07 November 2022

The practice of the presence of God

British Summer Time came to an end and I did not adjust quickly. Instead, I found myself on the sofa at four in the morning, wide awake, sending emails from my phone and sorting my weekly schedule, lining up things to do when the sun came up and I could go into work and sleepwalk through a day of difficult conversations and the tense silence that is always lurking at home, before falling exhausted into bed around nine, Yoko sitting on the other side knitting and me being dead asleep before she turns out the light. As November has edged on, I've gotten back to a normal schedule a bit, but still I'm sleeping in a way that I haven't in years. Unsettlingly deep, my last thought always before my body gives up being, if this the closest analogue to death we experience, do we only accept it because we know we will wake up? 

On Tuesday, I gave platelets like I have every month now since the pandemic, and feeling particularly smug this time as I had asked the homeless guy in from Tesco if he would like something, and when giving him the strawberry milkshake he wanted, two people from a homeless charity were speaking to him and one of the guys said, thanks, in an unexpectedly sincere way, and I felt like I had not done something wrong. Everything went fine, and the women, not the nurses but the women who put the needle in and monitor you, were all kind to me and knew my name, and I booked my next three appointments and rode my bike into work. On Wednesday, however, I got a text saying my next appointment had been cancelled, and I didn't think anything of it until I was home on Friday morning, waiting for some shoes I had ordered to arrive and a letter from NHS Blood and Transplant came instead saying that my blood had fallen outside of the normal range, and I needed to go see the GP, followed by a series of numbers that I then foolishly google'd.

I studied creative writing at Knox College — I was told I showed promised, at least in the context of white suburban young men from the Chicago area. My writing now is not that different than it was, except that at nineteen I wrote stories about men who, by some trauma, generally World War II, became disconnected from their social world and drank themselves to death. These stories were a terrible affront to the axiom write what you know because I hadn't had any real trauma in my life, had never drank much less been drunk, and was still basically a virgin. But I was earnest in my own sadness, and the unravelling of my faith that had just started and my own social awkwardness lent itself to a kind of outsider charm, like an alien writing about being human. I wrote a novella as a part of a college honours project, when I went vegetarian for the first time, and met weekly with my supervisor who was a young poet and teacher that I in retrospect had an enormous crush on and whose opinion meant everything to me. She particularly liked a line I had written — lid his breath in a mason jar — and one day, I went to an antique shop, and bought a mason jar and put a feather in it and left it on her office door. 

That optimism I had at nineteen, when I thought I could write poetry and I loved God, left me at some point. It couldn't be sustained after I finished university and didn't have the private college tutoring, the inflated ego I developed sat in a liberal island in the middle of rural Illinois where Abraham Lincoln once debated. It started falling apart in the last couple of months I was there, and I remember the final meeting I had with Monica, when I told her I hadn't been selected to go as a missionary to Central America, omitting the part where it had been because of my apparent sexual immorality. I knew that would make even less sense to her than to me, but she was still livid, how in the world could they have turned you down, of all people, you're the most committed person I know. I was stuck like I had been for years at Knox, between an inexplicable Evangelical fundamentalism and the secular world where my faith didn't make any sense, because the whole point was that it wasn't supposed to make sense. I had nothing to say: I couldn't explain it to myself, much less to her. I graduated and moved to Japan and we never talked again, really.

Despite the news of my white blood cell count, I felt and still do feel fine, but I am also suddenly hyperaware of my body, my throat has been sore hasn't it and my face is twitching today and the soonest I could get an appointment with the GP was in ten days. On Friday night after dark, I took my colleague's dog we were watching out for a walk, and after I made it up the hill to the churchyard and Pippa was busy investigating a pile a leaves, my phone buzzed with an email telling me Monica was dead, suddenly, unexpectedly. I stared at the screen, the dog pulling at the lead, and I didn't know what to do. I walked home and posted about it on Facebook, which she would have hated, I know. I said something about how she had made me the teacher I am, how I imitate her, how I loved her, and managed to finally cry when no one could see me, when I wouldn't have to explain it to anyone, and fell without trouble into the British Summer Time sleep. 

I'm fine, I'm sure, and the daydream fantasy of an impending or sudden death is much less appetising when death is real, when you remember that it can, and occasionally does, just end. I had left so many things unsaid to Monica, I had meant to email her this semester, but I hadn't yet: I didn't have anything to say, no news to report, and no way to say whatever I really wanted to say, what I always thought I would say when I was older and it could be laughed off, I love you: I know all of your students love you, but I loved you, in my own unique way, through all my Evangelical fog. All I ever wanted was to write sentences you would love. I remembered that I had emailed her over the years, and dug back through my inbox, what was the last thing I had wrote, or rather, what was the last thing she wrote, was there a blessing from whatever goodness has kept me on track through the bouts of sadness over the last twenty years, my inability to find the love I need, to find someone to believe in me the way she did. And of course, it was there and it was perfect:

And this: over the summer, I was out west on a research trip, and one night in the mountains, I had a dream of you and your girls. Most days, I don’t remember my dreams, but this one I did. For days, I could recall their very real laughter, their small but strong voices, and your sturdy voice among them. Who knows now what happened in the dream. We were talking about books, a life of letters, the girls were circling and running and being children, and there were mountains near. But mostly the impression stayed with me, and from time to time in this long season here, I’ve thought of it, and of you.