An Island Reminder
It’d been calling my name for days.
But it was always at an inopportune time: the girls were with me, or I was going to be late to the class I was supposed to lead. A couple of days, I’d driven right past it with no legitimate reason for not stopping. Those days, I was afraid the emotional reaction it might cost. Most everyone will agree, after all, that healing usually requires a trek to the bottom of the well. Normally, I do a fairly decent job of confronting whatever nightmare may be plaguing me.
When the same nightmare plagues me for more than three consecutive nights, I will generally confront it on the fourth day. I rarely procrastinate when it comes to getting to the bottom of a sensitive, but important, issue. I have to call upon my entire well of patience if my companion is an adult and the discussion turns trivial: I often fail to understand why I’d choose to discuss the often exaggerated check-out magazine stories when there are still children in my own neighborhood that are in dire need of help. I’d rather read something like Room by Emma Donaghue, who’s very synopsis troubles me to my soul, than something by, say, Jeff Foxworthy (funny as he can be). Better yet, I’d ratherwrite something like Me or The Character than talk about anything not life-altering. I even play seriously, every block of time meticulously thought about and analyzed. So. Again, normally, I’d recognize I was supposed to do something important, and I’d do it, and if I felt queasy about the emotional road I’d have to take to accomplish it, I certainly wouldn’t use those qualms as an excuse not to do the emotional task. In fact, usually, I confront difficult tasks with very little fear. After all, I’m a survivor. I’ve already been to the bottom of the canyon and climbed back out. Furthermore, even calm survivors fight: they just don’t always do so visibly: engrained in the very fiber of my DNA is the knowledge of how to channel my pain into a fairly useful and constructive outlet: writing. So …. really…. what is there to fear?
Nothing. Except…. well…. God.
The power of God frightens me more than the power of Satan’s nightmares, the past, death or anything else. Not in a bad way, I hasten to add, but even when He does something with the intent to comfort, He does it in a way that usually brings me to my knees. If I put my hand over the Bible and pray for a specific verse, it is absolutely miraculous that out of the thousands of pages in my Bible, my hand will, almost without fail, randomly and blindly find the one verse that specifically applies to whatever situation I’m facing. The short form of this is that sometimes it’s the good things that scare me.
I’ve mentioned this in only half my blogs but it deserves repetition. At Christmas time, during my Junior year of high school, my family moved. It was traumatic time for me. My father was running (again) from the police and so we left the school that had been slowly healing places in my heart and went to Memphis. I missed my English and Psychology teachers painfully. Stackhouse was a blessing to me: he made me trulybelieve, for the first time in my life, that someone other than my mother and sister genuinely cared about me. Mercifully, I had lent him a copy of a book I’d written for him to read and so I used that as an excuse to write to him. I didn’t care about getting the book back; he could have it as far as I was concerned. What I wanted was to maintain that friendship. I didn’t expect a reply. But the day I received his two page letter that told me that he was glad because he “was able to give you a hug to show I do care about your welfare” I sat on the couch shaking as I read it. The letter was good. The letter was wonderful. But, until I read it, I’d been “fine.” I hadn’t broke down. The walls within hadn’t crumbled. I hadn’t given in to fear. But his act of kindness made the dam burst. It was so cathartic and healing and nice that it made me come unglued.
Kindness typically does that to me.
One year, at Fan Fair, I met a group of people who seemed to take me and my sister under their wing. They hung out with us, played games with us, wrote out “war plans” with us for how to attack the state fair grounds when those infamous gates opened at 9 a.m. (if you weren’t there, I’m sorry for speaking Greek). In short, they were nice to me. And I remember them. My ninth grade French teacher, and principal, allowed me to skip every Friday’s class so that I could teach third graders French: he didn’t know it then but he gave me the first opportunity to teach and, for that, I have never forgotten him. My fourth and sixth grade teachers allowed me to read books I’d written aloud to my classmates, which encouraged me and made me believe that writing was worthwhile, and that I was good at it. In fact, truth be told, I’ve never beendiscouraged from writing. Again, if you’ve read any of my blogs, you probably already know this, but it, too, deserves repetition: a stranger once held a door open for me and changed my life. I remember him. A radio disc jockey told me to come meet him. And none of these things even mention the even more significant acts of kindness from my family.
I can handle someone being unkind to me. But I can’t handle it when they go out of their way to be nice. It’s power that I don’t understand and don’t know how to respond to. It’s really just about the only thing that can breach the armor I’ve built around my heart. And no one does kindness like God does.
When God decides to show up, He almost always does so in a way that just burns my heart. When I was little, I had a secret weapon against the nightmares. I’d hold my hand out, palm up, and say a prayer asking Him to hold my hand. A few minutes after the prayer was over, I’d always feel an inexplicable heat settle over the palm of my hand. I knew it was God’s hand. And I’d be so afraid of falling asleep, because I was afraid that if I accidentally turned my palm face down, His hand might slip out of mine and the nightmares might come back. But they usually didn’t.
No one can convince me that Joey wasn’t sent by God to be in my life, for the few weeks that he was. No one can convince me that Breathe wasn’t an answer to a prayer, a miracle that was exactly what I needed at that time in my life, or that Alight wasn’t the direct result of a prayer I prayed. People usually quote God the Smiter, you know the one that smote all those bad people in the Bible, or offer up some awful natural catastrophe, like Hurricane Katrina, as evidence of God’s power. And, of course, all of those things are valid testimonies to His power abilities. But. When I think of God’s power, I don’t usually first think about God the Smiter. Instead, I usually think about the healing avalanche He puts my heart through when He decides to offer a small helping hand. When I ask for help, I’d be happy with a Sunny day or a day when not one fast food employee reacts irritably to my request for no pickles: I’m not really picky or specific; no heart hugs needed to make me smile. You see, it’s not that I’m immune to pain; it’s more like I kind of expect it and am thus prepared for it when it happens. Sincere kindness, directed specifically at me, on the other hand…. I don’t expect and am thus usually totally un-prepared for it. Especially kindness from God.
And perchance that is why I found myself apprehensive about heading the internal voice that told me to go to the prayer tower. It wasn’t insistent, it was more like a whisper. But every time I went to church or drove by the church, there it was: the desire to go to the prayer tower. Now, my church has a beautiful prayer tower, and I take it very seriously. I don’t go there just because it’s private and quiet and beautiful. Nor do I go there just to go there. I only go there when I have a real need to have a moment to step outside of this chaos we call life and meet God. It’s a place that you go when you need a specific place to converse with God: a meeting place of sorts. If you go to a place designed for an encounter with God…. well, you just better be prepared. And past experience told me I wasn’t prepared.
You see, the last few weeks or so have not been a particular walk in the park. On the contrary, they have been rather difficult. I don’t have a case to complain, really: nothing major has shifted my universe. But, all the same, a few particularly difficult issues and I’ve been left to wander around feeling a twenty pound weight settle itself slowly on my heart. I’ve been in the midst of promoting the book for a couple of book signings, I’ve been working the balancing act between being a teacher to Breathe but still finding time to just play with her while still finding the time to teach and play with Alight. I recently read a book that was the most difficult read at least of the year, possibly of the last five years, while simultaneously working on re-writing a novel. Pile onto all of this teaching two classes at church and a couple of events that left weights hanging around in my heart have all left me ….. well, just about done for. Like I said, it’s not much, and I know it. In fact, it sounds rather childish, really. Still, I can’t help but every now and then feel like I’m on a deserted island, trying not only to survive but to flourish. I can do it —- but then — well, if I’m the most clever, the strongest, the most creative of all the survivors in the history of the universe, but, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, I have only a soccer ball named Wilson to talk to…. does any of my talent or strength or ability to survive really matter?
When you feel really bad, the slightest act of kindness can be traumatizing before it evolves into healing.
So…. it took me a bit longer than normal to edge my way into the prayer tower. As I walked toward it, I said a quick and silent prayer for Him to meet me there. I was sure He probably rolled His holy eyes at that: wasn’t He the one who kept whispering for me to get myself there already?
In I walked. Part of the beauty of the prayer tower lies in its silence and part of it lies in its roof, which is constructed out of all glass. When you look up, you see the bells in the tower and the tops of the trees and the sky. You feel very small. And when you look around you, all there are are kneeling pillows, boxes of tissue (appropriately placed) and a Bible. It is the quietest place I know of and yet it is also filled with a presence, all the time, and the essence of power. It’s really quite awe-inspiring and slightly intimidating. I knelt at one of the pillows and said a prayer, then my eyes slid to the Bible lying next to me. I sat up and then leaned back against one of the pillows. I slid my eyes to the heavens and told Him to direct my hand. It did, and the verse talked about His divine understanding. I nodded, and I thought that was the answer, that that was the reason He’d wanted me to come here: to remember that He wasn’t only powerful, but that He had sent His son to endure humanity, which means that Jesus probably felt overwhelmed at least a couple of times. Understand, He does. I was good. That was good enough of an answer for me.
But I didn’t feel like that was what He wanted to say.
Confused, I looked up toward the ceiling, and prayed, asking Him if that was the verse He wanted me to read or if I needed to read more. I felt as if that was the only verse He wanted me to read, so I put the Bible down. When I felt nothing more, I stood to leave. I’d taken a step and then turned around, toward the inner sanctuary of the tower. “I love You,” I said aloud and then, tears blinding my eyes, turned to leave again. I still wasn’t convinced that that passage I’d read was the reason I was supposed to be there, but I wasn’t sure what else to do.
I was in the midst of replaying the verse in my head, and had taken a few steps away from the prayer tower, when I realized someone was behind me. I turned my head, but saw no one. I thought it was my imagination. So I turned again and headed for the car. The presence remained. It was so strong it made me turn my head twice more to see if a physical human being was behind me. I was almost to my car when a line from one of my favorite poems boomeranged through my mind: “And where you saw only one set of footprints, that is when I carried you.”
The presence I felt shadowing me was real. God wanted to remind me that I wasn’t alone. I’m not on a deserted island talking to a soccer ball. He walked behind me the entire way back to my car. The sensation of being shadowed ceased the moment I got behind the wheel. But the dam had burst and warmth spread slowly through my heart. His act of kindness has remained with me even days later. When I can’t start to feel particularly bombarded again, when the urge to hide beneath the covers grows strong, I remember His gentle, yet powerful, reminder. I remember that sometimes it seems as though I’m alone—but I’m really not. He’s just carrying me to a place I can’t see yet.
In all honesty, we’re all kind of like little islands. Even the most social butterfly still leads her own life. She may come home to a family but she still makes independent decisions and choices. She still goes places by herself: she doesn’t share every single moment of her life with anyone else. Our pain is still our pain. And even those who have shared similar experiences won’t ever know exactly how we feel because our thoughts are different. Something that’s totally insignificant to me might be life altering to someone else. The fast food employee that’s irritated because I ask for no pickles might make me burst into tears but might just make you roll your eyes. I perceive the world a different way than everyone else does. And so do you. And everyone else too. If we’re gutsy honest with ourselves, sometimes we probably all feel like we’re talking to Wilson the soccer ball, going through the motions, accumulating a collection of grievances against the world. We’re all kind of like islands.
But islands are surrounded by water, and water is a life-sustaining nutrient. Sometimes the tide is low and the farther away from the shore; other times the tide comes in and covers half the island. For me, people are the water that surround my little island and every time I stop to recognize the small acts of kindness they bestow upon me, the tide comes in and I don’t feel so much like a loner. And when the tide goes out, and I’m left to collect the firewood, catch the fish and talk to Wilson, I’ll walk in the sand and smile at the greatest comfort of all: one pair of footprints.
FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?”
The Lord replied,
“The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,
is when I carried you.”
(poem by Mary Stevenson)