In the park near my home, there’s a special place where I like to go and sit. I look out over the river from this perch on top of a concrete culvert about ten feet above the water. In the summer, the place is screened by reeds, trees, and undergrowth. You could pass by it on the path less than six feet away and unless you came looking, you would never know it was there. Sometimes I climb down from the culvert, taking a narrow, steep path to the water’s edge. From there, I can walk along the bank and listen to the voices of the river as it washes over the shoals downstream. The liquid murmur is composed of notes that are constantly changing; a blended chorus of rushing, muted whispers with a music of its own. I sit there on the hard concrete, my legs dangling, and I lose myself in the peace of the moving water, the dancing leaves, the evening light. The culvert is not a thing of beauty – a hard, gray rectangle over three huge pipes gated with rusted iron bars, and a litter of leaves, twigs, and sometimes garbage that accumulates below. Still, the magic of the light and the music of the water transform this place into something more than it seems to be, something beautiful.
I walked there a couple of weeks ago, early on a Saturday morning, when the cold air numbed my face and took my breath. The reeds were dead and brown, their narrow leaves were brittle and they rattled as I pushed between them. The trees were naked and the underbrush was dead. The culvert was exposed; the mystery provided by the vegetation of summer had been stripped away. There it lay before me – a long, narrow slab of concrete, a tangle of trash down below eddying in the sluggish water. Clumps of bleached grass drooped toward the edge of the river. It was an unlovely place; even the stream’s voice bore no enchantment. It sounded like a tired sigh instead of lively chatter. I caught my breath, appalled by the change wrought by the season. There was no peace in the movement of the harsh light on the water or the rasping of the reeds as they trembled in the cold wind. The place felt barren and desolate.
I came away feeling bereft, even though I knew that spring would come and the sun would reawaken the leaves. Blended green-gold light would dance there again; the mingled notes of wind and water would sing. But I was not comforted by the promise of renewal, though I believed in its inevitability. Instead, the bleakness of my former haven left me with a feeling of sadness that I haven’t yet been able to shake. I have spent the days since trying to determine why. As I said, I believe with all my heart in the inevitability of spring and the returning of the leaves and the light. So why am I grieving?
Maybe…it’s because I recognize something of myself in the desolation of that place. It was never flawless, but a combination of factors gave it the illusion of peace and perfection. There was something about the quality of the light – green-gold and somehow alive – and the dancing of the water that made the tiny, hidden spot on the side of the river unique. The turning of the season from summer’s warmth to the harsh cold of January had stripped away that quality, leaving it withered and grey. There were moments of brightness but it was a hectic, brittle light. It had none of the gentle glow of those long summer evenings when I sat and wrote or drew in my journal, when I felt tears come as I thanked God for my escape and released the suffering accumulated during those long months of fear. The leaves and the brush behind me were my veil, my protection from casual, prying eyes. I was shielded from the world, free to mourn. Now there was no sanctuary for me in that place – it was open to the world, unguarded and vulnerable. I sometimes feel the same way – withered, dull, and grey, as if the blended radiance and song of my own spirit has been stilled and replaced by some frantic, glancing light that bounces in shards and slivers, throwing shadows with no substance, dazzling the eyes of my soul and leaving me blinded and groping to find my way. Like the desolation of my former haven, my heart feels empty, swept by cold wind and echoing to monotonous whispers that repeat the same poisoned words over and over – his words, spoken to rob me of my will to act, my will to leave, my will to live –
No matter what I did for him, it was never good enough. I cared for his children; I cleaned his house; I cooked his meals. I got up early and ironed his shirts before work. I came home late and spent the evenings cooking, cleaning, helping the kids with homework. I woke up in the night and rocked his baby back to sleep when she cried. I fixed plumbing, bought groceries, paid bills. I swept up broken glass and covered the holes in the walls he made with his fists and the things he threw at me. I was calm and patient as he screamed and railed and threatened suicide. There were periods of peace that soon dissolved to tension before they came back to the rage, the pain, the accusations. It was never enough; no matter how much love or obedience I gave, he always seemed to want or need something more. I could never be good enough to please him, though toward the end I believed that my life depended on it. The fear was overwhelming; it laid waste to who I was and left me weak and shaken. My ability to know myself was damaged; my belief in myself eroded away. Like the reeds in winter, I was bare and brittle – a stiff wind or a hard shove would put me on the ground. I came away feeling cold inside, feeling hollow. I was like a dead, winter garden; no seed sown in soil so icy would ever bear fruit.
Away from him, I worked to accept myself. I worked to believe that I was good enough, that the terrible things he said to me were not true. I tried to purge myself of the poison he left behind – I’m still trying. People compliment my work and my writing. The man I am with reassures me that I am worthy of love and that I deserve to be treated with respect. But I can’t shake the belief that I am simply not good enough – that everything I have worked to achieve is as insubstantial as summer sunlight through green leaves. I often wake up in the middle of the night wondering if this is the day when everything will fall apart and the rage-fear-pain will come rushing in because the life that I have built for myself is an illusion - how could someone as worthless as I am have anything good?
Somewhere inside, I know that I am competent, capable, and worthy of love and respect. I know that the sickness and the weakness were his, not mine. Just like summer will come and reawaken the beauty of my haven near the river, eventually a new season will dawn for me too, and the cold emptiness will be forgotten. Everything that seems dead in me will live again; the mingled light and music of spirit will warm and fill me and this December of the heart will pass.
I know that it is true. I believe with all my strength in renewal. I believe in the inevitability of spring. Like the poem by Albert Camus says, somewhere in the depth of winter, I will find in me an invincible summer. I believe these things. I just wish I could feel them, too.
God, the winter is so cold, so dark, so long…