Entering into Suffering and Emergence into Wellness

Emerging, I imagined, would be like bursting — something like the crocus buds, whom everybody loves because they are the first to color the Spring. I should have watched the tree outside my window more carefully. It was ugly so long. I kind of gave up on it, honestly, because its knobby buds were brown far after everything else had submitted to life and color. I knew it would bloom, but I was tired of watching.

I had not planned to get sick — not like that. I launched into April like a freight train, light staring far down my uninterrupted track. A poem a day would not be easy to commemorate National Poetry Month. But I needed to have courage and perseverance in writing! (Oh, yes, and I still do.)

However, my formal plans wavered mid-April, as if to foreshadow that they could never be my own. We lean into rhythms sometimes, but we never own them. Sickness hit me April 22, and except for one poem in the chute, the surprise of my poem featured on Morgan Guyton’s blog, and a new free-verse poem on (you guessed it) sickness, I lost the ability to publish poetry. I couldn’t even think in the language of words. That was unexpected.

I watched movies. First something silly, the first six episodes of Once Upon a Time, and then the two movies that may have changed me forever: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and 12 Years a Slave.

It wasn’t on purpose that I watched movies on suffering, not like Bill Coyle, who in his recent Image article, confesses to listening to Leonard Cohen’s haunting lyrics for weeks on end during a long depression. I watched a Holocaust movie and an American slavery movie because they looked like high-quality work.

The young Bruno of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas pays stealth visits to discover another boy living in a nearby concentration camp during World War 2.  Schmuel becomes Bruno’s friend, and they learn about each other through the barbed wire fence. Bruno’s curiosity bars him from ignorance, and in only one point in the film, his curiosity (or shall we call it honesty?) takes a step back, enabling the abuse of his enslaved Jewish friend. Bruno rallies; in the end, it is his stalwart curiosity that remains, that faces humanity and holds it as a precious thing. In that, Bruno enters suffering on account of his friend.

12 Years a Slave is another close look at oppression. Solomon Northrup enters slavery by being abducted out of prosperous American freedom. He does not choose to enter that suffering, and not being born a slave, he feels what it is to have life and comfort snatched from him, and brutality shoved into his hands. For twelve years, identity is lost, dignity is ground into the dust, and Solomon emerges a changed man.

Is time ever lost? The time we all hope for — those where we plant gardens and play, those where we watch our children grow and choose to learn the very best things — those moments are lost. Instead, we are handed time that we did not choose. If there could be another way, we would have chosen a different path. But slavery and oppression have a way of stripping everything but our soul.

I wanted to emerge from sickness a changed woman. I wanted to emerge with a special energy and superhuman power to do the things that I was too lazy to do before. I had hoped that I could say something profound about suffering, but that was before I realized the oppression that has scourged this land and this century. The 1800s and World War 2, it turns out, are not so far past. What do I have to say? What do I know of slavery?

I am not yet well.

But I am well enough to read and write, to make some meals, to play with my children. I am well enough to dream. And — thank you, Jesus — I am well enough to look at the slow-budding tree and the little buds of poems that have pushed out like baubles all over this blog.

My soul is well enough to say: doing is a gift. And gifts? It is in the nature of a gift to never be pushed.

What can be done about oppression? I can gather up my skirts and demand justice for the whipped slaves, justice for the cremated Jews, justice for the trafficked women of my day. I can say so many words. 

Or, I can wander, on a good day, like Bruno, through the forests of my freedom until I know what this hell is of which people speak. To know truly what suffering is, I will have to enter it. And until I wander and wonder, I will not find the door.

I am unfolding slowly.

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