Belonging

At the beginning of this month, I read a book that, like most books I read, I picked at almost random from the library catalog, put a hold request on it, then took it home and cracked it open.  (Since I work at a library, it actually makes it harder for me to just go look through the books anymore… I just ask someone else to pick it up for me and put it on the shelf with my name on it so I can grab it on my way out the door.)

http://www.amazon.com/Flight-Sparrow-Novel-Early-America/dp/0451466691

(I can’t insert a picture for some reason… this is why WordPress and I don’t get along sometimes)

Flight of the Sparrow, by Amy Belding Brown is about Mary Rowlandson, who was famously kidnapped by Native Americans in the 17th Century.  She went on to write a book about her experience, but the author felt her story didn’t seem quite right.  She had read some suggestions that Mary may not have written her story alone, and that she may have been expected to say things she didn’t believe because of the strict Puritan culture.  Many of the “morals” of her kidnapping, the author notes, seemed contrived and didn’t line up with what was being said.  So Brown chose to take the story with Mary’s name attached and derive a similar but different story–the one Mary would not have been able to tell, and would not have told.

In the story, Mary goes through the horrifying, traumatic experience of losing her sister, her daughter, and most of her friends in a gruesome attack, and is then taken as a prisoner to the Native American camp.  At the camp, she is no longer the high class and respected preacher’s wife she was in her community–she is a slave.  Her captor is cruel and strict about certain things, but Mary begins to contrast her life in the Native American camp with her life at home in a surprising way.  She notes that while she was a free woman at home, she really had no freedom to speak her mind to her husband or others, or to even leave their front porch without her husband expressed permission–which he did not grant readily.  In the Native American camp, as a slave, as long as her work was done, she is free to wander as she pleased, she could even speak her mind at times (though she still needed to beware her owner’s angry ways).  She feels the solace of being close to nature, even in her deep sorrow.  When she is eventually ransomed back, she finds herself flung back into a world that she doesn’t want, and that doesn’t really want her.  Being a captive made her different.

The book plumbs the depth of sorrow that Mary feels at her experience–she feels loss on levels that I have never felt and hope never to feel.  Watching one’s friends and family literally torn to pieces and burned, and then being sold into slavery to watch your child die–that is the deepest grief I can imagine.  The aftermath of her traumatic experience is so tangible to me, though.  The author captures her emotions–which she must keep bottled inside, more or less, at her husband’s insistence–in such true forms.

More than that, though, the author clearly shows the “otherness” that the former captives felt in their former lives.  One of Mary’s children struggles the most with being returned from captivity, and he often wanders off for days on end to be close to nature again.  Mary’s husband often reprimands his formerly-captive family for their behaviour–which is foreign to him because he did not undergo what they did.  Worst, everyone who would have otherwise been happy to be friends with the minister’s wife withdraws from Mary as if she is “soiled” from her experience–most people assume she was at best bewitched by the Natives, and at worst raped by them.

“Otherness” in literature is usually race, gender, sexual orientation, or similar, but “otherness” is anything that sets out a person from the crowd and makes him or her not “fit in.”  Going through deep grief makes me feel “other.”  Those who fit into the crowd see a woman grieving for a dead child–an experience they don’t understand and don’t want to understand–as almost an affront to their way of living.  This is something that doesn’t fit into their perceptions of the world–this deep grief–and withdrawing from “the other” is easier than incorporating her into their group, is easier than listening to her and not being judgmental of a real experience and real feelings associated with that experience.  I resonated with Brown’s depiction of Mary’s “otherness” and while mine pales in comparison to what she must have felt, it was tangible.

The part that has stayed with me and that I suspect will always stay with me: Mary’s husband is constantly trying to derive meaning from their capture, and his interpretations come across as heartless.  He is constantly explaining the the Native American attacks on the settlements are “God’s chastening hand” on His people–that God is trying to punish sin in the Puritan communities and reform them from their own “heathen” ways–a sort of witch hunt, almost.  Mary expresses that if God is chastening them, it is for their outright cruelty and lack of love for others, not for the suspected sins that he thinks are going on in private.  At one family lecture, as the minister is lecturing his family on “God’s chastening hand” the son angrily replies, “Sometimes things just happen!” and storms out.

Sometimes things just happen.

While I am a firm believer in experiences having meaning and that most experiences require meaning for us to cope with them, this statement is important to me.  If something horrible happens, sometimes all it means is that something horrible happened, and we must just fit that into our lives now–along with the fact that it has changed us, that we are “other” now.

Maybe someday we can derive meaning from tragedies, but if we can’t, it does not make the tragedy unimportant, it does not mean the tragedy did not transform us.

The most substantial and important bit I gleaned from this story: Grief is difficult on faith, but experiencing grief and feeling “other” does not negate our connection with our faith.  It was easy for Mary’s husband and their community to look at Mary and the children as having separated from their religion because their ordeal was too big and their grief too complex for others to reconcile to the joyfulness of being Christian.

I have experienced this as well–the easy justifications from those around me that I am not “thankful” for the grief I endured because I do not look like it; I am not grieving “correctly” because I am not doing this, that, or whatever.  I’m not always even sure what is expected of me, but it is wrong because it doesn’t fit into the box that they have made for me (not Christianity itself–but some individuals in their own minds).  I am “other” and I don’t belong.  And yet, look at Christ’s grief at Lazarus’s death (who He rose from the dead shortly after), Mary’s grief at Christ’s death, David’s continual cycles of grief and joy (often at once) in the Psalter.  I read the texts of the Church and I see grief and loss.  Everything does not always neatly tie up into a moralistic Aesop’s Fable, or Christian fiction book.

I cannot be a the poster child for handling infant death perfectly and graciously (which, I will be honest, was what was blatantly expected of me, and why I continually disappoint others with my struggles with grief and meaning) any more than Mary Rowlandson could be the shining beacon of exquisitely interpreting God’s movement in her own life (which was also expected of her–and which the book she herself wrote indicates, with much forced interpretations).

Grief is hard, and sometimes things just happen.  And “otherness” can be a lonely road.

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