We have been experiencing a bit of a thaw here in the Midwest, so the air has spring smell about it. The mud, the warmth, the melted snow, have fooled us all into thinking that spring is here. Growing up in Alaska, we generally had one thaw per year, in late April. Unlike other places I have lived, where these little warming trends give the hope and reminder of spring, Alaska had a season, usually in mid-April called Break-Up. It was the time of year when the piles of snow melted, turning the gutters into small rivers, the mud smell dominated the air and we let out a collective sigh of relief. This was the time when Alaskans would appear in shorts, despite the temperature being only right above freezing.
This kind of spring weather always takes me back to a mid-April day years ago when I was sexually assaulted. It was a glorious day outside, the sun high and the snow dripping from the roofs. Since I had never even been on a date with a boy, it actually took me a few difficult years to realize what had happened to me. In fact, I was reading the definition of PTSD in a textbook and realized that I had every symptom. This led to several years of counseling, obsessive reading and bad poetry written in coffee shops. All helped tremendously.
The most important form of healing, the lasting form, has been walking. Since the assault, I have lived in seven different cities and countless homes, but the regular walks have endured, giving me a sense of place and grounding, as well as an acute awareness of seasonal changes.
This is why the smell of mud spoke to me recently. When I smell spring in the air, I am transported to my assault. For many years, I have used the anniversary to reflect on my life and the direction it has taken since it happened. It was one the defining moments of my life, so I like to take the time to mourn the losses and celebrate the victories. Some years have gone better than others, but it is usually a positive experience.
This past week, though, while on a walk, I realized something new and overwhelmingly negative. Perhaps because this year will be the twentieth anniversary, perhaps because my family bought our first home, claiming a place as ours for the first time, I am not really sure, but for the first time I discovered something negative about myself. Understandably, I usually use this anniversary to reflect on the harm done to me and my reaction, not to reflect on my own personal deficiencies. I save that kind of reflection for other days, perhaps less often than I should.
I realized this year that I had abandoned God in my grief and that I had been attempting to rebuild my faith through religious practices on my own for these many years. I knew, on some level, that I had been angry at God. And I still think, who wouldn’t be? It was a tragedy and should not have happened. Outwardly, I have remained a faithful, albeit deeply flawed, Christian, but I have been attempting rebuild my faith on my own terms through obsessive practices and study. My faith is deeply measured, intellectual and almost a hobby. I am the agent and God is nearly secondary. I hold God and others at a long distance, if I hold them at all. My faith is like a research paper, carefully constructed, deep but without a soul. It leaves little room for the miraculous, for faith in God’s provision or for the grace of other people.
I am not sure what this means for me. Maybe nothing. I have a tendency to embrace these potential life-changing moments for a short time only to lose sight of their transformative potential in fairly short order. I find a repentant heart so elusive. But I hope this time is different. It is hard for me to admit that I have been using spiritual practices to cope with a life-changing event, rather than as a vehicle to a deeper relationship with God and others. Why not exercise or some other form of discipline, one that didn’t involve manipulating God for my own purposes? What is even worse, I have used them as a way to avoid being part of the Church and the world, leading a quasi-Monastic existence with little use for others. And though I don’t plan to abandon spiritual practices, I hope that God can break through my controlling impulses to do something big in my life and that when I smell spring in the air I will be reminded of God’s constant desire for my heart to be open to change. Maybe after twenty years I am finally ready. We’ll see.