Ruthie Bowles once said I would wind up hating her. She was right.
I met Ruthie on a Tuesday afternoon after a sleepless Monday night in my closet, a space littered with poetry and my mother’s well-worn Bible, dog-eared at the Psalms. The poetry kept me sane, and the Psalms gave me hope. NyQuil stopped working long ago.
“Whoever fi ghts monsters,” Nietzsche said, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
I ran across that in a quote book. At 3 a.m. it looked interesting. Ruthie doesn’t quote Nietzsche, but the truth is the truth. I am a student of the abyss, but I get no credit. It’s a night class I audit.
When I met Ruthie, I had an ache in my heart left by the echoes of friends and choices. Mistakes. I knew women in the neighborhood, names and faces from church and the local preschool, but I did not have what Anne Shirley would call a bosom friend, and there were few prospects.
My husband, Richard, pastor of the Little Brown Church --- though it is not little and more cranberry if you ask me --- has been supportive. “Just give it some time,” he’ll say. “We all go through tough seasons.” I’ve seen him lose a night’s sleep about three times in his life, and I fi ght resentment when I hear his rhythmic breathing. Sleep is a luxury to anxious minds.
Since childhood I have sung about the “river glorious” of God’s peace. I hadn’t planned on the river running dry.
And the church. I longed for a refuge or oasis. Instead, it became Alcatraz. To me, church has always meant relationships, not a building, but my problems sent me away from people rather than toward them.
In my first fledgling nights in the closet, when sleep and every sense of peace crawled away and hid like a wounded animal, I feared I was losing my mind. I pictured white-coated men strapping my arms and pushing me toward an oversize van while my children screamed and the elders shook their heads. I could hear my husband saying, “She just needs a little time. We all go through tough seasons.”
Ruthie walked into my loneliness --- or should I say hobbled --- at a time when God was trimming the nails of my soul to the quick. Angels laughed so hard at my prayers that they held their sides. So many angels.
And God was silent.
One of my mother’s favorite songs contains these words: “Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet, or we’ll walk by His side in the way . . .” I’ve felt constantly in his way. He seemed too ticked off to tell me to get out of it, so he kept quiet. The ESO, Eternal Silent One.
My constant companions were fears, not God. I convinced myself he was simply on vacation, out carrying someone else on that beach with all the footprints. My heart had shriveled, and my soul was as wrinkled as the prunes Ruthie loved.
I kept a journal --- don’t ask me why --- and the ramblings tack_ led these fears and questions. Ruthie was the fi rst to tell me that God hadn’t abandoned me but was drawing me deeper, calling me out of the shallows, past the abyss, and into the current of his love and mercy.
Yeah, right, I thought. God hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go deeper, and thank you very much, I liked the shallows. It’s easier to play when there’s no current. In the middle you lose your footing; you lose control.
However, something drew me to this old woman. Was she an apparition? an angel in disguise? It would be my luck to get an angel with varicose veins. The sliver of hope that she was from God kept me going, but I did not know she had secrets and a closet full of haunted memories. She had seen the abyss long before me and had wrestled monsters of her own.
I suppose we all do.
I grew up in Dogwood. There are memories and stirrings from some other life. My mother and father, Cecilia and Robert Ashworth, still live here. So do his parents. At least, Will’s mother does.
Ruthie asked me about him at that fi rst meal, what she dubbed our “First Supper.” She asked innocently, or so it seemed at the time. Something about her questions should have tipped me off that she knew more. She did not know how many hims there had been before the pastor. Or that my mind was drawn to someone I could never love. Could never kiss or hold or touch again.
“My husband is a good man,” I said. It sounded appropriate, and I hoped she couldn’t sense the hurt behind the answer. I knew I had settled for less. Someone safe. Faithful as an old dog but better smelling.
Ruthie let the answer slip away as easily as my children coming down the slide at the park where we watched them play. Tarin is with me during the day. Darin and Kallie are already in school.
I changed the subject. “Do you have children?”
“Grown,” she said. “They fly like birds before you know it. Just when you thought you had the nest fi gured out. But I guess that’s our job.”
She smiled. “He flew too.” Was he dead? Had he left her? “I’m sorry,” I said.
“I remember when mine were your daughter’s age. I was different then. Wrapped up in froth.”
Ruthie scooted forward on the bench. “Like a beer on tap. You spend your life chasing froth and bubbles. I used to think it satisfi ed, that it could fi ll me up and make me happy. But froth is froth. Empty. What I needed was underneath, at the root, the soul. Can’t find happiness in froth, at least not for long.”
She sounded like a preacher --- or one of those homespun storytellers on public television, dispensing wisdom one sound bite at a time. I wanted to switch channels or leave. Make an excuse. Head for a fictional doctor’s appointment. I needed to get home to the wash. But it was already evening, and I couldn’t fool her. Plus, something drew me. Was it her voice, her eyes, or the way she seemed to wallow in life?
“Come to my house for dinner,” Ruthie said. The idea came out of the blue, like a magician pulling fried chicken out of a hat. “That’s very kind of you, but---”
“You look like you could use a friend and I love children.”
When I was a child, my brother and I wandered near bushes my mother had ordered us to avoid. We were searching for hidden treasure or a lost baseball --- I can’t remember which --- when we stumbled upon a hornet’s nest the size of Detroit. Bobby Ray ran, but I stood, paralyzed by the enormity of the nest and all those stingers writhing inside. For a month I had nightmares about hornets covering my face and arms, stinging every inch of exposed flesh.
As it turned out, one lonely hornet snapped me from my stupor, and I ran to my mother, my arm swollen. She grabbed a fresh onion from the refrigerator, cut it in half, and placed it on the sting. The onion felt wet and slick. “Hold it right there,” she said. “It’ll draw the poison out.”
I have been staring at the hornet’s nest called life, afraid to live, too stunned to move. Ruthie was the one who drew the poison from my soul. She became my teacher. Our classroom was her living room or the playground at the Memorial Park. Some of the most intense lessons we tackled while standing in line at Wal-Mart.
“Life isn’t pretty, so you’ve got to hug the ugly out of it,” she said one day.
She had no idea how much ugly there was.