Blown Tires in Heaven.
When my siblings and I were kids, Mom and Dad used to take us on educational daytrips. One time they loaded up the station wagon and headed us off to picnic at Valley Forge, but Dad missed the first exit. A truck with a blown tire blocked the second. We ended up spending the night in Gettysburg, missing school the next day. For me, it was a wondrous, but agonizing place. Over the years, they took us to antique homes, forts, and buildings. In some, I tapped into lives that had been lived and maybe lost there. They just kind of reached out and grabbed me. But in Gettysburg I felt buried in the deaths. Even at full noon and a hundred years later, the fields were dark with the dying; strewn with groaning agony; with unending hours spent waiting for death to finally get around to these skinny, patched kids who felt so very, very far from home. It tore at me from everywhere, along with their terror, naiveté, and a palpable conviction of glory. As though in this bloody clash there was no right or wrong because each side had God firing, stabbing, and slashing right beside them. Maybe in some awful way, I thought, He was.
We spent the next night in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. My pain was so intense there I could have found my way blindfolded to where they’d hanged John Brown. I knew nothing of his history; I’d never heard of the man, and didn’t know why they’d killed him; but his rage ate away at me for months.
In some old homes I felt fragments of lives lived, meals cooked, of babies carried, but then all too soon buried out back somewhere. I felt their bonding through adversities, and the hard-edged love that grew out of that. I felt their resignation as much as anything, and knew those times must have been awfully hard. Endless days of labor that beat at their bodies; weary evenings of trying to hang on. I felt people sitting around in dim light and heavy air.
Feelings chewed through me with such sweetly sad intensity. Like lingering nostalgia for days I couldn’t quite recall. Old lives and times seemed wistful, more real, alive, more steeped in buried sweetness than the lost and broken sadness of my now.
I took on the pain of others like festering sores draining the spirit out of me. At home, I hid in my room from the clash of emotions my family could hide only from themselves. When my arms grew long and strong enough I started pulling myself up onto the roof where I could lie back under the stars, praying for their vast peace to drain off some of the hurt.
Sometimes it worked; they welcomed me in among them and nestled me closer to God. Everything dissolved into pure, aching sweetness, beyond the furthest reaches of time and thought. How vast love can be when we don’t hack off a chunk and hoard it, call it ours, or chain it to someone; when it isn’t love for some thing or some one, just love.
But love got me trapped in their pain. If I stopped to ponder that, though, if I thought about anything at all, I’d get stuck in my head again, where all that beauty couldn’t reach me. If an annoying itch sent me back hunting for my body, then that was all it took; I’d chosen the physical, mental, emotional world over that which belonged only to the soul, and I’d locked myself back out of heaven.
I was only allowed brief visits, and couldn’t bring the bliss back with me. Trying to hold onto that soul piercing, excruciating sweetness was like tearing my heart apart; but getting dumped back into this pain-wracked world of anxieties, barriers, and failure was like it had died.
So night after night, as my family watched TV, I holed up at the other end of the house with my books. Deep in bedroom shadows, mythic heroes fought on, through pain and desperation, searching for what only they could see, as something unyielding cried out from their souls. I crawled through each passage with fingers and tears as King Arthur battled onward and inward, conquering and ceding back, sacrificing everyone and everything he cared about, driven like a madman to the point of self-immolation, ever trying to slash his way free.
For a tale of heroism, that one sure reeked of darkness. Heroes are supposed to be born for the job, all shiny clean and courageous. They eat their vegetables, thank their moms, and cross themselves twice saying grace. Good is good, evil is evil, and bad guys ride black horses. But with Arthur’s gang, everyone seemed to be thrashing against something ugly and menacing hanging back in his own shadows. Something painfully personal.
In the real world, obedience was pounded into our butts; discipline nailed each to the cross of his own life. I fought so hard to just shut up and buckle under, but I just couldn’t confine myself to this tiny and hurting world everybody else lived in. It got so it was like St. Michael slaying the dragon, with me as both the saint, and his dragon.
My heroes followed some deep hidden light through dark and horrid times, and I knew what drove them; I had touched that light.
I’d also tasted the darkness.
As I knotted myself over each grave, heroic tale, I felt it clawing free.