It is not a thought, it is an energy: It starts right at the center of me, just under where my ribs meet, and swells upward through my chest, buzzing into the base of my throat. It is a mix of anticipation, possibility, fear, excitement, and nausea. It is the millisecond at the top of the high dive between the moment you’ve really committed to the jump and the moment you begin to fall. It is in me but is not me. Every time I have followed that feeling, it has led me somewhere holy.
I felt it while I wrote that essay about my mom a couple of weeks ago. When I followed it, it seemed like the words were formed somewhere else, and all I had to do was write them down.
I felt it once at Costco when a lady browsing the same giant stack of sweaters as I was answered her phone and broke down into tears and shouted at the person on the line, and I wasn’t really listening, but whatever it was seemed bad. She hung up and hung on to her cart, which held her up as her legs looked unstable, and she made a noise that wasn’t really crying but was more like gasping for air and moaning in pain at the same time. It was at that sound of grief that the feeling rose in me, and I followed it and it led me to her. She told me her son was sick, her son was mentally ill, and he’d been arrested and they were trying to find him a bed at a hospital that could treat him, and they were supposed to hold him until they found a bed but now they called and said they’d moved him to jail and she was here and not there and there was no bed yet, and he needed medication that the jail wouldn’t provide and what would happen to him there?
“Oh, God! I don’t know what to do!” She was looking at me even though she was crying out for something better. And I realized that I was saying the same thing in my head. Oh, God! I don’t know what to do! I followed the feeling and took her hands and spoke some version of that thought out loud–the prayer of the suffering, the prayer of the lost. A prayer for her son; for his safety; for her love to hurtle across the miles like a missile, through the air, into the cell where her son was alone and scared and explode around him.
Her phone rang again, and we let go of each other. It was her daughter, and they were going to go together to see him. She said goodbye and abandoned her cart in the aisle, and I walked off, shaking, to do my shopping. I don’t know what happened to her, or to her boy.
One morning last week, I felt it as I drove to work, listening to a song I’d never heard before. My eyes welled up as I recognized the feeling. Listen! Pay attention–something is supposed to happen now! I tried just to let the moment unfold, worried that introducing my brain into the situation might chase the magic away.
Be cool, brain.
Nothing happened. Brain was not cool–it darted around looking for the lesson, looking for the task at hand. I was alone in traffic. I wasn’t writing or being creative. No one needed my help. There was no one to talk to. I pulled into my parking spot at work, got up and worked an unremarkable day, wondering what happened.
I’ve turned it over and over since: The presence of the sublime in traffic on 14th Street. The power of a simple song to summon it. My discomfort with having no clear action to take. The way art works on me. I am carving out time to read novels again, remembering all the ways that stories are often more true than facts. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It may be why I am reading more essays and memoirs, searching for the ways that the specificity of someone else’s experience throws light onto my own. Late to the party, I just finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. I am still discovering ways Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior sneakily weaves theological notions of radical acceptance, vulnerability, and grace into an extended meditation on identity, sex, mothering, marriage. I’m captivated by the essay Sarah Bessey wrote last week about following the spirit even if you aren’t sure you like where it’s leading you.
I’m not used to doing nothing. But perhaps that was the holy message. Maybe sometimes the feeling tells you to sit down and be quiet. Be open. Be filled with wonder. Breathe in, breathe out. Receive, and give. Receive, and give again.