In the cocktail party of my life
I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the woman talking about trauma and writing and what to do about confronting systems of abuse within families said something that stopped me. In the cocktail party that was her life, she said, there was always this one thing that she wanted to talk about. That’s how she knew what she needed to write out. The one thing she wasn’t supposed to share, the deep, dark, raw truth within her, the conversation that would quell all the chatter about the superficial business we surround ourselves with. In the cocktail party that is your life, she said, what is it that you are bursting to say?
There is something I just keep writing, over and over. It’s a compulsion of sorts. I try and write an essay about anything—motherhood, the summertime, food choices, whatever—but I always end up writing the same thing. Time after time, I keep coming back to one certain experience, worrying over it, writing it down, always knowing it is not quite what I wanted to say.
It happened one year ago, almost to the day. A few days ago, on Monday, it was our nation’s independence day. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this particular date—gratitude, a creeping suspicion I don’t know what it would be like to live in a different country, sadness at our current attitudes towards refugees and the poor and people of color, excited for the chance to celebrate with others, wondering if it is OK to celebrate if the freedoms we talk about are not available for us all. On Monday night, around 10pm, the fireworks started. I laid in my bed (really, a mattress on the floor) and I suddenly started to cry. I was no longer in Portland, Oregon, listening to kids shout and shriek as they set off who-knows-what in the parking lot outside my bedroom window. I was back in Minneapolis, my baby was at the Children’s hospital hooked up to so many wires, and I was having a mental and spiritual breakdown.
Last year on the fourth I had not slept for several days, and I went home to my house to try and catch a few hours of rest while my husband took the nighttime shift at the hospital. I left the white, sterile hospital and walked the street near my house, smelling the smoke and hearing the booms and feeling as if I was walking through a war zone. What country did I even live in anymore? I lived in the country where the older you get, the more bad things happen to you. I lived in a country where I almost died, twice, due to a high-risk pregnancy. Where tiny babies get very sick and you are helpless to do anything but sit and watch them suffer. I lived in a new country, one I never knew would be mine. A country of the un-well and the un-sound of mind, and on this particular night a year ago, it felt like I was the only one who lived here.
I keep writing about that time in my life because I still can’t make sense of it. All I can say is that I had a break from reality. I lost my mind, a little bit. I had a crisis of faith. A dark night of the soul. The hard part is that I knew my baby was going to get well, most likely, that he was being cared for by an extremely sophisticated team of doctors and nurses, that all we could do was wait it out and make sure it wasn’t anything dire. But even as I hoped and prayed for my own baby to be well, the stories of all the babies who didn’t get better followed me. The ones born in developing countries, the ones born in war and famine and strife, in refugee camps and on the run, the ones born without access to medical care or the ones who were but just happened to have fatal diagnosis. Those babies haunted me, the ones I knew and all the millions of ones I didn’t. I couldn’t pray for my own child without thinking of them. How could I care so much about my own baby being safe without mourning all those who were not?
I think these days will go down in history. The days where black bodies are mocked, tormented, killed, splashed on the front pages with blood running down their chests, Facebook videos showing the last moments their spirits are here on the earth. I am in a coffee shop right now as I write down these hurried thoughts, surrounded by people who look like me, with Scriptures on the walls, a map of the world, lavender lattes for sale. No one is screaming and crying, but then again, neither am I. There is a girl reading her Bible and underlining it. What does she find in there, I wonder? How do we find the faith to press forward when the world is so very unjust?
I hear the news that more people have been killed, and I look at my own children: my baby, big and blonde and attached to my side; my daughter, tall and wearing all-pink and declaring loudly with her hands on her hips that she will not bow to any God but God (she is very into her Children’s Bible currently). And I know: I don’t feel safe because not everyone is safe. And I no longer want to pretend that this is OK.
I’ve been reading in Hosea, and in chapter 11 it talks about God as a mother, one who feeds her children, who lifts her babies up and kisses their cheeks. This visual has reached out and clutched my heart. A God who smothers her children with kisses, swooping them up in a gesture familiar to all. When I feel lost and scared in this new country I live in, I think about this image of God, and it comforts me.
In chapter 12 Hosea writes about Jacob. That man-child who struggled, wrestled, bit and clawed and screamed at God. He wrestled with the angels, he never stopped. The scriptures say he strove and he wept and he ultimately prevailed: he met with God and God spoke to him. I was telling my friend Kelley about how I could not stop writing about my time in the hospital, how I wished I could get past it, write about something newer, better, more cheerful and peppy and empowering. You are like Jacob, she said. You won’t stop wrestling with God until you receive what it is you are looking for.
In the cocktail party that is my life, what I always want to say is this: I am wounded by the inequality in our world. I no longer can feel safe and calm and righteous, I can’t forget the realities of so many I know and love. In the cocktail party that is my life I just want to thrash around and scream and cry until I get what I am looking for, when I see all babies healed and no black bodies murdered, when I get God to explain why things are the way they are.
Like Jacob, I will be tenacious. I will keep struggling until I have no more strength. I will “hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for God.” And, like Jacob, I expect to carry a limp for all the rest of my life.