All day long I have been reading about writer’s block. I think it’s rubbing off on me. My students describe it as a deadly combination of procrastination, distraction and utter and complete fear of failure. They describe it as the part of the process when they can’t get beyond the first line, where they get stuck on the interest catcher “hook” somewhere in the first couple of sentences. They describe how they have been repeatedly taught, by the mighty red pen, how “good” writing amounts to correct grammar and punctuation, a paper free of error. No wonder these descriptions are quickly followed by the pronouncement, “I have always loathed/detested/dreaded/avoided writing. I prefer math or science where at least there is one right answer.” Teachers of the world, where have we gone wrong? I beseech you, ditch those red pens!
But I don’t mean to go on about pedagogy. The point is, I understand. In my quiet rooms with the high ceilings and the large bay windows that look out on row houses covered with siding, I too feel mired in my inability to articulate my existence. And just like them, this need to express myself, or find an answer of some sort, is exigent to the point of my own paralyzing fear. So, Nia and I head out for a walk. Usually, it is just in the morning but today we really need another. It’s late afternoon and the sky seems bigger this time of day. The largesse of the open air is something I miss like oxygen here in New England most days. The Massachusetts firmament appears in my perception as a drab and oppressive tableau, which blights me daily. But the last few days the clouds have taken a big breath. They have expanded and found dimension. They have explored the alchemy of storm cloud and lazy rolling vapor. They have embraced their shape. Southwestern clouds would be proud of them today.
Also, in my bones, I feel the season shifting. The clouds tell me I am right. Or perhaps it is the edge that has been softened in the icy wind, or the teenage lovers hidden behind a huge stone, gazing at each other in the afternoon light in the park. I still zip my coat up tight but my eyes can see further and I can imagine what things will soon grow. I am eager beyond belief for this transformation. I daydream about a garden. I pass by a porch swing, which has been outside all winter but now I imagine sitting in it again. I can feel something new coming.
The truth is, I have been thinking about God. And what more dangerous activity is there? Such thoughts contain the potential for transcendent bliss, ecstatic union, hopeless despair, meaning or endless and utter confusion. Kind of like writing, really. Let me begin by saying that I have nearly always believed in God. But my best friend is an atheist and I think maybe she’s been wearing off on me. She’s been in my life 15 years, with her simultaneously uppity opinions, deep devotion to our friendship and a mind like a sharpened diamond. We have partially formed one another. Some friends are like that I guess. She laughed when I told her maybe I was a little confused about my belief in God for the first time. She did her best not to gloat though, which I appreciated.
I think the problem is that for the first time in a long time, I am being asked to put my belief in a higher power into some sort of actual practicum. My friend in Morocco who taught me how to pray Salaat said that when you pray, you are entering into an individual conversation with the divine. At the time, these words were the most delicious I had heard in a long time, and I believed them with every fiber. We stood together at the feet of the Atlas mountains, bathed in lines of snow, before the orange groves, to the sounds of olive trees whishing in the afternoon heat. I know there is a God in all of this. And yes, I wanted to listen.
Now I realize the problem is, that I think if I have this belief and connection with God, then I have an obligation to be a better person. I have an obligation to change and improve so that I am worthy of this conversation. This is where I quickly start to feel confused. I think I’ve lost sight of the unconditional love part of the deal. Don’t get me wrong; I want to be a better person. I fight to be a better person everyday, to clear the mirror of my mind and heart of the debris that makes me muddy with shame, with fear, with indecision and with loneliness. But if there is an expectation, or a reward system, I find myself terribly sad about the belief in God. I want my students to know that they can write so that they can tell the total truth of their minds and hearts. I want a world free of red pens for them.
The truth is, I miss Morocco. I miss it each and every day with an ache that sometimes consumes me. When I fall asleep, I think I can hear the whine of two stroke engines in the dark or the braying of a donkey cart. I feel the bougainvillea rustle and anticipate the call to prayer, the holiest sound I know. It might just be that God is stalking me. Go ahead, laugh. I live on the east coast and out of all the offices and buildings I could be placed in, I am next to the Arabic instructor. She is a Lebanese woman who tutors her students, sometimes literally, outside my door. On Thursday nights, I teach late and there is a gathering of Muslim students who pray and eat dinner together just below my office. Of all the gin joints…
Is it just perceptual salience that makes me notice these things? In Islam they say that God finds you, you don’t have to go looking. The mountain came to Mohammed so to speak. There is something about this way of thinking that goes against my Judeo-Christian American paradigm in which I somehow have to be worthy of God’s love. I have to somehow find my way, set terms, make my peace. I may prefer to think of God as a tide, as an inescapable but receding and encroaching pattern of water on shore. Nia plays in the waves and chases birds, my heart puffs up like canvas catching wind, with a snap and then a constant and perfect tug.
I know one thing for sure, that if there is such a thing as the divine, or rather, if I have a relationship with a thing such as the divine, I see it in nature. When the aspen trees turn on Italianos trail and Nia and I head up to higher ground to be surrounded and swimming in gold and blue, when the clouds open their arms to me across the little bay outside my door, when seasons change and I stir, inside, to a voice just out of reach. If that is enough, then I think I could believe again. Gillian would laugh at me. She would probably tell me that I should press myself more directly against reality, and not ascribe this perfection to a God, but rather to be in the moment. The moment is enough.
See, too many questions to even begin answering. I think, that basic premise or usefulness I am seeking is some belief that there is a thing bigger than me, that I can trust it. I want to know that it isn’t just me, out here alone in the universe struggling to get through alone. I want to remember that I am not always in charge and that when I need it, aid will come. I want to be blown away, reminded of how small I am, rescued by trees and desert and sky. If that is God, then that is enough.