I did not consciously go down to the depths.
Or perhaps, not at first. I do not know anyone, save the über-disciplined student, who would voluntarily engage in a year-long course through the classics, through the Russian writers, through the 1920’s novels of passing, through teetering piles of contemporary memoirs.
I initially went into the water because I was parched. Because life was arid. I only went to dip. Just to feel the lake water on my broad back. I wanted to take refuge in someone else’s words—like the nights I wanted to curl up in Taylor’s bed, regardless of whether or not he was good for me. It was all about the scent of safety in knowing that someone else was there. The warmth of the book; the warmth of the body.
My accidental journey thus began, and began with Go Tell it on the Mountain. The whole damn thing was a thrusting sex-scene. The in-and-out of travailing in prayer until the mighty steaming victory came flowing down from on high. And then John was at last saved. Only he was saved not like the others. We were in Gatlinburg when the tears streamed down my face, as John told his mother that he was finally ready. He went down the long hall.
My peril grew deeper still when someone testified to me of Boy Erased. It was oil, it was sorrow, it was anger. But I read it and knew that the writer was also someone who had read. His words were sweet and charred. Familiar, but nauseating. Brother Nielson was someone that I had known many times. His hand had weighed heavily upon me until my strength was sapped. He drew a living box in red marker and instructed my universe to keep me in it for all of my days. He was form, and I was color. He had dreamed a dream for me that would never come to pass. And he dreamed that same dream for Garrard, who was also saved—but not like the others.
The lake water darkened as in the crepuscular hour. I was going down, down, down, so many leagues beneath the sea. It must have been Let the Great World Spin that was bound to me like an anchor. Or maybe I just could not let it go, that stone work. And as I clasped it, it drew me further to the center of the earth. To a coveted and costly El Dorado. I couldn’t breathe anymore. The pressure of the deep wore against my untrained lungs. I read and read and read about sordid lives. About worthiness and unworthiness. About finding the highest place possible—just to breathe. I read about the funambulist, and I knew that what he really wanted was uncontaminated breath.
And I was lost. The book left my hand. I was left with nothing, and was without form, and was nothing. But this formless one reached again, thrashing like a snake overtaking a live animal.
And into my hands I discovered a thin red volume of Giovanni’s Room. Thin red dagger to my monkey brain. The words repeated upon me both day and night: ‘I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France’. I could see the window, I could see the bed of sin, I could see it all. I was lumpy and sick. Why cannot this business of loving be simple? As I dressed for work the next morning: ‘this great house in the south of France’. My lonely Nashville apartment absorbed, then infused these words into the environment: ‘this great house’ ‘this great house’. And I knew that I was lost forever—that my soul was passing over Jordan. That I was a youth leaving a great revival service, murmuring, ‘I will never be the same.’
And I begin to know that which I must do.
I set to the writing. I am full of words and full of tears. Here in the deep, where my only friends are anglerfish who provide just enough light to survive by, I have made my peace. The anglerfish are frightful, but they swim wordlessly around this desk in the sand.
I have agreed with the deep. And I remember when we were kids at church and after a great shouting I could feel myself glowing. Peace with God and man.
And from down here in this great belly of the ocean or the lake (I can no longer discern which), I know that I am just about to rise. The deep tells me so.
And on that day, which is so tangibly imminent that I can now feel the earth rumbling beneath this desk, I will shoot up through the layers of water. But before I begin my ascent, the anglerfish will wait until I’m off in the distance, and they will consume my desk, and my volumes. And there will be nothing left again. Nothing, but the deep.
I am rising.
Some force of buoyancy launches me upward, lighter and lighter and lighter. I am catching watery glimpses of the above—like swimming through a caramel macchiato. Levels and layers of bitter, of sweet, of memory. I think of the hours in the deep, and the words burst into my brain, ’Time!’ ‘Time!’ ‘Time!’
Praise, God! At last the water births me into the Cherokee sky. My weary arms chop the glass water. I break the surface waving my sacred pages, crying and sobbing and treading water, ‘Eureka! I have found it! Blessed be the name of the Lord, I have found it! Blessed be God and man, I have found the words!’ And I am speaking with celebratory tongues, as God gives the utterance.
I will begin my gentle swim to the burgeoning shore. My arms, my legs, my torso will become primitive and rigid, but I will be kind to the water.
A thought will take advantage of my battle-worn brain: who will be there to receive me?
I’ll notice a leaf floating. I will not have an answer. But I will know that there are two ways.
The first will be as it was in the beginning: I will swim until the assurance of ground—the landing, empty. The elements will sap the moisture from my skin. I will somehow make it home, flanked by my ream of words, condemned to drive the backroads forever. With everything and nothing.
The latter will be inchoate. I will swim until the assurance of ground—the rhythm of frying fish and charcoal to greet me. And on the shore there will be a wealth of people: painters, musicians, carpenters. We will meet again, although we have never known each other. They’ll throw a white towel around my neck, gather behind me, and give me time and room to adjust again to this world—the chromatic terror of the first emergence, now returning to normalcy.
I will know their relief that I survived the test of the deep.