Well it’s you I’ve waited my life to see
It’s you I’ve searched so hard for
All my life I have wondered how I will ever come to understand this, for when I think that I know what love is, it transforms into something else, something I can feel but not touch. Perhaps this paradox, and this illusiveness, is really just mercy. Perhaps it’s the divine’s way of keeping us all from burning up.
I know that as I proceed to use love and longing interchangeably, as though they are identical, that this is itself insufficiency: of comprehension, of articulation, as is the condition of my default false god. That is, the augury of translating—attempting to turn language into substance, and substance into lyric. And the attempt of trying to make sense of longing, which is anything but logical, whether or not it is humanly or divinely inspired.
But I know no other way about it than this—submitting to the words and song of those who’ve heard the voice of Someone beyond whatever it is we’ve all called reality. There is no way to argue this experience, any more than one can argue about whether or not we see light, or see by it.
This too is a shortcoming. Often, we call this poetry.
When I told a friend, “I don’t know how to write about Grace,” what I meant was that an undertaking such as this would require honest reckoning with failure. It would mean trying and ultimately failing to name the very thing that, by its nature, defies designation both in art and lived experience. But this is always the case—is it not?—when staring into the bright shadow of God.
My friend listened, and said to me in reply: Love is awe-ful and will wreck you, but is perhaps the only way to let in any good. At this, I could only wonder at the truth. Are we not all made of dust and earth, buffeted about, regardless? Why should grace, then—that great wing of the divine—not also have its turn?
And there’s the hallelujah of it, he said. And there’s the hallelujah.
To listen to “Hallelujah,” not just hear it, is to catch hold of the suffering that undercuts adoration, which undergirds worship and prayer. It is to discern the voice of a man growing old before his time, a man who, when he wrote the words I love you but I’m afraid to love you and I could not wake from the nightmare that sucked me in and pulled me under—was perhaps at that moment less of a prophet seeing his own death than he was a poet on the cusp of defeat. Perhaps, in writing, he too was dissatisfied with life’s excess of the tangible. Perhaps he too was not content with anything less “real” than the glint of the moon, not the moon; the scent of a dress, not the dress; the creak of a gate, not the gate. Perhaps this is the best any of us can wait for, with these bodies.
Often, throughout my adolescence, I would read the first two chapters of Genesis over and over, searching for a point of connection. Then one day—this prayer—untucking my shirt and lifting the side: Look here, Lord, if I’ve got nothing missing, what is this wound? What, then, did You take out of me?
In a way, I have not stopped asking this question. Art, the divine, the love of another—all have been defined for me in terms of felt absence, redeemed only by the promise of some sort of Word. I believe this Word must be something that means grace, or at least the expectation of it:
Wait in the fire / Wait in the fire / Wait in the fire / Wait in the fire
Coming to the end of this spring, I could barely compel even one line of writing to follow another. I’d lived in southwest Virginia for two years, feeling as displaced as the lost tribes Exodus takes such pains to chronicle. By then, the act of forcing myself to create was more torture than relief. Empty, I often turned to writing prompts for salvation. Then one day:
Read these abstractions, an exercise instructed. Write down what concrete pictures come to mind. Then create your poem.
The table, flipped over. Wine, in branched streams, slipping down a carved oak leg.
Plum. Every dark shade—
I could get no further. Each of these, a merciless pitch and yaw to which no language could do justice.
And yet, though there was no love, grace, or God on this list, something within me—something I did not know—knew how to dissect etymology: where the spirit could see the body outside herself, in different time signatures—one rendition of me ringing out over another, keeping vigil while my whole head caught into a tongue of flame.
Whether any of this actually happened, or even makes any sense, is partly matter of perspective—like trying to determine which part of a storm cloud is made the most of water. Still, who can say how that unnamable sustenance appeared, as present as a dream: of what might be, and what, then, is already here.
All my life I have wondered how I will ever come to understand this: the presence of grace cannot be measured only in terms of scarcity or abundance. Like God, it is not a matter of conjured experience, and it is even less a matter of devout or ailing conviction, though it is partly that.
It is a matter of recollection and hunger. We do not remember what we ate on this day a year ago—we remember only that we were fed. And while we are also sustained (or is it driven?) by what we do not yet have, this always exists within the thin mesh between desperation and hope. Often, we call this mesh faith, and this faith, vulnerability.
Is this not what all the great bards and artists have taught us? That however much it may shape us, we do not have the luxury of settling for doubt. That we are burned, but not consumed—that we must risk something in uncovering our most hidden desires. That longing is belief, without the safety of clothes.