I love the heady cruelty of spring. The cloud shows in the first weeks of the season are wonderfully adolescent: “I’m happy!” “I’m mad, I’m brooding.” “I’m happy—now I’m going to cry . . .” The skies and the weather toy with us, refusing to let us settle back down into the steady sleepy days and nights of winter.
But above all, this is a big time of year for my Jesus-y people, these days and nights when we celebrate the birth, death and resurrection of our darling Jesus. So when I am doing radio interviews, I get much crankier crank calls—half from people who think Jesus was a nice man, a shaman, a New Age guy who probably would have dated Linda Evans if He’d come back during her heyday; and half from fundamentalists who say I am not any kind of real Christian at all and am going to rot in hell for all eternity. I thank all my cranky callers for sharing, and I say, “Hey, you know the difference between you and God? God never thinks He’s you.” Then I get on with celebrating.
People who think we Christians are idiots or delusional for our beliefs get hung up on the Good Friday part—the part where Jesus is suffering, everyone is bad, God is mad. I try not to bog down in it, though, and not because of what Lenny Bruce said, that if Christ had been killed in the modern era, we Christians would be wearing electric-chair charms on chains around our necks. It’s because I got sober, against all odds, and then I started hanging out with people who were trying to get sober too, and over time I got to watch a number of the walking dead come back to life—as I came back to life. So I believe in the basic Christian message: that life happens, death happens, and then new life happens. I believe in resurrection. So sue me. Or go read something else.
Veronica, our pastor, said the other day that Jesus’ promise was not that he was going to try and patch up our old raggedy-assed lives, but that he wanted to give us new life. Now, this is not what I would do, personally, if I were anyone’s savior. I would at least try spackle, caulking, dry cleaning fluid. Maybe some nice new furnishings to hide the bare spots in the rug, the water-stained walls; some chemicals to kill off the dust-mite ashrams in the old sofa. But Jesus says, as Veronica put it, you can’t get to the good stuff without killing off the old stuff. And death and dying, hanging out with the dying and grieving the dead, and grieving the losses along the way, is where this process most often happens.
When you give up all hope, you’re probably only giving up the hope of getting your own outcome to happen. You’re probably only giving up the hope that it will turn out that you actually have lots of power and input . . . that you are secretly God’s West Coast representative. But it was when I was hopeless, caught in desperation and grief, that I got humble, teachable, willing to surrender.
Of course, I grew up with an older brother, so to me surrender means you get your face ground in the dirt. It means you get noogies on your upper arm and then you have to go downstairs and get him oranges. But surrender to God means you come over to the winning side. A synonym for “surrender” is “yield,” which means, agriculturally, to step aside and let something grow.
There’s a poem I love about death by R. S. Thomas called “This to do,” which goes:
One day; overdraw on my balance
Of air, and breaking the surface
Of water go down into the green
Darkness to search for the door
To myself in dumbness and blindness
And uproar of scared blood
At the eardrums. There are no signposts
There but bones of the dead
Conger, no light but the pale
Phosphorus, where the slow corpses
Swag. I must go down with poor
Purse of my body and buy courage,
Paying for it with the coins of my breath.
Two friends died recently after long illnesses. Both were aware that they were closing up shop, although I think both were caught by surprise at how quickly the end came. But they had been talking about it with their friends for some time, trying to die as consciously as they had tried to live, so they had been in training, as if for a 10K race. And when this is the case, it seems that in the months and weeks and days and then hours before death, beginning to die is about breaking the surface.
It’s like swimming underwater until your air is gone, then popping your head out of the water for a breath. It’s like a baby in the birth canal, inching toward the outside world, and then crowning.
This process, and this poem, are about giving up the dubious comfort of the earthly, of human appearances where everything works or seems to. It’s about giving up on the superficial, in order to go way down below. It’s about the willingness or necessity of being wiped out of what you think holds you together, to face a benevolent annihilation, without all the stuff that you think defines you, the stuff where we live, which we think is reality. Because you have to give up some false stuff to get to the true.
I think it is a terrible system. I think they should let you have your true authentic healed whole self and the cool car. I think you should get to have an awareness of the eternal now and the buns of steel. But as a species, we’re pumped full of the longing for more, for better security to help the race go on, to help the system keep running, and this runs roughshod over the material of the soul. It’s much louder and more compelling than the parts of us that are free, that we lived in and were surrounded by when we were in the womb, unattached, full of light.
Jesus said from the cross (OK, so I’m paraphrasing), “Look, you’re a human, you’re badly wired, you’re in desperate need of grace. And you will die, as I am dying up here. But we can surrender: We can commend our spirit into my father’s hands. We need to forgive everyone first, though, because we don’t want to die angry, like other people I could mention . . .” (I love that He didn’t name names. I love that Scripture does not read: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, except for that awful Annie Lamott, who in 2,000 years will usually know exactly what she was doing wrong. But We’ll forgive her anyway, because You said to.”)
Jesus opened himself up entirely to the fear and suffering even though he would have preferred a little something from Column B. He said, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” but he kept his eye on the prize, which was feeling loved by God, which is new life. And he let people he loved keep him company in his suffering, which is about as radical a concept as I can imagine. I don’t want people’s company when I have the flu or PMS. But when friends of mine have opened up to this willingness to have companionship at the end of their lives, or when they were losing or had lost a child, which may be the same thing, at some point they found themselves involved with material that enabled them to hook onto something bigger than the grasping, crying “I.” They plugged in to all of life that surrounds us, that shimmers with loss and light and movement, the very broth of creation, the salty, the sweet, what’s real, the light and the shadows, the blackness, the cold, the streams of warmth, the plankton.
I wish you didn’t have to feel so . . . ing stressed to do this, but you do, because you have to do it when you’re not acting. It happens when you’re raw, in grief and withdrawal, when you have to shut down into the depths so entirely. Catastrophe puts us in the situation of thinking, “This is so shitty and I hate this so much, but if I hang out here without armor or drugs or my old patterns, being here will shine a dark light onto the garish distracting stuff, and then past it, to what is maybe true.”
Being at the end of your rope is usually what it takes to convince your ego—your little armed Brinks guard—to say, “Hey! We can throw all this shit off the side of the boat! We’ll be fine.” And nothing in you is going to believe this for a second, which is why it can be a gift to be in crisis. The stuff gets thrown overboard, and you come to with that having happened. You come to. This is the Easter message, that awakening is possible, to the goodness of God, the sacredness of human life, the sisterhood and brotherhood of all.
So in this fickle spring weather, when it feels like life is trying out all of its muscles, with the cold winds, the feverish blossomings, maybe you’ll find that it wakes us up to exhilaration and discomfort, makes us more aware than usual that we’re alive . . . that grace abounds and that we can cooperate with that.