Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Carolyn Arends, "A Summer In The South" / "The Journey Home"

A Summer in the South

The summer of 1993 was uncharacteristically humid in Nashville. At least that’s what the weather men and gas station attendants all told us. Any summer we spent in Tennessee, the locals, by way of apology, claimed the heat was unusually bad (as if under more typical circumstances a refreshing ocean breeze was known to waft down the Cumberland River, keeping everything perfectly reasonable).

We arrived on the fourth of July and hit the outskirts of Nashville just in time for the fireworks. We were flattered to receive such an extravagant welcome, but it was hard to keep our bleary eyes open. There are just over 2500 miles between Nashville and Vancouver, and we had driven them in three 18-hour days. We had seen most of America’s mid-section through the bug-stained windows of our little white Chevy. Now all we wanted to see was a bed.

Aside from a nasty run-in with a ticket-wielding Missouri-state trooper, we’d had a good trip, and we had spent much of it basking in the romantic, poetic light of our adventure. At 25 and 29, we could still (we hoped) be considered young, we were definitely in love, and if you squinted at our ‘89 Cavalier the right way you could almost be convinced that it was a sports car. It would have been a nice touch to have the wind blow through our hair, but for most of our journey it was too hot to open the windows, so we kept the air conditioner on “high” and achieved approximately the same effect. Now that we had almost reached our destination, the celebration -- complete with pyrotechnics -- seemed rather ridiculously perfect.


We stayed with Chris and Sally Jones. Our friends themselves were transplants -- Sal was from Alberta, Chris was from New York -- but if their creaky house’s 100-year-old walls could talk, they would undoubtedly speak in a genteel southern drawl. After all, you couldn’t throw a rock over the Jones’ backyard fence without hitting the grave of a confederate soldier. The whole place seemed to rustle with history, animated by -- not ghosts, exactly -- but a palpable sense of other times and other lives.

The house was also animated by, well, animals. Mark and I were only two of the many strays Sal took in. Three new cats had also joined the menagerie. I wasn’t really a cat person -- truth be told, I was almost a little afraid of them. Growing up, my father’s allergies had made our household rather hostile to any feline presence. Cats as a species were far too secretive, and I always had the feeling they were barely tolerating me.

Sally’s cats must have smelled my fear. The creatures sought me out day and especially night. In the wee hours they would creep into the guest room and slink onto the bed. Inevitably, the cats would settle on my chest and spend the rest of the night relentlessly kneading my rib cage with their paws. Even their purrs of contentment seemed a little menacing in the dark, their pleasure rattling in their chests like the rumble of distant thunder.

I don’t know what it was, exactly -- perhaps the oppression of the heat or of the cats, the lack of sleep or of anything familiar -- but I began to get a strange, alarming sense that all was not well. I tried for several days to shake it off or explain it away as fatigue or indigestion -- I kept impatiently reminding myself that the feeling made no sense. We had come to the South for the express purpose of nurturing my dreams as a singer and a songwriter, and it seemed as if the dreams might actually be coming true. But every night I would lie tense and disquieted, my brain buzzing ominously like the cats.


To this day, I remain almost completely baffled by what happened next. The vague and cloudy sense of foreboding began to take a more definite shape, until in the middle of one particularly sweltering night the walls of our little guest room closed in like a coffin and I lay trapped in a sweaty panic. Everything sane and solid and good in my life, everything I had always believed effortlessly (instinctually and spontaneously, so that my believing was as natural as breathing), seemed all at once to disintegrate into absolutely nothing. Physically, I felt sick to my stomach, heart racing, fists clenched. Emotionally, maybe even spiritually, I was in cardiac arrest. The life-giving oxygen of faith and hope that had always sustained me was suddenly, inexplicably cut off.

I could not feel the presence of God.

I had said many times up until that moment that I simply could not understand how a human being could rise every day with the sun, could hear Bach or The Beatles, could hold a squirming newborn or taste double-fudge ice cream or participate in any of the infinite number of small and persistent miracles of this life, and not believe in God. Certainly I knew what it was to doubt -- I had wrestled with the apparent contradictions I had encountered in Scripture, in my church, in my own nature. But however brave I felt I was being, however adrenaline-producing it was to stare down the barrel of my own mental pistol, it had always been a game of Russian Roulette in which the gun was not loaded. Because the doubt was intellectual -- doubt of the head, rather than existential -- doubt of the gut, the cellular tissue, the soul. However dark it might occasionally seem without and within, there had always been a place deeper inside where a little light flickered away resolutely. I believed. I always had. And I thought I always would, until that stifling night in Franklin, Tennessee, when the air grew too thin to sustain the flame, and -- in a perfectly still, awful instant -- the light went out. And I had only fear, and sadness, and the desolation of an unspeakable emptiness.


My Nashville schedule remained frantic, and I was grateful for the distraction. The storm inside my soul settled down to a dull roar, and sometimes I was almost able to convince myself that nothing was wrong. But there were so many questions lurking just below the service. I would sit down with Mark and Chris and Sal to watch the evening news -- perfectly-coiffed and tanned anchors cheerfully listing the day’s tragedies -- and find myself overwhelmingly disturbed by the problem of pain in the world, the suffering of innocents, the injustice that universally characterizes human experience. I had certainly pondered this question before, but now it had progressed from a riddle to a threat. I would open my Bible, hoping against hope that I would find comfort and certainty in the pages, and instead I would find myself bewildered by an apparently angry and alien Old Testament God who seemed only to willing to smite a whole Nation of men and women and innocent children to prove a point. Or I would just hold my Bible to my chest, trying with all my might to recapture the confidence I used to feel in the men who had written and assembled it, wondering how I could have been so unwaveringly certain that they had gotten it right.

That certainty was what I mourned the most. Growing up in the North American evangelical culture of the 1970s and 1980s -- where all the sermon points started with the same letter or formed an acronym, and the enigmas of redemption and sanctification were demystified into three or four easy steps -- I had somehow absorbed or manufactured the idea that if I was a strong enough Christian, God and His interaction with the world and His children would make consistent sense to me. With complete sincerity I had embraced a sort of sit-com spirituality, in which all those gloomy trials and sufferings the apostles insisted on mentioning were viewed strictly as foils for inevitable victories -- fleeting problems to be dramatically, swiftly and neatly resolved, preferably within one 30 minute episode. I was raised on stories of the great moments of the faith, from the parting of the Red Sea to the arrival of the Israelites in the Promise Land. We had tended not to dwell on the 40 years of wilderness in between.

Pinned beneath the cats in the Jones’ guest room, peering tensely into the dark, I suddenly found myself staring into the gaping chasm of the infinite number of things I did not -- could not -- understand. I was left questioning everything -- including and especially my right to question anything -- and I could not shake the uneasy feeling that, in the words of my southern friends, I didn’t know “come here” from “sick ‘em”. It devastated me to think I might be turning my back on God or letting Him down. Hanging over even the lightest and brightest moments of that summer was a dark, brooding storm cloud -- the sense not only of betrayal, but of being a traitor.

I went about my business, and oddly enough it was a productive time. We went to concerts and movies, caught up with our Nashville friends, and, of course, complained about the heat. Life went on, much as it had before, except that now I was constantly praying a singular, desperate prayer.

Please, God, please, make it like it used to be.

The Journey Home

We drove back the way we came, and for most of the first two days we hurtled like the Batmobile along Highway 70, all the way from St. Louis to the center of Utah. Kansas -- which was somewhere in the middle -- was even flatter than we remembered it, and we liked it that way. Mark discovered that in the long, straight stretches he could steer with his knees, dig out a well-worn deck of cards, and beat me soundly and repeatedly in games of Gin Rummy and Hearts. I never won. My heart wasn’t in it.

My memory is oddly selective, so I’ve had to ask Mark what he recalls of that journey back across the wide open spaces of America. He tells me that somewhere near Topeka, under cover of the dark of the first night, I began to haltingly speak more openly about my crisis of faith. He even has a vague memory of putting forth his own tentative, newly developing theory that God’s truth was more expansive than we had previously imagined, and that maybe it was just possible that part of the reason I was feeling so fractured was that God was forcing His way out of the box we’d been keeping Him in. Apparently I burst into tears, terrified my husband was turning into a Make-Up-Your-Own-God-Universalist, or, even worse, that he was almost as wretchedly uncertain about everything as I was. He tells me that between my sobs I managed to choke out something along the lines of “Then we don’t even know the same God!”. I personally have no recollection of that particular conversation. (Some memories are better left suppressed.)

There is one memory, however, that Mark and I don’t have to coax each other to recall. As the sun was setting on the second day of our drive, we began to cut our way across Utah on Highway 15. We were still a few hours outside of Salt Lake City, and we were absently discussing how long we could wait before we needed to stop for dinner. I was feeling antsy -- keenly aware of my continued misery -- ready to crawl out of my own skin and be anywhere else. In need of a cool compress, I was leaning my feverish forehead against the air-conditioned glass of the passenger-side window, staring into space. And then it happened.

We found ourselves right in the middle of the canyons of Utah. We have since discovered that other people have heard of them, but at the time they caught us completely by surprise. On our trip down seven weeks earlier, we had hit this stretch of highway at night, in the rain, and we had seen nothing but the beams of our own headlights. But now the canyons were filling every window -- golden red, incandescent, and chiseled into an infinite number of intricate, exquisite angles -- a billion glimmering diamonds carved out of the stone. While we gaped the sun descended, no longer distant and aloof, drawing lower and closer to warm the ruby rocks -- first into glowing embers, then into blazing fires, and finally bursting out in explosions of glory. It was so intensely brilliant we had to look away, but there was no where to turn. Before us and behind us and on every side, we were hemmed in by unbearable beauty.

Once again I was aware of a constriction in my chest, once again I could not breathe. I had spent an anguished summer cajoling and begging and commanding God to answer my questions, devastated by what I perceived to be His silence, and now all at once it seemed even the rocks were crying out on His behalf. I became in that moment a sort of poor man’s Job -- infinitely less tried, immeasurably less true, but nonetheless able to see in a holy flash a little of what it must have been like for Job to stand awe-struck, repentant, wildly joyful and gravely humbled by the voice of God.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? When I fixed limits for the sea and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt? Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clouds of earth stick together?
My own tears were a welcome rain -- a desperately needed watering of the sticky clouds of dust that had had become my soul. We drove silently through the canyons, as slowly as the traffic would allow, and even when the sun had set and the rocks were shrouded in darkness, we could still feel their looming presence. By the time we reached Salt Lake City, I was weary with wonder, and I lay my head on Mark’s shoulder in an exhausted acquiescence. I was praying -- as deeply and directly as I’ve ever prayed anything -- a simple prayer.

Thank you.


To this day I still mourn the simplicity and certainty that evaporated in the heat of that sweltering summer. God never did answer my desperate plea to make my faith like it used to be. Once I entered a little ways into the Mystery, there was no going back. I could no longer list all the things I did not understand about God as threats to my faith -- instead, they became the primary evidence that God was, in fact, God ... and that I was, in fact, not.


In the fall of 1995 I returned to Salt Lake City on official business as a recording artist. I decided at the last moment to deviate from my normal set list in order to sing a geographically-relevant song I had written about the red rocks that were only a stone’s throw away. Afterwards, a young couple dropped by the autograph table and asked me to describe the canyons Mark and I had seen. “You can’t have been far from one of our favorite vistas,” said the girl, with a secret smile, “a place called Angels Landing”.

Angels Landing. I checked a map, and that really is the name of one of the clusters of canyons. It seems that I am not the only one who has heard the rocks cry out somewhere near Highway 15, and seen -- if only for a moment -- something of the Eternal glimmering there in the golden red clay.


Both excerpts are from Dancing With Angels, by Carolyn Arends