Writing is not coming easily for me.
I’m still writing things in my mind, but when I sit down to type, I can’t do it. This may be the grief twisted around the stress, pulling at my brain and sending tears seeping out of my eyes. I have things to say, but I can’t say them. They are tender and personal, and I am feeling rather done with being a confessional poet.
And so, I will instead discuss four books which have spoken to my soul. These went beyond being good reads for me. They resonated with my current life, a thrumming vibration in a tone that harmonizes with my own quivering heart.
- The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. I am obsessed with medieval literature and current fiction about this period. At Westminster College, I had an English professor, Georgiana Donovan, who was a medievalist. At eighteen, I couldn’t think of a weirder speciality for a literary scholar. Twenty-two years later, I am basically a closet-medievalist. I can’t stop consuming everything about this period, nor do I wish to. And so, unlike the general population, I opt to read books like The Anchoress. It’s a work of fiction about the historically real religious phenomenon of holy men (anchors) or women (anchoresses), who chose to devote their lives to prayer and supplication WHILE LOCKED INSIDE A SMALL STONE CELL attached to a church. Medieval communities were honored to host an anchoress, who was a sort of good-luck charm in the form of a spiritually-minded and focused woman continually praying for the good of the village. In The Anchoress, a teenage girl named Sarah, chooses this option, largely because she desires to escape the only other option available to her, which is to marry an intolerable person. I’m not sure if this book spoke to me because the last thirteen years of my life have felt like they’ve been spent in a cell, not of stone walls, but of steel beams and concrete walls constructed of the severest behavioral disabilities, with not enough air to breathe. This has been my parenting life.
- Fire of the Word by Carol Pratt Bradley. This is a work of historical fiction based on the life of an actual woman, Anne Ayscough (Askew), living in England during the Reformation. She lives a tragic life wherein her heartless husband and others despise her for the crime of wanting to read and discuss the Bible for herself. She loves God and thrives on reading the highly controversial English translation of it. She lives to teach people about the mysteries of the Gospel, which she feels shouldn’t need to be decoded and doled out by power-hungry priests. She feels that people ought to read it and interpret God’s power in their own lives. For this, she is reviled, tortured, and imprisoned. Like-minded people agree with her and find her a radiant source of insight and inspiration, calling her the Fair Gospeller. Anne’s children are taken from her for her “crimes,” yet she pushes through her grief and continues living, hoping, and preaching. She feels her life still has purpose, though it isn’t what she imagined it would be. As I read about this, a voice told me that while I feel a separation between Jack and me, my life as his mother is still meaningful and purposeful. There was a tangible comfort for me in the story of an actual woman, who lived five hundred years before me, who found her strength in God, and who carried the memory of her children—even when she couldn’t be with them—as her hope. Anne was real and, I felt, a kindred sister.
- Unseen Angel by Alissa Parker. I have followed Alissa Parker’s blog since she lost her six-year-old daughter Emilie in the Sandy Hook shooting. As Jack’s mother, I have been drawn to stories of how other people cope with enormous difficulties and grief. This book, while an emotional read, is ultimately a recounting of healing from desolation. Alissa’s loss compelled her to begin a process of learning what her daughter’s new life is like. She believes Emilie is growing up in heaven, and she tells stories of dreams, conversations, and revelatory moments which reveal to her Emilie’s new roles, as well as her new home. I haven’t had to face the unfathomable death of a child, but I have lived for thirteen years with grief for my Jack, who is not whole. I identify with Alissa, and I feel instructed by her experiences with Emilie, who is a remarkable girl. This story left me feeling peace about the connection between life on earth and what comes before and after it. It gave a weight and a shape to my deeply-held hope that Jack is a temporary state, that something much better waits for him.
- The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. Another medieval tale, also inspired by “heretics” of the age, who loved Jesus, preached, and were condemned by the powers of the Catholic Church for not bending to the traditions of the clergy. They bypassed the rituals of a worldly Christianity, and found connection with God through their own prayers and revelation, which was punished with death by burning. Dolssa as a character is a compilation of many medieval mystics who loved God more than they trusted corrupt church leadership. This book felt real to me, though it was fiction. The writing was beautiful and the characters complex and utterly human.
You’ve likely spotted the pattern of me identifying with books about women with deep spiritual lives who face persecution, loss, disappointment, and sadness. But the pain they experience does not equal the sum total of who they are. Sarah, Anne, Alissa, and Dolssa possess an inner light threatened, but not extinguished, by the tragedies of their lives. In fact, the light within them is fed by a spiritual conduit, and because of it, they radiate the light that is the undercurrent of life.
They are glowing paper lanterns, hovering above sadness—overcoming it.
They illuminated the dark corners of my current world, while throwing me a lifeline of hope.