Fate is a fine-tuned poet.
Irreantum, (ear-ee-an’-tum: 1 Nephi 17:5. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters.) is the literary journal for the AML, or the Association for Mormon Letters. It happens to also be where an essay on fear and joy that I wrote has found a home. (And a nice award. Thank you so much, AML.)
That this essay ends up in Many Waters is poetic, I think. Because if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, or if you’ve known something of our family’s story, you also know something about my 5-year-new fear of water.
Especially water in the plural. The unpredictable, petrifying plural.
And so to thank Irreantum (particularly Jack Harrell and Angela Hallstrom), as well as to encourage you to find the latest issue of the journal, and to give you a flavor of what that piece is about, I’m posting here a couple of excerpts of that essay, “Bridge to Elysium.”
(It’s an essay that pivots around a bridge we used to cross regularly the years we lived in Paris, the Pont de l’Alma. Pont du Gard. Pont de l’Alma. This post as a bridge between the two. You see I have a thing for bridges. They keep you out of water’s why.)
When you finish with these excerpts and get around to procuring your own issue of Irreantum, you might note that a series of my poems, “Why I Carry Your I.D.” was also recently awarded there, too. Those pieces will be published sometime in 2013.
Yuh, I know. I don’t blame you for thinking I’m paying off Jack and Angela on the side. Honest, all I did was send an itsy bitsy 20 kilo crate of Swiss chocolate.
And you call that a bribe?
Excerpts from “Bridge to Elysium”, (in Irreantum)
We paused in the shadows between the glow of street lamps lining the bridge. There we stood, speechless on the Pont de l’Alma, the river flowing beneath us, its inky course pulsing with a glinting pelt of silver. Its flow teased that beauty from our grip, and we felt it slipping. This, too—the thought came unbidden—will end. How many more times, we asked each other, would we be able to stand just like this; together, safe, watching the river glide noiselessly under our feet, the sublime still pearling on our spirits the way sweat beads on the upper lip?
We tiptoed across the darkened threshold of our apartment. All was well: food in fridge, water in pipes, heat in radiators. Beethoven still rang in our ears, peace hung in the air, and no detergent was in the dishwasher, which, incidentally, had never been turned on. But who’s checking?
The three younger children were long since in bed. The one in charge, eighteen-year-old Parker, was still working, facing the bluish light of the computer screen, hunched over a psychology class research project.
“Freud,” he grunted, acknowledging our parental checking-in.
I gave half a chuckle. ”Know what his names means?”
Right palm spread against his brow, Parker propped up his exhausted head.
“Uh, let’s see. Boring?”
“Joy. Joy boy Sigmund Freud! ‘Freude’ means joy. You drop the “eh” at the end.”
“Okay. And oxymoron is what that means.” (At this late hour he was visibly unimpressed with Freud.) “You drop the ‘oxy’ at the start.”
Snickering, I kissed the back of my big son’s head, and whistled Beethoven as I kicked off my heels. Randall loosened his tie. We hung our coats, tossed the tickets, and went to sleep in a world that felt part Elysian Field perfection, part garden variety quotidian, but both parts a completion; a whole, overflowing with abundance. And what abundance: all six of us under one roof. All of us together. All of us. Together. In the moment, that reality felt self-evident, more the standard mental checklist than the miraculous. But as I pulled the blanket over my shoulder, that knowledge returned: This, too, will end.
Our last year in Paris. Sounds like a chick flick, no way befitting of the stark reality that lay in store for our family. We would never again know our family as intact, life as whole. We would never again experience the world as continual, the next hour as a given. And we would never again refer to that year as “our last year in Paris.” In one split second, it would become The Last Year.
We would bury Parker.
Several of Parker’s friends had traveled from their different countries of origin to the site of his [funeral] services. At one point during the viewing, I noticed that these friends were clustered in a corner. There was the Jewish French-Portuguese musician, the red-headed New England atheist, the non-denominational Iranian, the staunch Philadelphian Catholic, the Italian Buddhist, the German-American brother-sister duo from New York City whose mother had come too. They were draped on each other, holding each other up, weeping, shoulders shaking.
I broke from the reception line and, in one spontaneous gesture, took them into a circle where, with our arms around one another’s shoulders, we bowed our heads. Then I prayed. I prayed out loud that our Father in Heaven and their friend Parker would calm and guide each of them, and that God’s presence would surround them and hold them up. Just like our circle. I cannot recall in detail all that poured out of me along with my tears, but when I ended—and this I do recall in every detail—I looked them each in the eye and said, “No fear. No fear.”
A strange thing to say. Better on a skateboarder’s T-shirt than on the lips of a grief-stricken mother. But the point is this. In that moment, I clearly saw the risk of them choking with fear, of them panicking at the prospect of living in a frightening world where random things like Parker’s death happen. I saw how any one of them could easily curl up in bitterness or despair and end up like Freud himself, who grumbled, “What good to us is a long life, if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?”[i] Did I want them to end up like that? Did I, for that matter,want to end up like that?So I repeated to them (and to myself) the same message Parker’s spirit and certainly other encircling spirits had been repeating to me from the first minutes of terror: “No fear. No fear.”
I could not sing the word joy. It seemed a mockery to me. Joy to this world? This world whose crust is, as writes Eleanor Stump, “soaked with the tears of the suffering”? (qtd. in Morris 236). Where there are trap doors and booby traps, out-of-the-clear-blue-sky terminal diagnoses, crushing train wheels, hidden whirlpools? This perilous, unpredictably violent minefield of a world where, with one step (like the fatal step of my friend’s son; like the fatal step of my own son), that which we rely on—the solid, foreseeable—vanishes right out from under our feet? No wonder C.S. Lewis wrote that grief feels so much like fear. There is a decidedlyvertiginous sensation that overtakes you when grief is most acute. It is like standing in an elevator on the 58th floor when, without warning, all the cables snap. That free falling, falling, falling.
“Fear not” is, as I have gradually begun to understand it, a divine injunction straight from God. The angels are directed, before anything else, to drive out fear in this trembling, suffering—and by all mortal measurements justifiably frightened—world. God Himself, whose sufferings outstrip all the accumulated sufferings of the infinitude of creation, greets us with the same words. “Fear not,” he says to Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Daniel, Joseph, Zacharias, Simon, and scores of others (Genesis 15:1; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 46:3; Joshua 8:1; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13; Luke 5:10). “Fear not,” whole house of Israel. “Fear not,” all humankind. More than a pep talk, more than a pat on the head, “fear not” is a warning directed at fear—an exorcism, even, as writer Kathleen Norris suggests (144). “Fear not” is God’s steely, conquering command: “Fear, be not! Fear, be gone!”
To exorcise fear, God flushes the darkness of this world with His blazing presence. And wherever His presence is, not only can fear not remain, but confidence, peace, contentment, wholeness, strength, and light—all cousins of joy—can flourish. Does the pain of loss necessarily disappear? No. Does my yearning for my son cease? No. Not in the least. But what does happen is that alongside—or better, from within—the pain and yearning comes a sense of being lovingly upheld by God. The terrifying free fall of fear lands, just in time, in His hands. It is then, eyes squeezed tightly shut in preparation for impact, when we realize with a gasp that those hands have been only a few inches ahead of our whole, dizzying descent. Indeed, those hands have descended below all things. They bear the marks to prove it. And so, still splayed flat and panting, we slowly open our view to this pellucid truth: Yes, we really can trust God with our lives.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.