Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.

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Of Candle-Lighting

It was just another night of plugging away at schoolwork, and I was half-listening to Nightwish’s album Imaginaerum, loaned to me by a thoughtful student. “Last Ride of the Day,” appropriately one of the last songs, was pounding away as I worked. In the midst of the triumphant refrain, these lines caught my ear:

“It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead…”

 I paused and looked up the lyrics to make sure I’d heard right. The song goes on to wholeheartedly support seizing the beauty and joy of the moment despite the dark.

That simple line of poetry, and its sense in the context of the song, has remained with me all week. It could be the title of this chapter in my life.

Five or six years ago, I didn’t feel an affinity with lyrics from Nightwish or Evanescence. I didn’t write stories where characters were broken at the end and stayed broken. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the Hunger Games trilogy. And I absolutely never, ever wore black. Ever.

 But that was before I supported one of my very best friends through months of brokenness and rejection at the hands of nearly everyone around her, starting with her fiancée. That was before another best friend was pushed to physical and mental limits by her job. That was before my grandmother and another dear friend died. That was before I made a new friend who suffers from depression and a schizophrenic mother. This was before I knew the meaning of the financial worry of living on one’s own on a miniscule paycheck—and trying to finish graduate school. It was before I had students of my own, with their deep hurts and sorrows and loves and losses. It was back when school shootings were just something abstract, before my imagination took me into every home of every parent and child affected.

“It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead.”

But that was also before I understood my personal mission in life. My mission involves candle-lighting. And if one’s really going to light candles with any sense of urgency, one has to see the dark.

Perhaps I should clarify “personal mission.” I believe with all my heart that the Bible teaches that we were each created with our own personalities and gifts (which are enlarged and enhanced by our unique experiences) in order to fulfill a specific God-given role, in His “church” (if you’re using the language of 1 Corinthians 12), or His Great Story (if you’re using my favorite metaphor). And in this story, every character counts. There are no secondary characters. My “personal mission” is my role as a character in the story. And it’s not something I’m being dragged into, kicking and screaming. It’s something I was made for. “That,” as Gandalf says, “is an encouraging thought.”

Like I said, I understand and have accepted my mission. It is, quite simply, to love people. To love a few specific people—who God always deliberately brings across my path—with enough intensity and for a long enough time that they are helped, and enabled to better achieve their own missions.

These people tend to share one characteristic: they have been hurt.

If I still lived in my little “happy bubble” I grew up in, if life was still about nothing deeper than fall leaves and family Christmases, I would be stunted. I would completely miss these people or at least avoid them. I would be more than a little afraid of them. I would be mistaking sadness for evil. I would be “cursing the dark.”

But instead, I shed a few tears—then smile, pick up my candle, and feel around for the matches.