Cleansing

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stephen J. Lyons

Easter Sunday and the spring rains so desperately needed in this dry Western town finally arrive. I’m on the phone with my former wife but I’m barely paying attention to the conversation, which revolves around our usual battleground topics of marital dissolution: child custody, past due bills, whose lawyer possesses the worst etiquette (we will eventually agree it’s a tie), and the two questions that never go away after a divorce: Who is responsible for this wreck? Who hurts the most?

Out the kitchen window of this listing wood-frame house that holds the dusty apartment where my nine-year-old daughter and I live, I watch the low spots in the dirty alley turn to mud puddles and the mountain maples come to life with the raucous chorus of Bohemian waxwings. I can feel my parched soul crack and fill with a texture resembling wet earth. What’s happening to me? Why can’t I muster my usual anger?

I have no idea where my wife of eight years is but I hear music and laughter in the background. “Hey, are you listening?” she asks urgently, sensing that our conversational rules are shifting to unfamiliar ground. I’m here but I’m not here, is what I’d like to say.

How can I begin to tell her about this cleansing rain? Would it make sense to explain that a personal resurrection is sweeping in with this weather front from Alaska on this holiest of Christian days? That after two dismal years my old self—the more hopeful one before the split—is returning with each precious drop of moisture? The drought is ending. Blossoms. I crave blossoms. I no longer want to be angry. “Hello? Hello? Where are you!?” she yells.

This crawling on all fours out of the cellar of anger into the warm light of sanity was the most painful and personal journey I had ever undertaken. Nothing I’ve experienced is more violent than divorce. Nothing compares to the disappointment of pulling the plug on the most intimate of relationships. Nothing is more gut wrenching than trying to explain to your child why their mother and father will not be living together. Nothing in my life had made me so angry.

We lived then in a small western town with a skyline of grain elevators, church steeples, and steep, wheat-covered hills. Apples and plum trees shaded our yard. We grew vegetables and lipstick-red tulips. I built our daughter a swing that hung from the sturdiest of oaks. Train whistles and bird song punctuated the dry air. I could depend on pheasants calling in March, lilacs blooming in April, and the deep, erasing snows of December. I could never have imagined an unhappy ending to such a life, and that faith would provide a new beginning.

My journey began with a simple request to God, a prayer from an agnostic, who considered the ritual of organized religion too constraining and who, instead, attended “church” alone in old growth cedar cathedrals and red rock temples. “Please restore peace,” I prayed. “Please give my daughter strength. Please give me strength. And, while you are at it, where can I find a good lawyer?”

When I closed my eyes and recited my newfound litany of prayers, I imagined addressing a person stronger than me, someone able to endure endless days and nights of tension, mistrust, disappointment, and abuse. Someone possessing a magical arrangement of words or a secret phone number to call to reach a certain someone who could rescue a drowning family.

At night, when I couldn’t sleep (which was most nights), I imagined and then, over time, felt the hand of this stronger man gently stroking my head, almost like a parent. Amazingly, he said to me, “You are safe. Rest now—there’s nothing else you can do tonight.”

Why I turned to this god (or God) remains a mystery. Perhaps I was like so many incarcerated felons who, when the cell doors finally slam shut, when all plea bargains have been exhausted, and now, in need of a new direction (or a favorable parole decision), they were instantly “born again.” An empty cell can bring about miraculous discoveries, but so can hours spent alone with a tragedy that is, in no small part, your own responsibility.

But I wasn’t born again. When it came to matters of religion I was barely conceived. Still, during this intense period of anger, I was not so arrogant and self-contained as to ignore that, in addition to a good attorney, I needed a spiritual guide that could indeed control my anger and anxiety. So, along with negotiating the messy unraveling of a matrimonial quilt, talking to God also became part of my daily routine.

As exhilarating as anger can be, the flame it produces is too hot to maintain for the long term. The intense heat soon exhausts the available supply of oxygen. For a brief, important period of time, I used the energy from that appealing orb of white heat, and my mind was keen and elastic, able to deal with the twist and turns of a divorce. But that same power supply faltered when I looked into the eyes of my daughter who simply needed a father to teach her to ride a bicycle, or help her with her homework, or just wash her hair. Normalcy was what she craved.

God was with me at work as I tried to lose and distract my mind in the deadlines of a magazine editorship. He hiked with me in the nearby forest of white pine and tamarack; he gave me the strength to prepare dinner when I was too tired to boil water. He led me to supporting friends and healing counselors. And I’m convinced that he kept my anger at a legal simmer when my inclination was quite honestly otherwise.

At times that I’ll never be proud of, the anger returned, like sparks flaring up weeks after a forest fire is contained. But the shovel of time extinguished the smoldering ashes and with each passing year I forgot what it was that had kept me so angry for so long.

My favorite quote regarding faith is by Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is walking as far as the light and taking one more step.” He could have been speaking about marriage, too, or driving a car on a busy freeway or simply asking a stranger for directions. Even though this explanation sounds simplistic I can’t ignore it: I prayed, peace was restored, the rains came, and God remains with me, no doubt in preparation for the next inevitable crisis. I keep seeing the light and “taking one more step.”

•••

The sun peeks through for just a second. A “sucker hole” is what the locals call this temporary, teasing ray of light. But off to the horizon a solid bank of clouds is coming in from the Pacific. It will be days before the rain stops. I’m still on the phone with my ex-wife, who asks. “Well, are you there?”

“Yes,” I reply. “I’m still here. I’m just watching the sky.”

•••

STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of four books of essays and journalism, most recently, Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. He is two-time recipient of a fellowship in prose writing from the Illinois Arts Council and his work has been published in more than a dozen anthologies, as well as Newsweek, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Sun, High Country News, Psychotherapy Networker, Salon, Audubon, USA Today, and dozens more. He has reviewed books for a number of newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star Tribune. He received a Notable Essay mention in The Best American Essays of 2016.

Read more FGP essays by Stephen J. Lyons.

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