on divorce, grief, and finding peace in the elements*
It surprises them, the nudity, but being naked is its own form of prayer.
We brought the coffee and the chocolate granola over the rocky outcropping down to the lake, wind lapping ripples against the granite shore. I sipped the sacramental first, perfectly hot and dark taste of coffee and settled into the rock. The girls splashed in the shallows, delighting in the feeling of familiarity in this place that was totally strange yesterday, when we set up camp.
We sit for a minute, all of us in the clothes we slept in the night before, since I didn’t want to go to the trouble of putting on our wet swimsuits. I feel desire rising in me and announce to the girls, “Mom is going to do something funny. Can you guess what it is?” They can’t. I stand up and move a few steps over to the slight cover of small cedar and strip down. They laugh, wide-eyed with shock and Madeleine, my 7-year-old, looks around to see if anyone else can see. There’s no one else here, though, for the moment, and I clamber over the algae-slippery rocks and dive inelegantly into the water, feeling the cool of the earth caressing all of my skin, everything that holds me in, held in the healing cool of this dammed up river. When I come up, Catherine, 5 years old, has already started stripping and steps nimbly over rocks to jump naked into my arms. I see the delight of water in her eyes and say, “It’s the best, right?” I hold her skin to my skin and feel the water passing between us as we float off into the deep together. Madeleine watches with her own delight, feeling too cold to brave the naked waters, watching the rocky hill for intruders into our bliss. I carry Catherine to the shallows and we stand naked, feeling the river drip off of us, the wind greeting wet skin. Before I’m totally dry, I jump back into my shorts and t-shirt and pour a cup of coffee. Catherine hops around the rocks pretending to be the naked creature that she is.
I think: I should have brought something to read with them, some text to mark the sacredness of morning. In past years I would have had my Bible with me, would have read a psalm about the glories of God, the wonder of creation, would have prayed our awe and gratitude to the God who reveals himself (always a him) in scripture, and sat in silent comfort at knowing the right words, connecting so appropriately with the beauty that is here.
But today I sit in silence, not so much praying as wondering about prayer and casting my hurting spirit out over the surface of the waters, listening for an echo.
Today I am estranged from that tattered leather bible, left at home on the dining room table where Catherine had set it aside to bring with her. She held it out to me, “Let’s bring this so we can read some scary stories.” I laughed and laughed at the truth of the assessment. But I also felt that estrangement, longed for the comfort the worn leather used to bring to me, the familiar, the sense of mystery but a mystery I could hold and read over and over, a mystery that held me back. The pages of that little bible, given to me by my mother, are tattered with the marks of being read outdoors, as are the pages of my mother’s bible, spattered with rain drops and torn with wind on the pages I’d return to, sitting in the desert or in the woods, Psalm 139, Psalm 90. For many years my whole spirituality coalesced in those Psalms. It was a time when I didn’t want to read the narrative of salvation anymore. The story of the people of Israel, Paul’s letters, the gospels all felt so tied to Sunday school lessons, to proscriptive spirituality, hard to reclaim into my daily life without a great work of imagination that I hadn’t the energy for. But these Psalms, this poetry of longing and wilderness and the certainty of death, praying for knowledge of my own temporality and an awareness of being known by this great mystery of being: “O Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” And “Lord you have been our dwelling place from all generations, before the mountains were brought forth and before you formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. You turn man to dust, and say, return O Children of Men! For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning, in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”
Yes, these ancient poems speak to something real, something that has not faded entirely for me. And the Bible itself, parts of it at least, I imagine, may return to me with the power of its revelation, the connection with mystery so profound that it has shaped Western culture and shifted our imaginary of the divine so that it can be hard for those of us raised under it to imagine the divine outside of it. But right now I don’t carry a Bible, don’t open a Bible because the Bible has been used to circumscribe who I am allowed to be, and the lines of this circumscription exclude the core of my being. And I feel unable to detach myself from everything and everyone else it has been used to draw outside the circle. The use of a handful of verses, in the mouths of ones I care deeply about, to determine who I am allowed to love, to connect the depths of my love and desire with a leprosy to be eradicated pushes me to push away the text in its entirety. At least for now. And for now, I have enough to explore, to try to attune myself to all the reality that is unnamed in the Bible, that is that beyond which all religious traditions seek after.
I get caught in the tension, wanting to share with the girls words they can hold onto, while feeling the words slipping as I try to hold on to them. While they’re adrift in these waters, whether they know they’re adrift or not, I won’t toss them a rope I know to be frayed. I feel keenly that they are adrift, and fear they are adrift because of me. I am the one who left. I wake in the morning with the bite of guilt, the hurt I have caused gnawing at my heart, a physical aching before I open my eyes. I spend the morning sitting with this feeling, acknowledging it and trying to find myself in its shadow. I fractured the stability of their home, their family, their sense of safety in the unsafe world. We were driving out on this adventure, kayak on the roof and three ukeleles piled up on top of two days of food in the front seat, all three of us singing Taylor Swift with mouths wide open in the rushing wind of wide open windows. I hear Madeleine saying something from the back seat and turn down the music. “I wish you still lived with Papa.” My heart closes and the wind keeps rushing in. “Are you feeling sad about that, honey?” She mutters her assent. I respond with the most true thing I can tell her right now, “I’m feeling sad too.”
I was not being loved, I tell myself, again. I was in so much pain for every day of those ten years. When I felt what it felt like to be looked at with love, with desire, with curiosity about my person, something cracked in me. The walls that I had constructed around my heart in order to be ok with not feeling loved crumbled and I was exposed, a raw and beating heart needing to be protected, needing to be held. I didn’t want to raise these girls in a shelter built on a lie, pretending that what we had was love when really it was a façade, a strong façade holding up the walls of our home, holding up a sense of security that this path was leading us where we needed to go, that we were doing what we were supposed to. I explain myself to myself. The parts of me that understand to the parts of me that don’t. I imagine him with me, as he was the few times that I could convince him to come camping. He’d likely be driving and I’d be singing, looking out the window, feeling the draft of stale annoyance wafting over from him, wondering what in the world I was doing that was so annoying. Was it the way I was singing? Was it something about how I looked? Was it something I had said? Was it stress from the work that piled up when he left it at home? It didn’t feel like any of these things, it just felt like it was me, just my presence, just my being, was annoying, was inadequate to some unknown task. I’m sad about it too, I kept thinking. I’m sad about all of it.
We want to protect our children from the pain of living. We want to shelter them from the bone-crushing pain of a family falling apart. I wanted to protect them with stories about God and verses they could memorize to feel that they are loved and protected and everything is going to be ok. I wanted to tell them, as I did the first time I told them about my parents’ divorce, on another camping trip, that that happens to families sometimes but it’s not going to happen to our family. But I’m having to teach them a much harder lesson, a lesson I’ve learned with my life–there is no shelter. All the shelters we construct are facades to keep out the elements that continue to swirl outside the walls. Our narratives about God and our prayers are built up to keep at bay the howling wind of uncertainty and unknowing that claws at all our theology. I don’t want to raise them in a home to teach them that love doesn’t fall apart only so that the walls can crumble the day they leave for college and they realize we held it together just for them, that they were the mortar holding us together, keeping me from ever being loved as I needed. I’d rather they grow up in this wind, this heat, this rain: when families don’t love each other well, they do fall apart. We fell apart. And now we’re pitching a tent and hoping the wind and rain are not too strong, hoping against hail.
The storm last night proved to not be too strong; the red line on the radar snaked around us yet again. We spent the night dry, waking from time to time to the steady patter of drops on the rain fly, rolling off and dripping into the ground, the wind rustling the cedars overhead. And in its wake, the storm left us with a cool, cloud-covered morning, the girls delighted to be out in the open, waking in a rush of desire to see the lake again. So we’re here with our granola and me with my coffee, wondering how I can pray with them, how I can inhabit this beauty with them and show them how it also inhabits some beyond, the beauty inside and beyond all beauty. While they play, I read Mary Oliver’s “Morning Poem” aloud, and they draw near:
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted–
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
At the words “a beast” they feign terror and laugh, but they also listen, they also nod and stare out over the lake in silence. “She’s right,” Madeleine says. And I agree.
Before we head back over the granite mound to break camp, I stand up and draw near the edge of the lake, dark waters when you stare straight in but bright blue as you gaze out over the expanse. I tell them, let’s take a moment of silence to offer gratitude for this beautiful space. Let’s take deep breaths and ask to be aware of the Great Spirit in all this beauty. I don’t know the words to share, but I can invite them into the silence with me. They stand with me for thirty seconds or so, and I hear Catherine’s affected deep breathing and smile. Then they skitter off, back to splashing and looking for frogs, and I know they are still praying.
*I wrote this essay a couple of summers ago, when I was newly separated. I didn’t post at the time because I was processing only with a few people, and huddled in the chrysalis of this enormous change. The reflections here still feel relevant, though, in the spiraling way that healing can work and in this non-linear path to reclaiming spirituality.