Two years ago, during February of my senior year of college, I quit my student teaching program and moved home for about a month and a half in order to save what little remained of my mental health. For most of the time I was home, I was reeling, confused, and terrified of what would happen after I graduated. All of my career plans were shot. I had no idea what God was doing. I didn’t understand why He had brought me to that place.
But there were moments–moments where I felt His voice and His leading so incredibly clearly. Moments where I knew exactly what He wanted from me. And one of those was when I wrote a post on this blog called Tapestry.
It was unlike any other post I had written before because it was more like a virtual museum exhibit than anything else, but it was precious to me because it was a showcase of all of the ways God had been trying to speak to me–not just recently, but over years!–about who He wanted me to be: a writer. The tapestry of my life and His pattern for it had become clear to me.
But now, two years later, here I am, reeling again. These past six months or so have been incredibly difficult for me, anxiety-wise. I’ve been feeling quite discouraged creatively, relationally, professionally, and even when it comes to my physical health. There’s been lots of crying, writing “God, what are you doing?” in my journal, lots of simply wanting to be held and not talk. I just feel–lost. It’s what many people call a “wilderness experience,” a period of life where you’re coming down from the mountain-top, where things get pretty dark and trials come around every corner and you just don’t know exactly when it’s going to end or how to get out of there.
The good news is that there have been small moments of clarity lately. First, through my own prayer and through the encouragement of my therapist, I decided a couple weeks ago to go on a personal spiritual retreat to Three Rivers, Michigan for three days in July. I booked it last week and I trust that it will be a time of great renewal and revelation for me (pray for me, please).
The second thing is that two days ago, during a very connected moment, God spoke these words to me very specifically: maybe before we can get out of the wilderness, we need to be willing to go into it. I pondered over them for a while, and then I thought about my impending retreat, and a lot of the Bible passages I’ve been reading, and songs that have been stuck in my head, and once again I began to sense a pattern: God is trying to show me something about this wilderness period I’m lost in. So the rest of this blog post is my second museum exhibit (and a much longer one), an ode to this place of being lost in the shadows of things larger than yourself. Unlike Tapestry, however, this piece doesn’t feel like a symbol of the end of a period of suffering.
No, Within wilderness is a piece that symbolizes allowing myself to be present in the midst of a period of suffering that hasn’t yet ended. It is intentionally allowing myself to be uncomfortable, to be hurting, to be raw. It is a reminder that you can only see the beauty of the wilderness if you stop running yourself ragged trying to claw your way out of it.
With no further adieu, listen, see. Welcome, wanderers, to the wilderness.
I. Song entitled “Woods” by Bon Iver, haunting from my very first listen.
II. Journal entries from September 2016, written in a moment of revelation after a tearful argument.
III. Excerpts from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner.
IV. A poem called “Poltergeist,” written on January 25th, 2017, that I never published, written on a day where my anxiety had rendered me slightly catatonic.
Some days you are the extra creak in the floorboard, the slight turn in my neck, a fleeting shadow behind the window, a lock double-checked, a stopped breath, wondering which of the inanimate objects in my room would do the most damage to the human head
Some days you are my tightened fists and darting eyes as I walk alone, a cool, calculated air, the song I sing under my breath, hand on my phone, quickened feet that decide last-second not to make that turn down that particular street
Some days you are the parallel universes in which that car came a little too fast around the corner, in which I never came back from that alleyway shortcut, in which there is no such thing as a kind stranger, in which I doubt Him just one too many times to count
Some days you’re the flurry of carefully-worded 2 a.m. texts begging to be answered, the spinning vortex of repeated words and their infinite possible meanings, hands pulling, ripping at future days, silent tears streaming
Some days you are sweatpants and a couch, turning stomach, turned-down invitations, the answer “no I’m okay” because not even I understand myself when I say “I dread the thought of seeing you, but come over, because I desperately need to be held”
Some days you are the thumbs scrolling and scrolling, the endless tides of information, the harsh glow of a screen, my head thick and numb, unable to quit because to stop reading about this broken world is to become a part of it
Some days you are tunnel vision and gasping breaths, curling up into a ball, hands tingling and eyes tight shut, all my inside monsters manifested out of me by the sound of their names, until they finally fade and I come back around
Some days you’re an awkward laugh, an unsure answer, stinging heat in the corners of my eyes, a faraway silence after a repeated question, a gaze averted for fear of unraveling, of being seen and being known and being found wanting
And some days you’re just a voice–not big or booming, but a whisper, echoing until I can no longer understand the exact words or trace their origins, but I can only remember how it feels to be pressed in by their weight
V. Photo taken in Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier, Quebec, July 11th, 2016. We hiked up the mountain to toast to our friend Todd on what would have been his 53rd birthday. He had loved hiking.
VI. Song entitled “Enemy, love.” by John Mark McMillan from his soon-to-be-released album, Mercury & Lightning. I cried when I heard it.
VII. Journal entries from January 2017.
VIII. Excerpt from a worship song entitled “Gravity,” written by me and Andy Hudson, summer 2015.
Please be true North
Out in this wilderness
So far from home
I am a runaway
Please come for me
Though You’re the only one
Find me face down
Bring me to life again
IX. Quotation from Loren Eiseley, anthropologist and science writer.
It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and love for a time in the wilderness.
X. Photos taken while in Quebec, July 2016.
XI. Song entitled “Slow Your Breath Down” by Future of Forestry, listened to on repeat when I’m anxious.
XII. Jeremiah 31:2-4, Hosea 2:14, 13:5.
XIII. A poem of mine called”How to Get Out of the Woods,” written yesterday, part one of two. I was thinking about anxiety and the feeling of being lost in the woods and how they intertwine.
XIV. Video captured of the forests of Michigan out of the window of a train I was taking, May 8th, 2017.
XV. Artwork I made last night entitled “Coping Mechanisms,” inspired by a list I wrote a while ago.
XVI. Excerpts from my journal, May 2017.
Abba, there’s lots of reasons I want to retreat, lots of things I need to hear from You on, learn about You, myself…meditation + contemplation, silence, solitude, prayer. How to hear from You, really listen to Your voice. Relax + rest, destress. Who am I? God, what are You doing in my life? What are You calling me to do right now? How can I trust You more in each area of my life? How do I deal with stress, suffering? How do I deal with waiting? God, who am I? What is Your purpose for me? What can I do right now to fulfill it? God, what have You been doing in my life? How do I make sense of the suffering? How do I make sense of the wait? How do I wait and suffer well? God, who are You? How do You speak? How should I listen for You? I want to celebrate Your mystery and majesty. God, who have You made me?
Abba, [please] give me clarity and focus…to figure out what the questions are that You even want me to be asking myself on this retreat. Maybe there are questions I haven’t even thought of or couldn’t even conceive myself. Reveal them to me Lord, Abba.
I pray for my retreat coming up, Abba. I pray it would be a time of rest and spiritual renewal. Abba, I pray You would prepare my heart for this trip, that You would open my eyes to Your Word, open my ears to Your whispers, open my heart to the wonders, the path that You have for me. Open my hands to what You would have me do. I pray I would be able to turn off the noise of the world, and just listen to You. Speak to me, O Abba Father. Prepare my heart for what You have for me.
XVII. Photos taken by me and my sister Sarah from Kensington Metropark near my hometown in Michigan, May 22nd, 2016.
XVIII. Song entitled “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” by Sufjan Stevens, named after Isaiah 55:12, my favorite bible verse.
XIX. Journal entry from two days ago, Isaiah 43:18-19, written specifically to include the first verse.
XX. Quotation from Nancy Newhall, editor and photography critic.
The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.
XXI. A poem, “How to Get Out of the Woods,” part two.