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  • Aarik Danielsen

Hands That Harrow Our Personal Hells

A NOTE TO OUR READERS: This piece discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you or a loved one struggles with thoughts of suicide, please seek help. For U.S. residents, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 988.

The full article will appear after the break.


 

Two rock stars descend from the stratosphere, landing soft on talk-show chairs.


A digital rabbit hole guides me to decade-old footage of U2 principals Bono and The Edge visiting David Letterman. The pair bring an offering, seated and stripped, an acoustic take on “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.”


To hear them tell it, then sing it, this is an angry funeral song for a friend. INXS singer Michael Hutchence rewrote the definition of charisma—the face of an icon, a voice like an uncorked wine bottle—before ending his life in 1997. The ballad is a hand reaching back through time and space, Bono confesses, to slap his friend into enough clarity to stick around.


 
If music held the power to pluck the dead from their resting places, no doubt this song would gather up Hutchence.
 

Another notion upholds each note: if music held the power to pluck the dead from their resting places, no doubt this song would gather up Hutchence.


Though softer and more sober, a similar sentiment compels the Caedmon’s Call song “Center Aisle.” Singer Derek Webb keeps reluctant company with mourners of another suicide. He inhabits a strange position within the assembly: close enough to hurt, far enough outside to provide perspective. Addressing the departed, he sings:


What crimes have you committed

Demanding such penance

Couldn't wait for five more minutes

And a cry for help


These two songs grow ever more indistinguishable in my ear. Bono’s sullen croon, Edge’s immaculate falsetto and Webb’s sad-eyed howl form a colliding chorus underlining one message: This too shall pass. Stay just a beat longer.


Counting backwards, I tally up three years’ worth of moments I somehow survived. Whole days made of moments when not being alive seemed a greater consolation than staying put.


Must I also count the reasons why? They matter and they’re immaterial. They’re mine alone yet belong to many. I watched an American death toll add up several at a time to more than a million. Each last breath, a testimony: we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves.


Left with nothing but quiet and time, my already-broken brain surveyed tiny scars carved across the landscape of my body; cuts left by anxiety and disappointment, disintegrating certainty, the stress of high-stakes parenting. My old soul saw the face of its old fears, that God set the world in motion and ran away. That our voices never grow stronger, only softer and more hoarse, when we use them within the same community for a span of years.


Seeing your own shadow, you start asking who would miss such a wounded and shaking body, and for how long. The answers you give yourself don’t inspire confidence.


Certain moments feel impossible to escape, U2 and Webb have this right. But it isn’t because they are so singular. Some moments crush the soul because they arrive as the composite of every preceding moment—the same way black contains all colors, not an absence.


****


The harrowing of hell isn’t a concept I consider often. A nondescript evangelical upbringing silently taught me to erase “he descended into hell” from my creeds and consciousness. Any encounters with the idea typically take place somewhere within the well-defined borders and endless deep of a painting.


 
Each image opens like flower petals, revealing the dimensions of God’s movement toward us as he expands and energizes all working definitions of the perseverance of the saints.
 

Some artists revel in the gnarliest depictions of Holy Saturday. Grotesque demons frame ancient scenes, gnashing at Jesus as he relieves hell of the perished and perishing. Equally strange, quietly more soulful images catch my eye.


Andrea Mantegna watches Christ from behind as he stoops toward a human-sized hole of suffering; Adam, Eve and other bodies form a wholly different cloud of witnesses, their garments slipping in the presence of pure holiness. In Michael Burghers’ engraving, Jesus wields his cross, propping Hellmouth open wide enough to loose a horde of shapeless figures.


A 14th-century fresco in Istanbul centers Christ, backlit with proper glory, each hand gripping a sinner by the wrist and pulling them toward infinite salvation. And at the end of Spanish painter Bartolomeo Bertejo’s brush, Jesus cleaves himself, leading a passel of patriarchs past his own form on the cross, toward promised paradise.


Unlike the tones of Derek Webb and U2, these images never collapse into one. They open like flower petals, revealing the dimensions of God’s movement toward us as he expands and energizes all working definitions of the perseverance of the saints.


I cannot sketch the metaphysics of what God does, or quote you any Bible verse. But sitting among these images, parsing the “somehow” of my survival, I know the harrowing of hell goes on. And despite sturdy words from great preachers, I look around and see how God has kept me in this world by causing me to fall in love, again and again, with the things of this world.


 
Beauty may not save mankind in some cosmic, once-and-for-all sense; but perhaps it saves us one at a time.
 

Beauty may not save mankind in some cosmic, once-and-for-all sense; but perhaps it saves us one at a time.


Consider how the trees rise over Forest Park in St. Louis like cathedral spires, hemming in our prayers yet offering them an opening to the heavens. Or the way Eddie Davis’ breath through a tenor saxophone, the tone transmitted from 1958, ushers me behind the hidden curtain of my own heart, makes me feel as if there is more sound inside me than I will ever fathom.


Before knowing they existed, lines of Charles Simic poems (“No two blades of grass, no two shadows / Whisper our names alike”) and the moon-glazed sky over a John Atkinson Grimshaw painting waited for me, begged me to stay.


Think how it feels to hold my breath, anticipating my favorite line of dialogue across three seasons of Twin Peaks, then exhale as Garland Briggs voices his truest fear (and mine): “The possibility that love is not enough.” Or to enter a concert photograph by my friend Savannah and actually experience music as wave and color.


There’s something about showing up every day for the group chat I’m in with Sam, John, Ian and John. And tracing the features of vast national parks across illustrated maps with my son. He longs to visit Arches and Glacier Bay; I want to cross over into campground at Olympia and Grand Teton.


My son disorients, then disarms, the very powers of life and death, on the day he tells me unbidden that, when I die, he will inform the funeral home I want to go to heaven. What words can honor the way my wife’s arms lace my neck, drawing me into a kiss that becomes red-orange-yellow light, then the end of all matter.


Yes, when I want to live, it’s because of jazz and poetry and touch and incidental comments. But these aren’t just people, places and things. My soul flirts with Sheol, and these hands take turns reaching me. They lift me up and out enough to gulp the air Earth provides, even if I can’t always make out the lights of heaven blinking, beckoning.


****


We harrow hell daily. I type these four words, then flinch at how complicated the conclusion is.


Some of you have lost, and some of you are losing. I owe you more than cold-comfort admissions of mystery; some well-meaning proverb about how everyone’s hell is drawn to different scale; a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 2 minus the eye contact: For who has known the mind of the Lord?


If I knew the right words, the secret handshake that makes someone stay, I would print instructions on pamphlets, pass them out on street corners. I only know two truths—or perhaps two variations on a theme: No love sent into the world is spent in vain; every hand harrows the best it can. And you are not to blame. Blame is forever an ugly word, but it breaks apart upon contact with the circumstances of our real loves and losses.


 
This is me harrowing, harrowing for you. This is me petitioning God and the devil and anyone else with the power to live and let live on your behalf.
 

And if you feel yourself slipping into a moment with no windows or doors, stay here with me for a few more sentences. God gave me two hands, and all I know how to do with them is type one word, chasing it with another. This is me harrowing, harrowing for you. This is me petitioning God and the devil and anyone else with the power to live and let live on your behalf. There’s at least another paragraph coming. Wait for it, feel your surprise at staying alive, at anticipating something reaching out for you in love.


What I want to tell you is we are all such reliable and unreliable narrators. Both at once. We know more about ourselves, more about how we breathe and ache, more about what makes us want to stay and go, than anyone. But we let lies slip into the story. We give dishonest scales permission to make their judgements and treat them as scientific fact.


There are moments which press on us with all the force of hell, but they don’t actually sum all moments. They conveniently leave out information; they fail to account for the many hands, seen and unseen, harrowing for us all the time. These hands represent a love that permeates the entire universe and holds it together, a love that is not done with you.


More sentences will come for you, more trees, more music, more poems. Wait for them—they’re closer than this moment tells you, and the hands preparing them know what they’re doing.




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