Holden Voices: Blog

Poems, stories, and reflections, written by faculty, staff, and volunteers currently serving in the Village.

MAX JENNINGS: Red Sun Heart

May 14, 2015 at 9:02 AM

“Kids only tease you because they know it’ll get a rise out of you. If you just ignored them they would stop,” my father would tell me over and over when I came home from the park distressed about playground taunts.

“Just focus on something else,” he would say when I scrapped my knee during soccer games and he was about to pour hydrogen peroxide over the wound. “If you ignore the pain it won’t hurt as much,” he would add unhelpfully.

We are supposed to remain detached. Stay calm and collected.

Show too much pain and you are “weak.”

Show too much joy and you are “emotional.”

Show to much passion and you are “excitable,” or “exhausting.”

There are so many pejorative words people use to police the emotions and behavior of others. Regression to the mean is no way to live.

We are all different, but the lesson often is to hide your quirks, joys, and pains from others in order to seem normal, whatever that word means.

Yesterday morning, I dressed in front of the mirror. I ran my fingers over the eight-inch scar down my chest and abdomen. It’s been two years since that surgery and the skin is almost smooth again. The vertical white line and pink lateral wrinkles no long tell the whole story like I know it. I can’t can’t feel the pain that kept me in bed for six months, but I know it happened.

Good memories are stronger than bad, that’s why it’s possible to heal.

I’m self-aware enough to know that these things I share have created a persona that is mostly built from the details of my battle with cancer.

For better or worse, but mostly better, people react strongly to cancer. I never set out to define myself so narrowly, but there is a limit to self-awareness and I don’t know exactly where it falls.

If I did, it wouldn’t be the limit.

A year ago, I thought I was going to die when a two centimeter tumor appeared in my neck and it seemed chemo had failed.

Every day from here on out is a gift. That’s how I want to feel, but I’m not there yet. I was in shock for six months or so after believing I was going to die, but I’ve finally started to process what not being dead feels like.

I fill many of these cracks with people. It’s easier than trying to patch them on my own. It’s worked because I’m surrounded by so many incredible people, but when they’re not around what do I do? I wish that was a rhetorical question, but it’s not. I don’t know, and that’s terrifying.

In the end, any of us could die tomorrow. Car crashes, heart attacks: there are a million deaths stalking humanity, ready to grab an unsuspecting person from the margin.

A car crash doesn’t live in my body, lying in wait.

I have gotten so good at outwardly faking that everything is fine and I don’t wake at four in the morning in a cold sweat, terrified of the creeping evil in my veins. At times I manage to forget the fear for hours or days.

Fake it until you make it, is easier when “making it” is clearly defined. The mental health struggles that still plague me are so vexing because I don’t even know what fully better would look like.

Wandering in the desert, “better” is a mirage of the goal posts I’m kicking towards, but they jump a little further each time I improve on distance.

Is the solution to water the desert, make the place I’m stuck, a place I'm happy to be?

Our time at Holden is just a fraction of our lives. Despite my openness, you all know only a fraction of who I am, as I only have a small window into your lives.

For those of us who come into the Village in a time of transition in our own lives, it’s a chance to get away from who we used to be.

Cancer taught me that if you think you’ve found the perfect route through life on the first try, it’s worth a step back to consider that there’s probably something you missed.

If after that examination the path still feels right, then you are luckier than most.

There is no shame in failure or confusion, but missing a second chance when it comes along is a wound that will fester.

Water may be clear when it is shallow, but it’s opaque when deep.

A heart is but a tiny stone under the great blue ocean. A happy, healthy heart burns bright and warm like a red August sun. Yet sunk beneath so many miles of water, it’s only occasionally visible to the naked eye.

But gather enough hearts together in your tiny piece of ocean, and they can slowly, but surely outshine the darkest of the deep. Somehow in the midst of our own darkness, the light of each beating heart leads us to one another.

Exactly how we find our way, I do not know. If you told me I would be living at a Lutheran retreat center five years ago when I was eighteen and at the height of my religious antagonism, I would have laughed at you.

Yet here I am.

I’m not totally sure how, but I do know why.

You don’t have to love every person, to love a community.

You don’t have to love every crumbling brick and miswired light switch, to love a place.

You don’t have to love every goal and decision, to love a mission.

And you don’t have to love every moment, to love the life you have been given.

Please let your red sun burn bright for those around you.

A closed heart is the clouded moon on a still night when you most needed its light to lead you back home.