I experience winter, if not as a kind of death, then at least as a closing in of the margins of life.
The light grows shorter, the cold creeps in. The days betray, ending too soon.
I tend to take this personally.
I sink into winter. I sink into places inside. Places where fears, regrets and insecurities gnaw in the long darkness like rats beneath the planking. Places where hope is no longer a given, but a thing that must be hard won in the battle for each moment.
My heart drifts sometimes into a blanketed hibernation. Grey hours smear into days that blur into bleared weeks. I raise my head to realize, sometimes, that I’ve gone seven days without leaving my house.
On a practical level, productivity plummets.
I’m still trying to jumpstart the day when it’s suddenly over, the hours unredeemed.
It is all about the loss of light. My brain knows this. It’s physiology.
I need more sunlight than these days have to offer.
But that’s not how my heart experiences it.
My heart is certain things have somehow gone wrong in ways that cannot be put to rights. That today’s losses might never be restored.
My heart cries out that this condition is spiritual rather than merely physiological.
At the lowest moments, my fears tell me my life is a waste. That I have achieved nothing. That I’ll never be able to make a living at what I do. That those who depend on me are doomed to perpetual disappointment. That the things I create are without practical value. That God is no longer present with me, or I with Him. That I am alone. That I stand outside the bright, advancing kingdom, passed over and deemed unfit for service, while my life devolves slowly downward, parts flying off at odd angles like a slow motion car wreck.
. . . there will be no hope of real comfort if we do not first acknowledge that a great and perplexing gulf of grief and sorrow is present in our world and, at times, in our own lives. Douglas McKelvey
Perhaps that’s why I have dreams sometimes, of driving at night on dangerously dark and steep and winding roads. Dim headlights barely penetrate the shadows. Sometimes I realize I’m driving in reverse though I don’t know why. The gas and brake pedals are strangely unresponsive, or I forget how to work them altogether. I anticipate the crash to come. I know I’m plummeting over the cliff or certain to hit another car or, in the worst of such dreams, to run over a pedestrian. I know it long seconds before it happens.
Waking from one of those dreams sometimes means that I carry through the morning a lingering sense that is not unlike the experience of my passage through the dark days of winter. For in these months I also can’t see where I’m going. The light I have no longer illumines my path. The darkness closes in. The road is unknown and treacherous. I don’t remember my destination or understand what to do next. I fear it’s too late to do anything, that the crash is now unavoidable, or has perhaps even already happened.
The psalmist says:
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.
My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
And I say, Amen. I too have felt this: The hollowing of life. The collapse of days and dreams. The loss of light.
I long for the return of warmth and light as I long for a resurrection.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve found myself again and again writing stories of characters whose lives are upended, whose hopes are dashed, whose strength—as it turns out—is not enough. Characters who find themselves wandering the shadowed valleys, haunting the ruins of their own former dreams. Owls among the ruins. A bird alone on a roof.
For me, such stories are like the writing of a kind of psalm. They ask the same questions: Is God yet present? Is He mindful of me? Is He disappointed in me? Am I abandoned? What has become of my heart? I know that pain and loss and sorrow are real. They are part of our experience in this world. So I find myself compelled to ask Is there a grace and a love that can coexist with that and, rather than being nullified by it, somehow be more profoundly manifest in the midst of it?
These questions of theodicy cannot be satisfactorily approached by anything less than story, I think, for any mathematical solution, however elegant, would forever ring hollow in the ears of Job. Or in the ears of any of us, for that matter, who suffer loss and confusion even of the lesser, daily varieties. But I’ve always instinctively held that any answer that could not address Job’s devastating losses would be an answer fatally flawed and ultimately without power to comfort or to heal or to redeem.
Anything less is a lie, no matter how well-intended.
For there will be no hope of real comfort if we do not first acknowledge that a great and perplexing gulf of grief and sorrow is present in our world and, at times, in our own lives.
One does not receive the Angel’s blessing without the sleepless wrestling and the wounding, it would seem.
One does not see God in the whirlwind without confronting the whirlwind.
So for me, the reason I sometimes write stories (and the reason I usually cannot plot a narrative out in advance of writing it), is because the act of writing has become a way of chasing God into the darkness and impenetrable shadows of fear and grief and loss and sorrow and abandonment. Because a grace that cannot be found in those places is ultimately a lie. And if I were to predetermine how a story must end before I even began writing it, then there could be no honest wrestling with those enduring questions. The struggle would be stillborn, never incarnated in the story.
And where there is no honest wrestling, I believe there can be no meaningful resolution.
Grace, after all, is not a thing that can be quantified or forced. If it does not somehow surprise even the writer when it enters the story, then it is probably just an artifice of his or her own devising, calculated, and without effect. Such false grace is the literary equivalent of telling a friend who has just lost a child that “It happened for a reason.”
This is why writing some stories hurts. I fear in the writing of a story, as in the living of life, that I will venture into the narrative and not be met. That my needs and inadequacies and poverties will be exposed in the process, and I will die the death that follows such revelations, and there will be no resurrection and no redemption. That I will end the attempt in a more confused and degraded state than that in which I began, crouched alone in the bomb crater of my own failures.
Flannery O’ Connor wrote “The Christian writer does not decide what would be good for the world and proceed to deliver it. Like a very doubtful Jacob, he confronts what stands in his path and wonders if he will come out of the struggle at all.”
The ability of the writer to pen a narrative with any real power in it rests at least in part in a willingness to let the story play out on its own terms. The writer must not assume that grace is going to intervene in the narrative. Douglas McKelvey
It doesn’t matter how many stories I write.
I doubt to the very end of most whether I can come out of the struggle.
I am forced to my knees by the process, pleading that I will be met and not abandoned. Fears and insecurities swirl and assail chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. It does not get better with age and experience. It gets worse.
To write a story sometimes is to be stripped of all dignity.
It is not merely to acknowledge, but to experience moment by moment my own utter helplessness.
But where else can I go and what else can I do? This is my vocation. Perhaps, though I don’t know how to quantify such things, it is even my calling.
So even when I cannot be cheerful therein, I still wish to be faithful.
But on some level, it seems that writing is the place I go to die.
I did not realize that until this moment, but there it is: Writing is the place I go to die.
Epiphanies for me are usually instinctual, requiring afterwards a long, slow process to work their way down through layers of cognition and translation. So if you can allow me some months or years to more fully understand the ways in which that statement is true and why I instinctively know it to be true, perhaps I’ll be able to give a more satisfactory exegesis.
In the meantime, here’s the point I was heading towards: The ability of the writer to pen a narrative with any real power in it rests at least in part in a willingness to let the story play out on its own terms. The writer must not assume that grace is going to intervene in the narrative. That urge to easily relieve the tension of unanswered questions, to tie things up neatly, must be resisted. Only then can the presence of a greater mercy become manifest in some wild way that in the end is authentic and organic and as unexpected as it is inevitable.
And I have found that the soul is likely to be wrung like a dishrag in the process.
The story bleeds into one’s own life, opening the old wounds.
Twenty years ago I wrote my first published book. It was an emotionally discordant time in my life. I felt suckerpunched. I was grieving the loss of things I had not previously considered I might lose. I was also reading the works of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, both of whom displayed that Russian penchant for raising questions of evil and suffering and of the presence or absence of God, and also that (sometimes jarring to Western readers) habit of not tying up all the frayed threads and loose ends of their stories but letting them play out more like the subjective experience of real life. The gravity of those writers nudged my own orbit, affirming the sanctity of leaning into those frayed edges of life, of mining the roots of those cragged and weather-beaten mountains.
So I began my literary endeavors (small though they’ve been), in that very spot: a sort of Ground Zero of the soul, asking the question What becomes of people emerging from the rubble of what had been their lives? I asked the question, at least in part, because I personally needed to know if there was a satisfactory answer.
Where do we go and where do we turn and what narrative do we hold to when our own best plans have failed, when our long labors have come to nought, when the hopes we planted have bloomed as fields of sorrows instead? Who, or what, can hold us then? Are we truly alone and adrift and pushed by mindless winds?
Or is there a presence that holds us yet, a presence that transcends and quiets those very questions?
Will we be met? Will we be met amongst these ruins?
I wrote my first book twenty years ago, flinging those questions into the darkness ahead of me, hoping they would somehow be answered.
In The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog there is the character of a gentle widower who faces the threat of even greater loss than what he has already endured. His young daughter, who is also the narrator, faces the threat of deeper sorrows as well. Can I see now that that man stood in the place of my fears and that the girl stood in the place of my own heart? That she was the embodiment of the hope and faith I wasn’t certain could survive intact if the peace of existence was suddenly overturned? If all that had been settled was suddenly thrown into doubt? If everything didn’t work out okay? Can I see now, though I didn’t know it then, that the story was a psalm, acknowledging My days are like the evening shadow, and then moving on to the refrain:
Will I be met?
Will I be met?
Will I be met?
As I wrote, I did not see the grace approaching in the way that it finally manifest in that story. Its arrival was sudden, unexpected, and more costly than I had anticipated. And yet, I knew on some deep level that it was true to the narrative that had preceded it. I lived through the story emotionally as I wrote it and there were points at which I wept. The answer given to the questions I asked was not, in the end, even about answers, but about presence. And confronted with such presence, I suddenly knew my questions were all the wrong questions anyway. They weren’t even the right category.
And maybe it’s that very experience I’ve now lived through more than once as a writer, of venturing into the wilds of an uncharted story, risking and fearing utter failure, and yet then of somehow finding myself met, maybe it’s that experience that keeps me in the fight now—or at least in the daily struggle to return to the fight—through these dark, cold days. Maybe it’s that which stops me from just giving in to the collective weight of winter and numbing myself till spring. Maybe it is when I can step back to see my own life as story, that I can recognize the same pattern at work.
There are days, yes, when I don’t feel much tangible hope of a variety solid enough to latch onto. When the narrative running in my head has gone off the rails. There are weeks and even months when my life isn’t really working very well—not by any objective measure I would place on it. There are seasons when I am like an owl among the ruins, or like a man crouched in the gray ashen fallout of a former city who wants nothing more than a warm blanket, a stiff shot of vodka and a long sleep without dreams.
But I know this now: I know that a life of obedience cannot be about my feelings. I know in my head even when I cannot grasp it in my heart, that we will sail this ship across the winter solstice and the days will begin to lengthen again and the world will slowly warm and my own circadian rhythms will swing back into balance and all existence will reawaken into light and hope. It will not be my life circumstances that change. But hope will have returned, and that feeling, that sense of hope, will change my perspective and my vocation will grow easier again.
And when that awakening comes, I know that I will either awaken from an anesthetized hibernation in some deep snow den, having lost months with little to show for the days, or I will awaken to turn and look at the fields behind me, at the path I have forced (even if I was sometimes sleepwalking) through six-foot snow drifts, dragging the dead weight of my heart on a chain behind me. I will turn and see the work I have completed in that time. I will see that even these hard days have had their good redemptions and their forward movements. Maybe, in hindsight, I will see that I was not so alone as I imagined.
And so I write now as a means of calling my own heart back. It has taken me four days to weave this one short essay, because the light is so transient, so insubstantial, and my hope is always caving in. I confront again and again the doubt that I can finish even a short essay. Sometimes the doubt wins and I collapse and retreat from the task. But the next morning, I call my heart back again, and I make another run at it. I try to still the voices and the fears enough to sit myself down, just to write a few more words, just to show up and see what might happen. Just to be present once again.
And if I am present today—if despite what I feel and fear, I am present—who knows what might come of it?
Perhaps, somehow, I’ll even be met.
Rabbit Room Press is set to reprint Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s first book The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog, in March of 2017. Boasting a beautiful new cover painted by Zach Franzen, this reprint will mark the first time in fifteen years that McKelvey’s critically-acclaimed frontier fantasy tale will return to print and to wide availability. The Angel is now offered for pre-sale in the Rabbit Room Store. With enough pre-sales momentum over the next few weeks, we’ll be able to budget some of those funds for interior sketch illustrations for the book as well. If you’d like to play a part in making that happen, please pre-order a copy and spread the word: More pre-sales = more interior illustrations!