The minor fall, the major lift
In “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured,” Kathryn Harrison remarks:
[Before Joan of Arc was given command of the French army, she was to be judged by 18 bishops of France to discern whether she really was on a holy mission sent by God, or a fraud. Pierre Séguin de Séguin, Dean of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Poitiers, recalls excerpts of the interrogation:]‘I asked her whether she believed in God,’ Seguin reported of the girl who spoke to angels. ‘She replied, “Yes, more than you do.”’The Dominican Professor of Theology Master Guillaume Aymeri’s challenge to Joan: ‘You said the voice told you that God wishes to deliver the people of France from their present calamities. If He wishes to deliver them,’ Aymeri said, ‘there is no need of soldiers.’The response Seguin described […] was exasperated, indignant, and hardly the words of a girl overawed by her interrogators. ‘In God’s name!’ Joan said. ‘The soldiers will fight, and God will give them victory.’ It was an application of what Joan’s comrades-in-arms remembered as her favorite aphorism: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’
‘What language do your voices speak?’ Seguin asked.
‘ A better tongue than you,’ Joan answered.
So much of my life and writing involves a balance of defiance and surrender. I never feel truly bold or brave in those first moments when I sit down to write. I have to yield to that fear and the unknown (soon to be revealed possibilities and interior voices that reside inside me) to write anything. That dynamic vulnerability is imperative if I’m ever going to surprise anyone. I don’t know if that’s the only hope for magic in nonfiction or poetry, but I believe that’s the only way the unnamed thing can be revealed through language. Even if I’m not sure where I’m headed in an essay or poem, that surrender to uncertainty/possibility becomes a kind of momentum; it pushes me towards something that looks and feels like an answer.
My mother loves to tell this story that when I was first learning how to crawl, I realized that I could move much faster if I turned myself around and pushed myself in reverse towards my target. Terribly efficient. I never broke that habit, despite the havoc it wrought, until I learned how to walk. I’m still a rebel at heart, but I approach it differently now. I don’t always have to lock eyes with God and walk backward into hell. I know the real enemies of this world are hatred and apathy. Responding with empathy, understanding, and compassion will always, always be acts of defiance and rebellion - especially in the faces of chaos and cruelty. My default (Aries/Scorpio) state is to kick down doors, but grief has taught me that gentleness can also be fierce. I want to take the shoes off of my voice and enter these conversations with care.
For months following Melissa’s passing, I would wake every morning drenched in sweat. I didn’t know how to move forward through such complex and shameful grief. It was impossible to imagine a future without the possibilities of transformative justice, restitution, and reconciliation. I had to realize it was impossible to move forward, not because I was denied those opportunities, but because I had particular expectations of what healing, justice, and the future looked like.
I had to get down on the floor, on my fucking knees every morning, and through my torrent of tears, through my inexplicable, harrowing, shameful, and tremendous grief [ come back to me! even as a shadow, even as a dream! ] — plead: “Am I still worthy of all the lives I’ve been given? Am I worthy of this life? Of every mysterium tremendum? Am I willing to remain open to the possibilities in her life that I will never be privileged to? Am I still worthy? Am I still willing?”
So often, my own (boxed) expectations are the very thing hindering me from crossing that threshold into that wild and beautiful unknown. Lori Gotlieb notes this in “Maybe You Should Talk To Someone,” where her therapist, Wendall, tells her:
“I’m reminded,” he begins, “of a famous cartoon. It’s of a prisoner, shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out—but to his right and left, it’s open, no bars.”
He pauses, allowing the image to sink in.
“All the prisoner has to do is walk around. But still, he frantically shakes the bars. That’s most of us. We feel completely stuck, trapped in our emotional cells, but there’s a way out—as long as we’re willing to see it.”
He lets that last part linger between us. As long as we’re willing to see it.
When I feel stuck, I try to picture myself in that ridiculous framing. Even if there’s an obvious way out, surrender is still messy. It’s not flattering. When I first got sober, I would still emotionally self-harm on a regular basis. I constantly exacerbated feelings of shame, disgust, anxiety, panic, and body dysmorphia. I would run until I blacked out multiple times a month. Starve my body to get to what I felt was an attractive weight. I would drink coffee until it made me vibrate. I didn’t know how to live in the world without hurting myself.
My second sponsor told me, “You know, surrender doesn’t mean just waving a white flag. It means laying down your weapons, and you come here every night - you lay down your weapons, and you go back home to your arms factory, and you make new ones”. It took me years to learn how not to be a pain or grief factory, mostly because I had built an identity around that pain. I didn’t know how to surrender because I didn’t believe that I could be restored. That’s the inherent problem with a broken identity, you tell yourself you’re broken, and you perpetually act of that brokenness. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only hope comes when we say, “I can’t live like this any longer,” and realize “There is empirical evidence that my way of doing things hasn’t panned out. Maybe I should try another way.”
I needed life to smash those brittle and rigid parts of me into tiny pieces. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone. I don’t know if every major threshold is make-or-break. But, like Leonard Cohen - I don’t think it matters which one we’ve heard, the holy, or the broken hallelujah [surrender].
All that matters is that we’re willing.
It’s the most we can be.
PS: My therapist and I were recently talking on the topic of surrender, and I noted that “It was impossible to see while I was in it, but in active addiction, I was also practicing complete surrender. I was just surrendering to the wrong things (nihilism, hopelessness, and a broken identity). I thought it was a form of control, but it was the exact opposite.“
She replied: “Everyone practices surrender, whether they realize or not”.
Rilke said: This is how we grow: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater things.