I reach for books the way most normal, healthy, well-adjusted people reach out to a friend. My social circle has always been small but, these days it’s almost non-existent. Even amongst the tiny collection of compatriots I do have, I am always careful to withhold the full weight of my thoughts and concerns.
My head and my heart are tempestuously dark and troubled. They are incessant torrents of negativity, anxiety, fear, worry, and depression, and this is simply too much to thrust upon the lightness of another’s being. Hell, its too much for me to bear most days.
I work hard to muffle the clamorous noise that escalates within the echo-chamber of myself. Outwardly, I exude calm. I hold the posture of a collected stoicism, but inwardly, I am trembling from the strain of maintaining that stance. There is an exhaustion taking hold beneath the glossy veneer of this zen-like countenance that I only tenuously manage. Perhaps, Timothy Morton is right when he says, “Underneath beauty, there is horror.”
Books have long been my closest companions, my community of sacred fellowship. They do not recoil from the over-bearing burden of my “too-much-ness”. Their presence is stable. Their words unflappable. They are strong enough to withstand the maelstrom that is me, especially when there are so few others who will or can.
There’s a story in the Hebrew Bible about Moses and the people of Israel. They had been lost in the wilderness for over two years after their escape from enslavement in Egypt. They were tired, scared, angry, despondent, thirsty, and rightfully bitching like motherfuckers. They desperately needed water and there was none. The story goes that God told Moses to gather the Israelites together, and when they had been assembled, Moses was to speak to a rock, and the rock would pour out water so that the people and their livestock could drink. Moses, too, I’m sure was exhausted, and frustrated. He probably felt like a fraud and a failure. He had put his ass on the line, and in return he was about to have his ass handed to him by the very people he yearned to help. Years earlier his calling and his quest had seemed so clear, now he questioning whether or not the whole idea, which he originally thought was divinely inspired, may have instead been inspired by a brain tumor or a gastrointestinal hallucination. He was weary from the incessant whining of the people he was leading and was beginning to wonder if there might be some way to throw them all out on to the side of the road and drive away. In other words, Moses felt exactly what we’ve all felt after embarking on a family road trip. Only Moses was thousands of years away from the invention of the Automobile, which did not entirely negate the possibility of vehicular manslaughter but it sure as hell made it a lot trickier. After Moses had gathered the Israelites, out of either anger or anguish he struck the rock instead of speaking to it. Water still came gushing forth, however this wavering would later cost Moses dearly, but that’s a story for another time.
I know what its like to be overcome by anger; to find it impossible to fend off the overwhelming anguish of feeling like a fraudulent fuck-up. Last night, after so many failed attempts to strike at the immovable rock of my brooding discontent and ill-ease, hoping that somehow or someway blood or water would begin to flow from the stone, I desperately needed someone to speak to it.
Rather than picking up the phone, I picked up a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Circle of Quiet. She had been expecting my arrival. Within the opening pages she made clear that she understood the agonizing gravity pinning me to the ground. She said that “Every so often I need out; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away…in order to regain a sense of proportion.”
She explains that when she does find a way to get out, to get away, and when she can re-place the proportions of her being, she finds a way to burn away all the “prickliness, selfishness, and in-turnedness,” that she has shoved upon her “isness”, until it is consumed.
This feeling , this urgent need to escape, to retreat, is one I know well. I feel it now. I need an exodus. But, it’s so hard to find the exits, and I struggle to find a way to burn. The tinder of my tiredness is too damp to light. The crestfallen and disconsolate kindling is still too green to grasp a spark, and instead of it being consumed. I am consumed by it.
Perhaps, I am simply the grieving ashes that have never known the caress of the kiln.
Locked within the Alcatraz of my own “in-turnedness” there is no where to turn, no place to run to, no escape, no way out.
But, between the binding and the black ink of a book, there is a heart alive and still beating, the heart of a friend, a friend with shoulders broad enough to bear all of our bullshit without turning away, a friend who will not bemoan us our loathsome bitching, a friend who has been patiently waiting to sit with us, to listen to us and with us, a friend who wrote to us because they believed that , when the time was right, we would we would find them and they would be there. Every page I turn in my literary communion with L’Engle, and the like, pricks a hole in the prison of my “disproportion”. That’s what books do. Neil Gaiman says that a book “opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with”. They offer an escape where one seems impossibly unavailable. They are a secret tunnel when we are at our most trapped. Books come to break us out when we have become blocked in, even if they do so only for a short time.
But, this is more than just a momentary reprieve. Gaiman goes on to say that “during your escape books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armor, real things you can take back into your prison, skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real”. The books that have meant the most to me are the ones that came to me when I needed them the most. They are the ones that did not hide me from the reality of my plight, but instead handed me hard truths while helping me hold space, and L’Engle’s book is no exception.
As paradoxical as it may seem, the armory of knowledge that I am taking from my escape with L’Engle is the understanding that sometimes, in order to let shit go, you have to just sit with the feeling of the shit that’s gripping you. It’s a gentle grace that softens the silence, a small stillness that speaks to the stone when I am rearing back to strike; a way out that helps me back in.