Creekbank Blog

The writing blog of Curt Iles and Creekbank Stories. Our mission: To connect hearts to God by using stories of encouragement and inspiration.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Preface: The Mockingbird’s Midnight Song

-But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).

It’s the middle of another restless and sleepless night. Being exhausted both physically and mentally, yet unable to get the thing you need most - sleep, is so frustrating. So I finally wearily rolled out of bed. That’s what all of the sleep books tell you to do when you have insomnia. Get out of bed and do something. Read. Eat a snack. Watch TV. Pray.
I’ve tried all of these night after night and very seldom do any of them work. My mind and heart seem to be racing along at one hundred miles per hour. Nothing seems to be able to slow down the sadness and anxiety inside me.

On this particular night, I decide to walk outside. It’s about midnight, cloudy, and there is no moon. In the rural area where I live, outdoor light is not overwhelming so the yard is very dark, even as my eyes adjust to being outside. I’ve always loved being outside at night - looking at the stars, tracing the path of an overhead jet, and just soaking in the soothing sounds of a country night..

But in my depression and insomnia, my soul feels just as black as the darkness surrounding me. I’m completely enveloped in it. I stand there, trying to concentrate and pray in the quiet darkness. I think back to the books I’ve read by those who’ve been depressed. These books all have something in common. They always describe their depression in terms of darkness, night, or blackness. One writer called it, “The black night of the soul.” Author
William Styron described it as “The black dog of despair.”[i] Winston Churchill, also a depression sufferer, called it “my black dog.”

Tonight the silence is deafening. It is as if even the night creatures, such as the crickets, owls, frogs, and barking dogs, have found a hiding place to escape the darkness.
Then suddenly from the river birch tree in our driveway comes clear beautiful singing. It is a mockingbird. If you aren’t from the South and haven’t heard this bird, it is hard to describe its song. It is loud and is made up of about seven sequences of sounds - some stolen from other birds or nearby common sounds. In the classic book, Louisiana Birds, [ii] ornithologist George Lowery tells of a “mockingbird that so successfully imitated a dinner bell that it frequently caused the farm hands to come out of the field expecting their noon meal.”

This midnight bird in our tree is a real singer who sits up high in the tree as the guardian of our yard. And he sings - and sings loudly - and with passion. To him, it doesn’t matter that it is a dark moonless night when any respectable bird should be silently sleeping.
This mockingbird is going to sing even if it is midnight - even if it is dark. - even if no one else hears his song. He is chirping away for the simple pure joy of singing. Moreover, the fact that he has the entire sound stage to himself makes his song seem louder and fuller. It is the end of the opera and the great soloist is singing the aria - he needs no accompaniment. Any other sounds would only diminish the incredible beauty of this virtuoso solo.
This bird unknowingly gives me a great gift - I’m reminded of how a follower of God can sing - even in the darkness - even in tough circumstances.

And I’m reminded by this bird, and really by the God who created both him and his song, that I will get through this time of darkness. There is still hope for the restoration of
joy and even though now it seems I’ve lost my song, it is still deep within me and one day will be sung loudly and joyfully once again.

I’d like to say my depression ended on that night, but that would not be true. The mockingbird that sang at midnight was only one of a thousand steps on my road to restored health and joyful living. I firmly believe it was a gift from God just for me. It is a gift that I now pass on to you.
The gift of a mockingbird,
in the darkness,
singing at midnight.

[i] William Styron Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness ( London: Vintage Books copyright 1990)

[ii] George Lowery, Louisiana Birds (Baton Rouge: LSU Press
copyright 1960) 394

3 Webster’s Contemporary American English Dictionary (Merriam Webster Copyright 2003)

Dedication: To Ricky, My Friend for Life

Writing a book about the dark times of one’s life is difficult. It is in our human nature to shy away from revealing the depths of our soul, especially when the subject matter is painful. This book of essays concerning my struggle with depression has been hard to write. Rather, let me rephrase that: the writing has not been the difficult part, but the revealing has been the difficult aspect. The reason why is because it is very personal and reveals deep emotions that are even now, over six years later, still tender and not easily shared.

The easiest thing to do with these stories would be to store them away and let no one else read them. That is the safe way. But my journey has taught me about the rewards of being a guide for others on this same journey. It is a large responsibility and one that I cannot, and will not, shirk. So share these stories I must!

The great British writer C.S. Lewis, who went through many struggles himself, states this truth of “helpful empathy” so wonderfully well: “Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some helpful advice.”
However, the real courage to write and then publish The Mockingbird’s Song occurred several years ago. The event was the soul-rending death of my lifelong friend, Ricky Gallien.
Ricky, who died at age 43, was a man loved and admired by his wonderful family and thousands of friends who had been touched by his life as a coach, principal, pastor, and most of all, Godly man. Even now, nearly four years since his death, the shadow of his influence continues to stretch far and wide.

Ricky’s death, at his own hands, will never be fully understood by any of us. Although deep questions remain, we must go on, as well as carry on. Ricky’s rich life and sudden death have both been motivators for all of us to look for, as well as care for, others who are hurting. Being Ricky’s friend and knowing his heart, he would be pleased with that.

Over the years, I heard many excellent sermons by Ricky. He was a tremendous speaker with an intelligent mind and a heart in tune with God. While reading my Bible a few weeks after he died, I came across notes from a sermon Ricky had preached. He had shared an illustration from the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. According to his illustration, the last recorded words on the Shuttle before transmissions ceased were the calm voice of the flight commander Francis Scobee saying, “Give me your hand.”
Scobee’s words were spoken calmly and without panic. In my mind, I will always see this man reaching out to his pilot, Michael J. Smith, as they lived the final seconds of their lives.
Simply said, “Give me your hand.” Not with terror or hysteria, but with courage and compassion.

I firmly believe those are the same four words Ricky heard as his life ended. The words of the Savior he served throughout his life - The words of the Son of God who said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The same Jesus who promised,
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die" (John 11:25).

As I share my own journey through depression, my prayer is that others will hear this same voice of Jesus saying, “Here I am, give me your hand.”
Jesus said, “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. . .” (Matthew 11:28). He does not wish that anyone would suffer alone in the dark. He is as close as your next breath and your whispered heart-felt prayer.

One of Ricky’s last requests was that I speak at his funeral. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I honestly did not think my legs would work or my mouth speak when it came time to stand and share.

Standing before the huge crowd of friends, family, and students gathered, I simply shared something I’d read concerning another untimely death. I held up a card with 99.99 % on one side and 0.01 % on the other. I shared that we would all be tempted to remember that terrible Saturday morning of September 7, 2002 as the defining moment of Ricky’s life. However, it was important that we remember, and celebrate, the 99.99 % of such a rich and beautiful life.
Ricky’s daughter, Kristi Gallien Watkins, whom he loved so deeply, shared these words:
I for one had no concept of what depression was, or how serious it is, until my dad lost his battle with it. Depression hit my dad out of what seemed like nowhere. He was the strongest and most wonderful man I’ve ever known. So it was a step outside of reality to see him down and depressed to the point of being suicidal. I could have never imagined that I would have lost my dad that way . . .

My prayer is that those who are struggling with depression will know that not only is it OK to ask for help, but it is necessary. God will put people around you that will love, support, and pray for you.

To others I say: Reach out to those around you. Love them and care for them. You never know who is hurting and who needs to see the love and hope of God through you.

. . . There is hope for those with depression. Never ever forget that. Never ever give up.

So I dedicate the words of this book of essays and stories to the memory of Kristi’s dad, my lifelong friend and encourager, Ricky Gallien.
As Kristi shared, may we all be looking for, and reaching out toward, those who are hurting so we can help them. May those who appear so strong, yet are in deep anguish, realize that there is nothing wrong with saying, “I’m hurting. I need help.”
May those without any confidence in their future see the thin red ribbon of hope in front of them. May they come to Jesus who calmly holds out His hand and says, “Give me your hand.”

The Challenge…

The lady stood over me with her hands strategically placed on her hips as I sat at a table in the camp dining hall with her hands on her hips and a wrinkled scowl on her face. My earlier years from being a high school principal had given me a sixth sense of when a good eating out was coming from a parent. The sudden sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I put my hot dog down and looked at her let me know that she was not happy.

It was during the last meal of girl’s camp at the church camp where I served as manager. I was innocently trying to quickly finish my hot dog, chips, and brownie before the final service started in a few minutes.

It was in the middle of this wolfed-down meal that the lady stood over me. In an emotional and passionate voice she started, “Mr. Iles, when are you going to finish that book you’re writing on depression? There are people out there dying waiting for your book!”
I felt a lump in my throat and it definitely wasn’t from the hot dog. I looked up and a middle-aged church counselor from a north Louisiana church was squinting into my eyes through her glasses as she wagged a finger at me. I felt as if I was back in third grade and had been caught putting glue on the classroom door handle.

My “teacher” continued, “Now, I’m serious about this. What you’ve written can save lives. People need it.” She then pointed across several tables to a younger lady, “That girl there lost her daddy when he jumped from the high Red River Bridge several months ago and they’ve never yet found his body.”

The younger woman walked over and joined our conversation. With hesitation she began, “I’ve had such a hard time getting closure on his death - body to bury - so many unanswered questions.” We talked a long while before she turned and silently went out the door.
My appetite was gone. What could I do but accept this lady’s blunt challenge to finally put this book into print! The book you now hold I’ve had in manuscript form for several years. I’ve made copies and mailed it out to folks all over America. It has been part of my ministry as a depression sufferer and survivor. However, I’ve hesitated about putting it into true book form until now.

It may or may not be a big seller, but I know it will touch lives because I’ve seen it happen over and over in these past few years. People and families in the relentless grip of depression need help and encouragement. Yes, they need medical help, counseling, medications, prayer, and countless other aids. But oftentimes what they most need initially is the voice, guidance, and hand of someone who has traveled this road and come out on the other side -back into the light and joy of life.

That is my job and calling. Because I’ve been as deeply depressed as you can get and still survive. Now, I’m living walking proof that you will make it through.
Recently a friend from another community called me outside at a meeting we were both attending. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked deeply into my eyes. His question was short but piercing: “Curt, will I ever get my joy back?”
The answer in this simple book is “Yes.” There is joy ahead. There is light in spite of the darkness you are in. This book is my testimony. My statement is that there is joy awaiting you.

Depression sufferer, you didn’t get where you are overnight. Therefore, you cannot expect depression to leave you instantly. Some days it will be two steps forward and one back. On other days it may seem as if you slide two back as you reach for one step up. But you will get there!

Yes, this book is my story… of how there is victory over depression.
It is a collection of essays written from my heart.
Hopefully these inspiring stories will connect with your heart.
Others, while sad, carry a message of hope that others need to hear. Some are written from the days of the depth of my depression, while many are written looking back at this dark time from the perspective of months and years.
Webster’s [i] defines an essay as a “literary composition dealing with a subject from a limited or personal point of view.” That is exactly what this book is- a collection of essays written from my heart. They are very personal and intimate. I have chosen to share them to help others. Many times we can identify with someone who has earlier walked where we are walking.
It is told that the Native Americans had a unique approach to the treating of the victim of a poisonous snakebite. In addition to the potions and liquids they would administer to a bitten tribe member, they would bring in the local “snake man or woman.” This was a member of the tribe who had survived an earlier, serious snakebite.

This snakebite veteran would simply sit with the afflicted person and stay with them, all the while assuring them that they too would survive this dangerous condition.
Hopefully, that is what The Mockingbird’s Song will be for you - a companion and guidebook to sit with you through the dark time you may be in.

Reading these essays, you will detect a common thread: Getting through depression and overcoming it was a spiritual experience for me. I cannot, nor would I wish to, separate my faith in God from these difficult times. I am very sure I survived because of the strength of God and prayers and support of my Christian friends.

Being lost in the darkness of clinical depression tested everything I’d ever believed about God and life. But those days, weeks, and months of testing left me with a much stronger and deeper faith in both the goodness and faithfulness of a personal God. I’m reminded of a story told by Ruth Bell Graham in her book, It’s My Turn.[ii]
“A young man went to a delightfully sane bishop to confess that he ‘had lost his faith.’ As the boy shared of his deeply held feelings, the wise pastor interrupted him: ‘Nonsense! You haven’t lost your faith,’ replied the bishop, ‘You’ve lost your parent’s faith. Now go out and get one of your own!”

Before my time of depression I already had a personal faith. God had seen me through a lifetime of joy, challenges, trouble, and opportunities. But the personal faith that came out of my dark time is a more mature faith. It is one that has been tested. I have an unshakable faith that God is present and powerful even when I am not strong. Even when I cannot see His mighty hand, I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean that He has forgotten me. Rather, I know God is personally with me.

The wise words of another earlier depression sufferer, Charles Hadden Spurgeon, still ring so true, “God is too strong to be confused, and too kind to be cruel, so when I cannot trace His hand, I simply trust His heart.”

In life we must make the decision as to whether we will trust in some things we cannot see. That is what faith is all about: Believing in something, or in this case—Someone whom we cannot see but we choose to trust and rely on anyway.

Researching as I wrote The Mockingbird’s Song essays, I came across another word that appears similar to essay. It is a fascinating word, assay. It is a word closely related to the testing of gold ore and drugs. Several dictionaries refer to the process of assaying as “trying,” “judging,” “putting to the test.” My favorite term, from the Oxford Complete Word Finder [iii] is “the testing of a metal or ore to determine its ingredients and quality.” This same reference book states that in chemical use, assaying means “to determine the content or strength of a substance.”

Any time of testing in our lives reveals what is inside of us. There is a wonderful and true quote that states, “Character isn’t made by trouble, it is simply revealed.” Life’s troubles, which come to us all, serve to “assay our lives.” It reveals, puts to the test, and examines everything we are about.

May these essays on the process of assaying, even as they honestly show my weaknesses and flaws, also reveal that the strength of God is the main strength needed to walk through tough times.

May the challenge you face right now cause you to take proactive action in addressing your situation. Just as I was forced to take on The Challenge to publicly share the stories in this book, presented to me by the lady from Colfax.

May you allow God to shape you into the container that He will then use to bless others.
May these essays, stories, and reflections remind you of His closeness to you right now.

[ii] Ruth Bell Graham, It’s My Turn Ruth Bell Graham (Grand Rapids: Revell Publishing copyright 1984)

[iii] Oxford Complete Word Finder (Oxford University Press Copyright 1996)[ii] Ruth Bell Graham, It’s My Turn Ruth Bell Graham (Grand Rapids: Revell Publishing copyright 1984)

[iii] Oxford Complete Word Finder (Oxford University Press Copyright 1996)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Professor Charles J. Cavanaugh spoke to a group of new teachers:

"Good teaching is leadership. If you seriously teach your best, and if you show your students you really care about them, one day those students may rise and call you blessed."