This album could have been called a lot of things. My producer and engineer amused themselves one day by proposing “if-you-had-to-do-it-again” titles – “More Iron than Gold” would have been good. “Walk With Me” could have worked fine, and “Nineveh” would have been cool. (I would have had to project a much more tortured image for the front if we’d have gone that direction…)
But Awake was the title. And I’d call this little collection of music the same thing again, if given the choice.
Many of you know that I have a tattoo on the inside of my right wrist. “Awake,” it says, in a font delightfully called “ale and wenches,” the same font that decorates the cover of the album. Underneath the letters is a small scallop shell, etched under my skin by Nashville artist Ian White (www.safehousetattoo.com – he is amazing) to evoke a 19th century engraved plate in a naturalism book. I see the tattoo multiple times every day. It marks my writing hand, my choosing hand. It reminds me of some things I have learned, things I don’t ever want to forget.
Life is full of seasons that are slow, unfolding normalcy day by month by year. Life is also peppered with dramatic moments that change us in ways we notice more easily. A loss of a friend or loved one. A job transition or loss. A financial crisis or windfall.
Much of my young adulthood and early middle years unrolled relatively smoothly. I became a pastor, with all the tremendous beauty and frustration of that vocation; I bore children, my body changing richly and irreversibly, and I started the equally beautiful and frustrating vocation of being with those children full-time. We moved several times; I wrote a book; I lost my father. Ups, downs, joy and pain, but all staying more or less within the range of my capacity to hold it all.
And then, with babies 5, 3, and 1, we hit early 2012. And Chris got sick, and we prepared to move, and he got better and then worse, and then much worse. And then everything had to halt so we could take him to Charleston and give saving his life our best shot. (I tell more of this story here.)
Somewhere in the middle of all of it I found that I had transgressed the limits of my capacity – or at least, the limits of my capacity to do what I’d always done. “Trying harder,” “choosing to focus on the positive,” and “working stronger,” had always been enough. These tools had pushed me successfully through many 70-hour-weeks as a pastor who didn’t yet know how to set boundaries, through the inevitable sleepless nights required by three babies in four years, through the largely unspoken pain of living as a stay-at-home mother isolated hours from family, through the grief of saying goodbye to my Indiana father from a couch in South Carolina as the next Robert Erikson moved in my body and we tried to keep him from arriving too early.
Some people believe that we can generally experience life as having two halves (this is most often credited to Carl Jung, whose work Richard Rohr invokes in his excellent Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life). The transition between the two halves can materialize gradually, usually in a person’s 40s-50s, or it can be precipitated by a crisis of some sort. As Rohr says, there are children who have already transitioned into life’s second half because of trauma or end-of-life work; there are 85-year-olds who are still in the first half of life. The transition point is the point at which all the things that worked so well for so long: the relationship patterns, the coping skills, the worldview – no longer work automatically. The building season, necessary for its time, is over; the becoming season is underway.
I remember one afternoon, walking through the neighborhood we were living in in Charleston, sweaty after a run, heart tight and threatening to choke me, tears pouring. The specifics don’t matter, but some of the questions may be familiar to you: “How did I get here?” “What does God want of me in this place?” “When I assumed I was following God, was I really, or was I just following the path of least resistance?” “Have I been faithful, or just afraid to hurt people’s feelings?” “Am I loving, or am I a pleaser?”
It felt for all the world as if I’d taken the red pill, (Matrix reference here) finding that the perfect life I’d built was a hologram produced at the expense of my presence in it.
During those months that followed, it was tempting over and over again to go back to sleep, to stop seeing what I’d seen, to ask if someone at the hospital would prescribe me some sort of medication that would bury the inconvenient feelings and awareness, and let me go back to sleeping in my pod. But still, awake, sleeper, God was calling, desiring painful truth in my inward parts, not just outer compliance.
During this time, I decided to travel to Nashville, to get together with two of my sister-friends from my writing group, and to get my tattoo. It felt like the seal of a new covenant with the One whom I felt like I knew less but trusted more than ever before, to stay awake. Everything may look exactly the same on the outside, I remember praying. But I never want to be on autopilot again. I want my actions to come from a real place inside me, not from a complex set of acquired reflexes. I want to choose to love. Every moment. I want to be aware of your presence, the sometimes shocking and unexpected movements of your Spirit. Even if it hurts. I may choose paths that are painful out of love, out of obedience. But I will take honest pain over a hidden lie that brings false comfort, from here on out.
The scallop shell symbolizes baptism, God’s signature and seal on my life, on the thousand new births and beginnings. It also represents pilgrimage. On the Camino of St. James in Spain, medieval pilgrims collected small scallop shell tokens from the various waystations. This has been a significant waystation on my own pilgrimage. My wrist is marked in token.
After I’d decided on the design for the tattoo, I discovered Mumford & Sons’ Awake My Soul, from their first album (yes, I’d been living under a pop culture rock for several years; don’t judge). The last line of that song goes, “awake my soul/for you were made to meet your maker.” I think of this every time I catch a glimpse of the still-surprising scrimshaw across my veins: you were made to meet your maker. No matter what else happens or doesn’t happen, no matter which seasons of this life feel happy and which feel devastating, no matter what good or evil I do, throughout it all, my telos is to become fully myself, fully the daughter God imagined and for whose flourishing and fruiting God planted seeds. My telos is to grow into the self who rejoices naturally and delightedly to meet her Maker. We’ll be surprised to meet God if we’ve dreamed away the life that leads us to the throne. Awake, my soul. Become, even if it hurts. It is better to be in pain and awake to God and to truth and to real love than to sleep through it all, comfortable but never real.
Working to stay awake with you,