Perhaps it was having The Chronicles of Narnia read to me at such a young age, or maybe it was something else entirely, but closets and wardrobes have always been special places for me.
For those of you who haven’t read The Chronicles of Narnia, there are four siblings who step into a wardrobe in an old English house, and when they push through the coats hanging inside, they find an entrance to a magical land rather than the back of the wardrobe.
Since hearing that story, wardrobes and closets became practically sacred in my mind. There’s something in me that can’t resist pushing a hand through clothes hanging in a closet and hoping that my fingers won’t brush against the back wall. When I find an old wardrobe in an antique shop or a thrift store, I gently pull one of the doors open and reach for the back of it. As of yet, I haven’t encountered any magical portals to a realm of hospitable beavers, laughing mermaids, grumpy dwarves, and a Lion I can talk with in the forest, but a girl can dream.
I remember playing with dolls in the coat closet on the first floor when I was really young. I would crawl inside and turn around with my back to the far wall, and I would push the hanging coats between me and the door so that they hung like normal. If any dragons or ogres opened up the door, they wouldn’t find my clever dolls, hidden in the back of the darkest cave.
I remember playing hide and seek too, and always running for the closets first when it was my turn to hide, because I was the only one who could fit beneath the lowest shelves. I would slide clothes and storage bins in front of me so I wouldn’t be seen when the door opened.
No one will even think to check here. I laughed in glee.
I even remember having bad dreams about monsters in the house, and in the dreams I always ran into my mom and dad’s closet and crawled beneath the long skirts, dresses, and jackets. They created the perfect hiding place behind them. It was pure genius to my 6-year-old self. No one could possibly know I was there.
I remember trying to close the curtains in my room one afternoon, and the curtains got stuck and just wouldn’t slide over, and I tried so hard to slide them free that I ended up pulled down rather than sideways, and the curtain rod itself came loose from the wall on the right side and tumbled to the carpet in a mess of drywall and paint flakes. It was the first time I can recall ever breaking or damaging something in the house in such a catastrophic (I was maybe 8-years-old) way that I just knew I would be in soooo much trouble, so I hid in the back of my closet until my parents found me. The dark, enclosed space felt safe. I could sit in the back of it and watch the door, the only way in or out. There would be no catching me unawares. (When my parents found me they weren’t even angry about the curtains. I was the one who had made it seem so catastrophic.)
I remember being 14 and so furious about something one of my sisters had done that I stormed away into the farthest room in the basement of the house and climbed into the back of the closet, where I flipped the lights on and scribbled my frustrations away in a diary until I calmed down.
When I graduated college, I sat on the floor of my bedroom with my best friends, and they asked me how I felt about applying for jobs. I told them that it felt really overwhelming and heavy and that, honestly, it made me want to crawl into my closet and sleep for a long time, away from the pressure life whispers after graduating that says, what are you going to do with your life now?
Even to the present moment, when circumstances make me feel overwhelmed, unqualified, frightened, directionless, or intimidated, part of me believes that I could get away with hiding away from the world in the back of the closet like I used to do when I was a little girl. (For the record, I don’t actually do this. But I want to.)
So far, the only time I saw a closet in a negative way, was a time my sister and I were playing some sort of make-believe game, and we had wandered our dolls into the super cool cave where they could find shelter from their travels. To make the cave-concept authentic, we pulled the door closed behind us, so that it was fully dark. For whatever reason, when we went to open the door again a few moments later, the doorknob was completely broken. It just twisted round and round and round without unlatching the door.
So, of course, we panicked. No longer was the closet a place of shelter and safety like we had imagined. It was claustrophobic. It was dark. It was a prison. We could hear the hum of the vacuum downstairs and knew Mom wouldn’t hear if we yelled for her to save us. To this day I can’t remember how long we were sitting in the closet with our hearts pounding in panic, but it was probably closer to fifteen or twenty minutes rather than the hours and hours it felt like. Every ten seconds or so we tried the doorknob again, praying audibly that some part of the mechanism would just click into place and miraculously start working again. But it didn’t.
Eventually Mom came looking for us.
“Girls, where are you?”
And we wailed to be rescued from the closet as soon as we heard her voice. The doorknob on the closet turned and the door opened, apparently only broken on the inside, and Mom tried to soothe two freshly sobbing children as we spilled out of the closet to hug her.
I still played and hid and crawled into closets for refuge and sanctuary after that incident, but I learned to never let the door click fully shut, having learned what Peter Pevensie already knew in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
“Peter held the door closed but did not shut it; for, of course, he remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never, never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
There’s no guarantee that door is going to open again from the inside once it clicks. Perhaps this is something I need to remember often.
One of the things the children in the books learn is that no matter how many years they spent as kings and queens in Narnia, they always return to their own world at the same exact moment they left it. Their present circumstances were not different back in the real world. But they were different, on the inside.
These days, I do not actually crawl into my closet and hide anymore, though I might secretly want to. My retreat looks different. I crawl into bed and go to sleep hours earlier than I normally would, shutting out my worries and fears in the blissful world of sleep. I dive beneath my to-do list and hide behind each task, draping them in front of me like coats that block people from seeing me when they open up the door. I scroll and scroll in every spare moment of stillness because that way I can say I’m “too busy” to stare back at what’s intimidating me.
I try to catch myself doing this before the door latches. Before I trap myself in an endless loop of reflex and habit that spins and spins and makes it harder to break out of. Where I’m isolated and tired and people I love start asking me, “Where are you?”
I want to hold my fidgety, flighty self by the shoulders before I gravitate toward these things and say, “It’s okay to retreat. But be mindful of where you retreat to and how long you stay there. It matters. Retreat to that which makes you stronger. Retreat to higher ground. Holy ground. Don’t forget to leave the door open.“
Maybe hiding and retreating isn’t necessarily bad.
In the garden, after they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve heard God walking and ran to hide. He asked them, Where are you?
But then Psalm 32:7 says, “You are my hiding place; You will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.”
Hiding isn’t the problem. The location, and the company we keep (or don’t keep), is the problem.
One only makes the problem worse, one soothes it.
“Come out of hiding
You’re safe here with Me
There’s no need to cover
What I already see
You’ve got your reasons
But I hold your peace
You’ve been on lock-down
And I hold the key.”
–Out of Hiding, Steffany Gretzinger
The verse right before that one, combined with verse 7 in Psalm 32 even says, “Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. You are my hiding place; You will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.”
The rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. Kind of like a lighthouse when we’re lost at sea.
You are my hiding place.
Higher ground. It is where He surrounds and protects us. But only if we choose Him as the place we retreat to and hide.
One of the ways I love to practice choosing Him is “retreating” to my back porch, where there is less noise, so I can hear myself think, unrushed and undisturbed. I can write out my thoughts in a messy, unorganized splatter across page after page. I can listen for the whisper He uses to get me to lean closer to Him.
I also like going on drives and listening to worship music. While my mind might be spinning out of control with a million and one different worries, my mouth can only speak one thing at a time. And if I force it to say a few simple words over and over that are true and good and pure, my mind spins at a less dizzying speed. I’m leaning towards Him, not cowering away.
These are much healthier for me than going to sleep early. It’s better than eating an entire box of chocolate while watching Netflix. It’s better than hiding behind my to-do list.
This way, I am not isolating myself from the people who care about me. This way, rather than trying to get away from everything and everyone, I’m purposefully going to places I feel closer to Him. Places I can hear Him clearer.
I still have nothing against closets. I still associate them with a safety and a little bit of magic where I might one day find a snow-covered wood. Someday I might even have enough floor space in mine to crawl back inside. I bet some of the most treasured conversations the Lord has had with His kids takes place in their closets. After all, they don’t call them prayer closets for lots of napping.
Maybe it is okay to retreat to safe places when I am overwhelmed and fearful, but:
- Where I go matters.
- Who I go to matters.
- I am not meant to stay there. The challenges I am facing will not decide to evaporate while I’m hiding away. But hopefully, after a little bit of rest and a moment of peace away from what feels overwhelming, I can emerge with a fresh perspective.
Eventually, regardless of where our retreat is, we have to come out again to what everyone sighs and calls “the real world.” Where what we wish we could avoid will still be staring us in the face. But I’ve found that if I choose my hiding place right, if I choose higher ground (with Him), and remember to leave the door just barely open, I will approach the situation differently when I emerge blinking into the daylight once more.
Who knows? Perhaps I’ll be humming a few notes from an ancient song of victory.
How’d that get stuck in my head? I wonder.