in the bible, ruth gathers sheaves: leftover bits from the harvest. i imagine her stuffing bits into a turned up apron—though i’m hardly a biblical scholar and wouldn’t know whether she had an apron or not. i see her scurrying behind broad men with scythes, sweeping down the wheat in one smooth motion, and ruth in her hunger ducking in to scratch the bits left behind off the floor of the earth. and ruth is hungry. not just for food, you can see it in the way that her ribs jut out and catch the fabric of her smock, but for friends, companionship, belonging. she’s a widow. a widow who has followed her mother-in-law to a different land and a different religion. no doubt there are physical signs that mark her out as a newcomer, as someone who certainly doesn’t belong. the story in the bible is slight, but the shunning from the other women is implicit. you can’t help but feel sorry for ruth because no matter your story, we’ve all felt that moment: the moment when we are the stranger, when we are hungry for something, be it food, or friendship, or reason.
there must have been a moment in my life when whatever genetics play games with my brain switched on and i went from being a child to being a woman who would carry a diagnosis on her back, an anvil wrapped like a child in long fabric swaths and tied round my waist. it’s a moment i don’t remember. my decline has been quieter, subtler and perhaps more terrifying, as one bird after another comes to roost until one day you look up and notice thousands.
that’s the day you drag yourself in for professional help and spread open your innards for someone else to examine, prod at, and then nod when it’s all right for you attempt to stuff them back in. and somehow they never go in as easily as they came out. for me the first time was as a 19 year old, sitting in the office of a career counselor (because he was the only one available on short notice at my college—all the professionals were busying themselves either with grading or everyone else who was feeling suicidal near exams). we sat together in his office. i remember he had big ears. he balanced the DSMV on his knees, a tremendous volume used to diagnose everyone with brain palpitations of this or that sort. we stared each other down. and after listening to whatever it was i had to say that day, the doctor ran his finger down the list of diagnoses, a moment’s hesitation, and then i could see determination play across his face. yes. “i think you have bipolar disorder. i think you should be on lithium. how do you feel about that?”
i was still mentally gathering my soul and trying to stuff it back in my torso where it belonged. bipolar disorder. the words slapped me with their emptiness. it meant nothing to me, except the word “disorder” which carried such a heavy connotation of having done something wrong. i messed up somewhere. that’s all i could hear.
i gathered my backpack onto my lap. i looked at his ears. “i don’t believe in lithium,” i told the doctor, mostly because i had no idea what lithium was or what it would do to me. i still lived in a world where drugs were supposed to be avoided—they were an external force that acted upon you instead of adding to your brain’s necessary chemistry. but it would take me so many years to realize that.
so ruth gathering her leftover sheaves might not seem to have much to do with mental illness or the story i just told you, but i have this little suspicion that her story has more to do with my story than farming would seem. she’s gathering sheaves like the lost little bits of her brain. and then there’s that moment that she goes to talk with boaz.
and after gathering what she can of her reason and clarity into her apron she says to him, “why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?”
and he says to her, “the lord recompense thy work, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”
and at this point she is probably feeling how i felt earlier this week when a dear friend just showed up at my house and hugged me and helped me gather my reason and clarity without me saying a word.
and that’s when ruth says this: “thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though i be not like unto one of thine handmaids.”
do you see how this connects? this stranger lets this unknown, afflicted and bedraggled woman come to his garden and gather her sanity. he speaks friendly to her. he comforts her. and he does all this, even though she isn’t like all the other girls. man, i love ruth. that woman is brave. she’s not afraid to walk in front of everyone with her differences and gather what comfort she may from whatever is leftover. here’s a woman who never flinched.