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  • Aarik Danielsen

When the Soul Shrinks

Our souls never stay the same size.

What’s inside swells, stretching the chest, whenever it encounters a moment of hushed majesty or an expression of love without prerequisites.

Our souls, what Mary Oliver might call the “soft animals” within us, also shrink back. Mine retracts, closing around itself like a fist, overshadowed by the past year’s awful abundance.

Testimony after testimony offered from full hospitals and empty backpews, in the middle of drive-through testing lines, across sick beds. A graphic in the Sunday New York Times like snow on the screen of a malfunctioning TV set, each dot representing one of 500,000 lives lost.

Lines between home and work, rest and response diminish to the point of disappearing. With their dissolution, the suffocating sense of being switched on every minute of every day.

A thousand shaking heads and they’re all your own, the words “I miss the person I thought I knew” muttered beneath the breath every damn day.

Common ground swallowed up. Past unities bent beyond their shape; once plowshares, now swords. A thousand shaking heads and they’re all your own, the words “I miss the person I thought I knew” muttered beneath the breath every damn day.

“There’s so much we must bear witness to. / Reality wears us so thin,” the late poet Tomas Tranströmer wrote, as if he’s resting on the couch next to me. How do we proceed when the soft animals inside us flinch? Is there remedy to be found when the soul shrinks?

Like everything else happening right now, the soul shrinks so often at home. The tinnitus that comes with one-and-a-half jobs, practicing handwriting with your first grader, never seeing the art on anyone else’s walls or thumbing through a book on somebody else’s bookshelf threatens to silence any other thought.

And so, for the sake of hearing something else, you turn on the latest Archie Shepp record, listening to the wisdom of the saints sounded out by an 83-year-old man taking a deep pull on his saxophone.

A look in your child’s eye, or a turn in his little voice, suddenly makes you fear his future. You choose to remember his laughter—or better yet, his tears—and believe he hasn’t reached the end of himself or the end of your help.

His inner monologue reaches air as an audible cry, damning himself with the language he has. You press play on a recording of Langston Hughes reciting poetry so he hears a calmer voice than the one inside.

The Scriptures start to feel more like a taunt than a treasure, the shadow of something you can’t wrap your arms around. But when you run out of bedtime stories, you recount Jesus’ parables for your boy. And in your paraphrase, the vineyard owner’s words to his laborers become the sermon you crave. You nearly weep as he doles out the same coin of grace to all, no matter when they clock in. Would you begrudge God’s generosity?

The soul shrinks, it shivers, as friends halfway across the country stumble under the weight of winter white. You point your feet down that strange little alley in your neighborhood, the one which always fills up with snow, presenting itself like a painting. You slow your pace, pausing in awe; somehow everything that takes away also gives.

You slow your pace, pausing in awe; somehow everything that takes away also gives.

Saints who once showed you a more excellent way wave the flags of men and morals you don’t recognize. As you reach up to stop your own ears, a whisper gets through. In that still, small voice, the witness who reversed course, moving from a kind of death to a kind of life.

When all the language dries up and the Spirit puckers within you, you reach for Tranströmer again and read of “God’s energy / coiled up in the dark” or take in his description of a magnetic, miraculous city bus; should it stop, “with its lights out, / the whole world would be obliterated,” he writes.

The same poem is rejected twice on one Lord’s Day. Rather than rejecting yourself, you ask God to make your next prayer like poetry and your next poem like a prayer.

The soul pulls back on your 40th birthday, the mile marker telling you the tour is half over, probably more. And so you let yourself wander through the backfields of your mind, tallying up every worthy scene, all the tastes and electric touches. You choose not to dwell on what you’ll miss, making a promise to yourself instead. I get to do it all at least one more time.

Sometimes your soul shrinks and the temptation arrives: to see nothing but a thousand ways to lose, a thousand ways to die. Then you notice how something, someone other than you, keeps your soul the size of a mustard seed. And you remember there’s still a thousand ways to reach someone and to be reached, a thousand ways to touch the face of God.


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