Crucible

28 08 2011

I need words tonight. Some outlet for the chaos in my gut.

Ironic, then, that I just spent the evening surrounded by friends who have seen the worst I have to offer and come back for more…and it wasn’t until I was alone that I had anything to say. Goodness, do I ever have things to say.

My therapist, God love him, tells me I am now entering the fire, the crucible, where the dross of my soul will be identified, separated, discarded. He says this as a statement of fact: inviolable, inevitable. That I’ve done it all before and know exactly what will be asked of me only makes it all the more terrifying.

Once upon a time, my crucible was physical. A freshman in high school, I was newly infatuated with this thing called “backpacking”–you mean, using nothing but the power of your own legs, taking nothing you weren’t willing to carry on your own back for dozens of miles, you can get to alpine lakes of neverending depth, meadows bursting with wildflowers, and stars in their billions?! I’m never going home–and, even more so, with the supreme confidence, and joy, and flourishing that my Wilderness Expeditions heroes and heroines seemed to effortlessly embody. I lived summer to summer those years, with every moment between my mountainous adventures dull and meaningless by comparison. But I digress. That year, the crucible came in the form of a ridge straight from hell: 3000 feet of vertical ascent in less than a mile, after a full 12 miles of hiking under the relentless Colorado sun. Being young and in shape (and an utter fool) I figured in for a penny, in for a pound–I wasn’t just going to climb The Crucible, I was going to run up it. With 50 pounds strapped to my back. And no water to speak of.

Did I also mention I hated myself more than a little that week? I don’t remember why (something to do with porn?), but I do remember saying to myself “Tom, you may be a pathetic failure back home, but on the mountain you have the chance to make up for it. Run all the way to the top now and you will be worthy of forgiveness. Fail and you will always be a nothing, a liar, deserving of hell.”

My legs gave out beneath me a hundred yards from the top.

My therapist, God bless his soul, tells me we have but one metaphor for times like these: Gethsemane. Pleading, betrayal, kenosis. Kenosis: the utter emptying of self. There’s something wretchedly therapeutic in pushing your body to the point of collapse; hearing, and then rejecting, its increasingly strident complaints until the nervous system throws a little tantrum and you’re reminded, violently–I Am Not God.

Am I crazy enough, gutsy enough, strong enough to push until the point of collapse now, when the muscle giving up will be my heart?

If I am–what then? That backpacking trip, after a few minutes of rest and a little help from my friends, I was back on my feet and pushing onward. We summited that mountain together, me and the youth group who once named me “Quiet Confidence.” Is there a summit to my life, even a false one, a simple moment where I can stand triumphant, or is there just another crucible lurking in the distance, harder and hotter than anything I could imagine tonight?

My therapist, praise God for him, tells me he knows I will not quit. He says this as a statement of fact: inexorable, irrevocable.

Sometimes I even believe him.

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Can you cry in freefall?

16 08 2011

My time in Colorado, with my beloved mother and sisters, is slipping away. I chase after the seconds, but they outpace this mortal body by 670,999,997 miles per hour, give or take a few. I hadn’t fathomed the size of their absence until I felt that hole filled.

This night, amidst packing for my trillionth flight this summer, give or take a trillion minus eight, feels like a good time to share another airplane story.

The first leg of my most recent flight into Denver was overbooked. My seat was in the rear of the cabin, my boarding group the last to be called; I stared at faces as I trudged down the aisle. It was 7:20 on a Tuesday morning. Every eye was hooded with a quiet desperation.

Or were they just mirrors reflecting my own dis-ease back upon me?

The seat next to mine was the last on the plane to be warmed by life, however surly. He was a southpaw; I know because his coat flapped open as he squeezed by, his gun staring me in the face. I thought sky marshals were a relic of cheap fiction? Clearly he must have too, the guy was out cold before we even left the gate and didn’t wake until we’d touched down in Salt Lake City. I could have palmed his weapon at any point during the flight. I could have stormed the cockpit, put my 30 minutes of flying experience to good use, and rerouted us somewhere far away–just flown and flown until we ran out of fuel, flown to some island where we’d fish and scavenge and create our own world from scratch.

Instead, I pulled out my book and entered the world someone else had crafted for me, a world where “what has been wounded in relationship must, after all, be healed in relationship” and you “[can] tell love when you can take it completely for granted.”

And I cried.

From liftoff to the moment we again touched solid ground my cheeks were streaked with tears, all because of that lyrical little treasure I picked up from the library. As I worshiped through the sacred stories of A Shining Affliction I found myself thinking over and over and over again “I want (to be) that!”

I sat in a tin can with 150 strangers and cried tears of hope and longing. Sometimes I really do impress myself.

For the next leg? Lather, rinse, and repeat–only replace the sky marshal with a hirsute man-beast wearing football memorabilia and encompassing half of my seat as well as his own. My concentration was frequently broken by the sudden rush of cool as his arm shifted away from my own, bringing the unsettling awareness of just how much he’d been sweating.

***Update***

One week later: the book is different, planes are heading the opposite direction, sky marshal and minotaur have been replaced by human-shaped bottle of coco-butter tanning lotion and puking 7-year old girl (I really couldn’t tell you which smell was worse)…tears are the same. Reading in public is becoming dangerous.