"People would rather feel anything but helpless," a psychologist specializing in trauma research recently said to me. "They'd rather feel angry than helpless. They'd rather feel guilty than helpless. They'd rather feel anything but helpless."
Assuming that this shared, extraordinary dread of helplessness is indeed humanity's most potent emotional fear, how are we ever to move past the fortress of feelings that guard against it? And how, if we somehow manage to achieve this disarmament, do we deal with the desperate sense of helplessness once we've allowed ourselves to feel it? How can one arrive at a place of strength and transformation from within utter inability, rather than be enfeebled by it?
In January, my mother's heart suddenly stopped beating. We buried her body in the dark earth that had been opened beside the grave of my twin brother. We tried to do everything right for her. We picked out what we thought was the perfect casket. We redid her hair when the mortician had made it too flat. We made sure the flowers on the perfect casket were blue and of varying shapes and sizes. We found our own paper for the funeral program because we wanted it to have the right texture. We tore apart the house looking for her favorite earrings, and when we couldn't find them, I stood over her body and tried on all the possibilities, sliding the hooks through the holes in her cold ears. We filled frames and foam core boards with radiant photos of her life. We sang beautiful songs. I spoke about her at the church. We tried to do everything the way she would have wanted it, as she had done, nearly eight years earlier, for her son.
And yet, for everything we did, for all of our love and action, we were powerless against her death. Nothing that we did would change what happened, or how it happened, or when. Nothing in the world would bring her back to us. Once people are dead, you can't make them undead (Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried).
In the chilled air between tombstones, shivering in the winter sun as my mother's body was being lowered into the ground, I kept hearing a line I had read in my father's journal: God, I hope that all people in cemeteries are happy, Ross had said when we were four, our family in a circle of prayer around the dinner table.
I heard my four year old twin's supplication, and I was overcome with the need to suddenly and earnestly make a request for help, a severe if unceremonious appeal to a larger, more knowing and more capable universe. Please, help me. Help my mother, help my brother, help all of us. Help us from deep within our helplessness. I acted in the last way I knew to act. I called upon forces that were entirely beyond my influence, and begged them to conspire in comforting me, in comforting my loved ones—dead and alive.
I prayed, and I felt something small inside me begin to soften.
In the months following my mother's death, all I wanted to do was fall into a warm, quiet nest of tenderness. The volume and pace of everyday life, however, seemed to leave little time or space for grief. Buzzing and humming in a drone of ceaseless noise, the world slowly began to close in on me, and I was hardening against it. I desperately needed to attend to myself, to attend to my mother. I needed to unearth a place inside of me that was clear and safe and open. I needed to find softness, and in order to do so, I needed to be in a physical landscape that was as crude and as beautiful and as merciless as my internal one. And, perhaps most importantly, I needed to be in the presence of creatures that had learned how to exist there.
I remembered the slight measure of softness I had felt that morning at the cemetery, and I decided to take a trip in prayer. I would choose the wildest, rawest, most elemental and unrestrained place I could think of, and I would go there and ask for help.
In July I flew right into the heart of the Yukon. I had a new tent, new boots, warm clothes, a blue Ford Focus, and the entire Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek Park System, in all of its utter incomprehensibility.
For three weeks I traversed completely unimaginable terrain. I staggered up mountainous moraines, descended and whacked my way down steep slopes covered with alder and willows, slept on flowering tundra, crossed three glaciers and passed directly underneath the largest icefall in North America. I saw soaring bald eagles, spawning salmon, cliff-hugging dall sheep, moose, pika and both black and grizzly bears. I read and sketched and wrote and cooked. I drove for days on empty highways. I sat and did absolutely nothing.
Each of these things I viewed as an act of apology, and an experience of prayer. Every step taken, every mile driven, each encounter with a wild thing became part of a larger petition for self-forgiveness and support. I am sorry that I couldn't save you, brother. I am sorry that I couldn't save you, mother. I am sorry, but I cannot save you, wilderness, not I alone. I am sorry that we all have suffered. I am powerless against this suffering, against this death. Please, forgive me my helplessness. Please, help me.
With each appeal I was, in some strange way, asking for permission to stop fighting defeat. I was requesting consent to rest, to let go, to exist without penance in my own territory. I was begging to be released from that which I could not undo. And with each entreaty for this help, the old strongholds of anger and sadness and guilt found small spaces in which to soften. They had no choice but to yield to their own futility.
Returning to Honolulu from the wilds of the far North, I hope to continue creating space for softness. In recent years I have begun to see my life—all life—as wilderness. Perils, wonders, powers and weaknesses all exist there. I am trying not to be alarmed at each encounter. I am learning to accept these things as features and inhabitants of my wilderness, as in any wilderness, and to find ease around them. In her essay "The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness," Terry Tempest Williams writes: In wilderness, there is no reason, so I weave grasses. In our species, there is no reason, and so we go mad.
Since the loss of my twin, I have been attempting to understand and to paint this wilderness, this madness. Now, with the loss of my mother, it seems like the next natural thing to do is to pray for it. To show up at the studio every day and paint prayers. Paint in prayer. Pray for my wilderness, for my mother's wilderness, for my brother's wilderness. Pray for all of our wildernesses, for Earth's wilderness. Pray and pray and pray that these wildernesses may continue to flourish and thrive and evolve in spite of—because of—their wildness, of their refusal to be static or pretended or tame. Pray for all that we have loved and lost, all that we will love and one day lose.
My desire, as I return to the studio and begin the act of painting in prayer, is not that I or those I love might un-know any of the darkness in our wildernesses. Rather, it is my hope that we may find ways to not grow cold and rigid against it, that we may somehow re-know the wounds of our internal landscapes as sacred places where we can exist—for the duration of our earthly lives—in poetic vitality, relative peace and constant wonder.