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“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”
Aslan, The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis
Bronx, New York
From the very beginning it was the Great Lion who brought us together. I see that now. The fierce and tender beast drew us to each other, slowly, inexorably, across time, beyond an ocean, and against the obdurate bulwarks of our lives. He wouldn’t make it easy for us—that’s not his way.
It was the summer of 1927. My little brother, Howie, was eight years old and I was eleven. I knelt next to his bed and gently shook his shoulder.
“Let’s go,” I whispered. “They’re asleep now.”
Sneaking out was both our reward for enduring family life and our invisible rebellion. That day I’d come home with my report card, and among the long column of A’s there was the indelible stamp of a single B denting the cotton paper.
“Father.” I’d tapped his shoulder and he’d glanced away from the papers he was grading, his red pencil marking students’ work. “Here’s my report card.”
His eyes scanned the card, the glasses perched on the end of his nose an echo of the photos of his Ukranian ancestors. He’d arrived in America as a child and at Ellis Island his name was changed from Yosef to Joseph. He stood now to face me and lifted his hand. I could have backed away; I knew what came next in a family where assimilation and achievement were the priorities.
His open palm flew across the space between us—a space brimful with my shimmering expectation of acceptance and praise—and slapped my left cheek with the clap of skin on skin, a sound I knew well. My face jolted to the right. The sting lasted as it always did, long enough to stand for the verbal lashing that came after. “There is no place for slipshod work in this family.”
No, there was no place for it at all. By the time I was eleven I was a sophomore in high school. I must try harder, be better, abide all disgrace until I found a way to succeed and prove my worth.
But at night Howie and I had our secrets. In the darkness of his bedroom he rose, his little sneakers tangling in the sheet. He smiled at me. “I’ve already got my shoes on. I’m ready.”
I suppressed a laugh and took his hand. We stood stone-still and listened for any breaths but our own. Nothing.
“Let’s go,” I said, and he laid his small hand in mine: a trust.
We crept from the brownstone and onto the empty Bronx streets, the wet garbage odor of the city as pungent as the inside of the subway. The sidewalks dark rivers, the streetlights small moons, and the looming buildings protection from the outside world. The city was silent and deceptively safe in the midnight hours. Howie and I were on a quest to visit other animals caged and forced to act civil in a world they didn’t understand: the residents of the Bronx Zoo.
Within minutes we arrived at the Fordham Road gate and paused, as we always did, to stare silently at the Rockefeller Fountain—three tiers of carved marble children sitting in seashells, mermaids supporting them on raised arms or sturdy heads, the great snake trailing up the center pillar, his mouth open to devour. The water slipped down with a rainfall-din that subdued our footfalls and whispers. We reached the small hole in the far side of the fence and slipped through.
We cherished our secret journeys to the midnight zoo—the parrot house with the multicolored creatures inside; the hippo, Peter the Great; a flying fox; the reptile house slithering with creatures both unnatural and frightening. The Bronx River flowed right through the zoo’s land; the snake of dark water seemed another living animal, brought from the outside to divide the acreage in half and then escape, as the water knew its way out.
And then there was the lions’ den, a dark caged and forested area. I was drawn there as if those beasts belonged to me, or I to them.
“Sultan.” My voice was resonant in the night. “Boudin Maid.”
The pair of Barbary lions ambled forward, placing their great paws on the earth, muscles dangerous and rippling beneath their fur as they approached the bars. A great grace surrounded them, as if they had come to understand their fate and accept it with roaring dignity. Their manes were deep and tangled as a forest. I fell into the endless universe of their large amber eyes as they allowed, even invited, me to reach through the iron and wind my fingers into their fur. They’d been tamed beyond their wild nature, and I felt a kinship with them that caused a trembling in my chest.
They indulged me with a return gaze, their warm weight pressed into my palm, and I knew that capture had damaged their souls.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered every time. “We were meant to be free.”
Part 1To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness in yourself.
Aslan, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis
Who have begun so many loves in fire
“Sonnet I,” Joy Davidman
Ossining, New York
There are countless ways to fall in love, and I’d begun my ash-destined affairs in myriad manners. This time, it was marriage.
The world, it changes in an instant. I’ve seen it over and over, the way in which people forge through the days believing they have it all figured out, protected inside a safe life. Yet there is no figuring life out, or not in any way that protects us from the tragedies of the heart. I should have known this by now; I should have been prepared.
“Joy.” Bill’s voice through the telephone line came in a voice so shaky I thought he might have been in a car wreck or worse. “I’m coming undone again and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.”
“Bill.” I hugged the black plastic phone against my ear and shoulder, the thick cord dangling, as I bounced our baby son, Douglas, against my chest. “Take a deep breath. You’re fine. It’s just the old fear. You’re not in the war. You’re safe.”
“I’m not fine, Joy. I can’t take it anymore.” Panic broke his voice into fragments, but I understood. I could talk him off this ledge as I had other nights. He might get drunk as hell before it was all over, but I could calm him.
“Come home, Poogle. Come on home.” I used the nickname we had for each other and our children, like a birdcall.
“I’m not coming home, Joy. I’m not sure I ever will.”
“Bill!” I thought he might have hung up, but then I heard his labored breathing, in and out as if someone were squeezing the life out of him. And then the long, shrill, disconnected buzz vibrated like a tuning fork in my ear and down to my heart, where my own fear sat coiled and ready to strike.
“No!” I shouted into the empty line.
I knew Bill’s office number by heart and I called him back again and again, but it rang endlessly while I mumbled a mantra: “Answer answer answer.” As if I had any control from where I stood in our kitchen, my back pressed against the lime-green linoleum counter. Finally I gave up. There was nothing left for me to do. I couldn’t leave our babies and go look for him. He’d taken the car and I didn’t have help. I had no idea where he might be other than a bar, and in New York City there were hundreds.
Isolated, I had only myself to blame. I was the one who’d pushed for a move from the city to this banished and awful place far from my literary friends and publishing contacts. I’d begun to believe that I’d never been a poet, or a novelist, a friend or lover, never existed as anything other than wife and mother. Moving here had been my meager attempt to whisk Bill away from an affair with a blonde in Manhattan. Desperation fuels one to believe idiocy is insight.
Was he with another woman and merely feigning a breakdown? This didn’t seem too farfetched, and yet even his lunacy had its limits.
Or maybe it didn’t.
Our house in the Hudson Valley at the far edge of the suburb of Ossining, New York, was a small wooden abode we called Maple Lodge. It had a sloping roof and creaked with every movement our little family made: Bill; Davy, a toddler who was much like a runaway atom bomb; and Douglas, a baby. It often felt as if the foundation itself was coming undone with our restlessness. I was thirty-one years old, surrounded by books, two cats, and two sons, and I felt as ancient as the house itself.
I missed my friends, the hustle and bustle of the city, the publishing parties and literary gossip. I missed my neighbors. I missed myself.
Night surrounded my sons and me, darkness pressing in on the windowpanes with an ominous weight. Douglas, with his mass of brown curls and apple cheeks, dozed with a warm bottle of milk dangling from his mouth while Davy dragged toy trucks across the hardwood floors, oblivious to the scratches they dug.
Panic coursed through me as I roamed the house, waiting for word from Bill. I cursed. I ranted. I banged my fist into the soft cushions of our tattered couch. Once I’d fed and bathed the boys, I rang my parents and a couple of friends—they hadn’t heard from him. How long would he be gone? What if we ran out of food? We were miles from the store.
“Calm down,” I told myself over and over. “He’s had breakdowns before.” This was true, and the specter of another always hung over our home. I hadn’t been there for his worst one, after a stint in the Spanish Civil War before we met, when he’d attempted what I was frightened of now—suicide. The leftover traumas of war rattling and snaking through his psyche had become too much to bear.
As if I could cure the panic from this distance, I imagined Bill as I met him—the passionate young man who sauntered into the League of American Writers with his lanky frame and the wide smile hooded by a thick moustache. I’d immediately been drawn to his bravery and idealism, a man who’d volunteered and fought where needed in a faraway and torn country. Later I fell deeper in love with the same charming man I heard playing the guitar at music haunts in Greenwich Village.
Our passion overwhelmed me, stunned me in its immediacy as our bodies and minds found each other. Although he was married when we met, he had reassured me: “It was never anything real. It’s nothing like you and me.” We married at the MacDowell artists colony three days after his divorce was final—symbolizing our bond and dedication to our craft. Two writers. One marriage. One life. Now it was that very passion and idealism that tore at him, unhinging his mind and driving him back to the bottle.
Near midnight I stood over the crib of our baby, my heart hammering in my chest. There was nothing, not one thing I could do to save my husband. My bravado crumbled; my ego crashed.
I took in what was quite possibly the first humble breath of my life and dropped to my knees with such force that the hardwood floor sent a jolt of pain up my legs. I bowed my head, tears running into the corners of my mouth as I prayed for help.
I was praying! To God?
I didn’t believe in God. I was an atheist.
But there I was on my knees.
In a crack of my soul, during the untethered fear while calling for help, the sneaky Lion saw his chance, and God came in; he entered the fissures of my heart as if he’d been waiting a long time to find an opening. Warmth fell over me, a river of peace passed through me. For the first time in all my life, I felt fully known and loved. There was a solid sense that he was with me, had always been with me.
The revelation lasted not long, less than a minute, but also forever; time didn’t exist as a moment-to-moment metronome, but as eternity. I lost the borders between my body and the air, between my heart and my soul, between fear and peace. Everything in me thrummed with loving presence.
My heart slowed and the tears stopped. I bent forward and rested my wet cheek on the floor. “Why have you waited so long? Why have I?” I rested in the silence and then asked, “Now what?”
He didn’t answer. It wasn’t like that—there wasn’t a voice, but I did find the strength to stand, to gaze at my children with gratitude, to wait for what might come next.
God didn’t fix anything in that moment, but that wasn’t the point of it all. Still I didn’t know where Bill was, and still I was scared for his life, but Someone, my Creator it seemed, was there with me in all of it. This Someone was as real as my sons in their beds, as the storm battering the window frames, as my knees on the hardwood floors.
Finally, after wandering the streets and drinking himself into a stupor, Bill stumbled into a cab that brought him back to us just before dawn. When he walked through the front door, I held his face in my hands, smelled the rancid liquor, and told him that I loved him and that I now knew there was a God who loved us both, and I promised him that we would find our way together.
As the years passed, our coffee table became littered with history and philosophy books, with religious texts and pamphlets, but still we didn’t know how to make sense of an experience I knew had been as real as my heartbeat. If there was a God, and I was straight sure that there was, how did he appear in the world? How was I to approach him, if at all? Or was the experience nothing more than a flicker of understanding that didn’t change anything? This wasn’t a religious conversion at all; it was merely an understanding that something greater existed. I wanted to know more. And more.
One spring afternoon, after we’d moved to a rambling farmhouse in Staatsburg, New York, a three-year-old 1946 Atlantic Monthly magazine was facedown on the kitchen table and being used as a coaster for Bill’s coffee mug. I slid the mug to the side and flipped through the magazine as our sons napped. The pages flopped open to an article by a Beloit College professor named Chad Walsh. The piece was titled “Apostle to the Skeptics” and was an in-depth study of an Oxford fellow in England, a man named C. S. Lewis who was a converted atheist. Of course I’d heard of the author, had even read his Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce—both of them holding a whispered truth I was merely beginning to see. I began to peruse the article, and it was only Douglas calling my name that startled me from the story of this author and teacher who’d reached American readers with his clear and lucid writing, his logic and intellectualism.
Soon I’d read everything Lewis had written—more than a dozen books, including a thin novel of such searing satire that I found myself drawn again and again to its wisdom hidden in story: The Screwtape Letters.
“Bill.” I held up Lewis’s book I was rereading, The Great Divorce, over dinner one night, as the boys twirled their spaghetti. “Here is a man who might help us with some of our questions.”
“Could be,” he mumbled, lighting a cigarette before dinner was over, leaning back in his chair to stare at me through his rimless spectacles. “Although, Poogle, I’m not sure anyone has the answers we need.”
Bill was cold hard correct—believing in a god hadn’t been as simple as all that. Every philosophy and religion had a take on the deity I hadn’t been able to grasp. I was set to give up the search, shove the shattering God-experience into my big box of mistakes. That is, until I contacted Professor Walsh, the writer of the article, and said, “Tell me about C. S. Lewis.”
Professor Walsh had visited Lewis in Oxford and spent time with him. He was turning his articles into a book with the same title and he replied to me. “Write to Mr. Lewis,” he suggested. “He’s an avid letter writer and loves debate.”
There Bill and I were—three years after my blinding night of humbleness, three years of reading and study, of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and debate, of joining the Presbyterian church, when an idea was born: we would write a letter to C. S. Lewis, a letter full of our questions, our ponderings, and our doubts about the Christ he apparently believed in.
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