April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
October 18, 2012
“Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any man who puts his nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.”1—I read these lines in the Norse epic poem For Skirnis as a child and have remembered them often since. I steeped myself in Norse and Celtic mythologies, and I remain impressed by the fierceness of those warriors whose legendary tales forged cultures. I always wanted to ride out, meet the enemy, slay the dragon. Well, I wanted the sword and the horse, maybe not so much the dragon. (Messy creatures, dragons. Always wreaking havoc and tearing up things.)
More than anything, I longed to emulate the delight, the unwavering readiness for battle that I saw in Finn MacCool or Beowulf as they met monsters head-on. Such fatalistic readiness stemmed from the hope of achieving immortality through a glorious, epic death (which was not something I hoped for), yet I found that clear-eyed courage attractive. You know you will end in death, but you ride out to meet it anyway. You hope to die for something worthwhile.
We encounter so many cruel enemies in this world. Let us also meet brave knights and hear of heroic courage. Our heroes often show us what we lack and find attractive in others. As a child, I carried within myself both the fear and the longing to become someone else, someone different. I longed for courage, yet I feared the path that would take me to it. In riding out to face whatever monsters blocked the path of his journey, Skírnir, the hero of that Norse poem, embodied the courage I failed to find in myself, once upon a time.
“Fearlessness is better than a faint heart”—I returned to these words over and over again in 2009, after the discovery of a lump at the base of my neck during a doctor’s exam. The doctor asked me, “Do you ever feel that nodule there?” I chuckled, “Riiiight. Because I always go around massaging my neck.” The doctor had his assistant schedule an MRI for that afternoon. I felt a tremor in my lower stomach, the body’s reaction to uncertainty. What did he expect to find?
Later, the table slid into the MRI machine. I tried to focus on breathing normally, but that encompassing, confining tube felt like a terrible mockery of a birth canal. Let’s just say it took all my energy and effort to avoid erupting into ear-splitting shrieks. I tried reciting nursery rhymes and favorite songs. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” appeared, as did Matthew 6, Psalm 23, and the “Litany against Fear” from Dune. Desperation breeds strange bedfellows.
Expelled from the tube, and then, rebirth—but into what life? Everything remained normal, except . . . not. Yet I wasn’t even sure what had changed. The whisper of it curled around me, settling its furtive weight on my shoulders. Only sleep let me return to the ordinary time I’d known just a few days prior. In the days and weeks after the MRI, as I waited for the test results to come back, I came to dread waking up, wondering what was incubating itself within my body. Those initial moments of forgetfulness each morning, when the world seems much less cold, when potential has yet to turn into a dirty word and that weighted whisper has yet to settle back around your shoulders—that forgetfulness feels foolish. How do you get up? How do you go to work, eat your lunch, have a normal day?
Three years later, I still don’t know how a normal day happens, but somehow, it does. Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to “be patient to what is unsolved in your heart,” to live with the as-yet unanswered questions, proved both difficult and freeing. Rather than grappling with what might happen—and I starred in all sorts of imagined deathbed scenes—I asked myself how I felt about the possibility that I might die sooner than I’d planned. C. S. Lewis wrote that we “live in time, but we are destined for eternity.”2 Did I believe that? I lived into that question every day, wrestled with it in the only way I knew how: pen on paper, pouring words into poems, into prayers.
rib and lung
fragile in words
each one fluttering
out my throat
a pale swarm
From the beginning, family and friends supported me. Yet I also learned the double-edged sword of encouragement in suffering: sometimes those who intended to provide hope caused wounds more painful than the one they tried to ease. It hurt to close myself off to hope as much as it hurt to hold on to it in the first place. I never quite let go of all hope, though perhaps it would be better to say that hope never let go of me.
Finally, a month after first contact, the diagnosis came: papillary carcinoma, a slow-growing, easily treatable form of thyroid cancer. I promptly named it Fredi the Cancerous Bastard. Plans for treatment moved with startling swiftness. My doctor referred me to the best head and neck surgeon at Georgetown Hospital, who scheduled my surgery for the next month. A month doesn’t sound so long, but knowing that I had cancer the size of a golf ball burrowing into my body, I wanted it out as soon as possible.
If I had my druthers, no one would have known about Fredi or the surgery. I wanted to live and work and play and then show up at the hospital and deal with it there. I didn’t want to receive sympathy from others—kindness hurt. Normal buffered. Even as I craved others’ blessings, I quaked at the thought of acknowledging the monster in my way. But if I said nothing, then how could I live on the prayers I so desperately needed? Pen and paper, poems and prayers, once again.
matters of fact
let me copy
a thousand and one
life and mine
my beggaring heart
Did I mention this all happened during Lent? I found it poignant, in church on Ash Wednesday, to have ashes smudged across my forehead when I carried them in my body. We prayed the day’s liturgy over our ashes.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Did you think I would forget?
“One day my life on earth will end; the limits on my years are set, though I know not the day or hour. Shall I be ready to go to meet you?”
Is this the limit to my years? Meeting you here chokes me.
“Let this holy season be a time of grace for me and all this world.”
I do not know how to ask you for anything, let alone for grace. I feel like a beggar who cannot beg.
Lewis again: “The cross comes before the crown.”3 Suffering before joy. I strove to play the hero, to wear beautiful armor. In that pre-op room, holding a ridiculous hospital gown, waiting to have my throat cut open, the armor fell apart. It revealed the child beneath, white-blind with terror, trembling, caught between desire and necessity.
I do not want to. I cannot. I must.
When you wander a garden at night, you carry hope like a flashlight. You anticipate finding treasures beneath the rocks or fairies fluttering about or at least a talking beaver. But when hope is a crown of thorns, that same garden becomes a place on a map over which ancient sailors used to write, “Here be dragons.” Shadows dance, gates clang shut behind you, and you wonder if you will make it through the danger intact. Hope beckons us; hope drives us: always onward.
Christ found no consolation in a life after death because that very life compelled him to die. No one else could take the cup God held out to him. Could I find consolation in his life? Could I find strength in his sufferings? I cannot let go of the cup given to me until I drink the whole draught. I will not let you go unless you bless me.
My mother waited with me in pre-op. In the moment when I could only perceive my terror, she held me, gave whatever mothers give their children in such moments, kept nothing back for herself. But she could not stay. I often consider Christ’s disciples sleeping while he prayed and wrestled in Gethsemane. They wanted to wait up with him. They wanted to walk beside him and bear the weight. Yet I doubt the evening could have gone any other way. Only we can lift the cup of suffering that is poured out for each of us. No other feet can carry us through the garden but our own. Sometimes Love mediates himself through others. Sometimes Love forces us to hope in the dark—alone, with a cup full of thorns.
I remember clearly the nurses wheeling me through double doors to surgery, and I remember waking up in recovery hours later, my jaw spasming uncontrollably. Without my glasses or hearing aid, resurrection started off blurry and quiet. I learned anew the blessing of strangers’ kindnesses, the comfort of unknown hands smoothing hair off my brow. The surgeon came by to tell me of the surgery’s success. I already knew. Does God give us such intuitive graces? Potential became a good word again.
Ding dong, Fredi’s dead! Yet the Munchkins misled me on this point. The Cancerous Bastard did not just shrivel up and poof! away. His exodus, lobbing one final “I’ll get you, my pretty,” left me chafing at my body’s weakness and reduced ability to respond when I asked it to perform. Several weeks of doctors’ visits, prescription and supplement changes, outings cut short by massive energy drainage—I failed to find the normal in this. I didn’t want to. I began to understand the rest of Rilke’s advice: living the questions now means living “along some distant day into the answer.”4 Since childhood I have asked, “Shall I be ready to go to meet you?” Shall I ride out to face the day’s dragon on the path ahead of me? Each day I live into the answer.
In the beginning, the diagnosis of cancer made a difference in my thinking, but otherwise, I could go on living as I had before. I kept hoping I wouldn’t have to have the surgery, because that would make the cancer real. But Fredi existed, and I did, and now I know: normal changes. I have a scar: a short parenthesis at the base of my neck, Fredi’s exit wound, his parting shot. I am not as I once was. My body lacks something it needs, and all the beneficial medicines in the world can’t fully replace the organ removed. I disliked my scar in the beginning and delighted as time steadily weathered it away. But three years into the journey, it’s become my new normal.
All courage begins in hope, even if it’s only a mustard seed’s worth. I once feared the path to courage because I could only see death in it. But St. John reminds us: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2 ESV). As I followed the path past watchful dragons, I began to glimpse the hero who pulled Finn MacCool and Beowulf and Skírnir up into himself and shifted the path beyond death into life. The thing about heroes is that you’ll follow them anywhere, because the best ones always show you who you could be. I discovered in the great Hero all that I loved best in those mythical heroes—bravery, strength, fidelity, love—and I discovered that, in following him, I was becoming not different but myself.
We are all of us God’s children, and grace-full fearlessness is better than a faint heart in facing this life he’s given. I think a lot about redemption at the end of time—mostly about the redemption of my own broken earthwork body. I would prefer to exist as disembodied spirit and often fight to enjoy this intertwined self of mine. He created us good, though. Someday, our entire self will come alive in the new heaven and new earth, gloriously familiar and yet strange, on the other side of normal. You and I will at last become all we have longed in this life to be, and our incomplete prayers and half-told tales will at last find the Word that makes them whole.
1. See Snorre Sturleson, “The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson; and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson, Project Gutenberg, Last modified 2005. Accessed October 8, 2012.
2. Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), 35; and Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1996), 61.
3. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 45.
4. Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 35.
Megan J. Robinson
Robinson first read The Chronicles of Narnia as a nine-year-old child and finds that every year she gets bigger, so does that story. A continuing interest in forming a theologically-shaped imagination, inspired by the writings of C. S. Lewis, prompted her recent move from the East Coast to Texas to study at Dallas Theological Seminary. In addition to her slight obsession with Jack, she has a strong fondness for Coke (or Pepsi) and the color green.