When Is a Wall Not Just a Wall?
As is usually the way with books I put on hold at the library, three of the novels I’ve been looking forward to reading all came in at the same time. (Why does it always happen that way?)
I shot through Colson Whitehead’s newest book, “Harlem Shuffle,” in two or three days. Same with “Matrix,” by Lauren Groff. Now I’m getting ready to embark on the 750-page adventure that is Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” (Seriously, this thing is a brick! I almost threw my back out picking it up off the shelf.)
The book by Groff has stuck with me for several days for a whole host of reasons. Stunningly well-written and engaging, it kept me turning pages to see how the protagonist, Marie, would deal with each new challenge that comes her way as the leader of a 12th-century English convent. But there were certain moments scattered throughout the book that were so poignant and insightful that I had to stop, read them aloud, and take a picture of them so I could revisit them after I returned the book for the next patron in line to enjoy.
When Marie is first sent to the convent, she isn’t thrilled. The place is poor, and the nuns are on the brink of starvation. She tries everything in her power to leave, to no avail. So, instead, she decides to survive and make the place where she finds herself flourish. In one amazing passage, she hears the nuns singing and praying in the chapel and has a revelation of sorts.
Groff writes, “It is because this prayer is enclosed within the chapel, she sees, not despite the enclosure, that it becomes potent enough to be heard. Perhaps the song of a bird in a chamber is more precious than the wild bird’s because the chamber itself makes it so. Perhaps the free air that gives the wild bird its better song in fact limits the reach of its prayer.”
It made me think of a similar idea from Wendell Berry that I’ve written about before, that the “impeded stream is the one that sings.” With multiple sclerosis, we have to learn to deal with challenges, to find workarounds and new ways of doing things that other people might never have to consider. And while that comes with considerable inconvenience and personal costs, I can’t say that it’s all bad.
MS, by its very nature, has a way of showing us what we’re made of. The “enclosure,” as Groff describes it, makes us “potent” in a way that we might never have become otherwise. It gives us a focus, a drive, an intensity that might have otherwise lain dormant in us had things been “easier” along the way.
It’s not always easy to be thankful for the challenges, to see them as the mixed blessing they are. I admit, there are days when I want to take the whole hairy mess of “gifts” that have come my way thanks to MS and throw the entire wad into the deepest part of the ocean, where only the anglerfish can appreciate it. But I can’t. They’re mine to work through and enjoy forever.
They are what the walls of the convent are for the nuns, what the chamber is for the bird — they are the impediments that make my life, my song, more powerful.
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