From How The Light Gets In
There’s Ransom in a Voice
Nothing can save you / except writing
The life you save may be your own.
The child watches. The child learns. Blackberries hang heavy and ripe on thorny vines at the edge of the field. They seem to stream in the humid summer air. The child has a small bucket made from a tin can. She picks berries one by one and drops them into the can. She carefully examines each berry to make sure there are no triangular gray bugs on the ones she puts into her mouth.
She wants to be saved. She doesn’t exactly know what that means, but she has heard about it, and she wants it.
I am afraid to write the story that is at the heart of this chapter. Fear is the best indicator I know that there is something alive in the dark woods of the mind. Fear tells me it is important. But it is appropriate to respect the boundaries of the psyche – sometimes we are just not ready to see what we will see, or feel what we will feel, if we write into our fear. So I get to the edge of this cliff, but I don’t jump. I need to stand here on the edge of what I know.
When my granddaughter, Sarah, was three years old, she asked me to draw with her. I answered, “Oh, Sarah, I can’t draw! I just make messes!”
She drew herself up with a long intake of breath, looked me straight in the eye across the table filled with crayons and paper and said firmly, “Grandma! When you draw, you don’t make messes! You just squabble around.”
This is one of the best lessons in creating art I’ve ever encountered. So to write this chapter, which feels like a vulnerable act, I need first just to “squabble around.”
“The human heart can go to the lengths of God,” Christopher Fry says. “Affairs are now soul size. / The enterprise / Is exploration into God.”
Is it true? What does it mean? Is “going to the lengths of God” what some call “Enlightenment,” or “Beatification,” or “Salvation,” or “Liberation,” or “Redemption,” or “Ransom”?
Even if it is true of “the human heart,” is it truly possible that it can happen in the human heart as we write? Emily Dickinson writes, Silence is all we dread. / There’s Ransom in a Voice—
It was Suzanne Webber, a poet and fiction writer, who asked, “Are you going to write about salvation?” I was stunned by the question. How did she know? And how scary is that, that she should perceive where I have to go to write this book, even before I have named it to myself? Because silently, and immediately, after one silent, horrified No, I knew the answer: Yes. I am going to try to do that. But what can I say about the place where the spiritual experience of enlightenment or salvation intersects with the experience or writing?
First, it is important to say that the issue here is not the dimensions of mystery (“How great Thou art”), but the dimensions of the human heart. Any parent of more than one child knows the anxiety that precedes that second birth. How can I possibly love this new child as much as I love the first? My heart is utterly full of love – there’s no more room! And the second baby arrives, and instantly, the heart stretches. Our capacity doubles, then perhaps triples, and for me, by the time our fourth child was on the way, I understood. The more we open ourselves to love, the larger our capacity for love becomes.
So it is in opening ourselves to mystery. If we stay knotted into our smallest measure of capacity, of course we cannot “go to the lengths of God.” But if we dare to open ourselves, we unfold like the winged creature emerging form a chrysalis, or like the flower described in the poem near the end of the last chapter. We unfold into love.
What my Episcopal friend calls the “death of the autonomous ego,” I would have called, in my youth, “born again” or being “saved.” Strange. My own stance has moved away from “letting go” or “falling into” mystery; it has moved toward “meeting” or “relationship” with mystery. This is true of my writing life as well.
But I do want to think about “letting go,” by whatever name we might call it. At this moment I am a writer, trying to write as a spiritual practice – trying to do the thing itself as I write about it. I am trying to write my way into understanding what it means to me now to be a spiritual pilgrim, and in order to do that I need to remember and understand my own journey toward and into what I am calling “mystery.” Both as writer and as pilgrim, it’s scary. I don’t know who’s going to read my words. As a writer do I “let go”? Do I back up and be safer? Do I stand here, feeling the wind and listening?
What fundamentalist Christians called, and still call, “salvation,” is trapped in a doctrine I can no longer embrace. I say no to “hell.” At least to hell somewhere other than here, here where some humans live in a hell of other humans’ making. Or of their own. I say no to hell hereafter. But to love, yes. Ecstatic meeting, yes. Mystery, yes. Even to the possibility of being “saved,” in some sense, by a personal relationship with what I call “mystery.”
Yes, I’m going to write about salvation.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes begins his (her?) famous poem, “For every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” There is a time for refusing to fall. There are times when one must hold one’s ground, wrestle with the angel, decide whether to follow a cruel command as Abraham at least tried to do when he was told to kill his own son, as soldiers must do when they are commanded to kill the enemy. There are times when most of us, depending on our orientation, have to confront our received religious tradition or confront some new challenge to that tradition – confront it face-to-face.
So also is there a time for letting go, for utter relinquishment of control, for free-fall. And that experience is ecstatic – or terrifying, or both at the same time – whether we come to it through writing or through ritual or through private or public spiritual experience. It is at the heart of creativity; it is at the heart of spirituality, and it takes as many forms as there are human persons.
What is required to be open to an experience of mystery? Perhaps nothing is required. No formula, no specific words to be said or acts to be performed. No baptism, no creed, no doctrine, no priest, no confession of faith, no adherence to tradition. Maybe it is as simple as so many religious leaders, saints, and mystics have said, as simple as that itinerant preacher, Jesus, believed it to be, back before the first words were written about him. He said we are loved. He called God, “Abba.” In Aramaic, his original language, abba is the intimate name for father / mother. There is no adequate word in English to equal its intimacy or depth of meaning. In English it might translate, “Dad / Mom, or Mama / Daddy,” but those do not do it justice.
A loving parent desires connection with the child but is wise enough to allow the child the freedom to try to stand alone. A loving parent is available to the child even when the child feels cut off or abandoned. A loving parent certainly does not punish children by condemning them to the fires of hell. In order to be loved, a child does not have to follow the parent’s rules. If we are loved, as the mystics, saints, and poets in all the major religious traditions teach, then we are valued, sought, longed for, welcomed, and received no matter what path we take toward and into the moving, attentive presence of mystery.
What if “going to the lengths of God” is available to every person and to every sentient being – available on each being’s own unique terms, in that being’s language, in that being’s recognizable forms, rhythms, locale, and capacity? Something happened to me when I was five years old that causes me to ask – what if, after all, even a five-year-old is capable of “going to the lengths of God” because the mystery at the heart of creation is everywhere, and is everywhere available? What if the mystery itself is dynamic, changing – a shape-shifter, as some American Indian cultures have taught, and as Calvin Luther Martin suggests we all are, in his book about living among the Eskimo, The Way of the Human Being?
There is so much of mystery around us, among us, within us. The idea of shape-shifting embraces a much deeper spiritual relationship between all living things than is celebrated in most other systems of belief. We have been slow in my lifetime to deeply understand even those persons whose bodily shape and mental ability differ from our own. Poet Theresa Vincent’s daughter, Patricia, was born blind, deaf, and profoundly palsied. Patricia, at eighteen years old as I write these words, has never spoken, weighs less than fifty pounds, and has always been cared for at home. In her poems, Theresa has opened my mind and heart to the rich possibilities of embodied spirit, of communication through touch, and of the healing possibilities of love through intense attention across barriers that most of us can hardly imagine. Here is the title poem of her collection:
NOTHING HAS BEEN LOST
Believe the body.
Believe she knows
Do not believe in redemption—
nothing has been lost.
Nothing has been lost, but much is hidden. What lies hidden in the dark? What treasure? And what are we to do with buried treasure? If in my writing I dig up treasure, might I not damage it? Or might it not tarnish in the bright light of day? Might someone convince me that it is, after all, only trash and not treasure at all?
The journey of the hero in search of emotional or psychological treasure is what many of the old myths and fairy tales are about – that’s why they come complete with dragons, demons, witches, and wizards. Just as buried trauma, in time, surfaces as “flashbacks” or ripens to a readiness to be consciously processed, so does there come a time when it is no longer satisfying to leave one’s secret treasure – whatever it may be – buried in the deepest cellar of the psyche. Often trauma and treasure are closely aligned, as in myth and fairy tale – the terrifying trauma guards the treasure, holds it, and hides it.
Whatever this writing becomes, in its beginning it is “writing as a spiritual practice.” If I write as a spiritual practice, I must go into the cave of my own childhood. The “dragon” is my fear, guarding an experience that is one of the most meaningful in my life. Can I write it so simply and truthfully it will not be diminished? Do I have enough humility to present the experience of a child? Am I able and willing to be that child again, for the time it takes to tell the story? I am trying to get there.
As a young man, my mother’s father was passionately religious. However, by the time she was a teenager, he had worn out his Bible trying to make sense of it. She said he wore out his floor, too, by pacing, wrestling with the Bible’s contradictions. Finally his faith split and fell off him cleanly as the hull of a hazelnut, and all that was left was his passion, which he turned full throttle to Darwin and thundered that he’d rather see my mother in her grave than baptized.
She sneaked away one day with her dress-up clothes in a flour sack, changed clothes in some bushes, walked to a Methodist camp meeting and got baptized. She wanted with all her heart to be a nurse and entered a hospital program that gave free nurse’s training in exchange for aide work in the wards. But at the end of three months, she was required to buy a uniform. Times were hard: her father had lost his store; they were living in a rural log cabin. They could not help her buy a uniform. She left the training program and joined a fundamentalist sect on a hilltop called Mount Zion.
Those religious people, the women with long hair and long skirts and long sleeves, kept their bodies covered in the simmering heat of southern Missouri Ozark afternoons, when even the grasshoppers slept under blades of tough grass along the sides of the gravel road that ran parallel to the creek. The men, too, wore long sleeves in the open-air tabernacle across the two-track dirt road from our house. I think the men at work could go bare-armed, but it is the women I remember clearly, their long hair and long dresses. It is a kindly memory. My mother’s hair was long, too, wrapped in a braid all the way around her head like a crown of holiness.
They called themselves, “Holiness people.” They believed in what they called, “a second work of grace: sanctification.” Salvation was the first work – salvation from sin and from the fires of hell. Those who were saved could “backslide” into sin, but if you were sanctified, you were a saint and could no longer sin.
When they married, my parents lived for a time in a house they rented within the community, where she had lived as a community member before she met him. I don’t know how they met, or where; I do know that they were married by a justice of the peace, and that she insisted they change the spelling of their last name when, through marriage, she gave up her name, Lelah Ridgway, and became Mrs. Cleve Vought. She divorced him five years later, and he went back to “Vogt,” the original spelling of his name. The five sons of Harv and Elzina Vogt, my grandparents, were hard-drinking men, one of them shot to death through a screen door by his father-in-law. Life in the Holiness community must have been very uncomfortable for my liquor-and-women-loving father. It was the 1930s – the country was mired in the Great Depression; the banker in town hanged himself. Everyone else did what he or she had to do to survive.
“He was good looking,” she would tell me, and add quickly, seeming embarrassed, “I had to marry him. Mama and Papa couldn’t support me.”
“Oh, I loved him,” she would say. “But love can die.”
Writing about deep memory can bring up from the unconscious seemingly random images and phrases that we have known all our lives, like that line of Mama’s. They float in and out of conscious memory like flotsam and jetsam on the surface of the ocean that is the images to write themselves, without trying to analyze them – can bring about an amazing experience of personal revelation.
I have written elsewhere about Margaret Robison urging me to write about my father, and my resistance. But I have not earlier written the full story. It was a late evening; we had talked for hours, and she had told me about her childhood. After she went home, I sat on the couch in my darkened living room all night, thinking about her childhood and trying to think about my own. Always the turn to my own childhood was interrupted immediately by the thought: Don’t think about that! That would hurt Mama!
I became interested in the intensity of that message, and how it absolutely came up every time I tried to set my own childhood next to Margaret’s in my mind. It was five o’clock in the morning when words came. I didn’t have paper or pen. I was sitting in the dark. The words came slowly, indelibly, in the form of a nursery rhyme, almost like singing, but with no tune:
Daddy was a bad men.
He made Mama cry.
I loved him, Mama said.
But love can die.
Daddy was a weak man.
He told a lie.
I loved him, Mama said,
But love can die.
You look like your daddy—
Green, green of eye.
I loved him, Mama said….
The silence of the final line that did not repeat itself was huge. I understood in that moment why the fragment of memory had floated in and out of consciousness for the more than forty years of my life. It was perhaps the deepest fear possible, to a child: that love can die. And if it can die for my father, can it not also die for me?
But why did it come as a nursery rhyme? Because nursery rhymes were almost a first language for me. I was not yet three years old when I could say thirty nursery rhymes by memory. It was planned that I would say them on the local radio station, but my mother stood me on the kitchen table and rehearsed me so much in the week preceding the arranged appearance that I suddenly stopped saying them and never would say them again.
The painter Ben Shahn has said, “Form is the shape of content.” That is very important for writers to understand. When we are faithful to the content of what we are writing, when we slow down and write exactly what we remember without trying to say what it means, it will form itself, take its own form, make itself clear in image and in speech, rather than in intellectual argument or explanation. The content of the answer to my question needed the form of the nursery rhyme.
I was asking myself a question – where and what was my childhood? The answer had been there all along. A big part of it was the fear, “but love can die.”
My parents had left the Holiness community when I was two years old, Sam was a newborn, and our father found a job in a cheese factory. I was four the day my father put his old car up on concrete blocks in the yard of our tiny rented house next door to the factory. The hot sun poured through the window, and my short, chubby legs felt almost too much heat on the seat cushions as I pretended to drive. He was singing as he worked; he could yodel an excellent imitation of Gene Autry. That day he was singing, “South of the border, down Mexico Way.” Now I know that he was happy. He was leaving.
He had received severance pay from the cheese factory as a reward for quitting instead of getting a second hernia operation that he needed. He divided the money with my mother and told her he was leaving for good.
He had left other times and had returned, asking for forgiveness. This time he had been gone longer when he wrote asking for the rest of the money to come home on, but she had already filed for divorce and returned to Mount Zion. Her divorce was a serious sin to the Holiness people. She may have been prohibited from joining, or she may have chosen not to join again, but she no longer participated in their worship. Her parents had joined a socialist colony in Louisiana where everyone’s belongings were shared – owned – by the colony. Her parents were penniless – she had nowhere other than Mount Zion to go. With the money from the factory, she rented a farmhouse halfway down the hill at the edge of the community.
Only once did she take me to a church, and it was not to the Mount Zion tabernacle. We walked a long way on gravel roads and stopped to rest from the intense summer sun in the shade of dusty roadside trees. One was full of half-ripe persimmons. She teased me by having me taste one, and laughed at my puckered mouth and horrified expression. She loved to play and tease; it is not difficult for me to imagine why she had been drawn to my father’s good looks and ready laugh.
At the little church we sat in a pew for awhile, and then she gave me someone to play with and told me to stay where I was. She went up to the front and knelt at the altar rail. I could see that she was crying. Perhaps I appeared anxious, because some lady took me by the hand and led me out behind the church.
The little church stood in the woods; there was no pavement anywhere – just loose Ozark gravel. Behind the church there were no windows, and the space between the trees and the building was small. The woman took me to the first tree, and told me to sit down and wait there. Close to me under the tree was a little “sensitive plant.” That’s what Mama called them. She had shown me how, if you gently touched a delicate compound leaf, it would close up, fold up on itself as if by magic. I spent the time waiting for my mother concentrating intensely on the sensitive plant. How it felt everything, how it was green and alive, how it knew how to survive. How it took care of itself.
I have no memory of ever again attending church with my mother. She told me – not in a tone of hostility, but in a tone of the sadness and the confusion of an outsider – to stay away from the tabernacle that stood directly in front of our farmhouse, across the gravel road. I could play there when it was empty, but I was to stay away when people were there, and I obeyed. But it was as near to the front door of our house as our barn was near to the kitchen door. On summer evenings when the house was hot, we sat on our front porch eating warm cornbread crumbled into milk and listened to the singing from across the road. There was a roof on poles under the great oak and sycamore trees, benches, a platform for the visiting evangelist and perhaps a quartet of singers, and benches for those who came to a revival meeting. Sawdust on the ground kept down the dust.
We watched the lighting bugs above Mama’s peonies, and listened as heart-rending sweet music floated to us in four-part harmony from the open sides of the tabernacle – music that Garrison Keillor has called, “the most sensual music in the world.”
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidds’t me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Often she softly sang along. It was delicious, seductive, and since she successfully shielded me from all images of hell-fire, it was free from any touch of fear.