sad and so very aware. Is he big enough for my anger, my grief, my unbelief, my lack of hope? It is out of those things that I wrote the last post here, unable to see past them. High Countries has always been for me a pursuit of the thinly veiled places in life, where the spiritual and the physical meet, and I couldn’t fathom traversing that space with such shredded sails. Even if a breeze would gust through, how would I catch it? But now I think that I just need new sails. Maybe the old ones weren’t very good anyway, and they needed to go. So I’m learning how to make them, with some very practical items in my tool belt — meditation, contemplative prayer, gratitude, reciting small sections of scripture. Hopefully the new sails will be strong enough to catch wind and move me. Someday they might be ravaged as well, but at least it won’t be the first time I’ve experienced that, and I’ll know that it’s possible to start again, though you can never reconstruct exactly what you had before.
There is likely a degree of certainty regarding God’s existence and what I know to be true in the Bible that I will never regain. Actually, I’ve come to believe that life demands an honest look at our perpetual uncertainty as inhabitants of this amazing planet, and so faith is required. But despite that uncertainty, I know the direction I want to go, and I know I want to be a truth-teller about my own experiences. There is no use in painting over a difficult circumstance or pretending it is easy to love God or know him when it isn’t. Something that has always guided my writing at High Countries is the idea that honesty and authenticity are vehicles the thin place where the spiritual and physical coexist, which is the place I most want to inhabit.
So here I am. Again.