When I read the gospel for today, the story of a panicked Peter, sinking beneath the waves and his Lord who calmed his storm, brought to mind a short story I read a long, long time ago in high school: John Cheever’s The Angel of the Bridge. It is the story of a phobic fellow deathly afraid of driving over bridges and drowning beneath the waves.
First published in the New Yorker in October of 1961, this story has stuck with me for a variety of reasons. Since I was a child, who easily burnt to a crisp, I have had a somewhat problematic relationship with big bodies of water. Knocked down by waves and irritated by sand, as a kid the seaside seemed a dangerous place to me.
On top of that, I have almost a crippling fear of heights. Driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge white knuckled, I am nothing short of terrified, convinced the slightest error behind the wheel will have me trapped inside my car plunging to my death.
The Angel of the Bridge has somewhat redeemed this for me. The main character (who I will call John) comes by his fear quite honestly. His mother is terrified of flying. His brother is terrified of elevators.
There is something, though, in their fear that is more than physical. After witnessing his mother’s pre-boarding panic, John reflects:
“… her fear of dying in a plane crash was the first insight I had into how, as she grew older, her way was strewn with invisible rocks and lions and how eccentric were the paths she took, as the world seemed to change its boundaries and become less and less comprehensible.”
An insight that informs his own battle with dragons.
Living in NYC, bridges are impossible to avoid entirely. John first melted down behind the wheel on the George Washington Bridge dropping his daughter off at school during a thunderstorm. John swore he would never cross it again.
But living in NYC bridges are impossible to avoid. So instead of the GW bridge, he drove north to Nyack with plans to drive across the Tappan Zee. He thought it “somehow more gradual and anchored to its shores.” With his heart racing in his ears, no amount of willpower could beat the panic back. He rolled down his windows for some air. He thought of pulling over for a drink. He thought of pulling into a gas station to confess all of his fears to the attendant as if to a priest.
“The wind was knocked out of my lungs as by a blow. My equilibrium was so shaken that the car swerved from one lane into another. I drove to the side and pulled on the hand brake. The loneliness of my predicament was harrowing… I felt my life was over, and it would never come back, everything that I loved – blue-sky courage, lustiness, the natural grasp of things. It would never come back. I would end up in the psychiatric ward, screaming that the bridges, all the world’s bridges were falling down.”
And just then, a young girl opened the car door and climbed in with a cardboard suitcase. “Her brown hair was brushed and touched with blonde. Her face full and merry.”
“Are you hitchhiking? Isn’t that dangerous for a girl?” John asks.
“Not at all,” she replies.
“Do you travel much?” John follows up.
“All the time” she says. “I sing a little. I play coffeehouses. Folk music mostly: ‘I gave my love a cherry and no stone”, she sings in a pretty voice. ‘I gave my love a chicken that had no bone. I told my love a story that had no end. I gave my love a baby with no cryin’.”
“She sang me across the bridge…and the waters of the Hudson below us were charming and tranquil… Her song ended as we got to the toll station. She thanked me, got out of the car and said goodbye.”
“She sang me across the bridge.”
Think about that. Who has sung you across a bridge?
I have been sung across quite few bridges in my lifetime. I imagine so have you.
My longest, highest, most terrifying bridge was seventeen years ago. In 2003, I was chief cook and bottle washer 24/7, the rector of Holy Cross in Dunn Loring. The only fulltime employee of a program sized parish, I gave every sermon, made every hospital call, went to every meeting, typed my own bulletins and plunged some toilets. I barely went home and even sang in my own choir, I will not bore you with why. And oh, yes, 2003 was also the year my three decades of marriage came undone.
Needless to say, I was in a bad way. I crashed and burned.
And so, by the grace of God, a friend, a therapist, Bishop Jones and a psychiatrist named Dr. Bishop, I made my first of five trips to Dominion Hospital. And it is my first admission that I remember the most.
I remember answering all of the intake nurse’s questions and telling her all my dark thoughts, and filling out some forms. And then I remember handing over my shoelaces, my belt, and my keys. They do not lock you in on the cancer ward or the cardiac ward. But if they are worried you might hurt yourself, the key in the lock to the door behind you does turn. The sound is surreal.
Next, I remember a nurse led me to my room and to my bed. And on that bed, I prayed and prayed that I could survive this storm, that I could cross this bridge.
But I had no earthly clue how this would happen or how long it would take.
It took ten days.
I took a ten-day cruise on the good ship Dominion. This was the itinerary. Wakeup at 6:00. Shower and dress by 6:30. Breakfast at 7:00. Community Meeting at 8:00. Group Therapy at 10:00. Psychiatrist at 11:00. Lunch at noon. Fresh air and exercise at 1:00. Art therapy at 2:00. Social worker at 3:00. Yoga at 4:00. Dinner at 5:00. Free time, 6:00 to 8:00. Safety check at 9:00. Off to bed at 10:00. Bed check, bed check, bed check every fifteen minutes. And then get up the next day and do it all again.
Believe it or not, I loved it. I might as well have been staying at the Hilton. The meals were mediocre, but I did not have to make them. The accommodations were basic but all I had to do was make my bed. All I had to do was show up. And showing up was just about all that I could do.
And these were the angels who sang me over my bipolar bridge: the therapists, the nurses, the psychiatrists, and the social workers; the yoga and art instructors; the volleyball coach and the cafeteria workers; the fellow “inmates” who befriended me; and the friends and family who visited me.
They were my Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Inspired by a single line in a gospel song, Paul Simon’s iconic anthem came out in 1969. Bobby Kennedy and MLK, Jr. were gone and the war in Vietnam was still raging on. “What was a sensitive songwriter to do but dig deep for some words of solace? Gazing over the East River from his window, he sang the opening words for over a week: ‘When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.”
Simon got stuck until a “humble little gospel song” that he played every day on his record player inspired him. Sung by The Swan SilverTones, Simon could hear the lead singer scatting in the background: “I’ll be your bridge over water, if you trust in my name.”
“I’ll be your bridge over water, if you trust in my name.” Simon confesses, that he stole it.😊
There was some back and forth about who would sing it. Simon said he wrote it for Garfunkel, so Art took the lead. Bittersweet, the song they produced together in just two weeks, ironically led to their breakup in 1971. Their own bridge over troubled water, handled “gentlemanly all the way,” Garfunkel says.
“I’ve sung it 6400 times. And every time I get a little visitation of the power of a great song. To sing: ‘Wherever you are if you need some solace, I will try to be a moment of sweetness for you.’ This kills me. To be the lucky one to express that, it moves me every damn time.”
I think in high school and through the course of my lifetime, I have listened to this song at least 6400 times – a timeless anthem in times of storm.
So, who has sung you across the bridge?
Who has reached out when the waves have overtaken you?
Who has been your bridge over troubled waters?
“Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves was against them. And early in the morning, he came walking toward them on the sea… And they cried out in fear. But Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”
And we know this story. We know what comes next, right?
“But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”
Now this frightened Peter understands, that this Jesus, who calms the storm – is more than his friend, more than his Lord. In Jesus is the same God of Israel who “trampled the waves and walks in recesses of the deep.”(Job 9:8). In Jesus is the great I AM, in whose image we are all made.
Lit up by the Spirit of Jesus within us, we can be that arm that reaches out to save the drowning. We can be a span in that bridge over troubled waters. We can be an angel of the bridge who sings a healing song.
This week let’s write down the names of the angels who have helped us cross a difficult bridge. Write down the names of those who bridged a path over troubled waters. And let us give thanks to God for every single one. And let’s ask God this week to inspire us to be and inspire us to do the same.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog