Taping a plastic guard over your eye is a trip, in that 1960s, mind-altering sense. You’re disoriented, more aware of your body, and strangely more daring. I suppose if I wanted a polished authorial image, I wouldn’t show you the picture at the top of this post. But it’s truthfully me. I had eye surgery a couple weeks ago to implant a new lens. My husband took the photo after we got home. I was sleepy and had put the guard on to protect my eye if I dozed off. I love everything about this photo! I’m groggy from anesthesia, a bit goofy-looking. What I love most is that I’m out-of-focus, and it’s the colorful lap throw over the back of the sofa that anchors the image. The picture is grainy, sudden, but it captures my experience of life. I live blurred, on a border. On one side is what my eyes see, on the other what I sense. Two kinds of seeing, and I’m not sure which is clearer.
When I was first thinking about writing a blog, I asked my sisters, who are first readers for me, what they thought I should write about in my posts. My sister Diane is a librarian—she’s used to distilling ideas on the fly—and she fired back an email with a long list. She’s been reading what I write almost as long as I’ve been writing, and her suggestions were spot-on. Buried in her list was “Spirituality and what it means to you.” Leave it to your sister to confront you with what you’d rather steer clear of. A year and a half into blogging, I’ve covered everything on her list. Except that—my own spirituality.
I’m going to tape on my eye guard and talk about it now.
It’s more frightening to say anything more about my spiritual life than it is to share that honest photo. I’ve spent the last year and a half doing author events around my novel, A Notion of Pelicans, and I’ve been amazed that no one has asked me about my own spiritual life. I mean, it would be appropriate. My book is set around a church—its characters’ public and private spiritual lives are front and center. I’ve had to conclude that I’m not the only one with spiritual leanings who walks carefully. Spiritual turf is a place we avoid unless we’re with people we’re confident won’t abandon us.
I can’t explain my faith life, at least, not simply. I know there are others like me, our only certainty being that we don’t have the answers to life’s big questions: What’s life about? Is there more than what we see? I also know there are spiritually inclined people who are not like me at all. Their starting point is different, and that’s fine. We all would benefit from looking occasionally through other eyes. If someone at one of my author talks asked about my spirituality, I’d answer in terms of my novel, which explores those fundamental questions through the lives of its characters. I’d say that I’m a blend of Toni, the college professor, and Claire, the actress. I’d also say the two could hardly be farther apart, spiritually, and both describe me perfectly.
Like Toni, I have a questioning faith that’s not tied to one faith system, to a single understanding of God. I have concluded, at times, there can’t be a God, and then have turned around and railed at a very real God over a poor dead cat, over some cruel way life can end. But another part of me is like Claire. I know there’s more. I just know there’s more than anyone on this earth knows. It’s part sense, part sight—part intuition, part experience. That’s Claire’s situation, too. Her mother tells an affecting story of waking to find Jesus at her bedside, and Claire spends her life waking in the night, looking for him. It’s a grief to her that she doesn’t see him.
That piece of Claire’s history comes from my own life. Her mother’s story is my mother’s story. My mother, who is a self-professed hermit not given to church going, had that experience of waking to find Jesus beside her bed, and she shared it openly with her children as we aged and continues to tell the story yet. She was pleased when I put it in fictionalized form into my novel. She’d found it frightening to wake to Jesus beside her in the dark, but later wished she’d been braver, had dared to reach for him. Many close to me have been pulled for a moment across that border between the world I see and the one I sense. Because of their experiences, shared with wonder, I’ve looked with expectant hope into the dark my whole life.
I’ve known people of faith who have a clarity I can only imagine. Seeing it in them has given me a broader perspective, something my inner voice counsels me to look for. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ve perhaps noticed that, when I write, I keep coming back to the same strong memories and images. When I taped my eye guard on at the beginning of this post, I didn’t know where that image would take me. It has taken me here, to a poem I wrote when I was still a young woman. At its center is one of those people so unlike me in faith, a woman not much older than I was, who knew her God, quietly, fiercely, even as she died of a sudden cancer. Her name was Charlotte, and I still think of her, still sense her, across the blurred border:
* * * * *
Her God has come.
Charlotte is dead and praying at her own bedside.
Her near ones, finding her there,
wonder less that one so young
is gone than that she found the will to roll her body down,
her last prayer, her stubborn bones, that elegant house
on fire from within.
Her body curves, an S-shaped
collapse—head and elbows resting on the bed,
hands still clasped,
the soles of her feet flashing
So much is left—
the last flurry of letters, her calm
voice taped from the phone, an image in the wind:
in tall grass, wound into a haunted dress,
her long shawl wrapping,