Writer Laura Eve Engel brings us a piece in response Psalm 107:4-9.
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4 They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in.
5 Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them.
6 Then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses.
7 And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation.
8 Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!
9 For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.
I’m drawn, something like spiritually, to the vast landscapes–oceans, deserts–that seem to have the capacity, just by existing, just because we know they’re out there, to recall for us our smallness. One need not have been lost in the actual desert–though I have been, sort of–to come upon that feeling of relative size. In stuff-I-read-in-childhood terms, it’s Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex that is raised by the Biblical images of the desert wanderer: a reminder, among the galaxies, that YOU ARE HERE, and that “HERE” is imperceptible is an understatement.
But this passage is, it seems to me, about expressions of gratitude, and when it comes to expressions of gratitude I’m a wanderer in the desert. I’m pummeled by a big wave. As a Jew when I offer a traditional prayer it’s often not in my native language and I feel relief at not always knowing what it is I’m saying. Where expressions of real spiritual depth are concerned I’m most comfortable when I’m a little bit confused, not able to catch all the language, and I can approach even my own ignorance with something like awe. I like feeling small in that way, I think. It’s a way of feeling part of a bigger and not always understandable arrangement, which has always seemed to me something like fact. But I also like feeling like a person, and sometimes boundless exaltation like the kind expressed in this psalm seems to me so much like the vastness of the desert, so calibrated to illustrate my individual human smallness, that it threatens to obliterate the self. That feels dangerous and, in the wrong hands, exploitable.
I think I may be temperamentally averse to the pure exaltation this psalm and others prescribe. But it also strikes me that making a meaningful expression of gratitude is distinctly and necessarily not always about my own comfort. Reading and responding to these verses was an opportunity for me to consider smallness and the temptations and aversions that accompany one’s being faced with it, as well as how insisting on the boundaries and bigness of a self inside the infinite is an act that’s circumscribed by unclarity, and failure, and beauty.
Laura Eve Engel is the author of Things That Go (Octopus Books). The recipient of fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, her work can be found in The Awl, Best American Poetry, Boston Review, The Nation, PEN America, Tin House and elsewhere. She's in a band called The Old Year.