"The Meaning of Sovereignty"
by Lynn Casteel Harper
For several summer mornings in a row, I have awoken to a spider on the ceiling above me in my left field of vision. Unlike the aura I experience with migraines, this spider is not a pulsating dot of darkness. It is still, sprawled, and leggy. There was a time when this uninvited guest would have so frightened me that, upon spotting it, I would have rolled up a paper to be rid of it. With enough burning through time and enough goading of experience, and not a small measure of grace, people can change. I now look for the spider before I start the day—reassured by her presence that an equilibrium has remained overnight: the spider in her space and me in mine.
A house spider, perhaps the same one overhead, also has made her web behind my toilet. Although I try to sit toward the front edge of the toilet seat (as far from the web as possible without making a mess), I have not discouraged her building. Hollowed skeletons gather on the black and pink tile squares beneath the web—the discarded husks of her home economy. To destroy the meticulously spun web feels tyrannical. My bathroom is zoned for no other uses than the mundane tasks of life, mine and others—for flushing wastes and constructing a modest home to eat in. I am bracing myself for the house guest who notices the web and with a stomp of the foot or swat of a magazine, obliterates it as a favor to me. To host people means to risk her home and the one I am trying to build with her help.
It is hard to share space with that which frightens us. This is why we stomp on spiders. This is why we affix automatic flood lights to the dark outsides of our houses: to scare away strangers, no matter their intent. This is why we use mirrors in living rooms: to create illusions of larger chambers, to lighten the dim realities of small habitations. In the wake of his wife’s death, C.S. Lewis observed how much grief feels like fear; this is why we try to smother grief. I am trying to live in peace with the spider who makes her nightly crawl across my bedroom ceiling, the spider who has set up her residence between the ceramic tank of my toilet and the wall beneath the bathroom window. This is not a wholly selfless deed: I am hoping that the act will make me more charitable to other gnarly house guests, like loneliness, nightmares, and sorrow.
Seven years ago, my husband Ryan and I moved from the south to New Jersey in mid-August. Alone on a Saturday, not knowing a soul, we used abandoned shopping carts to shuttle our house stuff from the moving truck to our eighth floor apartment. We dumped cart after cart of those irregular artifacts that taken together signify home—cheap photo frames filled with old friends, unopened wedding crystal we felt too guilty to pitch, a trash bag of winter coats, stacks of empty cups. At the end of the day, we fell onto the naked mattress, exhausted by the loads we had lugged through many states to arrive here. Alone on Monday, I took the train to the hospital to begin a chaplaincy training program—a nine-month rotation into the various levels of hell that people in hospitals experience: overdoses and dislocated hips, cardiac arrests and stabbings, preemies and trips to the morgue.
The nearest I’ve been to understanding depression—that is, to being depressed—was this year after the move, when I spent all day and many nights in an urban hospital in the middle of this new and foreign state. I felt increasingly ungrounded—spun loose from familiarity, suspended in unknown. The litter of dark dreams piled higher each passing night; I felt afraid and clingy; I was not scared enough of my own death, but I was deathly afraid of Ryan’s passing; I did not want to make new friends, but I was lonely; I felt trapped and wanted out, but I had little energy to act. I became fixated on counting—numbering the days until I would be done with the hospital, moved out of New Jersey. Every other Monday was recycle day; I calculated there would be twenty-two recycle days during my residency; twenty-two didn’t seem like so much. I kept a meticulous mental countdown and celebrated with each declining number. One chaplain colleague, after I told her the precise number of days we had completed in the program, was stunned that I knew such a detail. It was only then that it occurred to me that not everyone in the program kept such an obsessive tally, or was depressed.
I also entertained a horror fantasy: I imagined some sort of terrorist attack. Masses of people, desperate to get out of the New York metropolitan area (which includes much of New Jersey), clogged the roads with their cars. With movement away from the disaster halted, everyone was trapped between doom and an unreachable horizon, except for Ryan and me. We had the acumen to mount our bikes and zigzag back roads until we crossed the Delaware and peddled to safety in rural Pennsylvania.
At Christmas, I wrote a drab update letter declaring my longing to leave the hospital and the region.
My friend Tom camped in a vineyard on a pallet under a web of vines wrapping a trellis. He awoke in the night to a raccoon devouring grapes on the viny canopy directly above him. Tom said he had a decision to make: to take on this dark, hungry, glowing-eyed scavenger, or to return to sleep. He chose the latter, figuring that going deeper into the raccoon’s domain would only disrupt its meal and further disrupt Tom’s own night’s rest. I can’t imagine summoning this kind of clear-headed courage; I am terrified of raccoons.
A family of raccoons lived near the parking lot of the small apartment Ryan and I inhabited after we got married. When I took the trash to the dumpster, a few raccoons would often perch upon the rim of the bin, while the others dug through the trash. I dreaded these nocturnal garbage runs and learned how to hurl our bag of trash into the dumpster from a far distance in order to avoid encounter with the beasts. One night, on the way to my car, I spotted the little devils, with their blazing red eyes and sharp, visible claws, as they slipped out from behind the bumper and filed into the nearby drain. From then on, I ceded the entire parking lot to these masked squatters, keeping my distance from both the dumpster and the drain. Raccoons dwell in garbage, work by dark, and keep alive by consuming our rotting waste. These facts frighten me. I want to inhabit clean, well-lighted places and feast only on the newly scrubbed and freshly plucked.
I swear off most forms of sadism and self-indulgence, so I swear to tell only one battle story. The pediatric intensive care unit paged the on-call chaplain. I arrived in the room as the nurses were making footprints, gently pressing the baby’s feet on parchment. They clipped a lock of his blonde hair to include in the memory box, along with the footprint scroll. They gave the child back to his mother, who rocked him and wailed. The family and other staff—including the father, including me—lined the edges of the room, backs fixed to the wall, the epicenter of grief shocking us away from its rocking center. The baby had a head full of blonde hair; he looked chubby, robust even, and his slate eyes were opened. Like a life-like baby doll, he appeared awake but was limp and made no sound. The room swelled, aching with this terrible, abundant absence.
As the on-call chaplain, I had little context for this child. I knew that he was three months old, that he had been hospitalized since his birth, and that the diagnosis in his chart read Failure to Thrive. I rode the elevator down to the ground floor with the family and escorted them out the hospital’s front doors into the early morning sun. The bright light stung our eyes; we had grown accustomed to hospital fluorescence. The rest of the world buzzed about as if this couple’s child had not just died—as if only sick babies who Fail to Thrive are in danger of death. As the mom and dad waited by the circular driveway for a relative to bring the car, the father’s eyes, red and intent, met mine, and he spoke one chilling line: “It is a horrible life.” I could not stand to be in their presence, drowning in morning light, another awful second.
Every week during this training year, I met with other chaplain students to work on “interpersonal relationships.” We took turns leading the group, whose purpose was to help us relate more honestly, to give and receive feedback without becoming defensive, to monitor our own feelings, and to deepen our understanding of group dynamics. Ann, a middle-aged woman whose religious rituals included howling at full moons, brought animal cards on her day to lead. Each wax-covered card, slightly larger than a regular playing card, bore a drawing of a different animal. Ann shuffled the cards, splayed them on the table facedown, and instructed each of us to pick one (blindly) among the dozens of cards. The card we chose was to reflect its holder in some essential way, she explained. One colleague was happy to have flipped her card to see an eagle, soaring and regal. Another woman revealed, with pride, a shiny-maned, leaping mare. I held back a screech when I flipped over my card to uncover a crouching, beady-eyed raccoon. I asked to choose another; I’d rather not spend ninety minutes, any minute, looking at its masked eyes into its dark heart. “No,” Ann responded firmly, “This is the card the Universe has given you.” Bitch.
Recurring dreams terrorized my sleep—one pertaining to unwanted visitors and another to neglected guests. Snakes were in the bed, under the blankets, or on the floor by the bed. I would call out, half-awake in terror: get them, get them, get them…out! But they were never gone for good and would come back subsequent nights. The other recurring dream involved guests in our home about whom I had forgotten. I had somehow neglected to care for them and, instead, had gone to sleep. In this dream, these guests were sometimes friends or relatives, sometimes strangers, but oftentimes the guest was a baby who was left in my care, unbeknownst to me. I often half-awoke in a panic and bolted to the living room. I—that is, my sleepwalking self—would bring out household items to accommodate the guests—a blanket or pillow, a towel or a damp wash cloth, even our first aid kit for a visitor who had cut herself. Ryan would find these misplaced things in the morning and know I had visitors again last night.
Only now, after the settling of psychic dust, can I see clearly that parts of me were pounding at the door— begging for a daylight-welcome through the front door but instead settling for repeated visits through the backdoor of my dreams. I had been too preoccupied—with escaping the moment, with entertaining fantasies of biking out of New Jersey under cataclysmic circumstances and never coming back—to properly host these strangers, let alone greet them as heralds. I had celebrated not the fullness of time but the killing of time—pleased when there were only eleven more recycle Mondays to go.
My mother-in-law tells of finding a large snake skin along the outside wall of her kitchen. It must have rubbed up against the rigid bricks to help shed its skin. Soon after, while she was hanging clothes on the line, she turned to see the snake writhing along that same outer wall in pursuit of some small prey. She called for the man next door. He came over with a yard tool and hacked the snake to pieces.
My family took a ten-day road trip to Colorado when I was nine. We pulled over on Interstate 70, at the edge of the Rockies, to get out of our Chevy suburban to gawk at a dead rattlesnake. It had been smashed under a tire, perhaps with intention, certainly not long before we rumbled by, and had made it to the shoulder to bleed out and die. We have photos in our family album of this bloody snake carcass. It was a vacation highlight—a real rattler, splattered on the side of the road, all for us to see—a dangerless, muted thrill.
Our first response to perceived threat, especially when we have the upper hand, is murderous. Our reptilian brain sounds an alarm—unable to measure the true scale of the threat. Unchecked by the mind’s capacity for transcendence and the body’s awareness of its own power, we too readily opt for extermination. A black snake by the house, a house spider on the ceiling, a rattler crossing the pavement—they do no harm; if they survive, they keep balance. How many spiders and snakes have given their lives—stomped on or hacked to pieces—on the unholy altar of our fear? We squash and flatten the world in this way, eliminating danger at beauty’s peril.
It is impossible to befriend that which you kill, the hand you refuse to hold. The cards had been laid before me: spider, raccoon, snake. This was the year of depression; the year of serpents in my bed and infant strangers in the living room. This was the year I sifted through the fluorescent-lit garbage bin of dead babies, bullets in brains, and forms of cancer as prolific as cancer, searching for a salvageable morsel. This was the year in which I was suspended, a ready meal for the web’s maker. This was the year I feared getting hacked to pieces. This was the hard year against which I shed my skin. This was the year I knew I had to write and never stop.
A salvageable morsel: A gaunt middle-aged man sat upright in bed—gown on and IV in arm. The floor called me because this man, with end-stage bladder cancer, had decided to check out of the hospital to die at home under hospice care. Expecting to encounter the usual sterile oncology room occupied by the usual battle-weary patient, I stopped at the edge of the doorway. The patient and his friend had turned the swiveled tray table—usually littered with tissues, cans of nutrient shakes, pudding cups—into a card table. They were flipping cards—I know not what game—but they were intent, studying their respective hands, each man plotting how he might win with such an abysmal draw. And they were chatting, and they were laughing. I soon learned the patient was beating his friend, miserably. Here was a man, dying—with bald head bent over his dealt hand—happy that he was winning, or just playing even. I spoke no prayer; the heads bowed in play were enough. I slipped from the room as the next round began.
I grew up in Missouri along the Mississippi River outside a small city. This city built a flood wall in the 60’s to protect the downtown businesses. When the threat of a high crest meant the sealing of the heavy metal doors, we eagerly anticipated when they would reopen so we could see the new water mark. Might it be even higher than ’93? Look how close it came to the top! It never occurred to me that while this barrier protected one part of the community, it exacerbated the destruction of other parts. I’ve heard of men with guns in towns near the river’s delta—armed farmers who stand guard over their town’s levee. They aim to prevent residents of downriver communities from dynamiting the levee in an effort to protect their own towns from flooding. A dysfunctional dialectic has emerged: so long as the river cannot cut where it will, there can never be a truce; so long as the weak oppose the weaker, there can never be a draw. The wall in my town routed devastation toward more vulnerable regions—like Smeltersville, where the poor blacks lived just down river of the wall, and Thebes, the Illinois town that jailed Dred Scott, where the poor whites lived across the river from the wall.
How happy to count myself among the protected—to flick the raccoon back into the deck, to stack the lineup in my favor and against the disfortunate who, even if they could toss the unwanted card back into the pile, would only pick another and another and another: raccoon, snake, spider. When we refuse to assume shadow, we caste off our lot—the cards that come to our hand, all hands—our measure of rending, death, and mourning. We flick back those spinning, slithering, scavenging predators and force them into the hands of the defenseless. We stack the communal deck in our favor and against the weaker hand. We press down the scale of ruin on those most vulnerable to getting crushed, those whose homes sit delicately suspended on the places where we shit.
Depression has the unlovely consequence of making the sufferer insufferably self-serious. On on-call nights, I slept down in a little, windowless cell next to the medical residents, anchored to the morgue and the Emergency Department. The room had a twin-sized bed, a phone, and a tiny TV. During those insomniac nights in the bowels of the hospital, the only thing I could see myself clear to watching was Antiques Roadshow. It was a banal program in which an appraiser would place a value on someone’s object, usually willed to the person by a long-dead relative or discovered in a cob-webbed corner of grandma’s attic. The show had no plot, no personal drama, and not many people period—just attic relics imbued with a person’s hopes that they would fetch a surprisingly large sum at auction. A more typical outcome: great-grandma’s antique basin was little more than a mass produced give-away with enough proofs of purchase. My pager went off half past midnight, as I was dozing off to these late night valuations. When I called the number, a family member of a patient was on the line. “I’m in the E.R. waiting room. I saw your number in the chapel. My wife’s in the psychiatric holding area, and we have a question for you. Can you come down?” What was I there for but this—to assist in the grappling of hard questions, life and death stuff—even, if not especially, at such a late hour as this. I put back on my suit jacket and pants and trudged down the empty hall. When I entered the double doors, the caller seized upon me, intuiting that I was the one he had beckoned with his burning question.
“Can you settle a question for me and my wife? It will mean so much to her.”
“OK. What is it?”
“We just can’t remember…”
“All right. What can’t you remember?”
“Who is the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?”
“Anthony Kiedis,” I said, instantaneously and flatly.
“Ah, yes! Thank you. I can’t wait to tell my wife.”
I sighed and slunk back to my cell. Perhaps I could catch the end of the road show. Another casualty of depression is a healthy sense of irony. When you are depressed, such encounters are unremarkable annoyances, puncturing a night of impersonal appraisals of china plates and antique dolls on a scratchy little screen.
Natural light warms and animates a space; other light sources freeze or scorch a space. Rooms can be lit harshly, over-lit, and still feel dark, as inhospitable light deepens the pockets of shadows. My memories of the hospital and depression are always cast in shades of this artificial dimness; the ubiquitous fluorescence made even the sockets of my eyes feel like caves, like a mask had sealed upon my brow: raccoon eyes.
I saw a therapist that year named Holly. Her website said she specialized in “Women in Transition,” which I guessed included me. She was a short, roundish woman, a new grandmother, who wore earth shoes, but whose face I have forgotten entirely. Depression blunted my usual acute memory. She made me a mug of hot tea at the beginning of each session. I cried in her office and didn’t know why. I apologized in the midst of a good hard cry—as so many do when offering their exposed self. “I do not accept your apology,” she responded firmly, “because there is nothing to be sorry for.” This was the most uncomplicated injunction. For me, a woman in transition who felt I was failing to thrive, it proved the most vital wisdom. Honor grief, no matter the source. And so this was the valuable gem—the pearl of great price—that came from a year of counseling. I have never apologized for tears since; in fact, given my propensity for stoicism, I often give thanks when tears finally flow. I am beginning to understand that most paths toward healing are unremarkable, mundane even—that healing has less to do with sudden in-breakings of awareness than with a growing comfort with one’s own luminosity and shadows, with welcoming another to serve you hot tea and refuse your apologies.
The hand of god spins a circle—like a spider’s web—a patient labyrinth leading to a hungry center. We are held in its orbit, bound by its wisdom; its design reveals time’s fullness. Sovereignty need not be divine manipulation, but holy pulsation—unending, pushing toward wholeness like a spinster weaving at her wheel. Sovereignty is not tyranny, but totality. The complete seasons, labor pangs and labored breaths, all occur in their due time. In the place of such righteousness, wickedness is there: the disruption of the boundless circulation, the fixing of the deck, the refusal to ever hold a hand marked by pain, grief, the slow ache of winter. Embracing only the seasons suited to comfort—light and birth, healing and gathering—the violent bear away the abundance of the kingdom. Accepting only one part of her cycle, the powerful trample wisdom. The vain hand of man bats away webs—clear-cutting obstructions to ease—grasping for unholy exemptions from the rule of suffering and release.
This truth remains: mourning turns to dancing only if there is mourning; sack cloth becomes a cloak of joy only if there is sack cloth; joy comes with the morning only if weeping lingers throughout the night. A snake needs to come up against something hard to get out of its skin to grow, which explains why snake skins are often found alongside outer walls and fallen trees. To repair a disrupted circulation, one must submit to its whirling rhythms anew each rising day.
Seven years have passed since the move, since I stepped a reluctant foot into an unknown state, since a slow shade darkened and hallowed the sockets of my soul. After many depression-less years, I just now feel I can write a true word about it. I had always blamed the Move, the Hospital, the Circumstances—it’s you not me—for making me miserable. I had preferred to leave that narrative intact and the depression behind me. I could only conceive of the year with the logic of freshman essays—with their many variations on the theme that someone or something or some far off place (thankfully, regretfully) has infused the writer’s life with wonder, trouble, interest. Titillating externalities make a good story. Only when one has been dealt the right hand can one play; so much happens that we discard. With enough burning through time and goading of experience, and not a small measure of grace, we graduate from notions of such determinism—that things happen primarily to you; we graduate from notions of such narcissism—that things happen primarily to you. We become clear: our truest stories emerge not from extraordinary events or people depositing good content into the open hand of our otherwise mundane lives—but almost always from surveying the knotty landscape of our own souls, discounting nothing.
Just last week I dreamt that a spider had spun a web a few inches above my head. In my dream, I opened my eyes and could see the web and its maker. I did not move; I was terrified, but I did not want to break the web. This I did with my eyes actually open but in a dreamlike state with dream-infused thoughts: I slid out of bed, under the web, and made it to the bathroom. I became overwhelmed by fear and had an impulse to destroy the web, was determined to crush the web so I could return to sleep, unencumbered by any sign of the spider’s presence. Before I could enact my plan, I shined a flashlight on my bed and saw no shadow of the web, no spider in relief. I looked above; our usual ceiling spider was not there either. The toilet web, unraveled and sagging, appeared vacated. I knew she had moved on. If she does not return, another will, and I hope to greet her, after the initial shock of her presence evaporates, with a sign of peace.