The language of mystery


Since our trip to Jerusalem last year I’ve been mulling an essay about faith and the unknown and our inadequate vocabularly to talk about these things.  The essay, in my head, is called “the language of mystery.”  I’ve never written it.  In particular, the idea came to me when we drove by a mosque one day last winter in Cambridge.  We were stopped at a red light on Prospect Street and Grace pointed out the window.  She called Whit’s and my attention to a building to our right.  It was a mosque, and I realized that though I had driven past that mosque more times than I can count, I was now, after my experience in Jerusalem, noticing it in a new way.  The mosque is covered with beautiful blue tiles, on some of which are elegant white characters in Arabic.

“Is that Hebrew?” Whit asked from the back seat.  No, I explained, it was Arabic.  We talked about how our cousin Hannah knew how to say “thank you” in both Hebrew and Arabic and, perhaps more importantly, knew when to use each.

I felt an unmistakable frisson of fear and bewilderment when I read that that mosque is where Tamerlan Tsarnaev worshiped and where he stood up and asserted his radical views in January of this year.

But I let that chill go.  The truth is that that fact, while certainly uncomfortably close to home, doesn’t change how I felt that day driving by the mosque.  It doesn’t change how I still feel.  I was struck by my childrens’ innocent confusion of two languages that they don’t know; they aren’t aware of how radically opposed those languages are in many places, how infrequently anyone who knew would interchange them.  They just see a holy site, a place where people worship their God, and a language they don’t know.  They and I have long admired the beautiful tiling on the side of the Cambridge mosque, just as we noticed and appreciated the outrageously beautiful detail on the side of the “gold dome” in Jerusalem (that is the photograph above).

My mind skipped from Grace and Whit’s confusion of these two languages to thoughts about language in general.  I love words, there is no question about that.  But I also know that in a great many circumstances it feels like a blunt tool to express what it is I experience.  There is so much of life that runs through the fingers of language even as I grasp at it.  Slippery, inchoate, both too enormous and too tiny to put into words: life itself.

This week, in addition to rededicating myself to not taking this ordinary life for granted (in this effort I know I join millions of others), I will refocus on the mystery at the heart of all of our experience.  The mystery that pulls our glance to the sky, that brings tears to our eyes, that inspires glorious buildings, that moves us to write words that make others gasp with recognition.  Isn’t all writing – all art, all living – grasping for the vocabulary to express the mystery around which our lives revolve?

Maybe it’s time to write that essay.  There is so much mystery, so much faith, so much we all love, and so little adequate vocabulary to express it.

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  1. Posted April 23, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    “Isn’t all writing – all art, all living – grasping for the vocabulary to express the mystery around which our lives revolve?” YES. xoxo

  2. Posted April 23, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I can’t wait to read that essay. A ‘must-write’ I would say.

  3. Matt Russell
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I like the post. Shared with my Pakistani friend who shares a office with me.

  4. Posted April 23, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I love your idea of dwelling in the mystery- I will join you in that. And yes, you should definitely write that essay!

  5. Diane
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    i think you should. i know it’s time for me to read it.

  6. Sandy
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, this post makes me think of Priscilla Warner’s book, The Faith Club. It’s a very powerful account of how three women – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – face fear and faith, alone and together. I think it began as a project to find a way to bring hope to their young children after 9/11. So relevant now. And I had the delight of meeting Priscilla at a Katrina Kenison’s reading in Larchmont, NY this weekend. She is so warm and present. And, of course, Katrina – wow. Her blog post today is stunning.

    admin Reply:

    I LOVED Priscilla’s book, and I too had the honor of meeting Priscilla and loved her in person also!! I’m a huge Katrina fan also and am lucky to call her a mentor and friend. So happy to know of another Priscilla-Katrina fan out there! xo

  7. Posted April 23, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I just read this blog post then clicked away. In a Google search for my own essay on religion, I came across this quote. I then came back to your blog post to share:

    “The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
    ~Stephen King, Different Seasons

    admin Reply:

    WOW. That is an extraordinary quote. Thank you so much for sharing it. I really love it. xox

  8. A tired mom
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi. I’ve followed your blog for years. I just want to say that it’s hard not to think you’re touting your own horn. you have healthy kids. overly nice and smart kids. a handsome husband who provides. you have overly educated parents and friends that make me green with envy. it’s hard not to be mean when you say you don’t know why the Boston bombers did it. While they deserve every bit of what’s coming to them, they were also coming from a very different place than your upper class lifestyle. their father had to leave the US for cancer care. there’s tremendous pressure to assimilate and succeed. yes, the younger kid shouldn’t have done it. he even had a scholarship! but when someone looks at your life, it’s hard not to want to ask whether you know anything at all because you only have beautiful things to cry over in your life. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this when I read a blog from a comfortable, beautiful woman like yourself. It’s a real divide out there and it gets wider.

    admin Reply:

    First of all, thank you for reading. It’s hard not to feel defensive reading your comment, but I’m trying not to. I will only say that I think I’m extremely aware of my good fortune and I hope that my gratitude is apparent to anyone who reads my words. That said, I don’t think that having privileges and many things for which I’m thankful means I don’t know anything at all. I actually think that no matter what someone’s life looks like like to us from the outside, they are likely to have fears, anxieties and difficulties just as we do. I also think there are real areas of commonality between people even when their circumstances are very different.

  9. Posted April 23, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I can understand why, after an emotional week like last week, you would feel a little thin and raw, A Tired Mom. However, I bristle when people imply that because a writer is comfortable, lucky, or that loaded word, “privileged,” she has nothing to say or, worse, no right to say it. Lindsey is exceedingly blessed, and I believe she would be the first to say so, breathlessly and emphatically. But no matter how blessed any of us are, we all carry pain, we all carry burdens, and no one’s life is all beautiful and no ugly. We just don’t always show the ugly as often — and sometimes it is harder to see, even when we try to show it. Some wounds are too deep to see, some scars too light. But I think Lindsey is one of the most empathetic people I know, and she is teaching her children to SEE things — really see them — and not just in their blessed world. She’s trying to show them other parts of life, and in the past week, they have lived this nightmare as thoroughly and as deeply as anyone else in Boston. It was their neighborhood that was searched, their neighborhood where these bombers lived. The divide, no matter how wide, was narrow for them last week.

    I understand your envy. Lindsey is beautiful, and thoughtful, and she has amazing kids and a wonderful life. But that doesn’t mean she should sit silently in her relative comfort, does it? Does that mean she cannot comment on the world? Would you ask her to apologize for her life? I’m not a fan of silencing anyone, especially another woman, especially another mother. We all have experiences, and it’s the patchwork of all of them combined that makes the most intricate picture of the world.

  10. Margaret
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Ditto everything Allison just said!! I aggree with every word, wholeheartedly and passionately!! Lindsey is the most “thinking” (thoughtful) person I know, even though I only know her through the blogosphere. Her thoughts and words are courageous and powerful and helpful to so many. I think she’s the best!! I don’t understand why a tired mom would even read her blog if it only upsets her and makes her green with envy. Life is too short, if negative feelings are caused by reading a blog, it’s time to move on… Though Lindsey’s blog is my #1 all time favorite, and absolutely nothing if not inspirational, positive, light-filled and full of insight into the human spirit. I believe that anyone who doesn’t see or feel that completely misunderstands. And I am not cut from the same cloth as Lindsey – I have many similarities, some of the same privileges and background, some different privileges, some different struggles, worries and obsessions. Lindsey is one with humanity, and has the voice of compassion and love that speaks to everyone. If they pay attention (that is key).

  11. Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Tired mom, it makes me sad to think that you believe Lindsey is the voice of privilege and that she doesn’t understand life for anyone else. I have been reading Lindsey’s blog for a year or more, and although I’ve never met her, her positive and lovely and loving spirit resonates through her words.

    I may also be of “privilege” but have experienced assault and domestic violence, once thought for only those in poverty. If you haven’t walked in Lindsey’s shoes in her life, you don’t know what she knows.

    Reading her beautiful words brings me happiness and faith in fellow man. It’s all about balance – I read a little from a lot of different perspectives, and that’s what gives me a well-rounded view of life.

    I hope you find your happiness, somewhere and somehow. It’s here if you look.

  12. Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s time. I would LOVE to read it!

  13. Posted April 29, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    In a way, I think that this IS the essay. I think it’s impossible to capture the emotions about a mosque, about labels – Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Russian, terrorist, American – any better than you did. I too got that chill and also the glow of innocence from your children. This is a beautiful essay as it stands, just as the mosque is, with its outrageous detail.