When my anxiety gets out of control, or my mind is racing too much to concentrate on reading books, my default coping mechanism is binge-watching Gilmore Girls. I think it’s comforting to me because it’s the show I watched with my mom growing up, and we always sort of pictured our relationship as similar to Rory and Lorelai. Best of friends, absurdly honest with each other, convinced that it was us versus the rest of the world and equally convinced that it was enough for us to face life this way. I’ve been watching it every night this week.
There’s this scene in one of the later seasons where Rory has had an affair with Dean after he married Lindsey, and then Lindsey finds out, and Rory is accosted in the street by Lindsey’s mother. Lorelai and Rory spend the day as the objects of stares and gossip, but then they finally make it home for movie night. Rory has this look on her face like she’s just exhausted by trying to survive the day and the consequences of her poor choices, and Lorelai sits next to her on the couch and gestures with her hands as if to wipe the slate clean. She looks at Rory and says, “Sanctuary.” And they sit on the couch and watch movies, and Rory is safe. Safe from her mistakes, safe from her fears, able to press pause on the rest of her life and just be.
Then this week as I was re-reading Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott the word reappeared. She writes, “I have found sanctuary in libraries my whole life, and there is sanctuary there now, from the war, from the storms of our families and our own minds.” I thought about that concept of sanctuary, of the places I’ve found it before and where I keep looking for it now.
Growing up in the evangelical church, specifically for me, the Church of God, sanctuary meant something else. To me, it was a big, open room with vaulted ceilings and brightly colored carpet, padded pews, a huge piano, and stained glass windows. But it was also the feeling you had when you stepped into that sacred room. You were safe, and understood, and you could bring all of your baggage and your hard and your questioning, and it was OK. Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday (which is about the complex journey of leaving and re-finding the church), wrote, “We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed our masks and exhale.” That’s what that wide open room used to be for me, counterintuitive given that most times when I’m overwhelmed I crave small spaces. But it was sanctuary.
As I got older, my relationship with the sanctuary in the traditional sense became a little more complicated. I didn’t always feel so untouchable there, and sometimes the other people who were sitting all around me felt like a threat to that sense of unconditional peace, and so I withdrew into myself, and into my mother. And she became for me, sanctuary. The dictionary definition of sanctuary is “a place of refuge or safety.” That is what she was for me. Soft arms wrapped around me, voice praying with authority, faith strong enough to combat anything. I knew without a doubt that, whatever happened, if I had her, I would be OK because she was there praying over me the things that I wasn’t bold enough or sure enough of to claim for myself. And so, in her presence I found sanctuary. And then she was gone.
I found a job that I loved with everything I had. A place where I was valued for my intelligence and my skill, my inappropriate sense of humor and my willingness to work 50-60 hours a week for a 40 hour salary just for sheer love of the job, and as all around me family members were dying and a pandemic was raging and my family life felt uncertain, I felt it again in those sterile walls. Pager blaring, white coats a blur rushing from place to place. Sanctuary. And then it was gone.
As I felt more alone and less certain of what steps I should take next, I sought guidance in conversations with Christina Yang, and Other Half, and My Friend. They gave me grace and understanding, and coffee, and hugs, and trips to the mall where Christina Yang said things like “Look, if you’ve ever wanted $400 shoes, now is the time to buy them. Your mom just died. He’s not going to say a word.” And so I did. And although it was always short-lived snatches of time, there was occasionally the appearance of peace, and I found it again. Little bits of sanctuary.
Sitting by the lake, hearing the water lap gently at the shore, trees swaying, occasionally the interruption of profanity uttered from a fisherman whose line was caught up in a log or branch, sitting in the dirt, writing out Psalms because My Crazy Lady thought it would help, I sometimes felt it again. Sanctuary.
And writing little stories about a girl in a coffee shop, or a woman running away from her current life to start over completely, standing on the deck of her run down beach house and trying to decide in her Mary Oliver-esque way what she “planned to do with her one wild and precious life,” and in doing so I felt escape from my own struggles and I felt it again. Sanctuary.
I have found it in long car rides, in much-loved movies. On the terrace at The Grove Park Inn. In the poppies that grow by the highway that I travel for work a few times each week. I sometimes find it in bookstores or even in just the books themselves, pages filled with words and stories that provide an escape from my own when I need a little break for a few hours. Sanctuary.
I’ve noticed lately that sanctuary seems to be what I’m constantly searching for, though I didn’t realize it before. In a way, I think that in losing my place in my church, my place in the world with the death of my mom, my place of escape with the job change, I’ve come to believe that Sanctuary is only and always temporary. That there is nowhere I can truly run when life gets out of control and I’m afraid. There’s nowhere that allows me to feel protected and invincible anymore. There is only me and all of the other breakable people that I am blessed to have left. It makes me sad, knowing that at any moment, any of us could be gone like the other people and places that I have lost, and I think I hesitate to hold on too tightly to any of the remnant and even unintentionally push them away because I’m convinced they are so temporary that it will be less painful to face everything alone. Just Other Half, and me, and the kids, though even loving those three is a risk knowing that there is no force field of protection I could offer them. And I miss it, my old belief that all would always be well.
But when I find sanctuary, however fleeting, my chest feels wide open, and all the tightness vanishes for a little while. I can breathe again, and it’s not the usual motion of chest rising and falling from physiologic necessity. Even the air feels more pure, the quality somehow magically improved, as if the lungfuls that I inhale have super powers. It’s like drinking fresh spring water when you were expecting saltwater. It feels like existing in a snow globe. My world may shake and shift and even be turned upside down, and debris may rain down all around me like snow or confetti, but my feet are firmly planted, and I am unafraid, knowing that I am immovable. I am safe. Nothing can hurt me because that perfect glass sphere is protecting me, the unseen force that presses back against the darkness pressing in. It feels like warm hugs and cups of coffee and a bed with fresh linens and fluffy pillows that someone has spritzed with the green apple pillow spray from The Westin. Like bare feet in a carpet of grass. It smells like tobacco scented candles and marsh grass, and it looks like snaking estuaries making their way to the not-so-distant ocean. It’s home. I’ve decided that at least 80% of my dissatisfaction with life is because sometimes I can’t find it anywhere, and I keep roaming around, lifting up stones and peering around corners, scraping dust and dirt off of every object I touch wondering if that will be the magical pathway that takes me there, the enchanted wardrobe from Narnia. And then sometimes when I can’t seem to find it, sanctuary finds me.
This week, on Joey’s birthday, the kids went to dinner with Uncle Jesse and Joey, and Other Half and I had an impromptu date at one of my favorite places. We went to pick them up and Uncle Jesse said they’d be in the back yard. When we got there, it was still and silent, and my eye was immediately drawn to this round swing hanging from a tall tree in the center of the back yard. I walked through the grass and sat in the swing, using my feet to push off and laying back so they wouldn’t drag as the swing was in motion. Eventually I laid back completely, but because I’m most definitely not a teenager anymore, my legs got tired from sticking straight out for so long, and I threw my legs up on the ropes, my back flat, my body at a nearly perfect 90 degree angle, the photos of this position utterly and completely unflattering.
I opened my eyes and watched the canopy of trees above me as I was in motion, the branches twisting and curling, going from thick to thin, from branches to leaves, from still to slightly swaying in the wind. I thought of a conversation My Friend and I had recently about fractals— patterns that repeat in nature. Tree branches in the same pattern as river deltas and neurons and arterioles and alveoli. I thought of how much less alone we could feel by knowing that everything that appears so completely different is still a little bit familiar. That the very trees that produce oxygen for us to breathe are fashioned in a pattern similar to the tiniest pathways of the lungs in our bodies that help us to process that oxygen. I thought of how a canopy of trees as an adult feels a lot like a blanket fort as a child. And for five minutes I let my chest feel open and free. Maybe it will never be permanent, but I’m going to hold on to it for as long as I can when I find it. Five minutes of sanctuary. Sometimes that’s all you need.