Of docks and churches and libraries and love

Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.

Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now,  I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.

For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.

So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.

All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do:  My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.

I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.

Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.

It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:

“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”

Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:

Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.

How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then:  There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.

All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.




6 thoughts on “Of docks and churches and libraries and love

  1. Hillary says:

    Thank you, once again, Rita. This has me thinking back to you a number of years – in the intertidal period. Now you are fully the water. Maybe that is why I also feel myself pulled so strongly to the water. I hope you and Lisa come back and have coffee/tea again soon…..

    • Rita says:

      I hope we do, too.

      Your comment made me go back to look up again what an intertidal zone is. I didn’t think of that at all when writing this piece. Thank you for that.

  2. Marian says:

    There is so much in this beautifully-written piece, Rita, so much that spoke directly to me, a person who wanted (when she was little (and still does)) to be either a teacher or a librarian or a writer…
    I absolutely love that you’ve used the word holiness to link these three together, and I couldn’t agree more. (With ALL of it: I was (nominally) raised Lutheran, but thoughts/beliefs regarding God didn’t seem to enter my head at all until we moved to the US, when it seemed I HAD to figure things out; I landed squarely on the side of “if I believed in God, I would be forced to be livid with Him/Her”; much better then, not to believe at all…)

    Stepping off the red curb…I think that’s a bit of thinking that mostly comes — mercifully — at a later age. As you know, this existentialism is something I’ve been struggling with for quite some time — off and on, mostly now on — since my early 20s, and for about a year now I feel I’ve been gathering words and quotes, dragging them towards me and hanging onto them as though they were life preservers (to continue the water analogy). There IS true solace to be found here.

    Speaking of water: this is a song that I’ve been listening to a lot the last week or so; it’s almost anthem-like in its beat, and the lyrics are really speaking to me. I’m not sure it’s quite your thing, but I thought I’d share it anyway …

    Marian recently posted…Coffee Houses and Introverts, #WittingNotKnitting and #GleaningMeaningNotCleaningMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for that music, Miriam. I know the lyrics are such that probably anyone could attach all kinds of meaning to them, but they work for me. I would love to take off all the tight clothes I’ve been wearing. I’d love to walk out through the back door of my life. This is the song that’s been stuck in my head lately: https://youtu.be/wlhBizyeo8s

      I am curious about why moving to the US meant you had to figure out God. I will confess I am so fed up with the US right now. I am fed up with myself for not seeing more clearly the complete picture of my country until the past two years. The complete picture of all kinds of things. I know the truth sets us free, but damn. It smashes all our cages, but there’s a certain comfort in a cage, isn’t there?

      Looking forward to seeing what you do with all the words you’ve been gathering. Was so glad to see your last post again.

      • Marian says:

        That’s a beautiful song, Rita. I can see why it’s speaking to you now.

        It’s probably a post in and of itself, all the reasons why our move to the US meant I needed to figure out God.
        In a nutshell: growing up in a large, culturally diverse city in Canada meant religion was something that was completely on the back burner. It was something some people *did*, but it wasn’t what people *were*, if that makes sense. When we moved to Minnesota, I was utterly bewildered that the first question people asked upon meeting us (after our names) was, “what church do you go to?” — and when the answer came back “we don’t go to church”, the conversation was (nearly every time) cut and an exit was made. We were, early on, befriended by a family of born-again Christians (I had responded to their question “have you found a church yet?” with a not-entirely untruthful “we’re still looking” (which, technically, I suppose we were; our kids were 1 and 3 and I had just raised the issue of “should we be doing something about church?” to my husband)). Because these people were so utterly convinced of their stance I felt (almost) as though I needed to arm myself with knowledge so their strong personalities wouldn’t swamp me. So I started reading everything I could, and listening to religious programming on CBC, all so I could figure out where I stood on this suddenly all-important matter. It has occurred to me that they would be quite sad to learn that their preaching actually had the reverse effect than the one they intended.
        The difference between the religiosity in the US vs what it is in Canada (still) never fails to shock me — the way it’s been allowed to infiltrate your political system, etc? I know there are plenty of Canadians who would agree with all that, but I think the vast majority of us are shaking our heads in dismay 🙁 .
        Marian recently posted…Coffee Houses and Introverts, #WittingNotKnitting and #GleaningMeaningNotCleaningMy Profile

  3. Kate says:

    While our stances on God differ and I definitely find solace in my church and faith, libraries are also sacred places to me. The children’s library in Kalamazoo, MI (it had a REAL sarcophagus on display!!), Hackley Public library (where I got my first library card and the library card catalog that sits in my home) that was built by a lumber baron and had the most amazing architecture, the Shelby Public library that had the best drinking fountain even if it was super loud and clangy – the water was so cold and tasted so good. Algoma’s small town library that made me feel surrounded by friends when I felt so alone moving to a different state at 15. I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit because the one in our community doesn’t seem to hold the same magic but I love to visit the one where my mom works on the other side of the state. I have a feeling I’ll be seeking out public spaces of refuge a lot in the next few months as I’m living with my inlaws so maybe I’ll begin to connect with it. Anyway, all that to say I’m glad you’ve found a place where you can find peace when life is so not peaceful. Especially now. We all need that.

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