Ten years ago this week, I went to a cabin on Whidbey Island to finish the novel-in-stories that had begun as my master’s thesis. I went, and I finished, and I promptly had a nervous breakdown. My life, until that point, had had a singular focus: to become a published novelist. It was my reason for being, the accomplishment that was supposed to bring meaning to my dubious and despairing existence. But the thing about a lie is that, like any manmade machine, it will eventually run out of fuel—or, in my case, reach the end of the road and go sailing off a cliff. I finished writing that book, and I didn’t have to get it published to know it wasn’t going to fix me. I felt it in my bones, and I sat on a porch in the middle of the woods, alternating between sobbing and arguing at God, wondering how I was supposed to keep walking life’s tightrope when the rope had been burned out from under me.
I went home to Portland, and I sat on the couch and stared blankly into the living room. My thesis-advisor-turned-mentor, no stranger to my artistic highs and lows, replied to my latest email in genuine alarm and asked me to call him. It was perfectly normal, he told me, to feel this way after finishing a book. These characters and their stories become a part of us, and it is a kind of mourning to let them go. “The next one won’t be as bad,” he told me, “but it will always hurt.” His opinion was one I valued highly and value still. I knew that he was right, but I also knew, for me at least, the problem ran deeper. I wasn’t just grieving the characters I would no longer get to spend time with—I was grieving the loss of the conviction that spending time with them was my sole purpose on this earth.
If you think that sounds dramatic, you’re right: it is. But I am a dramatic person. I am also a lonely person and a strange person, and nowhere on this earth had I found a greater refuge from these realities than in my imagination. So into my imagination, I retreated. “I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live,” Anaïs Nin says. I do not believe this is why everyone writes, and it is no longer why I write, but it is certainly the reason why I began to write and why I continued to write for many years. I had to create a world in which I could live, and I could not live in this one, with its beautiful people who so easily found their beautiful partners, who approached life with such intolerable simplicity, who weren’t tormented by thousands of cruelties going on all around them or within them. I had to create a world in which something made sense.
And I had done that, but the trouble was, when I came to the end of it, I was still left with this world—and it made no more sense to me than it had before I began to write that book, and I as a person still made no sense in it. Writing books was supposed to make up for all the other ways I had failed—namely, relationally—and it was supposed to jettison me out of the monotony of monotonous jobs and let me earn a living doing the only thing I really cared about. And maybe, by some miracle, it could still do the latter, but it could not do the former. At a young age, I had found a gaping hole in my heart, and I had stuffed it full of imagination and ambition, sensing all the while that I was feeding my hunger with pockets of air, but hoping to God and anyone else who would listen that my intuition was mistaken. But my intuition, even then, was rarely mistaken, and during that week on Whidbey, I got a cold, hard taste of just how right it had been.
So how did I go on? I kind of didn’t. I belly-flopped into an existential crisis and spent several weeks flapping about like a fish on the sand. And then, I did the thing I had always done when life became unbearable: I started to write another book. My day job fell out from under me, and I wrote. It snowed, and I wrote. I wrote, and all the while God kept nagging at me. God, who had been nagging at me for the better part of a year, who had spoken to me months before Whidbey, who had asked me, “Aren’t you tired?” And in a moment of desperation, I had told Him yes, and then, I had gotten up and kept living the way I’d always lived, and nothing changed—until it did. Nothing changed, until my manmade machine careened off a cliff, and I kept trying to drive it through the canyon it had landed in, and one by one, the parts fell off, until I was left holding a wheel attached to nothing, which would steer me precisely nowhere.
When people say God will do whatever it takes to free us from the tyranny of ourselves, I believe them. When C.S. Lewis writes, “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness,” I believe him, too. When my pastor reminds us, again and again, that following Jesus will cost us everything, I believe him as well. Ten years after Whidbey, and nearly as many years following Jesus, everything has changed. But at the same time, nothing has changed. I no longer look to writing as my reason for being, but it is still the activity I orient my days around, still as much a part of me as blood and breath and skin. I, as a person, still make no sense in this world, but why the world is the way it is makes sense to me now, however much I lament it. I am still strange and lonely, but I’m no longer seeking a world in which I can live because following Jesus has taught me how to live in this one, exactly as I am, and the reason I now write is not to escape the world, but to stay in it.
This last week has been sleepless and frustrating, and whenever that happens—whenever a star in my cosmos falls out of the sky, the rest of my universe goes caving in with it. For I am, for better or worse, still me, and I start to question the point of me, the point of any of us. I question why God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and yet, alone is where I always seem to be. I question why I have such a longing to put books into the world, not to fill the God-hole or assuage my solitude, but because, as Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been still-born.” I question why I am, by and large, still stuck in the box I found myself in at twelve years old, when I began to realize I could not get along in this world like most people, and why any sort of effort to emerge from that box only seems to reinforce its walls. I question how any of this can be God’s purpose, why He has brought me through fire and water, and in many ways, as the psalmist declares, into a place of abundance, but in others, I remain in a howling wilderness.
Old habits, I believe, never truly die. They lurk in the shadows like vampires, all too ready to spring back in upon us when the night descends. Surely, I always think when I get like this, I’m not trying hard enough. Surely, I must be doing something wrong. Either I misheard God, and the things I felt He was calling me to were not from Him at all, or my patience with and belief in Him is being tested to far greater degrees than seems humanly possible, not to mention humane. In any case, I am failing. But all this line of thinking does is drag me further down, for it reignites the very fire that led me to writing in the first place: my inability to make sense of things, and the desperate desire to do just that. “To believe is indeed to lose the understanding in order to gain God,” Kierkegaard writes. But it must be admitted: in times like these, I want answers more than I want God.
I am thankful, more often than not, to be a borderline-obsessive creature of habit because on days like today, when my already sleep-deprived self decided to awake at five a.m. and not go back to sleep, when I was feeling foul and crusty and nothing at all like a person who’s supposed to be behaving as Jesus behaved, I still got up and went to church. I sat in a pew and listened to a sermon, and I agreed with many parts of it—felt reassured and lightened and convicted by many parts of it—but the only part I remember is the quote my pastor shared at the end. It’s by a Muslim mystic named Abu L Fayd Al-Misri, who writes this: “When Moses conversed with God, he asked, ‘Lord, where shall I seek you?’ God answered, ‘Among the brokenhearted.’ Moses continued, ‘But, Lord, no heart could be more despairing than mine.’ And God replied, ‘Then I am where you are.’”
Over and over, I have reminded myself that, among the many things the Lord has spoken to me, “Try harder” has never been one of them. Figure it out, learn why this is happening so you can be freed from it, or better yet, figure out how to free yourself—this is never the voice of the Lord. What does He say? “Come to me.” “Follow me.” “I am with you always.” The thing I ran from all my life, the thing I was confronted with on Whidbey, was not the world—it was myself. It was myself I couldn’t live with, and through all these years, it has been myself, in this world, that following Jesus has taught me to live with, strangeness and loneliness and all. But it is, like everything, a perpetual process, and what I needed to be told today was not “hope for a better tomorrow,” but exactly what I was told: “I am where you are.” Why am I here? Why are any of us here? I don’t know. But if Jesus is where we are—I won’t say that’s all that matters, but it does guarantee that where we are, even who we are, does matter, even if we can’t yet see it.