Sturm und Drang
Sturm und Drang: September 15, 2018
The Massachusetts air felt heavy, and there was that sense of impending doom. I’d just finished a not very satisfying run and was still feeling the restlessness I’ve been battling for weeks, but which sometimes abates with exercise. I was steaming, so I stayed on the patio, sensing the world readying itself. As the first drops fell I overcame my ingrained response to bolt for the house and instead, Mia Hamm-like, peeled off my shirt and felt the cool drops on my shoulders and back.
This wasn’t the sturm und drang of a Southern thunderboomer, as my mother-in-law calls them. Just an increasingly insistent rainfall. I closed my eyes, lifted my face to the sky. Listened to the raindrops striking skin, striking brick and blueberry leaves, grass, sunflower petals, rain barrel. Each a soft, sibilant kiss. A delicious cooling. An anointing. A benediction.
At some point I was aware that I was aware, and that, for a little while at least, I had not been aware.
Water has always helped me stay immersed in the moment. To be unaware of time passing. For a little while I had been unaware of the undercurrent of restlessness that has been dogging me. Fr. Ronald Rolheiser wrote, “It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things, and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.”
Augustine’s take on it was this: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” That seems right, too. I’ve tried to sit with this in my meditation time. But, as you might expect, restlessness and meditation work together like my children on lengthy car rides. Not for very long.
Also, last week marked a year since my first husband, Michael, died suddenly.
Several months ago, a friend of his now living far away sent me a beautiful little essay describing a camping trip he’d taken with Michael into what is now called Congaree National Park. I’d had a remarkably similar camping trip, and I’ve been meaning to send him my version.
I wrote about half of it and then, what are the odds, actually found my journal account of the trip. I’d misremembered some details, but the emotional memory was very much on point.
It was 1995, early in our dating, and I was head over heels enamored with this striking man who was as interested in black slime mold as he was in opera. He spoke so reverently of the Congaree, and I couldn’t wait to see it with him, through his eyes, off the boardwalk. We picked a weekend. He planned meticulously, if circuitously. I was pleasantly surprised at some of the necessities, like a six-pack of Samuel Adams. By the time we dropped off my car at South Cedar Creek, drove back to Bannister Bridge, packed and launched the canoe, it was late. I hadn’t remembered how late. Here’s where I’ll pick up my journal entry.
Congaree was flooded from Hurricane Opal rains. We got there about 9pm Friday and canoed under a full moon down Cedar Creek. It was amazingly beautiful—an image in sepia that will long remain poignant in my mind. Barred Owls were calling, the creek was swollen and the whole expanse was soaked in stillness. We found some dry ground, had something to eat and talked long into morning. We realized that the water had risen a few inches since we’d been there, and had soaked his clothes. We moved everything and set up the tent. By the time we woke up, the water was only a couple of inches from the lowest tent stake.
Saturday, we paddled up and down the creek, looking at trees, plants, birds, snakes, spiders, everything. We would paddle awhile, then drift back downstream as we were distracted by other things. Michael had hurt his back, so we got out of the canoe and stayed stretched out on the little bridge for the afternoon—just chatting and looking and dozing and kissing. We couldn’t find another good camping spot, and his back was hurting, so we came on home. I went to get food from Basil Pot (Mid-East Feast!) and we spent a pleasant, lazy evening.
The other part I distinctly remember, but for some reason didn’t write about, was this. After the bridge we realized we could no longer follow the river trail because the water was higher than the blazes. Everything in that floodplain was flooded, and the water was still rising. We headed back inland, following the widest part of the channel—paddling now across the current. We came to a wide place, a sort of pond, and paddled around and around, knowing that there was a hiking trail somewhere that would lead back to the visitor’s center.
Suddenly, we couldn’t move.
The canoe was stuck on something, but what? We weren't anywhere near a bank. It wasn’t a rock, we couldn’t push off of it, and finally we realized that we were stuck on top of the four-foot-tall sign that marked the crossing of the hiking trails. At that point we knew where we were and, after some dicey maneuvers to get unstuck without tipping over, we paddled up to the visitor’s center. Then, of course, we had to pull in the canoe, hike out to my car, go back, load the canoe, and finally retrieve the second car. That Mid-East Feast was the best I ever had. I still miss Basil Pot.
Michael mostly lived in the moment. It often made for exasperating logistics, but just as often for moments like these.
For several years I visited weekly with four ladies at a nursing home. Mrs. Virgie Goodwin was bedridden, blind and tiny. Maybe not even five feet tall. Once when Michael had come with me, he, who was 6’ 7” tall, picked her up out of that bed, held her firmly with her feet dangling way off the floor, and danced her around and around the room, spinning slow swoopy circles, while her whole face smiled, blazing. I had the oddest sensation of time standing still while they swirled, dipped, spun.
In that journal I also found a not-half-bad poem I’d written for Michael, and a record of something he said to me. I have no memory of it, but I’m so glad I wrote it down. He said, “You, Julia, are a beautiful sheet of music, and I can’t help wanting to sing the refrain over and over.”
Steeping in these memories has helped me to remember that although our marriage did not last, our love was real, and in its way, beautiful. That feels like a rare gift.
And here is the root of our longing. To be fully known, to feel beautiful, to be cherished, to be loved as we are. That is why the restlessness can only find its rest in God. God alone can and does love me to that depth.
If we use only our own strength, our own reserves, we are easily exhausted. Unfulfilled. Restless. Only total immersion in God’s deep well of love can nourish the true self.
Here’s the thing, though.
Frustration and restlessness can also be sign posts lurking under the deep waters. When I’m feeling stuck, when I’m wondering if this is all there is, when I’m wondering what the point is, it’s okay to take stock. Stop. Where am I going? Am I using my gifts? Am I using them for me or for God? What’s missing? What am I longing for, and how am I seeking to abate the longing? What do you want from me, God?
I’m still restless. And I’m still wrestling. But I’m also attending to my desires, for they are the messengers of my unlived life.
Back in Massachusetts, the rain was tapering off a bit. Emma peered through the screen door and said, “Mom? What are you doing?”
“I’m picking blueberries. Come join me.”
She rolled her beautiful blue eyes heavenward. Soon, though, she came out with her pink plaid slicker on, the hood peaked over those inquisitive eyes. We feasted on the rain-slick berries, immersed, barefoot in the wet grass.