Living in the Wilderness

Religion / Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse–who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

– Jeremiah 17:5-10


I’ve been living in the wilderness this Lent. Really longer than this Lent. A year, maybe. A year and a half. Two years. Since my son was born. Since I was 13. Since I was eight. Since I was born.

An uninhabited salt land. Something about that language really strikes me, resonates with me. Yes, the land is not just empty, but uninhabited. It’s not just infertile, but salty. Salty with tears, with bitterness, like when enemies salt the land as they retreat from battle so no one can farm there. I picture a void, dry ground, dusty and stirred uneasily by a small wind passing over it, restlessly twirling the dust into unhappy spirals and then letting it fall.

My wilderness has been a place without purpose, like the wilderness that Moses and the Israelites wandered in after they fled from Egypt. (Interesting that they are described as wandering in the wilderness. The Israelites had been nomads, then they became slaves in Egypt. But did they get used to their settled lifestyle?)

The wilderness of having a completed memoir draft but no energy or enthusiasm to edit it or add to it or rewrite it. A writer who wasn’t writing.

The wilderness of eating strange new foods and not knowing for a long time what I could or couldn’t eat. The wilderness of being constantly exhausted, cranky, brain fogged.

The wilderness of mothering without a mother. Of wondering if my son even needed me at all, and being convinced for a long time (despite knowing better) that he really didn’t–that he’d be better off without me. Of wondering if he loved me. Of feeling I didn’t love him enough, or why would I need time away from him?

The wilderness of being in constant pain when I fed him, for eleven long weeks. Of feeling betrayed by medical professionals and breastfeeding amateurs who told me my body was made for this, that nature would work it out, when I was getting blocked ducts day after day after day.

The wilderness of the year I got my period, lost my grandmother, joined the church, had one best friend move away, had another best friend ignore me, made a third best friend who mothered me, and started missing my five-years-dead mother so much I was convinced I was going crazy.

The wilderness when my mother died, and all the care and anxiety I had poured into keeping her alive and happy and sane at the tender ages of five and six and seven and eight suddenly turned to ashes. To dust. To salty tears, burning the ground with bitterness. The wilderness when my purpose for living, as I understood it, my wonderful colorful joyous crazy furious terrifying loving broken drunken mother, left me. Showed me I wasn’t good enough to keep her alive, or so it felt.

The wilderness of never being secure in her love or my father’s love. Never knowing if I deserved attention from moment to moment. Never knowing if today I would be cherished or overlooked. The dust of my life, dry and salty in my hands.

Did my heart turn away from the Lord? Really, I had never known him. Even at 13 when I sought the church and sought God, even as the outer layers of my soul began to learn a little of what this God thing was, the inner layers did not know God. Did not trust in him or understand that there was a God to trust. I wasn’t cursed from wilfulness, of course; I didn’t understand. Jeremiah makes God sound harsh and judgmental here, but what if that’s not what this means at all? What if God is saying, If you trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh your strength, you are gonna be screwed sooner or later. Your world is going to be nothing but dust and salt.

But love me, seek me, trust in me, and you shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.This is an image that my therapist has used when we talk about all the young parts of me who don’t know God or his healing power. They plant themselves and send their roots deep, deep into the ground, down to the Source of light and life.

What a wonder it would be in my life if I didn’t fear when heat comes, and my leaves would stay green; if in the year of drought I would not be anxious, and I would not cease to bear fruit. As I wander right now in the wilderness of not knowing exactly who I am or what I’m for–why I have a first draft I don’t want to go back to and don’t seem to want to write other memoir essays either, why I have a writing talent and yet am not putting words on paper–what if I could manage not to be anxious in this year of drought? (A year of drought is exactly what it feels like.) What if I didn’t cease to bear fruit? What if, in fact, I am bearing fruit and don’t even realize it? Certainly I see that fruit reflected in the eyes of the people around me, who commend the changes they see in my life, the ways my relationship with my son continues to grow and improve as I move toward him instead of away from him. I see that my gut has healed in the last two years, and my energy level has improved, and I don’t need constant naps all the time, and I can play games and even throw a football with my son, and I don’t have to worry as much about what I can or can’t eat.

What if success in writing is the wrong water anyway? My therapist and I talked about how many of my family members worship the “god of awards and punishments,” as we coined it. That one “successful” member of my family, careerwise, has children who can’t stand to be in the same city together. That my grandfather the world-renowned chemist really sought all those awards partly just to get his father’s attention and love. That his father was so desperate for a living wife that he didn’t realize that his son needed him, and worked so hard at chemistry to please his harsh Congregationalist God. That several members of my family were convinced that they were failures despite their successes in life. Growing up in this toxic swamp of the wrong definition of success makes me feel like I’m in a drought when the words don’t come pouring out, ready for publication and acclaim. But Jeremiah’s point is that, when your roots are buried deep in that living water, whether or not there’s a drought doesn’t matter. You still bear fruit.

In dry summers in the Napa Valley, the grapes get sweeter in the sun. The sugars concentrate in each piece of fruit. What if God wants me to bear different fruit than I would in a normal year of rain? I’ve known all along that my motives for writing and publishing this book were suspect. I wanted to lay out my whole life to understand it: what happened, what the end of the story is, what I’m for. I feel like the scene in Spaceballs: The Movie where they look at the video tape of the movie and see themselves looking at the screen. They want to fast-forward to the ending to find out what happens, but instead they just wind up staring at the back of their own heads. I also want the book to give me some kind of acclaim or success. See how smart she is, people will say. Now we understand why she was so weird–she was actually really sad, my classmates will say. I finally understand my daughter, my father will say. I want an award to tell me that I’m good at this, that my whole hard life was worth it to write this piece of pure literary gold. Wow. That’s messed up.

My life hasn’t really been lousy, although sometimes writing this book has been. There’s been a lot of pain and grief, for sure, more than I realized when I started this process. Some part of me is actually a bit horrified that the drive to write the book is gone now that the first draft is complete. What if that’s what I needed? What if that was enough for me to see the scope of my life, my tangled relationship with my mother and my son, my broken places and scars? One part of me is, heaven forbid, satisfied at what I’ve accomplished. And the other parts, the ones that are screaming that I still have to get the acclaim and the stamp of approval–their cries seem a bit tinny. They are in the place of salt and dust, while I put down roots and say, Ahhh, it is good.

“The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse–who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”

As I’ve written this, I’ve come to realize that yes, the heart is devious and perverse. I thought what I wanted was from God, some kind of sense of completion or fulfillment. In fact, a lot of what I wanted was based on ego and frantic grasping for approval.

Can I send roots down past this uninhabited salt land to the streams of water? Can I bear the fruit God really wants me to bear?