Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Naming the Un-Nameable

I’ve been trying to name the un-nameable in my writing lately.  I’m on draft seven of the prologue to my memoir, and critiques from classmates and my teacher called for more specifics about my spiritual journey. In a revision, I wrote about being in the mountains and having a “sense of a spiritual presence.”

My teacher replied that she tripped on that phrase.  She went on, “Makes me wonder why you don't say ‘God.’  I wonder if it would work better to either say ‘God’ or somehow add a little phrase of explanation for why you don't.  A tall order, I realize.”

So, this week, I’ve been writing my way through to the words that explain my experience of the Divine. Sometimes I call it Spirit. Sometimes I use the word Presence. Often I don’t capitalize. I write about an essence or of wisdom or a sense of being held and loved. But I still hesitate to write “God” to name what is at the center of my life. That three-letter word carries meanings that no longer fit for me.

I long ago outgrew the images of God I learned as a child. God as a man with flowing white hair and beard. God as judge. God as the all-knowing master puppeteer of every person’s actions, decisions, and journey. God controlling the wind, the rain, the mountains and seas. God with all the answers.

My experience of God has very little to do with answers. One of the things I treasure about Quakerism is the understanding that God’s way continues to unfold, that new light can shine onto changed understandings. I suspect God is as bewildered and distressed as I am at much of what happens in the world. The God I believe in doesn’t have answers to why young people get cancer, why earthquakes and hurricanes and wildfires and planes crashing into buildings kill thousands of people, why marriages fall apart, or why crops fail and people starve. 

I also don’t think God makes any of those things happen any more than God helps someone pick the winning lottery numbers, get elected or get cured. But my lack of belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing God doesn’t stop me from praying for peace, for healing, for wisdom, for courage.  To whom or what am I praying?  I do believe there is something outside of me, beyond me, and within me, within all of us, always, that knows us and loves us unconditionally. This something is so much more than a person, a man, a human-like entity. It’s more felt than seen, although I find ample evidence of that presence in the faces of children and old people, in the sunrise pinking the sky, in hands extended in aid and friendship.

Perhaps it’s time for me to let go of my fears that readers will bring their own meanings to my words as I write of my spiritual journey.  Don’t we all do that when we hear stories of others’ experiences? Aren’t those stories openings into our own? Perhaps my writing task is to show my journey toward that essence, that presence, that spirit, that I know as God. Readers will find the names that fit for them.

 ~    ~    ~    ~

Note: Enlivened by the Mystery (Friends Bulletin Company, 2009) includes an essay about my spiritual journey; a draft of the first chapter of my memoir is in the Summer issue of SHARK REEF Literary Magazine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Cost of War

I heard a story recently about a woman, Jackie, who was an Army nurse in Iraq. She told her story to Brian Doyle, editor of Portland Magazine (Boots). Or rather, Brian caught Jackie’s story and then told it to his co-workers, his readers, probably his wife and kids, and to me and a bunch of other writing students in my MFA program. And now I want to tell you something that Jackie’s story taught me.

Jackie turned 27 this summer. Until recently, she was known as Lieutenant, and she was in Kirkuk. Now she lives near a beach and has a dog. I do, too—live near a beach and have a dog. But I’ve never been a Lieutenant, never been to Kirkuk, and I don’t know anyone else who has either.  I’m so opposed to this war, to any war, that I avoid talking to anyone who is involved. That’s not hard to do in my small, rural community. We’re a peace-loving clan, I can count on one hand the number of young people who’ve joined the military during the 15 years I’ve lived here, and there are limited jobs here for someone looking for work after leaving the military.

Brian cried as he read Jackie’s story, and I cried as I listened. I’ve cried every time I’ve read it silently to myself or out loud to others. Her story is simple and eloquent about the costs of war for her­—the emotional toll of being surrounded by fear, killing, and loss.

Like many Americans, I’ve spent time in these early days of September reflecting on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the aftermath during this past decade.  As a nation, we’ve paid dearly for responding to violence with more violence, and there are big numbers to prove it. The Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University assembled economists, anthropologists, political scientists, legal experts, and a physician to quantify the domestic and international costs of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Their analysis (http://costsofwar.org/) yields staggering figures including an estimated $3.2 to 4 trillion spent, the deaths of more than 6,000 American soldiers and nearly 100,000 wounded, and at least 137,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. James Dao reported more stinging statistics about the current wars in the New York Times on Sept. 6 (They Signed Up to Fight): “More than two million sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. One in five returning with post-traumatic stress, major depression or traumatic brain injury. More than 1,000 missing a limb.” 

I can’t comprehend numbers like this, but now I know that a woman named Jackie is one of the people included in them. So are identical twin brothers Ivan and Christian Bengsten, Bonnie Velez, Joel Almandinger, and others named in Dao’s story. I followed the link in Dao’s article for traumatic brain injury and read even more heartbreaking histories, like the one about Sergeant Shurvon Phillips and his long-term brain damage following exposure to neck-snapping, head-shaking mine explosions in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2005.

There are at least three military bases within a couple hundred miles of where I live, and it’s a rare week that Navy jets don’t do training flights over the south end of my island. There probably are lots of Jackies not that far away. Her story led me to look beyond the numbers and beyond the anonymous people at the controls of the fighter planes practicing in the skies over my home. Her story also fortified my commitment to nonviolence and an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I know of no easy path to peace, though I’m clear that war is not the answer. Most of the time I feel that my letter writing to Congress and President Obama is futile, but I keep doing it (Friends Committee on National Legislation continues to be a place I can add my voice to influence U.S. foreign policy). Since hearing Jackie’s story, I’ve also committed to hold her in the Light, a Quaker practice some people think of as intercessory prayer or of joining with God’s constant love for a person. Compared to the costs to Jackie and thousands of others, it doesn’t seem like much. Yet even though I don’t understand it, I do believe that such holding is a powerful act, and I’ll keep doing it for Jackie.