2017 was not a good year for me.
Let’s face it – I don’t think anyone was having a really awesome year. If you had a great year, you can probably stop reading. This isn’t for you. Everyone else, please continue.
Whether it was friends or family, coworkers or newly-met acquaintances, it seemed that 2017 was the year that shit went down. Disease. Death. Debt. Dismissal. Divorce. Destruction. Donald. It was all fair game and it was all just itching to ruin our day.
I’m lucky, in most aspects. My home was not destroyed by a hurricane or forest fire. I didn’t lose my hair because of chemo and I didn’t lose my life because of another senseless act of gun violence.
I lived, I had a home, I ate meals. Often they were PB&J sandwiches over the wheel of my car, but they were still meals. I washed them down with filtered water, sometimes, if the day was really long, a Coke, and I continued to live. Eventually, I would drive home in the relative safety of my car, pull up to my house, and crawl into a warm bed with a soft pillow. The next day, I would get up and live again.
Not everyone in 2017 was so lucky.
And yet, our minds can’t often accept the mere fact of existence as enough reason to be happy. Call it The Human Condition, call it hubris, call it what you like – but it has our number and it plagues us. Food, water, shelter – check, check, check. I checked off all of the criteria for survival. To ask for anything more would just be gluttonous and ungrateful. I lived. So why wasn’t I happy?
To put the truth simply: I wasn’t.
I was depressed, scared, angry, exhausted, lonely. I had anxiety on a daily basis. I was suffering panic attacks and would have flare ups of red hot anger. I’d wake up and not be able to feel my legs. I had no appetite for food. I slept without dreams, without actual rest.
My work saw a radiant, excited, and energetic teacher, someone who easily puts her arms around her students and gives them the love and attention they need. In private, I was a shell.
I daydreamed about a virus that could take me out of the daily grind for awhile. I fantasized about a deer hitting my car so I wouldn’t have to continue with my day.
I could go into detail about why, but it doesn’t really matter. Especially because I have a sneaking suspicion that many of you felt a similar way, for whatever reason(s) plagued you.
Why preach to the choir, eh?
In this state, I struggled to cling to anything that was certain. Anything that held truth. Anything that seemed like fact or law. I was inspired by Anne Lamott’s TED Talk, “12 things I know for sure” where she riffs about God, writing, family, and chocolate.
But what did I know for certain?
I knew that Love was important to me. Let’s all agree to agree: Love is the only way we are getting out of this thing alive. Why not celebrate it?
Through the dumpster fire of 2017, I tried to create a project based around love, the I Am Loved Project. I received submissions from all over the world, stories of love and loss, beautiful moments shared between pets and grandmothers, fiances and children.
In my darkest of hours, it brought me hope and joy and, while I felt it noble and worthy, I completely lacked the energy to keep it up.
A can of Coke only has so much caffeine, after all.
Now, months later, after making choices to bring myself out of the darkness, into health and a place of happiness, I still ask myself the question: What do I know for certain?
I don’t know that Congress will ever get rid of guns. I don’t know that North Korea won’t attempt to blow us up. I don’t know that I will ever find a partner who will say, “I do.” Though I do know what dress I’ll be wearing, in case it happens. (Thank you, Pinterest.)
In such uncertain times, searching for our truth may be our only lifeboat. Not just because it saves us and grounds us in reality, but because in the sharing of it, we may find there’s more people who want to share the boat with us. It may reveal to us that we are not alone in the storm.
In the next few blog posts, I will attempt to share what I do know for certain, what I find to be true. If you believe in these truths too, know you have a place in my lifeboat. I make a mean PB&J.
What I Know for Certain: God Is in the Cracks
I grew up in a little brick church with stained glass windows. As you enter the town, you can see the steeple from every direction. It has been a place of comfort and communion throughout my thirty years. I can honestly say, I am a better person for having spent my Sundays there for the majority of my life.
But when I think of God (or Love, Karma, The Universe, Mother Nature), I don’t necessarily think of that little church, its steeple, or the people inside.
Now before I upset too many people reading, many of whom are from that little church, please know that I love singing and celebrating with the people there. I love hearing the music and listening to the lessons. I love the solemnity of Good Friday and the joy of Easter sunrise. The ritual of Sunday morning is extremely important to me and I feel honored to be embraced by so many within that congregation.
But for me, church is too beautiful, too organized to include God all of the time. Church is a very civilized endeavor: it’s systematic, it’s careful, it’s punctual. There’s not a lot of room for error and, in my humble opinion, not a lot of room for God.
When I have felt closest to what I believe God is, it’s not been while I was sitting in an ornately decorated cathedral or singing “Lift High the Cross” with hundreds of others. It’s been messy and smelly and more than a little human.
I had the privilege of touring Italy with my best friend, Nick. We started our journey in Rome, where we explored ancient ruins, ate more than our fair share of gelato, and tossed coins in the Trevi Fountain. We sat on the Spanish Steps, probably ate more gelato, and eventually spent a day walking to and from Vatican City.
It was Easter Weekend and we stood in thick crowds to hear the Pope give a sermon. We shuffled along in lines to view the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling, the statues. It was beautiful and deliberate. The work and wonder of Man.
Somewhere in our travels, in the shadow of monolithic ruins and expertly painted reliefs, we entered a cold and dank church, built sometime in the early Middle Ages. It was musty and dark with crude wooden benches that sat low to the ground. There were frescoes and ornately carved, wooden candlesticks, but there were also cracks in the plaster, chunks of wall missing, and the sense of dripping water.
Almost as if in a trance, Nick and I sat down on a wooden bench. We didn’t speak. Our eyes rested on a small, wooden altar, on the exposed beams in the ceiling. We sat in silence, our hearts filled with what could only be described as Grace and, when we got up hours (or maybe minutes, maybe seconds) later, we had both been crying.
The building had gone to ruin, nature and time had taken its toll. Outlines of religious figures weren’t so clear and the walls weren’t so pristine. It had seen better days, and yet, there was God, in the cracks, in the dust, in the rot. In the smell of must and time, there was God.
Man has made beautiful things. Man’s successes have created submarines, indoor plumbing, Nutella. Man has launched Teslas into space and invented penicillin. Man is systematic, it’s organized, it’s careful, and it’s damn worth acknowledgement.
But for me, that’s not God. God is not in the ritual, it’s in the wild. God is not in the organized and sterile world that we’ve created, our illusions of control, but in the imperfect, chaotic mess that is nature, that is humanity.
God is in every stripe on a tiger’s side, every perfectly crooked branch of a tree. God is in the rain and in the mess of stars in the sky. It’s in the sound of lapping water and birdsong after a storm. It’s unruly and unpredictable and, as any meteorologist will tell you, completely out of our control.
God is also in every messy and imperfect human. In the flatulent and jealous, the impious and inflexible. The fallible in us is saturated in beauty and goodness, the ugliness in us is ripe for community. When we, broken and battered as we are, reach out for help and feel the tip of another finger, reaching back for us, there is God. When we, angry and prone to fits of pouting, feel forgiveness, there is God. When we have faith that the sun will rise again, there is God. There is science and probability, sure, but Man isn’t going to make that happen, God is.
Man can build a church and fill it with gold-plated frescoes, expertly paint the ceiling with images of religious iconography, fill it with carefully constructed sermons and purposeful hymns, but God isn’t present until we relinquish control, until we let the walls crack a little, until we are sustained by faith and not fact.
God is not in the certain, in cold steel and impermeable glass. God is in the world, in the face of every gay person or person of color. God is in every woman, man, and non-binary. God is in every leaf and bug and root and reptile. It is in mess and chaos and destruction and rebirth. It is in the letting go.
As I write this piece about what I know for certain, I acknowledge that I may be wrong. I am no expert and I am no saint. I am not a martyr and I can only say what’s in my heart.
But if there is anything that is certain, it is that God is in you, as cracked and damaged as you are. And somehow, through Grace, it’s in me too.